Season 3, Episode 12: “War of the Coprophages”
Original Airdate: January 5, 1996
A Darin Morgan episode — of which “War of the Coprophages” is one, following “Humbug” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” — occupies a strange space. In many ways, these episodes lie entirely outside of the show’s arc: you could drop them into any point in the season and find that they work. The Mulder and Scully we meet here do not bear the scars of “Paper Clip” or “731.” And yet, Darin Morgan’s vision of The X-Files is precise, capturing the show’s most essential elements and presenting them in such a way that the show seems to be more like itself than ever. There is parody here, to be sure, a self-awareness in which the actors seem to revel. But while “War of the Coprophages” stays stubbornly outside the show’s complex mythology, it honors the game of it.
Scully is at home. Mulder is in his car. They’re on the phone. It’s the weekend, and Mulder’s apartment is being exterminated, so he’s elected to leave town to stare at the sky and wonder about UFOs and life on other planets. Scully is cleaning her gun. Mulder is approached by the local sheriff, who wants to know who he is and what he’s doing and oh, oh you’re an FBI agent. Great. They’re really making a connection I think, only then the sheriff gets a call about another cockroach attack. A wha?
So that’s right, this episode is about cockroaches. And I don’t mind saying, I hate them. Cockroaches. Flukeman, he doesn’t bother me. Tooms, no big deal. But cockroaches, oof. Which is of course the genius of it, I mean, what if this perfectly common and already-awful thing was actually some sort of mutant killing machine, which is the theory at this point when Mulder goes with the sheriff to investigate the death of an exterminator. The exterminator died while exterminating a basement belonging to a nervous scientist, and the nervous scientist saw the exterminator covered in roaches. Mulder calls Scully about it. She’s watching television and eating dinner. Scully suggests maybe it isn’t so much killer bugs but an allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock.
Mulder is helpless in the face of Scully’s plausible explanation, a plausible explanation that anyone who’s watched half an episode of ER could have come up with. Darin Morgan likes his Mulder to be pretty and dumb, his Scully to be brilliant and amused. It’s a fair twist on the formula; in non-Morgan episodes Mulder isn’t particularly dumb, but he does live by hunches, hunches that would seem pretty idiotic if they weren’t so often constructed to drive a plot. He’s also pretty, so I guess that part isn’t different. Scully is always mostly brilliant, but in a Morgan episode she is doctor-on-the-spot, possessing of knowledge that conveniently escapes her when, in other episodes, a plot must be advanced. And it is in these Morgan episodes that Scully — and Gillian Anderson, lurking gleefully within her — seems most enchanting, most genuinely witty. This Scully isn’t a humorless nag, she’s a perfectly reasonable grown woman just trying to do her best in a wacky world. She is also very pretty.
So then there’s a second death, a teenager who trips, sees roaches under his skin, and tries to cut them out using a razor. Again, Mulder needs Scully (who is by now giving her dog a bath) to point out that this is not a creepy roach death but one with explainable causes. At the scene, Mulder catches a roach, except the roach disintegrates into a weird, metallic dust that scrapes Mulder’s hand. While tending to the wound, the town’s medical examiner grills Mulder on the situation: what the hell is going on here, he asks. Mulder says he doesn’t know. The M.E. tries again. Should I evacuate my family? I don’t know, says Mulder. Duchovny’s delivery — flat, slightly bemused — makes the scene funny enough, but there’s something else in there. The medical examiner, nervously demanding answers before running off to the bathroom to “take a little break,” he’s not so far off your own recapper, fretting over the show’s inability to keep its mytharc straight. What the hell is going on here, I ask. Should I evacuate my attention? The answers are unsatisfactory. And then I die while on the toilet.
Sorry, the M.E. dies while on the toilet. And ugh ugh ugh there are roaches around, or at least there were, but now they’re gone, and Mulder phones Scully, who is reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a reference to the time that Stephen King totally beat Duchovny on Jeopardy!). Scully doesn’t even look up, really, she turns a page, correctly diagnoses death-by-brain-aneurysm, and chides Mulder for even thinking in the ballpark of killer cockroaches. And yet, there is the Mulderness of Mulder that will not let it rest, and so, he breaks into a USDA base just outside of town, the one that got set up a convenient three months ago, the one where the government is clearly conducting secret experiments. And they are. It turns out. But not the kind of creepy experiments that Mulder is used to finding, the ones run by shady scientists with ulterior motives and Consortium connections, oh no. This is a perfectly average study of cockroaches that is being run by a very pretty bug scientist named Dr. Bambi Berenbaum. A woman so pretty that Mulder hangs up on Scully.
Dr. Bambi is not only pretty but possessing of a robust...theory about UFOs. Did you know that the characteristics of a typical sighting are shared with nocturnal insects swarming through an electrical air field? Is something she says, and is an idea that feels like a stray, something that has not worked itself entirely into the plot as it has developed, if it has developed, and hang on, has a plot developed? Are we talking about UFOs, or bugs? There are a bunch of deaths and there may be roaches involved, only maybe not, and so far the episode’s clearest thread is that of the telephone calls between our agents. Scully calls Mulder while he is talking, doe-eyed, to Bambi. He picks up, says “Not now,” and hangs up immediately. Only later that night, after he and Bambi have parted, Mulder lies sleepless in bed, and who does he call? Who picks up immediately, who listens to him as he confesses that he actually, to be very honest, hates insects?
Scully, of course. Who is sleeping with the receiver next to her, don’t tell Mulder. And she’s unimpressed, of course, by the existence of Bambi. It’s maybe jealousy, but it’s not necessarily romantic. It’s that Bambi cut the thread between the agents, inspired Mulder to hang up the phone for the first time since he got to town. And now Scully is retaliating, she’s packing a bag and preparing to join Mulder. Except when the next death occurs — a motel guest — it’s Mulder who has a reasonable explanation. The man died of shock, he decides. Saw a roach and scared himself to death. But Scully is undeterred, Scully is heading his way. She stops at a convenience store and finds War of the Worlds-style chaos, women battling over bug spray and a sailor grabbing candy bars and nylons. She shouts at everyone to calm the hell down and they do until someone sees spilled candy and thinks it’s a bug and the whole place empties. Scully walks towards the candy, crouches, picks up the box, and eats a piece, coolly.
Meanwhile Mulder is onto something about robots. He brings a headless crime scene roach to Bambi and Bambi puts it under a microscope and declares that it looks like a microprocessor. And although I think it may be the middle of the night at this point, Mulder visits MIT and talks to a robotics guy who delivers some intense lines about NASA’s plans to send robots into space, about how alien civilizations would be more likely to send mechanical explorers than living ones. The MIT scientist looks at the roach and is stunned by the complexity of its construction. Stunned enough that he and Mulder share a drink. And here is the strange tragedy of “War of the Coprophages,” which is, this is a pretty interesting idea! Aliens that send an advance team of unfathomably intricate robot-roaches? Fantastic. But the episode is almost over, and there’s no room left for this concept. The killer-roach idea does not easily link with the robot-explorer idea, and Morgan doesn’t do much to draw the needed lines. Sure, explorers (especially mechanical ones) might become killers. Sure, explorers might always be killers. But why, right? And how!
As quickly as this concept is presented, it’s ditched for something slightly more Earth-bound: dung. Scully phones with the news that the nervous scientist — the one who had hired the exterminator, way back at the beginning — is involved in methane gas research. You know. Manure. The thing that roaches eat. She hypothesizes that the roach infestation may have come from some of the manure imported for the project. Mulder follows up, Bambi in tow, heads to the dung warehouse and finds the nervous scientist freaking out. Dr. Nervous points a gun at Mulder and accuses him of being a cockroach, then he fires a gun, which is a super bad idea in building full of methane. Scully arrives just in time to run the other way with Mulder, and the building explodes, covering them in crap.
As ever, our agents are left with nothing. Bambi meets the MIT roboticist and the two form a fast bond, abandoning Mulder entirely. The sheriff cheerfully reports that although the town is neck-deep in lootings and car accidents, no one has reported any further cockroach murders. Scully takes a dig at Mulder for believing, even for a second, that there might have been roach-robots, and Mulder bitchily tells her she stinks. At home he types, and he narrates, something something evolution and technology. A key sticks, and his narration stutters: “Tech...tech...technology.” Out of the corner of his eye he sees a bug, raises an X-File, and smashes it straight down. It’s a fun episode, and disgusting. But aside from the mass hysteria, aside from the codependent phone calls, the ideas raised are frustratingly undeveloped. If Morgan were to write from within the mythology, would it be different? If Scully were always funny, if Mulder were always shirtless?