The X-Files season finale recap: My Struggle II
The X-Files revival is over. Was it good for you? It certainly didn’t finish well. “My Struggle II” disappointed with a story that focused on the show’s underdeveloped and unappealing new formulation of the alien conspiracy, a story-telling structure that kept Mulder and Scully apart for the entire episode and a cliffhanger nobody wanted. Chris Carter tried to end with an apocalyptic bang. He left us whimpering “Why?” instead. In retrospect, the mini-series stands revealed itself as a slapdash production interrupted by moments of artful greatness, courtesy of an out-of-practice creative team. We also see what it should have been: a set of lovingly crafted Monster-of-the-Week episodes that focused exclusively on the Mulder-Scully relationship and thoughtfully explored the theme of the characters at middle age. Maybe next time.
“My Struggle II” was an attempt to bookend the revival with symmetry. The premiere was a Mulder-centric tale about his relationship to X-Files mythology, while the finale was a Scully-centric tale about her relationship to X-Files mythology. And so we got an opening sequence that recapped her series history with photographs and voice-over. It celebrated Scully as a medical doctor, scientist,* and “seeker of justice in a science-based world.” It reminded us that since joining The FBI’s “X-Files” unit Scully’s life has been a succession of betrayals, abuse, and body horror mitigated by her own soulful strength and a relationship with a man she finds worthy of admiration and loyalty. It also reminded us that Scully is jacked with alien DNA. This was the essential context of the story that followed. Her preamble concluded with a shot of Scully in surgical scrubs walking toward camera and morphing into a big eyed, ugly-beautiful extraterrestrial. Creepy.
*”My Struggle II” was a valentine to scientists in another way, too. In a sweet gesture, Carter saluted the show’s two science advisors, Dr. Anne Simon and Margaret Fearon, by giving them a “story by” credit. That said, the science stuff in the episode was often so thickly explained — It’s alien DNA causing the pandemic! No, it’s a virus! — that I often felt lost.
Arriving at work one morning a little late, Scully discovered that Mulder wasn’t in their basement suite at FBI HQ, though he had been. It also appeared that he’d been watching Tad O’Malley on the Internet. Yep, everyone’s least favorite 9/11 “truther” and conspiracy theory wing nut was back at work peddling paranoia about “new world order” takeover after going underground for six weeks following the events of the premiere. While Joel McHale is a welcome presence on any TV show, I can’t say I was terribly excited to see more of Tad O’Malley or see the show entertain his odious worldview. He was used in this episode to report on an outbreak of various contagions suddenly plaguing and destabilizing the country — a cheaper but not ineffective way of dramatizing social meltdown than actually showing it. Carter also used O’Malley to casually name-check more conspiracy theories that have captured his imagination in recent years, like chemtrails and microwave triggering. “My Struggle II” was like the “Spartan Virus” that factored prominently in the story — a Trojan horse hiding a small legion of sick ideas.
O’Malley did get one scene with a principal character in the episode. After calling Mulder’s office phone and getting Scully instead, the two met at Mulder’s house. It was trashed, the result of a violent struggle. (We would later learn Mulder had fought with a stooge sent by his old enemy, the Cigarette Smoking Man, to offer him a deal.) O’Malley had arranged a meet-up with Mulder to discuss a discovery he had recently made about himself. Inspired by Scully’s actions in the premiere, he had his genome mapped and learned that his DNA was also was spiked with extraneous exotica. O’Malley suspected the entire population was similarly affected. His theory was that “the conspiracy of evil men” bent on domination intended to cull humanity by activating this marker with environmental triggers for the purpose of deactivating the immune system, thus making people vulnerable to diseases that could kill them. As he put it: “AIDS without the HIV virus.”
NEXT: “No. It makes no sense.”
With Mulder doppelgänger Agent Miller (Robbie Amell) handling the investigation into Mulder’s disappearance, Scully recruited her own doppelgänger, Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), to test O’Malley’s suspicions. She was game, if only to help debunk this crazy expression of pseudoscience. How could this alleged conspiracy have meddled with everyone’s DNA, anyway? Scully hypothetical: through smallpox vaccines. Perhaps the conspiracy snuck some bonus material in those shots. This isn’t a new idea to The X-Files, but it did have a whiff on a rather new and noxious cultural idea: anti-vaxxer paranoia. When Scully and Einstein got to Our Lady of Sorrows, they learned the hospital was overrun with walk-ins suffering from flu-like symptoms. One man, a solider, had a necrotic lesion on his arm, at the spot where he had received the anthrax vaccine before shipping off to Iraq. Scully — rapidly giving herself over to O’Malley’s worldview — wondered if perhaps the soldier was now suffering from anthrax exposure due to his suddenly suppressed immune system. “Anthrax is the canary in the coal mine. It’s a harbinger of infections to come. Measles, mumps, rubella, flu — we’re all going to be exposed,” said Scully, getting kinda ranty. “You are witnessing what might be the advent of a global contagion!” I didn’t find this episode particularly scary, but I bet Jenny McCarthy would have found it absolutely terrifying.
Meanwhile, Agent Miller got a bead on Mulder by tracking his phone. He was in South Carolina, headed toward a meeting with a toxic wannabe world-leader who wanted his vote. And it wasn’t Donald Trump.
In any other episode, Scully and Einstein would make for an exciting on-screen partnership. Here, though, two fine actresses with terrific chemistry were wasted on a series of scenes that were basically about killing time until Scully figured out a way to save the day. At one point, Einstein’s constant, withering assault of “Alien DNA? That’s crazy!” skepticism seemed to change Scully’s mind about things. “No. It makes no sense,” Scully conceded, speaking a line that spoke for the whole episode.
Amid these arguments, reversals of thinking, and epiphanies, Scully met with an old friend and associate, Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who took up the X-Files crusade in seasons 8 and 9. What’s she been up to since then? Oh, just helping Cigarette Smoking Man — still the front man for the conspiracy after all these years — facilitate his psychotic plans. CSM had somehow survived his apparent incineration in the series finale, and during his gruesome recuperation, he had recruited Reyes to be his girl Friday. Among her duties: keeping him lit with cancer sticks. Among the perks: an injection of alien DNA that would allow her to survive the coming pandemic. Such was the good news of great joy she had to share with Scully: She, too, would be spared, because of her alien DNA. Scully was appalled by Monica’s cowardice. I was baffled by Monica’s presence in general. She seemed to be here for the sake of giving us a blast from the past, but at the expense of destroying her character with cynical treachery. Monica’s appearance cinched it for me: “My Struggle II” was like the last two bad seasons of The X-Files — the flawed, empty ones without much Duchovny in them — distilled into a troubled hour.
Monica’s download did give Scully a Eureka! moment, though. O’Malley was wrong: It wasn’t alien DNA attacking their immune system. It was something else that had been slipped into them via childhood vaccines, a “Spartan Virus.” Could Scully use her own body, blessed with special alien DNA, to manufacture a vaccine to counter the Spartan Virus? The answer — given after more wheel spinning with Einstein — was yes.
NEXT: “This Is The End” the opening credits threatened. But it probably isn’t.
Meanwhile, Washington, DC, was in tumult. Panic. Riots. Mass exodus. Everyone was getting sick, including O’Malley, Einstein, and Mulder, who finally got some full scenes in the second half of the episode. He arrived at Cigarette Smoking Man’s compound in (loaded name alert!) Spartanburg, South Carolina, in bad shape. The fight with the stooge had left him bruised. His collapsing immune system was draining him further. But he still had energy enough to verbally spar with his adversary, to indict him as a psychopath, to refuse his offer of joining him among the ruling elites.
Cigarette Smoking Man was allowed to make a small defense for his actions: Mankind was headed toward extinction, anyway, due to reckless waste and environmental carelessness. He was merely accelerating the process and saving the planet by doing so. The scene offered the pleasure of some droll acting by William B. Davis, but for all the huff and puff, Mulder’s heated showdown with “Old Smokey” didn’t do much to light my fire. Cancer Man’s menace hadn’t been properly developed in the revival and his misanthrope-as-messiah shtick felt tired. And man, does Carter love the visual of CSM smoking through his tracheotomy hole or what? It grew less creepy and more tedious with repetition.
After all that, Mulder lost consciousness. He woke up to Agent Miller saving him. Cigarette Smoking Man let them go. Not sure why.
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Scully manufactured a cure for all her friends — for the world! — in the span of what seemed like mere minutes. She struggled to rendezvous with Miller and Mulder on a bridge gridlocked with cars, but she eventually makes it to them on foot. Scully took one look at Mulder and realized he would need something far stronger than her cure to save him. He needed stem cells, and the only person who could provide those was their son, William, but getting them would mean finding him, and Scully didn’t know his whereabouts.
Given the revival’s obsession with William, you’d think the finale would have been about Mulder and Scully reuniting with him. Nope. As Scully grieved the no-win scenario, a spaceship descended from the sky and threw a beam of light down on her. Had it come to offer deus ex machina salvation? Or had it come to incinerate them the way it incinerated poor Sveta in the premiere? We cut to a shot of Scully’s eye as she looked to sky for an answer — and then we cut to black. Cliffhanger. One that I assume will be resolved when The X-Files revives itself once more, whenever that might be. If only this episode had left us more excited for the prospect.