Revisiting The X-Files: Like many characters, this show had multiple deaths

In the late season 7 episode “Fight Club” Mulder is giving another one of his slide show expositions for the case they are investigating. Scully interrupts his line of questioning with this:

“What I’m thinking, Mulder, is how familiar this seems. Playing Watson to your Sherlock. You dangling clues out in front of me one by one. It’s a game, and… and, as usual, you’re holding something back from me. You’re not telling me something about this case.”

It was a nod to the audience that, while it had been a satisfying season, the formula was straining credibility. We were starting to ask ourselves: how long could Mulder keep this up? How long would Scully put up with it? If the answer to both questions was a good while, then how long would we want to watch it?

In the season finale “Requiem” two episodes later, in one of his finer moments, Mulder tells Scully: “The personal costs are too high. There is so much more you need to do with your life. There’s so much more than this. There has to be an end.” He is suggesting that she quit the X-Files. By the end of the episode, he is the one who leaves the X-Files in the form of being abducted.

The series had a simple TV procedural formula: a brilliant but paranoid believer in the paranormal partnered with a skeptical scientist assigned to the FBI’s caseload of unsolvable crimes. This formula churned out episode after episode, but the writers always seemed to be aware that if left alone this formula would get old quickly. It is easy to forget that part of the X-Files storytelling formula was to always mix up its formula.

As early as the season 1 finale, Mulder and Scully were taken off of the X-Files. They are reinstated during season 2, although they continued to be harassed by their off-and-on nemesis Assistant Director Walter Skinner well into season 3. The formula is intact until the season 4 finale when Mulder has a crisis of confidence and decides that he no longer believes in aliens. Scully’s beliefs in the paranormal deepen. The two switch roles. This continues until the season 5 finale when Mulder fully returns to his belief in aliens. But in the same episode, Mulder and Scully are reassigned from the X-Files yet again, and CSM literally burns the X-Files in their filing cabinets. Next, in the first movie, the X-Files is reinstated. But then, in the season 6 premier, Agent Spender is put in charge of the X-Files, who lets it wither by ignoring paranormal cases, and Mulder and Scully are assigned to Assistant Director Kersch, who does not allow them to investigate paranormal cases. This state of affairs lasts half a season. By mid-season 6, Kersh and Spender are gone, and Mulder and Scully are back on the X-Files under Skinner.

Even though the events described above happened during so-called mythology episodes that generally do not impact stand-alones, the formula switches were felt and even repeatedly mentioned in the intervening stand-alones. These elements were designed to shake things up, to keep the stories fresh in the season that followed.

The only time during the series when Mulder and Scully were allowed to investigate X-Files with the full backing of the FBI was the latter half of season 6 through all of season 7. It is satisfying to watch them be able to perform their job as they always wanted (although there are no “classics,” all but a few of these latter episodes are excellent tales). It is also evident that the two characters are at their happiest by the end of season 7. They are professionally at the pinnacle of their careers, doing work they love. The secret Syndicate has been uprooted, and the alien invasion potentially thwarted by the alien rebels. Mulder has made peace with his sister’s death. Mulder and Scully become much more openly loving with one another. It’s no wonder their love affair began around this time in their lives.

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In the penultimate season 7 episode “Je Souhaite,” where Mulder is granted three wishes from a genie, the moral of the story is to not wish for things that are out of reach, but to enjoy the life you are living. The episode ends with Mulder spending the evening with Scully watching his favorite movie, “Caddy Shack.” This is basically a date. For those who thought it would be impossible to show Mulder and Scully on a date—including me—this is what it would look like. They know one another completely—it was never going to be like a typical TV version of an awkward first date. This moment, and the entire season, would be the happiest time they would ever share, considering what happened next—the next formula switch.

In the end—in this end—Mulder is abducted by the Gray aliens who are trying to clean up the evidence of their work with the Syndicate. Scully is pregnant. It is deliberately open to interpretation whether they were both aware of this during the episode, or that they were together. Based on how the scenes were written and acted you could argue either way.

As the “Fight Club” quote hinted at, a change in formula was needed—in fact expected, because the X-Files had always made changes at similar points in its run. It was publicized that Duchovny was leaving the show, but FOX had not decided to renew the series. So when “Requiem” aired I truly believed that I was watching the series finale, and that the movies would continue the story. Even as the season finale aired, I was not expecting it to change the formula, but to end the show. I held this belief right up until the last frame. This was the experience of many fans because FOX did not renew the show for an 8th season until just before “Requiem” aired. The producers didn’t even know if it a season finale or a series finale when they were making it.

It felt like the right time to end the series. According to Frank Spotnitz: “There was a pretty strong sentiment inside and outside the show that it was time to call it a day.” Even a rabid season 1 fan like me was not hoping for a season 8. The show seemed to have run its course on the small screen.

What’s interesting to me now is that re-watching “Requiem” for the first time in 15 years, without any of the baggage about renewed contracts and ratings, etc., the episode is a pretty exciting re-set button. I’m actually excited to watch season 8 for what will be my first time. Wish me luck.

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