Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The X-Files: "My Struggle" (January 24, 2016)

After far too long an absence from television, Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2002) returned to television on Monday night with an episode titled, cannily, “My Struggle.”

That title -- not coincidentally, I presume -- is also the translated-to-English title of Adolf Hitler’s 1925 literary autobiography, Mein Kampf. 

That historical fact may prove the key to understanding better this new starting point for the series.

When we consider Hitler and his particular “struggle,” we think immediately of genocide, totalitarianism, and fascism. 

We think of a man who destroyed both individual freedom, and the lives of millions of innocent people. That autobiography, written in a jail cell, laid out one man's mad dream essentially, for Germany and the world.

Unfortunately, Hitler made much of that mad dream a reality before his death.

And if viewers and critics believe that this new X-Files series doesn’t address those very same issues, they aren’t paying close enough attention.  

The title should cue them in.

Specifically, our old friends Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) -- now estranged -- are informed of a terrifying conspiracy by an Internet celebrity and fear peddler: Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale). 

Think Alex Jones meets Glenn Beck, only better dressed.

O'Malley's story of an “evil” conspiracy in “My Struggle” involves the invasion of America, illicit scientific experiments on American citizens, and the vast expansion of a totalitarian state. 

In other words, the tale concerns a 21st century threat to our freedom not entirely unlike the threat to Germany (and later the Allies) in the 1930s and 1940s.

I have often written of Carter's powerful sense of anticipatory anxiety in relation to The X-Files, Millennium (1993-1996) and Harsh Realm (1999-2000). In the nineties, he feared that the Clinton Era of Peace and Prosperity couldn't last. We were so distracted by the Economic Boom created by the Internet that many of us weren't paying attention to the larger world.

And Carter was right, of course. The Age of Peace and Prosperity -- the Roaring Nineties,if you will -- came to a crashing end on 9/11/2001.

I'm afraid that what Carter anticipates here, in 2016, is something even more frightening: a further abrogation of our American freedoms in the name of safety and security. That abrogation will lead to, if not fascism, then certainly to totalitarianism. 

Strange, isn't it, that no matter which party happens to be in power in Washington D.C., the Security State just seems to grow larger?

The same conspiracy also, we are told, in The X-Files "My Struggle," involves the pacification of the American people by Big Pharma, the Fast Food Industry, and conspicuous consumerism. This aspect of the "plan" is brilliant and droll social commentary, since Carter imagines American distracted once more, but this time by prescription drugs, by a world of perpetual shopping and by unhealthy foods.

"My Struggle" reaches its zenith of thrilling speculation (and imaginative fiction) when the whole crazy, labyrinthine plot is laid out in an information-age, crisply-edited montage that connects 9/11, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the militarization of police, drones and other facets of our modern, 21st century life.

Specifically, O’Malley proposes that a “well-oiled, well-armed” group of elites plans to invade America, eliminate “digital money,” and sweep us towards a New World Order.

Mulder, who has been depressed for some time, very quickly comes to believe in this conspiracy; this gathering threat.

A nice early touch in the episode shows us a view of the former agent’s laptop. Mulder has stretched duct tape over his built-in web-cam, so he can’t be spied on. That's good visual shorthand for his state-of-mind, and it makes a crucial point.

In the years since we've seen him, Mulder has slipped from being a truth-seeker to paranoiac. His barometer for the truth may be off. He needs his other set of eyes -- Scully -- to know for certain.

Scully, the series' resident skeptic, by contrast, immediately notes that O'Malley's conspiracy theory is ridiculous, and borders on “treason.”  She counsels caution. But then, she needs her other set of eyes -- Mulder -- to detect if there is some truth, somewhere, in the conspiracy.

Who is right? 

In the grand tradition of The X-Files, only further investigations will tell us for certain. 

But the last scene of the episode provides us a view of the series' possible Hitler equivalent: The Cigarette Smoking Man, played by William B. Davis.

In the past, this character has been compared to the Devil ("The Sixth Extinction" / "Amor Fati"), so the Hitler comparison isn't exactly a stretch.  

"My Struggle"-- the episode title -- may thus refer to the CSM's on-going efforts to transform the world to his liking. He is once more, it seems, in a position of power, commanding a kind of shadow government or organization. His particular"struggle" involves the subjugation of the human race.

And like Hitler, CSM's campaign may rely on disinformation, scapegoating, distraction, and false flag operations (like the Reichstag Fire). 

One must wonder, is this what all the UFO sightings have been about, for decades? 

Distracting the populace from reality while power is consolidated by the "evil" international elite?

One thing is for certain: “My Struggle” is erected dramatically on solid terrain in terms of series history because this new stage or explanation of a global conspiracy -- which may be disinformation, or may be the truth  -- tangentially relates to aliens, the classic series' bread-and-butter.

Mulder sets the ground-work for this examination in his opening monologue. He asks (of UFOs): “Are they really a hoax? Are we truly alone? Or are we being lied to?”

That three part interrogative has always been the intellectual bailiwick of The X-Files, and “My Struggle” inaugurates a new chapter in the investigation. I have read some critics mistakenly report that the events of this episode somehow take aliens and UFOs out of the artistic equation, and re-write the preceding nine seasons of the program.

I say, not so fast.  

It's important to remember history and context for a few reasons. Not just to pick up on important connections, like the "My Struggle" title, but to remember X-Files episodes of yesteryear.

We have had entire seasons (namely the fifth...) of The X-Files devoted to misinformation about aliens and UFOs. 

We have seen Mulder lose and regain his faith about them.  

And we have known, since at least Season Two (and “Duane Barry”/”Ascension”) that humans are abducting fellow humans, and pretending to be aliens while doing so. 

We have seen the train cars (“Nisei”/ “731”) where those abductees are taken.  

We have seen the results of those experiments too ("Christmas Carol" / "Emily.")

So it is not a surprise that a witness, Sveta (Annet Mahendru) in "My Struggle" reports being abducted by men, not Greys.

The role of human beings in these abductions -- while flying ARVs (alien replica vehicles) to boot -- however, doesn't preclude the existence of aliens. 

Think of the corpse seen in "The Erlenmeyer Flask," for instance. And in the eighth season's “Within” / “Without” viewers encountered aliens conducting abductions as well, from a cloaked or invisible vessel.

So those critics  -- who after 45 minutes have accepted the fact that there are no aliens in The X-Files -- are advised to slow down, and let the writers weave their tale.  

We don’t yet know “the truth.”  It is still "out there," to coin a phrase.

All we have right now are bread crumbs. To what destinations those bread crumb will lead us are completely unknown at this juncture. And again, if history is a guide, Carter is three or four steps ahead of any speculation we might have at this point.

What I do find eminently intriguing here is that during the scene explaining the details of the conspiracy, Mulder name-checks the year 2012 -- when alien colonization was supposed to commence -- and defines it as the start of a conspiracy in which alien technology is to be used against men.  

So 2012 was not the end of the human race, as episodes such as "The Truth" appeared to indicate, but the beginning of a New Phase of New World Order-ism.

Does this mean that the aliens backed-off of colonization plans? Did they realize that the Syndicate had developed hybrid DNA vaccine as a way to prevent humans from being used as alien “digestives?" 

And if so, does this mean a re-constituted Syndicate, let by CSM, decided it was time to take over man’s destiny, filling the void left by the aliens?

Again, it will be fascinating to watch and see how this drama plays out. But so far, I detect nothing in the new series that contradicts or destroys the long-term series continuity or history.

In terms of The X-Files history, in fact, “My Struggle” absolutely hit all the right notes for this long-time admirer of the franchise. 

For example, there is a scene set in Roswell, New Mexico that features an imposing, half-destroyed UFO. 

This flying saucer craft looms large in these scenes via the auspices of practical effects, proving that Carter remembers the lessons of “Colony”/”End Game.” That's the episode that saw a submarine half-buried in ice. If you'll recall, it was all built on-set, and looked imposing.

What is the lesson there?  

That an object “real” and present and tactile provides actors, directors, and cinematographers something to play off of; something to react and respond to.

CGI still can’t quite accomplish that goal in such a profound and powerful way. 

Accordingly, "My Struggle's" visuals are often spectacular, as we return -- over and over again -- to that New Mexico crash site.  The crashed UFO is akin to a stone thrown in the river, creating strange ripple effects in the decades after its discovery; ripple effects still being felt in 2016.

This is where the story starts.

The characters who populate "My Struggle" are also handled beautifully. 

Once more, Mulder feels instinctively protective toward a brunette young woman: Sveta.  No doubt, she is yet another surrogate for his abducted sister, Samantha. 

We saw in episodes of the original series such as “Oubliette" and "Mind's Eye" how Mulder’s sense of reason would often disappear (or at least submerge) if there was a vulnerable young woman who needed protecting. Not because Mulder was sexually attracted to these women, but because they reminded him of his failure to protect and rescue his sister. Something inside him rallies, and he wouldn't allow himself to fail another "sister."

Scully is also powerfully rendered here. It’s clear that she left Mulder (and their house together) because he gave up; because he could no longer rouse himself to be productive in any way at all.  

What led to his depression? Perhaps having no outlet for his investigations. Perhaps the fact that 2012 came and went, and all that he thought he knew of "the truth" was thrown out the window because colonization didn't occur. 

By contrast, Scully is still doing what she loves and what she does best: helping children. We saw her hard at work at this task in The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), and she has not stopped in the eight years since. 

Again, we must wonder if Scully chooses to work with such grievously sick children as penance (given her Catholic Faith) for sending her own unique child, William, away. Like Mulder, she may believe that by saving another child, she makes up for failing William. The feeling that seems to dominate her character is guilt.

Getting back to the episode’s title -- “My Struggle” -- I believe it refers to The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and his quest to control humanity, and the fate of the planet. The final scene of the episode reveals CSM smoking a cigarette through an opening in his neck -- from a tracheotomy -- but still hatching his schemes. 

The X-Files have been re-opened, and that means his real struggle is only beginning. For us, that means we are in for some shocking twists and turns and some great genre drama.

Some critics who don’t truly understand The X-Files, its history, or its storytelling style have been quick to lambaste “My Struggle.” Some of their problems with the episode are interesting, but ultimately demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the series, its history and its style.

From what I can discern of this criticism, these folks didn’t like the voice-overs, or some of the dialogue, and they found the story "confusing" or hard-to-follow.

Of course, artfully-written voice-overs, character-driven dialogue and complex narratives with double or ambiguous meanings have been part and parcel of this series' format since its dawn in the early 1990s. 

To criticize these factors now -- 200+ episodes in -- is a bit disingenuous.

Some critics may not like voice-overs on principle, but Chris Carter is a master of the voice-over format, as several key episodes from The X-Files, such as “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” abundantly demonstrate. Carter works beautifully in this format, allowing us access to the often poetic, often haunting thoughts of his primary characters. A voice-over narration is the TV equivalent of the theatrical soliloquy, and I wouldn't want The X-Files to give up one of its oldest, and most successful story-telling story techniques simply because it is in vogue to have a disdain for the voice over format. The show should be true, creatively, to the creator's vision, and to its past.

Similarly, I read that some reviewers didn’t like the Joel McHale character’s description of the global conspiracy as being “evil.” Apparently, they think it is bad writing.

But let's not forget that O'Malley is a web conspiracy theorist -- a fear-mongering celebrity, essentially -- and that therefore, as an entertainer, he would, in fact, talk in such big, bold, black-and-white terms (see Donald Trump for a real life corollary).

It would be different, of course, if Scully and Mulder were reduced to talking so blithely and boldly about “evil.” 

But for McHale’s O’Malley to do so is absolutely, completely in line with the character as he is presented in the teleplay. Those critics who claim such dialogue is “banal” aren’t considering the person from whom the dialogue generates.

Indeed, I would have been much more upset if O’Malley spoke in the nuanced, careful terms of a Mulder or Scully.  He’s a different person, and when he talks, the teleplay rightly reflects his voice, his mode of expression. 

Most significantly, I feel that most of the hostile criticism lodged at "My Struggle" is intellectually dishonest because the critics are demanding instant understanding, instant answers. 

Because they didn't get those things in the first 45 minute installment of The X-Files, they think the story is confusing, or unclear.

Did they ever actually watch the show before?

The X-Files has not been, is not, and will likely never be about providing instant answers. 

In this universe, answers are earned, and often at a high cost. We must be patient.

But today, people want instant gratification. They want all the answers immediately. And if they don't get them, they see it as a failing in a work of art, not as a failing in themselves. 

What I admire so much about “My Struggle” is that it raises all of these amazing ideas and connections in our lives, and asks us to anticipate the next step -- next degradation -- of our world. At the same time, it leaves us no real clue if the conspiracy described is true, half-true, or damned lies.

I imagine that we will know more in the coming weeks, but I am in no rush to have all the answers. I am satisfied with a journey into mystery, and mulling over each, tantalizing bread crumb.

“My Struggle” asks us to open our eyes and minds -- and keep them open -- as this six part series leads us to places  and revelations terrifying and strange.

Count me in. 

Fourteen years after its last TV episode, The X-Files hasn't missed a step.  "My Struggle" gets the job done.  But the struggle of some watchers, perhaps, is to watch the show and really engage with its ideas.

Tomorrow Afternoon: "Founder's Mutation"


  1. Once again, you are bang on the money. I've been rewatching the original series on Blu-ray (looks amazing, BTW) and the thing that really struck me about the new series is that it's all of a piece. Carter and the gang managed to dive right back in like no time has passed at all. Yes, the actors are a little older but the tone, the ambiance, is the same. Well done, I say.

    A lot of the griping I've heard about the first episode appears to focus around Mulder seeming to buy into O'Malley's conspiracy theories too easily. And I sort of get that -- if you haven't been paying attention to what's been going on with Mulder's personal life (i.e. it's a disaster area). Yes, he swallows the whole thing hook, line and sinker after meeting Sveta but it seems clear to me that we are meant to understand (as Scully does) that Mulder is vulnerable to this kind of snake oil right now. It appears that O'Malley was on to something, but as you note, appearances on this show are always fraught with multiple interpretations and layers of deception. We don't even know what's actually become of O'Malley or who he is actually serving. He's disappeared -- that's all we know. I, for one, don't buy that he's the flawed Good Samaritan he plays at being. Something else is up with that guy and I doubt it's good. Mulder I can understand, but what's O'Malley's game with Scully? His slick, "I'm really quite a nice guy," seducer schtick is really, really suspect. But then, maybe I'm just primed by years of X-Files exposure to "Trust No One."

    Regardless, I can't wait to see where this is all going. I'm a very happy X-Phile right now.

  2. Great to have this perspective.

    You know, it's almost automatic today. People are quick to condemn a property like The X-Files before it even plays out.

    The suggestion is often that the reviewer themselves is far too hip or cool and that pop culture and television has moved on and there is no place for it anymore. Poppycock!

    When you have something of quality like The X-Files, you savor every new entry like a fine wine.

    I agree that it would seem people hadn't genuinely invested themselves in the series once upon a time or thereafter. Anyone who really has knows the answers don't come easy or quickly if at all, but it's this exploration of culture and character that is nuanced and far more rewarding that most television.

    Sure The X-Files really did something special and unique and as far as I'm concerned Carter and company are not going to divert from their gifts as writers to fit some passing stylistic fad. And thank God for that.

  3. Awesome, insightful review from the most knowledgeable X-File expert on the planet.

    I had no idea what to expect and was worried the 14 year layoff had been too much. But man, they nailed it. It felt like exactly where these characters should be right now. As you said, it was like they did not miss a beat, and after seeing two episodes and the trailer for the third, they are delivering on all fronts, even giving us what looks to be a kick ass scary monster of the week episode.

    I agree, the Joel McHale character is a fantastic creation that captures EXACTLY what is happening in today's real world (Alex Jones/Glenn Beck/Trump etc.) and gives it an X-Files twist. His performance is spot on and he talks exactly like he should. The conspiracy montage was brilliant and spooky! Reminded me of the Donald Sutherland scene from JFK.

    The Roswell crash scene was spectacular! And note to the critics, there were aliens there. So regardless of which path the conspiracy has taken or will take and who is ultimately in control, it all started with Roswell. Just as it did in real life UFO lore.

    So nice to see brilliant, film noir cinematography back on TV (Joel Ransom) and more great music from Mark Snow.

  4. John, as Count Zero already said, you are right on the money. I had skimmed over a number of the reviews before watching this episode, so I went into it apprehensive, and looking for things not to like. But it never came. Instead I was completely satisfied and almost in disbelief that here we were watching a brand new episode of The X-Files.

    To me, all this negative criticism going around is essentially the critics not seeing the forest for the trees. They are focusing on individual elements, which in a vacuum perhaps you could take issue with, but are failing to recognise that these elements are just parts of a whole. And as you said, ambiguitiy and uncertainty has always been a hallmark of The X-Files, which may be a hard pill to swallow by the "on demand" generation.

    This episode was absolutely in-line with the history of The X-Files and a welcome addition to the mythology of the show. I can't wait to see what comes next.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with this review. The new conspiracy fits, but then again it may not be true at all (or perhaps half true). In the end, it takes what we THOUGHT we knew about the mythology - alien colonization - and flips it upside down. We are now provided with mystery again, which is the greatest thing about the show returning. We don't know how it's all going down.

  6. Todd V.5:18 PM

    I knew you would be the voice of reason...again. Thank you!

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I felt exactly this also but could never be as eloquent as you in communicating it. I loved my struggle and truly don't understand the people who trashed it. it is no different than the previous 9 years of the show! I am sending this review to quite a few people.

  8. John very honest review of this first new episode in fourteen years. I loved it, they have returned feeling both new and with a strong solid history behind them. Yes, the voice-overs have always worked to propel the narrative forward with Carl Kolchak, Scully and Muldar.


  9. John, great review and insights, as always. While we may disagree on some points it was wonderful to see a new episode of The X-Files on television again. Who would have thought?

  10. Another point to raise when people complain about the language used in the dialogue at certain points- this is an Oxford grad and a medical doctor who rewrote Einstein. I've been around these kinds of people. They don't talk like regular schmoes. They throw all kinds of twenty dollar words and tend to speak in bursts of jargon. Chris Carter's brother is a professor at MIT, so he's familiar with the kind of discussion you hear when incredibly smart people start rifling off highly information-dense word volleys at one another. It's not like a bunch of guys at the comic store on a Wednesday night.

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  13. The episode was very dialogue heavy for a visual show like The X-Files but this was not unusual for a season premiere of The X-Files (Blessing Way and Redux really stand out but really all of them).
    The danger of introducing a character like O'Malley was always that he would come across as so persuasive that the audience believes the show is siding with him. This was always the case with Mulder as well but O'Malley's obvious political references, which you point out, make this a little polarizing.
    Most of the criticism of the episode has been "lazy" but some is valid. It is by no means one of the best episodes of the series but it is largely successful in accomplishing its (unprecedented) goals as a premiere after 14 years.

  14. Anonymous2:33 PM

    Hi John, I am a long time reader and love your writing. I sometimes don't agree with your opinion but your reviews are well written and extremely thought out. That is why I was surprised a stretch of your review was on other reviewer's opinions, critiquing them that they don't understand it. I'm sorry to say but this kind of review disappoints me, especially since you wrote this at the end of your Star Wars review a few weeks ago:

    "I understand some devoted fans are apparently angry at reviewers who don't like the film, or who somehow do not praise it highly enough. That's just silly. This is a film, like any other film, and it obeys the same laws of physics. The fact that it is Star Wars doesn't give it a pass. Let's leave the hyping of the product to the marketers, the irrational exuberance to the fanboys, and permit the critics do their jobs."

    1. Anonymous,

      I don't normally publish anonymous comments on the blog. But I felt this was an excellent comment and deserved to be read and addressed.

      As your comment rightfully indicates, I am accountable for every review I post. My name is right there at the top of the page, and I am accountable.

      So far, my name is next to 8,185 blog posts here, and when I am inconsistent, you know where to find me! You know who to address.

      So typically I ask for commenting readers, especially anonymous ones, to reciprocate and let me know who I am conversing with. If I must be accountable for my words, then you must be too. It's only fair.

      Why? This is the only way I can know if someone has legitimate concern, or is just throwing shade at me as a drive-by writer.

      So I very much hope you do write back and let me know who I am talking to. I would like to say "nice to meet you," and thank you for being a long time reader! I would also like to thank you, by name, for raising this point.

      In my next comment, I will specifically address your concerns.

      (to be continued)

    2. Part II

      Now, let's get to the meat of your argument.

      After 8185 posts, I am 100% sure I have been inconsistent from time to time. I am not a perfect human being.

      For example, I have reviewed Phantom Menace three times on the blog with three different conclusions.

      I have also apologized for slagging the first episode of Vampire Diaries for being a Twilight rip-off, when the series has grown and become its own thing.

      I changed my mind, and that is, I suppose, inconsistent. Like I said in my previous comment, at least you know where to find me!

      So no -- I am not always consistent and I readily cop to that charge. The strong tree bends, it doesn't break, right? I try not to be rigid in my thinking. I reserve the right to change my opinion, or see things in a new light as I grow and change.

      That said, I don't believe your particular charge that I have been inconsistent on this occasion.

      I re-read the Star Wars review and the review for "My Struggle" and here is why there is no inconsistency.

      1. In both reviews, there is, to quote your comment a "stretch" of the piece "on other reviewer's opinions." This is something both pieces share, not some standard I applied inconsistently or randomly. You say you are disappointed it appears here. Yet you quote where it appeared in "The Force Awakens" review.

      If anything, it is your argument that is inconsistent, since I have discussed critical/fan response in both pieces.

      (Continued in Part III)

    3. (Picking up where you left off)

      2. The paragraph you quoted uses the verbage about not liking the film or "praising it highly enough." Indeed, Star Wars received strong reviews for the most part, and many fans still weren't happy with that result.

      "Good" wasn't sufficient and some Star Wars fans actually bullied reviewers who liked the film. That's the phenomenon I discuss there, in that review.

      Critics did their job and noted the flaws and the values of the film in an even-handed way. The fans couldn't accept that there were any flaws and attacked the critics. I stand by my thoughts on that subject. It's silly. Fans can hype all they want; critics have no responsibility to do so. Their responsibility is to go into the movie knowing the context of the story and film, the history of the franchise, and making an assessment about how the new film does or does not live up to it.

      In the case of The X-Files, the reviews, by contrast, were often exceedingly dumb and uninformed and should be called out for those failings.

      For example, one prominent site complained that "My Struggle" used a fake Google search engine called "Finder-Spyder." Seriously, that was a lynch-pin of the site's criticism. Finder-Spyder is the industry standard fictional search engine seen on not just The X-Files, but in Breaking Bad, and on Dexter.

      To complain about it as if the X-Files made it up is un-informed and reveals that a critic was seeking some cause to lacerate the episode. This was what they found? They were really digging for something, weren't they?

      Secondly, I mention critical complaints over voice-overs, specifically. Voice-overs have been baked into The X-Files formula since episode one, season one, so to complain now about them is akin to arguing that Force Awakens is dumb because it has light sabers in it. Voice-overs (like light-sabers) are a crucial creative piece of the story-telling.

      It is not "hyping" The X-Files or "My Struggle" to correct the record, or point out the facts, and note that the critics who have been terribly hard on it seem to have less than a passing familiarity with the program or its nature. The critics didn't do their homework

      By contrast, to insist that all reviews of Star Wars be not just positive, but GLOWING is the definition of the hype.

      Hence, no inconsistency.

      I am sorry you were disappointed. But your disappointment would mean so much more to me if you let me know who you are! It's hard to sympathize with Anon.

      Great comment, and I thank you for raising the issue. I hope you'll come back and continue the conversation.

      all my best,

  15. I finally get to read your review now that "My Struggle" has just aired in the UK, John! I agree with pretty much everything you wrote here, and in particular like that you stand up for the poetic voiceover—one of my favourite creative flourishes of the series. Colour me very pleased indeed to have Chris Carter's vision in the world anew.