This episode was another one that stands out vividly from childhood. I have no real fears associated with fire — aside from, ya know, the pretty normal desire to not want to be trapped near it — but this episode always freaked me out.
The character of Cecil L’Ively (played by Mark Sheppard) is just so disturbing. It’s freaky enough that we have no real explanation or even theories for how he’s able to do what he does. The man can not only conjure up fire at will but, as the ending scene shows, his body is able to recover and regenerate at an unbelievable speed. We never really find out what other abilities he may have, or what causes him to have them to begin with.
But even more terrifying, perhaps, is the fact that his motivation is largely due to toxic masculinity. The only links between the crimes are love letters written to the victims’ wives, and we see his obvious attraction to Mrs. Marsden as he pretends to be Bob the caretaker. It doesn’t even seem as if his goal is to eradicate the husbands in order to be with the wives himself… but just to eliminate these men who have something he can’t have. But clearly his destruction doesn’t even stay within those disturbing bounds, as he burns that bar to the ground seemingly just for fun. As Scully’s criminal profile outlines…
He will often act out of impulse, satisfying sexual urges or insecurities with destructive behavior, which compensates for his social inadequacies or maladjustment.
Which he clearly displays both in his bar scene — which is fantastic by the way — and his encounter with the Marsden kids, offering them cigarettes like he’s some kind of rebellious teenager on the playground.
The fire stunts they were able to pull off in this episode were also great. The opening scene, watching the old man panic and flail as the fire spreads, was awesome. Cecil doing his own dance amidst the flames at the end was awesome. The standoff between Cecil and Mulder as the entire hallway is engulfed was amazing. The bar becoming swallowed up in flames was terrifying. Even smaller bits, like Cecil’s cigarette lighting on his own, or the tip of his finger, were great. Oh, and the moment where they find the driver’s charred corpse, still hunched over the toilet, has stuck with me FOREVER.
The writers giving Mulder this fear of fire has been argued as a weakness for his character, but I think it just humanizes him a bit more. Honestly, the man is pretty fearless with most other aspects of his life. He’ll stand up to anyone, explore anywhere, and puts himself in the direct path of danger on a regular basis. Showing him having a fear that many can relate to is not weak in any sense. It seemed a bit redundant, in a way, since the “fire” he was really standing up to and overcoming was Phoebe… but I feel like they needed a more literal fire for him to walk through.
And that brings us to the crucial subtext of this episode: Mulder’s history with Phoebe Green. We really haven’t heard much at all about his history at this point, and definitely nothing about his romantic history. Phoebe showing up is a shock to everyone, Scully especially. Again, I’ve heard a lot about how Scully’s jealousy is “uncharacteristic” or how it weakens her somehow, but I think they played the dynamic between the three of them well, especially considering many of the scenes and dialogue wound up cut in the final version.
Phoebe is the metaphorical “fire” that Mulder must gain the strength to defeat. Just like the real thing, she’s a part of his life he’s been trying to push to the side and forget about.
MULDER: There’s something else I haven’t told you about myself, Scully. I hate fire. Hate it. Scared to death of it. When I was a kid, my best friend’s house burned down. Had to spend the night in the rubble to keep away looters. For years, I had nightmares about being trapped in a burning building.
SCULLY: Wait, and Phoebe knows about this?
MULDER: This is classic Phoebe Green. Mindgame player extraordinaire. Ten years it’s taken me to forget about this woman, and she shows up in my life with a case like this.
SCULLY: So she shows up knowing the power she has over you and then she makes you walk through fire, is that it?
MULDER: Phoebe is fire.
Phoebe probably relates the most to Cecil than any other character in this episode. She’s destructive and a bit maniacal and either unaware or unwilling to care about others’ feelings, even going as far as to purposefully not only manipulate Mulder into taking on a case that is primally terrifying for him, but dredging up his buried emotions as well. She clearly flirts, leads him along, brings up old memories, and generally seems like she’s trying to re-live some old days that she obviously has much better memories of.
And damn is Scully JEALOUS, and who could blame her? The history between Mulder and Phoebe is kept intentionally vague — Mulder absolutely wants to shield Scully from anything to do with the situation — but I think seeing Mulder agonize over this woman and drop everything to help her is difficult for Scully to swallow. From their first awkward “hello!” in the parking garage, Scully is 100% not thrilled, which is only amplified as she seems to feel left out at every turn — she awkwardly stands in the doorway as Mulder and Phoebe talk with the arson specialist, she works diligently on her criminal profile as they investigate, and she rolls her eyes as she accidentally stumbles upon their kissing at the hotel party.
But she stays dedicated to the case, still doing whatever she can to help Mulder behind the scenes, and being the only one to rush to Mulder’s side both when he collapses against the wall after trying to save the kids from the hotel fire (as Phoebe shakes Cecil’s hand in congratulations) and when he is hospitalized after saving the kids for real (as Phoebe is too busy wrapping things up with her other romantic interest, Mr. Marsden).
Ultimately, a solid standalone episode with some important character development between Mulder and Scully (and a big sigh of relief that Phoebe Green won’t be making any more appearances).