X-Files Flashback: ‘Piper Maru’

Piper Maru

Season 3, Episode 15
Director: Rob Bowman
Writers: Frank Spotnitz, Chris Carter

I don’t really know what happened.

Maybe I was in a good mood. Maybe I was in a forgiving mood. Maybe I was burned by the last “monster of the week.” Maybe aliens swooped down and removed my brain. Whatever the cause, I found “Piper Maru,” a mythology-themed episode of The X-Files, to be a fairly compelling episode of television. It moves swiftly. It plays with film, delivering a different era of time using black and white footage. It managed to engross me in the overarching conspiracy of the series. Yup, it was a pretty damn good episode.

Much of that, I suspect, is due to a fantastic prologue where a French diving vessel sends someone down to explore a sunken P-51 Mustang from World War II. Down in the depths, the diver, Gauthier, finds the bomber and hears a persistent thumping noise coming from within. Further exploration uncovers a live pilot trapped in the fuselage with eerie, watery black eyes. After rising to the surface, Gauthier is freed by his shipmates and has contracted the same eerie, watery black eyes. Flash forward to San Diego where the ship has come to port, its crew dying from advanced radiation burns – their skin literally melting off their bodies. Gauthier, meanwhile, seems perfectly fine and checks himself out of the hospital. Later, he spreads the eerie, watery black eyes to his wife.

Running across detail of the vessel, Mulder contacts Scully, who just received news that her sister’s murder case is being closed due to lack of evidence, and the two head to San Diego to investigate. Scully visits a friend of her father’s who, after ensuring they are not being recorded, tells her of the original mission to find the same P-51 Mustang which resulted in the same eerie, watery black eye syndrome and the same advanced radiation burns. Mulder, meanwhile, manages to come into contact with a woman who is selling secrets on the black market. He follows her to Hong Kong where he finds Alex Krycek. After a gun battle with some mysterious men who are later radiated by Gauthier’s wife (showing the source of the advanced radiation burns), Mulder finds Krycek in the Hong Kong airport and makes a deal to fly to DC to obtain the stolen disk containing all of the American military’s data on aliens. Before they board the plane, Krycek is overtaken by Gauthier’s wife, and the black substance (known in X-Files mythology as “black oil”) passes into Kyrcek. Also, Skinner is shot back in DC. (Ha.)

Skinner’s random side-plot aside, “Piper Maru” (the name coming from Gillian Anderson’s real-life daughter) is an excellent episode because it balances the conspiracy of the series with small, intimate moments that remind the audience Mulder and Scully are still human beings. Most of this, however, comes in Scully’s section of the story where she fondly recalls playing hopscotch with her now-dead sister on the military base. This episode is a significant advancement for Anderson’s acting within the show – she is able to rage about the government’s inability to find her sister’s killer and wistfully gaze into the distance, teary-eyed and emotional. That may sound like sarcasm, but it isn’t. Truly. I loved Anderson’s performance here, which I think goes a long way toward making me buy a conspiracy theory episode. Also, I loved the claustrophobic opening, and the well-filmed black and white flashback sequence. It isn’t all about conspiracies and aliens in this episode. Instead, it’s first and foremost a compelling story well told.

That’s largely due to the fact that Chris Carter split the writing duties with Frank Spotnitz, I suspect, and together they developed a better offering that managed to bring multiple elements of The X-Files together into a cohesive whole. As we push forward into the conclusion of the 2-part arc, I genuinely find myself excited about finding out what happens. That hasn’t happened with a mythology episode in a long time.

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