Do We Still Want to Believe? The X-Files: “My Struggle”

After much hype and an interminable football game, The X-Files returned to TV last night, bringing some of the old band back together. We had Fox Mulder, looking like he’d been run through the blade of a Black Helicopter; Dana Scully, no-nonsense, stunning, and occasionally covered in other peoples’ blood; AD Skinner showed up to bark exposition and plead with Mulder to just love him already; and Chris Carter was back to write the sort of long-winded harangues that have become more common on cable news sites than paranormal dramas.

I think I’m glad they’re all back? I think I liked it? It gets a little confusing, but I’ll do my best to recap the important stuff and dig into the heights of tension and the sloughs of mythology arcs below. So, if everyone is don la maison, we’ll begin. I hope the Smoking Man’s in this one.

Spoilers ahead!

We begin with a voiceover from Mulder. He flips through pictures of past cases, and catches us up on the last 15 years of conspiracy theories. On any other show, this would be a deadly way to start, but for X-Philes I’m guessing this functions about as well as Duchovny’s letter-reading on The Red Shoe Diaries. We are launched into the classic credit sequence, the classic musical cues from Mark Snow. And, finally, the classic alien crash.

And when I say classic, I mean classic, because suddenly we’re in 1947, and there’s a Little Grey, peeled off the back of some Phish fan’s Jeep Wrangler and crawling through the Nevada desert. A nerdy doctor wants to save him; the stone-faced feds gun him down. The doctor takes a moment to respectfully cover the alien corpse with a sheet, and then carries it to the truck. “I’m a man of medicine, sir.” He snaps when the main Fed tries to stop him. Autopsies of both corpse and ship ensue, and thus is alien technology introduced to our world.

This story is cut into the modern one, as Mulder and Scully must reckon with the world they’ve helped to create. The plot doesn’t quite work here, so I’ll try to sum it up: Tad O’Malley, a Glenn Beck parody who sees conspiracy in every corner, puts Mulder and Scully in touch with an abductee named Sveta. The twist is that Sveta doesn’t think she was taken by aliens, she thinks she’s been taken, dozens of times, by government officials who have spliced alien DNA into her body, harvested human/alien hybrid fetuses from her, and filled her brain with screen memories that have left her a shell of a person. Mulder’s all like, “I’m back, baby!” and Scully’s all like, “Mulder, slow your roll until we have proof.”

Scully and Sveta

O’Malley takes Mulder to see an Alien Replicant Vehicle, or ARV, with which Mulder immediate establishes the most sexual rapport he’s had with anyone since Alex Krycek. Meanwhile Scully, who works at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic hospital (I guess Carter thought “Most Precious Blood Memorial” was too extreme?) and who seems to be in a perpetual state of going into surgery, sequences both Sveta’s genome and her own.

Mulder and Skinner circle each other, growling exposition. “It’s about fiction masquerading as fact,” Mulder says. “I was being led by my nose through a dark alley to a dead end.” (“And then I finally gave up on Lost,” I wanted him to say, but alas, he’s still talking about government conspiracy.) Of course, this is actually just flirtation, and the scene ends with Mulder giving Skinner his digits. Awww.

The first test comes back negative, which Scully chooses to tell Mulder, O’Malley, and Sveta during a Mulder/O’Malley tag team Conspiracy Theory Rumble. Sveta then claims that Tad O’Malley paid her to lie about her abductions, but then Scully re-sequences their genomes and realizes that not only is Sveta rocking alien DNA, so is she, but it’s soon a moot point since Sveta gets blown up, the ARV gets blown up, and O’Malley’s site is pulled offline. Scully and Mulder meet in a dark parking lot for maximum Deep Throat reference possibilities, and they both get texts from Skinner. Could it be that someone is reopening the X-Files… effective immediately?

Man that sure was a classic expository mythology…oh god wait it isn’t over. There’s a fireplace with the words “Carpe Diem” etched over them. There’s a shadowy man, and a cellphone, and a CIGARETTE.

YES!!!!

So the CSM is back. He’s wearing a Phantom of the Opera-style mask, and he’s smoking through his tracheotomy, and someone is holding the cigarette for him, and please let that somebody be a miraculously resurrected Krycek.

OK, now we’re done.

I WAnt to Believe Poster

Parsing all of this out is fascinating, because I was on Twitter while I watched. The very idea that all these years later I’d be able to receive instantaneous fan reactions re: The X-Files, and compare them with critical reactions, and shake my head at the ravening thirst of the official Fox twitter account, is all still so jarring to me.

Many critics seem to agree that the show was too slow, relied on too many speeches, and never quite added up. Meaning that it was a typical mythology episode of The X-Files. I definitely feel that this episode relied far too much on nudges to old fans, references to past episodes, and overheated speeches that went nowhere—and this makes me a little nervous, since they only have six episodes to work with. But I also enjoyed the hour far more than many of the reviewers, because I think the episode showed many of the strengths that made the show such a seminal cult hit.

First of all, the way it positioned Mulder was brilliant. The show owns his crankiness, his throatbeard, and the fact that he often sounds purely crazy. His voice has gotten craggier, and honestly, I say this with trepidation, he sounds like the Cigarette Smoking Man. Gone is the sexy FBI agent—this Mulder looks like the Unabomber. He compulsively re-smooths the tape he keeps over his laptop’s camera, he lets himself get carried away by the tiniest scraps of conspiracy, and has shrunk his world down to his cabin, his websites, and occasional contact with Scully. This is exactly where this character was destined to end up, and the contrast he makes with the slick, glib, ostentatiously wealthy O’Malley is striking. The people who came after Mulder have been able to benefit from his struggle, but, at least when we begin the episode, his life seems to be in limbo.

Scully, for her part, seems at first exasperated and then openly concerned for her old partner. (When she realizes that he’s latched onto Sveta, Gillian Anderson cycles through so many emotions using her facial muscles alone that I think she should get an Emmy just for that one scene.) As always, Scully is the true heart of the show; here, she is always about to go into surgery, and there is also usually blood splattered on her neck. At first this seemed silly, but it slowly made sense for me: Scully has dedicated herself to her work. Just as she threw herself into the X-Files, now she subsumes her life into operating on children, to try to make them whole. The blood spatters are there to remind us that she is engaged with the messiness of life in a way that Mulder is not. Or they’re just an homage to her work on Hannibal. Either way, I think they’re cool.

The other person who deserves an Emmy is Joel McHale, for keeping his shit most of the way together during the scene where he flirts with Dana Scully. The way Tad O’Malley out Mulders Mulder, and is then quickly shuffled out of sight. What happened to him? Is he the one lighting the CSM’s cigarette at the end? Are we talking about mysteries wrapped inside enigmas, here? Does the conspiracy go all the way to the top?

Since I know that there are Monster of the Week episodes coming up, I’m also willing to relax a bit more. This isn’t going to be all mythology, so I think as the mini-series goes on it’ll get better.

Naming your artistic endeavor “My Struggle” is a bold move. You invite comparisons to a certain genocidal house painter’s novel. You could riff on the horrifically appropriated term jihad, which simply means “struggle” or “striving”, but which has been turned into a synonym for holy war. Or, you could be referencing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s enormous, ongoing Proustian autobiography, which became a surprise literary hit last year. Chris Carter says he named the first episode of The X-Files return in honor of Knausgaard, which is an interesting tack to take. The books are long, highly-detailed explorations of what it means to be human in the 20th and 21st centuries, and in its best moments, Carter’s return to The X-Files is grappling with the ways the world has changed since the show’s initial run. It tackles this issue both within the fictional world, where Fox Mulder is now out-conspiracy-freaked by several other characters (including a clear Gelnn Beck parody), and in a meta sense, where The X-Files itself, the hit TV show that helped usher in our current geek culture of online commentary and intense fandom, tries to prove that it was still relevant. I’m still not sure if it succeeded, but I’m excited to keep watching to see where it goes from here. I’m willing to trust them.

Leah Schnelbach still wants to believe. But more importantly, she still wants her hair to be as awesome as Scully’s. Come talk about conspiracies with her on Twitter!

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