A woman weeps when she discovers the husband she thought died years ago in combat overseas is actually alive; she has mourned him and remarried. What now?
A female agent weaves her way through a crowd at a political rally, desperately tracking an ex-soldier she thinks is about to open fire on government and military officials.
A veteran, disillusioned with the military (which he believes betrayed him), hides in plain sight while planning a series a high-level assassinations.
It sure sounds like Homeland. But those are scenes from “Unrequited,” a season-four episode of The X-Files — written by Homeland co-creator Howard Gordon. And it’s hardly the only X-Files episode with echoes in current dramas, thanks to a group of alumni who are all currently cranking out quality shows: Gordon, Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa, Breaking Bad creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan, and American Horror Story’s (among other things) Tim Minear all spent time writing for Mulder and Scully, and those episodes foreshadow their work today.
Gansa told the AV Club last week that he “struggled to write coherent, compelling episodes of television on The X-Files,” and he left the show pretty early on, while Gordon stayed. The episodes they collaborated on, though, have Homeland markers all over them: “Fallen Angel” is about a ufologist, sort of, but it’s more about how Scully and Mulder are at once part of and yet very detached from the FBI — just like Carrie and the CIA. “Conduit” is about alien abduction, but it’s more about the limits of observation and what kinds of information are simply not able to be gathered if people don’t want to talk.
Gordon’s solo episodes are even more Homeland-ish: “F. Emasculata” uses gross-out biological warfare mumbo jumbo to explore the ideas of government cover-ups, corruption, and how intelligence works in an information-driven ecosystem. “Fresh Bones,” “Sleepless,” and the previously mentioned “Unrequited” are all about soldiers returning home and struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. Their combat experiences have fundamentally and essentially altered them, far beyond the effects of typical PTSD. Brody on Homeland gets “turned,” but he also gets (forgive me) turned into a weapon of sorts. The same thing happens in “Sleepless,” in which soldiers aren’t just taught to survive dangerous wartime conditions but are instead themselves turned into unflinching super-soldiers. (The episode also centers on a character named Saul. The truth is out there! I want to believe!) It’s not such a stretch to think Homeland could easily use The X-Files’ tagline “Trust No One.”
Breaking Bad could probably use the line, too. BB creator Vince Gilligan wrote two of The X-Files’ funniest and most beloved episodes, “Small Potatoes” (about a shape-shifter) and “Bad Blood” (a Rashomon-style vampire tale), neither of which necessarily screams “Walter White.” But under the humor and wink-winkiness of the episodes, there are some similarities to the Heisenberg universe. “Potatoes” is all about how we see ourselves and grapple with what’s an appropriate level of self-importance. How far would you go to pretend to be someone new? How long could you keep it up? What kinds of things are we willing to ignore as long as we’re getting what we want? “Bad Blood” isn’t as thematically tied, but does point to how fully Gilligan’s able to move between perspectives. It’s played for giggles on The X-Files, but that’s a fundamental aspect of Breaking Bad. Take Skyler, for example: When Walt is around, we see her the way he sees her (tender, confused, maybe a little pathetic); when he’s not, we see her more how she sees herself (determined, capable).
Gilligan’s episodes also include smaller Breaking Bad touch points, like characters in wheelchairs (“Je Souhaite”) and a fast-food restaurant employee who’s also a scary murderer (“Hungry”), but there’s a strange two-episode story that shares Breaking Bad’s themes if not its particulars. The third season’s “Pusher” and its fifth-season sequel “Kitsunegari” are meditations on the idea of influence and agency: How might someone “make” us do something? When is it appropriate not to trust oneself? How do people use emotional intelligence to exert control over each other? What happens to our sense of self when we become violent? How does performing violence alter the ways in which we’re susceptible to other people’s influence? If Breaking Bad seems like a hugely sophisticated take on these questions, maybe that’s because Vince Gilligan has been thinking and writing about them since 1996.
Shows like Grimm and American Horror Story are easy to link to The X Files, and not just because of the mutual spookiness or normalized sense of paranoia: Those shows expect to be obsessed over. (Grimm’s expectation is more of an aspiration.) The X Files proved shows could demand and acknowledge a certain level and type of fan engagement — a kind that obsessively draws connections, that dissects inconsistencies, that revels in tiny shout-outs, and that delights in meta moments. It’s the kind of fandom we see all over the place today. Including right here, in this story.