The X-Files’ first season finale, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is both a logical development of the series pilot, which established extra-terrestrial incursions on Earth, and a vanguard for the overall Myth-Arc, which describes over several seasons an attempt by humans to create human-alien hybrids before alien colonization of Earth commences in 2012.
Written by Chris Carter and directed by R.W. Goodwin, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” -- like many of the greatest episodes of The X-Files – also takes as its inspiration a real-life story or mystery, and then turns that mystery to creatively service its narrative.
Equally significantly, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” serves two important arc purposes.
In the first case, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” reveals the tip of the conspiracy iceberg to the agents. “You’ve never been closer,” affirms informant Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin). Indeed, that is very much the case as Scully discovers the “wellspring,” an alien corpse used in research by secretive scientists.
In the second case, the episode’s conclusion reveals to Mulder and Scully that even though they haven’t seen or understood every element of “the conspiracy,” they possess the power to stop it in its tracks, or the very least expose it. The last scenes of “The Erlenmeyer Flask” reveal a weakness -- galvanizing fear -- on the part of conspirators. Accordingly, they shut down the X-Files to prevent any further discoveries, and to permanently separate the potent partnership of Scully and Mulder.
“The Erlenmeyer Flask” is a superb first-season-ender, and it book-ends the season beautifully. In the pilot episode, we witnessed the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William Davis) taking UFO-related evidence to that Raiders of the Lost Ark-styled repository in the Pentagon…hiding the truth. “The Erlenmeyer Flask” ends with a reprise of that cogent imagery: another walk through that warehouse of alien technology and artifacts with the same result: the truth is hidden from the public eye.
I don’t know for certain if The X-Files had a renewal in hand by the time this episode was penned and aired, but in a certain sense, the final episode of the first season squares the circle. The first season, in and of itself is a complete “whole.” It is book-ended by examples of deceit and obfuscation, with the “hope” of discovering the truth having risen and then, finally, fallen. I’m glad The X-Files returned for eight more seasons, but it’s fascinating to contemplate the season as a complete “novel” or chapter too.
In “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” government informant Deep Throat (Hardin) suggests that Mulder (David Duchovny) take a closer look at a police chase in Maryland which ended with an inhumanly-strong suspect jumping into the water after incapacitating several police officers. The chase ended with something else too: the discovery that the suspect had been wounded…and that he bled a weird, green material.
Mulder and Scully trace the suspect’s car, a silver Sierra, back to EmGen Corp., where a scientist who worked on the Human Genome Project is toiling with monkeys for some known purpose. When Dr. Benrube, the project scientist, dies in an apparent suicide attempt, Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) realize that they are witnessing the fringe of a larger, shadowy conspiracy. An ancient, perhaps extra-terrestrial bacteria which existed before man walked the Earth, and a strange warehouse filled with human/alien hybrids are the ingredients, which resolves not in the discovery of truth, but the government’s shutting down of The X-Files.
“The Erlenmeyer Flask” draws its inspiration from an unexplained, real-life happening in the 1990s. In Riverside, California on February 19, 1994 at approximately 8:00 pm, a woman who became known in the media as “the toxic lady” arrived at the General Hospital while suffering apparent cardiac arrest. When the workers attempted to draw her blood, a toxic ammonia-like smell emanated from her body, and no less than three medical workers fainted and experienced dizzy spells. The patient died that night, and strange, toxic nature of her blood was not fully explained.
This odd story is mirrored in “The Erlenmeyer Flask” during a scene in which EMTs attempt to deliver emergency care in an ambulance to the human/alien hybrid seen in the opening sequence. When they take his (green) blood, they suddenly cough, sputter, pass out, and suffer from burns on their skin. Exposure to the hybrid is deadly.
I remember actually reading about the “toxic lady” at the time the incident occurred, and so “The Erlenmeyer Flask” probably represents perhaps my first or earliest recognition that Carter was indeed exploring “real life” X-Files in his (fiction) series as well as establishing a new Gothic aesthetic for the nineties. As I wrote last week in regards to “Darkness Falls,” which also had some basis in fact with the story of a “brain sucking amoeba,” this is an aspect of the series that I resolutely admire and appreciate. And as recently as I Want to Believe, in 2008, Carter has used real life stories of the odd and inexplicable to lend validity and legitimacy to his tales of the bizarre and paranormal.
Carter’s ability to weave a real-life story into a pre-existing arc is noteworthy, but I also appreciate how he artfully brings allusions from mythologyinto his storytelling.
The warehouse containing the human hybrids is owned by a company called “Zeus Storage” and is located on Pandora Street.
Given those two references to Greek myth, you just know it’s going to prove a place of danger and disaster. The location, “Zeus Storage,” recalls the Greek King of the Gods, from whom the secret of fire was stolen in the myth of Prometheus.
And of course, the “magic” of creation is here taken -- again by humans -- from the (god-like?) aliens.
Pandora, not coincidentally, is a part of the same myth. She represents Zeus’s revenge upon misbehaving man. Zeus creates Pandora in fact, knowing that she will open the “jar” (or rather “box”) containing plagues and other diseases, thus unloosing them upon grasping, greedy mankind.
In “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” of course, the knowledge of alien DNA and bacteria creates a new biology toxic to mankind, as those imperiled EMT workers learn all too well.
Thus, the title “The Erlenmeyer Flask” might be translated ably as “Pandora’s Box.” Avaricious scientists, hoping to steal knowledge that is not theirs to possess, take it and in the process, release a toxin that could destroy the human race. Pandora’s Box is opened.
This is a brilliant, almost sub-textual reference to myth, but it deepens considerably the episode’s impact and artistry. It gives the audience a context for what is happening to Mulder and Scully. In essence, they are running up against human nature itself, and the desire to possess information that we are not ready to wisely possess.
Chris Carter has also often gone on record describing his memories of the Watergate hearings in the mid-1970s, and his subsequent distrust of the government. One positive element of Watergate -- or of the Watergate mythology, we must now admit -- is the little guy against City Hall narrative (also seen in Kolchak: The Night Stalker). Reporters Bernstein and Woodward went up against a sitting President armed only with the truth, and they emerged victorious.
Perhaps modifying that scenario, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” suggests that Mulder and Scully boast the same capacity: to bring down a governmental conspiracy and reveal the truth to a deceived public. What’s clear from this episode is that their investigations terrify the (as yet unnamed) Syndicate. The agents are getting too close to their target, and the powers-that-be react hastily and vindictively by shutting down the X-Files.
Again, had The X-Files lasted only one season, the overall arc would have seen two agents of change (Mulder and Scully), essentially, discovering a conspiracy, almost exposing it, and then being, in the last moment, defeated by power. That arc prescribes new developments since Watergate: the idea that the more things appear to change, the more they actually remain the same. This is Carter’s statement on government, no matter which party happens to be in power, I suspect.
In terms of X-files lore, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” reveals Mulder’s -- or perhaps Chris Carter’s -- obsession with science fiction film history. Here, the film Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) appears on television. Later episodes, such as “War of the Coprophages” feature clips from Planet of the Apes(1968).
Again, such references book-end one another in telling fashion.. Mulder in this episode embarks upon a “journey to the center” of the truth, at least after a fashion. But Planet of the Apes warns that, in the words of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), when he reaches his destination he “may not like what he finds.”
“The Erlenmeyer Flask” also features the death of Deep Throat, who in many senses is a father figure to Mulder. Mulder even describes himself here as “the dutiful son.” Importantly, he experiences a kind of adolescent rebellion against his metaphorical dad here, refusing to accept Deep Throat’s sincerity and honesty regarding the conspiracy. Ultimately, however, the father figure is vindicated by saving Mulder from a kidnapping, and issuing the warning which ends the episode and hangs over the entire first season:
Trust no one.
Next week: “Little Green Men.”