The original run of The X-Files ended with our heroes — excommunicated FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) — locked in an embrace in a Roswell motel room. “Maybe there’s hope,” Mulder whispered to his nine-years-in-the-making inamorata, putting a semi-optimistic flourish on the dire “truth” they’d so long sought: Warmongering aliens would colonize Earth on December 22, 2012, in conjunction with the end of the Mayan calendar, and there was almost nothing they could do about it.
Of course the Truth, as this great series reminds us time and again, is ever-malleable. So here we are in 2016, with no aliens in sight, but with the world as screwed up and paranoid as it has ever been. Humans can’t help but run around in self-destructive circles — and that includes Fox Mulder, who, in the first episode of this new, six-part X-Files mini-series, offers a dour voice-over summation of his life.
As photos and assorted ephemera are piled on top of each other (hey there Flukeman, Eugene Victor Tooms and Rob Roberts!), Mulder recalls his time working on “The X-Files” — those strange, unexplainable, and often paranormal cases buried by the FBI. He mentions his sister, Samantha, the now-dead sibling whose disappearance fueled much of his quest. And, no surprise, he talks most fervently about Dana Scully — the doctor initially assigned to debunk his work, who (quickly) became his most trusted confidant and (much more slowly) became the love of his life.
“Are we truly alone?” Mulder asks toward the end of his monologue, which is juxtaposed against a stunning sequence that details another Roswell occurrence — the 1947 downing of an alien spaceship. But Mulder isn’t only speaking about the extraterrestrials he chased for a decade. He’s considering the matters of the heart that he and Scully dealt with, at a tantalizingly glacial pace, over the course of 202 episodes and two movies. And now?
Well, the rumors are true: Mulder and Scully have broken up. This makes sense in light of the unfairly maligned second movie, 2008’s The X-Files: I Want to Believe, in which the duo’s relationship reached a precipice. Though they clearly loved each other, Mulder’s ingrained obsessiveness was quite evidently grating on Scully. A breaking point seemed, if not necessarily inevitable, then plenty possible. Time doesn’t always heal wounds; more often, it picks at lingering scabs. So it was, and is, for our intrepid former agents.
The now single Scully is still working full-time at Our Lady of Sorrows, the Catholic hospital that was the site of many of I Want to Believe’s most emotionally charged moments. And it’s here that she gets the call she’s (maybe) been dreading from FBI assistant director Walter Skinner (a gruff-as-ever Mitch Pileggi), inquiring into Mulder’s whereabouts.
Introductions are important — as are reintroductions — and series creator Chris Carter gives both of his characters appropriately iconic entrances: Panning around Scully from behind, allowing her sharp features to emerge like a living bas-relief; and reflecting Mulder in the screen of his refurbished laptop (its webcam covered with duct tape) until he turns to reveal a haggard, still-handsome face. They’re both older and more world-weary — and in Mulder’s case, with something of a gravelly smoker’s voice — but it’s good to be back in their company.
We have Tad O’Malley (a wonderfully smarmy Joel McHale) to thank for the reunion. He’s the host of the conservative talk show Truth Squad With Tad O’Malley, and he fervently believes in alien abduction. For all his cocksure celebrity, he approaches Mulder and Scully like a fan, since they all but “wrote the book” on extraterrestrial conspiracies. It’s fun to see both Mulder and Scully act the part of the skeptic in O’Malley’s presence. “Conspiracy sells. It pays for bulletproof limousines,” Mulder scoffs. Eventually, though, the two men start swapping tales of the E.T. trade — even name-checking the real-life close encounter of Australian woman Kelly Cahill — and as they get into it, that certain spark lights in Mulder’s eyes. The one that makes Scully bite her lip and nearly roll her eyes as if to say, “Here we go again.”
Devoted X-Philes know the beats from there: Mulder and Scully are presented with possible evidence of something fantastic. He fervently believes it with little question; she dismisses it until she stumbles across scientific data that somewhat proves it. The evidence is destroyed. Everyone mopes. And they begin again. Rinse, wash, repeat.
In his review of the mini-series, Matt Zoller Seitz described this narrative formula as a game of “three-card Monte.” I see it more as infinite variations on a theme — that theme being life’s essential unknowability. Attempting to solve the mysteries of existence is a Sisyphean task, especially for Mulder and Scully. The boulder keeps rolling back on them, but that doesn’t mean the journey isn’t worth it. Even at their lowest points, they have each other to fall back on. Their love resembles what James Baldwin defined as “a state of grace … in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” It guides them through the insolvable labyrinth.
This particular part of the X-Files maze is intriguing because it views everything that came before with newfound hindsight. “It’s about fiction masquerading as fact,” Mulder says to Skinner, as they argue in the empty basement office where he and Scully were once based. “I was being led by my nose through a dark alley to a dead end.” That’s a very meta admission — a cleverly incorporated retcon of an alien-invasion story that, over the original series’ nine-season run, spun wildly out of control. (Though, for me, that was always a large part of the fun.)
And it’s not like the new mythology is any less ridiculously complex. (Or zippy, for that matter: “My Struggle” depends on a narrative velocity only possible in episodic television of a certain, somewhat outmoded stripe.) In brief: With the aid of O’Malley and an alien abductee named Sveta (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru), Mulder realizes that a group of elite men were behind all the alien activity he and Scully investigated over the years. Using technology stolen from the downed Roswell UFO, these one-percenters plan to instigate a full global collapse that will allow them to take over the United States and, eventually, the world. The episode’s final sequence reveals the puppet master: the devilish Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), who somehow escaped from the fiery explosion that consumed him in the original series finale.
Is this a truly insidious plot or, per Scully, is it “fearmongering claptrap isolationist techno-paranoia so bogus, and dangerous, and stupid that it borders on treason?” (One of the great pleasures of The X-Files is watching how well the actors sell Carter’s earnestly florid dialogue — a tangled web in and of itself.) The sequence where Mulder and O’Malley lay out the new convolutions is the real make-or-break point, especially for viewers who prefer the series’ standalone “Monster of the Week” episodes to its long-running and oft-perplexing main-story arc.
Here’s my suggestion: Don’t focus on the serpentine extraterrestrial narrative. It’s like the great whatsit in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly — a mystery box whose makeup doesn’t matter as much as the ineffable (and literal) bright light at its center. In this case, that light is the enigmatic relationship between Mulder and Scully. Though shaky in terms of performance, the key scene in “My Struggle” comes when Scully confronts Mulder on his front porch about his new crusade. “You want to believe! You so badly want to believe!” she says with a cringing-ly off-key affect. He returns the favor with a no less discordant, “The truth is out there, Scully!”
It feels like both Duchovny and Anderson are flailing about, trying to find characters they haven’t inhabited for many years. (I wouldn’t be surprised to discover this scene was scheduled early on in the shooting schedule.) But as the sequence goes on, their old rhythms emerge: “You are on dangerous ground here!” Scully says, with recognizable authoritativeness. Mulder replies with a quiet, half-mad, “I know what I’m doing.” When Sveta interrupts their exchange, the look on Scully’s face changes profoundly. You can tell she’s hurt — jealous on the one hand, but also defeated. Without even knowing the specifics, she can glean what Mulder is up to.
It’s the usual: tilting against windmills. That quixotic obsessiveness that both repels her and eventually draws her back in. Another example of the mysterious bond that holds them together, try as they might to deny it.
“You know what you’re doing,” Scully says, irked yet acquiescent. And so does this new mini-series.
Musings of a Non-Cigarette-Smoking Fan:
- A lot of intriguing new wrinkles are added to the mythology: Children at Scully’s hospital are stricken with Microtia, a congenital deformity characterized by underdeveloped ears. When O’Malley refers to their look as “alien,” Scully notes that the disease is most common in Navajo Indians, calling up memories of the “Anasazi”/”Blessing Way”/”Paper Clip” trilogy from the second and third seasons. Mulder, meanwhile, is taken by O’Malley to a secret base — run by a scientist played by Carter favorite Hiro Kanagawa — where he’s shown an Alien Replica Vehicle that runs on free energy and can vanish with the aid of a synthetic element known as ununpentium. Though the ARV is ultimately destroyed by the armies of the elite villains, it’ll be interesting to see how, and if, these particular threads are developed.
- Scully and Sveta have a nicely tense sequence in the hospital that touches on Mulder and Scully’s mysterious, maybe half-alien baby William (who was given up for adoption toward the end of season nine), as well as Scully’s own abduction experiences. No one stares right through a person quite like Gillian Anderson.
- The young doctor in the Roswell flashbacks returns in the present day as an informant to Mulder, played by Rance Howard. His last line (“Roswell … that was a smoke screen”) is a nice nod to a similar bit of dialogue spoken by Mulder’s first informant, Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), in season one.
- The episode seems to share a title with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but Chris Carter said that he borrowed it from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s sprawling autobiographical novel of the same name.
- O’Malley’s courting of Scully throughout the episode — visiting her at the hospital, drinking champagne with her in his limo — is sure to send plenty of Philes into a tizzy.
- Among the other returning veterans: composer Mark Snow (whose score adopts a lower-register timbre to complement Mulder and Scully’s world-weariness), production designer Mark Freeborn, editor Heather MacDougall, and cinematographer Joel Ransom.
- Speaking of Ransom, I love the shot of the setting sun as it flares behind the Roswell UFO.
- I like how in the second movie, the search engine of choice was Google, but in this mini-series it’s the fictional Finder-Spyder. You get the product placement you can afford, I guess.
- Toward the end of the episode, Scully sees the words “Don’t Give Up” written on a dusty windshield. This is what the former priest and pedophile Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) says to Scully in I Want to Believe. In the film it eventually becomes a mantra for Mulder and Scully, so it’s nice to see it return here.
- The Smoking Man sits before a fireplace emblazoned with “Carpe Diem.” I suspect his day of seizure is near.