Written by Paul Brown
Directed by Michael Lange
This episode can't escape the fact that it basically has a job to do, and that is to remove Gillian Anderson from the scene so that she can have her child. (One wonders how different television history would have been if Anderson hadn't been pregnant during this season) As it, and because it comes after such a brilliant show at Duane Barry, it tends to get less consideration then it does. This doesn't change the fact that even if Ascension is filler, it's damn good filler.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that the writer makes is turning Barry, who was such a vivid force in the last episode, into something of a ghost, and to turn him from a ticking bomb into a weapon ready to strike at the slightest provocation. In all fairness, in the hostage situation, he was pretty much the same . But Railsback, who was incredible in the last episode, comes off strangely diminished as a result, and when he finally in the episode, it doesn't seem as vivid as when he was shot in the last episode.
The episode is also criticized for being more action filled then the last one, where the action was mostly cerebral. As will become the case with many of the mythology episode, Mulder finds himself doing far too many death-defying stunts than a well-trained FBI agent should--- pushing a rickety tram up a wheel past it's speed, climbing out of it far above the ground, only to have it start moving again--- and this is a light episode on that front.
Duchovny manages to sell it. His performance isn't nearly as intense as it was in the last episode, but for once there's actually a legitimate reason--- he's operating on no sleep, and keeps pushing himself past him limits in a desperate attempt to find Scully. When he finally gets to Barry, and finds his former partner nowhere to be found, his rage is even more fascinating to watch, and poor Duane, who is still more sympathetic than most of the others, gets caught in the crossfire.
The episode also manages to work because of the superb performance of Nicholas Lea, arguably the best he would do over his entire stint on the series, mainly because it's so simple. Even knowing since Sleepless how corrupt he was, and even after hearing him make an illicit phone call, it still comes as a hell of a shock when he kills the tram operator, and very nearly causes Mulder's death. And seeing him in the car with the Smoking Man, finally reduced to the stooge he is, is very well done--- almost well done enough to make you wish the writers had followed their original impulse and written him out after this episode.
Admittedly, it's a bit of a disappointment to see Mulder realize that Krycek is a front based solely on the cigarette that he finds in his car ashtray, and based on that giant leap Skinner decides to reopen the X-Files in order to force them out into the open. And one can't help feel the first of many disappointments to realize we're never going to find out exactly how Duane Barry found Scully. But at this point in the series, we're glad to see that there's some forward momentum at last---- the second season has been off to a great start, but we need to have some kind of purpose for the show to go forward. I almost wish Anderson hadn't been such a trooper and gone back to work as soon as she did --- it might have been interesting to see Mulder try to struggle forth now that Scully is no longer around. (It certainly would've been more fair than what we got when Mulder went missing... but that's a bone to pick much, much later)
Perhaps the most impressive work from any of the actors comes from the beginning and end when Sheila Larkin again reappears as Mrs. Scully, drawn to her daughter's apartment after her abduction by night terrors, and then coming around to comfort Mulder when he tries to present her with the cross that was the only proof of her still remaining in Duane Barry's car. Margaret Scully will be put through the ringer far more than any other character, but Larkin's subtlety manages to sell it, and make her a pillar of strength for both Mulder and her family.
Considering that it was written by someone new to the show (and whose only other script would demonstrate he had no understanding of how the series worked), and that it was supposed to be a bridge episode more than anything else, Ascension does a damn good job, and is far more satisfying than the majority of the two-parters we will get for The X-Files. Its other job is make the mythology personal for Mulder and Scully, and from this point on, there's no way to deny that.