X-Files Flashback: ‘The Pine Bluff Variant’

Pine Bluff Variant

Season 5, Episode 18
Director: Rob Bowman
Writer: John Shiban

The X-Files‘s “The Pine Bluff Variant” isn’t a mythology episode. That’s simply because it doesn’t involve aliens or human/alien hybrids or Samantha Mulder. Yet, it bears many resemblances to the themes and construct of a mythology episode thanks to Chris Carter’s pervasive mistrust (borderline contempt for) the American government as embodied by The X-Files variation on the American government. In mythology episodes, the government holds little value for human life, frequently either killing people outright or kidnapping them and using them for experimentation. It’s never exactly clear how much “the government” really knows about what’s going on, but we can all agree that they’re hardly the ignorant party in the matter.

That brings us to “The Pine Bluff Variant” which carries forward the same theme of “the government is the root of all evil” in a variation of a monster-of-the-week storyline. As such, the episode holds more in common with standard police procedurals like the CSI franchise. It doesn’t really incorporate any supernatural elements, instead focusing on undercover police work to drive the suspense. It’s a good episode, but it doesn’t feel like The X-Files.

The episode opens on a stakeout with Mulder jogging around a park near the U.S. Capitol. They are in surveillance of a man named Jacob Haley (Daniel von Bargen) who leads the anti-government militia, the New Spartans. He gives a piece of paper to his contact, and the contact’s face begins to melt away almost instantaneously. Mulder seems to chase Haley away, but Haley escapes with Scully becoming very suspicious of the relative ease Haley experienced in escaping. Turns out that Mulder is working in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s office to infiltrate the group. Scully is brought into the picture as the details surrounding the deadly biotoxin become more apparent. Haley spreads it at a small town movie theater, killing 14 people, and it is determined that the man-made biotoxin may have been manufactured within the U.S. Government.

After several near-misses, Mulder continues to gain the trust of the New Spartans despite hesitancy by high-ranking officials. They even break his pinky finger at one point to prove his loyalty. Mulder convinces them by giving into their demands – he provides them with mocked federal bank data. Suspecting the New Spartans are orchestrating a bank heist, Mulder goes along with the ruse. Scully, however, realizes that the New Spartans are using the bank heist as a ruse. Their true intent is to spray money with the biotoxin so that it can be widely distributed. Once the heist is complete (they force Mulder to participate wearing a vampire mask – better than a Nixon mask from Point Break, I say), a higher ranking member of the New Spartans calls out Mulder for being a spy. After some tense moments, it is revealed that the man is actually a government operative also undercover. He frees Mulder, allowing Mulder to return to the bank where Scully and team have already seized the contaminated money. There is some last-minute dialogue about the whole thing being a red herring / government test, further implicating the government in a plot that ultimately resulted in multiple civilian casualties. The episode closes with Haley slumped over his car steering wheel, dead from the toxin he contracted by a double-cross.

The X-Files can do this kind of episode in their sleep. There’s no supernatural challenge here – just simple, straightforward police procedural work that they pull off with grace and style. Adding the element of Mulder undercover heightens the tension and becomes a very effective plot point, serving to drive something of a wedge initially between him and Scully. Don’t worry, though. They patch that up quickly. My one complaint with the episode is that it’s never exactly clear what the government’s ultimate plan is in the end. Were they simply testing a new weapon? Seems like an awfully elaborate plan to pull off for a simple test that could be conducted in any location outside the U.S. Again, the government’s real plan is never fully conveyed, but we know all Chris Carter wants us to know – the government is a massive shadow organization capable of many evils.

And, given that, “The Pine Bluff Variant” becomes an extension of all the work performed on mythology episodes. Just without all the crazy bee stuff.

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