In the age of the X-Files revival, you can tell a mythology episode by the “struggle.” Part 1 belonged to Mulder. Part 2 was Scully’s. Part 3, kicking off what’s officially known as “the second chapter of The X-Files event series” (forgive me if I shorten it to season 11), is technically the Cigarette Smoking Man’s struggle. It might also be ours.
I can’t start this recap anywhere other than CSM’s vile, episode-ending suggestion that he, not Mulder, is the true biological father of Scully’s child. I suspect his claim won’t turn out to be true, but that’s not the point. CSM’s story has always been marked by subjectivity, every suspicious detail told through his eyes. See for example season 4’s “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” in which he spun his own backstory, villainously Forrest Gump-ing his way into the most infamous historical events of the late 20th century. We never even knew more of his name than he wanted us to. (Now he says it’s Carl. Carl!) The ambiguity surrounding the Smoking Man has turned into an example of the show’s inability to conclusively resolve anything about its mythology, but in the early seasons, this is what made him such an effective villain: He wasn’t bound by facts because the truth was his to shape. Since its pilot, The X-Files has been critical of those shadowy government figures who withhold information in order to maintain their grasp on the power they feel slipping away. It’s still a relevant theme.
But so too is sexual abuse and consent, and this show has a shaky history there. Scully was violated without her consent when her eggs were harvested during her abduction; Mulder found out what had been taken from her before she did. That experience kicked off a series-long story that was less interested in Scully’s emotional trauma than it was in “will-they-won’t-they”-ing her uterus: She couldn’t have kids! She might be able to have kids! IVF didn’t work! She had a baby anyway! But was the baby Mulder’s?
Even when not centered on Scully, stories about rape on this show have a hard time using the word “rape.” (Season 5’s black-and-white classic “The Post-Modern Prometheus” skirted around dealing with the monster as a rapist because the women he “impregnated” all wanted kids.) Now, in 2018, the Smoking Man tells Skinner it was “science — alien science” that made him the father of Scully’s baby. Euphemisms aside, the outcome is the same. The X-Files just went back in time nearly 18 years to add in the rape of its main character by its villain and to question yet again whether Mulder is William’s father. It’s baffling. It’s irresponsible. And even if not everything CSM claims turns out to be true, dangling a terrible possibility over our heads only to eventually disprove it doesn’t usually make for satisfying drama.
Actually, this premiere already does that. Last season’s cliffhanger — an alien virus swept the planet; Scully, immune thanks to the alien DNA she was given during her abduction, whipped up a vaccine, but it wasn’t enough to save a ragged-looking Mulder; only stem cells from William could do that, but since she gave him up for adoption, he could be anywhere — has all been erased, which would be more frustrating if that episode were any good. Mulder finds Scully unresponsive on the office floor after a seizure, which either caused or was caused by the apocalyptic visions we (and she) experienced as reality in “My Struggle II.” Her neurologist, Dr. Joyet, tells Mulder, “Neurologically speaking, her brain’s on fire.” Sure, that checks out medically.
It gets X-Filesier! A scan reveals that part of Scully’s brain is lighting up in, get this, Morse code; Skinner translates it as “FIND HIM.” He assumes the “him” is William, but Mulder would rather sit by Scully’s bedside than run off chasing phantom leads. This is one of my favorite Mulder-and-Scully M.O.s: They swap places when one of them is in danger. Scully was ready to fight anyone who said Mulder’s season 8 abduction wasn’t aliens, while Mulder is never less willing to entertain a fantastic theory than when he thinks it might come at Scully’s expense. She’s disoriented when she wakes up, explaining what she saw like it’s still happening (“You’re dying, Mulder. And I can’t save you”), and Mulder listens. But he insists on talking to Scully’s doctor before he goes in search of CSM (the actual “him” who needs finding), leaving Scully looking heartbroken that he doesn’t believe her. (Next: The aliens aren’t coming)
Unfortunately for Mulder, Dr. Joyet has obviously seen some things. She’s treated a few patients who were the products of governmental “experiments on the mind” and is remarkably chill about whatever superpowers resulted. Scully — who has records of what she was subjected to during her abduction, and whose visions relied on her alien DNA — insists that she’s never been a part of any experiments. Mulder reluctantly leaves to do some investigating; he’s not so much curious as he is just trying to keep Scully from checking herself out of the hospital and tracking down William on her own. You tried, Mulder.
Someone tails Mulder from the hospital; after luring the goon into an intersection at a red light, he turns the tables and tails his tail all the way to South Carolina — where Scully said CSM is alive and well. (It was sobering to remember that at the top of this episode, Mulder still believed he lived in a world where getting shot in the face with a rocket launcher means you die.) By the time the goon pulls up to a very nice mansion, Mulder is fully convinced that his cigarette-smoking father is not only among the living but right inside this house.
Instead, he finds another gravel-voiced man with a smoking habit, credited as Mr. Y (A.C. Peterson), and a woman named Erika Price (Barbara Hershey). (Recall that Mulder’s second informant was known as Mr. X. The alphabet is running out.) Y claims to be a surviving member of the Syndicate, the cabal of conspirators who were mostly wiped out in season 6. He and Price want Mulder to kill the Cigarette Smoking Man in order to save humanity from extermination. They don’t explain why they or their broad-shouldered goon can’t be the ones to pull the trigger.
It’s just like an X-Files villain to refuse to take responsibility. The Smoking Man opens this episode with a monologue that shrugs off the weight of his decisions by blaming forces outside his control: “Too much is made of the will to power, as if our will is free.” He isn’t bad, he says; he’s just practical, taking advantage of mankind’s tendency toward self-destruction. It’s a sentiment Price and Mr. Y echo: The aliens came to study us once, but they’re not coming back. We made too big a mess of this planet.
Their story fits unevenly into old versions of The X-Files’ mythology, playing as a sort of hybrid of last season’s “the aliens came to help us because they’re NICE” theory and season 6’s suggestion that the conspirators made a deal with alien invaders, sacrificing members of their families (Mulder’s sister included) in order to save themselves when the colonization began. It works better thematically, exposing how cowardice masquerades as cynicism. Too many people with the power to help humanity would rather claim we’re beyond saving, wash their hands, and start over, especially if they can make a dime in the process. Price and Y don’t plan to fix the world after taking out CSM; their “budding enterprise” is space colonization by a chosen elite. Mulder can come along if he does their bidding.
In D.C., another deal is being offered by another man who thinks he’s above it all. The Smoking Man, with Monica at his side, corners Skinner in his car and explains what Scully saw in her visions: He’s got an alien pathogen capable of wiping out the population. He offers Skinner immunity if he’ll deliver William, whom CSM plans to dangle in front of Scully like a bargaining chip. She’ll lose Mulder in the new world order, but she’ll have her son. We don’t see Skinner give a final answer; he makes his disgust clear, but Monica does the same every time she and CSM are alone together, and that doesn’t seem to have stopped her from joining forces with the devil.
Monica’s about-face from the loyal friend who drove Scully to the middle of nowhere and delivered her baby to a traitor only interested in self-protection still doesn’t track, and we’re no closer to understanding why she’s doing this than we were two years ago. It’s especially confusing given how easily this episode could have switched Monica and Spender’s roles, and how much closer that would bring them each to the people they were in the original series; Mulder’s half-brother Jeffrey Spender already spent years trying to get out of their father’s shadow, with limited success. He got his shot at redemption in the end, but Reyes, before now, never needed to be redeemed.
And yet it’s Spender — who returned in season 9’s “William,” disfigured from CSM’s tests, and gave William a shot of magnetite meant to make him useless to the aliens — who was apparently entrusted with hiding Scully’s baby. He comes to her in the hospital like a ghost of X-Files past (looking much better — his father must have given him the name of his face guy) and tells her that a man came after him in search of William. Then, at her urging, he gives up the name of the boy’s adoptive family: Van De Kamp. Spender disappears so quickly that it’s tempting to think he isn’t real, just a product of Scully’s mind. But products of Scully’s mind don’t leave voicemails for Mulder…probably. (Next: Don’t have visions and drive)
Scully checks herself out of the hospital against her doctor’s wishes and barely makes it to the office before collapsing, then decides it’s a good idea to get behind the wheel, which seems inadvisable even for someone whose visions just told her she’s the savior of mankind. The threat of watching Mulder die obviously has her rattled. “I have to find our son,” she tells him over the phone. “You need him, and I need you.” She’s barely on the road before she crashes, bringing her one attempt at having any agency at all in this scenario to a violent halt.
Miller and Einstein witness the crash and make themselves useful by returning Scully to the hospital, where Mr. Y’s goon finds her. (Why kill Scully? If he’s out to stop CSM’s plan, why not go straight to CSM?) He smothers and strangles her as she struggles in vain beneath him, an especially upsetting visual given what we’re about to learn. Scully’s consistent helplessness in this episode is an unfortunate complement to the reveal that ends it.
Mulder, who definitely did not drive back to D.C. below the speed limit, comes up from behind and garottes the guy to save the day, and she and Mulder share a moment in the hospital hallway. She reasons that the Smoking Man didn’t send the goon because he “won’t harm” her — but of course, he already has — and suggests that she’s figured out the source of her visions: William. “I don’t know how,” she admits, “but I know that he’s guiding me. And you.” That idea, at least, is a promising one. It also gives the pair that requisite procedural excuse to get back to business as usual: They don’t have to look for William because William will find them.
But first, Skinner and Mulder have to get into a confrontation. Mulder isn’t pleased that his boss was so little help while Scully was in danger; Skinner probably isn’t pleased that he’s in possession of information that will change his agents’ lives. The final scene of the hour takes us back to Skinner’s conversation with CSM, who reveals that his interest in William — and in Scully — is more sinister than any of them knew. It dates back to season 7’s “En Ami” (written by the Smoking Man himself, William B. Davis), in which CSM lured Scully on a road trip with the false promise of a cure for cancer.
We flash to that episode’s stomach-turning low point: CSM pulling up to a house, with Scully asleep in the passenger seat, and slipping on a pair of leather gloves. She woke up the next morning in pajamas that weren’t hers and accused CSM of drugging her, which he denied. Interestingly, something’s been changed: In the original episode, CSM says he carried her alone, but here the dialogue has been tweaked to include a housekeeper who apparently helped. Why add a witness? Will that “housekeeper” turn out to be Erika Price? Or is this shift meant to tip us off that CSM is manipulating the truth again? Even the tag at the end of the opening credits is a reminder to trust no one, as “I want to believe” fades to read “I want to lie.”
But the suggestion on its own is disturbing enough, and it’s the kiss of death for an episode that suffered from a clunky script but at least felt more in line with the original series’ themes, playing down those touchy chemtrail conspiracy theories and playing up the disdain for powerful manipulators. The first two parts of “My Struggle” are an admittedly low bar to clear, but before the final twist, I preferred this hour, which finds Mulder and Scully’s relationship in a better place and makes a better showcase for David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s 25-year history. And yet there’s no escaping that ending. Scully was raped (by “science”?) and she still doesn’t know it, and Mulder might be his son’s half-brother. It’s enough to make you wish the aliens would just come back and end the world already.