Season 1 Episode 4 – Conduit (63.93/100)
Through the first three episodes, much of what we know of Mulder is what we’ve seen through Scully’s eyes. We have a general idea of his personality and motivations but not much insight into his mind. Conduit changes that pretty significantly. But how does the overall episode fare? Well Mulder’s character development is executed well here but it finds itself mired in an unfocused investigation littered with bizarre side stories. Read on for my similarly unfocused ramblings.
Overall Episode Review
17/25 of Conduit’s scenes score over 70 which usually is a recipe for a strong episode. But the histogram shows that what drags the final score down to 63.93 is a generous dash of crappy scenes. Most episodes are fairly consistent (good or bad) but Conduit surrounds good material with a bunch of random and inept side stories, which is why the second graph above has those periodic dips.
Starting off, the teaser portrays a rather generic abduction and Darlene Morris’ cries of “Rubaaaay” don’t help matters. But it’s not too bad; it’s a decent setup (score of 65) and the following scenes are compelling. The talk between Scully and Blevins about Mulder’s sister, her abduction, and how it drives him–all good stuff. By the time they’ve interviewed Darlene Morris (who has become a much better actress since the teaser) and realized that Kevin may be receiving messages from the television, the score has climbed up to 72.98.
And then we are introduced to Tessa in a terrible clandestine meeting at a library where we first hear that Ruby may have been pregnant. And then to a bunch of random bikers in a biker bar. And to some generic NSA agents who inexplicably choose to ignore Mulder’s hotel room and instead break into Scully’s room to they can productively ask “where’s Mulder?”.
If you didn’t quite notice my poorly veiled disdain in the previous paragraph, let me just state clearly and concisely–those scenes suck. The episode started strong but in a matter of five minutes, the overall score dropped down to 57.46. Rather than focus on the compelling case of aliens communicating to a child, we have a haphazard assortment of generic procedural side-plots.
At this point, things do pick back up because Conduit decides to renew its focus on the actual conduit, rather than on unwanted pregnancies and biker bars. Mulder and Scully investigate more of Ruby’s disappearance and have to deal with Darlene’s ire (well deserved I might add) and Mulder’s turbulent emotional state, both of which add a solid jolt of intrigue. Minutes 17-24 consist of five scenes of solid quality, bringing the score back up to 62.87 and things are looking up as they arrive on the banks of Lake Okoboji.
What follows here (minutes 24-27) should have a been a powerful moment. Mulder and Scully have a classic back-and-forth and Mulder frantically digging up a grave is potentially dramatic gold. But for some reason, we get wolves. I’m sorry but them discovering a grave because of some random-ass wolves making eye-contact with Mulder–this is dramatic nonsense. So this scene ends up only scoring a 60 and bringing the score down.
So up to this point, the episode keeps spitting on the good stuff (Mulder’s emotions, the Morris family, Samantha) with some unrelated nonsense. So what better way to continue this theme than to have an unconvincing and unrelated good-cop bad-cop routine about unwanted pregnancies? Because that is what we’re interested in, right? So we have that awful interrogation scene where Mulder gets a confession out of Tessa and we head into the final leg of the episode with a score of 60.20 at minute 32.
That final leg runs into the same problems. We’ve got the good scenes: Scully and Mulder’s argument outside the police station, their conversation with Darlene, Mulder’s car ride speech to Scully about Samantha. All of that is undermined by an asinine climax involving the motorcycle gang. No matter how “well” the writers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa think they set this up earlier in the episode, this conclusion does not work. Its wholly unsatisfying and worst of all its confusing. So despite five of the final six scenes scoring 75 or more, the final score only moves up marginally, finishing up at 63.93.
The next four sections will look more into the specific components of the episode. Here’s some definitions/explanations for these sections:
- First chart in each section is a scatter plot which shows Prevalence (how often a component was in the episode) versus Quality (how good the component was)
- Second chart in each section is a bar plot showing Impact Score, which is a combination of Prevalence and Quality and shows how much of the episode score was “impacted” by the item of interest.
- Third chart in each section is a line plot showing Impact Score over time by component which tells you when the component is present during the episode.
- Guest Character Breakdown-
- Govt/Military (gray) are the NSA
- Villain (light blue) is the hilariously crappy Tessa.
- Witnesses/Victims (green) are the Morris family and the bikers.
- Experts (purple) include the FBI field agent deciphering Kevin’s binary code.
- Law Enforcement (orange) is the cop who isn’t serious about investigating Ruby’s disappearance.
David Duchovny tries his hardest to elevate this episode. He’s present for a whopping 87.89% of the episode, finishing with an Impact Score of 56.70 (out of a possible 63.93). Mulder is his typical sarcastic self early on with Scully in the basement but as the investigation begins, he starts delving into the “wounded soul” mode that he does so well. This is a more single-minded version of Mulder than we’d seen so far. Some of it is a bit heavy-handed and Duchovny’s acting is a bit rough around the edges but its great to see Mulder emotionally connecting with a case.
This is nailed in the penultimate scene after Ruby has been found. He wants to keep prying for answers from Ruby, desperate for any connection or lead that could get him anywhere closer to reconciling Samantha’s disappearance. But Darlene stops all that because she doesn’t want Ruby to become the butt of cruel jokes and ridicule by giving voice to what actually happened. Basically, this is exactly what happened with Mulder and it’s a great parallel. And I love how Scully tries to quietly comfort him as Darlene pulls Kevin away and Mulder just wheels around and marches off, mopey as ever. Petulant Mulder would be annoying as hell to be around but he’s damn captivating.
But despite all of that, the quality of Mulder’s scenes (64.51) is only slightly higher than the overall episode. See, unfortunately for him his high prevalence results in him being there during most of the shitty scenes, not just the good ones. His presence is not the reason for those dips in quality but not even Mulder’s preternatural charm is enough to pull the episode up.
Scully fares the same fate as Mulder (84.97% Prevalence, 63.28 Quality Score, Impact Score 53.77). She’s not specifically bad but she’s forced to muck her way through the poorer scenes. Scully doesn’t have the same emotional gamut to go through here but she is in full on support mode. She stands up to Blevins on Mulder’s behalf right at the beginning, she tries to keep Mulder emotionally reigned in, she prevents him from disturbing a crime scene and finally she’s just there for Mulder at the end when he’s frustrated by Darlene shutting the door on him. Sure this isn’t a slam-dunk by Scully in terms of being helpful (after all, she basically sics the NSA onto Kevin and justifies this by saying “Mulder, they’re NSA”) but hey, its early in her career. Give her time!
But yeah as I mentioned, our lovable duo tried their hardest but had their scores drained by the stupid side plots. There are a ton of guest characters in this episode (64.77% Prevalence) and unfortunately, the quality of their scenes is not up to par (60.58 Quality). It would have been better had the episode focused more on the Morris clan, the only guests worth a damn. Ruby, Kevin and Darlene Morris are all effective in their roles but far too much of the episode directs its attention else-where.
Basically, Conduit feels like The X-Files not being entirely confident in the atmosphere it’s trying to generate. Instead of just focusing heavily on the abduction and broken family dynamics, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon pump in a bunch of unnecessary crap. The bikers, despite being an (unsatisfying) part of the climax, seem to be there just to make the ending less conclusive. And we need our dose of governmental meddling and shenanigans so the NSA are brought in to eat up some screen time. The episode loses its cohesion due to these excursions.
But the poster child for these tertiary scenes is Tessa, the “villain” of this episode. She’s only in two scenes occupying 11.14% of the episode but the quality is shockingly low (20.73 Quality Score). The meeting in the library feels like The X-Files trying to do some femme fatale nonsense but it doesn’t work because of the poor acting by Shelly Owens and the overly cliched staging of the scene. And then that good-cop bad-cop scene is the icing on the cake. This is The X-Files pulling generic tropes from every cop show ever. Tessa is a complete waste of time (seeing as the pregnancy/murder plot actually has nothing to do with Ruby’s disappearance) and the entire scene generates a lifetime’s worth of cringes from me. Lets just say Duchovny is not particularly convincing doing the good cop-bad cop routine.
Mulder and Scully
At least Conduit continues the early trend of keeping Mulder and Scully together; they are attached at the hip for 77.87% of the episode. But great as they are they can’t quite lift up the weaker portions of this episode, as those scenes of them together only yield a Quality Score of 63.94. But still, its good they were in it together because you need a strong support system when dealing with character abominations like Tessa.
Mulder by himself fares a bit better (10.02% Prevalence, 68.96 Quality Score). His scene with Kevin early on is a good little bit showing us the heart-felt empathy hiding behind Mulder’s snarky attitude. And the ending of the episode, with Mulder weeping in a church does a great job of solidifying the overarching emotional base that was introduced in The Pilot. But his one major gaffe while without Scully is that he gets stuck running around after Kevin in the obligatory climactic action scene which is a major reason the Quality Score isn’t any higher.
But this is better than what Scully gets saddled with. You see, while Scully is sleeping early in the episode, a bunch of NSA agents barge into her hotel room. Now this may sound exciting but it is utter nonsense if you think about it. Why, you ask? Well because they burst into her room and demand to know “where’s Mulder?!” This seemingly normal question loses all credibility when you actually stop and wonder why they didn’t just go to Mulder’s room in the first place. It just screams out “we needed a suspenseful scene” and feels tacked on. So Scully’s Quality Score when she’s on her own plummets to 56.02. It’s a shame because her other scene without Mulder is her conversation with Blevins which is a great character establishing moment for her. But that’s emblematic of Conduit as a whole–some fantastic character beats and developments but clunky side plots and characters undermining all of the good stuff.
Conduit is a pretty talky episode as dramatic conversations make up 43.81% of the episode. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily and many of these conversations are quite good. Mulder and Scully have some of their most emotionally charged conversations up to this point which is a positive. And that final conversation between them and Darlene Morris about embracing the truth versus hiding from it is a fantastic moment. But then you have those conversations with Tessa and its no surprise that the Quality Score (62.96) is actually lower than the overall episode score.
So all that talking makes this the most exposition-heavy episode (56.16%) up to this point other than The Pilot (and The Pilot needed to introduce the characters and world). Sounds like what this episode needed was a jolt of effective tension. Unfortunately, Conduit is far too uninteresting to have that kind of intrigue. Tense scenes only make up 17.48% of the episode and I would not consider this effective tension (Quality Score of 47.14). We have the mediocre teaser which felt cliched back in the 90’s. We have the questionable climax. But worst of all, we have those artificially tense scenes involving the NSA and wolves, perhaps the only time in human history those two groups are mentioned in the same sentence.
The part that keeps Conduit from being a complete disappointment is the character development, particularly for Mulder and Scully (38.33% Prevalence, 75.89 Quality, 29.09 Impact Score). This portion of the episode is head and shoulders above the rest; most of these developments inform the rest of the show, from Mulder’s emotional and reckless determination to Scully’s dogged support.
So by now you can probably tell I don’t think too highly of Conduit. One of the sticking points is how the main body of the episode (minutes 3 – 37) is very light on the paranormal. You can see from the line graph that the Impact Score for the paranormal is very shallow during that time. That’s because too much of this damn episode focuses on red herring after red herring. I mean, the majority of this section is about a murder and pregnancy which are only tangentially related to the main plot.
These generic red herrings make this feel less like an X-Files episode and more like a poor man’s version of CSI. Because Mulder and Scully are running from one uninteresting investigative avenue to the next, there is not enough time devoted to Mulder and Scully’s banter. Their banter is what normally can elevate an episode and it tries its best here (Quality Score of 69.07) but there’s not enough of it (15.48% Prevalence). And forget about there being any shipper moments here.
Many of the poorer episodes in Season 1 share something in common: cheesy tense scenes (see “Main Characters in Danger” in the graphs above). There is hardly any threat here to Mulder or Scully (6.05% Prevalence) and when its there, its crappy and forced (31.15 Quality). Conduit might have actually been better had it had a more muted ending but instead we have Mulder and Kevin running into a field and being nearly run down by a motorcycle gang. Once again, random as hell while being underwhelming and having nothing to do with the actual conduit story-line.
Oh well, things are bound to improve with the next episode, The Jersey Devil. (Spoiler alert, that episode is garbage.) Thanks for reading and check out my previous reviews on The Pilot, Deep Throat, and Squeeze!