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Risky Business: "3" and the Age of AIDS

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So here’s a thing I learned from watching How To Survive A Plague: I always thought that the really DARK dark days of the AIDS crisis were in the 1980s, when everyone was panicking and they still really didn’t have any idea how HIV worked or how to go after it and the only treatment outcome for AIDS victims was death. Several of the ACT UP guys interviewed for the documentary, however, talked about the years between 1993 and 1995 as the worst ever. The first treatment drug that ever seemed to work, AZT, had just been called into question by a study showing that outcomes were not as good as everyone had been assuming they were. Efforts to find an effective antiviral treatment appeared to be stalled. Exhausted by the deaths of their friends and comrades and by years upon years of struggle which had not yet yielded a truly effective treatment, ACT UP leaders turned on each other. And then they rolled out the first antiviral cocktail treatment that really worked, and everything started to change.

Which means that the first two seasons of The X-Files were made and broadcast during one of the worst periods of the AIDS crisis. There’s a lot of shit that explains, when you think about it. Certainly it explains a lot of what’s going on in “3.” Well, to the extent that “3″ can ever really be explained.

It is not an accident that vampires made a comeback in American popular culture during the 1980s and 1990s. HIV is of course a sexually transmitted virus, but it can also be transmitted by blood. Fortunately for life on this planet, HIV doesn’t survive very well outside the body, so it can’t be spread by casual contact; but if HIV-infected blood enters your bloodstream–through a tranfusion or a shared syringe or a dirty tattoo needle or whatever–then you’ve got it. Vampirism, as we know it through popular culture, is an allegory for blood-borne contagions like HIV; when you’re bitten by a person infected with vampirism, then you catch it too, unless of course you simply die. It also ironizes the meaning of sex in the same way HIV did: yeah, it's life-giving...after it KILLS YOU. Because the blood is where the virus is, coming into contact with someone's blood became more intimate and more Romantic--in the Gothic eros and thanatos kind of way--than sex itself.

“3″ is basically a story about risk. Risk is something everyone was kind of obsessed with at the time because sex had suddenly become potentially lethal. (Most everyone. Being a lesbian in a monogamous relationship, my risk was extremely low, so this never affected me directly.) Everyone had to make decisions about how much risk they were willing to run in order to have a sex life. One of the things that makes Kristin so different from Scully is that she is a risk taker. Her sexuality involves blood-sharing. You cannot put a condom on that. In the image above, she’s pricked her finger and is offering it to Mulder. Mulder is sort of fascinated by it at first, but then he grabs her hand and says, “AIDS. Aren’t you afraid?” Well, no, she’s not; and she goes and finds someone else who’s not, and who signifies his readiness for risky sex by sucking the blood from her finger. 

Mulder, at first, is afraid. But as the episode progresses we see him starting to take more and more risks, until he finally ends up having (probably unprotected) sex with a woman he doesn’t really know, who routinely exposes herself to HIV via the blood sharing, who has already cut him and may or may not be drinking his blood before the whole encounter is over. He then falls asleep in the house of someone who he knows is connected to a gang of murderers. Once he wakes up, he does a number of stupid things–Mulder gets his ass beat a lot in this episode–until he winds up leaving the house, with the suspect in it, so that Kristin has time to torch the place. Clearly, losing Scully has made him pretty reckless. These are not the actions of a man who gives a shit about how long he lives or how painfully he dies.

That part of the episode I kind of actually enjoy. It doesn’t bother me in a pissed-off-on-Scully’s-behalf way, because a) they were not, after all, sleeping together at this point and b) there is no moment during this episode where his jackass behavior is not to some extent coming out of the well of loneliness opened up in him by Scully’s loss. He’s wearing that cross as if it’s going to protect him; but it’s just more painful irony. The cross has no effect on these vampires whatsoever. It’s Scully herself who was protecting Mulder from his self-destructive streak; and just having a symbol of her draped around his neck is not gonna do it. 

The plot is basically terrible, and there are many things handled very poorly from a storytelling point of view. For instance I could never tell the difference between the “father” and the “son,” so when John resurrected himself it made little impression on me because I couldn’t tell it was the same character. But worst of all is the repetition of the Good Woman/Evil Woman dichotomy I was talking about back in “Fire.” Kristin acts like a woman who’s in charge of her own sexuality and pursuing her desires aggressively; but as her speech to Mulder reveals, really she has been dragged into the blood sports/vampirism lifestyle by the abusive men in her life, so actually she’s an innocent victim who needs saving. The Unholy Spirit (they’re not apparently actually twins; I looked it up on IMDB) looks very much like her in the dark, so much so that the episode often tricks us into mistaking one for the other; but of course the Unholy Spirit is evil, because she does what she’s doing on purpose and without being coerced. Good Girl gets to kill her Bad Self, but is required to immolate herself afterwards. 

This is really just kind of random run-of-the-mill gender pukeworthiness, so I will waste no further time on it. The point is, Mulder is supposed to be protecting the Good Girl by staying at her house; no doubt he’s doing this partly because this is what he would do if his very own Good Girl, Scully, was in danger; but of course he can’t save Kristin any more than he could save Scully, and in fact most of what he does during that whole sequence is so irregular, risky, and stupid that it is kind of hard not to want to kill him. Taking all of these risks doesn’t really bring him any pleasure, and in the end his attempt to protect Kristin winds up getting four people killed. Losing Scully is really not good for him.

It’s not a great episode. But I don’t hate it with the white-hot fire that I see blasting towards it whenever people bring it up. What Mulder does seems plausible enough to me given where he is emotionally and psychologically. It’s not a good episode for him; but that’s because, as Melissa will soon tell him, he’s in a Very Dark Place. Lucky for him they brought Scully back when they did.