I know I didn’t see a ghost last weekend. When I say “last weekend,” I mean two weekends ago, and when I say “I know I didn’t see a ghost,” I mean I definitely probably maybe might have seen something. This was at Lyric Music Theater in South Portland (an actual real place!). I was in a production of Sweeney Todd, and standing on stage before the show started, the theater empty, the rest of the cast and crew busy putting on make-up and checking props, I looked out over the audience and into the lighting booth. And I saw—something. The light moved. No one was up there, and the light moved, and okay sure, it was probably just the shadow of someone closing the door downstairs, but who knows, right? Please?
The older I get, the more I find myself leaning on that “who knows” and “please,” and the less and less they can support my weight. It’s no great truth that life loses some of its magic as you leave childhood behind, but the bitter trick is how the magic doesn’t just leave you; it twists in on itself, making you bitter for all those years you wasted waiting for Santa Claus, Bigfoot, the Bogeyman. Growing up doesn’t ever end, and every year that passes, we become a little more tired, a little more realistic, and a little less able to look at a monster and not wait for the zipper.
“Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster” is the first episode of the show’s new season that feels like a legit defense of season 10’s existence. That’s ironic, considering this is coming from Darin Morgan; of the four episodes he wrote for the original run, three aggressively questioned The X-Files’ central premise, pointing again and again to the fundamental absurdity of life, the way the rigid implacability of death closes over us month after month, year after year. Intentionally or not, Morgan’s work deconstructed the premise of a series that seemed to depend on po-faced belief, and in doing so, helped transform it. Self-awareness is a risky turn for any narrative, but by acknowledging the fundamental stupidity of alien abduction and government conspiracy theories, Morgan opened the series as a whole to a wider variety of storytelling.
His script and direction in “The Were-Monster” are as ambitious and funny as one might hope. Where “My Struggle” went for mythology theatrics, and “Founder’s Mutation” leaned into the gore, this episode remains consistently goofy throughout, right down to the murder of multiple generic white men. Most genre shows aren’t interested in the corpses they leave in their wake; if it’s a main character, we’ll mourn, but one-offs and dumpster prizes get a token nod at best. Morgan doesn’t even bother with the nod. I don’t think we even learn any of the dead men’s names, let alone who they were supposed to be when they were alive, or why a serial killer was targeting them.
That’s clearly intentional. Where Morgan’s earlier writing questioned the point of Mulder’s Quixotic questing, “The Were-Monster” is, at heart, a tribute to the value of that search, and the pleasures of monster hunting, body slicing, and truth hunting in general. Although maybe “truth” is the wrong word to use. Mulder starts the hour more conscious of his failings, and the failings of his lifelong search, than we’ve ever seen him. After hours spent combing through the X-Files backlogs, checking in on old cases, looking, as it were, to find some of that old magic, he’s disgusted with the world and himself, no longer able to believe as willingly as he once did. Even the hope of some new beastie to track doesn’t improve his mood.
Yet he and Scully go on a case, after a pair of paint-huffing idiots see what they believe to be a lizard monster attack Animal Control Officer Pasha (Kumail Nanjiani, living the dream). Scully starts to enjoy herself, even commenting on how much fun she’s having, which is a relief; Mulder is very much focus of the hour, but Scully is as ahead of the game, and of him, as she ever was, and her casual confession of pleasure serves as a sort of thesis statement. This is why the identity of the corpses doesn’t really matter. They’re made up objects whose sole reason for existence is to allow the rest of the story to spring up around them. Pasha turns out to be another nebbishy serial killer, and, as delightful as Nanjiani’s performance is, he doesn’t really matter; just another reminder of man’s capacity for violence, and the tediously familiar justifications that come with it. No one cares Mulder even mentions how bored he is with serial killer profiling. The search for truth, for monsters, is about needing different answers for the same old questions.
There is a monster in “Were-Monster,” although he’s innocent of any killing. Guy Man (Rhys Darby) is a lizard creature bitten by a man and thus cursed to transform into a human during the day, complete with all the horrible trappings of consciousness. It’s a great joke, and one made greater by Darby’s infuriated bafflement at being suddenly forced to worry about jobs and retirement funds and lying about his sex life. The premise that conscious thought has doomed us to unhappiness, doubt, and endless regret is not a new theme for Morgan, and the surface level silliness of Guy’s struggles to cope don’t entirely distract from the melancholy running through all of this.
Mulder and Guy, though neither of them realize it, are suffering from variations on the same basic problem. Being human, being grown-up, means knowing the limitations of the world—it means knowing you’re going to die, and everything that follows from that. It means knowing that there are a finite number of possibilities for any given scenario, and that Occam’s Razor is the doom of all dreaming. Everything ends, and most of it ends in absolute pointless nonsense, tantalizing us with a resolution we can’t grasp. You don’t bring back a TV show over a decade after it aired and expect it to have any reason for existing. You can’t recapture the magic your memory keeps telling you you’re missing. Mulder and Scully are gone, and they had some pretty shitty adventures in those last couple of years, so maybe you should get over that?
What holds “Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster” back from the edge of despair is the possibility that, well, maybe you don’t have to let them go. It’s a surprising, almost shocking sentiment to come from a writer who so excels at embracing life’s existential cruelties, and I don’t mean to suggest something as neatly meta-fictional as “Embrace the nostalgia!” But the brightest moments in the episode come from casual nods to earlier outings, and from watching our heroes embrace the foolishness that held them together for so long. Maybe these six episodes (and, hopefully, whatever comes after) might not be the deepest, most engrossing experience imaginable. It’s impossible to shed the maturity that masquerades as cynicism; we’ve found the truth, and the truth is a box in the ground and a stone with your name on it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep our eyes open, and if the monster we find isn’t exactly what we thought it was, it might still let us shake its hand.
To put it another way: I know I didn’t see a ghost last weekend. But I still want to believe.
- At one point, Mulder and Scully interview a transgender prostitute who hit Guy in the head with her purse. The woman mentions transitioning, and the scene is played somewhat for laughs, but it doesn’t feel like we’re laughing at her, if that makes sense. Later, Mulder tries to explain transgender people to Guy, and while he reacts in astonishment (and, when he learns what “transitioning” means, outright horror), it again doesn’t feel like we’re laughing at the concept so much as Guy’s reaction, and the reminder of the complications of conscious life. Mulder’s casual description, and his assurance that this happens “frequently,” is pretty refreshing.
- “And if that doesn’t explain it, it’s probably just ice.” -Mulder
- Guy runs around dressed up like Carl Kolchak. This has no plot significance (he stole the clothes off one of the corpses Pasha left behind), but it does serve as a nice tip of the hat to one of The X-Files’ main inspirations.
- “Mulder, the Internet is not good for you.” -Scully
- Weird peeping tom hotel guy. I have no comment to make on him, apart from the fact that he’s another reminder of how messed up humans can be, but I figured I should mention him.
- “Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder.” -Scully (I love how sympathetic the episode is towards Fox. Morgan has been deservedly harsh on him in previous scripts, but this he and Scully are both equally sympathetic this time around.)
- Scully references her immortality! Which is silly, of course, but the casual way she says it, and the way it fits in with half a dozen other nods to continuity, has Morgan celebrating the show’s foolishness as much as he is lampooning it. Also, I think this means it’s canon.
- I wasn’t initially sold on Darby’s performance, but once I understood the concept, I thought he was brilliant. He barely seems to know what he’s saying from one sentence to the next, which is perfect.
- Kim Manners directed 52 episodes of the original series run, as well as serving as producer for the show.
- Mulder’s cell phone has an X-Files theme ring.