Season 1, Episode 24: “The Erlenmeyer Flask”
Here we are, at the final stretch of Season 1. And what a treat we have for the finale.
If “Deep Throat”, “Fallen Angel”, and “E.B.E.” are the episodes that nudge the mythology ball into place, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is the one that sends the ball rolling down the hill. This episode is probably the most fluid thing that comes out of Season 1. It starts with a high-speed car chase and keeps the intensity running until the very end. It’s the episode that securely locks the series into place: what kind of show this is, what kind of characters these are, and what we can expect from everything in the future.
And, much like “Fallen Angel,” it’s just a pleasure to watch. It’s by far the most thrilling episode from Season 1. Mulder and Scully are always active, always doing something, always finding out this exciting thing or making that discovery. It’s quick-paced, suspenseful, and goes through a series of twists and turns that set The X-Files on the road of eternal unpredictability.
So, let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Because there are a lot of chases in this episode.
First, we have the high-speed car chase from the beginning, in which police are trying to catch a guy who very much doesn’t want to be caught. In fact, he’s so intent on not being caught that he gets out of his car and runs from the police on foot, survives several shots fired directly into his back, which seem to have no effect on him, and jumps into a lake, never coming up for air. There’s no trace of him except for a very strange green substance on the dock where he was shot. Hmmm. Wonder what that is.
Then we have, of course, the Erlenmeyer flask itself. Mulder and Scully find it after the murder of Dr. Berube, who kept a bunch of monkeys for experiments and wasn’t very helpful when Mulder and Scully came asking questions (he was murdered shortly afterward). The flask is labeled “Purity Control,” which is kind of a scary thing to label something if you think about it. Scully goes to the lab to find out what the substance in the flask is (assuming it’s not monkey pee, of course) and Mulder goes to find out what he can about Dr. Berube and his work.
Mulder’s investigation leads him to a storage building of some sort, where he finds, rather disturbingly, a bunch of bodies floating in tanks, apparently alive. If only he’d had an iPhone. He wastes no time in trying to show Scully, probably feeling as giddy as a schoolchild that he’s going to prove her wrong. Okay, not really. Actually, Mulder appears to want to show Scully simply because he wants to find the truth. He doesn’t bring up Scully’s beliefs until she does, resulting in a conversation which has always both thrilled and confused me.
SCULLY: Wait a second… Mulder?
I, I just want to say that I was wrong.
MULDER: It’s all right, don’t worry about it.
SCULLY: No, um… if you’d had listened to me, we wouldn’t be here right now. I should know by now to trust your instincts.
MULDER: Why? Nobody else does.
SCULLY: You know, I’ve always held science as sacred. I’ve, I’ve always put my trust in the accepted facts. And what I saw last night… for the first time in my life, I don’t know what to believe.
MULDER: Well, whatever it is you do believe, Scully… when you walk into that room? Nothing sacred will hold.
Here’s what thrills me. The line “Why? Nobody else does” is absolutely perfect, because Mulder is absolutely right. Scully is the only person that trusts his instincts – she’s the only person that really trusts him. She is, as Mulder will eventually say in Season 5, his one in five billion. Without Scully and her trust, he’s basically nothing. Which makes his motivations all the more genuine. It’s not Scully’s beliefs Mulder wants, it’s her trust. And he has that. He has that to rely on before almost anything else.
But here’s what confuses me. Scully saying that she’s “always held science as sacred” suggests that she’s been dealing with something outside of the realms of science. But she hasn’t. She was the one who helped analyze what was in the Erlenmeyer flask, and she was there when they discovered it had an extra base pair and that the bacteria was most likely extraterrestrial. That may not have been science of the Planet Earth, but it was still science. And seeing something with your own eyes is certainly part of the scientific method, assuming you’re not hallucinating and no one is tricking you. Scully’s never been wrong. She’s never wrong. She just needs something more than Mulder. She needs to hold those hard facts in her hands. And this is the closest she’s ever come to obtaining evidence that everything Mulder’s been saying is true.
That, of course, is the fundamental difference between Mulder and Scully. It’s not about right or wrong; it’s about belief vs. skepticism. Scully is a skeptic until she has the evidence in hand. If she loses the evidence, she loses the belief. Mulder is a believer because he doesn’t need to rely on evidence. He relies on human thought, experience, and creativity. But even he isn’t blind to the value tangible evidence holds, which is why he needs Scully. She provides him a service he could never do himself.
And, when it all ends – after Deep Throat is killed and the evidence taken away from them – Mulder and Scully are right back where they started, with nothing. But it’s about to get much worse. The episode ends with Scully getting a call in the middle of the night from Mulder, telling her that the X-Files has been closed. Now, all hope is lost. Mulder and Scully are being split up, and Season 1 ends on the darkest of notes.
If only they’d known how many times the X-Files would be shut down over the course of the series. They might have been a little more casual about it.
Final score for “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is 9/10. This really is one of my favorite episodes from Season 1; it’s just a great watch. Man, this show is getting gooood.
- It’s pretty badass of Scully to guess the password for the facility. For some reason, I always find myself replaying the part where she says “Purity Control.” I don’t know why, but I love that scene.
- Mulder says “Skinner!” at the end with a lot of venom – maybe a little too much venom. It almost sounds like he’s tattling on Skinner stealing his cookies or something.
- And thus Season 1 comes to an end.