Tonight’s episode of The X-Files certainly gives viewers a lot to digest. “Ghouli” is a buffet of what this show does: part mythology, part stand-alone, part urban legend, part conspiracy theory, part action, part drama. But with all of those styles in play, it felt tonally inconsistent and X-Files vet James Wong couldn’t quite get a hold on all the various elements as a cohesive whole. Even Gillian Anderson, who has been excellent this season, overplayed a few of the more emotional beats, and the dialogue too often had that “Chris Carter exposition dump” approach to storytelling. In the end, it still feels like an important episode — Scully and Mulder know more about their son now than they did before — but we got to that point with our clunkiest storytelling since the season premiere.
“Ghouli” riffs on the concept of sleep paralysis, a true condition in which people freeze up in fear, haunted by shadowy figures in what is basically a waking nightmare. It also throws in a little bit of internet urban legend not unlike the Slenderman, opening with a scene in which two young ladies chase after a creature known as Ghouli, leading them to a ship called the Chimera. Believing they’re being attacked by Ghouli, they slice each other up with knives, nearly killing one another.
At the same time, Scully has her own bout with sleep paralysis, informing us about the third state between sleep and wakefulness known as hypnagogia. Frozen in bed, unable to move, she imagines she sees a shadowy figure that she has to follow, waking up in a house different than her own, and being led to the same rundown ferry that we saw in the opening scene. Have Scully’s prophetic dreams from “My Struggle III” manifested into something else? A new evolution in how we communicate while we’re asleep? Scully’s “waking dream” leads her and Mulder to the case of Ghouli, and, eventually, to their long-lost son, William.
After talking to the two girls, cut up but alive, the agents learn that they had the same boyfriend, Jackson Vandecamp. They go to his house, which turns out to be the same one from Scully’s waking dream, and hear gunshots. Jackson’s parents are dead in the kitchen, and Jackson appears to have shot himself upstairs as the final act of a vicious murder-suicide. But something doesn’t look right.
Jackson clearly wanted Scully to be there, and she soon discerns that this is similar to the telepathic connection she’s felt with her son William in the past. She becomes convinced that Jackson is William, looking through old photos in his room and marveling at his snow globes. Anderson is a bit overdirected here, with her whispered lines like “I need answers” amping up the melodrama a bit too quickly. There could have been a natural confusion and wonder about all of this, but Wong and Anderson throw Scully into an emotional mode instantly. Before you know it, she’s giving a heartfelt speech to the body on the slab that she believes is her son. (To be fair, she’s not bad in this scene, it just feels like it comes on so suddenly.) Before that, though, we learn that Jackson was a Malcolm X fan, with the quote above his bed that feels perfect for The X-Files: “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
While they try to determine if Jackson really is William, Scully has another incident of sleep paralysis in the hospital waiting room. She can’t move, and winds up rolling off the couch. She follows a shadowy figure and sees the windmill snow globe from Jackson’s room. It’s another dream, and she awakens to find Jackson’s body is missing — but it looks like he escaped the morgue from the inside. She runs into a man outside who breaks her snow globe, then advises her, “Don’t give up on the bigger picture.”
Mulder and Scully are looking through Jackson’s room when they find a hidden computer, revealing how much the young man was behind the Ghouli phenomenon. A few men in black try to take over the case, but Mulder pulls the old spilled-drink-on-the-laptop technique to slow them down. Oh, tricky Mulder. Skinner calls to bring Mulder in and we get our first sighting of the Cigarette-Smoking Man since the season premiere. It’s pure exposition cameo, though, revealing that Mulder is close to discovering “Project Crossroads,” the eugenics program that merged human and alien DNA and led to the creation of William. How close to discovering, exactly? In a truly clunky exposition dump, Skinner goes to meet with Mulder on the Chimera and tells him all about it. He’s that close. Mulder also reveals that William was his son with Scully, and that Jackson is indeed the missing child. Phew, got that all out of the way.
After analyzing the spatter patterns, Mulder reveals that William didn’t kill his parents, and then conveys the idea that the kid can alter perception. He made them hear a shot and see a hole in his head. He was never dead. Meanwhile, William goes to the hospital to visit his girlfriends, telling one of them how Ghouli was just a prank gone out of control. Sirens blare out front and a clunky action sequence follows. He uses his powers of perception to get people on the same side to shoot each other, and then escapes in the ensuing chaos.
In the episode’s closing scenes, Mulder and Scully stop at a gas station with a windmill reminiscent of the snow globe from William’s room. She runs into Dr. Masamoto yet again, but it’s not Masamoto. Mulder and Scully figure this out after the kind man quotes Malcolm: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” It was William. Now when will they see him again?
• In case you missed it, the opening credits closed with an episode-specific tag: “You See What I Want You to See.”
• Curious about sleep paralysis? Check out a movie called The Nightmare.
• Curious about legends like the Slenderman? Movie recommendation, two: Beware the Slenderman.
• James Wong is an X-Files legend, having written “Squeeze,” “Ice,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Tooms,” “Little Green Men,” “Home,” “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” and many more episodes. He also helmed the first and third Final Destination movies.
• The book in William’s room is called The Pick Up Artist: Memoirs of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing and it’s written by Peter Wong. It’s not a real book, but perhaps an inside joke for James Wong and his family?
• We’re halfway through what seems like the final season of The X-Files. Are you happy it came back? What’s your favorite episode so far? What do you want from the second half?