Shane Harvey/FOX
January 24, 2018 at 09:00 PM EST

The X-Files

TV Show
Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi
Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny
Chris Carter
Current Status
In Season
We gave it an A

In an hour full of exaggerated visuals, Mulder, Scully, and Reggie’s last case takes on the aesthetic of another lost Twilight Zone episode. This time, they’re pulling from “To Serve Man,” in which aliens looked and dressed almost exactly like the alien who emerges from a spaceship and greets the X-Files trio…on a scooter. He’s here to cut off contact with mankind; he’s even crashed the Voyager back to Earth, sending our “music sampler” with it, like an ex returning a mix tape. We are never, ever, ever getting back together. But this breakup is less Taylor Swift and more Trump — the aliens are building a wall around the solar system so our oh-so-human tendency to lie doesn’t start an epidemic among more advanced races. The references get plainer: We’re bringing drugs, the alien says. We’re bringing crime. Some of us are good people. Mainly Scully.

I didn’t love those lines at first; they’re about as subtle as an anvil, and quoting Trump directly doesn’t feel like the freshest take on the state of America. But the commentary is meant to be broad; this is a Twilight Zone spoof times 10, hammering home what we never seem to learn. In “To Serve Man,” an alien race wins over humankind with promises of peace and prosperity, and everyone walks willingly aboard their spaceships like lambs to slaughter, which they are. The lesson — that we’ll all be undone by how easily we adjust to a new normal — was relevant when the episode aired in 1962, and it’s relevant here, as this green Trump-alien gives us a taste of our own medicine. History repeats itself, maybe because we keep trying to rewrite it rather than face it. (See also: the 1940s political cartoon Reggie found by his favorite children’s book author, poking holes in the same “America First” slogan that Trump has brought to a resurgence.)

Before the alien leaves, he gives Mulder a book with “All the Answers” on the cover; he calls it a gift, but it feels like a death (it’s a COOKBOOK). Mulder never wanted the answers as much as he wanted the search for them. What’s the point of the X-Files now? Reggie offers his take: “Maybe the point wasn’t to find the truth but to find each other, for no matter where we go in our lives we will always have the memories of our time together, and no one can take those away — or alter them in such a way to make us doubt that they actually happened.” The wording is comedically cheesy, but the sentiment is vintage Darin Morgan. As Jose Chung told us, it’s a “rare and lucky” thing to find meaning in others.

Of course, Reggie is telling this story in a straitjacket, and those of us with our own warm memories of a two-person X-Files unit — Scully and Mulder and no one else — have already found our meaning there. It’s easy to want to dismiss Reggie’s story. Mulder promises they’ll visit Spotnitz Sanitarium (a shout-out to former executive producer Frank Spotnitz); Reggie laughs, “No you won’t!” But just when it seems like we’ve got a handle on the objective truth, Skinner shows up and peers curiously into the ambulance: “Where the hell are they taking Reggie?” Wait. What?

Is Reggie’s story true? There are holes in it — it can’t account for William, for example. (But there are holes in William’s story as we know it, too. Every writer of this show is Dr. They.) The bigger question: Would it matter if Reggie’s story were true? There’s a level of this script that feels like it’s tearing down the myth of The X-Files, as is Darin Morgan’s way; David Duchovny once said it “always felt like he was trying to destroy the show.” Everything we remember about the series — everything Fox Freakin’ Mulder and Dana Freakin’ Scully have become all too aware of — could be wrong, and if we never let go and look up from our piles of VHS tapes, we could miss the person right in front of us asking us to dinner. But there’s still a lot of love in the details here for the aspects of The X-Files that stick. Mulder was changed by his Twilight Zone experience even if the episode wasn’t that good, and even if it wasn’t a Twilight Zone episode at all.

Mulder said once, in black-and-white episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (another story that was more of a fable than an episode of the show), that all legends are “true in the sense that they’re believed to be true.” Scully scoffed then, but she was two years past telling Clyde Bruckman that she didn’t want to hear her fate; she knew from Moby-Dick that some prophecies are self-fulfilling. Sometimes the truth bends around our words, and not the other way around. “This Man” makes another cameo tonight, this time on Mulder’s conspiracy wall: a fake face that people now probably really dream about. Does it even matter that he began as a hoax?

The power of memory is a danger to the capital-T Truth; the power of memory is a saving grace for art. Mulder finally finds and watches “The Lost Martian,” accepts that it was actually from a Twilight Zone knockoff, and loses it all over again (not in his memory, but in reality) when the tape gets damaged. Meanwhile, Scully’s in the kitchen with her Mandela Effect, setting some Goop-O A-B-C in Mulder’s Bigfoot mold. She takes a seat beside him, hands him a spoon, and prepares to dive in — only to pause, overcome by something serious and maybe even a little sad, and put down the spoon. “I want to remember how it was,” she says. “I want to remember how it all was.” The camera pans up and fades to stars, like the ending of Mulder’s knockoff show, which wasn’t exactly what he thought it was, but at least it was real.

That malfunctioning VCR had to intervene to let Mulder move forward, but Scully does it on her own. She honors her past by not trying to recapture it; it can never live up to what she’s built it up to be. If that’s Morgan’s self-deprecating take on the futility of bringing back The X-Files, the quality of this episode alone should prove him wrong. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” holds up against his best. But there’s a difference between empty nostalgia and a story with life still in it. Maybe it’s just important to be choosy about which memories are worth bringing into the present. Scully and Mulder leave Goop-O in the past, look up from the VHS tapes, and face each other.

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