Season 6, Episode 21: “Field Trip”
Original Airdate: May 9, 1999
A redhead and a gentleman argue in a motel room. They’ve spent all day in the woods together, and she’s upset with him. “I thought we had a good time,” he says. “You had a good time,” she says. “Tromping around and leaving me a half a mile behind.” The gentleman apologizes to her. The redhead forgives the gentleman. Then the redhead and the gentleman lay down and die.
“Field Trip” is a lovely, self-conscious episode of The X-Files that is totally and completely about the television show The X-Files. Plenty of episodes have explored the relationship between the two agents, but few have done it while so boldy addressing that which limits the relationship: the show itself. The skeptic and the believer have been through a lot together, but despite that, they have been forced to remain essentially within their molds. Mulder must believe (except briefly, when he didn’t) and Scully must not (except briefly, when she does). So what is it that makes them so compelling? Is there anything at all?
So they’re working this case, this redhead-and-gentleman case. The couple’s skeletons were found in a field, despite the fact that they hadn’t been missing nearly long enough to decompose. The bodies were found in North Carolina, near enough to the Brown Mountain lights that Mulder suspects, well, the Brown Mountain lights. Scully suspects whatever is the simplest explanation, probably murder, probably ritualistic. They argue over the case and it’s like every single episode ever until Mulder breaks it, demanding, “In six years, how often I have been wrong?” She has no response, and he continues: “Every time I bring you a case we go through this perfunctory dance.”
And Scully doesn’t respond because Scully can’t respond, because Mulder is right and Scully doesn’t have anything but reality-based-reality and script-necessity to stand on. It’s a perfunctory dance because the writers need to establish two possibilities, at least, need to establish that our agents are going to be on opposite sides and are going to work towards some sort of center, or, some sort of Mulder-favoring off-center.
Except in this case, neither of them are going to be correct. It’s not going to have anything to do with the Brown Mountain lights and it’s not going to have anything to do with murder, ritualistic or no. The couple-devouring culprit is some sort of wacky giant mushroom with wacky hallucinogenic spores. The spores, once inhaled, keep the mushroom’s prey calm while the mushroom gets around to digesting whatever it is that’s caught in its underground stomach-cave. It’s weird, but it’s also science. A little bit Mulder and a little bit Scully.
Mulder is the mushroom’s first catch, inhaling the spores when he goes out to investigate the site where the couple was found. Immediately he begins to hallucinate, his brain concocting a scenario in which he finds the couple alive and claiming to be the victims of an alien abduction. Everything in his scenario is, as he points out, “textbook”—there were men, there was light, they did tests. Mulder doesn’t get suspicious because he doesn’t want to get suspicious. He’s pleased to be right, and he’s even more pleased to prove it to Scully. So much so that, in his hallucination, he somehow manages to abduct (!?) an alien (!!?!?) and bring it to his apartment to show to his partner. And hallucination-Scully takes one look at the alien and, awestruck, begins to cry.
That’s all he wants, you see. More than wanting Scully to believe him, he wants Scully to be amazed. He wants her to see the thing that he believes in and he wants her to believe in it, too. It’s somehow both selfish and romantic—selfish, because can’t she want what she wants? But romantic, because he doesn’t want to be alone in this. So often we see Mulder running off—investigating something—finding answers without her. It’s another quirk of the show’s scripts, dividing the agents so that Scully never sees as much as her partner does. But what if, one day, the writers let her in?
Scully’s hallucination is similarly revealing, although hers isn’t really about what she wants—it’s about what she fears. Upon inhaling the mushroom spores, Scully imagines herself solving the case, and in doing so, finding Mulder dead. She returns to DC, presents her report to Skinner, and gets angry when he doesn’t question her findings. She gets even angrier at Mulder’s funeral, when the Lone Gunmen show up and calmly agree that this was a murder, possibly ritualistic. And although both Skinner and Frohike promise vengeance—Scully’s subconscious is a bitter fighter—Scully finds herself arguing with all of them, demanding to know why no one else is asking more questions.
Eventually, Mulder and Scully’s hallucinations meet, somehow, somewhere—it’s not clear, but it seems to be so. And it’s Scully, first, who points out to Mulder that there’s something going on, that it might be a hallucination, that it’s probably mushroom-related. She lays out other examples of hallucinogenic mushrooms, presents other examples of gigantic mushrooms, and points out that they’re in danger of being digested, in a cave somewhere in North Carolina. Her explanation is enough to jolt Mulder, briefly, and for the two of them to hallucinate that they’ve saved themselves, pulled themselves out of the ground.
But they haven’t yet. There’s one more layer left, and it’s Mulder, this time, who tells Scully that he’s suspicious of their new, saved-without-a-scratch reality. He gets angry, fights her, then shoots Skinner in the chest to prove that they’re still in the cave and making things up together. That—that—is enough, finally. Mulder reaches his hand up through the ground and a search team, led by (the real!) Skinner, pulls them to the surface and hauls them into an ambulance where they hold hands, weakly.
And you won’t find a prettier parable to illustrate what it is that Mulder and Scully do for each other, or why it is that they must both be here. That one must push through her own doubts to find something like gigantic mushrooms, that the other must push through his own pride to find the surface. The redhead and the gentleman of the cold open are not, of course, Mulder and Scully, because the redhead and the gentleman lay down and die. Mulder and Scully won’t die. Not as long as they’re together. Not as long as they don’t lie down.