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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The X-Files hits the ground running, stumbles, keeps running

Illustration for article titled The X-Files hits the ground running, stumbles, keeps running
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How much do you adjust for nostalgia? How important is it to separate critical judgement (already a complicated stew of emotional response masquerading as rationality) from the simple pleasure of coming back home? I’m not sure. It’s a question that occurred to me several times watching “My Struggle.” This is not a great hour of television. It’s forced in places, unevenly paced, and exploits real-life tragedy to a degree that borders on tasteless. A Glenn Beck stand-in is a hero of righteous truth, and Mulder (looking a lot more grizzled and jowly than you might remember him) keeps ranting about how a beautiful young woman is the “key to everything.” Oh, and there are multiple paranoid monologues detailing conspiracy theories that wouldn’t be out of place on a Truthers message board. But I liked it.

Really, I did. I watched it once when Fox first released the episode to critics a couple months ago, and then, after hearing how much a number of my peers hated it, I watched it again. And I can see where their criticisms are coming from. (At least, I assume I can; I try not to read other people’s reviews before I write my own.) There’s a certain queasiness underlying “My Struggle,” an unshakable sense that something isn’t exactly what it ought to be. The world of the show is askew in ways that I don’t believe were intentional. A standard X-Files episode worked best when it started from a place of normalcy (oh wow, tabloid headlines are so crazy!) before slowly revealing the madness underneath. Here, things start kind of odd and more or less stay there.

I’m not talking about Mulder and Scully being separated; of everything that happens in “My Struggle,” their friendly estrangement arguably makes the most logical and psychological sense. As close as the two were in their work, Mulder could be an insufferable jackass, and it’s not hard at all to imagine a scenario in which Scully simply couldn’t put up with his obsessive compulsions outside the constant pressure of government conspiracies and alien abductions. Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry remains more or less intact, and while it’s a shame to see Carter once again falling back on the same patterns he always clung to (Mulder is fixated, Scully is the concerned outsider who sighs a lot before finally accepting the truth), it’s still a pleasure to see these actors working together. They’re a little older, a bit more tired, but the spark is there.

Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find it in myself to hate this, no matter how often I winced: that spark. It’s not just Mulder and Scully, either. Carter’s ability to summarize obtuse, labyrinthian theory into something almost rational gives Mulder and Tad O’Malley’s (Joel McHale being, well, Joel McHale but less funny) rants a surprising amount of power—and while the mention of 9/11 as a “false flag” operation is questionable, it’s not entirely out of bounds for a show like this, which often drapes tragedy in the guise of lunacy for its own ends. If nothing else, there’s still power in hearing madness expressed in such eloquent, even formal language. Carter isn’t the best dialogue writer in the world, but at his best, there’s a faux-formality to his rhetoric, a verbosity that harnesses paranoia and turns into something almost plausible.

The big hook of “My Struggle” is Carter’s attempt to pull the show’s convoluted, basically bullshit mythology (seriously, watch the original series finale—it’s not the worst thing ever, but any time you have a finale that’s over fifty percent exposition, you’re doing something wrong) and spin it off in a new direction. It’s an understandable goal, and one I’d argue he more or less succeeds at. Some of this feels familiar; I can’t cite specific examples, but I swear that Mulder has decided “Everything’s a lie!” a dozen times or more. The idea that the government created an increasingly convoluted lie about alien civil war and invasion to cover for their own efforts to use alien tech to take over the world is a bit of a stretch, but it makes enough sense to be basically effective, as long as you don’t poke at it too long.

Carter’s gift for spinning conspiracy dross into narrative gold is matched only by his fundamental inability to take the next step, the step that transforms that gold into art: the recognition that the absurdity of these theories is part of their appeal, and that the real force that drives someone like Mulder to do what he does is less a need for the Truth, and more a terror at the possibility that there are no secret systems underpinning everything—that instead of a dark vast cabal of villainy, the only thing in charge of the universe is the sterile, merciless idiocy of physical law. The X-Files doesn’t need to get quite that nihilistic, but it does need to be self-aware that the “The Truth is out there” is an inherently quixotic phrase, the motto of windmill chasers and other holy fools. So it’s not a surprise that the plot of “My Struggle” is a bit thin, a bit undercooked. The storytelling brand Carter was peddling in 1993 is no longer sufficient in and of itself, and this premiere’s greatest value is in laying the groundwork for other writers to stand on.


So maybe it’s not just nostalgia that’s working on me here. Maybe it’s the simple fact that this doesn’t completely fall apart by the end; the episode hits the basic notes (Mulder learns about something new; he thinks he finally has his proof; Scully is eh on the whole thing; shadowy forces step in and snatch the proof away; Scully and Mulder both end up frustrated but determined to move forward) more or less, and if there isn’t much grace in the execution, it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. Which is small praise, no doubt.

There are touches that worked; Scully’s willingness to go on a date with Tad at least gave her something more to do than look worried all the time, and the fact that Skinner remains the Assistant Director of the FBI is at once hilarious and sort of reassuring. There are touches that didn’t work. The quick transition from “Oh hey, I found proof!” to “Everything is being hushed up and nearly all of the relevant parties have been killed” was too abrupt, and Sveta (Annet Mahendru) is too much of a prop, allowing the actress few chances to work in any of the complexity she’s brought to her role on The Americans. (It also doesn’t help that, given his time on Californication, I kept wondering how noble Duchovny’s intentions towards her really were.)


It’s kind of a mess. But it’s a clean mess, if that makes sense, one that at least shows the courtesy of cauterizing most of its loose ends as it goes. And yes, there’s some nostalgia at play, even in the quality of the mess itself—this is, after all, the sort of nonsense Carter got up to all the time during the show’s original run. The main difference here is a lack of immediacy, and a paucity of memorable images. Even the ship Mulder sees, the one that turns invisible and runs on clean energy, is more or less something we’ve seen before. So yeah, it’s not great. It might not even be good. But I liked it. I’m not sure I could recommend it to anyone else, and I’m not even entirely sure what it was I liked—but I remain interested to see what happens next.

Stray observations

  • If “My Struggle” left you completely cold, there’s still hope; I’ve seen tomorrow night’s episode, and it’s very solid stuff indeed. (And I haven’t even watched next week’s episode by Darin Morgan, which I’ve heard is fantastic.)
  • I don’t think the show was ever rock-solid realistic on how federal agencies work, but it at least maintained a TV-acceptable level of plausibility. Mulder and Scully getting called in because Skinner has suddenly decided they need to re-open the X-Files again doesn’t really pass the smell test.
  • The Cigarette Smoking Man is back! Despite having died in the original show’s run, but whatever. At this point, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if they didn’t find a way to resurrect Krycek. It’s silly and pointless, and almost certainly misguided, and I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t be delighted to see it.
  • Also familiar? The flashback that gives us a little backstory on the Roswell crash and the latest in Mulder’s long line of “I can’t tell you anything but I can give you hints” informants. I’m not sure how necessary it was, but the scenes didn’t drag down the pace, and it was interesting to see an alien in full view.
  • The title, “My Struggle,” is kind of dumb. Apart from the various cultural echoes, the singular pronoun betrays a misunderstanding of the appeal of the show. While Mulder may be the more aggressive of the two, the show is about him and Scully. The X-Files has two protagonists, and to forget that is to do both characters a disservice.