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It’s almost as if someone was using it to catalogue him.

The X-Files
2.5: Duane Barry

Immediately that The X-Files begins its two- (or even three-) part mythology episodes, it shows it has problems with the payoff. To be fair to Duane Barry/Ascension, this is, at least partly, because the first episode is so good, and in some respects would have functioned as a perfect single with a few amendments – one can readily discern that it was originally outlined this way – but it’s there nonetheless. I considered looking at my revisits of multi-part stories under one review, but the frequent gulf in quality put me off. Notably, Duane Barry finds Chris Carter pulling double duties as writer/director for the first time, and if you wanted evidence of what he could do in both departments when serving the idea in both writing and execution, look no further. The real star of the show, however, is Steve Railsback in the title role.

Duane Barry: I’m not crazy, doc. Duane Barry’s not like these other guys.

It’s a testament to Carter’s writing and Railsback’s acting that Duane Barry is never less than sympathetic, even as he is inflicting beatings, shootings and holding others hostage. Railsback’s is a perceptive, layered performance that rather knocks both Duchovny (and Mulder, in terms of finding the right ground to walk on) into the corner. Carter shows more of the ET element in this episode than ever before, but as much as he includes “objective” shots (the framing of the UFO over Barry’s house at the outset, the wide shot of Barry’s bedroom), he’s also careful not to be too literal. We’re not supposed to think everything happening to Duane is in his head – the implants are evidence enough of that – but neither are we intended to put complete stock in what we see “through his eyes”. Even the nature of the observing aliens (of a trollish, malevolent aspect here), gauzed behind polythene sheets surrounding his bed, is subjective and distancing; it is, by design, the stuff of nightmares, and beside his dog, there are no other witnesses (later, in Ascension, he mistakes figures outside the interrogation room for aliens).

Duane Barry: They’re not taking me again. You got it? They can take somebody else.

Scully, being an inveterate naysayer of such matters, is naturally on hand to unearth evidence that Duane is a pathological liar owing to a rare state of psychosis – inspired by the case of Phineas Gage – that destroyed the moral centre of his brain (a self-inflicted gunshot wound, purportedly). And the endearing manner in which Duane refers to himself in the third person is a succinct means of telegraphing that we should be wary of his mental state. Because people just don’t do that, do they? Albeit, this is countered by knowing he is a former FBI agent; Carter maintains that doubt/belief balance skilfully. Even Scully can’t deny the metallic objects found in Duane’s system appear to have a barcode equivalent imprinted on them; one of the best moments here, and indeed in the series as a whole, finds her testing one on impulse at a supermarket checkout scanner, with chaotic consequences. That’s Carter at his best, able to take a piece of UFO lore and rub it up against the everyday in resonant way.

Agent Kazdin: You really believe this stuff, Agent Mulder?
Mulder: Is that a problem?

It’s also important that Mulder is completely the counter to Scully’s resistance as he ignores instructions to maintain an emotional distance from hostage taker Barry; Duane has initiated the hostage situation upon breaking out of his mental institution, determined to prove to dismissive kidnapped Doctor Hakkie (Frank C Turner) that this is not all in his mind (it’s a beautifully pathetic touch that the hostage taking occurs at a travel agent, Barry having called in because he is unable to recall his abduction site). Again, Carter is taking a genre staple and feeding it through The X-Files prism, such that the characters’ scepticism and sniggers in response to Duane’s claims are entirely expected but also entirely work to elicit sympathy for the antagonist/victim.

Agent Kazdin: So whatever crap you’ve got to make up about spacemen or UFOs, just keep him on the phone.

Carter makes sure to include the necessary tropes (some of which are leading, such as sleep paralysis, but also feed into more ultra-terrestrial readings). Duane doesn’t want to take his meds (“I don’t like the way it makes me feel”), he rants about scoop marks, scars, homing devices and “a lot of other nonsense”. Time is lost during the crisis. Porting Mulder into this situation – the X-Files being closed at this point, of course – is a neat and germane get around, even if it’s stretching things a bit to have him then okayed to go and talk to Duane dressed as a medic.

What’s interesting is how this oppressive and intolerant environment instantly makes Mulder and Barry kindred spirits of a sort. It’s notable the way Fox lashes out in a gender-combative manner when Agent Kazdin (CCH Pounder who would later play a detective involved in further uncanniness in End of Days) is dismissive of Barry’s ravings: “Would you like to know what they do to a woman’s ovaries?” he asks. “Not particularly” she responds. She doesn’t take it to heart; indeed, rather than calling Mulder the next day to “chew me out” she shows him the metal objects that corroborate at least that part of Barry’s story.

Duane Barry: How could you ever know what Duane Barry’s been through?

Also interesting is that Mulder’s personal investment – his abducted sister – is peanuts compared to Duane’s torments. And really, Fox knows it. Such that, when Mulder processes Scully’s comments concerning Duane’s mental state, we feel Barry’s sense of betrayal is quite legitimate (Rob Shearman refers to the episode as a “parable about faith”, and there’s something to that). Indeed, the moment when, on letting two women hostages leave one of them says “I just want to say that I believe you”, might otherwise be put down to Stockholm Syndrome, except that we have it too. Or at very least, we believe Duane believes what has happened to him. There’s a genuine sense that Mulder’s manipulation of Barry, to enter the sniper’s line of sight – having earlier steered him clear – is unwarranted, that if he had persevered that bit longer, he might have avoided Duane being shot.

Duane Barry: They drilled holes in my damn teeth!

So while this is a strong episode in terms of giving Mulder some meaty interaction, it’s one that also highlights how fallible he is. He completely flunks helping Barry. Worse, he gets him shot. Yes, he saves the hostages, but this is really about saving the man. As noted, Carter shoots the torture scenes subjectively, but does so with an industrial harshness rather than unearthly sheen. We see Barry’s teeth being lasered and a Da Vinci man-style torture table. The success of the episode bolstered Carter’s confidence as a director (he took his starter’s tips from David Nutter), but unfortunately, he would tend increasingly towards gaudy visual excess while lacking the innate faculty to use such tricks appropriately.

Duane Barry: The government knows about it, you know. They’re even in on it sometimes. Right there in the room when they come. They work together with a, uh, secret, uh, corporation.

Duane’s recollections further emphasise the conspiratorial element, and Duane, who mistakes humans for aliens at various points, vouches for the intertwined agenda of the ETs and government. Indeed, many of the things Duane reports, from mind scans (“They know what I’m saying”) to establishment scrutiny, could be found in those without such experiences, such as victims of gang stalking or other intimidation and harassment tactics.

The series at this point was dealing with Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, of course, writing in an alien abduction to cover it, such that Scully is kidnapped by Barry at the cliffhanger ending. In tandem with these wheels, we have weasely Krychek (Nicholas Lea) – introduced in the preceding episode 2.4: Sleepless as Mulder’s new partner – acting in suspicious and unscrupulous manner. Very amusing that he is subjected to a dismissive order for a cappuccino at the hostage scene when he asks how he can help. Also, his conspicuously focussing on the message, not the package, during the Fox in his Speedos male cheesecake scene. The show would deliver another strong hostage crisis situation in 5.19: Folie a Deux, but it’s testament to the effectiveness of Duane Barry that the thing you remember most here is Railsback’s performance; the Emmy nominations (Carter, Pounder, two tech ones) were entirely warranted.

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