“He was always such a little man. This was finally something that made him feel big.”
The above line could be a perfect description of the now monstrous Walter White, the protagonist of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” which returns on July 15th. But they aren’t words spoken by Jesse (Aaron Paul) or Skyler (Anna Gunn) or even Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). That’s Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) speaking about the villain in an episode of “The X-Files” written by “Breaking Bad” creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan, who has never stopped exploring monsters.
For those who never watched it, “The X-Files” followed the adventures of two FBI agents who explored cases of paranormal and extraterrestrial activity. Fox Mulder, played by Duchovny, was the believer paired with the skeptic Dana Scully, played by Gillian Anderson. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine shows like “Lost,” “Fringe” or even “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without “The X-Files” during the early ’90s. But what feels most unique about the 1993-2002 series is the way it split itself between larger narrative arcs and standalone “Monster of the Week” episodes. Shows like “Breaking Bad” have forgone this divide, but these episodes became training grounds for writers like Gilligan, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (“24,” “Homeland”), and Tim Minear (“Angel,” “Firefly”) to develop their own style and explore their own themes within the structure of a larger show.
While the texture of “The X-Files” centered around conspiracy (the show’s famous tagline: “The Truth Is Out There”), Gilligan’s episodes revolve around digging into the psychology of horrifying villains. “Pusher,” Gilligan’s second episode, revolves around the psychic and psychotic Robert Modell (Robert Wisden), who refuses to have his brain tumor operated on because it will take away his murderous power (leading to the line quoted at the top of this article). In the chilling “Unruhe,” Mulder discovers that an abductor of women is a man who “is tall, or at least wants to be tall,” just as Scully meets a menacing figure on stilts. There’s a sense these characters had nothing special in their lives, so when they finally have the opportunity to become something unique, they shift into overdrive, much like Walter White has done.
Perhaps the best of these complex and ultimately sympathetic villains, however, is Crump, played by none other than Bryan Cranston in “Drive.” After an intense opening that ends with his wife’s head exploding, Crump takes Mulder hostage as the two drive across the Western landscape with no chance of stopping. In a reversal of “Breaking Bad,” we originally see Crump as a villainous man, and then slowly peel back the layers what has driven him to desperation. Cranston shines in the role as he transforms from a lunatic to someone filled with sorrow desperation, and the episode ends not with a bang, but with an unsettling yet melancholic image of a man maligned by circumstance.
Gilligan’s “X-Files” episodes also show his talent in turning the mundane into extreme situations. So much of “Breaking Bad” has been about what happens in the extreme (words like box cutter, tortoise and bell conjure up memories). So in “Pusher,” a quiet grocery store erupts into panic as Modell allows himself to be caught, only to cause a driver to smash right into a semi-truck. The cold open for “Je Souhaite” starts with banter between two security guards until one of them suddenly realizes his mouth is missing. And the finale of “Unruhe” might top “Marathon Man” in terms of terrifying uses of a dentist chair.
But perhaps the best Gilligan-scripted episode for “Breaking Bad” fans is one that couldn’t be further from the main mythology of “The X-Files” — “John Doe,” from the show’s final season. Duchovny had left by then, and was replaced by “Terminator 2” baddie Robert Patrick as an agent named John Dogget. In “Doe,” Dogget wakes up in a shady Mexican town with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Shot in intense, almost blinding light (the episode’s director Michelle MacLaren serves as a producer on “Breaking Bad” and also helmed a handful of episodes), “John Doe” revolves around the idea of escaping one’s past as we piece together Dogget’s history alongside him, finding out about the tragedy that begot his son.
The supernatural elements of the episode are almost tangential to the narrative, as Gilligan creates an intensified realism to the episode that has defined “Breaking Bad.” It’s episodes like “John Doe” that made a show like “The X-Files” unique. So much of TV criticism today centers around the cult of the showrunner, so it’s great to see how “X-Files” creator Chris Carter allowed other creative types to work within the boundaries of his fictional universe to explore their own ideas, both stylistic as well as thematic. It’s not too far to make the comparison to the directors of old Hollywood films, trying to develop their own voices while working in the studio’s house style. And now that so many of those writers have spread their creative wings, we can only wonder what the writers of “Breaking Bad” will come up with when they create their own shows.