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X-Files Episode Guide: Duane Barry

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X-Files: Season 2, Episode 5

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Written & Directed by Chris Carter

This is one of the most critical episodes in the history of the series, the beginning of the two-parters, and the real start of the mythology. Given how important it was to the future of the show, it's probably one of the most important episodes in the history of television. And as an added bonus, it's one of the greatest episodes the series would ever put together. What makes Duane Barry particularly remarkable is that, in style and tone, it is one of the most atypical episodes the series would ever do.
Stripped down to it's essential , for three-quarters of the show, it could play like just about any episode of Law & Order --- with the alien trappings being regarded as just another sign that the man with the gun is just another wacko. Certainly everyone else taking part in the negotiations thinks that way. It's only Mulder who believes that Barry is telling the truth. We will frequently see Mulder put his wellbeing on the line in the search of a higher truth, but rarely at such a basic and fundamental level as he does here.

The episode is also stripped down to a dialogue between Mulder and Barry. Duchovny gives one of his most toned down performances, and it matches the mood of the episode precisely. But while in many episodes he can act the guest star under the table, he has no chance of doing it here. From beginning to end, this is Steve Railsback's show. What makes it so brilliant is that even though the world regards him as a dangerous lunatic, he has our sympathies from the teaser on. Tortured both psychologically---- and if the flashbacks are any indication, physically--- Barry seems far more of a victim than any of the people that he's holding hostage. Perhaps it's the way that he's always referring to himself in the third person that gets to me more than anything else--- his experiences with the aliens seem to have cost him everything else, and it's as if he keeps repeating his name to try and hold on to his identity. Considering how brilliant he is, and that the episode was nominating for Emmys for Best Writing and Best Guest Actress (CCH Pounder demonstrates the quiet authority and patience that she would do in countless other series from this point onward), perhaps the biggest mystery is how Railsback didn't earn one as well. It is certainly one of greatest performances the series will ever feature. Indeed, he's so utterly convincing and mesmerizing that the most telling moment of the episode comes in what is almost a throwaway. When he releases the female hostages, one of the women says before she exits that she believes him. It's a wonderful moment, particularly ironic since we've just been given every reason to think his story is a lie.

What makes the show work as well as it does is because as long as Mulder follows his quest for the truth he is completely safe--- it's when Scully tells him it might be a lie that he's suddenly in danger. It's the quintessential definition of Mulder's quest. When Mulder believes in alien abduction, government conspiracies, he advances. When Scully tries to bring the real world in, he is in danger. The thing of it is, when you stop believing it's then proof might suggest itself.

For when the hostage is brought down--- and this is the rare encounter with local law enforcement where Mulder doesn't get his ass chewed own when the smoke clears--- he finds out that there might be something to it after all. For when they examine Barry, they find implants, exactly where he told Mulder that they were placed in the course of his abductions. (And considering what we saw them do to his teeth, I don't want to think how much it might have hurt when the others went it.) And once again, when Scully tries to rationalize it, she finds out that there's more to the story than she could think.

Two of the signature bits of the X-Files come in the final two scenes. First, in the supermarket, almost as an impulse, she swipes the implant through the supermarket scanner--- and is absolutely astounded to find out that it looks like there's some very small serial number somehow etched on it. Then she calls Mulder, and relays her experience to him, only to get his answering machine, and she therefore leaves her last statement to him on it--- along with the attack of Duane Barry, who has just escaped from the hospital. What makes this event even more shocking is that until now, Mulder's seemed to be the only one in danger from this quest---- and up until this point, even while he was shooting at people, we've never considered Barry much of a threat.

This is one of the series masterpieces, and what makes it even more remarkable is that was Chris Carter's first episode behind the camera. He would make great strides as a writer as the series progressed, but he would never direct quite as well again--- maybe because he would never reduce things to their most simple. And no matter what you may think of how the mythology progressed, this episode demonstrated just how brilliant it could be when everything was clear.