The X-Files finale: Let's talk about the cliffhanger
We were warned.
The X-Files’ season 10 finale, “My Struggle II,” ended on a cliffhanger, as promised by series creator Chris Carter. The cliffhanger itself wasn’t much of a surprise, either: Scully (Gillian Anderson), protected from a global biological attack by her alien DNA, can only hope to save Mulder (David Duchovny) with the stem cells of their son William, whom she gave up for adoption 14 years ago. That might have been a twist if not for the fact that Scully’s maternal guilt has been the season’s most consistent thread. As for the episode’s final minute — a spaceship sets its beam on Scully and Miller (Robbie Amell) while Mulder watches from a car — it calls back to scenes that have been part of the series’ iconic imagery since the second episode ever.
For a show that has enjoyed its share of surprises, there was little about this event series that wasn’t telegraphed in advance. We were given time to prepare for Mulder and Scully’s breakup, for the return of William to the narrative, and for the open ending — but watching the ending play out live, it was easy to feel unprepared. Is that fitting? Maybe The X-Files’ viewing experience is analogous to the show’s latest conspiracy, which suggests all of our attempts to guard against the end of the world could just be shouts into the void. The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) would be so pleased by that pessimism. But there’s something as inherently unfair about this ending as there is about his scheme, and fans are probably waiting for both to be proven wrong.
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Over its 10-season, two-movie run, there have been almost as many X-Files “endings” as there have been twists. The last few seasons, never sure of the show’s future, proposed a few different ways to send Mulder and Scully into the sunset. Mulder was abducted just as Scully learned she was pregnant in season 7 finale “Requiem”; Mulder and Scully shared a kiss over baby William in season 8 finale “Existence”; and in the season 9 then-series finale “The Truth,” Scully broke Mulder out of federal custody and joined him on the run. Feature film The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) went outright sentimental, leaving Mulder and Scully on a vacation in the sun.
Of all possible endings, “Requiem” may have been the most fitting (albeit painful), from a narrative perspective, and I Want to Believe the least. The franchise’s second movie offered a neat conclusion, but it suffered from a misunderstanding of Mulder and Scully’s relationship with their work, which they tried to literally sail away from. Like I Want to Believe, this revival was tasked with revitalizing the X-Files franchise after a few years away, but it took the opposite approach — mostly for the better. In bringing Mulder and Scully back to the FBI, Carter recognized along with his characters that there’s a reason they did this job for so long: They love it. But if the ending of I Want to Believe missed the point of the narrative, the season 10 finale missed the mark emotionally.
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Carter has said that the revival is not a victory lap, nor should it be. But after 23 years, The X-Files has a certain amount of responsibility to its audience — not in the sense that Carter is obligated to tell the story that he believes fans want to hear, but in the sense that whatever story he wants to tell needs to be fully realized. It needs a way of telling people, “If I leave you here, this is what I most want you to know.” The series’ other finales recognized as much and offered some degree of resolution even as they looked forward — even “Requiem” gave Mulder the answer he’d always wanted and Scully a child to carry on Mulder’s legacy. “My Struggle II” is all forward.
Great! Mulder and Scully’s story isn’t done, and it never really will be. But as long as the exact details of further X-Files seasons are up in the air — both Duchovny and Anderson have “talked about” doing more episodes — “My Struggle II” serves as its ending. Which is the problem:. The story is all setup, with nothing to say about the core of the show as Carter defines it. If the focus is on the mythology, answer a few of those questions. If the focus is on William, bring him out at the top of the hour. Even Mulder and Scully’s breakup, which in all practical senses is a distant memory by the end of the episode, is still waiting for the final nail in its coffin. If, as previous finales have suggested, their relationship is the enduring message of the show, let them kiss.
There’s a classic and familiar X-Files feel about all of this: the exasperating cliffhanger, the long wait to find out what’s next, and the agents who’d die for each other but won’t kiss. It’s a sensation familiar to fans who’ve been around since the ‘90s — and, for those who weren’t, it’s a kind of indoctrination into the club. But, charming as The X-Files’ ongoing fascination with “the ‘Net” might be, this isn’t the ’90s anymore. At its best, the revival has acknowledged as much; the season’s finest hour was the one that brought Mulder back to himself only by facing up to how much time has passed. It’s good to see the series opening doors rather than closing them (and it’s about time that one of those doors was labeled “William”), but at 23, The X-Files just went out like it had nothing to say for itself beyond its ability to set up a story. I want to believe that it knows better.