Season 6, Episode 15: “Arcadia”
Original Airdate: March 7, 1999
What is more terrifying than perfection? Than knowing that it exists, knowing that it is possible, knowing that you—definitely—have not yet achieved it? Who would want to be surrounded by perfection, to be entirely devoted to its pursuit? In “Arcadia,” Mulder and Scully go undercover at a creepy planned community that has had some creepy unexplained deaths and Mulder pouts. “This isn’t an X-File,” he says. “Sure it is,” says Scully. “It’s unexplained.” But no, it’s more than that. It’s perfection. It’s the eeriest, most unforgivable thing there is.
“Arcadia” is a comic episode about something that is true, which is, a lot of people like to live in controlled conditions. In a world full of aliens and mutants, why not pick a home on a street that is perfect, next to other homes that are perfect, and other lawns that are perfect. Right? But science fiction has always hated this sort of thing, this control over the universe, this suppression of individuality. There’s no way a planned community can be a good place, because a planned community ignores the unpredictable-unknowable-unexplained: the very heart of science fiction. Not to mention the X-Files.
So the community of “Arcadia” is untrustworthy, but in a somewhat unexpected way. It’s not that the universe—the messy, messy universe—has risen up to punish those who would choose to limit it, but that the man who founded the community is so obsessed with perfection that he has conjured a Tulpa to brutally discipline any community members who step outside the lines. “Arcadia” is not, then, about the damned imperfections of the world, but about a villain named Gene. A man who believes “it’s important that people fit in.”
Unfortunately, before we can find out why Gene believes people need to “fit in,” he’s captured by Mulder and murdered by the very monster he conjured. Wah-wah. “Arcadia” is thin in this way, in its anti-perfection, in its morality. In fact it would actually probably be half-forgettable if it weren’t for the very best idea: Mulder and Scully, married. Finally, am I right? But no, I mean they’re undercover as a married couple, Rob and Laura Petrie (like the dish, or nerd hero), as perfect as two slightly deadpan FBI agents can be, in this situation.
Mulder has a sweater around his neck and Scully has hers buttoned all the way up and the two of them are looking around, bemused, and not particularly scared. There’s a lack of urgency to their investigation, more of a methodical kicking-the-hornet’s-nest than anything else. The people of “Arcadia” have chosen to live in Arcadia, plus it’s kind of on them that they also harbor a terrible, deadly secret. Solving this episode’s mystery seems to be less about, you know, solving the mystery, and more about poking holes in the reality of the Petries’ neighbors.
Of course, not all the neighbors are bad. The Petries, in fact, have a protector—a man named Big Mike, who takes to the new neighbors immediately and tells Gene that he thinks they ought to be informed about what they’re walking into. Gene doesn’t like that; Gene sends the Tulpa after Big Mike, Big Mike somehow survives and hides out in the sewer (!) to try to save the Petries. When Mulder puts a pink flamingo in his lawn, Big Mike takes it out. When Mulder kicks his mailbox, Big Mike rights it. And when the Tulpa goes after Scully, Big Mike locks her in a closet and shoots until the Tulpa takes him, instead. Big Mike is in fact so damn nice that one wonders how Big Mike got involved in Arcadia at all, how he kept the secret, why he bothered. But—again—there’s a thinness, here. We don’t know why Gene, or why Big Mike, we just know: this is a bad place that asked for it.
So instead we try to focus on watching our married couple be married. The jokes are predictable but nonetheless charming, Mulder constantly insinuating that the two of them should have sex while Scully rolls her eyes and complains about the toilet seat being up. The spark is in the lack of spark, in the way that Scully doesn’t react to Mulder’s reaction to her green skin mask. We’re so super-far-away from the mosquito bites of the pilot episode, from any sort of embarrassment at all. There’s not a domestic thing that one could do that would upset the other, not really. They’re perfect just the way they are.