It seems that my release schedule for the X-Files season eleven reviews has been derailed by my being sick. So, without further ado, here's "Ghouli". This time, I decided to write a longer synopsis, so if you've already seen the episode, you can skip right to the part that says "Jackson".
Written and directed by the show veteran James Wong, “Ghouli" may be the most important episode of the season so far. In fact, as far as our characters are concerned, this may be the most significant episode since the season nine tearjerker that was "William".
The episode opens in Norfolk, Virginia. It's late night, and two teenage girls are sneaking around in a decommissioned boat, cryptically named "Chimera". The girls are looking for the Ghouli - the latest in the long row of Creepypasta monsters. When the girls see each other, they both mistake the other one for the Ghouli, and start knifing each other, nearly dying in the process.
The episode proper beings with Scully telling Mulder about her sleep paralysis during which she had a vision of following a dark figure inside of a strange house. In that vision she saw a snow globe with a boat inside - a miniature copy of the "Chimera".
Both Scully and Mulder believe that her visions are somehow leading her Norfolk. While there, the agents find out that it was an anonymous male caller that had called the ambulance after the girls had nearly killed each other. It turns out that the two girls don't even know each other, but they do have the same boyfriend, Jackson van de Camp. Coincidentally, van de Camp is the name of the couple that had adopted Scully's son William seventeen years ago.
Scully, spurred by her visions now believes that Jackson is William, and that he has been sending these visions to her. Mulder is skeptical, but when they go to the van de Camp mansion, they hear three gunshots, and find both the parents and Jackson dead. It looks like Jackson killed both his parents before shooting himself in the head, but Mulder is suspecting that these deaths are not what they seem. Meanwhile, the agents are being stalked by two bots from the Department of Justice.
In Jackson's room, Scully and Mulder are looking for anything that can help them shed some light on who this boy really was. What they find is a Malcolm X poster, a collection of snow globes, a copy of The Pickup Artist, by author Peter Wong (I see what you did there) and a variety of prescription antipsychotic drugs. For some reason Scully takes one of the snow globes - the one with a windmill inside with her.
In the hospital morgue, Scully takes a hair sample from Jackson's body for a DNA test that will answer her questions once and for all. What follows is a scene that literally cuts to the heart of the episode. Scully breaks down in tears as she is apologizing to her son for abandoning him. She is interrupted by Mulder who comforts her.
After the couple has left the morgue, we see the body bag zip open as the formerly lifeless body of Jackson sits up straight. It's a chilling scene and I was reminded of Billy Miles' transformation into an alien supersoldier in season eight (naturally, I was worried).
While waiting for the test results, Scully is taking a nap, and has another one of her visions, where she is once again chasing the dark figure. She is woken up by the coroner that says that Jackson’s body is missing. Meanwhile, the DNA results are in, and Mulder delivers the bad news to Scully.
While exiting the hospital, Scully bumps into an older gentleman, who accidentally breaks her snow globe. They have a friendly chat, and he tells her to not "give up on the bigger picture".
Scully refuses to believe that her son is dead, and though Mulder is less optimistic, he and Scully begin their search for Jackson. Their investigation is hijacked by the Department of Justice, who are following the orders of - surprise, surprise! - the Cigarette Smoking Man.
Skinner comes to Norfolk to make Mulder drop the investigation by telling him about the top-secret project to create alien-human hybrids, implying that Jackson may have been one of the subjects, and that the DOJ will not stop until they find his body. Mulder tells Skinner that Jackson was in fact his and Scully's son, leaving Skinner speechless.
Skinner's reaction is a genuine one and it reminded me why I love this character so much. One of the minor quibbles I've had with this season is the turn that Skinner's relationship with Scully and Mulder has taken. It seems that he's gone from the ally and confidant of the later season to be the same cowardly double agent we first got to know in the early seasons. As I am writing this review, I've already seen the latest episode, which deals with Skinner’s backstory, so I have a better understanding of Skinner's arc this season. But before the events of ”Kitten", this little scene was a warm reminder of where Skinner and his two special agents used to stand.
Mulder later theorizes that it was the DOJ that killed Jackson's adopted parents, and that Jackson used his psychic powers to make everyone believe that he was dead. This is how he was able to escape leaving none the wiser.
Later that night, Jackson visits both his girlfriends at the hospital, explaining that he made up the Ghouli as a joke and that he used his psychic powers to make the girls see the monster. The incident at the "Chimera" was thus a practical joke gone very wrong.
One of the girls, being all jealous tips off the police. Scully and Mulder are bested by the DOJ agents who are now after Jackson himself. In a nail-biting and confusing chase scene at the hospital Jackson uses his powers to make the DOJ agents shoot each other by making them see the Ghouli. He then escapes, "disguised" as a scared nurse. It seems that Mulder and Scully have lost their son forever.
As the FBI agents are driving back, they stop at the gas station that has the same windmill roadside attraction that Scully saw in Jackson's snow globe. They stop for gas, and this is where Scully meets the same older man from the hospital. They have another friendly chat, and he tells her that he will be driving cross-country. Finally, before driving away, the man tells Scully that "If you stand for nothing you'll fall for anything". Mulder recognizes it as a Malcolm X quote, and the two of them realize who this man really was. In the gas station store they demand to see the security camera footage, where they see that the older man is actually Jackson.
|Too cool for the Bureau|
In his interview with Syfy Wire, James Wong said that it was his own experience with sleep paralysis that inspired him, prompting him to explore this phenomenon. He was also looking for ways to have a monster of the week that would lead us to William.
The result is an incredibly emotional and suspenseful hybrid episode that is very significant not just for the mythology, but the characters as well. It is a culmination of three seasons worth of questions, theories and heartbreaks.
"Ghouli" is the second mythology-standalone hybrid of the season. It drives the mythology forward and contributes plenty to the character’s growth and their relationships. It's a continuation of William's arc which began in season eight, as well as Scully's arc which began all the way back in season two. There isn't much in terms of subtext or metaphor. It's a very honest and simple story that centers around characters that are so well-developed and so familiar that we know exactly what they’re feeling without them having to say one word.
It's an episode that is very sure of itself. The X-Files formula is strongly present here, but it has a purpose and is employed to the best possible result. There must be a reason for the DOJ to mess with Mulder and Scully's work; there must be a reason for big bad government guys to do big bad government stuff. There must be a reason for the CSM to smoke menacingly in the background. Otherwise, the show can easily become a parody of itself and not in a clever Darin Morgan kind of way.
The highlight of this episode is that we finally get to meet William. Weirdly, the whole thing felt a little anticlimactic to me. Because I knew that we were going to meet William at some point, and that it wouldn't be the Hallmark family reunion we all want it to be. The saddest part for me is that William's life is now sufficiently ruined. His adopted parents are dead, and he's on the run from the law for a crime he didn't commit. Scully once said that she was tired of being an object in a never-ending X-file. It's ironic (though in a tragic way) that her only son is now himself an X-file.
"Ghouli" is an incredibly heavy episode that is loaded with all the unaddressed emotions and all the baggage that our heroes have been dragging with them all these years. Scully's speech at the morgue is a painfully human moment but it's also a culmination of almost eighteen years of unanswered questions, and unhealed wounds.
And, yes, the first time I watched the morgue scene I did cry. It's physically impossible to not tear up when Gillian Anderson is crying on screen (try it, I dare you!). And the final shot of Scully and Mulder looking at the footage of their son did put a smile on my face. But while I appreciate what this episode does for Scully and Mulder, and its significance in the show's mythology, I don't have any emotional investment in this story. For some reason, I never really cared about William's arc, even during my first run-through of seasons eight and nine. But I know that a lot of fans do.
A lot of fans want nothing more than to have that Hallmark family reunion that our characters undoubtedly deserve. If "Ghouli" brings them one step closer to that moment is up for debate. What it does is give William's arc a much-needed boost. After all these years things are finally starting to move forward.
|According to some Youtube commenters, Jackson looks suspiciously a lot like Alex Krycek. Hmm...|
Staying true to the show's philosophy of not giving us any definite answers, the writers provide us with some answers regarding William's conception, his life after his adoption, and his role in the conspirator's grand scheme. But as always, these answers only produce more questions, and now that William has driven off into a most uncertain future, he took the answers with him.
A burning question is the one of his psychic abilities. It's a fact: William can alter people's perception of reality. This is of course proof that he is part alien. Or is it? William has been sharing his visions with Scully and communicating with her telepathically as first shown is "My Struggle III". At first, I didn't like the idea of Scully having visions. I thought it was a rather cheap plot device on Carter's part.
That was until I remembered, that this wasn't the first time that Scully was shown to have psychic abilities. In season eight, Scully was having visions of Mulder being tortured on board of an alien spacecraft. Interestingly, she was having these visions while being pregnant with William. Does that make Scully psychic, or is she just a receptacle for William's messages? Or is William simply taking after his mother? It's also worth remembering that in the season one episode, "Beyond the Sea" Scully had a vision of her father right before he died.
While "Ghouli" is very much a Scully episode, it is Mulder who I find fascinating here. He is his usual sarcastic and quippy self, but you can see the grief weighing him down, as his sarcastic quippy facade cracks a few times throughout the episode. Whatever the CSM may say, William is Mulder's son. That is, Mulder believes William to be his son, and he takes the initial loss just as hard as Scully does. But he has the extra burden of supporting Scully. We're used to Scully being the strong one of the two, ever the rock for Mulder to lean on. In "Ghouli", it's Mulder who is being the strong silent type. This is the Mulder that I want to see more of: the supportive and emotionally mature partner, and not the rebellious man-child who needs his Mommy to bail him out every time. It's such a joy to see how much these characters have grown over the years.
In terms of Easter eggs and hidden messages, there are several details that inform the nature of this episode. First, there’s the ship's name: "Chimera". In the ancient Greek mythology, Chimera is a creature that is a hybrid of a lion, a goat, and a snake. The name of course refers to the episode itself, which is a mythology-standalone hybrid. But it can also be a not-so-subtle clue about William's true nature. There's also the windmill snow globe which according to X-Files Wiki is an allusion to The Wizard of Oz. Finally, William's book, The Pickup Artist: Memoirs of a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing could be a hint to William not being who (or what) he thinks he is. It could also be a reference to the CSM who is using the DOJ to do his dirty work.
As always, we have to dig for callbacks to the original show. Looking for Easter eggs, callbacks and even visual tidbits that bear resemblance to old episodes is something that we old school fans are always going to do, whether these moments are intentional or not. My favourite moment is the visual parallel between "Ghouli" and the Pilot. In both scenes, Scully and Mulder are driving to a mysterious location. Visually, the scenes are nearly identical, except that the file folder in Scully’s hands has been replaced with an iPad. It's a cute little comparison that shows us how far we've come, and it makes me grateful that we got these two new seasons.
|Started in the basement and now we're here|
The most important parallel we can draw here is the one between Mulder's search for his sister that had been his driving force for the first six and a half seasons, and Scully's search for her son. Her almost irrational need to believe that William somehow survived being shot in the head reminded me of Mulder's own approach to dealing with the loss of Samantha. Note how Scully doesn't even bother to look for some logical scientific explanation to the events surrounding William's "resurrection". This is Scully at her most vulnerable, and I wonder if she now has a better understanding of Mulder's plight during those first six and a half seasons. Remember that the tagline for the show is "I want to believe" and not "I do believe". Also, Mulder being the skeptic to Scully's believer is not only a refreshing change of roles, but it also tells us about where the characters are emotionally.
I only have one quibble with this episode. And that is the teenage drama part of it. Perhaps it's my own personal bias, because with very few exceptions I was never a fan of the teen drama stuff. Miles Robbins who plays William/Jackson does a good job and he's very charming, but he doesn't have a lot to work with. At this point, William isn't yet a fully fleshed-out character. We spent ten seasons and two movies getting to know these characters, to the point where we know all their ins and outs. So, William has a long way to go.
Sources and links:
Well, this is it for now. As you may know, The X-Files is taking a mid-season break, and it returns to the Swedish screens on March 1st. This will give me plenty of time to write my review of "Kitten".