As The X Files kicks off its final run of episodes, Baz Greenland reviews the season 11 opener My Struggle III
So this is it. With Gillian Anderson confirming that season 11 is her last and Chris Carter and Fox all but admitting that the show will not continue without her, we enter the final run of new episodes of The X Files. Twenty five years after we first started following the supernatural investigations of Mulder and Scully, the show is returning for its second ‘revival’ series, picking up from the short six-episode run of mixed reviews that made up season 10 in 2016.
There’s something very bittersweet about watching this compared to My Struggle two years ago. The return of Mulder and Scully brought with it huge anticipation and disappointment. Chris Carter’s decision to re-write the mythology was questionable at best, but there was no denying the chemistry between David Duchovny’s Mulder and Anderson’s Scully, something that carried through even the weaker episodes of season 10. This time, it’s the beginning of the end rather than the possibility of much more to come.
And My Struggle III feels very much like the start of the show’s end game. I have little confidence that Carter won’t end the season on another cliffhanger, because he can’t let go even when the end has been decided for him. But this season opener works to paint a picture of the end of civilisation, glimpsed through Scully’s eyes in season 10 finale My Struggle II.
Was it a cop out to have the spread of the Spartan virus a vision Scully experienced as a warning to the world? Oh absolutely. This was on the verge of becoming another Bobby Ewing walking out of the shower in Dallas moment. But Carter wasn’t so off the reservation here that he wasn’t able to cleverly reframe that 45-minute cliffhanger into a worst case scenario situation, setting up a hook for the rest of the season in a way that the first My Struggle didn’t effectively achieve.
My Struggle III emerged as the best of the three episodes bearing that title. It was still frantically over-paced, full of revelations without really delivering much plot, but it was far more interesting than the ‘hoax redux’ of My Struggle or the speedy ‘three episodes crammed into one’ mess of My Struggle II. It was more a mission statement than a self-contained episode; no new viewers would have a clue what was happening but then it is probably only the die-hard fans or those got were intrigued to catch the show in season 10 that are still watching.
So what did we learn? That almost everything in the season 10 finale didn’t actually happen. Scully arriving in the empty X Files office took place, but the moment the camera zoomed into her eye five minutes in, she was in ‘vision mode’. It’s something I have been trying to get my head around ever since I finished the episode. Did Carter believe the events of My Struggle were a mistake? Perhaps not. If the spread of the Spartan Virus truly is the end as this episode reinforced, then this was his attempt to missily bring to a head the events of the series in a way that feel far more dramatic than anything that happened in the movies, or god forbid, the slide-show ‘hokey trial’ mess of The Truth. Millions dying, a UFO appearing over the panicked crowds as civilisation collapsed? How do you carry on from that?
The answer is you can’t. How could we feasibly watch Mulder and Scully investigating monsters and people with supernatural abilities week after week when an alien virus has wiped out chunks of humanity and the world has witnessed UFOs first hand? My Struggle II was the end of the story Carter wished to tell, at least in part. He just forgot to add an ending – though I’m not sure that is something he is really capable of either. It might have been better to make season ten one six-part story to detail the return of Mulder and Scully and the spread of the virus, but then we wouldn’t have got three good to great episodes in Founder’s Mutation, Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster and Home Again. (I didn’t count Babylon – that might be one of the worst episodes of The X Files ever).
That fact that My Struggle II was essentially a vision given to Scully by her distant, long lost son William, is also a convenient way of papering over the obvious cracks in the season 10 finale. The severe lack of Mulder comes from the vision being Scully’s point of view, the frantic jumps in timescales and pace the dream-like nature of what is going on in her head. Carter could have very easily altered Monica Reyes’ story though; but instead he doubled down on her allegiance to the Cigarette Smoking Man, reinforcing her as Diana Fowley Mark II. I still hold out hope that this much maligned hero of the final run of The X Files episodes will find redemption – perhaps through a joyous return of Doggett – but right now Carter seems intent on destroying everything that was good about her character.
But the stuff with the Cigarette Smoking Man was great though, beginning with his chance to deliver an opening monologue – will Skinner get one in the finale? It reinforced his manipulation of humanity, glimpsed fully in classic episodes like season four’s Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man and season seven’s En Ami. There were revelations aplenty, from his real name (it’s Carl Gerhard Busch), to his masterminding the fake moon landing (playing on hokey conspiracy theories everywhere). But it was the episode’s final moments that delivered a huge jaw-dropping moment, as he revealed to Skinner that he was William’s biological father. Yes, En Ami has emerged as one of the show’s most pivotal episodes, providing definite proof to Scully’s mysterious pregnancy and the birth of William – the Cigarette Smoking Man drugged her and impregnated her with synthesised DNA. That’s truly skin-crawling stuff.
As for Skinner, I couldn’t help but despair as the episode had Mulder violently confront him about his allegiances all over again. It washes over the later years of character development, which is odd because through William, Reyes and the return of Spender, Carter has gradually re-acknowledged the importance of that original end run. I’m just glad we’re getting a Skinner-centric episode this season to make up for the waste of character in season 10. The return of Chris Owens as Spender is interesting too; looking more like Owens now than the horribly scarred man we saw in season nine’s William. The episode also revealed that he arranged for William’s adoption and coming to Scully and giving her, her first clue, suggests he will have some final, possibly tragic, part ot play before the season ends.
His current connection to Mulder and Scully seems unclear though – Scully didn’t seem surprised to see him after all these years and Mulder had him on his phone contacts, suggesting that he has been connected to both of them in the years since season nine ended. But that was the problem with the episode, throwing so much in there wasn’t time to breath.
Meanwhile Mulder stumbed across a new group of conspirators played by A.C. Peterson and Barbara Hershey. Former allies, turned enemies of the Cigarette Smoking Man, they had their own plan to use alien technology to colonise space, while he planned to rule over a depopulated Earth. It did feel a bit like Carter having his cake and eating it, suggesting that The X Files could live on in another revitalised mythology for years to come.
Lauren Ambrose’s Agent Einstein and Robbie Amell’s Agent Miller appeared to be there as red herrings; given that they were with Mulder and Scully at the climax of My Struggle II, casting them seemed designed to throw the audience of the scent of a sudden change of plot direction, relegating them to brief walking parts in the season opener only.
I suspect we won’t know the full extent of the direction season 11 is going until it is all over, but it certainly feels exciting; Carter’s direction was good – there were plenty of thrilling car chases to suggest an upping of the budget and the ante and there is a clear ticking clock to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s end game. My Struggle III might have still felt like a bit of a rushed mess, but it was the best mythology episode since season eight of The X Files and with the good hype coming on the next four standalone episodes, I’m excited to return to the show for the next few weeks…
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