Mulder and Scully stand on an airfield base with the guest characters in the X-Files epsidode Ice.
Trust, Identity, and Contagion in the Arctic: Bring Your Mittens

Ice: Season 1 Episode 8
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, Directed by David Nutter
First aired November 5, 1993

Ice is intimidating to write about. Like Squeeze, it’s one of the most famous episodes of The X-Files. There are also a lot of layers to it. I don’t have a favorite from Season One, but Ice is definitely in my top five. Unlike Shadows, this episode written by Morgan and Wong is character driven, nuanced, and complex.

I know that Ice owes a lot to John Carpenter’s The Thing, but since I’m not a horror fan I don’t care. There are other resources that go into how all the references work. I mention it only as an example of how The X-Files pays loving homage to its influences.

The episode opens with a lonely, hungry dog wandering around the lab. We then meet a sweaty, half naked guy with improbable cuts across his chest. He collapses into a chair and says, “We’re not who we are. We’re not…who…we are. It goes no further than this. It stops right here.” The “not who we are” thing is one of the most interesting lines in the episode. It speaks to something deeper and more frightening than, “We got infected by something in the ice. We’re all going to die.”

A shirtless, sweaty, visibly ill man leans back in a chair.
There are some fun camera angles helping us out here as well.

Our sweaty friend is interrupted by another crazy person. They fight and then both commit suicide. With this ominous beginning we then cut to Mulder and Scully, who are reviewing the “not who we are” footage. Usually the provenance of their cases is irrelevant. In this assignment it’s important because they don’t have a choice. It’s not a file of Mulder’s, and they’re not helping another agency. Brilliant or expendable, they were given the assignment. While Mulder seems to relish the mystery, Scully is immediately wrong-footed. If I were to make a visual representation of this episode, it would be of Mulder and Scully in a box that shrinks in on itself faster and faster.

One of the obvious themes of the episode is identity. Not only who we are, but who we say we are, and under what circumstances the two are different. And how we change for the worse, sometimes without realizing it.

Which is why I like that Hodge (played by Xander Berkeley) immediately asks everyone to show their ID. First, it’s a ridiculous dick move and a good character note. Second, his justification, “Just wanna make sure we all are who we say we are,” is telling. None of us are who we say we are. How many of us are truly represented by what’s on our driver’s license? Also, de Silva (played by Felicity Huffman) thinks Mulder and Scully know more than she does? Honey, you must be new.

Hodge and de Silva brandish their ID.
I can’t gif but right after this Mulder looks at Scully’s ID.

I really like Dr. Denny Murphy (played by Steve Hytner). He’s the only one not trying to win a pissing contest, and he just seems like a genuinely nice person. Bear (played by Jeff Kober) not so much. Pissing contests seem to be his favorite thing, and he has no time for Hodge’s show-me-ID routine. This scene neatly contrasts the already-established relationships (Mulder/Scully, Hodge/de Silva) and the new relationships that form when the group is thrown together. In the course of the episode, all of these relationships break down at one point or another.

It doesn’t take long for the conflict to start. The first real break is the dog incident.

group-test

Everyone responds when de Silva shouts, and they all work together to subdue the dog. (Poor puppy.) But Bear refuses to let Hodge examine him, even though the dog bit him. This accomplishes two things: one, he doesn’t receive proper treatment. Two, his secretiveness makes it easier for the group to suspect him later.

Contagion is a favorite trope of mine. There’s so much to unpack there in medical, social, and psychological reactions to diseases. Particularly if a disease is an epidemic or difficult to diagnose and treat. (See also: “Masque of the Red Death” by Poe; The Last Man by Wollstonecraft Shelley; La Peste by Camus; everything not about religion written in Medieval Europe.)

With that in mind, it’s worth noting this group of highly educated scientists all crowd around a dog they think is rabid. Rabies is a fatal disease. It’s also an easy one to catch, and a difficult one to detect. They’re all taking a huge risk gathering around that dog, sedated or no. (By the way, Hodge ruling rabies out immediately is some tv shenanigans. It takes a lot of tests to even make a confident diagnosis, and the only way to be sure is to test a brain sample. I lol’d a little.) The nod to rabies was definitely deliberate, though. Symptoms of rabies are heightened aggression, fever, and erratic behavior—all symptoms later shown by those infected with the worm.

The other disease used as a template for the worm-infection is Bubonic plague. (In another life I’d have been a doctor; bear with me.) We see that by the nodules in the dog’s arm pits. These are obviously reminiscent of buboes, the most famous/grossest symptom of the plague.

dog-buboes

It’s not an exact reference, of course. The Ice disease is parasitic, not bacterial, and that the nodules disappear. But the the rapid progression of the disease reminds me of literature about the plague. So does the disease’s psychological impact on the group dynamic. For those interested I highly recommend Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.

We have a brief reprieve following the dog incident. Scully finishes the autopsies while Murphy examines the ice samples. Meanwhile de Silva finds a ~random gun~ that she’ll use to shoot the place up later, and Mulder discovers the ‘not who we are’ scribblings.

Mulder examines a piece of paper on which "We are not who we are" is feverishly scribbled several times.
Warning? Cry for help? Suicide note?

Which again is such an awesome phrase. It gets to the nature of identity. How much does the worm alter the host’s behavior? Is the infected person still responsible for their actions? Or do we all have these homicidal tendencies lurking just beneath the surface? The “all we need is a push” theme is common, and kinda boring on its own. Here it’s spliced with another idea: we think we understand our world, and that we’re in control. We’re not. We have little hope of understanding our universe, and no hope of controlling it. Which is why I get a whiff of The Shining in this episode, too. What with the isolated wintery descent into madness and the forces outside our control.

Bear stands in the doorway looking sweaty and ill.
Bear is the least subtle dude carrying a disease in this or any universe.

It cannot be stressed enough how fucking awesome it is that Scully gives NO fucks and rugby tackles Bear. It’s completely realistic, of course. She trained at the FBI Academy—she would be able to tackle a suspect. But it’s not equally certain that a network show would have her do it, when there are three dudes in the room. I also just love it that we get so many examples so early on of Scully kirking out when Mulder is threatened. I love that her anger is good celebrated, rather than out of control, unnatural, or driven by romantic feelings. Scully is a knight in shining armor.

Scully’s expression when they’re trying to help Bear and she catches sight of the worm is fantastic!

Scully grimaces as she catches sight of the worm in Bear's neck.
Seriously look at her.
Mulder grimaces much like Scully at the grossness of Bear's infection.
Mulder’s face is good too, but Scully’s is better.

Following Bear’s untimely demise, the team speculates about the worm, and why it lives in the hypothalamus. They conclude that increases aggression in the host because it needs acetylcholine. Now, my understanding of brain chemistry is not what it might be. Googling tells me that their uses of the hypothalamus and especially acetylcholine are bullshit. BUT. A parasite altering the brain chemistry of a host is not bullshit at all. There’s a fascinating study about a parasite that makes rats not afraid of cats because they prefer feline hosts. (Meaning that once the cat eats the rat they’ll transfer.) So the premise of the worm manipulating the human host by increasing aggression is entirely plausible.

An amoeba-like creature is shown in a microscope, which will later become the worm.
Seriously this thing is an asshole.

I love the conversation between Mulder and Scully in the makeshift morgue. Both of them make such strong arguments. Mulder is right: if they don’t study the worm and it shows up in a more populated area, they could well be screwed. Scully is right: if they study the worm in unsafe conditions, they risk starting an epidemic. Both are strung out, tired, and stressed from all the tension within the group. And both are upset and frustrated that the one person they expected to be on their side isn’t.

Mulder and Scully argue about how best to keep others safe from the parasite.
“Within a few hours, that parasite had total control.”

When Scully realizes that Mulder has an aliens theory, Anderson’s “…no” is just right. There is so much coded in what Anderson does with her body language and tone with that one word. Ugh. Queen.

It’s inevitable that the different factions of the group would start to turn on one another. No one knows how the worm’s transmitted, and the only known symptom is heightened aggression. So it’s human nature that any increased irritability would make others think you’re infected. And what could increase irritability more than being stuck in the middle of arctic bumblefuck with people who may or may not have a Hulk-ifying brain worm? I love that the split first is between the two groups: it’s not Murphy accusing Hodge of having the worm, it’s the alpha of the one wolf pack snarling at the other alpha.

Scully looks at Hodge in outrage when he accuses her of being infected.
Hodge you DO NOT fuck with Scully. What is wrong with you.

Hodge doesn’t care if he’s accusing Mulder or Scully, or even de Silva, so long he’s not under suspicion.

Others have gone over the homoerotic subtext of Scully and de Silva checking each other and of Mulder’s self-deprecating jokes. I really prefer the scene just after that. Scully is reaching out to Mulder there, asking for reassurance and validation. And what does Mulder do? Welp, in typical Mulder fashion, he misses his cue and makes her feel even worse. Anderson’s acting with her face here is, of course, perfect.

I also love that we see what each of the characters does to soothe themselves when they’re finally alone. Scully looks around at the previous occupant’s stuff in her room for a minute, her face soft. Then she remembers that this other person is dead, and how they died.  Hodge writes a list of reasons why everybody but himself and de Silva could be infected. Poor sweet Murphy isn’t even comforted by his football tapes and de Silva weeps into her pillow. Mulder lays his gun on the bedstand and gives only one longing look in the direction of Scully’s door.

So as awesome as this episode is: de Silva left her room when Mulder heard the door close? She killed Denny, hid his body, went back to her room, changed clothes, and then came back out with the others? All in the time it took Mulder to (tragically) put on a shirt? Henh? Or is the sound of the door de Silva returning to her room, not leaving it? It’s irrelevant but still confuses me.

Denny Murphy is shown.
RIP buddy bear. You were too good for this world.

Poor Denny though. I legit thought he was cool.

This cowbody-gun-waving scene is even more interesting on a rewatch. We know that Mulder isn’t infected. We also know that de Silva is infected, and that she killed Murphy. So Mulder’s temper tantrum and de Silva saying he could have done it and not remember both pack more punch. (Does she remember killing him? Did she mean to do it? I wish we found out.)

Mulder losing his temper is unsettling. The two of them pointing their guns at each other has real impact, even this early on in the relationship. Things go out of control so fast that neither of them has time to consider what they’re doing it until it’s done. Finally we see a moment of recognition on Mulder’s face just before he says, “For God’s sake, Scully, it’s me.”

Which brings us to Trust™, the most important theme of the episode (and arguably the series). Because it’s Scully’s distress that brings Mulder back to himself. She reminds him that she does know him and trust him. She only worries that he’s not himself.

To be honest, I’m conflicted about this scene. It’s well shot, well acted, and moves the plot forward. And while we had to have conflict between Mulder and Scully, Mulder waving a gun at Scully is, plot-wise, stupid. It’s one of the few characterization missteps in this episode, which is why it stands out. Mulder does have a temper, but every time in the whole series he gets explodes at Scully I roll my eyes. It never ever feels authentic to Mulder’s character. In fact it’s extremely out of character and I hate manufactured tension. There is quite enough conflict in this episode to be getting on with; Mulder pointing a gun at Scully is overkill.

Or maybe I just resent it when I have to be mad at Mulder. Because like, for real dude. Less than ten hours ago this woman tackled a guy three times her size for you. Rugby tackled the shit out of him. Because he gave you a boo boo.

Mulder looks at Scully before she leaves him alone in a locked room.
Mulder, go to your room.

The shouty-shouty scene and the one following it are designed to make us doubt Mulder. When he says, “In here I’ll be safer than you” with his creepy shark-eye expression, we’re supposed to wonder: is he infected? I can’t remember what I thought on my first watch of this. This sequence might have been more interesting if he was infected. Or maybe I’m just wishing his behavior made more sense. I hate hate hate it when characters only do things because the script tells them to. Annoys the everloving fuck out of me.

Nevermind Mulder’s nonsense—Scully knows there’s more to the story. She tries to check de Silva but Hodge chases her away, then talks about Mulder as if he’s already dead. Hodge is the human equivalent of a bug that is constantly flying around your ear. No matter how many times you swat at him, he just keeps on coming back. Lucky for us his nasty temper sets off de Silva, giving Scully the idea that leads them to the cure.

Two worms in glass jars attempt to attack each other.
They remind me of beta fish in this scene.
The dog from earlier in the episode lies peacefully in his crate.
Also the dog is safe!! Yes this was a serious concern for me.

And then we finally get our Mulder back for the most famous scene in the episode. This is what makes The X-Files a good show. This is why we stick with it, even if our heroes are trapped in the arctic, under attack from ancient worm-aliens. It’s their intimacy, their faith in one another that make it work. It’s that Mulder immediately says “it’s one of them” when she walks into the room. He has no evidence that Scully isn’t infected. He knows it isn’t her because she said she’s fine, and that’s all there is to it.

Of course they have the obligatory conversation about Trust. But unlike some episodes which sound like they’re playing bingo—”Trust, the Truth, I Want to Believe!“—here it feels natural. One reason is that it’s a choice. They trust each other based on the strength of their relationship.

Mulder leans down to speak urgently to Scully.
“Now, I don’t trust them. I want to trust you.”

I could never call myself a fan of The X-Files (or a shipper) if I couldn’t talk forever about the neck rubbing scene. The most obvious element is the sexual charge, which could pay the lighting bill for the next three seasons. (Too bad they diverted the funds to the Esoteric Jargon Department.) But that’s nothing new or unexpected. What stands out for me is how their chemistry is handled. The scene is so delicately portrayed. Their partnership is so new. This moment could mean anything. In later seasons I’ll complain about the…powers that be…forcing their relationship into unnatural stasis. This is the opposite of that—it’s poignant, intimate, and, forgiving the circumstances, realistic. There’s also a great deal of showing-not-telling, and of not even showing too much. Mulder delivers his line about wanting to trust Scully. She reminds him that they’re alone. And then rather than saying anything more about it, Mulder just turns and shows her his back. Another time this would be a dismissal, but here it’s a silent display of vulnerability.

 

We hear Mulder’s sharp intake of breath when Scully pulls his collar back. But the whole time she’s “checking” his neck, his face is hidden in shadow. Likewise we see Scully’s adorable little smile, reassuring Mulder that he has beautiful shoulder blades is fine. We see both their faces when he catches her arm, and his permission seeking/calming gesture. We see her face long enough to know that she understands what he means and gives her consent. But we don’t see her face as he checks her. Partly this is because it’s a small room and we can’t look at everybody’s faces all the time. It’s also clever visual storytelling. Each has to consent to be vulnerable to the other. And no matter how much they’re both convinced they’re okay, this has to be a moment of fear, too. Despite the Robe Incident in the pilot, this is also the most they’ve come in physical contact with one another. When Scully checks Mulder’s neck there’s an urgency to her movements. She’s desperate, and her natural gentleness only comes back once she confirms he’s okay. With Mulder there is a slight contrast. He startles her by grabbing her shoulder, but every touch after that betrays his tenderness.

This is the true climax of the episode. From the beginning, even when Mulder and Scully were getting along they weren’t a team. He doesn’t really listen to her, she doesn’t fully trust him. Now they walk out of that room united. De Silva going batshit insane and smashing up the place is just a bit of extra fun to wrap things up.

I love that Scully bookends the episode. She echoes the Sweaty Man saying “it all ends right here, right now” to de Silva. And while we get resolution in Mulder and Scully’s relationship, there is no resolution for the case. She circles right back to where she started: when Mulder wants to study the worm, Scully says, “Leave it there.” But it doesn’t undercut the catharsis of the ending, because this time Mulder listens.

Mulder and Scully are disheveled and tired.
“Leave it there.”

Fuck I love this episode. And I need you to pray for me, because the next one is Space.

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