The X-Files finale recap: 'My Struggle IV'
One last chance to fight the future
Scully saw how it ends, and now we all have. The X-Files’ 11th season went out in an empty blur of fathers and sons and other visions that could have meant something but didn’t. It left us with news that’s sure to be divisive, explained away by a classic X-Files non-answer: “It’s more than impossible.” Which is to say that it’s impossible but is happening anyway.
That is not to say it’s happening because it worked the first time. Season 11 has built itself around nostalgia, sometimes leaning into it, sometimes affectionately tearing those memories down. But if the monster-of-the-week episodes have looked to the glory days, the tweaks to the big picture of the show have all had their eye on what went wrong in the later seasons. Scully and Mulder broke up before season 10 because they never properly got together on screen, and because the fallout of the decision to have Scully give away their son had never been explored. That same fallout, demanding closure, pushed their son back into the picture. And now Scully is pregnant with yet another miracle baby because maybe giving away the first one wasn’t the best idea. If at first you don’t succeed, why not try again two decades later?
I’m sorry, I’m burying the lede. Scully is pregnant. Pregnant! Scully! CUT TO THE X-FILES THEME. The signs were there, but when I read into the symbolism of the partners staying in (and having sex in, and talking about having more children in) a motel named after St. Rachel, I really thought I was taking the reference too far. But as it turns out, Dana Scully is really and truly pregnant at 54, despite the fact that her last pregnancy was a “miracle” and she wasn’t even supposed to be able to have kids 20 years ago. It’s impossible, but it’s more than. It’s the X-Files revival.
The road to this impossibility is paved with questionable intentions and traveled in that flashy silver Mustang Mulder likes to save for life-or-death experiences. He hits the highway after Scully gets a call from Monica, who says the conspirators have William; they’ll be landing in Maryland soon. “The person who controls your son is the person who controls the future,” Monica hints, helping so vaguely that she practically isn’t. She’s obviously trying to sneak around the Smoking Man, but her information is wrong; William (who’s barely called Jackson in this episode, even though Jackson is the only name he knows) isn’t on that plane. Does she believe what she’s telling Scully and Mulder is true, or is Monica just baiting them to Purlieu headquarters — and if so, is that ploy meant to help them or hurt them? Monica’s allegiance with CSM goes nowhere in the end; her motives are never explained, and her shot at redemption comes up about three time zones short. What was the point in making one of the agents’ most loyal friends change sides? Empty intrigue, apparently.
If Monica wanted Mulder to kill everyone at Purlieu, she got her wish. You’ll recall that Purlieu Services is the private security contractor doing the bidding of Mr. Y and Erika Price, San Junipero-ing some of our greatest minds to save a chosen few from the coming alien virus by colonizing space, which is a sentence I have no choice but to type with a straight face because when everything is silly, nothing is. After Mr. Y is the only one to exit the plane, Mulder figures he might as well do a little recon while he’s there and winds up murdering every soldier on the premises. He also, in a very smooth move, shoots Y in the head. Mulder and Scully’s revival-era fight skills continue to bear gifts. (Mulder’s wordplay remains as dad-jokey as ever: “I had some payback…to…pay back.”)
While her partner is off being an action hero, Scully stays home, where she’s reduced to waiting by the phone so she can tell Mulder what she’s learned “on the web.” Wearing cozy sweaters and sitting on the sidelines is her right as a pregnant woman and as a human being, but even given her condition (which Mulder doesn’t know about at this point), it seems out of character that she would let him go alone; the last time Scully was pregnant and Mulder went somewhere without her, he was abducted. Scully has taken greater risks while pregnant than road-tripping with Mulder to find their son, and if the danger is to Mulder rather than to her, there’s no clear reason for her to stay behind. Considering that Gillian Anderson says this is her last episode as Scully, her absence from the bulk of the action is a disappointing missed opportunity.
But there’s so much to learn on the web! Scully, whose implied morning sickness comes with the added benefit of occasional apocalyptic visions, reports to Mulder that she found a cluster of winning lotto tickets in Tennessee. She’s guessing it was William, and she’s right; he divined the numbers and even split his winnings with a cashier. Setting aside the fact that when a lottery hits quit-your-job levels, I don’t think the cash is quite that upfront, the strategy has been good for Jackson’s wallet. But it was bad for staying under the radar; he’s been made, and now Mulder has been made, too. A man sneaks a tracking device into Mulder’s car while he’s busy watching his son hitch a ride with a trucker on a surveillance feed.
The road trip stretches across more states, more cars, and too much of the episode as Jackson aims for his home in Norfolk — a move that feels like it undercuts one of the biggest dramatic consequences of the season. Jackson hit the road because he was in danger, and now he willingly puts the two girlfriends he already hurt in harm’s way because he’s lonely. Not to discount the way the past few months have eroded his will to live, but there was a sad, resigned maturity to the way Jackson was forced to grow up so quickly when he left home. His choices — like so many of the fates that are sealed and unsealed in this episode — are less tragic if they’re not final.
It’s a symptom of this episode’s larger lack of respect for repercussions that Chris Carter envisions Jackson as a little more unfeeling than the boy we were introduced to in “Ghouli.” There, Jackson was a reckless teenager who didn’t think things through; here, the boy describes himself as a criminal before the opening credits. He explains that despite a happy childhood, his growing powers eventually landed him in a school for “bad kids”; a man from the government scared him into lying low, but he messed up when he pranked his girlfriends. Jackson told the girls that he was still figuring out his powers, but he seems to have them under control here — and they’re more powerful than he’s ever let on, which Mulder discovers firsthand when he follows his son to a Norfolk motel. (Next: Death in the streets)
Mulder’s first interaction with William in 17 years is the most affecting part of the hour, and while there’s no clear reason for Scully not to be on this trip, the scene does take on added weight because it’s just father and son, giving Mulder’s feelings as a parent room to breathe for the first time all season. David Duchovny adopts a heavy, sad awe when Jackson opens the door: Mulder immediately pulls him into a hug, marveling, “You’re taller than me. I held you when you were a baby.” He tells his son that he’s been looking for him “forever” and seems to trip over the words “your mother,” a small reminder of how inadequate this reunion is in the face of all of their lost time.
But Mulder still believes he’s not too late and insists he can protect his son, even as Jackson picks up on what kept them apart: He’s a danger to everyone around him. It’s an outlook Jackson has spun into self-loathing. “I don’t want to live in this world,” he says, suggesting that if he didn’t exist, maybe that could stop what’s coming. As dark as that is, he technically has a point, especially if we take this episode’s solution to the conspiracy (just kill everyone!) at face value. Jackson’s confused waffling — running home only to think about killing himself — muddles the emotion of his story, but it also falls in line with his (equally muddled) history on the show. The same debate Scully had with herself when she gave up William is mirrored in him now: Is the best way to protect someone ever to stay away from them, or is that how the other side wins? And can’t she and Mulder still wonder if Jackson would be better equipped for what he’s going through if they’d raised him?
In this case, at least, Jackson is right to say Mulder is putting him in danger by trying to help. The boy hitchhiked part of the way home with the man tracking Mulder, then blew up that man (with his mind) beneath an overpass. But Erika Price and her goons found the tracker, and now here they are, knocking Mulder to the floor as they break in and surround Jackson. He shows his father what he can do, exploding everyone’s heads one by one in a cartoonish-but-gratifying display of gore (they cast Barbara Hershey for this?!) before running off, trusting Mulder just enough to leave him alive but not enough to stay.
As for Scully, she’s gone full Mulder out of a potent combination of boredom and good instinct. Scully has decided that the alien contagion is happening now, and while it feels every bit as sudden as it did the last two times she reached this conclusion, she isn’t wrong: William is the final piece of the puzzle, and the soldiers keep closing in on him. To spread the word, she turns to the No. 1 internet site for people who say “internet site”: Truth Squad With Tad O’Malley. Scully calls Tad (whose terrible tie is a salute to Mulder’s early wardrobe choices or I’ll eat my hat) and tells him about the coming apocalypse; he asks her where she’s getting this information, and in a better, more intentionally funny version of this episode, Scully yells, “FROM MY DREAMS, TAD.” We do at least actually get this exchange: Tad points out that Scully sounds crazy, and she just keeps going: “Death in the streets, Mr. O’Malley.” When Scully decides to ignore scientific proof, she really goes all in.
So Tad plasters Scully’s story, attributed to Mulder, all over The Web and releases footage of the bloody motel room, which he calls, very seriously, “a conspiracy the likes of which the world has never seen.” (Mulder and Scully call it Wednesday.) Kersh, losing the very last of his cool, deploys the FBI’s favorite and most useless punishment: shutting down the X-Files. Kersh yells at Skinner. Skinner half-heartedly tells Scully he’s supposed to yell at her. Scully considers fighting Kersh. (The fact that Skinner talks her down is another unfortunate missed opportunity to let Scully loose at least once in this episode.) All the while, a word on the glass wall hovers between them: “INTEGRITY.” I was reminded of Mulder in the second part of the season 5 premiere, as Scully nearly died of cancer, lecturing a panel of agents on the price his partner had paid for her integrity. She’s still paying it.
And so is Skinner, although when he offers to drive her to Norfolk, Scully forgets that he already explained his loyalty once this season. She asks why he’s risking his career and going against orders. Skinner just stares at the road: “I think I’ve been pretty clear about that.” The partners’ short-term memory where Skinner is concerned was frustrating enough in this season’s “Kitten.” To see Scully immediately erase the sacrifices he’s made for her and Mulder, again, is disappointing, especially given what’s coming. (Next: Definitely, maybe murder)
Mulder calls Sarah, one of Jackson’s girlfriends, for hints on where he might have run off to, and Sarah’s friend Maddy (a cameo from Duchovny’s daughter West, turning the line “I don’t believe you’re his father” into a joke) caves and suggests an old sugar factory on the docks. The strategy behind Mulder’s flashy car finally becomes clear here — he doesn’t even have to tell Scully and Skinner where he’s going because they just follow the silver blur all the way to the water. At the docks, Mulder, Scully, and Jackson split off into an X-Files family drama that begins as it should: with Scully shouting “WILLIAM” into every corner of an abandoned factory. Scully does reunite with her son, but not as she expected; he makes her see him as Mulder, begging her to let their son go. “He knows that you love him,” Jackson says before the actual Mulder turns the corner and Jackson takes off. Is that closure for Scully and her son? It’s not nothing.
Scully should have known she wasn’t talking to Mulder when he told her not to help Skinner. While the partners are chasing their son, Skinner confronts CSM and Monica in an alley, and it ends in a bloodbath: Monica puts the car in reverse, but the Smoking Man ignores her and floors it instead as Skinner stands his ground and fires. Skinner shoots Monica in the head but misses CSM, and he winds up pinned between their car and his. The last we see of him, he’s not moving. It’s hard to trust a death on The X-Files, a show that once blew CSM’s face clean off his skull, but if this is Skinner’s demise, he’s not exactly going out in the blaze of glory he’s earned. CSM walks away alive…and couldn’t Skinner have just dived to the side instead? As for Monica, whose death looks more final, not wanting to run over Skinner doesn’t cancel out or explain teaming up with the Smoking Man in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Mulder-Scully family band has gone from on the run to literally running: A full two minutes of the episode are devoted to the partners chasing their son through the factory. (It feels longer.) Before Jackson makes it outside, he disappears behind a wall and reappears as Mulder, taking the wind out of the sails of what could have otherwise been one of the episode’s big twists. “Mulder” meets the Smoking Man on the docks and denies that they have anything in common, a claim as important to Jackson as it would be to Mulder, because they are both his “sons.”
However metaphoric CSM’s fatherhood of William might be — the Smoking Man names himself as William’s “creator” but not his biological father — the fact that it’s possible to figuratively refer to Mulder as his own son’s half-brother is so absurd it played like a red herring in the season premiere. If CSM took credit for restoring Scully’s ability to have kids via the chip in her neck or some other violation, the show could have been working toward a last-minute twist that still allowed for Mulder to be the boy’s biological dad. (Why else would “Ghouli” emphasize how much Jackson’s interests line up with Mulder’s?) Instead, “My Struggle IV” doubles down on a depraved plotline without taking it anywhere interesting.
Setting aside the premiere and finale that bookend it, season 11 has been a fun watch, sometimes even a great one. The X-Files has played with new concepts, revisited classic formats, and tied up loose ends. This season had ideas — about nostalgia, about where two beloved characters from the ‘90s might fit into 2018, and about how to fix where they’d gone wrong — that gave these episodes a more confident, cohesive base than that first unsteady six-episode revival. But the mythology never got out of the gate. William’s parentage didn’t save Mulder or sentence him to death. The alien contagion didn’t spread but was only stopped by default, because everyone died, and somehow death is enough to stop the conspiracy, even though the big idea behind the scheme was that we all made this planet undesirable to the aliens and now a few wealthy elites want to start all over. A story about consequences and the villains who would rather avoid them has now followed the villains’ lead and taken the easiest way out.
Even William, a living reminder of the decisions Mulder and Scully and The X-Files can’t take back, is being gradually erased from the story just as he re-enters it. CSM shoots Jackson-as-Mulder in the head, and Scully and Mulder’s son tumbles back into the water, his wish to disappear granted (for now). And even though the truth of who really got shot is spoiled from the start, it’s still satisfying to hear the actual Mulder, alive and righteously angry, growl “HEY!” as he fires round after round into the chest of the man who thought he was just shooting him. This patricide has been a long time coming. Mulder shoves his dear old bleeding dad into the water, and I don’t care that CSM has come back from worse; this is the ending I hope we never see undone. Mulder throws his gun into the water, rejecting the violent cycle his father passed on. (Next: Maybe there’s hope)
Did William only turn out to be the Smoking Man’s creation so Scully and Mulder would distance themselves from their son and start over? Scully’s pregnancy seems intended to cancel out the medical rape (not that rape can be erased like that), but the rape doesn’t seem to serve a purpose beyond making the new pregnancy look better. It’s a cruel ouroboros. Scully finds out the truth about her son’s “father” from Skinner, but we never hear it; we only sit with her in the stunned aftermath as the sound seems to fall away from her ears (an effective if way-too-brief acknowledgment of her pain). She tells Mulder by talking around it: William “wasn’t meant to be,” he “was an idea born in a laboratory.” Gillian Anderson is gripping as Scully fractures, reconciling her trauma with the apparent death of the son who resulted from it. But knowing that Scully is in shock doesn’t make it easy to hear her say she was “never a mother” to the baby she raised for almost a year.
Mulder picks up on the truth without Scully having to say it, but his surprise is more confusing; he seemed to have some sense earlier this season that William wasn’t all his. “What am I now if I’m not a father?” he asks. But when Scully cries that he is a father, she’s not making a bigger point about the role he would have played in William’s life, biology aside. She means — she guides his hand to her stomach and lets that say it all — he’s going to be a father. Are they both pleased? Scully looks torn but hopeful; Mulder, still caught up in how impossible it all is, mostly looks confused.
Scully is 54, but that’s not the point here. Given the testing she’s been subjected to, her once “barren” uterus could be fertile for all eternity by now, so debating the logical likelihood of a 54-year-old woman’s pregnancy is about as useful as debating the likelihood that a chip in the back of her neck could cure her cancer. There’s no sense in applying real-world rules to The X-Files. But the internal logic of the show avoids neat solutions like this one. Mulder never found his sister alive. A man in season 4 who went back in time to change his own life failed. In season 7, a wish for world peace backfired and erased everyone on Earth. The “impossible” is not a quick fix; this is part of what grounds the story.
Of course, the show has betrayed that rule before, with Scully’s last pregnancy. After establishing that she couldn’t have kids because her ova were harvested during her abduction, Scully had William, a twist that undermined the painful reality of what she’d lost to this job. But that one-and-done “miracle” had consequences all its own, and the story of Scully and Mulder’s search for their son has been as much about their own relationship, fears, and what they believe they deserve as it has been about raising a child.
Trying to give that story a do-over makes the show seem desperate to heal Mulder and Scully through parenting alone, as if nothing else can. There’s nothing reductive about the partners wanting to raise a child, but the stubbornness of this story does reduce them. It smooths over the loss that makes them so compelling — even the way the show botched William’s story the first time around has made this season richer with regret — and implies that Mulder and Scully “together,” in whatever form that takes, isn’t enough of a victory on its own. It’s a quick fix for a show that rarely employs them. At the very least, it’s 15 years too late.
In season 8, as Scully’s pregnancy landed her at the center of another big alien to-do, she complained to Mulder that she couldn’t “live like this, as the object of some unending X-File.” Both she and the son she was carrying have now been treated as exactly that. Scully is the victim of medical rape, and it seems the only reason behind it was to alienate her from her son, to make her want to carry another child at 54 because at least here there’s the illusion of choice. And that son was treated as damaged and pushed into the water, and even though he hasn’t died — he pops out of the water like Flukeman — his biological mother and not-biological father have plans that don’t center on him. William’s return rings hollow if it was all meant to wrap up his story and shove him aside.
But let’s be clear, even if all I’m clarifying is how little I need from The X-Files when all is said and done: This is a livable finale. As a possible ending for a show that, two years ago, saw fit to wrap up its revival with a brutal cliffhanger, “My Struggle IV” offers more closure than I expected. Despite its lack of regard for the integrity of the story, this hour at least gives Mulder and Scully an ending they seem to want, and Duchovny and Anderson bring real poignancy to the conclusion. Nostalgia fueled this season, and nostalgia — with blinders on — leaves the partners wrapped in each other’s arms, sending them into a future that clears the low bar set by “Struggles” past if only because it doesn’t involve immediate mortal danger. Mulder and Scully are together and fairly happy, and that’s something.
- After last season’s finale used close-ups of Scully’s eye to signal that reality wasn’t what it seemed, those shots of Scully’s eye had better just be a tease.
- Kudos to Miles Robbins for pulling off that lengthy voice-over monologue.
- One last reference to Skinner’s ass for the road.
- I love Joel McHale impatiently spitting “KAREN!” because he still doesn’t have a pen.
- Thanks for joining this season — it’s been a pleasure, and I want to remember how it all was. May your VHS tapes never be ruined.