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The X-Files | 'Deep Throat' and the Shadow of Watergate

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The X-Files would not exist without Watergate.

Still perhaps considered the greatest political scandal in American history, on August 9th, 1974, Richard Nixon was forced to, in an unprecedented step, resign from his role as the 37th President of the United States after journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein via the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s role in covering up the robbery of the Democratic National Committee headquarters that took place in June 1972 at the Watergate office building in Washington D.C. It became known as the Watergate scandal and fuelled, alongside revelations preceding it from the so-called Pentagon Papers that exposed secret American operations during the ongoing war in Vietnam, and how the Johnson Administration had lied to the American people, a deep societal distrust toward the White House and the government.

A cartoon by Ed Valtman for the Hartford Times captures the public mood toward government following the Watergate revelations. | Library of Congress

Chris Carter, the creative mind behind The X-Files, was a teenager during these seminal events in American society, a young man who would soon become enraptured by the horror and dread in Jeff Rice’s short-lived series Kolchak: The Night Stalker and, alongside Watergate, would following a successful journalism career in the 1980s and eventual move into writing for television, combine these fascinations in creating a series that defined the resurgent interest in arcane American mythology and conspiracy theory which had marked the post-war landscape. The B-movie thrills of flying saucers and alien invaders of the 1950s gave way to the colorful, kitsch imaginings of the 1960s, which themselves helped birth a darker, murkier, and altogether less hopeful cultural American experience during a 1970s mired in decline.

The Politics of the X-Files is a regular series by writer A. J. Black, host of The X-Cast: An X-Files Podcast and author of Myth-Building in Modern Media. New articles will be published every month, so check back soon for more.

The Man in the Mirror

In only the second episode of The X-Files, after a ‘Pilot’ introducing his intrepid FBI agents, believer Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and scientific sceptic Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), Carter brought to bear his longstanding interest in Watergate, and the shadow of conspiracy that went all the way to the top, with ‘Deep Throat’ (S1, Ep2). If the ‘Pilot’ established the series’ interest in extraterrestrials, ‘Deep Throat’ introduces the idea that not only does the government know about such terrifying paranormal phenomena, but as the Pentagon Papers revealed they had hidden truths about Vietnam, in the world of The X-Files, they are hiding knowledge of alien life from the American people.

As Mulder and Scully investigate the disappearance of Air Force test pilots, who subsequently return with strange burns, and begin to expose a cover-up of classified and possibly extraterrestrial government technology, the character whom the episode is named after introduces himself to Mulder, innocuously, in the stall of a Washington bathroom. Played by Jerry Hardin, whom Carter had seen in Sydney Pollack’s Tom Cruise vehicle The Firm (1993), an experienced actor with decades of television and film behind him, he is a shadowy, aged, nameless figure in a suit who Mulder later christens Deep Throat. He tells Mulder to stop investigating the case, warning him of the military and suggesting he has been monitoring his work. His presentation is so casual, so swift, he disarms you. 

Jerry Hardin mysterious servant of the deep state introduces himself to Mulder (David Duchovny) – S1, Ep2. | 20th Century Fox Television, 1993.

The climax of the episode, after Mulder undergoes memory erasure by sinister military forces looking to cover up the existence of what is clearly an Unidentified Flying Object, sees Deep Throat reappear and establish a tether to our hero that exists across the first season of The X-Files and, in varying ways, much further beyond. “I can provide you with information, but only so long as it’s in my best interest to do so.” Deep Throat tells him, claiming to want what Mulder does. The truth. This is despite Deep Throat’s own admission that he exists somewhere in a government hierarchy where he is privy to information that goes way beyond top secret. He hints at the presence of alien life on earth for a long time. He presents himself as a clear storytelling and mythological archetype – the benevolent mentor aiding the hero on his quest.

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In Too Deep

Why, though, Deep Throat? Not, surely, a reference to the infamous 1972 pornographic movie of the same name? Alas, no. Rather, Carter appropriated the name from the source who helped break the original scandal that so influenced The X-Files: Watergate. When alerted to the possibility of a criminal conspiracy at the highest level, Woodward and Bernstein cultivated a source who became known as ‘Deep Throat’, a shadowy figure in government who supplied the journalists with enough covert information to uncover and expose the Nixon Administration’s connections to the Watergate robbery. Without such insider knowledge, it is possible the scandal would never have broken, and Nixon’s corruption would have remained a secret. The government would have survived a conspiracy to deliberately mislead the American people.

Another key inspiration for the character was the mysterious X (a name Carter would also later use for Deep Throat’s successor), a high-level government informant in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a sprawling, epic examination of the Kennedy assassination released just two years before the debut of The X-Files. Played by Donald Sutherland, X warns Kevin Costner’s investigator Jim Garrison of a conspiracy implicating everyone from the military-industrial complex to the Mafia in the 1963 Presidential murder. In style and tone, the sequence in which they meet in a park—much like how at the end of ‘Deep Throat’, Mulder meets his contact on a running track—matches the interactions we see on The X-Files. Garrison’s investigation might be happening half a decade before Watergate but Stone’s film is mired in the same existential post-Nixon suspicion and paranoia that grew resurgent in the 1990s.

‘Deep Throat’ and Mulder on the running track. | 20th Century Fox Television, 1993.

Carter’s character was therefore chiefly inspired by these figures. He took numerous real-life factors from both and incorporated them into The X-Files. For instance, Woodward would leave an empty flowerpot with a red construction flag on the rear of his apartment building balcony to signal for his contact. Mulder, in the second season, places an ‘X’ on his apartment window for the same reason. Deep Throat would meet Woodward in a dimly lit, underground parking garage and Mulder too meets his contacts in such places; darkened corridors, grubby back alleyways or gloomy open spaces. And while Deep Throat’s involvement in The X-Files, ostensibly easy to consider as a narrative cheat for Mulder’s investigations, in truth serves to further enhance the series’ deeper connections to the conspiratorial history of the 1970s. As Carter has stated, they needed a character, “Who works in some level of government that we have no idea exists.”

Though Mulder isn’t a journalist, he is an FBI employee on the fringes of his own agency, spurned by many conservative figures within — some of whom are themselves corrupt — who toe the line. He is the kind of outsider a man like Deep Throat, initially, can trust. Mulder is not a so-called ‘company man’. As Mulder’s father Bill later tells him: “You have never thrown in”, which is precisely what Bill – just as deeply part of the conspiratorial hierarchy as Deep Throat — himself did. Mulder becomes the Woodward figure to Hardin’s Deep Throat, who across the first season — in episodes even beyond stories about alien life or UFOs — appears sometimes just for a scene to provide Mulder with key information that forwards his investigation into areas he would not have otherwise been able to access. 

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Trust but Varify

In the episode ‘E.B.E’, a turning point for Mulder’s relationship with a man he has come to see as a selfless mentor risking his life, and where Deep Throat for the first time deliberately misleads him for his own gain, Mulder even mentions the Watergate scandal when Deep Throat suggests some knowledge is too dangerous to reveal to the public.

“Dangerous. You mean in a sense of outrage like the reaction to the Kennedy assassinations or M.I.A.s or radiation experiments on terminal patients, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Roswell, the Tuskegee experiments, where will it end?”

‘E.B.E’ – S1, Ep17

The X-Files considers Watergate as a key moment in American politics and myth-making that cuts to the heart of one of the nation’s greatest fears, exemplified in this show: what if those in power are lying to us? What if they have chosen to become arbiters of what we consider objective truth? What if they are not acting for us, but rather for themselves, or even worse secretly against us? Nixon sought to, as was a slogan of The X-Files, “deceive, inveigle and obfuscate” as a means of preventing the illegal wiretapping of Democratic Party members from coming to light. Watergate was a consequence of his determination for the public never to learn of how he had subverted the rule of law as a means of retaining power. The real Deep Throat who helped Bernstein and Woodward risked his career—also his life—to expose such corruption. 

Mulder confronts his mentor in ‘E.B.E’ – S1, Ep17. | 20th Century Fox Television, 1994

Deep Throat in The X-Files has a very similar motivation, born in part of being one of the few men to execute an alien being as part of a top-secret, international agreement to kill any occupant of a UFO who might crash on earth.

“Maybe… it didn’t know what a gun was or perhaps they don’t show emotion but that… innocent and blank expression as I pulled the trigger has haunted me… until I found you. That’s why I come to you, Mr. Mulder, and will continue to come to you to atone for what I’ve done. And maybe sometime, through you, the truth will be known.”

Deep Throat, ‘E.B.E’ – S1, Ep17

Return to Watergate

Atonement. Deep Throat was unable to live with the sins he was party to with the tapestry of a conspiracy bigger than anything that inspired The X-Files, but the creation of which is a direct result of a consistent, persistent decay of public confidence and assurance in the sanctity of elected officials and lawful processes.

Long after Deep Throat’s demise, murdered by the very conspirators he spent much of his life in league with after trading his life for a captured Mulder’s, The X-Files displays some intentional dramatic irony in the Season 6 episode ‘One Son’ (S6, Ep12), one of two episodes that exposes and reveals the entire conspiracy, when Mulder visits his long-term nemesis the Cigarette-Smoking Man at the Watergate apartments and he learns the truths Deep Throat hoped he would find – about his missing sister, the alien colonists plan, everything. That this takes place in the very apartment building where the foundational moment in modern American conspiracy took place is a potent, symbolic connective to the anxieties and haunting political disgraces that have inspired Carter’s work.

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Throughout the original run of The X-Files, the identity of the real Deep Throat remained as much a mystery as it had during the Watergate scandal and for decades beyond. At one point, Deep Throat was considered the most famous, or infamous, anonymous figure in American history. Only Woodward, Bernstein, and their Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee knew his true identity, nor was it revealed in the journalist’s eventual hit book All the President’s Men (1974), turned into an award-winning film by director Alan. J. Pakula in 1976. On October 17th, 2006, all of that changed. John D. O’Connor published a piece in Vanity Fair that revealed the identity of the man for the first time: Mark Felt, a former assistant director at the FBI, 91 years old at the time and retired with fading mental faculties.

O’Connor had investigated, interviewed and looked within the man who had inadvertently helped bring down a President for the first time in a century:

“Deep in his psyche, it is clear to me, he still has qualms about his actions, but he also knows that historic events compelled him to behave as he did: standing up to an executive branch intent on obstructing his agency’s pursuit of the truth. Felt, having long harbored the ambivalent emotions of pride and self-reproach, has lived for more than 30 years in a prison of his own making, a prison built upon his strong moral principles and his unwavering loyalty to country and cause.”

The same could be said of The X-Files’ Deep Throat. A man ignominiously shot to death and whose final words, spoken to Scully, became one of the series’ unofficial mantras: trust no one. 

Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder at the grave of Deep Throat in ‘This’ – S11, Ep12. | 20th Century Fox Television, 2018.

Almost 25 years later, in the Season 11 episode ‘This’ (S11, Ep2), an older Mulder and Scully visit the grave of a man they barely knew, a man who represented moral virtue in the shadow of monolithic conspiracy, a man who believed in the end, like Felt, that truth mattered. There they learn, for the first time, his name too. Ronald Pakula – a nod to the aforementioned Alan J. Pakula, who brought All the President’s Men to life and helped bring to the masses a visual document about the exposure of the Watergate scandal. Mulder laments only being able to attend his funeral from a thousand yards away with binoculars and muses:

“He’s dead because the world was so dangerous and complex then. Who’d have thought we’d look back with nostalgia and say, ‘That was a simpler time’.”

‘This’ – S11, Ep12.

We might say the same today, 50 years on, about Watergate.


Testimonial Author Image

A. J. Black is a writer and podcaster about cinema, TV and pop culture for his blog Cultural Conversation and podcast network We Made This, plus the author of books about modern mythology and Star Trek. Born and bred in the West Midlands, he now lives in Wiltshire with his wife and their dog.


Find him on Twitter @ajblackwriter

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