The X-Files: Do We Still Want to Believe?

After six new episodes, maybe not so much.


Some thoughts on the conclusion of Fox’s The X-Files revival, including but not limited to: the Spartan virus, shady cabals, were-monsters, climate change, trash spirits, and Ford Explorers.

Sophie Gilbert: During the first episode of The X-Files’s mini-revival, I found myself saying “gahhhh” rather more than I’d expected (and I’d expected a fair amount). Like: when it was proposed that the military-industrial complex had weaponized alien technology and was using it to conduct experiments on humans. At the suggestion that a Glenn Beck/Alex Jones-esque online peddler of conspiracy theories called Tad O’Malley (played by Joel McHale) was actually a fearless truth-teller and investigative journalist. At the words “false flag” being used in such close proximity to “9/11.”  When Mulder actually said out loud that the New World Order’s ultimate goal was using our online bank accounts to steal all our money. (What would they do with that money if all the people in the world were dead? Play very, very, very high-stakes games of poker among themselves?)

Understanding that Fox Mulder—the fiendishly handsome, winningly skeptical, extraordinarily loyal partner to the single greatest female television role model of the 1990s—is basically a disheveled, sweaty wackadoo who plausibly spends large parts of his day uploading YouTube videos regarding snake people and the melting point of steel was a trifle disappointing. But way worse was realizing that he had been these things all along. The X-Files debuted during a time before everyone and their mother had access to the deepest recesses of the online conspiracy-theory cesspool. Viewers hadn’t seen their aunts posting links to about the doctors decrying the “shameful” HPV vaccine, or suffered through years of “mind-blowing” videos about Obama being a pawn of the Antichrist and the Iraq War being a plot conjured up over cocktails by George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth, Liza Minnelli, and the Pope.

But by now, in 2016, we have. And we know how nakedly crazy it is. So the fact that “My Struggle II,” the final installment in the six-episode series (like the first, written and directed by the series’s director, Chris Carter) not only doubled down on the tinfoil-hat plot but extended it to include vaccines, chemtrails, anthrax, alien DNA, and a plot to kill all humans on earth really felt like a letdown.

Vaccines? Seriously? Do you know what the public-health ramifications are of having Dana Scully (of all people!) reveal that the small-pox vaccine actually contains a secret virus that allows the government to destroy our immune systems (enhanced by releasing radiation and phosphorus into the air), at which point the other vaccines we’ve received over time will kill us? I know this is a TV show, but this is also America. A reality-show host who literally learned everything he knows about business via a FisherPrice My First Corporation™ kit is about to become the Republican presidential candidate. People frequently think the things they learn in entertainment are true! I myself was swayed by The Da Vinci Code for an embarrassingly long time when the book first came out. Dana Scully not becoming an anti-vaxxer in a time of such fierce anti-intellectualism isn’t such a huge amount to ask, even from Fox.

Megan, David, Lenika, what did you think of this long-awaited revival? Of the “My Struggle” (rad Hitler/Knausgaard reference, Chris Carter) episodes, but also of the stylistically jarring and absurdly tone-deaf “Babylon” last week, and the Were-Monster, and “Founder’s Mutation”?

David Sims: Well, while watching the last episode of this strange, stunted “event season,” things suddenly seemed perfectly clear to me: We need to give creator Chris Carter the George Lucas treatment. Thank him for all he’s done, present him with a gold watch, and get him as far away from this show as possible. Because while I only really loved one episode of this little revival (I dug “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”), every episode that wasn’t written by Chris Carter was basically fine—slotted into any other season of the show, they’d feel like solid efforts. But the first, fifth, and sixth episodes were all disasters onto themselves—and they all had Carter’s name on the teleplay.

I love The X-Files; it might be my favorite TV show ever. I was cautiously excited about its return to TV simply because Carter made so many mistakes in its later years that I figured he had to have learned from them. In a post-mortem interview with The New York Times, he declared that he had set out to do something “fresh and thought-provoking” with the new season. It certainly provoked some thoughts from me. Like: “How could something this rancid make it onto broadcast television in this day and age?”

Watching Joel McHale flail onscreen and rant about chemtrails, it felt like Carter had seen all of the narrative leaps and bounds prestige television made in the 14 years since The X-Files wrapped up, but absorbed none of them. The finale followed the show’s old format of compartmentalizing between “conspiracy” episodes and “monster” episodes, picking up from this season’s opening episode and ignoring everything that happened in the middle. That worked in 1994, when anything remotely serialized was a revolution in itself, but these days it seems shudderingly inconsistent. Maybe recognizing that the junk he threw at the wall wasn’t going to stick, Carter ended the episode on a cliffhanger, then immediately promised in that interview that the show would be back. Can’t wait.

Sophie, I too loudly groaned when McHale’s Internet journalist started ranting like an anti-vaxxer on his YouTube channel. I talked about it in my review of the show’s first three episodes—maybe conspiracies just can’t be cool anymore. The aesthetic of The X-Files was always that Cold War conception of the one-world government—shadowy meetings between faceless bureaucrats, invisible hands nudging things into place. Freedom fighters looked like The Lone Gunmen—goofy but harmless folk tinkering with HAM radios in their trailers. Now, it’s a very InfoWars world, and even though it’s pure fiction, it’s sad to see Mulder and Scully get wrapped up in it.

I’m happy to wash my hands of this season. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” which featured guest appearances from Rhys Darby and Kumail Nanjiani, was a great throwback for the show, but maybe it reinforces the notion that The X-Files should be left in the past. While it’s always pretty compelling to watch David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson banter, I can just cue up a classic episode if I want to see that. Are there any arguments for more seasons, especially if Chris Carter is still rambling away at the helm? I know we live in a media era where any beloved franchise has to be revived and bled dry in the name of viewership, but I draw the line at chemtrails. Megan, do you see a reason for this sad situation to continue?

Megan Garber: Ugh, that’s a good question, David. But—despite the many, many flaws of this revival, despite the plot gaps and the absurdities and the fact that the silly phrase “alien DNA” runs like a Greek chorus through the episodes—I still feel a little bit like Mulder: I want to believe! Still! Despite everything! Partially I blame “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” which was one of the most delightful pieces of television I have seen in a long time, and which, as a result, filled me with cruel, cruel hope that a new(er) season might contain a similar gem.

One other reason for hope: I actually appreciated the staccato nature of the episodes of the revival. I liked that the six entries functioned as a little Whitman’s Sampler of themes and genres of prior X-Files episodes. I liked that they were tonally discordant; to me, that offered a nice counterbalance to the intricate, sometimes stiflingly monotonal universe-building that has become such a typical aspect of prestige drama (and even prestige comedy). Game of Thrones and House of Cards and Sons of Anarchy and Cats of Chaos (that last one doesn’t exist yet, but given the way things are going, will probably come to Showtime very soon) may often surprise—and shock!—viewers with their plot points, with their zig-instead-of-zag murders and hook-ups and baby-births and break-ups. Tonally, though, they all tend to be ploddingly predictable. They tend to be, for better but sometimes for worse, #branded.
In that sense, I appreciated the jarring variation of The X-Files’s revival. It kept me guessing. It surprised me, and sometimes frustrated me, and occasionally delighted me. It read to me a little like televisional jazz.
Which is … not to say that I was a fan of it. I felt, on the whole, the same as you guys: This season left me, too, gah-ing. My main GOL (gah-ing-out-loud? is that a thing?) in last night’s episode came, just in case you guys were wondering, when it was revealed that the great global scandal that would wipe out the human race and destroy life as we know it was justified, in the minds of the scandal-doers, by … climate change. Which: ugh, no, GOL. Nevermind that this general plot line was already better employed by the comic and 2015 movie Kingsman, only with natty Englishmen and a charmingly villainous Samuel L. Jackson; worse was that the whole thing seemed to reveal a desperation to make a show like this, with its patchwork quilt of decades-old conspiracy theories, still relevant in 2016. The whole thing seemed to belie a kind of generational anxiety, like a dad trying to talk to his kids about Kanye. Which: admirable! Kind of cool! But also: GAH.  
So to answer your original question, David: I probably will watch the show’s re-revival, with trepidation and stupid hope. And I thiiiiiiink I’ll be happy, all things considered, that there will be one to watch in the first place. Despite it all. The flip side of all the Peak TV stuff is that, as you said, viewers can be selective—not just about the episodes of a show they watch, but about how they think of a show as, you know, A Show. There’s a nice Create Your Own Economy aspect to the whole thing, is I guess what I’m saying: If you’re an “aliens and conspiracies” person, you can watch just those episodes, and ignore the others. If you’re a “monster of the week” person, you can focus on those episodes. We can all, basically, choose our own personal X-Files canons. And if there are more episodes for us to choose among … hey, I guess, all the better?
One last thought: A lot of this reminds me not just of George Lucas, but also of the discussions that came up again last week, after the death of Harper Lee: the question of a late-in-life shift in one’s legacy. In Lee’s case, will To Kill a Mockingbird be tainted by Go Set a Watchman? Will Atticus’s late-in-life racism affect his moral-heroic status in the culture? In Chris Carter’s case—and in The X-Files’s case overall—Will “My Struggles I and II” (not to mention the almost offensively stupid “Babylon”) taint the show?
I think probably not. Fans have already chosen, largely, to ignore the dark years of pseudo-Mulders (and pseudo-Scullys) after David Duchovny left the show; we can just ignore the new ones, too. But we can tell ourselves that, if The X-Files’s out-there truth does involve new episodes, what they will maybe give us is wonderfully self-aware were-monsters and actually-plausible conspiracy theories. And we can reassure ourselves that, even if they don’t give us those things, what they will definitely give us is the one thing that has been constant, episode by episode, for most of The X-Files’s tenure: the rare and glorious and still-sparking-after-all-these-years chemistry between one Dana Scully and one Fox Mulder. So, basically, I guess: We can hope. Stupid hope.

Lenika Cruz: I’m so frustrated right now with how this miniseries ended, but I’m going to put those feelings aside and force myself to remark on what I liked. Like Megan and David, I also adored Darin Morgan’s “Were-Monster” episode. It felt like a piece of exceptionally well-realized fan service for people like myself who rank “Bad Blood” as one of their top-two favorite X-Files episodes ever. It was goofy and charmingly self-aware, but more than anything it felt like a real story—one that had carefully assembled all of its moving parts, and weighed the narrative value of every joke, flashback, and bit of misdirection. I’m comfortable calling it one of the funniest hours of TV so far this year.

The monster in the fourth episode—the so-called “Trash Man”—managed to be the revival’s most terrifying figure, a kind of superhuman (or non-human?), nauseatingly malodorous Slender Man that had me recoiling in my seat the way Eugene Victor Tooms did way back in season one. The extended scene of the Trash Man hunting down the trash-compactor lady in her own house to the sounds of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” reminded how imaginative The X-Files has been in the past with its use of music. (The fact that the series has an episode in which the music of Cher played a pivotal role should be evidence enough.)

Which sadly brings me to the end of my list of things I genuinely enjoyed about this six-episode run. The only redeeming part of Monday’s stinker of a finale was that a good chunk of it revolved around two women teaming up and using science to try and save the entire world. Unfortunately, that entire part of the plot (Scully rambling about her extra nucleotides, her tautologous explanation to Agent Einstein that her “anomalous” DNA features an “aberration”) also felt like total nonsense, even though it was purportedly co-written by two scientists. And, Sophie, I agree that it wasn’t worth hearing Scully turn into a vaccine truther.

It’s hard to imagine that X-Files newcomers could watch these new episodes and see how a series about two FBI agents with (once) differing world views, and who occasionally brush up against aliens and government conspiracies, could have transformed the history of television. I’m not even totally sure how Carter can rewatch this “event series” and think that it’s come close to capturing the spirit of what made the originals so special.

But I think I share your reluctant optimism, Megan. I’ll probably tune in to whatever Chris Carter and co. think up next, but with low expectations. Maybe by then, enough time will have passed to somewhat forgive the disaster that was “Babylon.” Or Scully thinking that “Nurse!” is an appropriate way to address someone who is a nurse. But mostly, I’m going to pretend this entire new season never happened. Like David said, you can always go back and find any number of terrific episodes—“X-Cops,” “Drive,” “Small Potatoes,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” and so many others—on Netflix, which might help erase the image of Scully weaving through the rioting masses behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer.