X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the X-Files television series.
“It’s a whole life,” says FBI Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as she studies the belongings of recently deceased teenager Jackson Van De Kamp (Miles Robbins), apparently felled by a self-inflicted gunshot wound after murdering his parents. Not his real parents, mind you. It’s eventually proven via DNA test that Jackson was adopted and that he is actually Scully’s child—ostensibly with her professional and occasional romantic partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), though more likely the result of a eugenics experiment conducted on her by Mulder’s heinous biological father the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). But does biology always trump spirit? Is Jackson, birth name William, any less Scully and Mulder’s son despite some genetic differences (the full extent of which have yet to be revealed) and a years-long separation? Does their emotional bond, which in Scully’s case has a literally psychic/hypnagogic foundation, count for anything?
The answer is not so simple, as writer-director James Wong explores in the fifth episode (“Ghouli”) of The X-Files’ 11th season. A life can be contained in objects—in photos of birthdays and baseball games; in tchotchkes like the windmill snow globe, bearing the inscription “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” that Scully takes from the boy’s bookshelf. (“I just needed to hold onto something tangible,” she says to Mulder by way of explanation.) A life can also be revealed in a subtle glance or a shattering change of expression, something Anderson gets to demonstrate in several powerful scenes throughout. But a life similarly has to be experienced moment by moment, and how can you claim provenance over someone if you’ve been nothing but a pale shadow in their evolution?
A pale shadow or a dim reflection: One of the recurring motifs in “Ghouli” is mirrored/mirror concepts and images. Scully’s likeness is twice caught, hauntingly, in glass tables. A running gag involves Mulder giving a fake name (“Bob”) to a coffee shop barista. (“Like I wanted to explain ‘Fox’ for the millionth time,” he quips.) And Ghouli, the nickname of the MacGuffinish teeth-'n'-tentacles monster of the week, is essentially a Rorschach blot made flesh, though one that is being projected into peoples’ minds by an outside party.
Another faint echo: The teaser sequence for “Ghouli,” set on a junked ferry appropriately named “Chimera,” is in every superficial way classic X-Files. A beast is on the loose, shadows seem to stretch into infinity, and flashlight beams pierce the darkness like errant rays of sunlight faintly illuminating a dying world. The difference is that this is usually Mulder and Scully’s department, and they are nowhere to be found. (As far as they’re concerned this has been a primarily sunlit, flashlight-free season.) In their place are a pair of teenage girls, Brianna (Sarah Jeffrey) and Sarah (Madeline Arthur), each convinced the other is Ghouli and prepared to fight to the death to prove that. They’re so lost within their own anxieties that they can’t see the reality in front of them. (The opening credits tagline is once more altered, from “The Truth Is Out There” to “You See What I Want You To See.”) And the overarching sense, yet again, is that this season is warping what we traditionally believe The X-Files to be.
“Is this a message for me?” asks Scully during one of her hypnagogic nightmares, “Or am I sending a message to you?” She’s addressing Jackson/William, who is definitely the source for Ghouli, a telepathic prank on Brianna and Sarah (his two girlfriends, neither of whom knows about the other) gone terribly wrong. But when it comes to the apocalyptic visions (of the Spartan virus pandemic and UFO death ray annihilation) that Jackson/William shares with Scully, it’s unclear who the author is—the old generation or the new, or something/someone in-between.
Regardless, the gap must be bridged, and a teary Scully attempts to do just that in the episode’s centerpiece scene, monologuing over Jackson/William’s body in the morgue, expressing all the regrets she’s harbored since giving him up. It’s a phenomenal piece of acting from Anderson, and Wong (as he did in last season’s William-centric “Founder’s Mutation”) gives her the necessary space to navigate some rough emotional terrain. “This is so inadequate,” she cries toward the end of her soliloquy—one of those naked, near-embarrassing lines of dialogue that could be turned back on a scene that isn’t working, but which Anderson grounds in palpable sorrow and sadness. When she suddenly spots a hesitant Mulder in the doorway, it feels like a real intrusion, as well as a reminder to exhale that breath we’ve been holding.
If there’s a flaw to “Ghouli,” it’s one that affects many an X-Files episode: a rickety narrative that somewhat tempers the emotional pull. Jackson/William isn’t actually dead, of course. Just as he can project a slimy behemoth into a person’s mind, he can bend reality to make everyone think he is someone else or has a gory bullet hole in his head. It's all a survival tactic against some rather anemic antagonists, a trio of gun-toting DOD agents (Ben Cotton, Zak Santiago and Eddie Flake) doing shadow government clean-up work. These villains are more bumbling than menacing, and the way they're dispatched is derivative of and was more intensely realized in the stand-alone episodes "Pusher" and "Kitsunegari," featuring the literally mind-bending character Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisdom).
Plus, the mytharc elements—revolving around an alien-human hybridization program called Project Crossroads, of which Scully and Jackson/William were a part—feel awkwardly sutured onto the monster-of-the-week template. The episode’s a bit of a Ghouli itself, though how could it not be given the myriad contradictions, as often vexing as they are entertaining, inherent to the series’ serpentine master plot. There’s still a real thrill and chill seeing the Smoking Man once again puppet-mastering from the office of loyalty-shifting Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi). It’s another familiar X-Files setup made strange due to the anguished sense (one that could only arise from the passage of time) that the devil can never be completely exorcised from anywhere to which he’s laid claim.
At heart, “Ghouli” is about Scully’s agony and ecstasy, and it’s clear this is what most interests Wong. Her demon is the heartache brought about by years of “could have beens” and “what ifs?” She and Jackson/William never interact in their true human forms, only in dreams and through surrogates. A Malcolm X poster on Jackson/William’s ceiling leads Scully to ponder that iconic activist’s rebellious nature and how it informed her teenage son’s sense of self (or his self-loathing). By comparison, whenever Jackson/William is around Scully, he takes on the identity of an older author, Peter Wong (François Chau), whose skirt-chasing self-help book appears to have been his hormonal adolescent’s bible.
The funny thing is that play-acting as an adult (even a scheming one) brings out a genuinely empathetic quality in Jackson/William that, one gathers, would not be entirely present if he was only himself. Scully, likewise, feels deepest when there’s a mediating factor—if death is in the room, or if her subconscious forces her to. (This surely is one of the foundational factors in her and Mulder’s oddly, yet tantalizingly withholding romance.) The beauty of the episode’s final sequence is directly related to its alternately tragic and triumphant aura. Scully and Jackson/William cross paths at a gas station, but she only realizes it’s her child after he’s driven away, and she can only see it’s him via a video surveillance feed. The filmed image acts as go-between; at last she sees William undisguised and let loose in the world, liberated despite the forces conspiring against him. Scully has only experienced her son’s life in arbitrated snippets, but that doesn’t matter. The poignant look on her face (one of Anderson’s most resplendent close-ups) speaks maternal volumes.
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• When Jackson/William, disguised as Wong, first meets Scully outside the hospital he implores her, “Don’t give up on the bigger picture.” It's something of a callback to what Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) says to Scully (“Don’t give up”) in The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008).
• Let’s explore that bigger picture: Project Crossroads appears to have its roots in the human-alien hybrid program Purity Control, mentioned as far back as Season 1’s “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” though according to Skinner (doing his best Basil Exposition) it began in earnest shortly after the Roswell UFO crash in 1947. Crossroads’ head is said to be a Japanese doctor named Masao Matsumoto, which connects it to the mobile operating bays overseen by Japanese scientists in Season 3’s two-parter “Nisei” and “731.” William came about, it’s widely implied, as a result of the Supersoldier program from Seasons 8 and 9. If you believe the discoveries in that plotline, he was the first successfully conceived and gestated human-alien hybrid. His alien-ness was supposed to have been neutralized after Mulder’s disfigured half-brother Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens) injected him with magnetite (as in “What the Fuck Is…?”) in Season 9’s “William.” But it seems adolescence is bringing those superhuman/extraterrestrial qualities out again because, well, why the hell not? Or…fate? Or…prophecy? Or…testosterone? (I remember being a teenager.) As ever, the Truth remains an elusive and evasive target.
• Welcome Miles Robbins to The X-Files family. The actor behind Jackson/William is the real-life son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, who I’ve certainly never heard of.
• Some very on-the-nose talk of “alternate” and “false” realities between Mulder and Scully, in addition to that “Not in Kansas Anymore” snow globe, makes me all the more curious as to whether this is the 11th season’s true endgame (that, say, everything we’re witnessing might be a death spasm vision from Scully, still on that Washington D.C. bridge with UFO hovering overhead) or an elaborate ruse to distract us from some other resolution. Hurry, March 21st! (Finale day.)
• An unexpected and tough-hearted line from Mulder that I keep thinking back to: “Hope is not a fact.”