The reason The X-Files mythology was so much fun—and takes on such a significant portion of popular memory even though it was a minority of episodes of the show—was because these episodes comprised spooky, intriguing, well-told mysteries. These mysteries were allowed to unspool over an entire season but always received clear and satisfying resolutions (at least for most of the series’ run).
The show’s typical rhythm was to sprinkle early episodes with bizarre and intriguing hints about a larger mystery, and later give viewers an episode that tied all those enticing clues together into the whole picture. These ‘answers episodes’ either ended that particular mystery or spun it off in a new direction.
I suspect the latter seasons are not as highly regarded as the previous ones because this mystery-telling rhythm eventually broke down—more on this later.
The first ‘answers episode’ was the Season 1 finale The Erlenmeyer Flask. This is the first time we have proof that Mulder is not crazy, that there is a government conspiracy about the existence of aliens. All the tantalizing clues sprinkled throughout the season coalesce into a clear picture: we see an alien for the first time, in the form of an alien fetus, and we learn that the government is trying to make alien-human hybrids.
The next answers episode is in mid-Season 2, End Game. Here we are given the conclusion to the mystery of the alien clones: they were trying to create a colony, procreating using alien DNA and human abductees’ DNA, but the Gray Aliens did not sanction this so they were destroyed by the Bounty Hunter.
Season 3 further developed the role of the Syndicate. In Paper Clip we learn that William Mulder was involved in a project, with CSM and the other Syndicate regulars as well as Nazi doctors, to create an alien-human hybrid, and that he was also involved in Samantha’s abduction.
Season 4’s Terma finally explains the Black Oil as a medium that allows alien consciousness to body jump, and that the Syndicate is developing a vaccine to expel it.
The ultimate ‘answers episode’ was the first movie, Fight the Future. In the extended cut the Well Manicured Man explains just about everything: aliens are ancient Earth inhabitants who are now coming back to recolonize the planet; they will infect the population with an alien virus through bees that will cause aliens to spontaneously gestate inside the human hosts; the Syndicate was playing both sides of the street trying to work with the aliens but also against them to create a vaccine; that the vaccine was William Mulder’s big idea, and that he gave up Samantha in an abduction so he could realize it.
By Season 6 the show begins a phase of settling accounts, as opposed to spinning new mysteries. In One Son, the Syndicate is finally destroyed by rebel aliens; we are given the complete explanation that its main purpose was to create on an alien-human hybrid by sacrificing its family members to the aliens, while secretly making the vaccine. Cassandra Spender was one of these family members so sacrificed (as was Samantha) and she turned out to be the first successful alien-human hybrid and thus the key to the Syndicate members surviving colonization. Jeffery Spender is revealed to be CSM’s son, and is then murdered by him. Pretty much everything the mythology has been about since the first season is resolved here.
By Season 7 there is one last loose end to tie up: what happened to Samantha? In the masterpiece episode Closure we learn that Samantha lived for a time with CSM and young Jeffery Spender; that she was experimented on, and then mysteriously disappeared—it is heavily implied that she was rescued by God, or some unnamed benevolent universal force. Mulder accepts that she is dead and so ends his quest to save her.
So far in this survey of ‘answers episodes’ there is an evident trend. After the first film, starting with Season 6, there are no new compelling mythology mysteries. By this point the show had cycled through the clones, the alien-human hybrids, the Black Oil, the alien rebels, the killer bees, the Syndicate project, even a season (successful in my view) where Mulder stopped believing in aliens and explored the depravity of the military-industrial complex. Season 6 & 7 were about providing satisfying conclusions to the overall mythology that had been constructed over the first five seasons. In my view this was a necessary narrative shift—you can only pile on so many new mythology elements before it gets ridiculous. But it did mean that the early seasons benefited from the energy of building anticipation that season 6 & 7 lacked, though I argue the payoffs of those two seasons were satisfying in their own way.
Season 8 & 9 was something else entirely. Because FOX chose to renew the series beyond Season 7, combined with Duchonvny’s desire to leave the show, Chris Carter and his team had to start telling mythology mysteries again in a kind of X-Files Mythology 2.0. The problem lay in the fact that the previous mythology was so well established (and all but finished except for the inevitable alien invasion); plus, any new stories would have to explain Duchovny’s limited screen time. As a result, the new mystery elements were reduced to plot contrivances in service of these pre-existing realities, and this was so obvious to viewers whether you watched them live or rerun on Netflix.
Because the new mysteries were contrivances—for example, to explain Mulder’s abduction, or Scully’s pregnancy—there was no longer the payoff in the form of ‘answers episodes.’ Too often in these seasons, The X-Files did not even attempt to provide answers. Or when answers were given they were not a payoff but half-baked rushed jobs so the show could move on to the next set of standalone episodes. Without a satisfying conclusion the attempt at a compelling mystery unravels.
Take, for example, the explanation for Mulder’s abduction. There were various contradictory answers given for why he was taken. Immediately after he was abducted the explanation was that the aliens were rounding up all the evidence of their presence on Earth, and since Mulder had been infected with the alien virus he had to be taken (never mind that Scully had been infected with the same virus). When he was returned, the reason was given that the alien’s new plan was to abduct people and replace them with facsimiles. By the end of Season 8, we are told that those facsimiles are in fact unstoppable alien super soldiers whose job it is to bring about colonization. These answers were not revealed in any believable way. It was so obviously made up as they went along, unlike the better-planned mysteries of earlier seasons.
Those answers were shifting and contrived, but they were at least solid and complete answers. Worst was when the writers refused to give us solid answers at all, and expected us to be satisfied with not knowing. This happened with Scully’s pregnancy and her relationship with Mulder.
Season 7 to the end of Season 8 was built around an often well-executed mystery, scattered with many tantalizing clues, about how Scully came to be pregnant, and the exact nature of her relationship with Mulder. The Season 8 finale Existence looks and sounds like an ‘answers episode’ in accordance to the show’s well-established mystery rhythm, but no answers are actually presented in this episode.
If you have not seen Season 8 in a while it may surprise you to know that there are no clear answers to the following questions, but only a list of options that the viewers are forced to guess between:
How did Scully become pregnant?
Option 1: Scully’s first attempt at in vitro fertilization failed, but the second attempt was successful, and Zeus Genetics used the pregnancy to continue their tests to create a designer baby impervious to human disease.
Option 2: Scully’s first attempt at in vitro failed, and she became pregnant by Mulder because she was not 100% barren only a little barren (this happened to my cousin). This option implies Mulder and Scully were having sex in the Spring of 2000 before any overt sign of their romance was shown on screen.
Option 3: In vitro failed and Scully became pregnant through Immaculate Conception, for the purpose of God proving His power to the aliens.
If this uncertainty is frustrating, the next question is even more so. Before reading the next set of options, remember that there was no verifiable, overt, indisputable evidence that Mulder and Scully were romantically involved until the passionate kiss in the final seconds of the Season 8 finale Existence (which also happened to be Duchovny’s last appearance on the show until the series finale one year later).
When did Mulder and Scully begin their romance, or did they?
Option 1: The kiss in Existence is the beginning of their romance; Baby William is not the product of them having sex; Mulder, seeing Scully with the baby, finally decides to make his move.
Option 2: The kiss in Existence is just a kiss shared in a weak, emotional moment, a reflection of their love and their attraction to one another, but nothing more. In other words, they were never a couple before or after this kiss.
Option 3: Their romance began off screen during Season 7, when William was conceived by them having sex.
Option 4: Their romance began off screen during Season 7 before Mulder’s abduction, or in Season 8 after his return; William is not the product of them having sex, but their romance began at some point after Scully asked Mulder to donate sperm so she could conceive.
None of the above options is the result of my wild speculation. Each option has clear, unambiguous evidence—events and lines of dialogue scattered between Season 7 and 8—that support its case. For example, Krycek and Mulder explain that the aliens are afraid of William because he “could somehow be greater than them” because he is proof “that there’s a God, a higher power.” But it is also true that the scientists for Zeus Genetics, which did Scully’s in vitro, believe that they are responsible for creating William. Furthermore, it is clear by the way the late Season 8 Mulder and Scully scenes are written and acted that Scully had no expectation that Mulder is the father of her child or that he should in any way act in that role. And yet, it is also strongly implied that Mulder is the father, either through sperm donation or old-fashioned sex.
The show does not tell us which option represents what actually happened. X-Files mysteries have always given red herring clues that force us to speculate on different possibilities. With these two all-important questions, unlike the first seven years of the show, there is no ‘answers episode’ to tell us what actually happened. It is galling, and a cheat to the fans, that Existence, the episode that should have given us the truth, ends with this exchange just before the passionate kiss:
Scully: From the moment I became pregnant I feared the truth about how and why. And I know that you feared it too.
Mulder: I think what we feared were the possibilities. The truth we both knew.
Well, that’s just fricking great that you two knew the truth! But all we have—still!—are the possibilities.
It is possible that Season 9, which I have not analyzed yet, provides ‘answers episodes’ to these two questions, but by then the viewer already feels strung along, and any answers would feel even more contrived. If the writers had any answers, the last satisfying moment to provide them would have been the Season 8 finale. By Season 9, the show has moved on to other sets of mysteries and contrivances, only one of which is explaining (rather, not explaining) why Mulder has disappeared yet again.
Implications for Season 10: If the rhythm of X-Files mystery-building is to sprinkle clues through a number of mythology episodes that culminate in the ‘answers episode,’ that will be hard to do in a six-episode season with only two mythology episodes. It can be done, but the mystery will have to be tighter and more economical than the mysteries Carter and his team told during the first run. BBC’s Sherlock succeeds brilliantly at this focused storytelling in what is about an equivalent amount of screen time as Season 10 will have. If I were Carter, I would be studying that show, as well as Luther to get the pacing and tone right.
The lesson I hope that Carter learned is that his show was strong when it spun sprawling mysteries but also gave satisfying resolutions. These build-ups and payoffs were staggered across many seasons like a relay race, which the new format, even if there is a Season 11, will not be able to support. But since there are going to be new mythology episodes, the build-up and payoff has to happen in truncated form. If all we get is build-up and the last episode throws up its hands and asks us to guess, not only will the long-time fans feel cheated (again), the show won’t connect with a wide, new audience.