At Arlington National Cemetery, Mulder (David Duchovny), bent over the grave of the character we only knew 20-something years ago as Deep Throat, asks Scully (Gillian Anderson), “Everything we feared came to pass—how the hell did that happen?”
As much as this question concerns The X-Files in 2018, a show that places Mulder and Scully within the context of a world in which Donald Trump is president and Edward Snowden is a cult hero—though 45 is never referred to by name (Snowden is), only alluded to, as when Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) mentions that the FBI isn’t getting along with the Executive Branch nowadays, or talks about how “now there’s 17 US intelligence agencies” all in bed with each other while trying to wipe each other out—it’s difficult to not dig deeper metaphysically, to check in on the formative television series as a test case for the ways in which we navigate nostalgia and our expectations of reboots while simultaneously hoping for growth, for change, for something to deny that which we most fear: that what we love will only rise again as a parody of what we loved.
Ankle deep in this new, ten-episode season, it’s still difficult to tell what the case will be with The X-Files a few weeks from now. After the whiff of the Season 11 premiere, series mainstay Glen Morgan writes and directs the comparably lighter “This,” which has Mulder murder a few more people and land a good joke or two, including the deftly implied tidbit that him and Scully spice it up with handcuffs in the bedroom.
Speaking of bedrooms, Scully now apparently lives with Mulder at his Unabomber cabin, wherein she’s resigned herself to not owning a bed, a clever nod back to the series’ original run, as was the episode’s opening melange of establishing shots featuring a bowl full of sunflower seeds on top of a stack of literal “X” files. In-jokes abound, actually: Skinner informs Mulder and Scully that the X-Files have been digitized, and perusing the PDFs, we see such fan-favorite episodes as “Home, Pennsylvania”; the real name of Deep Throat, plastered on his grave, is “Ronald Pakula,” obviously named after All the President’s Men director Alan J. Pakula; Mulder chucks numerous No. 2 pencils at the wall, the image of pencils stuck to the ceiling of his basement office 20 years ago never far from one’s memory.
Neither is the perplexing mess that was Chris Carter’s work on last week’s premiere: Even in Morgan’s seemingly more capable hands, this season continues to suffer tonally. In “My Struggle III,” Carter’s directorial choices amounted to a haphazard overabundance of action set pieces that felt totally out of place in a series that once counted amongst its many accomplishments a firm dedication to tone. “This” lounges more often in moody procedural scenes, though not without an opening shoot-out (set to a Ramones song) in which Mulder and Scully John Woo their way around Mulder’s cabin, bookended by Mulder firing on a man, the force of Mulder’s bullet so masculine that it throws the nameless henchman against a wall, Mulder unfazed by the Fast and Furious physics erupting in his living room/bedroom. Afterwards, wading through the wreckage of their home, confused as to why they were visited by three hitmen, Mulder quips, “I’ll tell you what I do know: We gotta take a trip to IKEA.” Beds are quite affordable at IKEA, Mulder.
It’s clear that The X-Files 2.0 is a much bigger endeavor, that Carter and his cronies want the show to feel in 2018 as big and overwhelming as the conspiracies it once purported to investigate. This, perhaps, means more murder, more guns blazing, more car chases and more humor about Mulder and Scully boning—but scope was never part of what made The X-Files so essential.
What was so essential about The X-Files is becoming harder and harder to parse, though what hasn’t changed is the unwieldy nature of the series’ overarching plot, which appears to be more and more the focus of each episode in these truncated seasons. In “This,” to try to turn a long story into something remotely concise, Mulder and Scully receive a weird video message on Mulder’s phone from long-dead Lone Gunman Langley (Dean Haglund), a message which coincides with the aforementioned shoot-out, as well as the appearance of Russian (natch!) mercenaries, who we learn are a private security service run by Erika Price (Barbara Hershey), one of the new members of the Syndicate we met last week. Since the mercenaries and the government are too enmeshed with one another to encourage our agents to trust anyone (again, natch), Mulder and Scully go on the lam, reluctantly reaching out to Skinner to figure out why Price wants to kill them while following Langley’s post-mortem clues to determine what, exactly, is going on with the whole phone video thing. Inevitably, the two plots converge, and Mulder and Scully stage a pretty surprisingly confident heist on a secret NSA building. They’re there, of course, to destroy a sophisticated computer program that houses digital simulacra of the consciousnesses of the world’s greatest minds (including Steve Jobs and… Michael Crichton?), which means Langley, who worked with the government before his death to have his consciousness uploaded into this program, discovered that his Second Life isn’t what he was sold. As Price informs Mulder once they come face to face in that secret NSA building, only with the “minds” of such people as Langley and Michael Crichton does the human race have a chance to transcend this dying planet and firm up the technology needed to colonize outer space. In turn, Computer Langley knows he’s being used, so he reaches out to Mulder to help destroy the program in which he currently “lives.”
There’s plenty of criticism to be tossed at the whole sequence that brings Mulder and Scully to the NSA hideout—like how simple it is for them to get to the top of the building, or how effortlessly Mulder is able to dispatch multiple mercenaries, i.e., men who have trained in combat their whole adult lives—but what rings most sourly is the atonal nature of everything happening. Completely gone is the mystery of the series’ plot; gone is the sense of discovery at finally having some answers. In its place is the same complicated machinations as before, only drained of all curiosity. In attempting to make the world of The X-Files bigger, Carter and his staff have reined in all of the open-ended suspense and surprise that transformed the series police procedural tendencies into compelling, intelligent TV. There are still plenty smart ideas here, but once you understand what these characters are telling you, there’s nothing to keep you engaged.
Morgan, to his credit, achieves some stirring visuals, especially in a parking garage meeting between Mulder, Scully and Skinner, finding endless angles through which to convey a sense of paranoia and surveillance. Still, every action scene, especially the opening shoot-out, bears no sense of space or mobile logic. Scenes which should be exciting instead diarrhea blurs of exploding plaster and bullet time all over the screen, begging to be over as soon as they start.
Here’s hoping that next week gives us a Monster of the Week episode in which we can briefly forget the plodding logistics of Carter’s incessant retconning. Here’s hoping that Mulder stops indiscriminately killing people—or that at the very least Mulder comments on how cool it was to shoot a human being and have their body suddenly levitate. “Did you see that, Scully?!” Mulder could holler. “The world is different, Mulder,” Skinner tells him. Here’s hoping that proves to be a good thing for The X-Files in the end.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention. You can follow him on Twitter.