Credit: Shane Harvey/FOX

Mulder and Scully worked together, slept together, fell in love, broke up, had a baby, gave up their child, lived together as outlaws, maintained a platonic working relationship, spent long lonely nights wondering what could have been, spent lazy nights on the couch falling asleep with the TV on. That chronology’s not clear; it involves surprise twists and circle-back plotting. At one point, in a flashback, Scully sought in vitro fertilization with Mulder as a bio-dad, either because they were in love or because she wanted kids with David Duchovny genes.

I’m not sure you’re supposed to have the timeline clear as you’re watching the new X-Files episodes. Last week’s premiere declared at least one of those facts untrue—that baby, woof—but all the franchise’s later incarnations have a hazy relationship with established plot history. Both the 2016 and 2018 season premieres fly off the premise that previously established world-altering moments never really happened: The alien bounty hunters were a con job, the global pandemic was a premonition.

This is a weakness for the larger story, I think. Every big event seems to be pointless, like how every DC universe reboot winds up being a critique of the last DC universe reboot. But the strange storytelling decisions have given the central relationship a strange, paradoxical power. It’s impossible, I think, to get a bead on what Scully and Mulder mean to each other now. Their relationship is hazy, full of history that we the audience (and maybe they the characters) don’t really understand.

It doesn’t help—or does!—that the episodes this season all hail from different X-Files writers, who gravitate toward variable presentations of the Scully/Mulder dynamic. Creator Chris Carter wrote last week’s premiere, which sent Scully to the hospital, and when she left the hospital, she crashed her car and went back to the hospital. Dana-in-medical-peril is one of the least-well-aged X-Files plot ideas, but Carter sent the material skyward by giving Mulder narration straight out of a Harlequin romance. See Mulder at her bedside, musing like the noir heroes Frank Miller grew up loving:

The thought is imperishable, a fear that takes hold in the gut, that the person you care for most in the world could be hurt by you, by your actions, the simple fact of knowing you. As she lies here so helpless, those same thoughts and fears flood my mind with questions. If I caused this, how then can I make it stop?

Duchovny’s bored delivery made the whole thing bad in a good way, as funny as the X-Files episodes that are funny on purpose. This was the most archaic portrait of the couple: Him hero, her victim. And throughout the premiere, you had the feeling of Scully as the Distressed Woman. Mulder stopped narrating love poetry just long enough to slit her attacker’s throat. And the closing scene revealed Scully as a victim of a strange sexual assault—semantics that Carter disputes, but the plot twist depended on knockout drugs and unconsented impregnation, so interpret away.

Scully’s fertility came up throughout the original run of The X-Files. The alien mythology was always circling Rosemary’s Baby-ish pregnancy paranoia, fecundatory shadowmen making babies or stealing them. There’s a tradition for this, I’m saying, though not all traditions are good. Wednesday’s episode, “This,” is calmer and cooler, offering a different perspective on the Mulder/Scully dynamic. (One side effect of the bad premiere is that the ensuing episodes—all of them firmly, definitely okay—look great by comparison.)

The agents begin the episode on the couch, fast asleep after a long-looking night of bringing their work home. Bad guys attack, and they respond like action heroes; at one point, Scully slides under the dinner table, grabs her gun from the top of the table—and, in the same move, pushes the table over as a shield, an act of fell-swoopage straight out of John Wick. They go on the run from, well, everybody—Americans or Russians, government or private sector, who can tell?—but the mood is light and fun. Writer-director Glen Morgan casts this adventure as a latter-day Thin Man or Hart to Hart, with Scully and Mulder reacting to violent death around them as an excuse for flirty play. Compare that quote above—imperishable thoughts!—with how Mulder teases his jittery partner in this episode. They’re in a restaurant; someone has just tried to kill them, for the third or fourth time today:

Scully, you look so adorbs just there. All curled up in a ball in the booth of a skanky bar with your fingers wrapped around the grip of an assassin’s Glock.

Adorbs! I wish “This” were all that. The science-fiction concept feels too familiar, and haphazard. There’s the minor problem of cultural influence here—X-Files created a world where Black Mirror already did digital heaven much better. And there’s the greater problem that the show’s serialized instincts are all unconvincing mystery teases. (Barbara Hershey’s conspiracist returns in this episode, adding little beyond the lame promise that everything is connected, man.) But I loved the moment at the episode’s end. Scully and Mulder arrive back at their bullet-riddled, bloodstained home, start to pick up their trashed files—and then throw them on the floor, long overdue for another nap on the couch. Just a fun couple solving mysteries between naps here, boss!

Scully and Mulder don’t actually live together, I don’t think? And they’re not really “together” in any meaningful romantic way, question mark? I guess I should point out that the X-Files revival has broadly established that they were together, then broke up, and are now just coworkers, whatever that means. (We have seen little evidence that they hang out with anyone besides each other.) And although next week’s “Plus One” is the most clear one-off story out of the episodes I’ve seen, there’s a scene toward the middle of the episode that takes a step back to the consider the relationship: a late-night motel musing, with Scully and Mulder talking about life.

“Sooner or later, we’re gonna retire,” Scully says. “Are we gonna spend time together?”

“I’ll come push your wheelchair with my wheelchair,” Mulder says.

There’s more to this conversation I don’t want to spoil, but let’s focus in on that first part: “We’re gonna retire. Are we gonna spend time together?” If you accept that Mulder and Scully are, like, longtime fellow employees with chemistry, assigned partners for decades, then this line is poignant and rather lovely. Is the job all that holds them together?

You have to remember that Mulder and Scully didn’t have to be in a relationship, ever. There’s a counter-history of X-Files, actually, where their ultimate romance was a series-wrecking problem: a nod to ‘shippers (who were practically invented out of X-Files fandom) that cuted down what could’ve been a respectful partnership. There’s some long-lost idea of this show where Scully and Mulder were, essentially, the Hollywood buddy-cop formula: Mulder the kamikaze Mel Gibson maniac, Scully a world-weary Danny Glover type already too old for this s—. (Ghosted has reclaimed that lineage, although Ghosted could be more fun if it’s an actual love story.)

I don’t want to say ‘shipping ruined this show, because ‘shipping is a complex phenomenon, and the only thing that ever ruined X-Files was X-Files. But one problem with ‘shipping is how it pushes romance to the extreme—they’re in love!–without allowing for the full fascinating spectrum of human experience. By which I mean, you wonder if Mulder and Scully had a lot of sex but never quite figured out the “relationship” thing—if, in fact, the sex was a side effect of profound workaholism. “We’re gonna retire. Are we gonna spend time together?” Gillian Anderson imbues the lines with endearing humanity. And you recognize how Mulder’s wheelchair joke is defensive: a way of curving away from the real conversation, from a true friend who’d like to keep the benefits.

(ASIDE: One problem with talking about ‘shipping: Discussing characters purely in love-interest terms can sound diminishing, a way of saying “nothing this person does is as important as their romantic pursuits.” This is obviously untrue with, like, Scully, who we’ve watched struggle sincerely with big existential questions about faith and who has been a federal agent and a doctor in her professional lifetime, so what are you doing with your life? But ‘shipping is an expression of a deep response to motion picture performance, more immediate and bio-chemical than any aesthetic criticism. There is some intangible just-right-ness when characters onscreen move closer together. All this is to say, I’m open to the argument that Mulder and Scully should have never gotten together, and the show would be better if Scully only grudgingly—in no way romantically—accepted Mulder as a partner. It’s 2018, the world’s mad, we should question everything. But this feels tantamount to saying “X-Files would be better if Scully and Mulder had no chemistry,” which is the thoughtless thinkpiece no one should ever write. END OF ASIDE.)

Of course, in any notional context of X-Files history, this scene’s a little bonkers. They left the FBI for over a decade; they spent time together, and they drove each other crazy. Carter wrote next week’s episode, and it feels like another expression of his weird relationship to his own show’s history. The Scully/Mulder scene works best if you ignore the last 20 years of X-Files history, if you pretend, in fact, that their conversation here is a stand-in for a conversation all flirty procedural duos will have at some point, from Bones to Castle to Lucifer and whoever’s not Lucifer in Lucifer.

And that’s a different vibe from the fourth episode, a Darin Morgan freakout that treats Mulder and Scully as outrageous archetypes. There’s some honesty in the comedy here and a romantic beat that seems to parody every sincere feeling about the show’s romance. The episode after that whiplashes back to melancholy. That whiplash feels familiar, always part of the show’s charm, though most of the storytelling now lacks the punch of better X-Files. There is a punk rock crop of fine paranoid science-fiction TV right now, Black Mirror and Westworld and Legion and Rick and Morty and the sundered identities of the just-barely-not-fantastical Mr. Robot.

This new X-Files feels like the legacy rock alternative, but I’m fascinated by the uniquely Schrödinger-ish central duo, their coupling at once undefined and too defined. They’re a fun pair of basically-married crimebusters! Or they’re mournful former lovers with a history weighing on their shoulders like an Ingmar Bergman movie! Or they’re “platonic” coworkers who always get adjoining rooms on business trips! They spend all day together; they always feel alone. Will they? Won’t they? Did they ever?