Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The X-Files: "My Struggle II" (February 22, 2016 )

Scully (Gillian Anderson) is disturbed to arrive at the X-Files basement office one morning and find Mulder (David Duchovny) missing.

When she checks his laptop, she sees that Mulder has been watching “Truth Squad” with Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), a web program that has returned to broadcast after a six week hiatus.

O’Malley reports that something sinister is occurring, nationwide.

The conspiracy is on the move, through the use of a deadly contagion that will kill millions, while preserving only a handful of chosen survivors.

Scully and Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) work to confirm the existence of a genetic anomaly that has its basis in Scully’s alien DNA, but a  surprise visit from Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) reveals the startling truth.

The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) is alive, and launching the final stage of a strategy concocted in 2012 (the year of apparent alien colonization) to reshape the planet.

And the alien DNA is not the source of the contagion, but rather the only cure for the “The Spartan Virus.”

As people all over the country fall ill, and pandemonium skyrockets, Scully struggles to make a vaccine from her own blood.

Meanwhile, Mulder travels to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to confront the diabolical architect of man’s extinction.

Although Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale) broadcasts the thought that humanity will go extinct with a “deafening silence,” and a “whimper,” The X-Files revival actually goes out with one hell of a bang in “My Struggle II.”

This episode moves at a frenetic pace, is genuinely disturbing in its implications, and pushes forward the entire franchise mythology by more than a few yards. In short, “My Struggle 2” is precisely the season-ender I hoped we would get, and then some.

I believe it is safe to assume that if we had gotten an X-Files III motion picture, it would have concerned to a significant degree the unfolding of plans for impending colonization. “My Struggle 2” diagrams the equivalent in 2016 terms: the execution of CMS’s plan to remake the world, with himself as God (or the Devil, perhaps).

This is -- as the Mein Kampf allusion suggests -- his particular struggle. He is, literally, taking over the world.

Regardless of the specifics, it is clear that The X-Files is pushing the human race to the precipice of disaster in its final revival narrative. This is an admirable and courageous move on the part of Chris Carter because it suggests that The X-Files isn’t frozen in amber, always forecasting Armageddon, but never getting to it.

Nope, we’re getting to it.

Or, we’re getting to at least one iteration of it.

Right now.

Beyond the choice to push hard towards a new precipice, “My Struggle II,” is a well-constructed and apocalyptic book-end to the ideas introduced in “My Struggle” and developed throughout this mini-season.

The book-end nature of the enterprise is apparent by the episode nomenclature (returning to the title “My Struggle”), but also this episode’s introductory scene.

The first episode commenced with a montage and voice-over from Mulder’s perspective, explaining his history and beliefs. “My Struggle II” features a mirror-image voice-over and montage, but this time from Scully’s perspective.

I find it intriguing how well this structure functions in terms of the overall story arc.

Mulder’s curiosity and willingness to believe in the conspiracy “opens” both the investigation and the revival series, and Scully’s science is the thing that brings us to the end of both; to a science-based apocalypse and to the season finale.

There are several other laudable qualities here beyond the book-end structure, however.

The prologue is also brilliant for its visual punctuation: the fast transformation of Scully from human to alien. 

This is a terrifying moment, and a perfect visualization of the character's fears.  If she possesses alien DNA, does that mean she is becoming less human?  

In many ways this key idea that obsesses Scully, and which she must put to rest in "My Struggle II." 

All season long she has grappled with the loss of William...and what it has made her. Is she a mother? Did she treat her son like trash?  Is she even human anymore...or just a vehicle for guilt and shame?

The answer becomes clear in "My Struggle II." Scully may possess alien DNA, but she is "more" human than ever, it seems. She showcases courage, imagination, tenacity and other virtues in her desire to save the world.

Scully isn't alone in those qualities, and that's another reason why I loved this episode. 

“My Struggle 2” lives up to and continues the series’ history of depicting capable, and brilliant women characters. We’ve all heard of “The Scully Effect,” how the depiction of Scully (in terms of writing and performance) in the initial series run led to a generation of women pursuing and excelling in STEM careers.

This episode should have a similar impact.

Virtually every important plot point in this episode is conveyed by one of three women: Scully, Einstein, or Reyes. 

And there is a fantastic scene set in a hospital wherein Einstein and Scully debate, furiously -- and with scientific terminology I can barely understand -- the nature of the problem they face.  They talk with rapid-fire words, fully informed about every aspect of their fields of study.  They don’t fight, or bicker. They challenge assumptions. They press the logic of their viewpoint. And they imagine what could be. They build on the foundations of their knowledge, extrapolating, suggesting options, and even admitting they could be wrong. They are intense and committed, and dedicated to answers…not having a pissing contest.

I loved every minute of this scene.

Regardless of the precise details or science, one thing is absolutely plain:

Our fate is in their hands. And we are very, very lucky to have Einstein and Scully looking at this problem.

Make no mistake: the depiction of these women as committed, brilliant, imaginative, and courageous is incredibly powerful. It is also, in television, incredibly uncommon. Women may be partners, or subordinates, but they are rarely -- even today -- the ones debating science, debating a course of action, and the ones making solutions happen.

We have heard from so many damned gate-keepers in the mass media how The X-Files is “transphobic” or “Islamophobic” in recent weeks.

They are astoundingly wrong and ill-informed on both of those points, as I hope my episode reviews of the episodes in question abundantly illustrate.

But it’s strange, isn’t it, that the same gatekeepers are absolutely silent this week about the affirmative depiction of women in The X-Files?

It’s almost like those gatekeepers have a specific agenda: to paint The X-Files as somehow past-its-prime or out-of-touch, since it was originally a nineties show. .

Funny how they are so quiet now…

Until I read otherwise, I will take the gatekeepers’ “deafening silence” on “My Struggle 2’s” affirmative depiction of women as tacit recognition of their own previous wrong-headedness.

Perhaps an apology is forthcoming.

But I won’t hold my breath.

The other terrific quality which astounds throughout “My Struggle II” -- and which has not been commented upon widely -- is the installment’s strong direction.

This episode more closely resembles a feature film than it does a TV production.  The close-quarters fist fight between Mulder and the CSM’s goon is probably the best executed such sequence in series history.

It is brutal, savage, and cut brilliantly. It moves quickly and engages the senses, but it doesn’t try to hide the combatants’ moves with a herky-jerky camera.

In other words, there is a neo-classical crispness to the fight. It is modern, I suppose, in its viciousness, yes, but visualized so we can register what is happening at each moment, and to whom it is happening.

The outdoor nighttime scenes on the bridge and in and around Washington D.C. also look terrific, and move with purpose. If memory serves, Carter had to orchestrate some major chaos for the pilot of The After a few years back. He seems to have taken that fine work and improved upon it. He orchestrates this chaos with a steady hand, and a knack for making us feel tense, or uncomfortable. Carter mounts the climactic scenes with aplomb, and then hits us hard with the cliffhanger finale.

And what a finale it is!

When it was all over, my wife and I fell silent, and then I looked at her and she said, simply, “well…shit.”

The episode moved with such deftness, such swiftness, that it felt like perhaps fifteen minutes had gone by. Tops. That we still had a ways to go before having to say goodbye, once again, to this beloved universe…

In terms of mythology stories, I feel that “My Struggle” (both parts) makes for one of the best of all in terms of series history. It is so fast, so furious, so smart, that I have had to watch it three times just to pick up all the details.

I credit not only Carter for the smart writing, but also Dr. Anne Simon and Dr. Margaret Fearon, who introduce all these new (yet somehow completely faithful and appropriate-seeming…) concepts to the franchise.  Carter runs with those concepts.

There’s also a kind of caustic intelligence to the writing. Many things that CSM says in his scenes are, oddly enough, justified. He says horrible things, and he says true things, and he intersperses truth and nihilism so that he almost sounds reasonable when in fact…he’s the most evil man who has ever lived. He speaks with a forked tongue, indeed. He can justify anything.

So, in closing, the revival goes out on a strong, high note. “My Struggle 2” is both involving and scary. It is also forward-looking for the franchise. Not just in terms of the action, but how the action leads right back to the characters. William's shadow looms large over all the episodes of the revival, and especially this one.  Finding him will be a key not just to Scully's stability and mental health, but Mulder's survival.

In large part, I watch The X-Files to listen to Chris Carter’s words, to see his imagery and symbolism, and to experience his vision of the world; his philosophy. When I watch, I want to connect with his vibe, his perspective on the world.

My Struggle 2” gives me all those things; things that I cannot get anywhere else at the moment. I cherish this opportunity to reconnect with the artist and his imagination.

Looking back on this episode, and the X-Files revival in total, I feel strongly about two factors. 

First, that the writers, directors and actors went out of their way to create a compelling and challenging set of episodes. The storytelling and ideas were ambitious, and remarkably unconventional. The episodes were all brilliant, and more-so, they were each brilliant in different ways.

“Babylon” is not only the best episode of network television this season, for example, but the best episode of network television in years. It is a genre-bender. Not exactly action, not exactly sci-fi. It thrives on how it blurs definitions such as though (as well as definitions of terms like "extremist.")

Secondly, I feel that -- in broad strokes -- some critics and audiences simply weren’t prepared, ready or even willing to engage with the series on this level of imagination and thought. 

I think they had an idea of what The X-Files was supposed to be, going in, and then attempted to categorize the episodes based on how well they fit into a pre-existing (but incomplete) perceptual set about the program.

I admire and adore the revival, I suppose, because it puts a big focus on the “X” aspect of the franchise.

X represents the unknown, like an implied question mark, 

And “X” can be person, place or a thing…anything that marks an object as mysterious.

An “X” can be the mysteries of the human soul.

This new chapter in The X-Files showed us the “X” factor behind a culture of materialism and selfishness (“Home Again”), behind extreme tribalism (“Babylon,”) behind our ability to transform and improve ourselves, even, (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster”) and much more.

The revival moved beyond mere science fiction, horror or any cult-TV tropes and really asked audiences to consider who we are, and the way we live in 2016.

May Chris Carter’s The X-Files continue to do so for many years to come.

Even if it has to be six episodes at a time...I’m there.


  1. WOW! Great review.

    I really hope after this revival we can pass to see more X Files now on.

  2. I've looked forward to your review since you have kept an even hand throughout the modern internet's reactionary criticisms. Some have probably claimed you've been overly positive. But while not all the previous 202 episodes were good, these 6 episodes have all been good. My Struggle 1 was the weakest but it measures up to any of the previous 9 premieres.

    You're absolutely right about Carter as a director. There were stronger writers on the revival but he was the strongest director. He also excels as a producer, including having the best story ideas. I felt that Babylon had a lot of flaws (strangely, I'm most bothered by the fact that Scully's MRI technique and connections to her mother were a dead end) but it was by far the densest in terms of ideas.

    I also noticed that critics seem to be the most vocal when artists are clearly trying. Carter gave Drs Simon and Fearon story credit here and the result was an episode criticized at once for being too scientific and for not making enough sense. Interstellar suffered the same fate. To quote another scientist, the universe is under no obligation to make sense.

    You say it better here as you point out that critics and audiences were largely unprepared or unwilling to engage with this revival, or at least let go of their preconceived ideas of what it should be, or, perhaps, their nostalgic guideposts for what they believe it was.

    My Struggle 2 raises more questions than it answers but I trust that the producers are prepared to answer those if called upon. I would also be satisfied if this was truly the end.

  3. Anonymous10:10 AM

    The 'gatekeepers' agenda is simple. Always tear down. Never build up. I can't really be surprised at their silence.

    And, as you're the one who keeps saying that genre media has to have something to say about the times in which it was made...

    CSM is a modern politician. Just enough truth to keep the lies from being ludicrious.

  4. John great review of this cliffhanger ending of the six. I want more, X-Files is as strong as it ever was.


  5. So, do you have your theories on how the old mythology fits with the new, and will you be presenting them here? I'm sure we'd all be anxious to read what you have to say (especially since so many appear to think it doesn't fit at all).

  6. I was just blown away. I literally paced during the commercials.

    I love it when the villain has a point of view and makes his case, and you can kind of agree with him. CSM is right. Do the math on any objectionable level and the destruction of the planet is inevitable. Of course, a hero would try to change this trajectory, while CSM instead wants to "simply speed up the process." Just a great scene. The action, the philosophical debate, the tension.

    I only read you when I want an opinion on X-Files. But after hearing what you said in a few reviews about the reaction by the mainstream media, I decided to check out what they were saying, and it was some of the laziest, most dismissive, and ignorant analysis I have ever read in my life. The two bozos reviewing it for YouTube's WhatTheFlick, literally started their review of the first episode by ripping on the original show and displaying their lack of knowledge (and interest quite frankly) in a way that was astounding. I had to shut it off after a few minutes. The snarkiness was unbearable.

    Like you said, the media was locked and loaded, and determined to dismiss the X-Files revival as a "relic of the 90s". But they lose and the fans win, because despite their ignorant rants, the ratings were spectacular, and those who matter (like the readers here) were beyond pleased.

    So, Carter and company willing, there will be more X-Files to look forward too.

  7. JKM's Note: An anonymous poster or two (it is hard to tell when they are anonymous) have attempted to post negative reaction to this episode here. That is fine, but the comments had some crude language, and did not conform to my policy that all negative comments not be anonymous. In other words, if you have something harsh to say, still say it respectfully, and make sure you have your name on your comment. I addressed this matter on the blog in another post, but I thought I should do so here, as well.

    So feel free to comment. But if you are going to slam something, you have a responsibility to leave your name. Comments with joke names will also not be passed through to the blog.