The American Dream in The X-Files: Gender Bender, Lazarus, Young at Heart and E.B.E.
1x13 Gender Bender (Monster of the Week)
It's been a bit tricky to know what to do with this one, because on the face of it, this episode is The X-Files' first contact with religion. As we know this is definitely part of the American dream, being one of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. We also have a religious group designed to put us in mind of the Anabaptists who went to the USA to flee persecution in Europe, which seems to have the American dream written all over it. We also have the most dysfunctional meal with a religious group in world history, in which at least one person ends up dead. We even have a clash between the religion and the agents' guns, and some people think the Second Amendment means anyone can have whatever gun they like, although Mulder and Scully have more need than some people. So on the face of it we've got the American dream busting out all over this one.
However on consideration I have decided to discount it as being an episode with substantial subject matter referring to the dream, although obviously the setting is the USA. I have made this decision because of the X-Files twist that the Kindred are clearly not real since they've either been abducted by aliens and their longevity prods us to suspect that they are aliens themselves. Their lifestyle may be alien to other people, but I don't think anyone is going to think that the Huttterites/Mennonites/Amish/etc are actually aliens, so this episode is actually about aliens, not the American dream.
1x14 Lazarus (Monster of the Week)
No overt reference to the American dream.
1x15 Young at Heart (Monster of the Week)
The show returns to its preoccupation with unethical medical experimentation. I am not going to treat this occasion as refencing the American dream because it was done by a rogue doctor who got struck off rather than being a reflection on the US government. While Project MK-Ultra did some pretty weird stuff, not even crazed scientist and folk dancer Sidney Gottlieb managed to experiment with progeria. Therefore in this case the American dream has held, in that rogue research has been stopped and the doctor struck off. Liberty and ethical medical experimentation for all!
On the other hand, Mulder once again meets with Deep Throat, once again making a connection with the government: specifically that the government is trying to buy the research. Mulder reminds Deep Throat that the government are negotiating with a murderer, but as we know the US government took in many Nazi scientists with horrendous histories of atrocities after World War 2, to stop their research going to the other side. This may sound terrible, and definitely makes the American dream look distinctly wobbly. However this is actually a textbook quandary in medical ethics: do you use research that was conducted in unethical ways or live without its findings and risk the associated deaths. The only thing which makes this different from this X-Files episode is that the Nazi researchers I'm talking about are dead. Their research has also proved surprisingly useful to humanity: for example if you are ever treated for hypothermia, that treatment is based on research done by freezing living people by Nazis. Because obviously you can't get that past an ethics committee. In the case of this episode, I suspect we are intended to query what could happen if the research into ageing was bought by the government and that *that* is the real nightmare scenario we are intended to think about.
There is an additional dystopian reference in a brief appearance of Cigarette Smoking man, referenced as a CIA agent. He reminds me of the CIA fixers I was reading about only this afternoon, who appeared after Frank Olson, a scientist involved in Project MK-Ultra, threw himself out of a hotel window after being unwittingly given LSD. They appeared to clear up the figurative mess and make sure that no hint of it ever got to the press. Because obviously being clear that you have a whole government department where you can't even drink a cup of tea for fear it's laced with LSD, is the exact opposite of a country where you're free to better yourself or even be treated with basic respect.
I am going to count this episode as one of the ones with significant subject matter related to the American dream, or rather the X-Files' dystopian retelling of the dream, because while the research isn't directly connected to the dream, we have references to the USA taking in Nazis with no consequences in the name of protecting the free world, and also in a suggestion of CIA 'fixers' who appear to clear up the government's messes and make sure nobody ever hears about them.
1x16 E.B.E. (Core Mythology)
You don't notice it is you're not looking for it, because the alien theme is of course in the foreground, but this episode very cleverly sets up the idea of the American dream (Prosperity, self improvement by ones own labour, the idea of a home, an ideal to be defended, and a democracy where your rights are protected) and then systematically undermines it and it's not undermined by anything alien. If you look away from the alien theme you can see the mirage of the American dream collapse in front of your eyes. A lie is, after all most convincingly hidden between two truths.
The episode sets up the dream in the person of the truck driver. We have so many representatives of the dream here. Even in his honest work in the night conveying car parts (because the car is about as American as you can get, right? This lorry is not carrying chopsticks.), we just know that his family are honest imigrants to the US and any prosperity they have has been made by their own labour. Then we hear the local radio station, which just brings up images of white clapboard churches and picket fences, advertising a brand name (another reference to American capitalism and industry) medicine, which you just know you would buy at a ma and pa grocery store, bringing up the image of small rural communities. The man is a veteran so we know that he has fought to defend this American dream of liberty, capitalism, prosperity, honest industry and Cadillacs. And do I even need to mention that he's nearing an arm? You may think that I'm over-reaching here, but all I'm doing is looking at the background rather than the distraction of the EBE.
Then the episode systematically knocks down this dream in a succession of ways. There's just so much here, it's insane.
We have the reference to Gulf War syndrome, an unexplained illness of veterans in the Gulf war, suggesting that they were exposed to an unexplored or uncontained hazard. We have the charge of discharging a gun on a county road being suddenly quashed, suggesting there has been interference in justice from above. There is the suggestion that the Air Force is flying classified aircraft which made the lorry driver sick. We are intended to find the Lone Gunmen's conspiracy theories too much, but they are very much of a piece with the inversion of the American dream: reference to the assassination of John F Kennedy, the idea that the CIA (which is described as the most hideous and evil force of the twentieth century) has put the leader of the Russian Social Democrats in place, the idea that the goverment actively wants to have the Soviet union back as an enemy, a reference to a dark network within the government tracking people by the security strip in bank notes etc). We have a reference to Agent Orange - of course another chemical health disaster as part of the US government's military-industrial complex to protect the dream. Then of course we have two actual examples of electronic surveillance of both Mulder and Scully, and obviously only the US government is going to be doing that - the multiple references to surveillance create dis-ease and the sensation that the government could be spying on you as well: not much of a dream. We have a repeated appearance by Deep Throat, again referencing the Watergate crisis, itself an instance of US government spying and cover up. We then find out that the truck is not what it seems and the driver was lying - obviously the government is hiding something there. We have a reference to US government's history of transporting unsafe things in unmarked trucks. We then find out that the photo of the UFO is faked and later find out that it has been done within the government. In hsi second meeting with Deep Throat, Mulder expresses what I might call the 'American dream' position that the government should not be deciding what is kept secret for the public, and of course he gives a list of examples where the government has abused people. Mulder then finds that his flat has been under electronic surveillance.
Despite the clever interweaving of the fictional extraterrestrial with references to real-world distrustful things done by the US government, the effect of the episode is to create the impression that the government is lying and has something to cover up. The interweaving of fiction with real occasions of cover-up, exposing citizens to danger, etc, makes us doubt the fictional side as much as the reality. We are left with the impression that far from being a country where rights are protected, the US is actually a country where the government does what it damn well likes and will keep it secret.
Because of the sheer volume of references to The X-Files' dystopian inversion of the American dream, I am including this episode among the ones I will count as significantly referring to the dream as a subject matter.
As I go through these posts I am going to keep a tally of how many episodes of Core Mythology and Monster of the Week types have significant content making the American dream in effect part of the plot rather than the omnipresent setting, and so far we have
Core Mythology: 5 (3 with signifcant content relating to the American dream: Deep Throat, Fallen Angel, and E.B.E.)
Monster of the Week: 12 (3 with significant content relating to the American dream: Eve, Beyond the Sea, and Young at Heart.)
As always, I'm totally unequipped to do this so if I've missed anything corrections are very welcome in the comments.