14 January 2018

The X-Files Season 11: My Struggle III (Spoiler Review)

It's 2018, which means The X-Files is back for a new (and possibly final) season. For the next ten weeks I will be talking about all the new episodes, starting with the season opener, "My Struggle III".

Warning: there will be spoilers not just for this episode but for the show as a whole. 

My Struggle III

As a season opener for what will most likely be the last season of The X-Files, "My Struggle III" has a fair amount of pressure to succeed. The question is: is this episode up to the task?

Written and directed by Chris Carter, "My Struggle III" is a mythology episode that picks up right where the season ten finale left off. It's a talky, exposition-heavy episode that has a lot more going on under the surface than you might catch on the first viewing. Carter uses some well-established "truths" and tropes from the show to play on and to subvert the audience's expectations.

The episode opens with the Cigarette Smoking Man monologuing over a video montage that combines footage of real-life events and flashbacks from the show. Much like in "My Struggle parts I and II" Carter uses the monologue and the montage to bring us up to speed on the character's history, only in the case of the CSM a lot of the history is subtext. 

We see once again that he was responsible for making contact with the aliens, and that he was the one who assassinated JFK (as first suggested in the season four episode "Musings of the Cigarette Smoking Man"). Most of this is old news, but there are some surprises as well, like the CSM being the mastermind behind the alleged moon landing hoax, and that his real name is Carl Gerhard Bush.

After the opening credits, the iconic tagline "I want to believe" morphs into "I want to lie". This is a mission statement from Carter and informs the nature of this episode. While "My Struggle parts I and II" focused on Mulder and on Scully respectively, the final part of this trilogy is CSM: s episode. And it's his lying and deceptive nature that sets the basis of this episode.

The episode proper begins with Scully being taken to the hospital after having suffered a seizure. As her doctor explains to the concerned Mulder and Skinner that the special agent has abnormal brain activity, Scully wakes up and starts rambling about the Spartan virus and the CSM who she believes to be alive. Turns out, the virus outbreak and the space craft we saw hovering above Scully at the end of "My Struggle II" were all a part of Scully's visions.

Staring in the eye of your worst fears

My biggest concern with this episode was how Carter would resolve the cliffhanger from the season ten finale. And the way he goes about is kind of frustrating. It feels like a cop-out, but it's also pretty clever. Carter subverts our expectations, turning the apocalyptic events of the past into a paranoid prophecy.

Scully believes that her visions are being sent to her by William - the son she had to give up for adoption sixteen years ago to protect him from the alien supersoldiers. William's conception and the reason for his existence have been on the forefront of seasons eight and nine, with Scully having good reasons to believe that her baby had alien DNA and that she was just used as an incubator in a project to create a human/alien hybrid. Remember that Scully had been made barren after being subjected to horrific experiments during her abduction in season two, and while Mulder called William's conception a "miracle", there has always been a possibility that William was a part of the alien colonists' program. The fact that Baby William showed to have superpowers only supports this theory.

William is now seventeen, and wherever he is it looks like he's aware of the plans of the not-so-dead CSM, and he is trying to warn his biological mother. Scully is sure of it, and in a nice little role reversal, it is now Mulder who is the skeptic and needs to be convinced that Scully's visions are the real deal.

The rest of the episode is a back-and-forth between trying to find out William's whereabouts, and expositioning about CSM: s sinister plans. We are introduced to new characters: Mr. Y and his associate Erica Price, who claim to belong to a government syndicate. It's unclear if this is the same Syndicate from the show's original run given how most of those conspirators were killed off by the faceless alien rebels in the season six episode "One Son".

The pair explain to Mulder that the reason the aliens never came to destroy the human race is because we’re doing their job for them. The Syndicate now claims to have a new objective: to let a chosen elite colonize space, while leaving the rest of the humanity behind on the dying Earth.

Erica Price: the new Diana Fowley or Scully's doppelgänger?

The real-life implications of this new development in the mytharc are explained much better in a review by Tony Black from Cultural Conversation (link below). Suffice it to say that Carter is trying hard to bring the show's narrative up to date with the current political events. The X-Files originated in the "80's paranoia and government mistrust" and had its roots in Carter's own experiences growing up with the Watergate scandal. The show has always had a certain political angle, reflecting the political climate of its time very well. It's no wonder then that the recent developments the US and world politics have been so incorporated in the new and improved mytharc.

I also like the fresh take on the colonization theme in that it is now the humans who want to colonize other worlds. The X-Files helped popularize the alien invasion trope but given how popular culture has become oversaturated with these kind of scenarios, it's refreshing to see Carter take his mythology in a new direction.

As Mr. Y is mansplaining the new plans to Mulder, Skinner is ambushed in a parking garage by the CSM and Monica Reyes (fresh from the Syndicate Villain Academy, apparently). In the show's infant years, Skinner acted as a double agent for the CSM, but his loyalty to Scully and Mulder eventually gave him courage to stand up to the devil incarnate and tell him to "pucker up and kiss my ass!" ("Paper Clip, s.3 ep.2). Now, as Cancerman is planning to release the Spartan virus on the unsuspecting mankind, he needs Skinner's help. Gee, I wonder what horrible mind-boggling secret he will drop on the Assistant Director to make him betray not only the dynamic duo but the mankind itself?

Back in the hospital Scully is attacked by one of Mr. Y's goons, but is saved by Mulder who makes it just in time to slice the guy's throat with a scalpel. The question of a conveniently placed scalpel aside, I kind of love this scene. It's brutal and shows a side of Mulder I haven't really seen since he almost killed Duane Berry, Scully's abductor from season two. It seems that Mulder's dark side emerges when Scully's life is in peril.

As Scully and Mulder are sharing an intimate and quiet moment in the aftermath of the gruesome attack, Skinner walks into the scene looking all conspicuous. Having smelled cigarette smoke on the Assistant Director's clothes Mulder immediately suspects that Skinner has been in contact with the CSM, and Skinner's standoffishness tells us that the old Smokey did get to him after all. But what could he possibly have said to make Skinner betray his friends?

In what will go down in the history of The X-Files as either the biggest twist of them all or the greatest lie, the CSM reveals that he is William's real father, not Mulder. Calling upon the events in the season seven episode, "En Ami", where he and Scully went on a road trip together, he claims to have used the opportunity to impregnate a sleeping Scully "with science". And just like that William's questionable conception is brought to the forefront of the story once again.

Puberty hit William like a runaway flying saucer

In a typical X-Files fashion Carter drops the plot twist that successfully upends the comfortable assumptions and ideas that have been so ingrained in the fans’ collective mind that some of us have started taking them for granted. But in the universe of The X-Files nothing can be taken for granted. And yet, the twist isn’t unwarranted. It’s not something that Carter just pulled out of his ass. Whether or not Carter planned for this to happen, the stage for the revelation has been set long ago, back when William B. Davis wrote "En Ami". And I love how well it fits CSM: s profile as the most vile human being to ever walk this Earth. 

This really is a topic that needs its own analysis but the outrage of the fans who feel that Carter seemingly robbed Scully of her agency with this twist misses the point. What needs to be done is to look beyond what is being said by the CSM and see how it all fits into the narrative of the show and informs his actions throughout the show’s run. Not just his actions but the actions of the Syndicate as a whole. The real horror of this dark and violent universe are the crimes of these powerful rich men whose power goes unchecked, and the heinous acts they commit against the oblivious and innocent people, especially women. David Duchovny said it best: "(...)These are obscenely powerful people, not elected in any way. (...) And those have always been our villains". 

Fox Mulder: son of the Syndicate

Then again, there is a good chance that the CSM is lying, just as he has been lying about... well, everything. Carter not only reflects on the “fake news” and “alternatives facts” phenomena in this episode but he makes these concepts work for the story he wants to tell, making them part of the narrative. As far we're concerned, everything that the CSM has ever said in this episode is a lie. 

The real power of these "obscenely powerful men" is that they can alter the truth to suit their own purposes. Like the Orwellian Ministry of Truth, they rewrite history until there is no way of telling the truth from the lies. 

So, this is "My Struggle III": a clumsy yet secretly brilliant episode that takes risks and gets the conversation going. It makes the show's themes of deception and ambiguity its mission statement. It uses old tropes to subvert our expectations. It surprises us, and disrupts the status quo without compromising the show’s integrity.   

Twists and conspiracies aside, I was especially happy with the return of Jeffrey Spender. I would like for Carter to someday explain how the poor guy got his face back, but I'm glad he recovered from being shot in the face and then tortured by his own father. If Spender isn't the living testament to the Cigarette Smoking Man's evil I don't know who is.

Welcome back, face!

Sources and links:

My Struggle III review on Cultural Conversation

Declassified: The End Of The World | Season 11 | THE X-FILES

The X-Files Wiki (for the pictures)

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