Last week's X-Files episode, "Babylon," ended with a sign from above. Trumpets sounded in the sky. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) heard them. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) did not. The season finale, written and directed by creator Chris Carter, plunges us straight into the portended abyss.
"My Struggle II" opens with a monologue similar to the one in the season premiere. This time, it's Scully recounting her work on the X-Files — how it challenged her faith in science and spirituality, even as it reinforced one of the core beliefs she's clung to from the start of her career. "The answers are there," she said to Mulder in the original series' pilot episode. "You just have to know where to look."
And look Scully does, prompted by Mulder's absence when she gets into work one morning. The only clue to her partner's whereabouts is an open webpage on his computer. It's the latest broadcast from conspiracy-theorist talk-show host Tad O'Malley (Joel McHale). He's dropping another bombshell about the elite group of men who are using alien technology to facilitate a global takeover, though the convoluted substance of what he says is less important than the hypnotic effect it has on Scully.
There's a wonderfully pulpy shot during this sequence, the camera zooming deep into Scully's eye as O'Malley's paranoid aria reaches its apex. It's the make-or-break point. Like Scully, Carter either has you in his mesmeric clutches, or he doesn't. Myself, I was more than willing to go along, in full lockstep, for the breathless series of events that follows.
The story is simple at heart: Scully and Mulder need to reunite, but per the title, they struggle mightily to get there. The alien DNA uncovered by Scully after she sequenced her genome in the season premiere is a key piece of the puzzle. It is inextricably related to her own long-ago abduction experience, as well as to what appear to be a series of mass infections that have struck the American populace.
This all goes back to one of the original series' prominent plot points: The government's use of smallpox vaccinations to catalogue and, as it now becomes clear, tamper with the immune systems of the citizenry via a so-called "Spartan Virus." Once the Spartan Virus is activated, anyone who doesn't have alien DNA will fall victim to all manner of diseases, paving the way for a new world order. Basically, the alien DNA is an immunological shield for the one percent elite. Scully, who is also shielded because of her abduction experience, spends the bulk of the episode alongside Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), both of them working through the science that undergirds the impending cataclysm.
Two actual scientists, Dr. Anne Simon and Dr. Margaret Fearon, collaborated with Carter on this story, though the authenticity they impart doesn't make any of the plot twists seem any less absurd. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. The X-Files has always struck a strange balance between the ridiculous and the sublime, often depending on the ability of its performers to appear as if they know what they're talking about while spouting rapid-fire, jargon-heavy dialogue. Here, I think the real-world facts go a long way toward giving Carter and his actors a sturdy frame within which they can fully embrace the pulpy elements.
This is an episode, after all, that features a character who miraculously survived a missile attack in the original series finale and puffs tobacco through a hole in his throat. I'm speaking, of course, of the villainous Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis), henceforth CSM, who oversees the immune-system apocalypse from an isolated house in South Carolina. He not only has his hooks in Mulder, who seeks out his allegedly dead antagonist (and biological father) after being nearly beaten to death in a superbly staged fight scene straight out of the Bourne movie series. CSM has also made a Faustian bargain with former Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), an X-Files investigator during seasons eight and nine. She gets in touch with Scully to explain the origins of the current plague, and reveals that CSM approached her a decade earlier with an offer to protect her from the coming epidemic.
"They haven't killed me yet, as hard as they may try," CSM says to Reyes during a flashback seduction to the dark side. Carter again focuses intensely and closely on the characters' eyes as they portentously talk through things. "Is it hard to look at me?" CSM asks Reyes, with a malevolent lilt. It's fun to be bad, though Davis continues to play CSM as a man absolutely persuaded of the correctness of his convictions. When Mulder confronts his nemesis once more — a sequence staged to recall similar showdowns from season two's "One Breath" and season six's "One Son" — CSM makes every attempt to justify his actions. He blames humans for the decrepit state of the world and insists his attempts to decimate the population are the ultimate countermeasure. "I just changed the timetable," he says. "Everyone still dies in the end."
That includes Mulder, who, despite feeling the effects of the immune-system shutdown, valiantly refuses all of CSM's offers to cure him. He's eventually rescued by Agent Miller (Robbie Amell), Agent Einstein's partner, who tracks Mulder to CSM's lair using the Find My iPhone function on Mulder's computer. CSM lets them go, and before vanishing into the shadows, he instructs Miller to say good-bye to Mulder for him before he dies. (Davis plays the exchange with a potent mix of hubris and regret.) Miller is also succumbing to illness, but he manages to call Scully to inform her of their whereabouts, then drives Mulder back to the D.C. area for the episode's big climax.
The world is going to hell, but Scully thinks she has a solution: She can extract some of the alien DNA within her and manufacture a vaccine. (The characters on The X-Files often have to look inward to combat the outward forces that threaten them.) She then races to meet Miller and Mulder on a bridge on the outskirts of the city. People are rioting. Tad O'Malley, looking worse for wear, reports on the destruction despite a gradual breakdown of internet connections. Agent Einstein is in the hospital, near death, just like innumerable others. Carter has so many plates spinning by this point that the tension is unbearable.
Scully finally meets with Miller and Mulder on the bridge. One look at her partner and she realizes her impromptu vaccine won't be enough to heal him. He's at the point, Scully surmises, where only stem cells from their son William (whom Scully genetically gifted with alien DNA) can save him.
A light suddenly appears overhead. It's the targeting beam from one of the alien replica vehicles that Mulder saw in the series premiere. And it's aimed directly at Scully. The camera zooms down toward her, her pupil filling the screen. (Those eyes again.) This isn't the light of revelation, but of likely destruction. Is it hard to look?
Cut to black. Roll credits. See you next season.
Musings of a Non-Cigarette-Smoking Fan:
- And that's the big question: Will there be a next season of The X-Files? Aside from the finale's brazen cliffhanger ending, the high ratings for the revival suggest that more episodes are very likely, and I'm certainly onboard for that. I think another mini-season of this sort would be just right, or maybe even the new normal of 13 episodes (though no more than that). Note to the Fox suits: Don't you dare try and stiff Gillian Anderson out of equal pay a third time.
- I suspect the cliffhanger ending will rub a lot of people the wrong way, though Carter handles every element around and leading up to it so confidently that I feel satisfied even in the irresolution. It certainly sets up some intriguing threads for another season, likely with William as a saviorlike figure, which would fit with the Christian symbology that Carter has cultivated throughout the series.
- Speaking of Carter, he's come in for a lot of pokes this season from fans and critics alike. For me, I admire the way he assuredly follows his muse, audience expectations be damned. I'm also inspired by his willingness to take risks, challenging and potentially alienating his audience (especially in last week's "Babylon," an episode I can't stop thinking about). Beyond that, I appreciate that he continues to give other distinctive writer/directors like Glen Morgan, James Wong, and Darin Morgan the freedom to take his characters and his world in a number of different, inspired directions. Should a new season come about, I'd love to see even more of the old writing team — like Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz, and Steven Maeda — back on board to do more of that.
- It's been tremendous fun writing these recaps, and I'd like to take a moment to thank my assigning editor Gazelle Emami, my editor Chris Heller for his eagle eye, and my friend Matt Zoller Seitz for recommending me for the gig. Thank you, too, to the readers who have gotten something out of these recaps and reached out to tell me so. It means the world.