Ode on an old TV set

By Kelly Connolly
March 14, 2018 at 09:00 PM EDT
Shane Harvey/FOX
S11 E9
B+
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The X-Files has a history of ending more than once a season. The finale is for the mythology, sure, but the penultimate episode is for everything else: the annual last stand of the weirder, more romantic side of the show. These episodes tend to salute the series as a whole: Mulder gets three wishes from a genie (in season 7’s “Je Souhaite”) and discovers that he and Scully are already doing the work to make the world a better place; a man with extraordinary powers uses them to live in the Brady Bunch home (in season 9’s “Sunshine Days”) because TV characters are his only family.

Looking back, most of season 11 has embodied the nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek, how-are-we-still-doing-this spirit of a penultimate hour. What’s left for the actual second-to-last episode to do but dial that spirit up to 11, douse it in blood, and call it “Nothing Lasts Forever”? It’s surprising that this episode was filmed eighth in the season and only recently swapped with last week’s “Familiar,” because “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a penultimate episode of The X-Files to the extreme. All of this season’s big ideas are here: living with the consequences of our choices, finding lost children, aging on television. It might be too much, and it might be too bloody, and one character’s story never lands the way it should. It’s a messy hour.

But I loved it. I loved its wry sense of humor (“Did you get your hair cut?) and the sad glamour of Mark Snow’s piano-heavy score. I loved Fiona Vroom’s performance as an Old Hollywood darling who wants the magic back, screaming at her followers from beneath two layers of velvet. I loved the way the madness tapered into such an intimate ending. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a Frankensteinian mash-up of stories this show hasn’t told well in the past: the organ harvesting of I Want to Believe, the gory quest for eternal youth of season 4’s “Sanguinarium,” the, well, blood-sucking quest for eternal youth of season 2’s “3.” But toss in Catholic overtones and a literal cult of TV revival, and you get something almost cohesive: a bizarre Gothic romance about cheating death. Call it the “Post-Post-Modern Prometheus.”

It helps that Mulder and Scully are given so much time to just talk to each other, even before that long-overdue conversation in the church. The agents invite themselves to the scene of a grisly crime: A man is killed, his organs harvested, and his pancreas licked by one of the surgeons. And then that surgeon is killed, along with the guy who planned to deliver the organs, by a young woman who spouts Bible verses before she stakes them, like some kind of Catholic Avenger. Yet in the midst of a case that feels, in Mulder’s words, like a Hammer Horror film, the X-Files duo would rather talk about Mulder’s new glasses and annoy the other suits in the room. Scully tends to play straight man to Mulder’s out-there theorizing, but tonight, she and Mulder together are the straight man, two ordinary people looking in on a very strange world.

The partners head from the crime scene straight to a church, where Scully lights two prayer candles and tells Mulder she’s going to need some time. This is how the original series usually approached Scully’s Catholicism — slowly at first, then all at once, then not at all, then all at once again — but her renewed devotion to the rituals of her faith makes sense now that she knows her son is out there on his own. (The church is named St. Joseph’s, after another man with a miracle son.) Joining Mulder, who waits in the pews like a dutiful spouse, Scully pulls out the necklace her mother had on her when she died and explains that she’s looking for strength. Margaret Scully found it in faith. Where does Mulder find it? “I need what you have,” Scully says. “You always bear north, Mulder.”

Scully doesn’t know if she believes in miracles, but she believes in belief and what it’s done for the people around her. On The X-Files, the most honest state of being is to want to believe but have doubts; it’s when faith is wholehearted that it’s the most dangerous. Our Catholic Avenger is proof of that. A devout believer whose sister Olivia just up and joined a cult, Juliet isn’t content to sit back and pray for her sister’s return. She tells the priest that “prayers are not enough” and quotes Deuteronomy 32:42 at him like it justifies her actions: “I will make mine arrows drunk with blood.” In every line she quotes from the Bible, Juliet puts herself in God’s place. For someone who’s so upset that her sister has chosen to worship at the altar of youth and beauty, Juliet has a false idol all her own: herself. She literally fashions the church (its fence) into her weapon.

It isn’t clear if we’re meant to feel bad for her. There’s nothing appealing about Juliet’s single-mindedness; she’s never made to question herself or suffer for her choices. Her last words are the righteous claim that she’ll be rewarded for her actions in Heaven. As Mulder tells Scully, “All any of us have are the results of all the choices that we’ve made, and at the end of the day we just hope that we made the right ones.” Juliet’s hope doesn’t inherently make her choices right. Nothing in her own belief system backs up her actions, but this episode doesn’t engage with that tension — it just flattens her into a comic book character who could really use more catchphrases. (“I did repay,” she declares seconds after killing someone, like a short-circuiting computer program.) She’s clearly meant to be a warning about the radicalization of faith, but why Juliet specifically, and also, how? How did she come by this very particular set of skills? (Next: Loved you on Dragnet)

While everyone else is starring in The X-Files by way of Mary Shelley, Juliet and her family are in a backdoor pilot for The CW’s next superhero drama. Olivia’s reasons for running off and drinking blood come down to a drawer full of beauty supplies and a picture that indicates she once had bad skin. (She’s also smiling crookedly, but her smile and her skin seem perfectly traditionally pretty in the photos that line the wall.) The details we are given are just specific enough to raise more questions: Juliet says Olivia sees their family as “monsters,” and in a card to her sister, Olivia explains that she’s leaving because she can’t stay and watch them both turn into their mother. What’s so monstrous about this family? The drive to bring a child home could have made a poignant parallel to Mulder and Scully’s situation, but with so many over-the-top plot holes, it just feels empty.

Not to endorse this cult, but it makes for better television. Olivia’s cult of choice is a vampiric commune devoted to one Barbara Bay Beaumont, a former actress who literally hasn’t seen the light of day in decades. Lack of sunlight helps keep Barb lookin’ young, but she also swears by the blood-and-organ smoothies she drinks every day (her “dinney,” she calls them), and really, dears, don’t sleep on the occasional benefits of surgically attaching a young person to your back, either. (Heterochronic parabiosis is a real thing that has been done to mice, and I do not recommend extensive Googling.) Barbara and her partner in crime, Dr. Luvenis (Jere Burns), have amassed a following of attractive young people who all believe they weren’t attractive until they started drinking internal organs, and they’re all willing to die so the woman who made them beautiful, and thus happy, can live forever.

These are the ways to aim for eternity as defined by The X-Files. There’s the hope that you can live on through someone else (an approach taken not only by Barbara’s devotees but by Scully, who in the season 5 premiere decided to give her cancer “meaning” by saving Mulder’s career). There’s religion: The first place we find Scully in this episode is at Mass, receiving communion (“whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” the priest recites), while back at the cult, Barbara cuts her followers’ hands like the stigmata and drinks their blood. But there’s also TV: the eternity of life in reruns and the hope of a revival. This is my favorite theme of the hour, a playfully meta jab at what The X-Files has been up to and a sobering reminder that it can’t last.

Barbara still watches her pride and joy, The Barbara Beaumont Show, every chance she gets, reciting the lines right along with her past self, who doesn’t look a day younger. Beauty is a goal all its own for some of her disciples, but for Barbara, it’s wrapped up in something bigger: her desire to stay relevant in an industry that prides youth and good looks above all, discarding women in particular when they pass a certain age. (It’s worth noting that a woman, Karen Nielsen, wrote this episode, and as expected, The X-Files is reaping the benefit of bringing in more perspectives.) When she meets Scully, Barbara passes judgment on her skin like she’s doing her a favor. But her attempt to recapture the past traps her in it: She can’t go outside, can’t even act in anything without giving away that she doesn’t exactly look 85 years old.

That is, until the whole world catches on to Dr. Luvenis’ methods and aging stops being a problem for anyone. There are hints that Barbara’s dream is to revive her show: She tells the good doctor that she’s reciting old episodes as “prep” (“I have to memorize my lines”). It isn’t enough to recall the glory days — Barbara wants to bring them back. The signs aren’t in her favor: When she sings for her followers, the tune she picks is a disaster movie’s theme song. “The Morning After,” from 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, is so bad at being optimistic that its original title was “Why Must There Be a Morning After?” The song was tweaked to something cheerier, but its hopefulness sounds forced; if you’re living in a disaster movie, do you want life to go on? (Fun aside: The Poseidon Adventure was filmed in part aboard the RMS Queen Mary, just like season 6’s “Triangle,” another story about living in the past.) “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the title reminds us, and in most cases, that’s for our own good.

Still, Barbara presses on. Mulder and Scully find her apartment via the old tracker-in-the-stolen-organs trick, and she lets them in because she’s dying for a new audience. She practically begs the partners to recognize her, listing her credits until Mulder offers, as if reading from a script, “Loved you on Dragnet.” (Barbara’s delighted response, “Did you know Jack Webb?” leads to a great David Duchovny deadpan: “I did not.”) Scully persists, asking if Barbara has seen Olivia, and Barbara screams her head off when she gets a look at the girl’s picture. The jig is up. (Next: Oh, Juliet’s still in this?)

As if on cue, the cult pounces on Mulder and Scully, tossing Scully down a four-story dumbwaiter shaft and leaving Mulder so distracted by his partner’s fate that when Juliet rushes in and stabs Barbara in the heart, he lets her get away. Juliet finds Luvenis, now surgically attached to Olivia, in the basement and knocks him on the back of the head with a sledgehammer. And before you know it, Olivia is safe at home, suffering no ill effects from her stint as an 85-year-old man’s personal nutrient sponge. It’s everyone’s lucky day (except Mrs. Bocanegra): Decades of trash broke Scully’s fall, so the only damage done is to the smell of her clothes.

But there are other consequences. Juliet goes to jail, and Scully goes back to church, where she and Mulder ease their way into a conversation that’s been coming for two seasons: defining the relationship. How refreshing is it to hear Scully finally ask, “Are we together?” — exactly the question I’ve been asking of them for the past nine episodes? They spent the night and then hesitated to share a hotel room; they slept together but it didn’t fix them. Mulder’s home was “our home,” and then Scully had a smart home because it was cool. And all of these fumbling dinner dates and contradictions are suddenly rendered coherent, or at the very least real, by Scully’s confusion. How can we know what Mulder and Scully are if they don’t?

“I believed we could protect our son and I failed,” Scully admits. “I believed that we could live together and I fled. I gave up on that too.” Mulder counters that maybe she should have fled earlier; he still imagines the life she could have had if she left the basement before he needed glasses. (He was wearing glasses when they met, but he’s being poetic.) “You’d have your health, your dog, your sister,” Mulder envisions. “You’d be Kersh’s boss at the FBI and be married to some brain surgeon and have a bunch of kids that you wouldn’t have to give up.” This isn’t the first time Mulder has wished a different life for her, and Scully, who once told him she wouldn’t change a day, reassures him again here: “I don’t begrudge you any of that.”

Scully doesn’t regret what she lost working with Mulder; she regrets what she chose to give up on her own. In a story about accepting consequences, the only choices Mulder and Scully can’t rationalize are the ones they didn’t make together. Their relationship is the antidote to doubt: When one of Scully’s prayer candles goes out and she jokes that she’s all out of miracles, Mulder vows, “I will relight your candle and extend your prayers through mine.” Juliet strangled her faith by taking it of context, but Scully describes prayer as conversation: not a child’s one-sided wish but something shared.

Earlier, Scully remembered the experience that made her believe in God: Her younger brother Charlie came down with rheumatic fever, and her mother asked the kids to pray. Now, when Mulder reminds Scully that his choice is to stand beside her and hear what she has to say — to, basically, hold up his half of the conversation — she leans in and whispers in his ear, then pulls back. “That’s not my 4-year-old self looking for a miracle,” she says. “That’s my leap of faith forward, and I’d like to do it together.” Scully doesn’t know if she believes in miracles, but she believes in this two-person prayer.

There’s no way to tell what Scully whispers to Mulder. She might be saying “William” at the end, maybe even “find William,” but maybe not — I like the privacy of it, which the angle of the camera is designed to protect. If Scully’s words are setting up a finale twist, we’ll find out soon enough, but for now, it’s enough to know that she wants them to take the next step together. I wanted this episode to end with that whisper; I almost want the show to end there, on a truth only Mulder and Scully get to know. But Mulder’s response adds intriguing tension: “I’ve always wondered how this was going to end.” This forward leap, whatever it is, is final. The end is beginning. The same feels true for The X-Files: Despite the fact that next week’s episode is only being billed as a season finale, Gillian Anderson says this is where the curtain falls, and “Nothing Lasts Forever” is on her side. A TV show shouldn’t last so long that it has to stay out of the sunlight in order to exist.

Open files:

  • Tad O’Malley makes a radio cameo this week. Stop trying to make chemtrails happen, Tad.
  • I wonder what Moby-Dick-inspired name little Scully gave her puppy.
  • If Barbara is 85 and her husband of 22 years died in 1970, wouldn’t that mean she got married at, what, 15 or 16?
  • Barbara lives in apartment 4D, also the name of the season 9 episode about parallel universes.
  • Luvenis: Latin for “young man”
  • “Love-niss. Lu-veh-niss. Lu-vee-niss.”
  • “My gut doesn’t need glasses.”
  • “I remember Dylan. He wouldn’t shut up. I’m glad we ATE him.”
  • “Is she a Netflix executive?”

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