Revisiting The X-Files: Mythology vs. Stand-Alone

It is a puzzle that many of the stand-alones of Season 8 and 9 were considerably more entertaining than those of Season 6 and 7, and yet the last two seasons saw ratings decline, long-time fans like me not even giving them a chance, and finally cancelation.

I used to scoff at the quote by Chris Carter from the early 2000s that The X-Files could have continued for another ten years without Mulder and Scully. But after watching Season 8 and 9, I see what he meant. If you doubt that this show still had juice, go watch “Release,” the penultimate stand-alone episode of the series, which contained as much conspiratorial intrigue, paranormal psychology, and emotional punch as any episode. Go watch “Hell Bound” from late Season 9, which was so scary I had to pause Netflix, harkening back to the first X-Files I ever saw, “Squeeze” when I had to walk out my grandparents living room and seek refuge in the kitchen. Watch the finale stand-alone, the sweet send-off “Sunshine Days” and the chemistry between Doggett and Reyes is undeniable.

The writers, directors, and actors pulled out all the stops in these episodes. There is no sense of anyone phoning it in. There is a lot of energy from the beginning of Season 8 until the better end. “Release” in particular could be an early first season episode of its own series.

So what was the problem? Carter’s dream of further seasons died because there was none of that energy in the latter mythology episodes—which is also proof that the mythology is the most essential aspect of the show. Without the mythology, even though most of the other episodes are not serialized with it, the series unravels.

From the Season 7 finale through the end of the series, the mythology episodes were either incoherent, or slapped-together contrivances. Few of them achieved intrigue, thrill, or even melodrama. I can imagine how casual viewers or new viewers watching these as they aired would have had no idea what was even happening in these episodes. I’m a fan who literally studies this show, and I’m not sure what is happening. In Mid-Season 9 there is a two-parter that reveals that Scully’s baby is basically Alien Jesus, but seeing it for the first time last week I missed this reveal. I didn’t understand the episode until I read the teleplay on the Internet and scrutinized bits of dialogue like I was back in one of my English Major courses in college (which was when I stopped watching this show, now that I think about it).

So many “answers” are given off hand in mumbled lines, or put in the mouths of extremely unreliable characters, like all the UFO cultists that pop up in these seasons. (What the hell is a UFO cult anyway? Do these exist anywhere in reality?) Most of the answers we are given are spoken in riddles, lines of dialogue that could have come out of the Oracle of Delphi. The leader of the alien cult tells Scully that William is “a miracle child. A future savior coveted by forces of good and evil.” An FBI agent who infiltrated the cult tells Scully that if William lives “all Mankind will perish from the Earth.” Krycek presumably believed this too, but also contradicted the idea when he told Mulder that the aliens are “afraid of [the child’s] implications. That it is somehow grater than them.”

Well, which is it? And how could either be true? How will William bring about colonization? How is he greater than the aliens? The mythology episodes never tells us.

All we can conclude from this is that the writers are mumbling the answers to us because they don’t really believe in them and are somewhat ashamed of the story corner they painted themselves into. It’s like they are saying, ‘Ok, after dragging this out for a year and a half, Scully’s baby IS Alien Jesus, now can we please move on to our Spring block of stand-alones.’

They also frequently commit the writer’s faux pas of telling instead of showing. The early mythology episodes depicted striking sequences of creepy images and creepier ideas, exciting cliff-hangers, and memorable villains and oddballs. In Season 8 and 9, we were told to believe that Scully’s baby was so important, but all we were shown was that he moved his mobile with his mind. And the more we saw of the super soldiers, the less interesting they became.

Another sign of the decay is that the latter mythology trafficked in glorified cameos of past favorites: Deep Throat; Albert Holstein; Michael Kritschgau; Jeffrey Spender. But these characters were not given anything to do that was nearly as interesting as their original roles. And no new memorable mythology characters were introduced, unless you count Toothpick Man. Toothpick Man!? Please.

In a non-serialized procedural like The X-Files, a strong mythology is essential because it conveys the message that there is more to the show than meets the eye. There is more at stake than the monster of the week. It allows for the regulars to form deep emotional bonds with one another (and the viewers), and it allows the show to develop deeper, more meaningful themes than it could with a string of stand-alones. But to work as narrative, a mythology has to be depicted in personal terms, shown not told. This is why Mulder’s family has multiple connective points to the conspiracy, and to a lesser extent Scully’s family. This is why the shadowy men of Season 1 and 2 were eventually depicted as a Syndicate of Elders by Season 3—another kind of family. The Syndicate put a face on the conspiracy and clarified what it was all about.

So it is no wonder that Smoking Man became so important to the show, and such a pop icon. Remember that smash hit 90s pop song with the lyric: “Watching X-Files with the lights off/ Hope that Smoking Man’s in this one.” I remember that feeling of watching episodes in anticipation that C.S.M would appear in the corner of the frame shrouded in cigarette smoke. It happened so rarely, three or five times a season, but when it did, it was always awesome. I once attended a lecture by William B. Davis and he said that he had to watch every episode because he would find that his character was in episodes that he never filmed a scene for. Some important document would be mysteriously burned, he joked, and the implication was the Smoking Man did it.

smoking-man

The reason we wanted Smoking Man to be in the episodes was not just because he was a classic villain played by an amazing actor. It was because he symbolized so much of what the show was about: the dark forces at work in the world that we cannot see but that pass us on the street; the forces that control the world but will never make it onto the front pages, that appear as obscure stories in a small notice in the back pages; dark forces that commit terrible crimes, but that we just might need in order to save us. The alien conspiracy was akin to an unstoppable God-like reckoning, and the old, white post-WWII men were doing all they could to control the planet’s fate—these are analogies with all manner of interpretations and implications.

The mythology is the bigger story that encompasses all other stories. And if the mythology doesn’t work, then the show will fail no matter how good the stand-alones are. You can probably think of other shows that have struggled getting their mythology right. It makes a big difference for the entire show.

Implications for Season 10: Well, we are getting the mythology back in full force, and with a new, presumably updated twist. I’m excited to see what they will do. The baggage of Season 8 and 9 doesn’t trouble me because, more than anything, those episodes were the product of the headspace of the writers at that time. Carter has had many years to think about how to do this right. And besides, the Smoking Man’s in this one!

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