Taken together, the “My Struggle” quadrilogy of episodes doesn’t make much sense. Not that they should be taken together anyway, despite their ill-conceived chronology and successive Roman numerals and the suffocatingly self-serious tone that writer-director Chris Carter employs, making “My Struggle”s I-IV seemingly stand apart from the rest of the series, dispatches from another world entirely. So many cases for Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) have occurred between the four “My Struggles” of these truncated tenth and eleventh seasons of The X-Files, so much time spent with pretty much only each other and occasionally with ersatz cool dad Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), that considering these bookend episodes—among the worst of the series’ quarter century’s worth—as a thing unto themselves still wouldn’t properly answer what it is we’ve been asking all along. Namely: What is The X-Files anymore?
“My Struggle” introduced hunky online firebrand Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), a much more photogenic Alex Jones type, as harbinger of a new path for the show, in which everything that came before was a lie, aliens never planned to colonize Earth, the government had basically graverobbed the Roswell crash for whatever alien technology they could salvage, the aliens never returned and the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), now aided by former ally Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), was in the final stages of a much more straightforward plan involving implanting Scully, way back in Season Two, with alien DNA.
“My Struggle II” confirmed that CSM’s strategy was to orchestrate a worldwide pandemic which would wipe out most of the human race, except for those with the “cure,” which had to do with the alien DNA Scully passed on to her and Mulder’s son, William, whom they hadn’t seen in 16 or 17 years. (Who’s counting?) Part II also furthered the adventures of Kid Mulder and Li’l Scully, agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose)—who we first met in the previous “Mulder does mushrooms and square dances, also: hey ho, we licensed a ubiquitous Lumineers song” episode, “Babylon”—in a weird bet to, one can only assume, pass the X-Files torch to some new blood. The six-episode Season 10 concluded with the apocalypse imminent, Mulder on his last breath and Scully staring into the sky, holding an antidote to the End Times but knowing it’s probably too late.
A few months ago, “My Struggle III” rebooted Season 10’s reboot: Scully awoke from a coma to discover that the whole “End of the World” debacle was, literally, all just a dream, prompting Mulder to go on a killing spree, slaughtering his way to the top of a brand new series of Syndicate members, including Erika Price (Barbara Hershey) and Mr. Y (A.C. Peterson)—because apparently women don’t get dumb shadowy aliases—and discovering that the real plan is for humans to colonize the galaxy. This in turn blew Mulder’s mind, signified by David Duchovny’s eyes growing slightly wider than usual. We were the aliens all along?!
Meanwhile, CSM confessed to Skinner that he was still planning to wipe out the human race, but only after finding William, who he also admits isn’t actually Mulder’s son, but his own, at least as far as contributing sperm to a government experiment in which Scully was tricked into carrying to term to the world’s first successful alien-human hybrid was concerned. Skinner’s beard bristled, signifying his mind, too, was blown. Einstein and Miller appeared for a split-second, shrugging themselves out of the series forever, their characters an aborted bit of world-building like when Indiana Jones took back his fedora from his illegitimate child in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The success of the first “My Struggle” episode lied within what seemed like Carter’s intent to recontextualize the nearly incomprehensible mythology of the series as a representation of Mulder’s ever-shifting quest for truth, all in order to simplify that mythology—as if the showrunner was finally listening to the most salient criticism lobbed at the series since it went off the air. “My Struggle IV” finally and irrevocably ruins all that goodwill.
Picking up after the events of “Ghouli,” “IV” begins on the voice of emo teen Jackson Van De Kamp (Miles Robbins), birth name William Mulder-Scully (probably), offering a real sad-sack explanation of his life so far. Growing up in a happy foster home until he discovered his burgeoning telekinetic powers, Jackson, like any good member of the Mulder bloodline, began to indiscriminately murder people. Eventually, his antics earned him the attention of CSM, who began monitoring Jackson and his family, which is when Mulder and Scully caught up with him, discovering the scene of Jackson’s family’s murder and sending the boy on the run. While Mulder and Scully were refusing to tip robots and inadvertently causing the death of an innocent man, Jackson avoided CSM’s grasp—until this week, when Mulder and Scully receive a call from Reyes, telling them where they might be able to find Jackson/William. The call happens to coincide with Scully’s increasingly frequent “visions” of a “future” portending the end of all humanity, meaning: She’s getting glimpses of “My Struggle II” in her head again.
After Mulder leaves to determine if Reyes is right, wearing his brand new pair of murdering sneakers, Scully reaches out to Tad O’Malley, spilling the beans on CSM’s plan, which she’s gathered mostly from the images in her brain, hoping to get the word out to such a degree that somehow CSM will be thwarted. This precedes an earlier scene—because Carter messes with the episode’s timeline, for no apparent reason—in which FBI Deputy Director Alvin Kersh (James Pickens Jr.) leaps apoplectic out of a buddy cop movie, having witnessed O’Malley’s unveiling of Scully’s information on the Internet (which is what Scully calls it when she tells Mulder she found some information, as in “I got this from the Internet,” like she’s proud of herself for Googling a map), demanding Mulder’s and Scully’s badges, then ordering Skinner to—GASP!—shut down the X-Files. By this point in the series, Skinner’s been party to shutting down the X-Files so many times there’s probably just a big red button in his office labeled, “Shut Down X Files,” but to Skinner’s credit he seems pretty broken up about it.
Prior to that, Mulder’s followed Reyes’s tip to an airfield in Maryland, not finding William but, instead, a bunch of super secret technology supervised by Mr. Y, who seems to be moving along the whole cosmos colonization plan as efficiently as Mulder blasts through a small army of trained black site soldiers like John Wick still in shock from finding the corpse of his puppy. What once felt like an anomaly in “My Struggle III” and “This”—Scully and especially Mulder suddenly bearing superhuman abilities to shoot guns, take on multiple armed guards and engage in a death-defying car chases, all filmed by Carter as if The X-Files had abandoned reality completely to the physics of the Fast and Furious franchise—operates in the season finale as the standard for what the show is in 2018. Mulder so ruthlessly and unblinkingly ends the lives of everyone in that Maryland hangar that any discerning viewer couldn’t be faulted for believing that some greater explanation awaited us here, at the end.
After a season premiere floating the idea that Season 11 would take place in an alternate reality, on some separate plane of existence (perhaps all in Scully’s head, or perhaps within a computer simulacrum built for the purpose of advancing humankind into the outskirts of the galaxy), an idea perpetuated by a whole season of symbolic doppelgängers and digital worlds, “My Struggle IV” has a lot to answer for, a lot of egregious serialized TV crimes to address. It doesn’t.
In fact, it doesn’t so hamfistedly that what would in most cases have been a bravura set piece, a kind of grand guignol massacre that turns a small battalion of soldiers led by Erika Price into exploded mincemeat, just happens, Carter seemingly losing all control over this world he’s led for the past 25 years as he races to a marginally suitable conclusion. Once Mulder catches up with William, unintentionally leading the Syndicate to the teen, we discover that William’s powers have reached full strength, allowing him to blow human bodies to smithereens with barely a grimace. Mulder witnesses all this happen, though he’s got not much more than a sprinkle of viscera on his jean jacket, despite being well within the splash zone for multiple people disseminating their whole corpus and bathing the walls of a cheap motel with body goo. Ah, well.
The season culminates at the “Sugar Factory” with an interminable foot chase through a generic industrial plant. Carter’s obviously relishing the chance to flex his action directing chops, if only he had action directing chops, but every supposed high-stakes scene in this episode reeks of static framing and a complete lack of intuition for giving the audience any sense of place or spatial harmony. He reduces these scenes to repeated vistas of silhouettes running after other silhouettes, romanticized by the eternal magic hour in which he cheaply plots all of his climactic goings-on.
In the end, after everyone dies who you assumed would die—though, to be honest, one couldn’t predict Reyes’ or Skinner’s (probable) deaths to happen so nonchalantly—Mulder leaves room for his dad, CSM, to return, because instead of shooting him multiple times in the torso, and then grabbing him to put a few more bullets in his brain just to make sure, he just pushes the old cancerous chap off the dock of the “Sugar Factory,” not really even looking back to confirm the kill. Remember when this basically happened 15 years ago, Mulder, when you were pretty sure CSM took a rocket to the face? Just tip the fucking robots already, Mulder.
(When CSM says, “The boy is mine,” not minutes before his death, no one on this planet will be able to drown out Brandy and Monica suddenly singing in their heads. It’s the epitome of a whole season of tone-deaf Chris Carter dialogue.)
In the fresh glow of having murdered his biological father, Mulder reunites with Scully, and Scully reveals that Mulder wasn’t William’s father after all. That she wasn’t really his mother, either, that together they’ve been the victims of a vast conspiracy, that this decade-plus of guilt and sadness and pain—begun when Scully left Mulder, overwhelmed by grief at having to give up their son—was all predicated on a lie. For a moment, “My Struggle IV” is heartbreaking, the final note on all of these years one of loss, of the acute misery of knowing that all that’s left is to just move on. Mulder tells Scully that he doesn’t know what he is if he isn’t a father, as if Carter understands the emotional burden Mulder’s experiencing—having defined his whole life by one thing, only to have that thing finally end. Then Scully provides Mulder with one last bit of information, news of a miracle pregnancy, because ending the series with such difficult ambiguity is not the kind of thing Carter could ever handle well, even though that’s exactly how he ended the show so many years ago.
But finally, we’re here. We’re at the end. Because there is no explanation, we’re left with the least interesting result of so much wasted speculation: “My Struggle II” was a detailed vision of a possible future shared by Scully through William—I guess—and Season 11 was all real, every gun-toting, Die Hard-ian, Black Mirror-aping minute. It was a departure from the procedural mystery and noirish sensibility that once anchored a revolutionary television series, a re-imagining that has no bearing on what it’s supposed to be re-imagining.
We were waiting for a reason more clever than that; the reason we received only confirmed our worst expectations. As Mulder said in last week’s episode, “I always wondered how this would end.” We just hoped it wouldn’t end how we always wondered it would.
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.