Monday, January 15, 2018
The X-Files: "My Struggle III" (January 3, 2018)
The X-Files (1993 – 2002; 2016, 2018) has returned for Season 11, and I’m behind the eight-ball here reviewing the new season of ten episodes.
Hopefully, I will catch-up quickly. (Right now I’m two episodes back!)
We must begin our look at the new season with “My Struggle III,” the shocking resolution (of sorts) to the Season 10 cliffhanger. The third part of the “My Struggle” saga, written and directed by Chris Carter, aired in the U.S. on January 3rd, 2018, and has fiercely divided critics and audiences for two reasons.
First, the episode ret-cons the Season Ten finale completely.
Secondly, this episode offers a revelation -- utilizing footage from a Season Seven episode called “En Ami” -- that has apparently enraged some fans.
In other words, The X-Files is right back exactly where it belongs: ambitiously taking chances, and refusing to rest on old victories. Instead of rehashing old successes, the series pushes forward right into the madness of the Trump Era, challenging us with new ideas and new perceptions.
The Carter series enters its eleventh season with an action-packed inaugural installment that, more than anything, tells us a truth about Scully that we need to hear and acknowledge. She is not immune from the toxic white masculinity that we have seen on display in the news in recent months, but has been a part of life for women in the workplace going back decades. Instead, Scully is part of the “Me Too” Movement (and hopefully “Time’s Up” Movement) in a way that is shocking, sickening, and heart-breaking.
What does this mean?
Broadly, it means, once more, that The X-Files has charted a path that is one part fantasy or science fiction, and one part social commentary. The series was never really about aliens, or monsters or even conspiracies, but rather about what aliens, monsters, and conspiracies say about us, and the times we live in.
Consider that The X-Files has always concerned the elite few (The Syndicate, for instance) who wield inordinate power over the rest of us, shaping events to their liking; consolidating power and wealth. “My Struggle III” is perfectly in line with that historic arc or through-line, inscribing another line of infamy to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s ledger of evil. He not only made decisions that affected the lives of millions; he made a choice involving Scully’s body that he had no right to make.
Before we delve further into exactly why this story is so powerful, and so perfectly aligned with our times, a brief summary of the narrative is necessary.
“My Struggle III” opens with images of apocalypse. The world is dying from the Spartan Virus, which has been unleashed by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Mulder (David Duchovny) is dying from the virus as well. Scully (Gillian Anderson) needs William to save both the human race and the man she loves, knowing that only her son’s unusual (and part alien?) DNA can save humanity. On the way to help Mulder, an alien ship, apparently, shines on a light on Scully.
She looks up, and we push into her face…only to find that this is all a premonition. Scully has had a seizure and witnessed the future, not the present. Mulder is not dying, and the Spartan Virus exists, but has not yet been unleashed.
Scully has seen a glimpse of the end, but the important thing is that the storyline we saw in Season 10 is not abandoned. Despite what some critics have suggested, this is not a “Patrick Duffy in the Shower” moment. Instead, it is a preview of what is yet to come, a message sent to Scully from, of all sources, her son: William. He is out there somewhere, and has telepathically transmitted this message to her. It has manifested, physiologically, as a seizure.
Now, Mulder and Scully are prepared to stop the Cigarette Smoking Man’s plans.
That’s not the end, however.
We also learn in “My Struggle 3” that there is a second conspiracy working against the Cigarette Smoking Man. Barbara Hershey’s Erika Price leads this cabal. As much as the Smoking Man wants to save Scully -- because he is in love with her -- this conspiracy desires her dead, because it knows that she, Mulder and William have the power to stop them.
Mulder and Scully resolve to go back to their jobs, knowing that William is trying to find them, but there is a final twist.
The Cigarette Smoking Man reveals to Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that years earlier, in 2000, he “impregnated” Scully with “science” (particularly “alien science.”)
Hence, in some fashion, he is William’s father.
Let’s consider the retcon first.
As I said before, this is not a Patrick Duffy moment in the shower. That reference alludes to the soap opera series Dallas, in which Duffy’s character, Bobby Ewing, was killed. A whole season worth of shows were created in which his character was, actually, dead. Then, as a season cliffhanger, he was shown to be alive, in the shower, the whole season (and his death) explained as his wife’s dream. The whole season, basically, was “undone” by this twist.
Carter does not treat Season 10 with any such level of disrespect or dismissal in the premiere of Season 11. Again, all the plot lines we saw laid out in “My Struggle II” are still in the offing. Mulder is going to get sick and die. The Cigarette Smoking Man is going to release the Spartan Virus. Humanity is moving towards extinction.
Only the timeline of these events has changed.
Why is this a smart and valid dramatic choice?
For a few reasons.
First, thematically, The X-Files has often dramatized stories involving people with telekinetic and telepathic abilities (“Oubliette,” “Mind’s Eye”). Superhuman mental powers are therefore, valid terrain for the show to explore. In this case, we’re in the terrain of precognition, or premonitions, another realm of the paranormal worthy of investigation. And the source of this “message” is similarly, a character we know possess paranormal abilities, William. His abilities were seen at the start of Season 9.
Secondly, by positioning William as the source of Scully’s premonition (the sender, as it were), “My Struggle III” grants Season 11 an emotionally-powerful purpose. I loved Season 10 and did not find it purposeless or meandering in the slightest. But some critics seemed to quibble with it, and the way it featured Mytharc book-ends, with seemingly unrelated monster-of-the-week stories in the middle. Now, Season 11 boasts a twin purpose, right out the gate: to locate William, and to prevent the end of human life, in the process saving Mulder’s life. Even the standalone stories will, apparently, be seen through this lens.
The second controversial aspect of “My Struggle III” is the one that I find more valuable, and more relevant than clever approach to the story. The audience learns that The Cigarette Smoking Man assaulted Scully. He drugged her, and took away her right to consent. This is very much a struggle of the moment, as we have seen, one that has brought down men in power such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others. It is one that has effected women including Eliza Dushku, Rose McGowan, and many, many others. Above, I called it the culture of toxic white masculinity, and this is clearly also the culture of the Cigarette Smoking Man. Clearly, he feels there is nothing he can’t do, no one he can’t hurt or control, to get what he wants. (This facts makes his co-opting of Monica Reyes all the more tragic).
I have read comments online from some fans of the series who are very angry about this revelation regarding William’s parentage, though we actually see footage from “En Ami” to back-it-up. Again, the information doesn’t come from nowhere, but rather from accepted and long-known X-Files lore.
But some fans have actually accused The X-Files of being sexist and toxic for putting Scully through this storyline. By telling this particular story, however, the series does not endorse the Cigarette Smoking Man’s behavior. Quite the contrary. He is, after all, the villain. Instead, the series is acknowledging the reality that we have always known: Scully has succeeded in a male-dominated profession, but has never held “the power” in that profession. The power was held, instead, by men like CGB Spender.
I never thought I would see the day when fans are no longer smart enough to distinguish between the behavior of the villain in the drama, and creative purpose of said drama. The last year, however, I have seen attacks on Star Trek: Discovery, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and now The X-Files that suggest there are some toxic behaviors and people in geek culture too
No work of art carries any meaning, if it does not relate to the context from which it arose. Rather than appealing to nostalgia for the 1990’s, The X-Files Season 11 has aggressively pushed into 2018 by revealing that Scully has had a “me too” moment, like so many women that we have recently learned about. She is not immune to the pervasive behavior of an entire culture. We may not like this revelation, and of course we wish differently for her (because we love Scully), but The X-Files has always kept a foot in reality.
Remember, Scully has battled cancer. She has fought infertility. She has fought sexism in her job (see: “2Shy”). And now we know she is part of the “Me Too” or “Time’s Up” moment as well.
I am really, really looking forward to Scully and Mulder telling the Cigarette Smoking Man that his time is up. I hope we see that, especially after this revelation. But to suggest that The X-Files is abusive, or pro-abuse because of this narrative is absurd. Instead, we must reckon with the fact that the abuse we see in the real world has a corollary in the world of The X-Files. I am curious to see Scully’s response when she learns what the Cigarette Smoking Man did to her.
The X-Files also takes on the Trump Era in other ways, with references not merely to “Me Too,” but “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts.” We live in an era when an authoritarian President dismisses any news that he doesn’t like as “fake.”
Let’s face it, that’s his criteria. If news paints him in a bad light, it is fake. If he gets caught in a lie, it’s not a lie at all, just an “alternative fact.”
It’s a dangerous time, and when we, as a nation, can no longer detect the truth, we are all in danger, from enemies inside and outside the country. And indeed, that is also what “My Struggle 3” concerns quite directly: our inability to distinguish between purposeful distraction, lies, and truth. The Cigarette Smoking Man can execute his plan for genocide in part because we can’t even agree on a set of facts anymore.
When we are turned inward like this, our enemies grow in strength. Even climate change, and our rejection of the Paris Agreement is tangentially connected here, to X-Files lore. Apparently the alien invasion of 2012 did not occur because the aliens, who long sought to reclaim this world, no longer desire to own a world that we are so rapidly destroying.
It’s a caustic throwaway detail, but one that perfectly captures the essence of Trump Age, the looting of America by the 1%.
While watching “My Struggle 3,” my wife and both felt that it packed about two hours-worth of action and details into 40 minutes. It seems like virtually every scene is overloaded with two tracks: physical action and voice-over narration. There’s an inevitability to the way the story unfolds here that is both nerve-wracking and, at times, oddly dream-like. The story is both highly intellectual, in the musings of its main characters (including the Cigarette Smoking Man) and at the same time, action packed. This episode is dominated by car chases and fight scenes. One harrowing sequence sees Scully nearly murdered in a hospital bed, and Mulder slitting the assailant’s throat. In addition to being a philosopher of sorts, Carter has become an expert choreographer of action sequences.
The undeniable impression from “My Struggle 3” is that The X-Files is going for broke, pushing harder and faster than ever before. The series is headed in new directions, challenging us to keep up, and re-evaluate what we think the series “is.”
I’m good with that.
Next up: “This.”