The Pine Bluff Variant
|"The Pine Bluff Variant"|
|The X-Files episode|
The effects of the biological weapon, which causes rapid degeneration of human flesh. The special effects and mood for the scene were critically applauded.
|Episode no.||Season 5
|Directed by||Rob Bowman|
|Written by||John Shiban|
|Original air date||May 3, 1998|
|Running time||45 minutes|
"The Pine Bluff Variant" is the eighteenth episode of the fifth season of the American science fiction television series The X-Files. It was written by John Shiban and directed by Rob Bowman. The episode aired in the United States on May 3, 1998 on the Fox network. The episode is a "Monster-of-the-Week" story, a stand-alone plot which is unconnected to the series' wider mythology, or fictional history. "The Pine Bluff Variant" received a Nielsen household rating of 11.4 and was watched by 18.24 million viewers in its initial broadcast. It received largely positive reviews from television critics as well as fans on the internet.
The show centers on FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) who work on cases linked to the paranormal, called X-Files. In this episode, Scully grows suspicious of Mulder when she thinks he may be helping a terrorist organization. Scully begins to wonder if he is now a traitor to the FBI. It is eventually revealed that Mulder is working as a mole in the group, and he is trying to stop them before they are able to use a biological weapon—that may have been created by members of the US government—which causes rapid degeneration of human flesh.
"The Pine Bluff Variant" was based on the idea of Mulder going undercover, a topic that Shiban had wanted to work on for a majority of the fifth season. Shiban argued that the concept worked for the series because the theme of Mulder questioning his beliefs was a major element of the fifth season. The episode was indirectly influenced by the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, written by John le Carré. The title is also a reference to the Pine Bluff Arsenal, a real United States military base with stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and several other FBI agents take part in an undercover operation in a Washington park to catch Jacob Haley (Daniel von Bargen), the second-in-command of an anti-government militia called the New Spartans. As Skinner and Scully monitor the operation from a van, Mulder and the other agents slowly close in on Haley. Haley hands an envelope to another man (Armin Moattar) before escaping. The agents discover that the man's flesh has been eaten away by an unknown toxin.
Scully becomes concerned that Mulder let Haley get away, but he dodges her queries. Later, she informs a counter-terrorism task force headed by Skinner and U.S. Attorney Leamus (Sam Anderson) that the man in the park was killed by a biological agent. Skinner explains that August Bremer (Michael MacRae), the leader of the New Spartans, is involved in an internal power struggle with Haley. Scully follows Mulder and sees him meeting with Haley. When she tries to pursue them, she is surrounded by government agents and brought before Skinner and Leamus, who inform her that Mulder is infiltrating the group as an undercover agent.
Mulder is taken to a New Spartans' secluded hideout, where Haley accuses him of spying for the government. Mulder is tortured by the Skin-Head Man (Douglas Arthurs) — one of his fingers broken in the process — until he claims that the spy must be somewhere within the New Spartans. Meanwhile, Bremer tests the biological weapon in a movie theatre in Middlefield, Ohio, killing fourteen people inside. Investigating the scene, Scully becomes confused as to how the contagion was spread, as it is not airborne. Mulder and Scully meet at his apartment, where she tends to his finger and discusses the operation. Bremer, however, is secretly recording their conversation.
Mulder meets with Skinner and Leamus, telling them that the New Spartans are planning to rob a bank and that Haley wants copies of surveillance files on the group, in an attempt to discover the spy's identity. Leamus, expecting the request, hands over a redacted microfilm for Haley to see. Scully discovers that the biological weapon was engineered by the U.S. government, and concludes that someone purposely sent Mulder on a suicide mission. She realizes that the pathogen is spread through touch, and that New Spartans plan to spread it via the money in the bank. Meanwhile, Mulder joins the New Spartans as they infiltrate the bank and spray the money with the pathogen.
After the fake robbery, Bremer accuses Mulder of being the mole; Haley, however, intercedes, and claims that Bremer is the real mole. To further his argument, Bremer plays back the tape of Mulder and Scully. The militia group turns against Haley. Bremer offers Haley a set of car keys and tells him he can leave the group unharmed. Haley agrees and drives off. Bremer, along with a thug from the group, marches Mulder into a desolate area and prepares to execute him. However, Bremer instead kills the thug and tells Mulder to run, lest they both be discovered.
Mulder rushes back to the bank to warn people about the contaminated money and finds that Scully has already had the bank quarantined and the money taken away. Scully confronts Leamus about this being a covert government weapons test. Leamus responds that it is their job to protect the public from the truth. Later, we see Haley slumped over in his getaway car, his face eaten away by the pathogen that was sprayed on the car keys.
"The Pine Bluff Variant" was written by John Shiban. For much of the show's fifth season, Shiban had an index card that simply read "Mulder Undercover". He had long wanted to do a story like this, noting, "It always seemed to fit to me—putting Mulder in a situation [where we] don't know his allegiance." Shiban argued that the concept also worked because the theme of Mulder questioning his beliefs was a major element of the fifth season. Shiban petitioned Frank Spotnitz several times about the idea until "the right time and the right way" presented itself.
The episode was influenced by the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, written by John le Carré. Both the book and author are favorites of Shiban. Because the Cold War had been over, he used the opportunity to introduce a new "bogeyman", in this case domestic terrorism. The writing staff used then-recent fears about Saddam Hussein's alleged production of biological weapons to craft the basic premise of the script. The title is also a reference to the Pine Bluff Arsenal, a real military base with stockpiles of chemical weapons. Shiban also recalled that the 1995 action film Heat was an inspiration.
To play the part of terrorists Jacob Haley and August Bremer, the production staff cast Daniel von Bargen and Michael MacRae, respectively. Von Bargen was chosen due to his experience in several films, whereas MacRae had previously been cast in the first season episode "The Jersey Devil". Kate Braidwood, the woman who played the movie theater usherette, is the daughter of first assistant director Tom Braidwood, who portrayed Melvin Frohike in the series. The mother and child that are in the bank during the holdup scene were played by the wife and daughter of Todd Pittson.
Scenes at the movie theater were filmed in a recently closed theater in Dunbar–Southlands, British Columbia. The location featured the "architectural and design characteristics of a small-town cinema situated within an appropriate neighbourhood". The movie that is being shown in the Ohio theatre which is attacked is Die Hard with a Vengeance, whose storyline of a mission by terrorists involving American banks is broadly mirrored in this episode's plot. The faux corpses were created by make-up artist Toby Lindala; when he brought them to the set, however, there was no room to store them, and so he kept them temporarily in the craft services room. A Canadian government money depository filled in for the First Sovereign Bank of Pennsylvania that is robbed in the episode. The production staff assembled more than 15,000 dollar bills of various denominations—which valued somewhere near $40,000—for use during the scenes at said bank. Production initially had to stop due to the fact that, during the filming of the scene that involved the money, there was only one police guard on duty. Fearful that an actual armed robbery might have been attempted, back-up was called in and filming continued as planned.
The scene in the teaser is supposed to be set in Folger Park, located in Washington, D.C. It was actually filmed in Vancouver, like the rest of the episode, and the Capitol building in the background was created via CGI. The scene with the biotoxin melting a man's face in the opening scene was also created with computers.
"The Pine Bluff Variant" premiered on the Fox network in the United States on May 3, 1998. The episode later debuted in the United Kingdom on BBC One on March 3, 1999. It earned a Nielsen household rating of 11.4, meaning that roughly 11.4 percent of all television-equipped households were tuned in to the episode. It was viewed by 18.24 million viewers.
"The Pine Bluff Variant" received largely positive reviews from critics. Andy Meisler, in his 1999 book Resist or Serve: The Official Guide to The X-Files, Vol. 4, noted that the episode was particularly well received by fans on the Internet, due to its realistic conceit. Zack Handlen from The A.V. Club wrote positively of the entry and awarded it an "A". He called it "an excellent episode" that is "notable for its tension" and the fact that it "seemingly tells a story that has little to do with the X-Files or Mulder and Scully's search for the truth—right up until the final twist." Furthermore, Handlen called Shiban's script "by far his best" and noted that the melted corpses in the episode provided "a striking, deeply creepy visual". Robert Shearman and Lars Pearson, in their book Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files, Millennium & The Lone Gunmen, rated the episode four stars out of five. The two called the entry "cleverer than most" latter season episodes that feature Mulder or Scully undergoing a psychotic break, due to its "straight-forward thriller" sensibilities. Jonathan Dunn, writing for What Culture, highlighted "The Pine Bluff Variant" for its cinematic appeal and included it in the "5 Episodes [of The X-Files] That Could Be Made Into Movies" list.
Other reviews were more mixed. Paula Vitaris of Cinefantastique gave the episode a moderately positive review and awarded it two-and-a-half stars out of four. Vitaris called the episode "an absorbing hour of entertainment." She did, however, identify the red herring in which Scully suspects Mulder as the weakest part of the story, noting that Mulder "would [never] throw in with terrorists". John Keegan from Critical Myth awarded the episode a 6 out of 10. He wrote that, while the episode "brings to light some interesting aspects of the latter half of the fifth season" the "internal logic of the story is often suspect." He concluded that, despite "a number of scenes that presage the feature film and point out important character dynamics", there are an equal number of "plot contrivances and conveniences" that bog the episode down.
- Meisler, pp. 240–253
- Meisler, p. 253
- John Shiban (writer) (5 November 2002). The Pine Bluff Variant: Episode Commentary (DVD). The X-Files: The Complete Fifth Season: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
- Gradnitzer and Pittson, p. 178
- Gradnitzer and Pittson, p. 177
- The X-Files: The Complete Fifth Season (booklet). R. W. Goodwin, et al. Fox.
- Meisler, p. 284
- Handlen, Zack (23 July 2011). "'The Pine Bluff Variant'/'In Arcadia Ego' | The X-Files/Millennium | TV Club | TV". The A.V. Club. The Onion. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
- Shearman and Pearson, pp. 141–142
- Dunn, Jonathan (April 29, 2013). "The X-Files: 5 Episodes That Could Be Made Into Movies". What Culture. Archived from the original on May 2, 2013.
- Vitaris, Paula (October 1998). "Fifth Season Episode Guide". Cinefantastique. 30 (7/8): 29–50.
- Keegan, John. "The Pine Bluff Variant". Critical Myth. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
- Gradnitzer, Louisa; Pittson, Todd (1999). X marks the spot: on location with the X-files. Arsenal Pulp Press. ISBN 1-55152-066-4.
- Meisler, Andy (1999). Resist or Serve: The Official Guide to The X-Files, Vol. 4. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-257133-1.
- Shearman, Robert; Pearson, Lars (2009). Wanting to Believe: A Critical Guide to The X-Files, Millennium & The Lone Gunmen. Mad Norwegian Press. ISBN 097594469X.
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