When Fox announced that the first and last episodes of this season of The X-Files would be the only ones written and directed by Chris Carter, the safe assumption was that the eight in the middle would be “Monster of the Week” episodes, ones that stand apart from the show’s mythology. “This,” written and directed by X-Files veteran Glen Morgan, isn’t exactly that. It’s an hour with direct ties to multiple episodes from the show’s past, including the finales of season one and nine. Yet it’s also a fresh, fast-paced hour that feels current with its commentary on international conspiracies and the theory that we’re all living in a simulation. It’s even an episode that recalls Black Mirror in the way it examines virtual consciousness and technological control of identity.
When the Lone Gunmen were sacrificed at the end of “The Truth,” the original series finale of The X-Files in 2002, many fans were disappointed by the fate of their favorite characters. In a sense, “This” brings at least one of them back to life. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are sleeping on the couch when a message comes through from the other side: “Am I dead? If I am, they know that I know.” It’s Richard Langly! Is he really still alive? What could he possibly be talking about? Before they can figure out what’s going on, assassins burst through the door and a shoot-out ensues. Mulder and Scully may have been quasi-retired for years, but they still have wicked fighting skills. They take out two of ‘em, but a third, grey-haired baddie escapes. And then their backup arrives.
It turns out that very powerful people were behind the dual-assassination attempt, and they may have ties to the Russians. (Cue those looking for a Trump-era analogy.) Mulder and Scully escape into the foggy woods — the woods are always foggy on The X-Files — and they run into Skinner. It’s interesting to see the lack of trust between Mulder/Scully and Skinner after the events of last week’s episode. It looks like it will be some time before we get answers to the questions regarding that controversial revelation about Scully and the Cigarette Smoking Man, but “My Struggle III” clearly carved a rift between our beloved trio that could resonate all season. Skinner tries to help them, giving cash and a hint about Langly being buried at Arlington. It’s time to solve a Lone Gunmen puzzle!
Scully and Mulder get to Arlington and find their tombstones, but they’re not quite right. The birth and death dates are off and Langly’s is even facing in the wrong direction. After solving a questionably convoluted puzzle, they come upon the tombstone of … Deep Throat! New fans of The X-Files may not remember the fantastic character played by Jerry Hardin from the first season, who was killed at the end of the season. We learn that his name was Ronald Pakula (a reference to ‘70s conspiracy-movie director Alan Pakula, perhaps?) and they find a chip with a QR code in his tombstone. And then they’re attacked again! This episode is really just an alternating succession of dialogue and fight scenes, but it somehow still works.
After battling the third assassin, Mulder and Scully scan the code to find images of the Long Lines building in New York City. It’s the home of an NSA program called Titanpointe and a project code named Blarney. There really is a Long Lines Building in Manhattan and there really was an NSA surveillance program there called Titanpointe. The X-Files often grounds its conspiracy theories in reality — just think of the mileage they’ve gotten out of Roswell — and this is yet another interesting case of that happening.
After running into Skinner in a parking garage, Mulder and Scully learn that the X-Files have been put online and, of course, hacked. All of Mulder and Scully’s work is out there in the ether, probably available for purchase on the dark web by any nefarious organization that wants to know the secrets of the U.S. government. There’s a bit of commentary here on ownership of the show itself and how The X-FIles plays to fans who feel like they have a say in the way it should unfold: “What’s in them belongs to everyone. That’s the point of them.” That could be a fan complaining about the season premiere on a message board. Before things get too meta, though, Scully and Mulder are led to Karen Hamby, the woman who knows the truth about whether or not Langly is still alive.
The answer is “sorta.” Hamby explains that the message was sent from what is basically a virtual simulation of Langly. It turns out they uploaded their consciousness into a simulation that would come to life when they died (in echoes of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, which will be a Netflix show in a few weeks). Langly put in a fail-safe in case they were lying about life in a simulation — a way to say hello from the other side. That’s when the bad guy finds them again! How does he keep doing that? Maybe this is a simulation? Is Elon Musk right?! This time, the guy is really shot.
Ultimately, they find a way to communicate with Langly, who poignantly conveys the horror of virtual heaven. He eats hot dogs and doughnuts all day. The Ramones play every night and never fight. The New England Patriots always lose. But it’s just too perfect. And inside this simulated Valhalla, the great minds of our world like Steve Jobs and Michael Crichton have been reduced to digital slaves. Mulder and Scully need to shut it down.
The episode climaxes in the Long Lines Building. As Scully works her way to the server, Mulder has a long scene with Erika Price, the mysterious character we met last week who’s played by Barbara Hershey. Price advises Mulder to change the way he looks at the world. This is the technological evolution of mankind. After wondering if he could get uploaded with Scully — or possibly just killing time so Dana can find the server — Mulder escapes. They turn off the simulation and basically just walk out, bringing FBI agents back to find an empty office and missing computers.
If this episode has a major weakness, it’s the climax, which isn’t really there and feels too simple. It’s also kind of a depressing ending to a relatively light episode: In a macabre twist, Langly is still suffering in a simulation because they didn’t get the backup. Maybe you really can’t fight evolution, even a technological one.
• Mulder says “adorbs,” mimics putting his finger in his mouth to puke, and does a Hannibal Lecter impression. Let the GIF-ing begin!
• It’s hard to overstate how groundbreaking the death of Deep Throat in “The Erlenmeyer Flask” felt for fans. It helped define the tone of the series by revealing the stakes and upping the danger. Key characters could die.
• One of the files that Skinner leafed through on the computer was for Home, Pennsylvania, the setting of the controversial “Home” episode from the fourth season, co-written by Glen Morgan. It’s particularly funny that this episode would be referenced as a file that’s saved because Fox practically tried to scrub it from the show’s history for a few years.
• Naturally, the tombstones in Arlington contained some Easter eggs. The first belongs to Terry Hutcheson, an apparent nod to the visual-effects producer who worked with X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz on The Man in the High Castle and many other shows. The second belongs to Maximilian Lyman, which I’m guessing refers to a crew member by the same name from season 11. The third belongs to Julie Ng, who produced a TV special called The X-Files: Re-Opened that aired before season ten. The final one, George Donald Rivers, is the toughest to uncover. Might it refer to an old episode of The Outer Limits, in which Alan Thicke played a man named Donald Rivers who uncovered government conspiracies about cloning? Given the plot of this episode, I think it could. I want to believe.