WILLIAM: I know the truth can only come from my father, a man I’ve only seen in my visions, but who I already know I hate…
How do you end The X-Files? This is a question fans have been asking themselves for quarter of a century, ever since Chris Carter’s show premiered in 1993 on the FOX network and helped define popular culture across the entire decade. ‘My Struggle IV’ proves, without any shadow of a doubt, that the truth is you don’t. The X-Files is a phenomenon that will never truly come to a close.
Season 11 of The X-Files has been overshadowed, to some degree, by Gillian Anderson’s announcement last October—with several months of shooting left to go—that this was her final go around playing FBI agent Dana Scully, the role she will be immortalised for, as much as David Duchovny will never truly escape her partner, FBI maverick Fox Mulder. Anderson stayed with the original series longer than Duchovny—who jumped ship as a forefront character at the end of the seventh season—so it’s difficult to truly blame her for deciding, after twenty-five years living the part even in the long period she didn’t play her, that Anderson wanted an end for Scully. The revival series, which arrived in 2016 on the trail of a nostalgic comeback tour for various TV shows which were iconic in the days before streaming and cable changed the paradigm of television, was one millions of fans hoped would provide some sense of closure.
The end of the original series, Season 9’s ‘The Truth’, came as a disappointment to many fans at the time. Contextualising a mythology many had (falsely) claimed made no sense, and reintroducing the long-absent Mulder, made what fans hoped was a climactic thrill ride for the alien mythology more like a clip show, with an ending that reflected the ‘Pilot’ but left Mulder & Scully in nebulous waters; were they fugitives? Were they out of the FBI? Were the X-Files shut down? What about Agents Doggett & Reyes, who had taken over the department and failed conceptually to replace the dynamic duo we had followed for seven seasons together? Were the aliens still about to invade? So many questions were left unanswered, far more indeed than ‘My Struggle IV’ has left unanswered – and this latest attempt at a finale is, in all honesty, no real *finale* at all.
Carter suggests to some degree with ‘The Truth’ he was looking at certain of the critically acclaimed cable shows on HBO which would later directly influence the kind of TV the revival would sit alongside:
We always listen to our audience, but when we sat down to do what we did, we always did what felt right to us. Certainly you can’t help but be influenced by people’s comments, and certainly I took direction from people during the course of the show. But I know when we sat down to do those last two hours, we sat down with so many thoughts in our head — but really, it was “How best do we end the show?” I’ll speak to the way that other people ended their shows after The X-Files ended. Of course, I watched the ending on The Sopranos and Six Feet Under certainly with new eyes by the end of my show. And I was just so impressed by the way both of those shows ended.
Hopes were pinned on an evolution to the big-screen, following the moderate success of the first movie transition in 1998’s Fight the Future—placed between the fifth and sixth seasons—but 2008’s sequel I Want to Believe chose, for various reasons (principally one suspects budgetary) to tell a stand-alone tale which only half returned Mulder & Scully to the iconic partnership we had enjoyed for almost a decade together. Yet again, with no focus on either the alien mythology or the emotional fallout of giving their son William up for adoption, fans felt there needed to be more. For years, they hoped for ‘X-Files 3’, the third blockbuster movie Carter long hoped to make which would have focused on the alien mythology. What we got as a placeholder was Joe Harris’ Season 10 comic for IDW, which Carter helped developed and for a time was considered ‘canon’.
So upon the revival series being announced, those hopes for some level of continuity and conclusion were raised again amongst a fandom which may have gone quiet, but had never gone away. Chris Carter did with Season 10 and now Season 11 of The X-Files what he and his immensely talented group of writers had always done with this show – make it about the fears and anxieties we are experiencing at the time it was made. I discussed this a little in my thoughts on season premiere ‘My Struggle III’, but Season 10 partially struggled (no pun intended) because it sat in the space between Obama’s legacy and Trump’s ascendancy, existing just before the onset of post-truth paranoia and the troubling rise of the alt-right movement which has begun to define the latter half of the 2010’s.
The X-Files is taking place in the here and now. It’s not taking place in the past and it’s not taking place in some imaginary television time and place. We speak to our political moment. We speak to the characters and their lives, as if those are lives that have been lived. So, it’s a show for and of its time. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s what we’re interested in. Hard or easy, it’s who we are. We’ve always told the stories that are most interesting to us, and the really fortunate thing is that people have come along.
Perhaps the question therefore should be – what is The X-Files for the time we are in? Season 10 essentially focused on trying to regain some of the magic, remind people of who Mulder & Scully were and the style of storytelling the series was known for (with mixed results), but Season 11 took that ball and ran with it into some experimental and boundary-pushing areas; the Black Mirror-inspirations Glen Morgan imbued with ‘This’ and ‘Followers’; yet another Darin Morgan comedy, ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’, which took a satirical sideswipe at fake news and alternative narratives; or even the macabre body horror and existential fear of ageing in ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Season 11 felt the most like The X-Files in a long time while also a completely new, at times innovative, show.
Carter’s job, as creator and show runner, was to try and weave that sense of deep, labryinth mythology into a revival which existed in an entirely new world. His original tale of an impending alien apocalypse by mysterious, God-like ancient beings in collusion with a Syndicate of human collaborators was filled with post-WW2 American guilt and the post-Watergate anxiety of a secretive elite looking to sunder humanity’s future for their own survival. Over the first nine seasons the manner of that conspiracy ebbed and flowed but the essential messages were the same – the Truth that Mulder sought was caught up with the tragic, false myth of American manifest destiny which connected to his own secretive family history. The aliens remained the judgment for the sins of many fathers.
Come 2016 and the pre-millennial anxieties of the 1990’s have been replaced by a world of social media, drone-surveillance, increasingly Draconian laws about personal freedoms, and a proliferation of right-wing propaganda behind genuine fears the democratic process of Western civilisation is being eroded by shadowy, very human paymasters. Carter, understanding the pulse of how the American story has begun to change, ensured ‘My Struggle’ took away the basic tenets of the original series mythology – indeed in many ways Carter retconned what he had spent a decade building, recasting the alien threat almost as much of a victim of an elitist, human enemy as the American people. The shadowy aliens, our Gods, were no longer what we should fear – instead, Carter wanted us to fear ourselves.
‘My Struggle III’ caused an immense amount of controversy given many of the choices Carter made revolving around Scully’s abuse at the hands of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, and while it may have been insensitively handled in places, it served an important purpose which built on the work established in the first two reconceptualisations of the mythology. Carter had already established how a human conspiracy intended to throw humanity to the wolves, unleashing a deadly viral pathogen from an extra-terrestrial source only a chosen few would survive, but the Season 11 premiere brought the Smoking Man into focus as the ultimate encapsulation of white, old man privilege; he’s not just the Syndicate, he’s Weinstein or Spacey or any number of those accused of crimes in which they abused their power.
Therefore while many have suggested the original continuity of the show has been destroyed by Carter’s new approach, and equally as many have hated ‘My Struggle III’ for the choices made at the expense of Scully, all of them have been in keeping with themes and concepts which have existed in The X-Files since the very beginning; Scully’s consistent removal of reproductive agency, body horror, and crucially, the narrative of fatherhood. The Smoking Man was nebulously revealed as early as Season Three as Mulder’s probable biological father, a fact later genetically confirmed by Season Nine, and now the revelation that he ‘created’ William by artificially inseminating Scully during Season Seven as part of a long-gestating experiment almost brings everything full circle. ‘My Struggle IV’ confirms this was no fake out by the Smoking Man – everything he revealed to Skinner was true.
Many fans will be quite devastated by this, as it essentially destroys the romantic myth of Mulder, Scully and William as a family unit. Carter rips this away by the end of ‘My Struggle IV’, and while he replaces it with a new biological miracle, this is likely an emotional journey for these two characters we are never likely to see, if Anderson’s declaration is one she stands by. Carter gives Mulder & Scully a second ‘Existence’, the Season Eight finale in which a final shot pulled away from Mulder & Scully holding baby William. It could have been a final moment in which we saw both characters, retiring from the game to be parents, but Carter never intended their journey to fit into such a neat box. Perhaps by the end of ‘My Struggle IV’, he has changed his mind. Perhaps not.
What this finale does, however, is work hard to remove the emotional connection to William which Mulder & Scully have been weighed down by since ‘Existence’. I’ve made the point in numerous episodes of my podcast The X-Cast, but the moment William was born, he became a creative, narrative albatross around the neck of the series. Mulder & Scully had by that point become archetypal heroes fighting against an impossible, no-win scenario; two agents filled with virtue and the pursuit of justice up against a monolithic wall of secrets and lies. Though the show had begun with these archetypes as characters and friends, their charismatic portrayals in part had led the writers to start deepening their personal lives and backstories to the point romantic attachment became inevitable. The X-Files became *about* Mulder & Scully, and at that point the show changed forever.
Carter has described the ‘Struggles’ as a mini-series within both of the revival seasons, and that’s an acute observation in many ways. They don’t fit alongside many of the other episodes in either season. They are far more breakneck in pace, blending action thriller stylistics with technological conspiracy, but they equally have been *personal*. The other creatives involved with the revival seasons have brought their own textural stamp to the show, telling stories which speak to the elasticity of The X-Files as a concept; Darin Morgan’s comedies; heavy Hammer horror gore in ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’; teen action stylistics of ‘Ghouli’ or ‘Founders Mutation’ – the list goes on. None felt like any of Carter’s ‘Struggles’. They became a show *within* a show, as they developed the personal story of our two characters.
Crucially, they made the mythology *about* William. This is something you sense Carter was avoiding if and when he made a third X-Files movie, given how after Season Eight’s entire supersoldier mythology ended up about William’s birth, and key Season Nine episodes tried to suggest God-like power and prophecy swirled around William, he was removed from the board and given up for adoption before ‘The Truth’. Emotionally, however, the child remained. How could he not? Scully’s entire arc had revolved around her heartbreak at not being able to naturally conceive, while Mulder faced a tragic heroes mythical journey unable truly to connect with the ‘family’ he had created with her, a family he was never able to have as a child himself due to his father’s secrets and sister’s abduction as a child. William was always going to define them once he was born.
‘My Struggle IV’, consequently, tries to bring all of these disparate threads together – William’s fate, the Smoking Man’s grand, elitist (and not entirely convincing) plan, Monica Reyes’ redemption, Mulder’s hope to be a father, Scully’s anguish at not being a mother, threat of a global contagion, and Skinner’s ultimate sacrifice to protect the two agents, as established in ‘Kitten’, he has always been ready to give up his career to protect. All of this within 38 minutes, after what amounts to a five minute preamble with a ‘previously’ section and William’s own ‘struggle’ monologue which catches us up on his psychological mindset. It’s an almost impossible task but from a tonal perspective, it fits perfectly in tune with the previous three ‘Struggles’. It also cannot possibly hope to emotionally and narratively satisfy as a payoff for twenty-five years of storytelling.
So many beats are left hanging. Skinner’s fate, seemingly ran over by the Smoking Man’s car, seems to try and serve his tragic beat lightly suggested in ‘Kitten’ that he may sacrifice himself to save Mulder & Scully, but we get no confirmation he is dead (though he looks quite dead to me); Reyes gets a sliver of redemption in trying to get Mulder & Scully on the hunt for William, but no real time is afforded for any satisfying payoff for a character who was utterly misappropriated from the moment she reappeared in ‘My Struggle II’ (and she now may be a goner too); even the Smoking Man, who we may as well call Wile E. Smokey by this point, might well bounce back from yet another grave (this one watery), and in the end he becomes a rather rote, gurning villain for our heroes to take down. The gravitas of the character is almost completely gone by this point.
I put him in the plot of My Struggle 3. He, unfortunately, wasn’t available. I had to reconceive that story using the character of Mulder’s half-brother — who was going to be in the episode anyway — and he stepped in where Doggett was going to step in.
It makes more sense, oddly, that the character involved in this context was Jeffrey Spender, but it remains unfortunate Doggett was never seen (or even mentioned) in the revival series, but in many ways perhaps it did the character a favour. Where would he have fitted in any satisfactory way? Many of these classic, historic players from the series’ mythos have struggled to find a place in the faster, shorter, punchier run of the series, while new characters have found it difficult to make a mark at all – Agents Miller & Einstein were hastily written out following terrible fan reception, Tad O’Malley ended up simply as an irritating Alex Jones facsimile, while new Season 11 bad guys Mr Y and Erika Price may just as well not have bothered turning up for all the memorable menace they created.
In this respect, ‘My Struggle IV’, and its predecessors, are difficult to digest, certainly as an ending. Where they work, as The X-Files has most successfully worked during its revival, is on a thematic level. Chris Carter’s overarching mythological tapestry over these last two seasons has been consistent, no matter what you think of them on a creative level. They have reworked the historical mythology into a warped version of white, Western elitist power by corrupting male influences, establishing a controlling and abusive influence over a population they have now decided to completely abandon or destroy. Carter, perhaps understanding the Western world is beginning to crumble in the face of capitalist excess and democratic erosion, turned his gaze inward, to the enemy within.
At one point, in the original series, Alex Krycek described how the aliens feared William was “more human than human”, how he could be greater than them, and The X-Files in turning the character into an X-Men style kid with mutant powers, serves to prove his words were very true. William ends up more of a literal manifestation of Mulder’s work than the psychological one of a child like Gibson Praise, but we’re a long way past the professional obsession of ‘The End’ from Mulder. ‘My Struggle IV’, as a finale, accentuates the personal and gives both he & Scully a catharsis far beyond their work. It doesn’t even matter that Kersh closes the X-Files department, almost as much as it didn’t matter that Skinner reopened them. Mulder & Scully, as a couple, have outgrown their own show.
In which case, maybe we should finally let them go. Maybe Anderson is right in her decision. Maybe after all these years falling in love with these characters, we should allow them a life beyond our gaze, beyond the X-Files, and beyond the struggle. Maybe we should just accept The X-Files doesn’t need to end for it to be over.
Maybe that’s the ultimate Truth after all.