Robert Falconer/FOX
January 31, 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-

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 — 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)

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