'The X-Files': Vince Gilligan Looks Back on 'Bad Blood'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

The return of The X-Files to Fox on Jan. 24 isn’t just the long-awaited reunion between sci-fi fans and the object of their obsession. It’s also a get-together for the cast and crew who dedicated nine years’ of their life to cracking the mysteries of paranormal activity and alien conspiracies. Obviously, series stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are sharing the screen again as professional truth-seeker, Fox Mulder, and professional skeptic, Dana Scully. And behind the camera, series creator Chris Carter has reunited numerous members of his writing and producing team from the pervious nine seasons, including James Wong, Glenn Morgan and Darin Morgan.

Related: Chris Carter on Reviving ‘The X-Files’: ‘I Knew We Had Stories to Tell’

One person who was sadly unable to re-join the fold, however, is Vince Gilligan, the lauded creator of Breaking Bad who got his big break in television when joined The X-Files writing staff during the show’s sophomore year in 1994. “I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for The X-Files,” Gilligan tells YahooTV. “It was a wonderful job that really made my career.” 

In fact, it was his busy career that prevented him from joining the X-Files reunion when Carter originally invited him a year and a half ago. Gilligan says that his commitment to the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul made participating in the revival as a writer or director impossible. “I was crushed to have to say no,” he admits. But there are no hard feelings — Gilligan recently joined his X-Files colleagues at the show’s premiere at the California Science Center on Jan. 12. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says of the show’s first episode. “It was wonderful seeing Mulder and Scully back together, and I couldn’t be more excited about seeing the next five episodes. I asked Chris if there will be any more [after that] — I really hope there will be!”

Should Fox order another round of fresh X-Files after this six-episode run wraps up, Gilligan doesn’t rule out the possibility of writing a new case for Mulder and Scully, schedule permitting. And that should thrill the heart of any old-school X-Files fan, as Gilligan penned a number of excellent installments during the show’s original run, including Season 4’s “Paper Hearts,” Season 6’s “Drive” (where he met his future Walter White, Bryan Cranston), and Season 7’s “X-Cops.” But his best script — and one of the single best X-Files episodes ever — is Season 5’s “Bad Blood,” a seemingly simple vampire story told in a wickedly innovative way. In the wake of a trip to small-town Texas to investigate a murder that looks an awful lot like the work of a fanged bloodsucker, Mulder and Scully regale each other with competing versions of the chaotic events they just experienced. Naturally, their memories differ in significant ways: while Scully remembers Mulder relentlessly charging ahead without a thought for her welfare, he characterizes her as being distracted and moony-eyed over the local sheriff (Luke Wilson).

By depicting the characters’ competing points of view, “Bad Blood” takes its inspiration from the classic Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, as well as a vintage episode of the classic ‘60s The Dick Van Dyke Show, “The Night the Roof Fell In.” But what makes it a great X-Files episode specifically is the unique perspective it offers into the minds of Mulder and Scully, giving us a chance to see how they see each other, and themselves. “Bad Blood” is also riotously funny, densely packed with subtle visual and verbal gags that grow more hysterical with each viewing. Taking a brief time out from his post-production duties on the second season of Better Call Saul, Gilligan filled us in on the episode’s origins, why he embraced — rather than feared — comedy, and his pre-Breaking Bad brush with an out-of-control RV.

When you sat down to write “Bad Blood,” what came to you first: the structure or the story?
It was probably the structure. The idea of a vampire story in and of itself was not particular interesting to me. But the thought of doing Rashomon-type story where it’s a “he said, she said” kind of arrangement, that did excite me. And if we were going to do an X-Files episode with a very different structure, I decided the central supernatural element of it should be readily understandable. Everyone knows what a vampire is — there’s no need to have it explained to them. So I was able to spend my time as a writer figuring out the structure, and let the monster be a little less unique.

That structure allows you to do something that’s rare in television, to really get inside the heads of the characters and present how they see the world.  A lot of “Bad Blood” sprung out of my love for the characters of Mulder and Scully. I started off as a fan of The X-Files before I had anything to do with the show as a writer. And the most enjoyment I ever got out of writing the show was coming up with more illumination about Mulder and Scully and what their relationship is to one another. That stuff always interested me more than the monster of the week, although I enjoyed coming up with those as well. 

So much of the humor springs out of Mulder and Scully’s behavior, and the way the actors accentuate their familiar tics and traits. It’s hysterical to watch Anderson in the autopsy sequences as she places piles of guts on a weighing tray, an expression of pure boredom on her face.
I remember that autopsy sequence. They had fake guts that Gillian was piling onto the scale hung on some sort of fishing line. So she’d plop them in and they’d go falling on the floor! [Laughs] Everyone laughed take after take when it didn’t work right. Nothing ever made Gillian queasy — she had so much fun doing that stuff. The other blessing of “Bad Blood” for me was that I was there for the whole shoot. That was one of the many great things about working for Chris Carter; he let the writers be on set. I learned a lot about directing from [episode director] Cliff Bole. He’s since passed away, but he was a wonderful guy and directed at least three or four episodes that I wrote.    

It’s the sort of episode you can really only do later in a show’s run, when the actors know their characters inside and out.
Absolutely. David and Gillian both had wonderful ideas for little details and bits of business that would make the episode better. Like when Mulder wakes up in the rental car and checks his neck in the rearview mirror for fang marks, David figured out a way to lean on the horn by accident that would make him and the audience jump in a funny way. That’s a wonderful bit of business that was not in the script.

Scully’s version of events — her frustration with Mulder, her boredom with routine — could be interpreted as a larger piece of social commentary about being a professional woman in the workplace. Was that something you talked about with Gillian?    
Usually, everyone was working so hard and fast that there wasn’t a lot of time to discuss things with the actors. I was always thinking — as all the writers were — what are the frictions between Mulder and Scully? He’s the believer, she’s the skeptic. He wants to be gung ho and attack the case, and she wants to hang back and apply Occam’s razor to the situation. And there was always the romantic dynamic between them, the “Will they or won’t they?” There’s also the fact that she’s in a historically male line of work, and is she going to be treated the same? All those elements add interesting dynamics and friction.

Scully’s version of Hartwell

Luke Wilson is also a key part of what makes that episode work. He plays both versions of Sheriff Hartwell so perfectly — the suave Texan in Scully’s eyes, and the bucktoothed yokel in Mulder’s account.
Luke is a wonderful and often underrated actor. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but at the time he had just been in the movie, Home Fries, which I had written, and I mentioned him to the X-Files producers and there was never any argument about it. They said, “If he says yes, great,” and luckily he said yes! I remember he was dating Drew Barrymore [his co-star in Home Fries] and she came to visit the set, and we all went out to dinner. Luke and David ad-libbed a bunch of dialogue in one scene, where they start talking about Rain Man. He has that line: “I tell you what: I know I’m in law enforcement, but I’d like to take him to Vegas myself!” All of that was Luke and David playing. I wish that stuff was in the script, but it’s not, so I can’t credit for that. [Laughs]

Mulder’s version of Hartwell

The episode is overtly comedic, but were there every any concerns during filming or in the editing room that you were emphasizing the humor too much?
Darin Morgan really paved the way for all of the writers in terms of comedy on The X-Files. He really showed that the structure had a great deal of flexibility to it; before he wrote an episode like “Humbug,” I don’t think any of us truly understood how much humor we could get away with while still having a story that could be taking seriously. Because of Darin’s trailblazing, I went forward into “Bad Blood” with a great deal of courage to just make it as funny as it could be. The caveat is that you can only make The X-Files as funny as possible provided you keep the characters as real as possible. If they’re just being funny to entertain the audience, it’s not legitimate. But if they’re in a situation where there’s a problem they need to solve and humor is derived from them solving that problem, that’s legit. It’s when the characters start vamping for no reason and being funny for funny’s sake that you run into problems.

Did making “Bad Blood” also embolden you to take more risks with structure? You wrote a number of subsequent X-Files episodes, and also several Breaking Bad installments, that broke traditional storytelling forms.
With The X-Files, I was in a network TV situation where we had to do 22 to 26 episodes a year. So you gotta feed the beast, and in an episodic show versus a serialized show, you’ve got other writers and they’re off writing their own episodes while you’re writing yours. So there’s a good-natured gamesmanship that develops where you want your episode to stand out, and we were all looking for a different angle or way into any given episode — a way to differentiate it from the other 201 episodes we were on the course of making by the time the series ended. It’s showmanship — that’s a word that Jimmy McGill uses all the time on Better Call Saul. You want to express a certain amount of showmanship as a television writer, and that’s one of the many things I learned writing for The X-Files.

I have to wrap up by asking about the scene with Mulder stopping the out of control RV. Can we trace the origins of Breaking Bad back to that moment?
I grew up in Virginia and we had RVs, mobile homes, and probably meth labs — although I didn’t know about those at the time. I always think mobile homes are interesting; whenever I drive past someone driving one, I think, “I want to tour the country in one of those!” They’re funny looking, especially the old ones like the Winnebagos with corrugated sides. They look like bread boxes on tiny wheels.

In terms of that scene, there was a guy when I was in elementary school in Farmville who had a fair measure of local acclaim because he had stopped a runaway car that was circling around a convenience store parking lot. It had been left running and slipped into reverse, and as I recall, he dived through the open drivers’ window and stopped the car before it careened out into traffic. I always remembered that story and thought we could do it in “Bad Blood” just with a Winnebago. I remember that it was quite a feat of engineering. The effects department figured out how to replace the steering wheel and gas pedal and brake at the opposite end, so they could drive it forward even thought it was going backward. It was a good trial run for Breaking Bad all those years later! [Laughs]    

“Bad Blood” can be streamed on Netflix, along with the first nine seasons of The X-Files. Season 10 premieres on Jan. 24 at 10 p.m. on Fox. Season 2 of Better Call Saul premieres Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. on AMC.