X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the X-Files television series.
Trust your instincts. I had a notion during the teaser sequence of “Nothing Lasts Forever” (episode 9 of The X-Files’ 11th season, written by Karen Nielsen and directed by James Wong) that it would be best recapped alongside “My Struggle IV” (the season, and possibly series finale, written and directed by XF creator Chris Carter). Amid the sanguine, pre-opening credits hubbub—a pair of cannibalistic physicians harvest (and taste-sample) human organs, only to be interrupted by an avenging angel vigilante named Juliet Bocanegra (Carlena Britch)—there’s a fleeting audio clip on a car radio of Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), the paranoid host of an Alex Jones-esque media pageant who was last seen in Season 10's "My Struggle II," bellowing about mind-altering gases and chem trails. It’s a callback to guest star Haley Joel Osment’s not-so-lunatic-as-it-seems rant about the same topics in episode 6 of this season, “Kitten.” But it also acts as a reminder of the larger apocalyptic threat that has shadowed most of this year’s installments, and which must, per dramatic dictate, come to a head.
The end (or an end) is near, and the rest of “Nothing Lasts Forever” has both a valedictory feel and an aura of rebirth about it, which “My Struggle IV” then follows with a heavy dose of Old Testament ferocity. Do the extremes complement or negate one another? This is a fundamental question in a series obsessed with antitheses and contradictions—conflicts embodied, most prominently, by FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), whose abiding believer/skeptic interplay is as likely to result in ennobling poetry as it is dispiriting nullity. “Reason and faith in harmony,” says Mulder to Scully during one of the church-set conversations that are the impassioned, searching heart of Episode 9. “Isn’t that why we’re so good together?” Certainly that, along with the opposite. Good can’t exist without bad—scientifically, spiritually and creatively speaking.
What continues to fascinate about the Mulder/Scully relationship are the degrees to which it is both potent and poisonous. Love can warp one’s sense of the world as much as expand it, and there’s an anguish, a sickness in these final two episodes that suggests narrative and emotional bedrock has been reached. “Turn back. Give up. Accept your place in the numbing embrace of the status quo,” says Scully to Mulder after the prayer candle she lights flames out—to her mind an ill omen. Mulder quickly relights it—both a kindness and a presumption (can a portent truly be contravened?).
As often occurs in the series, the case in “Nothing Lasts Forever” comments on where Mulder and Scully and the world they inhabit are currently at. Barbara Beaumont (the spectacularly unhinged Fiona Vroom, who previously appeared as the younger Cassandra Spender, the Cigarette Smoking Man’s wife, in “My Struggle III”) is an 80-something child actor/television star who now runs an eternal youth blood cult with her geneticist lover Dr. Randolph Luvenis (Jere Burns). Both of them are surrounded by, and sometimes literally sutured to, a group of adoringly dead-eyed acolytes. Juliet, from the teaser sequence, is trying to rescue her brainwashed sister Olivia (Micaela Aguilera) from among the group’s ranks, and is, per Mulder, “literally using the church to exact vengeance” since she stabs her targets with pointed iron rods stolen from her Bronx parish’s gates. (Juliet’s deific savagery is a precursor to and subconscious inspiration for Mulder’s own enemy-annihilating actions in the episode that follows.)
The cultists have effectively frozen time through their cannibalistic practices. They puree stolen human organs and drink them down like health store smoothies. They’ve created their own microcosmic status quo, in which enduring good looks (the episode’s opening credits tagline is altered to “I Want To Be Beautiful”) are the altar on which to never die. All of them fight the future, the cult’s leader particularly. Barbara watches old videos of the sitcom, “The Barbara Beaumont Show,” that made her famous, chillingly mimicking her exaggerated gestures and broad dialogue from years before. Her audience is always appreciative; one of them even offers up his organs when food—or “dini,” in the group’s slang—is suddenly scarce. She accompanies his nauseating disembowelment-cum-sacrifice with a full-throated rendition of “The Morning After,” the Academy Award-winning love theme from The Poseidon Adventure (1972). This avert-your-eyes/drop-your-jaw setpiece is very much in Wong’s wheelhouse.
There’s a degree to which Barbara is an onscreen avatar for The X-Files itself: A show forever set in its narrative and thematic formulas; a series sustained by a rabid audience that is enthralled even when it turns hostile (a reaction, any reaction, is all a branded, multi-platform franchise such as this requires); and a portrait of two characters who physically age (and acknowledge that fact) while remaining emotionally repressed and stunted. This is also a defiantly personal work of art that sticks doggedly—and, I would argue, admirably—to its philosophical guns, even when it flies in the face of fashion. After “My Struggle IV” aired, I joked to some fellow X-Philes that Carter might as well be crooning his own intransigent tune, Barbara Beaumont style, while simultaneously cannibalizing his audience’s goodwill. This may make it sound like I’m about to launch into a harsh critique of what looks very likely to be the series finale. Far from it, though reservations and appreciation certainly go hand in hand.
Frankly, it wouldn’t be a Carter mythology episode without a near-equal share of frustration and elation. You’d have to go back to Season 3’s “Talitha Cumi,” where most of the seeds of the melodramatic morass to come were planted, to find his last perfectly realized mytharc installment. But then, who needs perfection? We’re a messy species, and that disarray, given ardent expression, can be just as interesting to experience and analyze. Consider “Nothing Lasts Forever” the breather episode in which Mulder and Scully attend—prayerfully, meditatively—to as much of their baggage as possible, while still doing plenty of talking around certain issues. (Direct address so rarely becomes them, which makes Scully’s Lost in Translation-esque whisper to Mulder in the closing moments so powerful.) “My Struggle IV,” then, is pure physicality—all thrust and propulsion, moving breathlessly back and forth in time. It’s a runaway symphony of sorts, building to a moment of release that is as ludicrously contrived as it is eloquently apt.
As with all the “My Struggle” episodes, it begins with a character, in this case Mulder and Scully’s “son” William a.k.a Jackson Van De Kamp (Miles Robbins), monologuing about his life to that point. The happy, uneventful childhood given to him by his adoptive parents (and via the injection of magnetite that supposedly cured him of his superhuman qualities in the original series) shattered once he hit adolescence. His powers returned, and they were raw, unformed. He could make life (coaxing a baby bird out of a store-bought egg) and he could decimate it (orchestrating a car crash; making a school bully bleed from the nose and ears). After the events of this season’s “Ghouli,” he’s been on the run from both the space-colonizing corporation Purlieu Services, overseen by Mr. Y. (A.C. Peterson) and Erika Price (Barbara Hershey), and his actual father, scientifically speaking, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), who needs the boy as the final piece in his apocalyptic end game.
One of the series’ major themes is the tension between biological and spiritual influence. On The X-Files, being genetically connected to someone in no way guarantees love or peace of mind. More often, the impact is malign. CSM has used and abused all his children. And the Scully family, though lacking the Mulder clan’s soap operatic genealogies, has grown increasingly apart as the series has progressed, its shining lights (Scully’s naval man father; her mother, Margaret; her youngest brother, Charlie; her sister, Melissa) now either dead or estranged. The people who, by accident of birth, are supposed to mentor and guide us are just as likely to screw us up or abandon us. And so we turn to other fathers and mothers, to those random people we meet who tend to us with kindness, or to the divine entities that we believe can lead us out of the darkness of our own lives. Even then, we’re still guaranteed some hurt and harm because people are fallible and the gods, as is their wont, are silent.
It’s up to each of us to wrestle control from chaos. “All any of us have are the results of all the choices that we’ve made,” says Mulder to Scully in “Nothing Lasts Forever.” He continues: “And at the end of the day, we just hope that we made the right one.” What then to make of Mulder’s (d)evolution in “My Struggle IV” into a creature of pure feral instinct? One of the moments in this season’s premiere (“My Struggle III”) that gave me tremendous pause was when Mulder murders a Purlieu Services assassin with a quick scalpel-slice across the throat. Though it was in an effort to save Scully, there was a lizard-brain callousness to the act that felt off, even for a man who once dispatched (off-screen) another assassin in Season 5’s “Redux I” and then pretended the dead body was his own. Now I think this was Carter laying some groundwork (in his inelegantly instinctual way) for “My Struggle IV’s” scorched-earth storytelling.
The body count is high in this one, and whether new character or old, almost no one is spared. Sometimes the only way to move forward is to tear everything down, and mercilessly. Mulder singlehandedly takes out Mr. Y. and his henchmen with several well-placed bullets. William/Jackson uses his unruly powers to telepathically explode, in the style of Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978), Erika Price and her gun-toting attendants. Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) is unceremoniously shot by Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who is then run over by the Cigarette Smoking Man. CSM then confronts Mulder at the edge of a pier and kills him, shooting him at close range through the head…though it’s actually William/Jackson he executes, the test tube teen bending reality one final time to make his creator think he’s killing his first-born son. The real Mulder then returns the favor by plugging his biological father with a few shots to the chest and pushing him into the body of icy water below. The same Adam's ale out of which William/Jackson arises—surprise, surprise—alive and well in the episode’s final shot, revealing his immortality and concluding the series on an effective, and affecting, note of irresolution.
This all plays as exhilarating/exhausting as it sounds, with several very well-choreographed chase sequences (cinematographer Craig Wrobleski makes especially inspired use of soaring drone shots to give the proceedings an expansive sense of scale) that link all the carnage. What’s lost in much of this, however, is Scully, who spends a good deal of the episode playing catch-up or acting as Mulder’s on-the-phone oracle since she and William/Jackson are telepathically connected. Anderson has a lovely, subtly emotive close-up early on as she tells Mulder to “come back alive.” But then she’s mostly in the passenger seat, literally so toward the end of the episode when Skinner drives her to the abandoned factory where William/Jackson has holed up and finally reveals the full extent of her “son’s” paternity, a fact he has kept hidden since the season premiere.
His admission comes out in very Carter fashion: We never hear Skinner concretely confess that “CSM manufactured William.” It’s merely implied that he says so, and as he keeps talking, the sound drops out and the camera pushes in toward Scully, who registers some opaque emotional distress. The way Anderson performs this moment is very Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi after she learns that Luke Skywalker is her brother. It’s as if Scully has known the truth all along, but refused to admit it, and whatever the narrative sloppiness to reach this point, it certainly plays intriguingly and provocatively. How often we place our love in people who fail to live up to our idealized conceptions until, all of an instant, the facades and false hopes we've maintained for years come crashing down.
Not to be outdone, Carter unveils his final twist once Scully and Mulder reunite. A distraught Mulder mourns the loss of William/Jackson, coming to terms with the fact, again via oblique reveal, that he is not the boy’s biological parent. (I especially love the way he tosses his gun into the water, as if his morality has finally caught up to the barbaric proclivities he’s displayed throughout the episode.) To alleviate his pain, Scully divulges that she is miraculously pregnant with Mulder’s child, a likely result, so we can intuit, of the duo’s canoodling in the Carter-penned third episode of this season, the now even-more-aptly titled “Plus One.”
This all makes perfect conceptual sense, though it’s not quite the sublime emotional crescendo that Carter intends. “He was an idea,” says Scully of William. “Born in a laboratory.” And that about encapsulates the overall effectiveness of Scully’s revelation. It's a conceit first and foremost. In terms of poignance, it remains at a distance, even though it’s easy to see, from an intellectual standpoint, how this narrative convolution was born of everything that’s come before. (Scully and Mulder's attitude toward/desire for children was explored as far back as Season 1's Carter-penned standalone "The Jersey Devil.")
It’s still a perfect recapitulation/resolution in some ways, and that also applies to Season 11 as a whole. One of the biggest benefits of these 10 episodes is the way in which they’ve retroactively bolstered what, for me, was always the series’ weakest year: Season 7, when the creative wheels felt like they were spinning more than usual. Now, certain events from that span, such as CSM’s mysterious road trip with Scully, have added heft, whatever their questionable aspects (see my first recap for that discussion). And one year 7 plotline—Scully’s investigation of a spaceship that has random passages from all the world’s known religions carved into its outer shell—seems more than ever an onscreen Rosetta Stone for grasping Carter’s methods.
Dude’s always had a theological streak, and a seemingly backward one at that in how often it adheres to patriarchal dogma. (A female X-Phile I chatted with after the finale said that “My Struggle IV” should have been subtitled “The Re-Domestication of Dana Scully.”) But is that all it is? Or are Carter's beliefs more of a hodgepodge, as likely to be in retrograde as ascent? The episode’s opening credits tagline is changed from “The Truth is Out There” to “Salvator Mundi,” Latin for “Savior of the World” and a reference to a popular artistic subject during the Renaissance. In these paintings—one of which, by Leonardo da Vinci, recently sold for over $450 million—Jesus Christ is shown holding a globus cruciger (a symbol for the Earth over which he has dominion) in one hand while offering a two-fingers-raised blessing with the other.
Who is Christ in this scenario and what is his benediction? It’s to Carter’s credit that he never entirely posits any one character (or himself, Lord help us) as a full embodiment of an ethereal Savior. Better to say he sees God and the Devil in everyone, and that he frequently spotlights moments when his characters’ celestial aspects come to the fore. Scully is beatifically paralleled, several times throughout the series and in the 2008 X-Files movie, to the Virgin Mary. Mulder often seems infused, in this episode especially, with the uncanny attributes of a deranged divinity. And William/Jackson’s sacrifice and resurrection, though certainly Christ-like, still has its messy human qualities, filtered as it is through the prism of identity- and purpose-questioning teenage angst.
The blessing, the benediction, is likely the baby—a being finally, biologically conceived by both Mulder and Scully, yet nonetheless a miracle given the scientific impossibility, due to age and other mytharc-related factors, of this ever occurring. Still it seems that the malign conspiratorial forces that have long dogged Mulder and Scully, and viciously intruded on their personal lives, are entirely out of the equation. There’s just them now. Perhaps that’s the real blessing. They’ve found the path back to each other in a way that feels complete, if tenuous. Reason and faith in (nebulous) harmony.
So why the emotional disconnect? One likely factor: Carter’s decision to withhold the final script pages from his actors until the last possible moment (a choice he discusses in a post-mortem interview at SyFy Wire, and a tactic he’s employed plenty of times before). The shocking reveal matters more to him than the groundwork leading up to it, and this can make his performers seem stranded or give a crucial sequence a perfunctory feel. While watching and re-watching this final Mulder/Scully scene, trying my best to decide if it was stirring, ineffectual, or something in-between, I thought back to one of Barbara Beaumont’s woebegone self-observations in "Nothing Lasts Forever," about the facial wrinkles she wants so desperately to eliminate: “I saw marionette lines.” Carter is something of an outmoded puppet master in the current Peak TV era, devoted to timeworn storytelling techniques and attempting to maintain the beauty, the sublimity of his creation even as the strings keep showing. What often saves him, or at least complicates some of his shakier to outright bad ideas, is his faith, his trust in his collaborators, as well as in the happenstance and kismet that are a part of any creative endeavor.
That’s all certainly the case here. Both Duchovny and Anderson ultimately wrangle the out-of-nowhere emotions they’ve been given in their last scene into something meaningful (it’s so easy to take their transcendental chemistry, even in a more wizened form, for granted). I was also very moved by several of the episode’s meta aspects, such as the casting of David Duchovny’s daughter, Madelaine West Duchovny, as a teenage friend of William/Jackson who aggravates Mulder (“I don't believe you're his father,” she says to him snottily) and then later leads him to the boy’s dockside hideout (children guiding parents toward destruction/revelation—another of the episode's subthemes). There's also a wonderful moment during the climactic chase sequence when Mulder drops his flashlight, typically a most crucial X-Files accessory, as if he were casting off a derelict appendage (it certainly won't help him brighten the darkness he's pursuing). And then there's the episode’s penultimate shot, which cranes, Old Hollywood style, away from Mulder and Scully as they embrace each other, until a distant light from the city of Vancouver (where the series was filmed for seven of its eleven years) illuminates the duo—a blessing/benediction from the real world to the fictional one.
Where does everyone go now? Gillian Anderson has made no secret of her desire to quit the series. The ratings aren’t exactly blockbuster, and reaction has been all over the map, though certainly nowhere near the fervor, pro or con, of the show's heyday. There's nothing wrong with being outside your moment, as long as your heart's still evidently in the work. Yet even with Carter’s obstinate love for cliffhangers, “My Struggle IV” has the feel of a final statement, or at least a prelude to an epochal shift in perspective (perhaps between generations given that William/Jackson is the last character we see onscreen). The X-Files thrives on the stresses between knowing and not-knowing. To dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ would be a betrayal of the series’ conviction that, though the truths we seek elude us, it is worth everything and more to struggle toward them.
There's got to be a morning after.
And even if there isn’t, we can hope, we can believe there will be.