Now “This” is more like it. Last week’s sloppy premiere got season 11 off to a rough start, but the state of The X-Files is looking much brighter after this Glen Morgan-penned (and directed) hour. I’m sure some fans will be frustrated by the lack of fallout from that twist at the end of “My Struggle III” — the Cigarette Smoking Man’s claim to Skinner that he medically raped Scully and is the real father, even if not biologically, of Scully and Mulder’s son — but this show has always drawn a hard line between its mythology arc and its monster-of-the-week episodes. Increasingly, that’s been for the protection of the MOTW episodes, which have evolved into self-contained, experimental tone poems that deserve better than to be dragged down by the details of a conspiracy that no longer makes sense. Of course, a story told in 10 episodes has a different rhythm than one told in 24, and this season wouldn’t feel cohesive if a few aspects of its larger arc didn’t bleed into its standalone hours — as some do here, to mostly great effect. But CSM’s claim stays tucked away for now, and that’s fine by me. Why let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch?
We find Mulder and Scully, blissfully unaware of any paternity concerns, napping on the couch in their home (Scully may call it “Agent Mulder’s residence” on an official FBI call, but to Skinner she calls it “our home.” If she hasn’t moved back in permanently, she at least seems to be heading in that direction). It’s unclear how much time has passed since the events of “My Struggle III,” which made contemporary Trump references despite picking up right after an episode that aired in February of 2016. This episode also alludes to the current political climate, meaning we’re dealing with a time jump of anything from two weeks to nearly two years. But this is a show whose pilot, which aired in September of 1993, was inexplicably set in March of 1992, and that time difference was never explained either. Welcome to the new X-Files, same as the old X-Files.
Files are strewn on the table; the TV is muted on an old Ramones concert (the San Francisco Civic Center in 1979. If you’re interested in useless trivia, that’s just around the corner from a building by the name of Fox Plaza). Mulder’s buzzing phone rouses Scully, who nudges Mulder: It’s a FaceTime from an old, long-thought-dead friend who loved The Ramones. Langly, one of Mulder’s trio of hacker friends The Lone Gunmen, seems like himself but not. He says, “I believe you knew me as Langly” and asks, “Am I dead? If I am, they know that I know.”
The pseudo-reunion is interrupted by a creak on the porch and a silhouette in the window, and Mulder and Scully spring into action. At Mulder’s signal, Scully dives under a table, Mulder shoves the couch against the door, and the music kicks up: The Ramones’ “California Sun.” Remember that these two went on the run after the original series; after that, taking down three armed home invaders is as easy as summer vacation. Scully shoots one; Mulder gets another; the third, a sinister-looking man with long white curls, flees.
And apparently it’s open season on the FBI’s most unwanted, because no sooner does Scully report the intrusion than a pair of humvees roll up to the yard. They’re under the command of a cocky young Russian, credited as Commander Al, who acts like Mulder and Scully were in the wrong for defending themselves against his men. “They were wearing body cams,” he says, “so you know how that turns out for the ones who weren’t.” Setting aside the fact that I didn’t see any body cams, the commander’s point stands: Even a tool that’s meant to uphold objective truth can be bent to fit the story of whoever holds the power. History is written by the authorities.
The soldiers come in shooting, pinning Mulder and Scully to the ground while Al retrieves Mulder’s phone. But the guys make a crucial mistake when they proceed to cuff our agents together, and with practiced badassery, Mulder and Scully fight off the man guarding them, run out the front door, and dive over the side of the front porch while still handcuffed to each other. They’ve never been cooler.
They’re met in the woods by Skinner, whose allegiances are still questionable but whose fetching FBI baseball cap is not. After freeing Mulder and Scully’s wrists, he gives them the lowdown on what they’re dealing with: The soldiers work for Purlieu Services, a private American security contractor headquartered in Moscow that has ascendancy over the FBI thanks to a directive from…the executive branch. You can practically hear the theme song over that last bit. Mulder and Scully draw the line at getting in Skinner’s car (he did tell them to surrender, though he claims he had no idea the soldiers were trying to kill them), so the assistant director leaves his agents in the woods with all the money he has on him. Trusting Skinner seems so obvious at this point, but it’s a time-honored tradition for Mulder and Scully to suspect him of betrayal despite more than two decades of evidence to the contrary. Their mistrust would be exhausting if the premise behind it — Mulder and Scully will still burn everyone they care about to protect each other — weren’t so central to the show. It’s “trust no one” to the extreme.
That mentality leads them now to the graves of the only three men who could ever match them for paranoia. After sacrificing themselves in season 9’s “Jump the Shark,” the Lone Gunmen were given a heroic funeral, but the X-Files season 10 comics series, executive produced by Chris Carter, suggests that the Gunmen faked their deaths and are now hiding out beneath their graves. When Skinner pointedly tells Scully, “They’re buried in Arlington,” I thought he might be hinting that this story was about to take the same turn. That doesn’t seem to be the case, but thankfully we’re not denied the fun of Mulder and Scully on a veritable date night in Arlington cracking ciphers National Treasure-style. (Next: Scully aces American history)
With an assist from Scully’s encyclopedic brain (“Who needs Google when you got Scully?”), the partners follow clues on the Gunmen’s graves to the final resting point of another, even-longer-dead ally: Deep Throat, Mulder’s first informant. (This must be a season for revealing the real names behind the monikers; turns out Deep Throat was a Ronald.) “He’s dead because the world was so dangerous and complex then,” Mulder marvels. “Who’d have thought we’d look back with nostalgia and say that was a simpler time?” So far, The X-Files’ 11th season seems concerned with how our memories can never match up to the past — wrestling, basically, with nostalgia, the driving force behind the show’s return. Mulder knows how easy it is to rewrite history; nothing is ever as we remember it.
This seems like a good time to note, then, that there’s something off with the photo of the Lone Gunmen in Mulder and Scully’s home: A fourth face looms in the background, and judging by eyebrows alone, it’s almost definitely “This Man,” a viral hoax that claimed people around the world were seeing the same creepy face in their dreams. What does this mean? Is it just a playful nod to the kind of hoax the Gunmen loved, or is it a sign to distrust our memories? (At one point, we flash to the photo after Scully assures Mulder that yes, the Gunmen are dead, and their bodies were incinerated.) It may also be a tie-in to the fourth episode of this season, written and directed by Glen Morgan’s brother Darin Morgan, which looks at the Mandela Effect. A face from that episode, actor Brian Huskey, can be spotted in the files our agents are about to search. How will we remember him in two weeks?
Fittingly, a “memory medallion” on Deep Throat’s grave gives Mulder and Scully their next lead — which they access, like the throwbacks they are, in an internet cafe. Video on the medallion directs them to look into New York’s Long Lines Building, which Snowden documents indicate was code-named Titanpointe and used as an NSA mass surveillance station. Mulder, a government conspiracy trendsetter, has had a file on the building since the ‘90s, but they’ll need Skinner’s help to access those files.
Or maybe they’ll just need a computer. As it turns out, after the X-Files were shut down in 2002, they were digitized to allow easier access by other U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Russians who just tried to kill Mulder and Scully. (And who was lobbied for jurisdiction? Then-director Mueller, who now heads an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.) Mulder bristles at the idea that his file-babies are no longer his and Scully’s alone (a secondary motif this season, maybe, tragically: Mulder losing possession of what he thought was his), but as Skinner points out in a perfect mic drop, what’s in the files “belongs to everyone. That’s the point of them.” Hasn’t it always been Mulder’s goal for the truth to be known?
How does fringe work function in the mainstream? How do the X-Files (and The X-Files) fit into 2018, when the Pentagon is openly admitting to investigating U.F.O.s? Skinner tries to get the hunt for Mulder and Scully called off, but the FBI isn’t in the best standing with the White House right now. “How do you like that?” Mulder jokes without joking. “The FBI finally found out what it’s like to be looked upon as a little spooky.” The whole Bureau is one big basement office. Which, of course, means Mulder and Scully aren’t safe in the Bureau at all. When the exception becomes policy, there’s no room for what made it exceptional.
With Skinner’s help, Mulder and Scully scan the database only to find that Langly has been erased. His fellow Gunmen, Byers and Frohike, are still in the system, including Frohike’s unfortunate “Spank Bank” folder adorned with a picture of Scully (must we?). In that file is another file, named “53rd_3rd”: another Ramones song, this one about a Green Beret who becomes a male prostitute after returning from Vietnam. The title references a corner in New York City that was once a center of gay nightlife. The San Francisco Civic Center, where the Ramones played earlier on Mulder and Scully’s TV, has historically played host to anti-war rallies and demonstrations for LGBT rights. As Mulder and Scully go underground and on the run, this episode is literally mapping hotspots where the marginalized have gathered in the past: new basement offices. (Next: Heaven is a place on Earth)
The files send Mulder and Scully to Karah Hamby, a professor of mathematics in Bethesda, which is where things take an unexpected turn for the Black Mirror: Apparently, Hamby and Langly were part of a program that uploaded their consciousnesses to a simulation they could live in after death, “San Junipero”-style. It’s a surprise that Langly was in a romantic relationship, if that’s even what this is — maybe he and Hamby had the sort of purely intellectual partnership some people still believe Mulder and Scully have, even though it’s now confirmed they use handcuffs recreationally. At the very least, they wanted “a life eternal together.” It’s also a surprise that Langly would take that deal; in his final episode, he said of his hero Joey Ramone, “He never gave in, never gave up, and never sold out. Right ‘til his last breath. And he’s not dead. Guys like that? They live forever.” Langly’s definition of living forever seemed less literal and more to do with legacy. But maybe I’m remembering him wrong.
Langly sure seems to be remembering Mulder right — he picked the best people to trust with this. When the white-haired home invader shows up and shoots Hamby, Scully kills him (finally), and Mulder and Scully take Hamby’s phone and hide out in a bar to get back in touch with what’s left of their old friend’s mind. Langly lights up at Scully’s name and tells the agents that he’s living in what might as well be his personal heaven: No one dies of cancer, The Ramones play “California Sun” every night, and the New England Patriots never win. (That makes Langly’s heaven the antithesis of the world shaped by the Smoking Man, a walking cancer who insisted in season 4 that the Patriots’ rival Buffalo Bills must never win the championship as long as he’s alive.)
But in a Brave New World-esque speech, Langly explains that this world he’s in needs to be destroyed: There’s no choice or diversity in it. “We dream, but we’re not allowed to have dreams.” He, along with other great minds who also uploaded, like Steve Jobs and Michael Crichton, is just a “digital slave” whose mind is being used to develop the science that elites like Erika Price and Mr. Y want to use to colonize space. The neon lighting on Langly also illuminates Mulder and Scully in that scuzzy bar, drawing them into the nightmare in which a person is broken down by brain chemistry alone, all science and no X-File.
The partners suffer a rowdy bus ride to New York, then con their way into Titanpointe by pretending Mulder is a “Hannibal Lecter-level psycho” whom Scully has captured and brought in for NSA questioning. (This isn’t The X-Files’ first Silence of the Lambs reference, but this is the first time it doubles as an inside joke for Gillian Anderson.) The ploy works until it doesn’t; Mulder and Scully are cornered in the stairwell, but Scully badasses her way out as Mulder stays behind to fight back.
He’s brought before Erika Price, who monologues about the coming end of humanity, and while it’s good to see some continuity with the premiere, she doesn’t really say anything new. Price admits she was trying to kill Mulder, disappointed in his response to her earlier proposal, but he’s since impressed her with his instinct for survival. It doesn’t hurt his cause that out of all 7 billion people on the planet, Mulder is the one Langly chose — though of course what Langly needs is Mulder’s instinct to never give in, never give up, and never sell out, not the sort of instinct that might compel him to upload to a computer. Which is not to say he isn’t tempted — Mulder asks Price if killing his father would be enough to get him into San Junipero 2.0, and if Scully could come with him. Even as he’s maneuvering to get in a room with the machine and hopefully destroy it, he also obviously sees its appeal.
Scully, a woman of faith for all her scientific degrees, doesn’t. As soon as Mulder gets Al to unlock the door to the computer room, he fights off the commander while Scully shuts down the machine in dramatic, glass-breaking fashion. (“Bye-bye, Ringo.”) Mulder staggers away from his long day of hand-to-hand combat, victorious (he even got his phone back) but about to pass out, and he and Scully return home and collapse on the couch in wearied heaps, because they aren’t going to literally live forever but they are, for now, alive, and maybe more alive than we’ve seen them in a long time.
And the fight goes on: All traces of Purlieu Services are erased before the FBI can open an investigation, and Langly buzzes back to life on Mulder’s phone, begging him to destroy the “backup.” He disappears; the white-haired assassin takes his place.
- Mulder and Scully’s dynamic in this episode is exactly as comfortable and lived in as it should be after all this time. “I’m going to open an X-File on this bran muffin.”
- “Frohike looked 57 the day he was born.”
- Skinner was saddled with a few clunky reminders of the current political climate in this hour, but nothing was weirder than when he got in on the game of rewriting history: Apparently in 1993, there was “barely a Russia.” What? (ETA: As pointed out in the comments, Skinner was likely referring to the Russian constitutional crisis, but his wording felt like it ignored how much the specter of the Cold War still loomed over the original series.)
- Calling him “Walter” is an amazing power move on Scully’s part.
- “Scully you looked so adorbs just there, all curled up in a ball in the booth of a skanky bar with your fingers wrapped around the grip of an assassin’s Glock.”
- “We gotta take a trip to IKEA.”