Ode on an old TV set
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)