This season of The X-Files has never managed to entirely recapture the engagingly nerdy procedural tone of the show’s 1990s-era incarnation. This discrepancy in tones, between the crusading idealism of the past and the qualified resignation of the present, is evident in David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s performances as F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, as they often seem to be parodying the steadfastness of their characters, informing their roles with an element of debauched detachment. This ineffability also lurks in the cinematography, which is somewhat heightened and lurid, emphasizing low-grade effects in a manner that refutes the more conventionally convincing thriller mechanics of classic seasons of The X-Files. An uncertainty has run through these six episodes, a self-conscious audition reel for potential full-on resurrection.
The season finale, “My Struggle II,” written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, is charged with implicative catharsis. It’s the first episode of the season to channel, however fleetingly, the emotional paranoia of a vintage episode. “My Struggle II” is a “mythology” episode, which is to say that it’s laboriously breathless and busy with unending exposition that only makes as much sense as it has to. But it also offers the chief pleasure of a solid mythos torch bearer—namely, the sense of the plot mattering only as a pretense for reveling in the hyper-charged energy of passionate professionals coming alive in crisis, when allowed to call on the highest level of their abilities.
Facetious spoiler alert: In terms of narrative, it doesn’t matter how many seasons of The X-Files will ultimately be allowed to exist. Whether the series is renewed for another year, or runs for another decade, Mulder and Scully will never find for us a satisfactory explanation for the conspiracy to do something to humankind with alien collaboration, whether it’s to enslave or largely annihilate it. Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) will never be brought decisively to justice, just as he will never triumph over Mulder and Scully. They exist in an endless temporal loop and they know it, which reflects the loops that are our lives, composed of problems that are varied in recurring patterns, only ending when we cease to breathe. Carter’s single greatest inspiration, perhaps partially inadvertent, is to imbue the necessary contrivances of a long-running television series with a hint of the irrational and the existential. In this fashion, The X-Files resembles Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
This temporal loop is what Cigarette Smoking Man is referring to when he tells Mulder that he’s made his own life worth living. Cigarette Smoking Man’s evil deeds, associated with the Syndicate, are informed by Mulder with personal stakes and gamesmanship. Mulder’s earnestness, which returns to The X-Files with full force in “My Struggle II,” excites, maybe even touches the Cigarette Smoking Man. This antagonist’s return to the series, after a few jokey cameos throughout the season, also serves to restore to The X-Files its distinctively elaborate and poignant cheesiness.
For there’s plenty of cheese in “My Struggle II,” and not all of it is as satisfying as Mulder’s confrontation with Cigarette Smoking Man in the latter’s rarefied mansion, as the villain waxes demonic while offering Mulder a glimpse at his new true form: a withered, burned away face that recalls that of the Phantom of the Opera. Regrettably, the narrative pivots on dull disease-of-the-week tropes, following Scully as she teams up with the absurdly named Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) to halt the latest iteration of the Syndicate’s alien conspiracy, which is a systematic effort to shut down the world population’s immune system, using genetic encoding within vaccines, to which only alien DNA is immune.
As a colleague remarked, “My Struggle II” is unusually comprehensible for a “mythology” episode, and that’s partially the rub. Longtime viewers of the series may react to the immune-system conspiracy, which yields something called the Spartan virus, with a shrug. Ten years’ worth of alien hugger-mugger only bought us an apocalyptic disease narrative that circles back yet again to Mulder and Scully’s alien love child, William, who’s never been as interesting as Carter seems to think he is? Of course, Carter will eventually change the rules of the mythos, as he always does, hitting restart whenever it suits him, and it says something about the interest of the Spartan MacGuffin that, for once, we’re actually rooting for that restart option.
But Carter’s direction is considerably more confident here than in “My Struggle” and “Babylon.” Like good or even serviceable mythology episodes of The X-Files, the plot of “My Struggle II” takes a backseat to a pervading sense of horror-noir menace. The images of Cigarette Smoking Man, particularly in his mansion, have an unnerving formality, as lush earthy colors mix with fire to offer a symbolic suggestion of hell, which is literalized by a memorable line of dialogue, when Cigarette Smoking Man tells an ailing Mulder: “You speak to me of hell, you’re the one who appears to be hell-bound.”
Even the procedural scenes with Scully and Einstein are informed with a constantly thrumming sense of chaos. The make-up employed for the victims of the Spartan virus is hokey, but the images of people looting and destroying city buildings have an unfussy urgency that’s exacerbated by the panicky clips we see of The Tad O’Malley Show, which are more believably, compellingly rendered than they were in “My Struggle.” These images collectively forge a theme that, for once, Carter doesn’t land with endless speechifying. The unity brokered between Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), a conservative, and Mulder and Scully, presumably liberal, speaks of showbiz politics as a charade that must be discarded for the sake of deeper infrastructural salvation, from the destructive likes of the Syndicate, which is increasingly evolving to resemble the quite real Koch brothers. Despite its uncertainties, “My Struggle II” fulfills this season’s promise by bringing The X-Files into the 21st century, revealing paranoia, which isn’t always paranoia, to be timeless.
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