The second season episode “3” has never been particularly well-regarded by fans of The X-Files, and there are reasons that support this point-of-view.
For instance, this is an episode where Mulder works alone, and Scully is nowhere to be found, thus flouting conventional formula.
And, shippers may be disappointed or angry because Mulder experiences a sexual liaison with a woman in the story who is not Scully.
Indeed a certain percentage of the hostility aimed at “3” apparently revolves around Mulder having intimate relations with another woman. Some fans consider this an emotional betrayal, though of course, that’s a silly viewpoint. The episode makes it pretty clear that Mulder and Kristin connect on a physical level, but not much else. Mulder makes love to Kristin because he is on a nihilist tear, living in a world that seems to be spiraling out-of-control, inching ever towards annihilation.
These qualities certainly mark “3” as atypical, but I’ll be honest: I often appreciate episodes of series that are willing to bend or break the rules, to try something new.
If nothing else, “3” impresses in this regard, stretching the series format in the process. It’s an episode that looks and feels very different from the typical series installment, and on those grounds alone must be regarded as something of an artistic success…even if it isn’t a particularly popular or acclaimed story.
As has become a staple on X-Files stories, “3” bases it monster-of-the-week -- the “Unholy Trinity” -- on a real scientific idea, and pinpoints trenchant visuals to echo it’s “the blood is the (dangerous) life” thesis.
What ultimately emerges is a widely-disdained episode but a highly visual --even visceral -- story dripping in style and mood…even if it is not the intellectual/humorous dance fans have come to expect and adore from this franchise.
With Scully still missing after her apparent abduction by aliens, Mulder (David Duchovny) re-opens the X-Files and flies to Los Angeles to investigate a strange new case. A murder victim has been drained entirely of blood. Mulder has been tracking similar crimes and suspects a trio of modern-day, science-spawned vampires known as “The Unholy Trinity.”
Mulder stakes out the Hollywood Blood Bank in hopes that an employee there, the new night watchman, may be one of the criminals. Mulder apprehends the criminal, a man who insists that the he is a vampire and can live forever. Soon after this boast, the man burns up when exposed to sunlight, a side-effect, Mulder believes, of Gunther’s Disease.
Soon, Mulder meets a dark and mysterious woman with a thirst for blood, Kristin (Perrey Reeves), at a club appropriately called Tepes. He suspects that she holds the key to apprehending the other two corners of the murderous triangle.
Commendably, “3” film looks, sounds, and feels like a Michael Mann film circa 1986. Kristin’s modern apartment, with its opaque glass partitions and spare, minimalist decoration evokes similar settings from Manhunter (1986), and in terms of narrative and theme, “3” also contends with typical Mann obsessions, like the solitary law enforcement official drawn into an underworld of moral-relativity and crime.
There’s the tragic affair between two people from different worlds too -- here Mulder and Kristin -- and also a generally humorless tenor. These are hallmarks of Mann’s ascetic or stoic films.
Accordingly, “3” is very much a Los Angeles noir -- like Heat(1995) --with the ubiquitous threat of looming forest fires always representing a secondary jeopardy to life and limb. The world itself has become contaminated and “unnatural” by the “blood sports” of its people, the episode intimates.
Beyond the intriguing Mann vibe, “3” is fascinating in terms of its specific visuals. I would submit that David Nutter literally and metaphorically “colors” the episode scarlet red, in direct response to the thematic leitmotif about blood representing both danger, perhaps, and immortality. We see the opening images of red wine in a cracked, overturned glass, then red (fire-fighting) spray dotting the Los Angeles sky, red lights also shading the blood bank, and even red “berry” sauce at a bloody crime scene. The episode then culminates in an orgy of blood stains, in Kristin’s garage, in the oven, on Mulder’s unshaven neck, even. The episode is about blood released, passion released. And worse, that passion is -- as we learn from Kristin -- unsavory and self-destructive.
The underlying point here is that Kristin can’t escape the allure of her “blood sport” with the Unholy Trinity, and that as much as she attempts to reject it, she is also drawn to it…to the flame that burns out of control.
I always argue that the highest apex of quality for film or television is attained when form reflects and augments content, and one can legitimately make that case regarding “3.” All the visual material contributes to the disordered nature of the narrative’s world.
The scientific truth underlying “3” involves a condition that Mulder mentions in passing: Gunther Disease. This illness was named for Dr. Hans Gunther (1884 – 1956), who discovered the condition, and is also described by doctors as “congenital erythropoietic porphyria.” Those suffering from this condition show dramatic physical symptoms when exposed to direct sunlight. Such exposure can cause scarring, blistering and redness, of the skin, as “3” demonstrates in one grotesque make-up sequence.
What’s ultimately missing in this episode -- perhaps because of Scully’s absence -- is a satisfactory explanation for the Unholy Trinity’s ability to regenerate and survive after such severe sun exposure. Were Scully around, she would no doubt have some intriguing theories to put forth, but of course, she’s not here…and that’s the point.
To expand on that point, “3” depicts a world of madness and danger where the ameliorating voice of science and rationality is nowhere to be found. Mulder is living a kind of nihilistic, aimless existence in this episode. He’s half-a-man without Scully, his other eye, to help him “see.” He says he isn’t sleeping, and clearly he’s given hope regarding Scully’s disposition. Mulder then goes out on a case in L.A. and finds himself confronted directly with the idea that there is “no Heaven, no soul…just rot and decay.”
But of course, some folks get off on rot and decay, on death itself….
This observation about “no Heaven, no soul…just rot and decay” seems backed-up by the constant “crisis alerts” due to the forest fires, and by the predatory nature of the Unholy Trinity. They are urban predators who hunt based on society’s desire to walk right up to the edge of moral behavior. It isn’t hard for them to find willing victims. The folks at “Clube Tepes,” pretty clearly, are seeking new and dangerous pleasures.
Mulder ultimately partakes in the darkness with Kristin, and has a brief sexual relationship with her. But importantly, he does so not because he is in love with Kristin, but because he has lost hope, I would submit. He’s on a sort of dark “death spiral” in this story, and the episode is dominated by images of life disordered, from the broken wine glasses to the moon turned blood red.
Seen in this context, “3” is actually Mulder’s journey into the heart of darkness, and -- finally – his rejection of it. These events, including his dalliance with Kristin, are an important part of his grieving process, and to dismiss “3” out-of-hand is to ignore what the narrative adds to the character’s odyssey. “3” is Mulder’s journey through – and out of – Hell itself. He realizes he is not as hopeless as Kristin is, nor as desperate. He isn’t willing to surrender to the inevitability of death just because “blood tastes dangerous.” He is better than that.
So, yes, Scully is missed here, of course, but Gillian Anderson was not available (due to her pregnancy) and if The X-Files ever wanted to tell a story of sexual dalliance and Mulder’s flirtation with nihilism, “3” clearly offered the opportunity. I am glad Chris Carter and the others involved in the episode’s creation took a big chance. I wish fans could see that, in a weird way, Mulder attaches to Kristin because of his feeling for Scully. It’s not like -- as some fans seem to feel -- they are married at this point, and he is being unfaithful to her. Instead, Mulder is lost, and missing the most important connection in his life. He takes solace in (empty) sexual pleasure…so sue him.
I would submit that “3” is precisely what it hopes and desires to be: a walk on the wilder, more dangerous, and more nihilistic side of The X-Files equation. “3” may not be a conventional X-Files episode, but the story and visualizations are “sweet and thick,” in Kristin’s descriptive words, layered with ominous fin de siècle, Michael Mann-ish imagery. Frankly, there’s absolutely no other episode like this one in the X-Files canon, and so we can either curse it for not following the accepted pattern, or praise it for its surprises and contrasts.
Another way to look at it: Without “3”, we wouldn’t be able to witness our troubled hero take his beginning steps back into the light.
Next week: Scully returns from her abduction in “One Breath.”