For someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, Scully has decades of experience ignoring them. She knew what she was saying two weeks ago when she told a man who’d seen his double, “It can’t haunt you if you don’t let it.” But while denial may have saved her life in that case, it isn’t an effective coping mechanism in the long term. Everything buried comes back, like a dream running on a loop, and someday you have to face it.
This is true for The X-Files too, which for years took the “it can’t haunt you if you don’t let it” approach to dealing with Scully and Mulder’s son. The show never seemed comfortable with the fact that Scully’s pregnancy had given way to an actual baby, so it backed her into a corner until, in season 9’s “William,” she gave him up for blind adoption. The emotional consequences of that decision were then swept under the rug; Mulder found out off screen (from Skinner) that he wouldn’t get to raise his son. “Ghouli” comes with a lot of baggage.
Now, bringing William back to the forefront means this show has to face up to all the ghosts it spent 16 years ignoring. I can see the critiques coming for this episode: The story is treated as Scully’s more than Mulder’s (an ongoing trend best summed up in CSM’s attempt to remove Mulder from the family tree altogether). It rewrites aspects of William’s original sendoff. (Apparently that shot of magnetite Spender gave him didn’t wipe out baby William’s “powers” after all. Did it just protect him from the super soldiers because it was deadly to them?) And the plot twists are awfully neat, albeit in service of a perfectly not-too-neat ending: Everything that happens feels like the only thing that could happen to avoid compromising the tone and structure of The X-Files going forward. It’s all a symptom of the same aversion to change on this show that led to William’s adoption in the first place.
Still, I love this episode for the same reason Mulder would: It’s got pathos. “Ghouli,” named after a monster that doesn’t exist, is an hour for reckoning with haunting absences. The episode opens on two high school girls in an abandoned ship, stabbing each other because — thanks to the mind games of a boy they both love — each sees the other as a literal monster. A kinder take on last week’s call for personal responsibility, “Ghouli” extends compassion to the monsters in us; it’s a story about the ways we hurt ourselves when we fight an enemy that isn’t there.
That’s an obvious parallel to the pain Scully caused herself by giving up William, which she believed was for his protection. Was she tilting at windmills, like the one in Jackson’s snow globe? It’s worth mentioning that ghouli.net — Jackson’s blog — is live online for our perusal, and in one story, our blogger finds that even the “ideal world” of a snow globe is not immune to murder. Even if Scully was sheltering William from real danger, this episode casts doubt on the idea that there’s such a thing as a safe hiding place. The ferry where the girls fight each other is named the Chimera, calling back to the season 7 episode about how messed up suburbia can be — about a mother who finds that she is the monster she fears, hurting people out of a misplaced desire to protect her family.
Scully is led to the ferry in a dream, where she finds it replicated in another unsafe snow globe in another unsafe house. She and Mulder follow the breadcrumbs to the scene of the crime in Norfolk, Virginia. They talk with the high school girls, Brianna and Sarah, and learn that each has the same boyfriend: a Jackson Van De Kamp. Mulder and Scully both know what that means. The boy’s last name, coupled with the return of Scully’s visions, is enough to convince them of the inevitable long before the evidence backs them up. Scully stands outside the Van De Kamps’ home, the same one from her dream, looking lost: “I feel like I’m going to fall off a cliff.” (Next: This is so inadequate)
Before she and Mulder can prepare themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Van De Kamp are shot and killed inside the house. When a third shot rings out upstairs, Scully is the one who finds him: Jackson (Miles Robbins), dead on the floor with a gun in his hand. There’s another critique to be made here regarding this show’s tendency to martyr Scully by heaping trauma on her, but I won’t be making it — this is the best dramatic material Gillian Anderson has been given in years. At the morgue, after taking the samples she’ll need to compare Jackson’s DNA to hers, Scully sits down next to the body of the boy she believes is her son, and Anderson takes that morgue to church.
“I don’t know if you are who I think you might be,” Scully begins, “but if you are William, this is what I’d say.” What follows is an agonizing apology: that she, Mulder, and William didn’t get to know each other; that, in Scully’s eyes, she failed her son. She cries that she didn’t give him up for lack of love but out of a desire to keep him safe. “And maybe,” she admits, reckoning with season 9’s hazy justification for William’s adoption, “I should have had the courage to stand by you, but I thought I was being strong because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done: to let go, and to know that I was going to miss your whole life.” The same complications that made this story frustrating 16 years ago make it painfully human now: Looking back, Scully isn’t sure she understands her choice either. She grasps at the consequences of a decision no pretty speech can take back: “Oh my God, this is so inadequate.”
As for Mulder, he sidelines his grief by focusing on Scully, only hinting occasionally at the toll this is all taking on him. “You have no idea my state of mind,” he snaps at two smug DOD agents who’ve followed him and Scully to the Van De Kamps’ home. The DOD is after the subjects of Project Crossroads, the eugenics experiment hybridizing human DNA with alien technology that shut down not long after William’s birth. (It’s fitting that this episode is itself a kind of hybrid Chimera, a monster-of-the-week episode spliced with the mythology arc.) Skinner, likely going behind CSM’s back, warns Mulder to drop this case before it leads him and the nosy DOD straight to William. This is not the first time Mulder has been told the best move he can make as a father is to stay away. (“Everyone around me is in danger,” Jackson says later: a neat tagline for his life.) But it’s too late — the DNA confirms that Jackson is William.
Where does CSM fit into all of this? Mulder tells Scully that he believes the Smoking Man had a hand in making her an “unwitting participant” in Project Crossroads’ eugenics experiments; it’s the same basic suggestion he made in last season’s “Founder’s Mutation,” the last episode written by James Wong, updated with more smoke because Mulder knows now that old Smokey lives and is therefore the cause of all bad things. His theory ties into CSM’s claim that he medically raped Scully, but if Mulder already suspected as much, this is one heck of an underwhelming reaction. Does Mulder assume CSM’s involvement to be less invasive, maybe related to the chip in Scully’s neck? And whose version of events is closer to the truth?
At least, despite what Dr. They claimed last week, the truth still matters here: If Scully is right about the coming apocalypse, the truth of William’s parentage is literally life or death. When Scully finds Jackson’s body bag empty, she — not Mulder — is the first one to believe their son is alive. As is always the case when one of them decides to switch roles, Mulder balances her out, unleashing his inner skeptic: “Your hope is not a fact.” (For all of his open-mindedness, Mulder doesn’t bridge the gap between “I want to believe” and actual belief until he has proof. It’s Scully who’s accustomed to Catholic leaps of faith.) But Mulder does understand finding safety in an alternate reality. In the season 5 premiere, he and Scully spread the lie that he had killed himself to buy them time. After the DOD shot his parents, Jackson did the same, projecting the image of his suicide with the same powers that made the girls see Ghouli. He rises from the body bag — a chilling visual and a gloriously unsubtle metaphor for his return to this show — as soon as Scully leaves the morgue with Mulder. He heard everything she wanted him to. (Next: Fight the Future)
Jackson may not get a traditional reunion with his birth parents in “Ghouli,” but one of the most satisfying aspects of the episode is the way he uses his powers to reach out to Scully. He sends her another message in a dream, via another snow globe: the one with a windmill that she took from his room. Scully drops that snow globe on her way out of the hospital when she bumps into a man (François Chau) whose face we saw on the back of a book in Jackson’s room: The Pick Up Artist: Memoirs of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. This is Jackson, a sheep in wolf’s clothing, bumping into his birth mother on purpose just to talk to her. “You like windmills?” he asks. He’ll take anything. Chau plays the scene with eager innocence, and Scully responds in kind, even though after the day she’s had, breaking that snow globe could have easily been the last straw. It’s as if she senses their connection.
It isn’t hard to see the family resemblance, and not just to Scully. Jackson blogs about monsters, hacks the DOD, enjoys meaningfully touching his forehead to someone else’s, and fakes his death to get out of trouble. There’s no way this kid is not Mulder’s son. In “Founder’s Mutation,” Wong wrote Mulder imagining an alternate reality in which he raised William, launching model rockets in the yard. More than one model spaceship is on display in Jackson’s room. (This episode benefits from swapping the simple Wyoming farmhouse of season 9 for a sleek suburban home in Virginia, giving Jackson a more generic backdrop for his teenage exploits. Rural towns on The X-Files are crawling with creatures; in suburbia, Jackson has to make them up.) Jackson is neither a stereotypical perfect kid nor a caricature of rebellion, and he’s given more latitude than most TV teens to be both genuinely curious and recklessly angry. His journals are filled with equations and musings on dream theory. He’s cheating on two girls but cares enough about them both to risk his life to say goodbye.
But Sarah spots Jackson kissing Brianna and snaps a picture, alerting the cops to his location. The DOD agents get to the hospital first, and Jackson, who’s inherited his biological parents’ instincts in a fight, outsmarts the DOD, provoking one agent to shoot his partner by making him see Ghouli, then making another appear as Scully in a shootout. (He really memorized his birth mother’s face.) She falls, bloody, before we learn it isn’t her: another fake-out that feels like resurrection. In the aftermath, Scully and Mulder call out for their son, who’s hiding a few feet away. Scully has never sounded more like a mom: “Jackson, we just want to talk to you. Make sure you’re okay.” They’re so close to meeting face to face — they’re all three in the same shot — but the status quo snaps back into place and a skittish Jackson bolts, making Mulder and Scully see him as a nurse.
Everyone keeps missing what’s right in front of them, and it might be commentary on where this story is headed. Scully, who was so sure in the season premiere that her visions were destined to come true, is starting to wonder if she didn’t glimpse the future after all. In his journals, Jackson writes about how the “real significance” of a dream is concealed from the dreamer. But if a dream isn’t a prophecy when we have it, that doesn’t mean it can’t be made to come true, especially if it’s shared. On the road out of town, Scully spots a gas station with a windmill like the one in Jackson’s snow globe and suggests they stop. “Are you following me?” Jackson asks, still wearing the author’s face. He’s been waiting for her, hoping she’d be drawn to this windmill like she was to the one in his room. He and Scully have created their own kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, a positive twist on Ahab: She picked up the snow globe and in doing so made it mean something.
Jackson tells Scully that he’s off to travel cross-country, see the world: “Things are about to change.” It’s Jackson’s story that becomes The X-Files’ new ghost in the end; he’s inherited all of the unexplored pain that used to be Scully and Mulder’s territory. Old enough at 17 to be emancipated but still too young to vote, Jackson is on his own and on the run after losing his parents, and I hope this season spares some time down the line to let him process that trauma. For now, this monster-of-the-week/mythology hybrid splits the difference, leaving plenty unfinished but allowing for some temporary relief. “You seem like a nice person,” Jackson tells his birth mom before echoing what she wished for him in the morgue. “I wish I could know you better.”
His parting line is a quote from Malcolm X, whose words also hang above Jackson’s bed. (“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today”…like by preventing a world-ending alien outbreak, perhaps? The poster reminded me of the subtitle of The X-Files’ first movie, which might as well sum up Scully’s goal this year: Fight the Future.) “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” Jackson declares. I love the sort of fake-deep, John Mellencamp profundity of that line, delivered with all the seriousness of a teen who’s just absorbed it. He might also be trying to hint at his identity — as soon as Scully tells Mulder what the old guy said, Mulder recognizes the line, and the two of them realize too late that they missed what was right in front of them again. They put their badges to good use, at least, and commandeer the security footage, clasping hands as they watch Scully talk to their son: It’s not closure for good, but it’s enough for now.
- As Scully notes, Malcolm X changed his name, asserting his own identity. There’s a story on ghouli.net about a boy named Billy with mental powers; did he know somehow that he used to be a William?
- Jackson’s blog username is @rever: French for “to dream,” Portuguese for “to see again.”
- Scully just…asks a guy at a gas station if he used to run a top-secret eugenics program.