Tracking the story of Mulder and Scully is like studying pointillism, like the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron Frye has a crisis of identity in front of a Seurat. Every episode of The X-Files is its own self-contained dot, consistent within itself but completely distinct — and often wildly different — from the dot next to it: tragedy followed by adventure followed by horror followed by farce.
This is usually a strength, and not just in a something-for-everyone sense. If you step far enough back, Mulder and Scully are made vibrant by how many contradictions they’re capable of holding. In his recent exploration of just what is going on between these two, my colleague Darren Franich cited the haziness of their relationship timeline as part of the pair’s “strange, paradoxical power”; leading up to this season, the show’s tonal elasticity was one of series creator Chris Carter’s favorite talking points. At its best, The X-Files is a reminder that we are elastic people.
But that doesn’t make those little dots of paint any less confusing in close-up, especially when one of them is trying to be pivotal but comes after the dot it feels like it’s pivoting toward. (I’m done with this analogy now.) Last week, Mulder and Scully were comfortably cohabitating and ribbing each other about handcuffs. This week, Scully makes a show about sharing a motel room. In an episode about doppelgängers, it’s tempting to think of this Mulder and Scully as slightly parallel to the ones we saw last week, or the ones we’ll see next week. The Mulder and Scully who talk about their future in “Plus One” are not their dark doubles, but that doesn’t mean they’ve never steered themselves into a tree.
We open on concertgoer Arkie Seavers crowd-surfing to a punk rock rendition of a David Duchovny song (!) when he spots his menacing double in the crowd and speeds off in his truck. His double appears in the passenger seat and grabs the wheel, sending the truck careening into a tree, and though Arkie flies through the windshield, he survives. As it turns out, Arkie isn’t the only local to be beset by visions of a doppelgänger, but he is the only one on record who’s still alive, so Mulder and Scully pay him a visit. His very enthusiastic lawyer insists that despite Arkie’s history of DUIs, alcohol isn’t the only force at work here.
Issues of blame get even more muddled when Scully and Mulder visit a doctor at the psychiatric hospital who treated multiple patients, all of whom are now dead, who claimed to see their doubles. The doctor says none of those patients had previously been treated for psychiatric problems — though, she adds, they weren’t exactly “upstanding citizens” either. For some reason, it’s the medical professionals in this episode who do the most work to reinforce negative and statistically false stereotypes of mental illness. On The X-Files, science has become a dark doppelgänger of itself.
While at the hospital, Mulder and Scully stumble upon a patient whose walls are lined with games of hangman, which is symbolic and therefore worth checking out. (Toward the end of the hour, Mulder will yell, “You’re under arrest! Put the pencil down!” On The X-Files, the paranormal has become an MFA class.) Naturally, one of those stick men hangs from a gallows that bears Arkie’s name. It was drawn by a woman with schizophrenia named Judy who claims to play hangman telepathically with her twin brother Chucky. Both characters are played by Karin Konoval, already infamous in the world of this show as Mrs. Peacock, the incestuous amputee mother kept under a bed in season 4’s “Home.” The X-Files is no stranger to reusing Vancouver-based actors, but in this story Konoval’s return plays into the idea that there’s nothing under the sun Mulder and Scully haven’t already faced, including themselves. It all comes back around.
Take the motel. In an encounter that would have made a lot more sense in the early years of this show — but hey, isn’t this why they broke up? For the fun tropes? — Mulder and Scully get to a local motel to find that there’s only one room at the inn. Mulder takes the room without a second thought; Scully looks amused that he would dare, which would have made sense before last week’s domesticity but feels pretty rich now. She banishes Mulder to a pull-out couch that is inexplicably behind a closed door, just to combine the tension of sharing a suite with the excitement of adjoining rooms.
(Of note: Mulder and Scully get to the motel at 11:21 p.m., a recurring motif since Mulder called Scully at the end of the pilot. The name of the establishment? St. Rachel Motel — as in, the Old Testament Matriarch whose greatest struggle was infertility until she was rewarded for her faith in the form of two sons, one of whom is best remembered for his amazing technicolor coat, the other of whom killed her in childbirth. Before Rachel married Jacob, her father tricked him into marrying her sister Leah first. Appearances can be deceiving, even, apparently, in bed.) (Next: Panic! At the motel)
Scully is barely asleep before Mulder pops up at the side of her bed in a disorienting jump scare — for a second, before he spoke, I wondered if he might not be himself — to tell her that Arkie was found hanged in his cell. The trustee who found him is Judy’s brother Chucky, a crude caricature of masculinity who asks Mulder if he’s “tapping” that “tasty little redhead” he works with. If Chucky’s lewdness is meant to overcompensate for the fact that he’s being played by a woman, it’s not necessary. Konoval is too talented to need cheap tricks. But the script still seems too amused by her role for its own good; Mulder will later describe Chucky as the “queerest little man,” playing on the double meaning of an adjective not everyone in the LGBTQ community has reclaimed all for the sake of an ain’t-we-clever wink at the fact that he’s played by a woman.
Most of Mulder and Scully’s encounters with the twins are stagnant in the plot department; they’re just torture by way of pop psychology, like a less entertaining version of the season 6 Christmas episode in which Ghost Ed Asner and Ghost Lily Tomlin tried to psychoanalyze the partners to push them into a murder-suicide pact. (It all comes back around.) Even when something finally happens in the case — Arkie’s lawyer, Dean, starts seeing his double — Mulder and Scully mostly take it as an opportunity to encourage Dean to search his feelings. “Just know that it can’t haunt you if you don’t let it,” Scully advises sagely.
Rather than listen, Dean goes home and dumps all of his guns and ammo in his driveway. (In the words of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Jake Peralta: Cool cool cool, our country is broken.) He’s midway through gathering up all of the ties that could possibly strangle him when he remembers that he’s the type of guy who collects samurai swords, and nothing good can ever come of a white man in a suit owning that many samurai swords. Dean is done in by his very dramatic, sword-wielding double (I laughed at his pose; I’m not sure I was supposed to), but there’s an element of his death that feels self-inflicted, if for no other reason than the fact that no one needs that many swords. To a certain extent, Dean hanged himself, as Arkie did when he got behind the wheel as a repeat DUI offender. Neither man is entirely responsible for his death, but neither man is innocent either.
This is Mulder and Scully’s big debate of the hour — is evil an idea inside us or a literal entity outside us? — and it seems the answer is “both.” Scully is having a hard time shaking off this case, maybe because the superstitions it taps into are especially Catholic: “I have to admit I still sleep with my back to the door just in case the Devil comes in the night.” She comes to Mulder in the night (the devil at his back, just as he’s already been the devil at hers twice) and asks him to hold her. She’s in a motel named after a woman whose husband got in bed with someone he thought was her but wasn’t. The signs are all there.
And yet she’s definitely Scully, and he’s definitely Mulder; their dark doubles don’t even speak. All the signs to the contrary play as a kind of challenge: Can we, like Scully, keep our fears at bay and trust who these characters are? Scully’s already seen her double once by now, but she’s convinced she’ll be fine if she just stays calm. Paranoia-as-X-File is not new territory for this show, and Scully’s ability to rise above it is characteristically what saves them both (in season 7’s “X-Cops,” a creature that masqueraded as its victims’ worst fears couldn’t touch her). “We can only hang ourselves if we panic,” she tells Mulder.
But Mulder and Scully can hang themselves in other ways. While spooning, Scully asks Mulder if they’ll still spend time together after they retire; he jokes about pushing her wheelchair with his. That’s not what she means. Mulder tries again: “I’ll always be around, Scully, offering bulletproof theories of genius that you fail to assail with your inadequate rationality.” That’s not what she means either. They’re talking around their issues again. It’s hard to make sense of the idea that either one of them could pretend at this point that they don’t know how to be together outside the office — they only just returned to the FBI after going on the run and then living together for over a decade. But what’s refreshing is that Scully recognizes their avoidance and refuses to let them keep talking in circles. (On her own, she protects herself by avoiding her fears; with Mulder she confronts them.) (Next: It rains sleeping bags)
The conversation gets more muddled. Judy pushed Scully’s buttons the last time she visited, taunting, “Past your childbearing years. You’re all dried up. Not even half a woman.” Every woman’s worst fear, you see, like Rachel, is to be old and childless. It’s a stereotype that diminishes Scully’s sense of her own worth, and even if it is in line with how much she fought to have kids in the original series, this feels like a discussion Mulder and Scully are only having now because they weren’t on our screens 15 years ago. The question of whether she — or he — might want more kids is one they both would have dealt with before they reached their 50s. They’re talking around the real issue again, the one it would be more interesting to see them tackle head on: Scully’s struggle to accept that her decision to give up William took away Mulder’s one shot at being a father.
Instead, Mulder clings to the idea that there might be a double of a one-time opportunity (never mind that all doubles in this episode are dark; never mind that giving birth a second time killed Rachel). He asks Scully what’s stopping her from trying for more children. “Besides the fact that the first time was a miracle?” she asks, leaving out the daughter she had before William, Emily — the little girl born from the eggs that were harvested during Scully’s abduction, whom Scully met and lost one very sad Christmas in season 5. “And besides the fact that I don’t have anyone to have one with even if I could?” Scully continues, like she didn’t live with Mulder all those years. This is what Mulder complained about last week: rewriting history to make them both feel better about decisions they made long ago. This is pointillism again, and I’ve gotten too close.
And for all of the haziness of the timeline, the scene is still a standout at its most human level, especially when Mulder and Scully stop talking about the ways they’ve hanged themselves and start talking about those dark outside forces. “Sometimes I think the world is going to hell,” Scully says, “and we’re the only two people who can save it.” That sums them up. As The X-Files does at its best, Scully boils down the current political state to the most personal level: “What if we lose our jobs?” And then she turns to Mulder and promises they’ll think of something, and even her doppelgänger watching in the corner can’t spoil what obviously happens next: the closest this show has ever come to not talking in circles around Mulder and Scully in bed. Finally.
But Mulder isn’t as good at being logical about his paranoia as Scully is. He spots his double in the bathroom mirror and panics, ignoring Scully’s attempts to calm him down. (It’s 2018 and Scully is under a sheet asking Mulder to come back to bed.) “Put a dimmer on that afterglow, Scully,” he tells her — a great line — before speeding off to Chucky’s house. As for Scully, she heads to the hospital to confront Judy, stopping first to pop one of the bread pills Judy claimed to take for protection. Even given how much this case has gotten under Scully’s skin, it’s a stretch to think she’d go that far. I prefer her next reaction: spotting her double in the back seat and looking casually inconvenienced, like she did in her apocalyptic dream when she drove on the sidewalk and other people dared to be there.
Mulder fights his double at Chucky’s house in a dizzying brawl that feels like trying to keep track of a ball under a series of cups. But the fight that matters is happening between the siblings, who’ve gone from arguing over Mulder and Scully’s names to scribbling each other’s. By the time Mulder reaches Chucky and Scully reaches Judy, the twins have choked to death, destroying themselves by destroying each other.
Mulder and Scully are saved because they do the opposite. (Note that how similar their names are buys them time: Chucky and Judy each have “UL” on their pages but can’t agree on what letter to write next. Mulder and Scully are closer to one person than two; they’re already each other’s good doubles.) In a pitch-perfect ending, Scully rejects Mulder’s offer to get in a couple more hours of not-sleep; he retreats behind his inexplicable door and tells her to call if she needs anything. She probably won’t, she says — then opens the door to find Mulder waiting patiently just behind it. In their lives, the improbable is a guarantee.