There is not a more fitting image of where Mulder’s (David Duchovny) head is at in this new season than that of his coveted “I Want to Believe” poster assailed by projectile pencils. (And perhaps there is no more fitting response from Scully [Gillian Anderson] upon entering the room than to complain to Mulder that he’s ruining her poster—which he totally is, because as we saw in “My Struggle,” Mulder kicked his copy apart in a little bratty fit of frustration.) As “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster” opens, Mulder is going through unsolved X-Files files, realizing that much of what he once studied in awe he now sees as little more than a bunch of dumb hoaxes easily explained away in the past 15 years or so. In other words: Middle-aged and single, the only love of his life driven away by his obsessive nature, Mulder’s now back to where he was decades ago, seemingly without any real progress and with just as many questions as he had in 1994.
“Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?” he asks Scully. In turn, she seems pretty tickled by his attitude, ready for a distraction from all her helping-kids-with-no-ears, super-serious medical work. She’s got an emotional leg up on Mulder as far as the tenor of their new X-Files investigations go: She’s found other goals on which to focus, other ways to move forward. Mulder’s been stuck all along.
Writer-director Darin Morgan’s turn helming an episode of this ersatz Season 10 is, as many of his previously episodes have been—namely “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and even “Humbug,” about the sad, angry existence of a conjoined twin—a sort of goofy meditation on the monsters within us, be they truth, mortality or a murderous, fetus-sized humanoid sibling: That which we cannot explain, but which has the power to destroy us. For Mulder, as is expressed literally in this episode, that means his curiosity—a force which had, up until recently, practically defined him. Without it, he’s a whiny shell of an aging bro who doesn’t know how to work a simple app on his phone.
And so, Scully brings Mulder their latest weird case, which Scully gleefully describes as involving an actual monster hunt. Mulder, huffy and openly cynical, walks the woods of Oregon where bodies have been found—their necks eaten out, blecch—throwing out one plausible explanation after another while Scully, pretty much treating this case like a game to see if she can keep Mulder engaged, prominently points to a giant lizard monster man as the culprit. Still, barely able to keep eyes from rolling back into the inky black of his skull, Mulder follows Scully who follows whatever leads they have to a truckstop, whereupon they meet a transgender prostitute who claims to have hit the so-called lizard person in the face with her purse.
(Before we go any further, it’s worth noting: The only real misstep in this episode is a brief interaction involving the gender identity of this prostitute. It’s handled with about as much grace as a car accident, and is played off as an ugly, throwaway joke. You were so close to a perfect episode, The X-Files. I expected better from you.)
Coincidentally, an animal control employee (Kumail Nanjiani) is also there—coincidentally because he was too involved in the lizard man attacks, and as such is pretty spooked by all the crazy shit erupting around him. Can’t a guy just wrangle stray dogs in peace? Suddenly, the lizard man is attacking Mulder and Scully—I guess?—and despite trying to get a picture of the creature, Mulder fails because he doesn’t know how to work this new picture-taking app on his phone, mostly just using it to piss off Scully. Also because: “It shot blood at me…from out its eyeball, Scully…I think. It was hard for me to see because I had blood in my eyes.” Coming around on the whole existence of a lizard person, at least for the benefit of argument, Mulder suggests that horny toads are known to expel blood from their eyes as a defense mechanism. Scully, still obviously so jazzed on being back on an especially derpy case with Mulder (as derpy as multiple grotesque homicides can be, granted), reasons, “Mulder, the Internet is not good for you.”
It’s something that could be said of The X-Files skeptics in general. One of the most daunting tasks for this new iteration of the show is in transposing its procedural elements into a fully-connected Internet age. We live in a completely different political and social climate than when the show premiered, back when Americans were fat and content, deep in the relatively safe, economic bounty of the Clinton administration. Today, we are a society dripping with fear—every presidential candidate, no matter party allegiance, has a prominent stance on the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, a relationship that has been tested and twisted over and over, to near-breaking, since 9/11. So, to have Mulder serve as a John McClane type, a man stuck in the past and befuddled by a newfangled smart phone, unable to fully reconcile himself with this new paradigm (be it with technology or life in general as man over 50), allows us a way into understanding the show’s place in 2016—or even whether or not the new season can transcend the fact that it exists based almost wholly on the cache Millennials place in nostalgia. Like Mulder, we want to believe…but it’s still so hard.
The rest of “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is delightful—the best kind of Monster of the Week episode the show had to offer when it was at its most poignant and hilarious—and to have Darin Morgan writing and directing is something to cherish. This is why The X-Files has a new season in 2016: The episode unfolds as a fable of sorts, wherein a person named Guy Man (played by Rhys Darby as a spiritual cousin to his role in What We Do in the Shadows) helps Mulder rejuvenate a bit of the flair he once had for the paranormal. Guy Man also indirectly helps Scully find a new dog to replace Queequeg, her pet Pomeranian who was unceremoniously eaten by an alligator.
Meanwhile, Morgan is upending or dissecting monster-movie tropes left and right, always game to turn Mulder’s monster hunt inward, never losing sight of more trenchant themes about purpose and modernism and consumerism and happiness. If Darin Morgan’s scripts have always had a deep shade of metaphysical storytelling to them, it’s because self-reflection and self-consciousness are indelibly metaphysical actions. That Mulder spends much of the episode leaning against a tombstone with the name of Kim Manners carved across it—a beloved X-Files and TV director who died in 2009—lends a well-calibrated weight to an episode already flirting with silliness. Like I said in my review for “Founder’s Mutation,” part of what makes The X-Files such an important show is the way in which it has always been able to perfectly balance strikingly different tones and genres. In Season 10, these X-Files veterans are pretty much able to do this in their sleep.
But what “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster” declares, sadly, is that Darin Morgan should have directed more episodes in the series’ prime. Whereas “My Struggle” and “Founder’s Mutation” were stale and overly formal by comparison, “Were-monster” breathes with surreal life, the more mannerly, workmanlike visuals of the episodes directed by Chris Carter and James Wong pointing to people taking what they were doing, and the world in which they were playing, a bit too seriously.
There’s regret in that, sure: Darin Morgan was behind some of the show’s most well-loved episodes, but his contributions were sparse. More from him may have made an already essential show even more implacable. But that’s also kind of the point—that, like Mulder, we can’t live with too much regret, otherwise the gulf between the “wanting” and the “believing” will become too far to ever cross. And we’ll be never be able to move forward.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention, no more than five. You can follow him on Twitter.