Monday, January 22, 2018

The X-Files: "This" (January 10, 2018)

In “This,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) receive a strange transmission on Mulder’s smart phone, apparently from the late Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) of the Lone Gunmen.  On the phone, Langly asks if he is dead.

Before the agents can process this strange encounter with a man who died 15 years earlier, they are the targets of a brutal surprise hit. Heavily armed assailants attack their house, and attempt to gun them down.

Scully and Mulder survive, and learn that the attackers are foreign nationals operating legally in the United States. More specifically, they are from Russia, from a private intelligence company called Perlu.

On the run, Mulder and Scully flee into the woods. They arrange a meeting with Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who informs them that the Russian nationals are operating, with Executive Branch authority, in the U.S. He also reveals that the X-Files have been digitized by Perlu, and are now all online. 

Attempting to stay alive, and one step ahead of their would-be captors, Mulder and Scully investigate Langly's life and death, commencing at his tombstone in Arlington cemetery.  From there, they find the tombstone of Deep Throat, and a microchip stored there.

They then learn of a strange plot operating from “Titanpointe,” or the Long Lines Building in Manhattan, NY.  There, Erika Price (Barbara Hershey) oversee a digital repository of dead geniuses.  Like Langly, their consciousness has been uploaded to a server, where these individuals serve the conspiracy...forever.

Langly reports to Mulder and Scully that this “life after death” is but a form of digital slavery, and that he wants to be killed, so that he can escape from it. Together, Mulder and Scully attempt to turn off the server, even as Price’s forces close in for the kill.

Glen Morgan writes and directs “This,” an unusual installment of The X-Files (1993 – 2002; 2016 - ) that feels like a steroidal mash-up between a work of Alfred Hitchcock, and the earlier series firfth season episode, “Kill Switch.” 

From Hitchcock, the tale adopts the dramatic device of protagonists running for their lives, hunted and attacked by deadly, shadowy operatives (North by Northwest [1959].) This is a novel point of attack, since The X-Files episodes traditionally start with Mulder and Scully investigating a case file and going to the location of a murder, or strange phenomenon.

Here, the case file comes to them in a literal blast: a splendidly choreographed fight scene cut to “California Sun.”  Usually, in standalone stories, the prologue is reserved for characters we don’t know who experience something paranormal or even supernatural. Here, we see Mulder and Scully in the prologue, contacted by Langly, making our protagonists the center of their very own X-File.

This sequence starts the episode off in surprising, high-tension fashion. First, we see Mulder and Scully asleep together on a sofa, having fallen asleep while watching television. Then they get the call from Langly.

First, I love this imagery, because: welcome to middle age! Mulder and Scully aren’t the thirty-somethings they were in the original series and that means, among other things, less stamina. This is a charming moment, watching them asleep beside each other before the action starts.

And then the action kicks in, and it isn’t just action, it is hyper-action. Scully flips a sofa for cover, and Mulder darts to take the high ground (the top of the staircase), as the brutal assault commences.

What I love about this is that Mulder and Scully just jump into action, reflexively. Without words, they work together to fight their way out of a life-and-death situation. And again, they don’t do it by being young and strong, but by (wordless) coordination, and smart strategy. They pick off their enemies in a cross-fire, even if the bad guys outnumber them, and ultimately capture them. At least briefly.  This sequence is a blast, and a great way to begin a story.

Later in the episode, Mulder must physically take down a younger Russian agent, and I love Duchovny’s performance in the sequence. Mulder is still  quite physically fit, but he’s older, and it’s clear that after the knock-down, drag-out fight, he’s winded. When he approaches Scully, after the fight, and notes, triumphantly, that he got his phone back, it’s a great moment. 

He’s still got it.

But he'll be feeling it tomorrow, if you know what I mean.

From “Kill Switch,” “This” takes its central premise: that of human life preserved, digitally, long after physical death. The great thing about this story is that it feels like a legitimate outgrowth of “Kill Switch.”  The technology we saw back then (in 1998) is now up and running, and housing scientists who can serve Price’s cabal of the elite. She reveals to Fox that now the cabal can upload a human mind from a smart phone, a terrifying thought.

Indeed, a fascinating angle of this story is the notion of “digital slavery.” When Langly died, his consciousness went to Price’s device, to serve her agenda...forever. Sure, he gets to eat donuts and watch the Patriots lose, but Langly's intellect is being used for purposes beyond his control, beyond his choice.

I read this idea not merely as a development of the plot-point we saw originated in “Kill Switch” but as an acknowledgment of some of the harsh criticism The X-Files faced in 2016. I read some reviews in prominent periodicals, after Season 10, blaming the series, essentially, for the fact that our culture now widely believes in conspiracies and distrusts government. 

To me, this might be a form of digital slavery. Critics were harnessing aspects of the series for their own agendas. They looked back at the nineties, and tried to rewrite what it meant, and what impact it had on the culture. 

Largely, they had the answer in reverse. 

The X-Files tapped into something happening in America as far back as Watergate, which it then explored, in an era of paranoia.  But the series has been enslaved, sometimes -- like Langly in "This -- for purposes beyond its original intent. Intriguingly, this idea has a corollary in the episode’svery text. 

Without Mulder and Scully’s knowledge, their case files have been uploaded to the Net, for others to utilize, without their consent.

Beyond this self-reflexive touch, “This” is very much about the current state of our country, and serves as a pointed criticism of the Trump Era. 

Mulder and Scully are left to fend for themselves, basically, because the FBI is no longer in “good stead” with the Executive Branch, according to dialogue. This is a reference to Trump's attacks on the FBI, ostensibly to silence investigations into his affairs with Russia.

And, of course, there are armed Russian mercenaries operating with impunity in the U.S. in "This." The episode connects the President to Russian infiltration, and name-drops Robert Mueller and Edward Snowden. 

The literal idea here is that Mulder and Scully have nowhere to run, because they are being hunted by foreign agents on American soil, and can’t get help from the FBI, the attorney general (also implicated in the Russian collusion), or our President himself.

On a deeper level, “This” is about how a foreign power has infiltrated America, and undercut our freedom. 

In real life, we know the Russians meddled in social media, during a presidential election. The X-Files goes one step beyond that fact by suggesting that a Russia-Friendly Administration has allowed foreign agents into the country, who are helping Erika Price’s cabal maintain security around their operations. 

Given what we already know of Trump’s many, deep, long-standing Russian entanglements, this is hardly a leap into fantasy; more like some believable speculative fiction. (For instance, there have been reports of Russian mercenaries operating in Syria).  And "perlu" means "necessary," I believe.  So perhaps, these agents are in some way necessary to the success of Erica's plan.

Bolstered by great action, an immediate crisis for our heroes -- who are on the run -- and a great concept (digital enslavement), “This” is a terrific addition to Season 11. 

My favorite moment, however, is the one in which Mulder notes that the 1990’s -- once an era of paranoia, and crazy conspiracy -- now, in the Age of Trump, seems like “simpler times.”  This comment is made in a scene (set in a graveyard) which connects “nostalgic” X-Files characters such as Deep Throat and the Lone Gunmen, to the twisted, new 2018 narrative.  

This juxtaposition seems to me the sweet spot for Season 11.

The series is openly acknowledging the past, and Mulder and Scully’s age (again -- middle-aged, and asleep on the sofa!) at the same time it pushes forward into the most pressing concerns of this dangerous and tumultuous new age.

Next week: “Plus One.”

1 comment:

  1. As I write this, Trump's war on the FBI has escalated to include an attempted partisan purge to get rid of anyone not considered loyal to HIM. So not only is it plausible for two FBI agents to be on the run from a Russian operatives sanctioned by the White House, in today's frightening landscape it is downright probable.

    I wondered how this season of "The X-Files" was going to be able to compete with today's world. How does a show that thrives on paranoia and anxiety deal with a a real life dystopian chaos created by an unstable authoritarian autocrat who is the most powerful person in the history of the human race?

    But the X-Files is doing it and doing it with such flair and creativity. I am amazed at how much bold and irresistible entertainment value they are packing into these 42 minute episodes - action (beautifully choreographed as you said), sharp character writing, nostalgic throwbacks to earlier episodes (“Kill Switch” came to mind for me too as did "Ghost in the Machine" from season one), and a witty commentary about the insanity we now live under.

    Really looking forward to Darin Morgan's episode next week and the rest of the season.


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