Season 8, Episode 11: “The Gift”
Original Airdate: February 4, 2001
The X-Files has always been driven by absence. The absence of Samantha, to begin; the absence of Scully, for awhile; and now the absence of Mulder. Driven by, but not particularly constructed around. The missing are always sought-after, but intermittently, as monsters-of-the-week intervene and mythology threads go cold.
“The Gift” has a deceptive structure, promising you answers about Mulder then slipping you a plain old monster-of-the-week when you’re not looking (“Paper Hearts” did the same thing way back, and to strong effect). Doggett, apparently still investigating Mulder’s disappearance in his spare time, finds evidence that our missing agent spent some time in rural Pennsylvania, then falsified case reports to make it look like he was in DC. Not good, Mulder, and also not good, Scully, who co-signed the false reports to help her partner out.
This is important because Scully is not in this episode: the other absence. Because of her involvement, Doggett pursues the lead without her, but also because of her involvement—and because presumably he is developing a respect and affection for his new partner—he doesn’t want to report the matter up the chain. So instead he reports the matter to that chain-link who is technically an authority but also not really, Walter Skinner.
The two road-trip it to Smalltownsville, USA, where obviously the local sheriff is hiding something and so is everyone else. Our monster this week is a haggard-looking fellow who is more or less a soul eater, a creature who eats (alive!) people who are diseased, then upchucks these people into a weird people-mold in a cave, where the people are reborn as healthy as can be. The soul eater looks so awful because he takes all that disease on, suffering from a horrifying cocktail of everything that used to kill the people in this town.
Because in fact your real monster of the week is the people in this town, the folks who have been taking advantage of their local soul eater, dragging him from sickbed to sickbed without concern for his pain. The soul eater has an incredibly ineffective guardian, a woman whose primary function seems to be to whisper-yell that they should leave the poor guy alone. No, sorry, that’s not fair, she did do one thing, which is she’s been hiding him for a year, because he’s been thought to be dead for a year. Why dead, you ask? Because Mulder shot him. Ah-hah.
This is actually the evidence that gets Doggett going—Mulder’s secondary weapon, with three bullets discharged, hidden in his apartment. Eventually it becomes clear that Mulder shot the soul eater because he wanted to help. Because he went to Smaltownsville originally in the hope that the soul eater could cure him of whatever alien disease was eating his brain. But Mulder saw the soul eater’s suffering, and Mulder decided to do the right thing, which I guess was to end the guy’s life with bullets. Mulder left, still diseased, and the guy got buried, but the guy didn’t really die (so, for future reference: don’t ever bother shooting a soul eater, because bullets are just like disease?). He tunneled out of his own grave and has spent the last year hiding out.
Then the Doggett and Skinner show comes to town, and rocks get turned over and graves get turned up and all of a sudden the town figures out that its get-out-of-death-free card is totally still around. And you would think that in investigating this case, Doggett would play the role of the skeptic while Skinner played the role of believer, but in what is either a twist ending or slightly soft writing, it’s Doggett who makes all the leaps. He stands in the empty grave, points to a tunnel and says, well clearly this guy wasn’t dead. He talks to the Lone Gunmen and says, well clearly this guy was a soul eater. He stands in a hospital where a formerly sick woman lies cured and says, well clearly the soul eater did this. It’s a little weird, honestly; it’s not much to buy Doggett as a guy who is searching for the truth at all costs (!), but it’s difficult to believe that he wouldn’t seek out a more rational explanation to all of this.
And then: he dies. Gets shot by the locals, and it looks bad, but there’s a soul eater on hand, and the soul eater eats him and regurgitates him and Doggett wakes up in a cave, covered in slime-bile-something, and the soul eater is dead because I guess bullets can’t kill him but eating a dead guy who has been shot can. It’s a bold turn for the episode to take, but also, there’s no time for this. A man reckoning with his own resurrection is a multi-episode, mythology arc game. Instead we get Doggett back at HQ, trying to write a case report until Skinner comes by and tells him to forget it. Which would almost make sense, if Skinner had been the one who’d pieced together the soul eater scenario? Except it was Doggett, the whole time, who believed. And if he believed, and if he knows what happened out there, shouldn’t he sort of 100% be freaking out right now?
“The Gift” is a glimpse into a season that could have been. Imagine, a year of pursuit. Of trying to retrace Mulder’s secret life, of digging back into old case files and learning the things he was surely keeping from us. There’s motivation amongst the remaining characters—Scully wants her partner back, Doggett wants to solve the case so he can maybe get off the X-Files—and not ever episode would have to be a lead. And though the tale of the soul eater may have been a little rushed and a little sloppy, the episode has a spark to it. That spark of the absent, the drive of the missing. The feeling that we’re all here for a reason, and that the show wants to live.