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The X-Files: “War of the Coprophages” Grins at Us the Whole Time

Mulder and Scully wearing jackets, splattered with manure, in "War of the Corprophages"

Editor’s Note: This piece on The X-Files, “War of the Coprophages,” was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

In its premise, “War of the Coprophages” is perhaps the most terrifying episode of The X-Files of all: What if cockroaches killed people?

A man on a motel bed, covered with roaches

The episode opens with a man praising the heartiness of the insects—their evolutionary perfection, even—before revealing that man to be an exterminator, credited as Dr. Bugger (Alex Bruhanski). But in Miller’s Grove, it appears, bugs exterminate you.

Once again, Darin Morgan gives us a script punctuated with humor, and Kim Manners matches it with offbeat direction. The running gag for most of the episode is that Mulder (David Duchovny) calls Scully (Gillian Anderson) to inform her of each fresh death, and each time we see her taking advantage of her day off by giving Queequeg a bath in the sink, reading Truman Capote, eating ice cream, etc. And she’s quick to offer a mundane explanation, though it is a different one each time.

Scully in her kitchen, with Queequeg in the sink getting a dog bath

Some people are allergic to cockroaches, Mulder, it could be anaphylactic shock. The stoner who took a razor blade to himself could have been experiencing Ekbom syndrome. The doctor who died in the bathroom probably had a brain aneurysm, check his eye.

Do you still want me to come up?

– No, you’re probably right.

And, indeed, it turns out that Scully was right about all of those things, according to tests Mulder tells her about later in the hour. But it doesn’t explain why the roach he inadvertently crushed in his hand was made of metal. Scully doesn’t have an explanation for that, and we never truly get one, either.

Scully on a portable phone as she reads Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's

When Scully finally decides to come to Massachusetts, it’s more because she’s gotten frustrated at the way Mulder keeps hanging up on her, or because she’s feeling jealous of Dr. Bambi Berenbaum (Bobbie Phillips), than because she thinks there is something properly paranormal going on. Maybe she thinks she needs to get up there to keep Mulder from going off the deep-end with his theories.

Mulder and Bambi's faces close together as they look at a roach specimen

Bambi can’t explain the metal cockroach or why it’s hung like a club-tailed dragonfly, but she points Mulder in the direction of Dr. Ivanov (Ken Kramer), who works on making robots modeled on insects. Ivanov tells Mulder about how he’s working with NASA, and posits that if we’re visited by aliens it would be through such mechanical means—anyone who thinks living beings with big eyes are coming here has watched too much science fiction.

But when Mulder shows him the metal roach leg, Ivanov says it’s beyond his comprehension. So the two have a drink.

Mulder and Dr. Ivanov sit with a bottle of whiskey between them, as Ivanov takes a drink

Ultimately, Scully hypothesizes that Dr. Eckerle (Raye Birk) accidentally brought a new species of roach into the area through the shipments of manure he was receiving for his research on methane gas. That’s a particular shame for Eckerle, because this man is terrified of bugs. But he doesn’t seem to get that connection so much as he thinks the roaches are following him. They killed that exterminator in his house, so he went to a motel. A guy died in that motel (Mulder thinks from a heart attack), so he came to his methane facility, and now there are roaches all over the place there, too.

By the time Mulder confronts him, Eckerle is losing it. He wonders if Mulder is a cockroach, and though Mulder assures him that he’s just as human as he is (if not more so), Eckerle starts shooting.

A gun around a lot of methane gas isn’t a great idea! Thus, the warehouse explodes, killing Eckerle and destroying whatever samples where inside. Mulder and Scully escape. Sheriff Frass (Dion Anderson) tells them it wasn’t even the worst fire in town that night, and lists off a bunch of other stuff that happened because the populace was going mad with fear about roaches. And Bambi suggests that maybe the new species finished molting and flew away.

Thus we get a classic lack of resolution.

Mulder's face refracted, as from the perspective of a roach he's holding

As “War of the Coprophages” ends, Dr. Ivanov has requested the strange sample from Mulder to study further, but more than anything this exchange sets off flirtation between himself and Bambi. Suddenly he’s a big fan of science fiction, and Planet of the Apes in particular. The two keep chatting as they stroll off together.

This isn’t the end, though, actually. There’s an addendum of Mulder journaling on his computer, wondering about the possibility of aliens sending insect robots to Earth, and whether the next step in our own evolution will be enabled by tech…nology (his computer freezes in the middle of the word and he gives it a smack).

Then he sees a bug on his plate of chocolate cake and kills it with an X-File.

The AI aspect of “War of the Coprophages” lands a bit differently for me now than it did when the episode originally aired in 1996. As much as I’ve been prone to insist that the recent technology we’re calling AI isn’t really AI, maybe it is if we’re thinking about the intelligence of a bug. And I find an analogy to cockroaches to be really tempting, even if it’s anachronistic.

Little robot roaches were technologically far-fetched in the 1990s, but I don’t think they are now. All I can say to the world is: Please don’t create them.

War of the Coprophages

It’s once again the humor of this episode that makes me love it more than anything else. Killer cockroaches serve as a horrifying premise, because roaches are gross and scary enough already, even if they pose no real threat. But whereas “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” leans into a lack of ambiguity about its paranormal aspect, “War of the Coprophages” insists throughout that maybe nothing along those lines is going on at all. If anything, it’s the freaked out human beings that are the big threat, both to themselves and to others.

Could there be a naturally occurring cockroach with an exoskeleton composed on common metals, that’s hung like a dragonfly? We can’t rule it out. Of course we also can’t rule out that these were little drones sent by alien beings, but Dr. Bugger apparently died from an allergic reaction and at least some of the roaches in this story are just ordinary roaches.

Mulder and Bambi in front of a table in her lab

Also, those guys were taking bong rips of manure? We have met the coprophages, and they are us.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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