When The X Files returned to network television in early 2016, much of the landmark science fiction show’s 10th season suffered at the hands of Chris Carter, its own creator. Despite a couple of solid monster-of-the week episodes, a bizarre appearance from Tim Armstrong from Rancid, and the classic “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, the season will be largely remembered as a missed opportunity unable to survive off nostalgia alone.
The aptly titled premiere episode, “My Struggle”, is a tedious, anguished romp through the show’s mythological arch weighed down by stilted dialogue, disengaged acting from David Duchovny, and an incoherent, over-the-top conspiracy theory against humanity, courtesy of the show’s main antagonist, The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) . The season 10 finalé, “My Struggle II”, chose to divide its heroes for nearly the entire episode while unleashing “The Spartan Virus”, a global contagion involving seemingly every viral 21
st century conspiracy theory under the sun, from vaccine paranoia to chem trails.
Thankfully for most viewers, the latest premiere of The X Files eradicates much of season 10’s convoluted mythology, insisting that the apocalyptic events of “My Struggle II” never took place, but are instead visions of the future psychically transmitted to Scully from her gifted son William (Miles Robbins). In theory, this could have been a good idea. While the cold open is clever, revealing a hoax moon landing designed by The Cigarette Smoking Man, and the mythology’s renewed focus on William is welcome, this episode suffers greatly from ham-fisted voiceovers, bombastic action leading nowhere, and a controversial retcon: The Cigarette Smoking Man informs Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that he artificially impregnated Scully (Gillian Anderson) “with science” while she was drugged unconscious in the fan-favorite William B. Davis-penned, Rob Bowman directed season 7 mythology episode, “En Ami”. Yikes!
Needless to say, Carter’s decision to make Scully a victim again through the revelation that William is the product of clinical rape is one of the most divisive moments in the show’s long history. Most fans were ready to move on from the well-acted yet frustrating scenes from season 10 featuring Scully grieving over her abandonment of William. Fans were hoping for some powerful Scully moments at some point before the show closed its curtains. Instead, Carter chose to remove Scully of any agency or purpose in a mythological arch centered around the search for the long lost son she once gave up to protect.
As if multiple abductions by serial killers, her sister’s murder, her contraction of cancer as a result of a microchip embedded in her neck by the government, her discovery that her ova has been harvested against her will to create a daughter who promptly dies, and her eventual sacrifice of her son to keep him safe from evil government forces wasn’t all enough, fans now have to process the fact that she has been clinically raped. This truth isn’t smoothed over by Mulder slicing a would-be assassin’s throat with a scalpel, nor is it assuaged by Mulder’s bland car chase featuring a fancy new Ford Mustang. This all feels unworthy of the show’s legacy.
Back to Our “Bread and Butter”
Thankfully, Glen Morgan’s “This” episode breathes new life into the revival through “resurrecting” Langly (Dean Haglund), everyone’s favorite Lone Gunmen member, conspiracy theorist, hacker, and Ramones fan, in a way that is both clever and fun. The series suddenly feels alive again, the plot not unlike something that would feel at home on a show like Black Mirror. There is room here for our favorite actors to breathe a bit and ease back into their roles, and suddenly Duchovny remembers the character he is playing and slips back into Mulder’s shoes with ease, contributing to some classic Mulder and Scully banter:
Scully: “Why do you operate so well with your hands tied behind your back?”
Mulder: “As if you didn’t know.”
This is all quite welcome. It’s inspiring that Morgan is able to combine elements of the show’s mythology with a standalone episode that clicks. The X Files is allowed to have fun again. Scully is suddenly allowed to do more than simply mourn. “Frohike looked 57 the day he was born,” she quips, to our renewed joy. The X Files is able to effectively reflect on its own self-fulfilling prophecies as well. “Everything we feared came to pass,” Mulder realizes. “How the hell did that happen?” The F.B.I. is under attack by insidious Russian private security agents backed by the U.S. Executive Branch. It’s an entertaining way to acclimate Mulder and Scully to the post-Trump, post-truth landscape. The F.B.I.’s arrival only to find that the simulation program’s computer mainframe has vanished is satisfying in its familiarity in a way that only The X Files could pull off.
Going back to the show’s “bread and butter”, as Mulder quips in the meat-and-potatoes monster-of-the-week episode “Plus One”, is a way for the show’s writers to remind us why we are all watching this series again in the first place. “This” and “Plus One” are redemptive entries because the show’s veteran writers are able to remind us that the chemistry between Anderson and Duchovny is still intact. It doesn’t hurt that “Plus One” features the stellar, eccentric acting of Karin Konoval from the season 4 classic, “Home”. This time around, she plays two demented siblings engaged in a psychic game of Hangman that turns deadly. The relationship between Mulder and Scully is given the spotlight and the show is able to thrive because of it. Sure, Mulder and Scully allow some innocent folks to die through carelessness, but it’s all in good fun. Much to the relief and perhaps even shock of the fans, Carter is still able to write a solid episode without any major problems (for now).
“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” transcends the problems of this 11th season by directly addressing the challenges of writing an X Files episode for 2018. In its absence, the world has become too complex for The X Files, too complicated for even Mulder’s “conspiratorial powers”, and this isn’t lost on Morgan. His meta-commentary is sharp, insightful, and downright hilarious. Scully suggests to Mulder “maybe you just got tired of it, especially after the birther stuff.” Mulder’s existential crisis is showcased here, and Morgan’s ongoing parody of Mulder reaches for new heights as the episode rolls along. “I’m Fox Freaking Mulder, you punks!” cries a desperate, confused F.B.I. agent who goes “Squatchin'” in a full-on Sasquatch costume. Nobody makes fun of Mulder like Darin Morgan. In one of the best scenes of the episode Reggie, whom Mulder meets in the parking garage after finding the legendary “X” symbol taped to his window, claims he was an original member of the X Files team. What follows is the greatest montage in X Files history.
In the end, our ability to accept alternative facts in what Dr. They (Stuart Margolin)deems a “post-conspiracy” world is terrifying. Humankind has become its own monster-of-the-week. Watching Mulder and Scully search aimlessly for the truth in an age of misinformation makes for a fine episode of The X Files.
A Mixed Bag
A couple of other episodes mesh the monster-of-the-week format with the show’s mythology, as with James Wong’s “Ghouli”, an episode that I enjoyed but found somewhat desperate in its attempt to combine two storylines. Refreshingly, William pops up here as the monster-of-the-week. Pitting his two girlfriends against each other in a gruesome way that owes its premise to the Slenderman internet urban legend, it was hard for me to care about “Pusher” William, who can now take on any form he wants in the eyes of those around him. Why should viewers care about this young man when he nearly allows two young women who care for him to murder each other? Luckily, Anderson delivers a fantastic performance here as Scully, tapping into the raw emotion of nearly missing out on a reunion with her beloved son.
“Kitten”, written by Gabe Rotter and beautifully directed by Carol Banker, is a Skinner-centric episode featuring Haley Joel Osment of The Sixth Sense and James Pickens Jr. returning in his role as Alvin Kirsch. Mulder and Scully journey to the woods of Mudlick, Kentucky where they search for Skinner, who has effectively gone AWOL. Skinner becomes the episode’s murder suspect, and it’s up to Mulder and Scully to exonerate the very man they currently mistrust the most. Fans learn much about Skinner’s past encounters with government conspiracies in this episode, providing the much-needed rationale for why Skinner would put his “ass on the line” time and again for our favorite F.B.I. agents. Back in 1969, Skinner’s friend Kitten was exposed to MK-NAOMI, a perfected version of MK-ULTRA that incorporated aspects of mind control. Mulder and Scully’s noble search for the truth restored Skinner’s faith in humanity’s willingness to fight back against insidious government forces. The direction is strong in this outing, perhaps most notably in the eerie, lengthy shot of Mulder searching Davey’s trailer to a haunting John Cale tune.
Although the remaining monster-of-the-weeks of season 11 were not classics, “Familiar” is a well-directed, albeit dreary affair that takes fans back to the occult horror and foggy, wooded locales of seasons past. There are some creepy moments here. It’s hard to exorcise the image of “Mr. Chuckleteeth” (very much like Stephen King’s Pennywise the Clown, played by Keith Arbuthnot) from my mind, and harder still to erase that terrifying theme song. Some heavy-handed dialogue about McCarthyism and mob mentality almost brings this one down a bit, but the occult subject matter and the witty exchanges between Mulder and Scully kept me in the game for this one. It’s hard not to be uplifted by Mulder’s rambling about hellhounds, the underworld, magic protection circles, and the like, all for Scully’s signature eye roll and sigh.
The Pest in the Machine
I believe “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” will grow to be remembered as a terrific episode. It’s thrilling to see The X Files address the consequences of technological innovation in a way the show hasn’t since William Gibson’s “Kill Switch”. This nearly silent episode features moments of tension, comedy, and insight into the world around us. Kudos to newcomer scriptwriters Shannon Hamblin (Lore) and Kristen Cloke for providing an episode where Mulder and Scully’s date night evolves into a struggle against machines that demand a tip for their services. Think Mulder and Scully fan fiction meets Black Mirror‘s “Metalhead”, and you’re on the right track. There’s an intriguing sense here that Mulder and Scully would love nothing more than to quit the F.B.I. and settle down together, eat sushi and play around with the blobfish. If only such domestic bliss were possible in the “post-conspiracy” world our heroes inhabit. Carter’s plans do not often sync up with our desires.
Our Final Struggle
“My Struggle IV” is somewhat better than I expected it to be, considering that the last three entries of the conspiracy arc are utterly confounding. This finalé is largely based on the fate of William, a character many fans envisioned entirely different from this angst-ridden teen they have briefly come to know. The flawed development of the events that unfold between Mulder, Scully, the Cigarette Smoking Man, and the wooden dialogue, splinters at the core: the center simply cannot hold when the focus is on William.
What’s particularly upsetting about this episode, especially considering this may be our sendoff to Mulder and Scully, is the way Carter robs these characters we care so much for of any reward for their efforts over the last 24 years. Despite their commitment to the search for truth and justice, both Mulder and Scully live bleak existences, both personally and professionally. Now that protecting their son has been tainted by Carter’s decision to make the Cigarette Smoking Man William’s real biological father, William’s connection to Mulder is obliterated and Scully’s maternal connection to William is forever severed.
Just when viewers believe that Skinner will divulge the truth of William’s parentage to Scully, something she perhaps already “felt” through her powers of intuition, we are robbed of this crucial moment between two of our favorite characters. Why? So Carter can indulge in another action scene or something? We may never know. How Scully deals with this realization, accepts that William is not her true son but rather “an experiment”, transforms her entire perspective, and finally realizes she must now let William go, is lost to viewers. Anderson deserves more from this series finalé, to say the least.
There are some moments that work in this episode, as when William confronts Scully and tells her he loves her in the form of Mulder, or when William (in the form of Mulder) takes a bullet to the head to protect Mulder and Scully. When the Cigarette Smoking Man comes to the realization that he has obliterated his preferred “son” as he is shot multiple times by Mulder, I was vaguely satisfied in a way, but why not leave William to die as well? His story arc is over.
What’s troublesome about the writing of this season’s finalé is Carter’s decision to remove Scully’s agency from the show’s endgame. Fans want to see Scully fight for her son. They want to see her in the field with Mulder, a part of the action. They want to see Mulder and Scully united in their quest for the truth, bantering all the way. They are robbed of these scenes. “What am I now, if not a father?” Mulder cries out in catharsis, yet this moment feels unearned. Unlike Scully, Mulder has never truly experienced parenthood. This kind of parental experience does not define Mulder. Yet, Scully’s decision to give up William is implied to be influenced by her second pregnancy. This time she is carrying her and Mulder’s natural (or supernatural?) child, but is this what they both truly want at this stage in life? Perhaps more scenes throughout the season exploring their thoughts about parenthood and where they stand on settling down together would have clarified this issue.
All Things Must Pass
Was Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) a double agent, or was she completely loyal to the Cigarette Smoking Man? We may never know because she is killed by Walter Skinner, who promptly perishes protecting Mulder and Scully. Will Scully ever be granted true agency? Will Mulder and Scully now retire and raise their “miracle child” (given that Scully is technically infertile) together? We may never know because this series as we have come to know ends on that pier. All problems with the finalé aside, Anderson is fantastic in the final, devastating scene. Furthermore, Duchovny had one of his best acting outings this season as Fox Mulder.
So was it all worth it in the end? Will our cherished agents ever find some level of comfort in life? The truth is out there, but let’s let it lie for now. All things must pass. Even The X Files.