This essay is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits “Bad Blood,” a wonderfully ridiculous episode of The X-Files penned by Vince Gilligan.
Throughout eleven seasons and two movies worth of alien abductions and cigarette-smoking men, The X-Files has proven again and again that it’s best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Chris Carters’ supernatural investigation series can do self-contained serious episodes, sure, but it often loses the plot on its own winding mythology. By the time the series ended for the second time in 2018, it had rewritten its own central story so many times that even the most emotionally engaging plot points, like Agent Mulder’s sister’s disappearance, began to feel like a meme of themselves. Pile on a handful of culturally insensitive Monster of the Week episodes, and you’ve got yourself a beloved series that’s harder than most to rewatch. All is not lost for The X-Files fans, though: we’ll always have the funny episodes.
The X-Files has a quirky, irreverent sense of humor that bubbles forth unexpectedly in one-off episodes that are scattered throughout the series. Many of the show’s most playful outings — among them ”War of the Coprophages,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” — are penned by Darin Morgan, whose name in the credits always elicits a welcome cheer. However, the series’ most seamlessly built and hilariously executed comedy episode takes its cue from Morgan’s comedic spirit but credits its script to someone else: a then-up-and-comer by the name of Vince Gilligan.
As David Duchovny’s disoriented FBI agent Mulder might put it after reciting the Shaft theme song from his hotel room floor: it’s “Bad Blood,” baby.
Nestled in The X-Files’ fifth season, after Scully’s battle with cancer and just before the duo saved the world from an alien virus in the franchise’s first film, “Bad Blood” is a welcome comedic break that seems to draw inspiration both from an earlier perspective-shifting entry, the aforementioned “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” and from classic sitcom episodes like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s “The Night The Roof Fell In.”
It’s not all fun and games from the start, though. The episode opens with a scene straight out of a thriller movie. A teenage boy runs through the woods, screaming while a man with a weapon relentlessly chases him. Dramatic music by series composer Mark Snow matches the action. The scene is shadowy and quick, and soon the boy is on the ground. The man over him shoves a wooden stake into his chest, then pounds it in further with a rock for good measure. There’s no visible blood, but it’s still a grimace-inducing moment of unhesitant violence.
Then we hear a familiar line. “Mulder?” Scully calls, and the camera closes in on the killer’s face for the first time. It’s our very own Spooky, with a zealous gleam in his eye. Scully approaches and quickly examines the mouth of the now-very-dead teen. It appears he has fangs, but they come out with a quick yank. They’re fakes. “Oh shi-” Mulder starts, and the theme song cuts in.
It’s clear from the jump that this isn’t going to be your average X file, but the audacity of the plot itself is still surprising all these years later. It’s one of the funniest hours of the series, yet it revolves around FBI agents Mulder and Scully contemplating the idea of prosecution after one of them murders someone. Episode writer Gilligan would famously go on to create Breaking Bad, a series that sometimes spun bleak, bizarre humor into its extremely dark overarching story. “Bad Blood” does the same, but after its initial set-up — Mulder and Scully have an hour to rehash the events leading up to the murder before explaining themselves to their boss, Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) — mostly abandons the facade of seriousness. The episode is divided up into roughly three sections; Scully’s version of events, Mulder’s version of events, and a coda in which the pair solves the mystery (spoiler: the vampires are definitely real) and deftly avoids prison time.
The best parts of The X-Files’ forays into comedy often feel like a strange drug trip. There are surreal moments presented with almost imperceptible deadpan humor, and lines that beg to be posted online with little context. It’s this occasionally wacky attitude, along with the actors’ strong charisma and chemistry, that made the series so formative to the world of internet fandom. “Bad Blood” combines the weird humor, charisma, and chemistry, and dials it all up to eleven.
Duchovny, whose Mulder regularly delivers outlandish theories with a drollness that undercuts even the serious episodes, is here finally cut loose to play the most ridiculous version of his Spooky persona. “Yee-haw!” he exclaims in Scully’s version of the story, presenting slides of dead cows while enthusiastically asking, “How does that grab ya?” Scully clearly sees Mulder as immature and naive, if hysterically high-energy. Every fast-and-loud line Duchovny delivers in Scully’s version of events is pure gold; he’s like if one of the conspiratorial talking heads from Ancient Aliens did a bunch of coke before filming.
In fact, this singularly goofy performance might be a better showcase for the actor’s talents than anything on the dramatic end of the series’ narrative spectrum. “The man’s SHOES ARE UNTIED!” Mulder practically yells at one point while inspecting a body, as if in a Sherlockian moment of epiphany. At another point, he laughs like a maniac while lying on a vibrating bed. Every moment of Duchovny’s performance is unexpected and hilarious.
Mulder’s imagined version of Scully isn’t quite as exaggerated as her version of him, but Gillian Anderson still carves out moments to shine within the episode. In Scully’s version of events, she’s bored to tears while performing a tedious autopsy. It’s a regular plot point that the series usually skims past quickly, but this episode’s subjectivity allows us to witness the day-to-day feelings that come with hunting monsters, namely exhaustion, hunger, and apathy. Mulder’s take reveals a gender-based disparity between the two partners. He casts her as the cynical nay-sayer to his measured fountain of wisdom. When the two regroup, he imagines her as whiny without thinking about all the labor she put in while he was on a wild goose chase involving, of all things, a runaway RV. Anderson doesn’t get the comedic upper-hand here, by design, but since she kicks ass in roughly two-hundred and eleven other episodes, we can give “Bad Blood” a pass on this.
Aside from giving fans insight into the ways in which the two opposing partners see one another, “Bad Blood” also features some good-natured love-triangle angst in the form of a third party, Sheriff Hartwell (Luke Wilson). Scully thinks the small-town Texas lawman is a chivalrous guy; in her imagined testimony, the two bond over her braininess as she explains the inherent eroticism of vampire mythology. Mulder scoffs at the idea that the sheriff would call her “Dana,” so she discreetly re-writes that scene the next time we see it. Through Mulder’s eyes, the sheriff is buck-toothed and brainless, tossing off lines like “Y’all must be the guv’ment people” with a heavy local accent. Wilson clearly has fun with both variations of the role, and pulls off the third-act reveal that he and all the local townsfolk really are vampires with subtlety and skill.
“Bad Blood” ends with a bit of anticlimax, revealing the green-eyed cadre of vampires only to have them leave Mulder and Scully alone and without memory of the encounter. “That is…essentially exactly the way it happened,” Mulder tells Skinner when their deposition finally arrives, “except for the part with the buck teeth.” As always, the pair of investigators are back to square one, unable to prove or disprove the existence of supernatural beings. If “Bad Blood” teaches us anything, though, it’s that there can be joy in rewriting the same old story in new and different ways.