By Darren Franich
March 21, 2018 at 11:16 PM EDT

The X-Files season finale was mesmerizingly insane. People exploded, every bullet wound was a headshot, half the main characters died. Agent Mulder killed everybody, and drove everywhere. Agent Scully was always on the phone, assaulted by visions that looked like “Previously On” montages and “Next Time On” previews. The dialogue rang like a tin cowbell. “Have you seen the internet?” asked the FBI’s Deputy Director. “I shot my secondborn son once,” said the Smoking Man. “You should really do a better job of protecting your ass,” said Mulder, not long after Walter Skinner complained about “getting my ass chewed.”

The Smoking Man promised a global contagion in act one. But then there was never a global contagion, a flagrant violation of Chekhov’s Rule of Global Contagions. I think another bad guy had a secret space program, but Mulder shot him in the forehead, so now we finally know how to end conspiracies. There was also a giant sharkbat, but that was just an illusion, I think? And Skinner fought a car; the car won.

“My Struggle IV” was not a good episode of television. It sure was wild, though. Creator Chris Carter has left a curious legacy for himself in this revival. He writer-directed the premieres and the finales, a serialized “My Struggle” subseries. The first three were increasingly terrible, full of bad speeches that sounded like Deep State subreddits.

“My Struggle IV” was something else. It could be the end of The X-Files. It is roughly as bad as the last X-Files series finale, but it is powers of 10 more entertaining. It had the goofy swagger of something like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which I kinda mean as a sincere compliment and clearly mean as a harsh critique. After two seasons of teasing grand plot dynamics — pandemic, alien son, space colonies, Area 51 — this finale paid off nothing, except maybe Carter’s heretofore-unexpressed desire to film a Jason Bourne action sequence.

The actors looked dispirited. I got the sense David Duchovny was speaking under duress. “I had some payback to…pay back,” he told Scully after killing a squad of paramilitary types. I swear I saw Duchovny think long and hard before he said that last “pay back,” a man on a cliff’s edge second-guessing his plan to jump.

Gillian Anderson was lucky, maybe. Scully had nothing to do, which meant she didn’t do anything embarrassing. But this season started off on a brutal note for the character, recasting a long-ago plot point with alien-science rape allegory. You felt Scully’s role was reduced somehow, that she was sometimes just there to worry about William. In “My Struggle IV,” Scully and Mulder hear that their son is in danger. Mulder springs into action, and Scully…waits patiently by the phone.

Later in the episode, Scully finally learns about her impregnation — except we didn’t even really see that scene. Instead, we see Skinner say that he has something to tell Scully, and then we cut to Mulder, and then we cut back to Scully in the car, the sound dropping off as she breathed dramatically. “I carried him. I bore him. But I was never a mother to him,” she concluded, suddenly not caring about the only plot point she’s cared about this season.

The finale ended on another twist about her womb, but I don’t want to make this a whole Scully tirade. Because everything in the last half of “My Struggle IV” was kooky, and I gave up, and I gave in, and I cackled. The conspiracists who were hunting for William found him — and William blew them all up. Remember when Barbara Hershey was introduced as a scary new malevolent figure? Her head got Dead Ringer‘d, pop, squoosh! It was “a bloodbath so insane it can only point to a conspiracy the likes of which the world has never seen,” said Joel McHale’s TV host. He’s right. I’ve never seen so many intestines. Must be Illuminati.

You had to admit, Carter was making choices with this finale. Some of the stylistic decisions were positively surreal. At one point, Mulder and William were both wearing an identical costume ensemble, a brown jacket and a hoodie and jeans. (I might be crazy, but I swear Scully was wearing the exact same jacket-and-hoodie-and-jeans outfit when she ran into Mulder’s house. What Does It Mean?) The scattered chronology started to feel like dadaist cut-uppery, so many flashbacks and flashforwards and memories of last finale’s future past. Motivation disintegrated: Monica Reyes was helping Mulder and Scully, but then their ally Skinner wound up shooting her, and her car ran him over, though it was the Smoking Man whose foot was on the gas. The Smoking Man got out of the crashed car, and looked down at Skinner’s feet. Thus endeth the Saga of Skinner, gaze upon his shoes ye mighty and despair.

Are they dead? Are we all dead? Throughout the episode, there was a teasing flashforward to a final showdown: The Smoking Man shooting Mulder. Since it was already established that William could imitate anyone, you figured out the twist gigamiles away. William was played by Miles Robbins, a vaguely Timothéen performer whose performance suggested a homicidal variation of Jughead from Riverdale. This episode revealed that there is a Bad Narration genome shared by the Smoking Man and his sons. The possibility that William was, essentially, a superpowered sociopath was fascinating: Was he the season’s true villain? Who cares: I wish they’d never brought him back from season 9, truly. And so I was happy when William/Fake Mulder died. Shadenfreude works on me: Shoot him in the face, pow!

Of course, he’s not dead. And it’s possible that the last shot ever on The X-Files will be William rising out of the water. (Bullets are no match for alien science.) Unbothered by a Hole in the Head: I can’t think of a better description of this season. It could be silly, it could be stupid, it could be profound. A lot of this year’s episodes were boring, but there were two utter delights. One of them was a mess that gave me all the series closure I’ll ever need. Another was a clever experiment that argued there was a vivid future for this brand, that it could be an endearingly weird human cartoon about our dystopian world. Both of those episodes treated the show’s whole world as a sincere joke, which probably explains why I enjoyed “My Struggle IV” so much more than reason would allow.

So much of contemporary serialization has become prosaic, static, whole seasons telling one long endless story with one hyper-specific cultivated tone. X-Files season 11 was refreshingly manic. The design of the original series always allowed for wild clashing tones, but now the clashes felt reality-bursting. Mulder and Scully would talk about faith, or they’d have a sushi date, or they’d get into a gunfight with a paramilitary squad. It could be dispiriting, don’t get me wrong: Indifferent scares, old-crankery bemoaning The State of Things, Haley Joel Osmont explicating chemtrails. Mulder himself could come off like a declining rantbox — but when he put on glasses for the first time, you realized he was just getting old, like the rest of us. I lost track of what was happening during the penultimate episode’s showdown between the Catholic Vigilante and the Organ Vampires. But someone sang “The Morning After” during a cannibal montage, and that was fun.

I don’t really think The X-Files is over. Anderson has said she’s finished with the show, but everyone was finished 16 years ago. It’s starting to feel like anything that was popular for any four-second span of the 1990s will never really leave us. A new corporate parent beckons; the X-Files FanFic I’m writing is about the dark future where all pop culture is Disney reboots of stuff I grew up with. (Sort of like Ready Player One except depressing on purpose.) In a wide-ranging interview with my colleague James Hibberd, Carter himself sounds confident there’s an X-Files future.

But if this is an ending, what kind of ending was it? If nothing else: So much more fun than “The Truth,” the trial-by-cameo that wrapped up the first run in 2002. “My Struggle IV” made about as much sense — zilch — but you felt that Carter was indulging some goofy pulp thrills, maniac truck drivers, Duchovnian slo-mo, Skinner’s Last Stand.

And there was something cathartic in the climactic weirdness. Mulder fired his gun at his evil father, over and over and over. William B. Davis gave so many great performances as this character long ago, and I will treasure the theatrical way that he kept standing up during all those gunshots, so that Mulder could physically push him into the water. When the Smoking Man died in “The Truth,” there was a big speech and bigger explosion. This time, he got shot a million times outside one of those industrial piers where Lethal Weapon always ended back when Lethal Weapon was just movies. If those are the only options, I’ll pick B.

And then Scully said she was pregnant, and Mulder said “It’s impossible,” and Scully said “It’s more than impossible.” There was something poetic in the mad science here. Mulder’s son was actually his brother; his brother pretended to be Mulder to convince their father to shoot him. Then Mulder killed his father — and, a minute later, found out he was going to be a father. This is hysterical family melodrama, Days of Our Lives gone Full Oedipus. I didn’t spot any truth, but I’m glad this finale went all the way Out There.

Season Grade: B-

Finale Grade: Z+

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The X-Files

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