If you have not re-watched The X-Files in a while, you might not remember the 13th episode of season 3, “Syzygy,” very well. It appears on neither “Best Episodes” lists nor “Worst Episodes” lists of the show. There are 218 episodes of The X-Files, and in rankings of all or most of them, “Syzygy” appears in positions like 77, 123, and 133. Even the director, Rob Bowman, is not particularly keen on the episode. In the book X-Files Confidential, he talked about how he felt pressured to shoot it quickly because the break for the holidays was coming up, and that he felt the story was “oblique.”
But there is one group of X-Files fans “Syzygy” speaks to more than any other, especially when it first aired: teenage girls. For them, or for those who first watched it as a teenager, this may not only be a favorite episode, it is certainly an important one.
“Syzygy” is a Monster of the Week episode, focusing on one-off “villains” and not connected to any of the series over-arching mythology. It is also a “comedy” episode.
All shows that are structured around a mixture of story arc episodes and monster/space anomaly of the week tend to identify certain episodes as specifically more comedic stories. These are a little bit more silly and light-hearted, and they are balanced out with more serious stories in surrounding episodes. We can see this in everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in the 1990s (think of season 2’s comedic outing where everyone turns into their Halloween costumes, “Halloween,” immediately followed by a episode featuring cancer and betrayal in “Lie to Me”) to this year’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (a hilarious crossover with animated comedy Lower Decks in “Those Old Scientists” followed by “Under the Cloak of War,” which is about war crimes and PTSD). “Syzygy” fits into the “comedy” slot right before the much scarier and more serious “Grotesque.”
The episode opens with the murder of a high school jock played by none other than a very young Ryan Reynolds. It is the third death of a high school boy in the past three months and most of the townsfolk are convinced that a Devil-worshipping cult is carrying out the murders, reflecting the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and early 1990s. That is why Agents Mulder and Scully have been called in to investigate, alongside local detective Angela White (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson).
The episode actually has a serious point to make with its setup. In the previous year’s season 2 episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt” (“the hand that wounds” in German), the show had given the “Satanic panic” the same treatment as it gave most conspiracy theories, i.e. it had implied it was true. In the world of The X-Files, the government is covering up an alien invasion, a spaceship landed at Roswell in 1947, JFK was not shot by Lee Harvey Oswald but by the Cigarette Smoking Man shooting from a drain, and something seriously weird is going on in the Bermuda Triangle. And in “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” although it is unclear whether the episode’s accusations of sexual abuse were “real” or not, the local high school faculty are indeed a cult of Satanists carrying out human sacrifices.
In real life, of course, the “Satanic panic” ruined hundreds of innocent lives, with people imprisoned sometimes for years as a result of false accusations or false memories, and there is little to no evidence of any actual Satanic cults. That is possibly why this episode has Mulder and Scully both clearly state to Detective White that claims of Satanic rituals are likely to be false, with Mulder saying, “The overwhelming evidence gathered by the FBI debunk[s] virtually all claims of ritual abuse by Satanic cults,” with Scully adding that “the trauma or mental illness that is often linked to Satanic cults is a result of denial, hysteria and misplaced blame.” It is an interesting contrast to “Die Hand Die Verlezt” and a rare case of The X-Files actually debunking a conspiracy theory.
But what is actually happening to the town in “Syzygy” is the result of a rare astrological phenomenon turning two teenage girls into Stephen King’s Carrie White (hence, presumably, Detective White’s name). High school students Terri Roberts (Lisa Robin Kelly) and Margi Kleinjan (Wendy Benson) were both born on the same day in 1979, and are now at the center of a “cosmic G-spot.” A local astrologist tells Mulder that “all the energy of the cosmos” is focused on the girls. As a result, they have gained both psychic powers and psychopathic tendencies. They are behind the murder of the teenage boys, as the audience knows, having watched them lure young Ryan Reynolds in with promises of losing their virginity, and then laughing over his hanging corpse.
The girls’ shenanigans continue over the course of the episode, resulting in the death of another high school boy, who is caught in the crossfire as the girls fall out and turn their powers on each other. It all culminates with the girls wreaking havoc at the local police precinct. In the final scenes, however, the astrological moment passes, and when an angry mob go to confront the Terri and Margi, having finally realized these girls were the murderers, both their anger and their psychic powers vanish. The two girls are left sitting on the floor, sobbing and embracing each other, their fight forgotten.
SFF in the 1990s
“Syzygy” first aired in 1996, a very different time for female teenage sci-fi and fantasy fans. Although the rather cheesy Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie came out in 1992, the hit TV series did not premiere until 1997. In those days, liking science fiction and fantasy was something that got you mocked and labeled a “nerd” whatever your gender in the ’90s – anyone remember the 1997 Friends joke where Ross asks Joey, “Didn’t you read Lord of the Rings in high school?” and Joey snarkily replies, “No, I had sex in high school”? (That was season 4’s “The One Where They’re Going to Party,” in case you’re wondering, in reference to Ross and Chandler’s friend “Gandalf the Party Wizard.”) It was also largely assumed that the “nerds” who were into Star Trek or Xena: Warrior Princess were all boys. The first few seasons of The Big Bang Theory, which started airing in 2008, are a testament to how long that stereotype persisted, even after the early-noughties emergence of mainstream hits like The Lord of the Rings, and female-centric SFF stories like Twilight.
The exception was The X-Files, a huge mainstream hit that was acceptable to watch and love whatever your gender or age bracket. The X-Files’ connection to horror, which had never suffered the same cultural ostracism as, say, space opera or epic fantasy, plus its cop-show format allowed it to appeal to a much broader audience, and it was safe to watch it as a teenager without fearing the label “nerd.” And it didn’t hurt that it starred two very attractive people whose posters could be pinned up on a bedroom wall and admired without mockery.
For a female teenage SFF fan in the 1990s, The X-Files was a safe space. It also gave girls a role model at a time when those were few and far between. The X-Files predates Xena: Warrior Princess getting her own show by a year, and Buffy by three years. Mulder and Scully rescue each other at a roughly equal rate, and Scully mostly provides the cool, logical level head to Mulder’s rush to believe (except when the topic is religion, and even allowing for Lois Lane levels of willful disbelief by the time we get to around season 5). And for those who were not otherwise especially interested in science fiction and fantasy, The X-Files offered a fantastical, escapist show in a format they were used to, that dealt with excitingly dark themes and featured some pretty well-executed action. There is a reason the show is still a phenomenon 30 years later.
For these teenage fans of The X-Files, and especially for those identifying as female, “Syzygy” was an especially appealing episode that spoke to them in a way no other episode could. (Male teenage fans no doubt enjoyed it too, but since all the murder victims are boys, possibly not in quite the same way).
The episode’s themes are all things which strongly resonate with teenagers and especially with young women. The core of the story revolves around a very strong female friendship that turns murderous. While most do not include murder (with some unfortunate real life exceptions, like the real life story told in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures), very strong female friendships are a common part of the teenage years for many women. Back in the 1990s, these friendships were usually formed through school and maintained via two-hour-long phone calls on the landline while your parents were trying to connect to AOL. The best friend relationship between teens can be very intense, and in the early teens, often more intense than a romantic relationship – though, as this episode shows, romantic conflicts (or “fighting over a boy,” to put it more simply) can also break up these friendships if you’re unlucky.
Emerging teenage sex and sexuality is also a major theme of the episode. The story about the Satanic cult is invented by the teenage girls, and it is pretty telling that they claim the cult wants to sacrifice a blonde virgin as part of their ruse to get to Ryan Reynolds. But the astrological phenomenon is having an effect on everybody, not just the girls, and frankly it’s making everybody horny. Mulder and Scully’s Unresolved Sexual Tension-based bickering is at a height and this is also the second episode in a row in which Scully is jealous of an attractive woman they are working with and her relationship to Mulder, after Dr. Bambi in “War of the Coprophages.” On top of the general horniness, everyone is also in a foul mood, with tempers fraying far more than normal. In other words, every single character in the episode is experiencing the emotions of a hormonal teenager.
Terri and Margi are also very well written. Their joint refrain of “Hate him! Hate him! Wouldn’t wanna date him!” is just the sort of shared way of communicating often developed by teenage girls (your humble correspondent’s was “How should I know? Why would I want to know? I wouldn’t!” in response to math class). Their costumes and games and interests all reflect popular fashions and games for teen girls in the 1990s, from the scrunchies in their hair to the chokers around their necks to slumber parties messing around with a Ouija board or saying “Bloody Mary” in the mirror a certain number of times (anything from 3 to 13 depending on your local urban legend).
One of Bowman’s issues with the episode was the fact that the “bad guys” are two teenage girls. In X-Files Confidential, he said, “I don’t think it is all that cool that kids are murdering people.” But for anyone who is a teenager watching the show, it is cool! Yes, objectively, teens murdering people is horrifying, and from an adult perspective, it is very disturbing. It is the stuff of parental nightmares, second only to your children being harmed by others. When it happens in real life it is a tragedy.
But this is not real life. As a fantasy, the idea that you could join together with your best friend to get back at anyone who upsets you has a certain appeal to a teenager. No sane teen would contemplate doing anything near what Margi and Terri do in this episode, but as a silly, escapist flight of imagination, in the years before that energy could be channeled into imaginary fights with vampires through Buffy, “Syzygy” had the appeal of giving teen girls power at a time in their lives when they often feel powerless.
It’s also worth noting that this was not the first time a teenager had murdered people in The X-Files, as Giovanni Ribisi’s Darren Peter Oswald had murdered several victims including a young Jack Black back in the excellent and well-received “D.P.O.” earlier in the season. The main differences here are that Oswald was captured and put into psychiatric care, whereas the girls appear to be set free.
It is fair to say that the ending of this episode is not the strongest of the X-Files’ run. What happens to the girls afterwards? Are they treated for trauma? Do they realize or remember what they have done? Are they going to be in therapy for the rest of their lives dealing with their guilt? Who knows! The townspeople seem to think the murderer was Satan so presumably the girls are off the hook in terms of law enforcement, but there are a lot of unanswered questions here.
But these are adult questions and concerns. Today’s teenagers are a lot more concerned about the future of the planet than previous generations, although we had started to realize we might be in trouble by the 1990s. But on a personal level, despite the rhetoric around “best friends forever” and true love that lasts a lifetime, and the popularity of stories about eternal love with vampires, teenagers do not actually tend to think in terms of their own personal future when they are not forced to by exams or parents or teachers. They are focused on the present. By the episode’s end, its two teen leads have gone through an intense period of emotional distress, fallen out with each other, and made up again, looking for comfort in each other. That experience speaks to teenage girls in a way no other episode of The X-Files does.