A Life Well Lived: The Incredibly Cynical Body Swap Message in ‘The X-Files’ “Dreamland”
by Genevieve Burgess
The X-Files was a show known best by Fox Mulder’s relentless pursuit of some shadowy truth. However, overall the show had a sense of optimism about it. Most of the time. Through alien abductions, grisly murders, and monsters out of nightmares, there’s the sense that Mulder and Scully make the world a little more honest, and a little better than it had been before.
But not in this episode.
The two-part episode centers on a space-time event that switches Mulder’s mind with that of a Man In Black, Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean), who works at area 51. Watching the two men as they attempt to navigate each other’s lives with varying degrees of success makes for two of the more comedic X-Files episodes. Fletcher is a standard boot-licker, a man who does his job and follows the rules as a matter of course. As the exact opposite of Agent Mulder he, of course, has access to the kind of information that Mulder has spent his entire flailing career looking for.
He works in facility where they test top-secret aircraft, and Fletcher’s career is spent creating stories to cover up or distract the public from what’s going on. He creates the very conspiracies that Mulder and the Lone Gunman end up chasing.
The lives Mulder and Fletcher live come under scrutiny. We get more emphasis on the fact that for all Mulder has accomplished, he’s a lonely man who never bothered properly furnishing his apartment, who apparently falls asleep in front of the TV and who goes to work in the same suit every day as a matter of course. He has no life outside of his career, and his career is not what it should be for someone who had previously been a very high achiever. Morris Fletcher mocks Mulder’s paranormal obsession by speculating that he was close to “pushing a baby carriage full of tin cans” with the way he was going.
Of course, Fletcher has all the trappings of a good life: a nice house in the suburbs, two cars, a wife and two children, and a successful career as a boot-licker trusted enough to create the conspiracies that Mulder spends his days chasing down. But where Mulder spends almost every minute trying to get back to his lonely and disappointing existence, Fletcher seems more than happy to give up his whole life in exchange for being Fox Mulder, with a few edits. He quickly begins adjusting Mulder’s standing in the FBI and his apartment to be more to Fletcher’s liking, and settles in for the long haul.
There is a moment late in the second episode of the arc where Fletcher is trying to convince his wife that he really is trapped in Mulder’s body, and they have a nice moment where it seems like they’ve reconnected in a way. They hug each other with genuine affection, and it looks as though they’re on the road to mending their differences. They may not end up staying together, but they’ll at the least part on better terms.
Until, of course, the end of the show when “time snaps back like a rubber band,” and Fletcher and Mulder end up back exactly where they had been at the beginning of the episode as though no time had passed. Fletcher never reconnects with his wife, Mulder never gets a taste of a life outside his own, and both of them go on to the misery we had seen so clearly laid out over the course of the two episodes no wiser or smarter than they had been before.
It is a thoroughly cynical moment for a show whose motto was “I Want to Believe.”
Of course, Mulder still got a water bed out of it, so perhaps the event wasn’t a complete loss.
Genevieve Burgess writes about television for Film School Rejects.