In Defense of Chris Carter’s Latest Season of The X-Files

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David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in "Home Again." Photo: Ed Araquel/FOX

Two things:

First, I liked season ten of The X-Files. In fact, I’m grateful for it. It was far, far, far from perfect. But so was the original series. And as in the original run, even at its weakest, there was more to season ten than detractors suggest.

Second, I don’t think series creator Chris Carter should step down as producer, step back as writer or director, or otherwise withdraw from the show, as many have suggested, no matter how disappointed some viewers or my fellow critics were by his contributions.

Not that he’ll be asked to — the tenth season did very well in the ratings (the finale drew 7.5 million people), and Carter has already had conversations about more episodes with Fox. But even if disappointed viewers were to push a petition or send cracked flying saucers to Fox headquarters in protest, I can’t see Carter being pushed out, much less going willingly. And I’m glad for that, because The X-Files is his show, and he’s a popular artist. That’s right: artist.

Not that my opinion will sway the consensus — nor should it — but I don’t think season ten was egregiously horrible or even particularly bad by X-Files standards. It’s one of my favorite long-running series in TV history, and like a lot of long-running series, it’s always had good and bad weeks, good and bad seasons. Like a lot of long-running series, it probably went on too long, improvised its way into a few too many dead-end plotlines, and trotted out too many half-assed reiterations of elements that were perhaps not the show’s strong suit anyway; I’m thinking mainly of the ongoing conspiracy plotline, which eventually made Carter seem like an illusionist who had run out of illusions and was just playing for time. In its last three, maybe four years, it pulled a rabbit out of a hat that had been pulled out of another hat that had been pulled out of yet another hat, and so on, and so on, until even die-hard viewers quit feeling the magic and resented the tricks.

But if these flaws, or “issues,” were apparent in season ten as well, so were the show’s considerable virtues, and after revisiting all six episodes, I believe it’s the virtues that will resonate over time.

Season ten got off to a rocky start in the exposition-and-fan-service-clogged premiere “My Struggle” — which is understandable when you think of Carter, co-stars Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, and their collaborators as a band that hadn’t jammed together in 14 years. But the band started to get its groove back in “Founder’s Mutation,” a pretty good Monster of the Week in the “afflicted soothsayer” vein that the show always did well, with a mild injection of mythology in the form of fantasies and flashbacks pertaining to Mulder and Scully’s son, who was given up for adoption in season nine’s “William.”

Episodes three and four, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and “Home Again,” ranked with the best of the original series. I wrote a separate column about the first, a typically oddball charmer from Darin Morgan — the Donald Barthelme of The X-Files, or maybe the Charlie Kaufman. But the second, written and directed by Darin Morgan’s brother, Glen, was just as good, albeit quite different in tone, style, and aim. Here, too, the show blended MOW and mythology elements, switching between an investigation into the Band-Aid Nose Man, a murderous, golemlike creature unleashed by a homeless artist protesting the mistreatment of his fellow homeless, and Scully’s grief over the illness and death of her mother, Margaret.

The plotlines merged in a semi-narrated sequence that cut between the artist, Trashman (superbly played by musician-actor Tim Armstrong of Rancid), and Scully, bereft and lost in thought as she remembered the birth of William, her son with Mulder. There was no one-to-one correlation between an artist giving birth to art and a mother giving birth to a child; this association was teased out through the dialogue, photography, and editing. Scully made them herself by the end, but through what seemed like emotional rather than intellectual leaps.

The scene also seemed to be suggesting — heretically, to some — that artists do bear responsibility for the art they put out into the world; that the onus is not exclusively on the audience that experiences or consumes the art. “You are responsible,” Scully says, emerging from her reverie and merging the episode’s plotlines with her words. “If you make the problem, if it was your idea, then you’re responsible. You put it out of sight so that it wouldn’t be your problem. But you’re as bad as the people that you hate.”

“Home Again” established Glen Morgan as one of the more overtly political and satirical storytellers on The X-Files. The sequence in which a smug and hypocritical enemy of the homeless got murdered by the golem to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” was the show at its most scathing. But episode five, “Babylon,” was its nearly incompetent twin.

Written and directed by Carter, it was a disaster, lumpy and unfocused. And it portrayed both Muslim immigrants and Texas rednecks — an axis of offense you definitely don’t see every day — in a lazily stereotypical way that undercut Mulder’s goofy-dreamy peyote trip and Carter’s hippie-surfer One World utopianism.

But even here, there were fascinating, if only dimly realized, ideas slip-sliding around in the episode’s margins. The script tried to tie all the various elements together with allusions to the story of the Tower of Babel and the culture-crossing power of Mother Love, and it didn’t quite work. But it’s fascinating how Scully’s revelation in “Home Again” mirrors Mulder’s peyote trip. Both are examples of the show's tendency, derived from Twin Peaks, to show characters seeking answers through intuitive or emotional means, not just through facts and logic.

The finale, “My Struggle, Part II,” is a bag of problems in the vein of ones that hampered the premiere (which was probably inevitable, given that it’s entirely Carter’s story and is dependent on his exposition-heavy dialogue). I didn’t believe that the paranoiac Mulder would have a phone locator on his laptop in the first place, much less have it right there on the desktop where Agent Miller (Robbie Amell) could use it, without any serious security measures preventing that.

But this episode, too, has merits. I found it exhausting, and not in an entirely bad way, and it seemed inevitable that Carter would stir in some anti-vaxxer paranoia along with all the other ingredients in the gumbo: it’s not responsible, in any real-world sense, to validate all the other conspiracies the show has featured since 1993, either, but that’s what The X-Files does, when it’s indulging the horror-movie mandate of “Whatever you fear most is what’s actually happening.” The sight of civilization falling apart right before our eyes was expertly rendered: the sick, weak Mulder driving back from South Carolina; the war veteran with the hideous, bubbly scar where his anthrax vaccination once was.

And considering how many times in the past that Carter has added yet another layer or wrinkle to the show’s ongoing mythology, are we really surprised and/or outraged that he’d do it again here, and that he’d put the fire-maimed Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) in the position of pulling the trigger on a species-wide extinction that’s been in the works since Roswell? “The world will go on, just in my image instead of God’s” was a great, chilling line, and the sight of the Smoking Man, this series’ own personal Satan, removing a piece of his face to show his true form was unnerving, especially coupled with the scene’s insinuation that he and Mulder complete each other in some way. It tied in with the exchange between Mulder and Scully near the end of “Babylon,”* describing the show’s deeper conflict as being between “deep and unconditional love” and “unqualified hate that appears to have no end."

Will “Mother Love” “trump all hatred,” as that same episode seemed to promise? If so, I think Scully, not William, might turn out to be the key to a happy ending, if The X-Files decides to give us one. And if it doesn’t, that’s its prerogative, and wholly consistent with everything the series has shown us to date. The endless slog of life is baked into the show’s narrative, and the sight of the noticeably older Scully, Mulder, Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and the Smoking Man all engaged in the same struggle all these years later felt true to me, and reminded me of what I liked so much about The Force Awakens and Creed, two “legacy” sequels that extended previous incarnations of a franchise into the present rather than merely erasing them and starting over with a reboot.

Einstein and Miller are pretty clearly positioned as the heirs to Scully and Mulder: Einstein even has red hair like Scully and is a rationalist, while “Mulder” and “Miller” are near-rhymes. Seeing the four of them in the same frame had a generational resonance, like seeing Rocky Balboa train his former opponent’s son, or Han Solo and Princess Leia’s son face off against a young woman whose identity is still unresolved, but might turn out to be either a blood heir to another character in the Star Wars universe or at the very least an important protégé of Luke Skywalker.

In any case, I trust Carter, not to deliver another batch of episodes that give me exactly what I personally want, but to make more installments of The X-Files that are funny, strange, and often confounding. And I deeply mistrust the instinct among some viewers to say that because he and his colleagues didn’t dot every I and cross every T, and gave us some episodes that were in a fundamental way weak or bad, that he no longer deserves to be the person in charge of this ongoing franchise. This is a great and innovative television series, not a restaurant, and we shouldn’t be responding to it as if we were diners who went to our favorite restaurant, didn’t get the meal we thought we had a right to expect, and then wrote a bad review on Yelp. It’s more complicated than that.

It isn’t always more complicated across popular culture, not with every TV series or film; some things really are all about fan service, about trying to be all things to all people at all times. But The X-Files is in a class by itself, with its simultaneous embrace of one-off, stand-alone stories and serialized narrative, and its ability to jump between exceptionally dire, even borderline-humorless end-of-the-world fear-mongering and lighter episodes that spend 15 minutes with Mulder hearing a lycanthropic amphibian tell his life story while standing in a graveyard ringed by tombstones bearing the names of people who died during the show’s 23-year run.

Carter’s not the coach of a football team or the CEO of a publicly traded company, and he shouldn’t be pushed out because the team had a bad season or the company had a bad quarter. Thinking about him in those terms — which is what a good number of people seem to be doing — is bad for television, and bad for creativity in general. We are all invested in The X-Files because we watch and love it, but that doesn’t mean we own it. Carter does, and even if you only think there were two good episodes in this most recent batch of six, it still means he’s batting .300, which in baseball constitutes a great season for whoever’s at bat — more so if he’s been out of this particular game since 2002.

* An earlier version of this piece misidentified "Babylon" as "Home Again."