There’s a moment in an upcoming episode of the new season of The X-Files that’ll bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s stuck with this show through thick and thin. FBI special agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) are in a cemetery, trying to find a certain tombstone, when they begin attaching historically significant dates to the birth dates and death dates on the stones. This one was born on the day this famous person died, and this other person was born on the day another famous person died, and so on. They affectionately bust each other’s chops, as Scully and Mulder always do, and then it inevitably dawns on them that there is a pattern here, one that will lead them to the tombstone they seek, and they discover it intuitively, like little kids making up rules to a new game on a playground. And damned if they aren’t proved right. The most significant element that The X-Files borrowed from Twin Peaks is the freedom to let characters figure things out by listening to their feelings, analyzing their dreams, or just having fun. There are several scenes like this in the new season, and they’re all gifts.
The rest of it isn’t half-bad, either. The last season of writer-producer-director Chris Carter’s never-ending magnum opus got mixed to negative reviews, and deservedly so. You could always feel the goodwill emanating from the screen and fans returned it, but except for the episodes by Glen Morgan (“Home Again”) and Darin Morgan (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster“), none it it really clicked in the way that it needed to. It was hard to tell if the season had too few episodes, too many (maybe another stand-alone film would’ve been a better approach), or if Carter and company were simply rusty and slightly out of tune and missing the beat, which tends to happen whenever you try to get the old band back together after a decade-plus of not sharing a garage. This new batch of episodes is considerably stronger. Even the ones that don’t really do much but spin their wheels do so with feeling, and when the show is great — as it is, yet again, in Darin Morgan’s episode — it’s downright sublime.
The season more fully integrates the story of Scully and Mulder’s son, William, by putting him at the center of an international conspiracy to wipe out the world’s population with a plague. (As far as I can discern, anyway.) Intriguingly, while the filmmakers still mix densely packed and relatively humorless mythology episodes about the ongoing international plot to do yadda yadda with one-offs that let Scully and Mulder solve a mystery together, they also pull off a couple of episodes that feel like hybrids of the two forms, including one built around the bureau of the X-Files itself. It all kicks off with another exposition-choked conspiracy episode by Carter — titled “My Struggle, Part III,” unfortunately; let’s presume Carter embraced the Hitler-Knaussgaard echoes for a good reason — which picks up where the cliff-hanger ending of the preceding season finale left off. Carter is one of the most exposition-dumpy TV scribes of all time, and this one is a hall of famer: Not only is it stuffed with dialogue that amounts to little more than the writers preemptively asking and answering questions that might otherwise be posed by literal-minded fans on Twitter, it leans heavily on voice-over that doesn’t always feel organically anchored to the story. But it also features some of Anderson and Duchovny’s best close-up acting, particularly when they’re separated, and it’s a kick to see Carter, always one of the most formally adventurous of the show’s main voices, going wild with the parallel editing, jumping between multiple timelines and hypothetical scenarios as if he’d recently binge-watched the complete works of Christopher Nolan.
The other episodes are strong — maybe not season three or four strong, but season seven or eight strong, which is nothing to sneeze at. There’s an episode set in and around a ghostly tanker with a story line that has echoes of the Slenderman urban legend, and one that puts Scully and Mulder on a case in which multiple murder victims reported seeing doubles of themselves right before their demise. The Darin Morgan episode, titled “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” is a perfect swan dive into postmodernism and goofing around. Among other things, it shoots a stylistically spot-on, nonexistent Twilight Zone episode in black and white, posits an explanation for the phenomenon of false cultural memory that’s as good as the explanation for déjà vu in The Matrix, and treats us to a YouTube video that answers the burning question “What if Thomas Pynchon wrote Abbott and Costello’s ‘Who’s on First’ routine?’” (A comment below the video tells the creator, “The editing could’ve been tighter.”) We also get to see Scully and Mulder have multiple parking-garage conversations with the latest Deep Throat character, a brilliant and theoretically minded nebbish named Reggie (Brian Huskey, who could play Stephen Tobolowsky’s kid brother quite convincingly). “A conspiracy nut is right twice a day,” he tells them, misremembering the saying just as Mulder seems to be misremembering the very first Twilight Zone he ever saw. When Scully suggests that Mulder is confusing a Twilight Zone episode with one from The Outer Limits, he whines, “Do you even know me?”
This season also stages a close-quarters gunfight that’s surprisingly intense for The X-Files, lets Mulder hold forth on his lifelong fascination with Bigfoot, and has Scully talk about a brand of gelatin she loved as a child (except for the lime-flavored version, which she says tastes like “Leprechaun taint”). If you’re a fan of this series, I can’t imagine watching the new season and finding nothing to enjoy. It’s a pleasant, clever, and sometimes inspired reunion with old friends who were right on the verge of wearing out their welcome when they suddenly reminded you of all the reasons why you loved them in the first place.