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The X-Files – Talitha Cumi (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Talitha Cumi is a staggeringly confident piece of television, the kind of episode casually produced by a show at (or approaching) the top of its game.

It is interesting just how much this season finalé seems to promise business as usual. It is perhaps the least radical of the show’s season-ending cliffhangers, with the third season closing on an immediate rather than a conceptual threat to our leads and to The X-Files as a show. The Erlenmeyer Flask ended with the death of Deep Throat and the closing of the X-files. Anasazi ended with Mulder being burnt alive in a boxcar filled with alien bodies. Gethsemane ups the ante further.

A stab in the dark...

A stab in the dark…

In contrast, Talitha Cumi ends with the Alien Bounty Hunter walking towards Mulder and Scully in a rather menacing fashion. It is very effective television – and a solidly suspenseful cliffhanger – but it also feels rather low-key when compared to other season-ending episodes. Talitha Cumi feels like a pretty effective hook, rather than a game-changer. There’s an immediacy to the cliffhanger, but nothing that threatens to upend the show as a whole.

Then again, one suspects that is entirely the point. The third season has been largely about consolidation of The X-Files. It makes sense that it wouldn’t throw everything up into the air at the end of the season.

It's been a long year...

It’s been a long year…

Talitha Cumi moves with the same momentum and confidence that drove Anasazi, albeit without the same apocalyptic air and funereal atmosphere. Anasazi was about burying a particular version of The X-Files, so that a new streamlined version might rise from the ashes. In contrast, Talitha Cumi seems a lot more casual. This isn’t the end of The X-Files as we know it. Talitha Cumi promises a lot more to come.

After all, Talitha Cumi reveals a lot more information about the show’s over-arching conspiracy than Anasazi did, albeit in a much more relaxed manner. In Anasazi, Mulder found himself holding documents that threatened to blow the whole conspiracy wide open, but the show ultimately revealed relatively little. In contrast, Talitha Cumi scatters its conspiracy plot points almost casually. They are buried in conversations rather than signposted as profound world-shattering revelations.

Alien nation...

Alien nation…

Anasazi hinted quite strongly at threads that would be developed over the course of the third season, but Talitha Cumi just comes right out and says what it is thinking. This is the episode that confirms something the show had been implying since Colony; this is not the story of invasion, but colonisation. It also confirms that the government conspiracy supports the plan, rather than resisting it. After all, the attack on the submarine in End Game implied that the government was hostile toward the aliens.

When Jeremiah Smith wonders about the “cost” of “the project”, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is indifferent. “The question is irrelevant,” he states bluntly, “and the outcome inevitable, the date is set.” Just in case there is any lingering ambiguity, Mulder confronts Mr. X later on, demanding, “Let me get clear on something here; what we’re talking about is colonization. The date is set, isn’t it?” It seems like quite a logical leap given the material with which he has been presented, but he is correct.

“Mulder loves lamp?”

Of course, this demonstrates that The X-Files is still in a phase where it can reveal these sort of game-changing facts. “Aliens are going to colonise us in collaboration with the government!” is perhaps the last big conspiratorial twist that the show could throw out at fans before things started getting convoluted. Alien civil wars and bees and gestating aliens in nuclear power plants were all nice images – some even worked well in the context of the show – but none can match the raw power of that gigantic flashing revelation.

In a way, this would become a problem for the show going forward. Once Talitha Cumi reveals that colonisation is the fixed end point of the conspiracy, everything else becomes window dressing. There are details still to be unearthed, but nothing can quite compare with the sheer scale of this revelation. In a way, it is quite appropriate that the biggest piece of new information revealed in The Truth is “the date” first mentioned here.

“Assistant Director Carter couldn’t make it this year…”

In a way, everything after this point almost feels like filler, at least until the show hits Two Fathers and One Son. To be clear, this is not to dismiss all the conspiracy episodes scattered across the middle seasons of the show. There are some truly great mythology episodes waiting after this point, and even some truly underrated ones. However, there is nothing that can quite measure up to the revelation that not only are the aliens here – they are plotting to subversively overthrow mankind, with assistance from the authorities.

It is strange, in hindsight, how off-hand Talitha Cumi is about this alien colonisation plot. It feels like a logical extrapolation from everything that came before – from The Erlenmeyer Flask through to Colony and End Game, and beyond to Nisei and 731. However, having the characters say this out loud feels like a big deal. It feels like a concession from the show, an acknowledgement that eventually the series will have to provide answers and details.

It's season finalé time, so of course a member of the Mulder film is in peril!

It’s season finalé time, so of course a member of the Mulder film is in peril!

It also seems like Talitha Cumi has learned a great deal from Anasazi. The third season of The X-Files often felt like it was honing the successes from the second season – that it was learning how to improve upon stuff had worked before. Anasazi gave Mulder and Scully a copy of secret government documents that seemed like the holy grail for Mulder; documents proving the existence of a conspiracy. It upped the stakes dramatically.

However, one of the problems with Anasazi was that the show was not sure what to do once Mulder got that information. It couldn’t have Mulder learn everything in one quick go, because that would undermine a lot of the show’s suspense. So Paper Clip rather clumsily brushed those documents away. It is never even revealed if Mulder talked to Albert Hosteen about the contents of the tapes, which seems weird when you consider how high-stakes everything was. It was not a satisfactory resolution.

“A smokin’ couple…”

So Talitha Cumi avoids this potential problem. It offers the audience very concrete and substantial information, paying off plot points threaded through earlier episodes. However, Talitha Cumi rather blatantly reuses some of the same underlying details from Anasazi, albeit with the details tweaked. Once again, one of Mulder’s parents is place in grave danger. We get another indication that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is closer to the Mulder family than we thought. And Mulder has another macguffin the government wants.

However, Talitha Cumi has learned a little from past mistakes. Although it lacks the same claustrophobic atmosphere of Anasazi, that sense of dread and impending doom, Talitha Cumi gives these plot elements a bit more room to breath. In Anasazi, the death of Bill Mulder and the pursuit of the DAT tape competed for space with a whole host of other elements. Talitha Cumi is a lot more relaxed, allowing its story elements a bit more space.

Well, thank goodness she didn't write

Well, thank goodness she didn’t write “MPAL.”

While Bill Mulder’s death was abrupt in Anasazi, Teena Mulder’s stroke allows the Talitha Cumi to build up considerable suspense around the character’s fate. After all, she is a recurring character; her death is possible, and would also carry a great deal of weight. Any genre savvy audience member knows that Mulder and Scully are both pretty safe unless their departure is announced well ahead of time. However, the supporting cast are a lot less secure, their position a lot more tenuous.

Talitha Cumi milks that a great deal. Even at the climax of the episode, it is Jeremiah Smith who is at risk. “He’s here to kill me,” Smith states, the last line of the season. Sure, Mulder and Scully are also present at the atmospheric rock quarry, but the Alien Bounty Hunter is not here to kill them. Smith doesn’t even say “he’s here to kill us.” The threat at the end of the episode is anchored in the supporting cast. There’s a beautiful irony that this smaller scale makes it all the more effective.

Period of reflection...

Period of reflection…

Even the macguffin that drives the plot is of a smaller scale. In Anasazi, it was evidence of a vast government conspiracy that threatened to bring the whole thing crashing down. Here, it is a cross between a stiletto and a flick knife. Sure, we’re told how important it is. Mr. X and the Cigarette-Smoking Man are very eager to get ahold of it. Mr. X claims it is the only way to kill an alien. “A simple gunshot won’t do.”

There is some questionable plot logic at work here. Talitha Cumi is not an episode that holds up to too much analysis or in-depth examination. However, it does work very well as a piece of suspense television. The bigger picture is huge, but the scale of Talitha Cumi remains quite intimate. The episode is focused and reasonably tight. Given how the show’s mythology would quickly over-complicate itself, this is a laudable quality.

Dark forces at work...

Dark forces at work…

The story of Talitha Cumi is credited to David Duchovny, so it makes sense that the episode would pick up on themes and ideas that ran through his early stories. The Alien Bounty Hunter returns. Colonisation is pushed to the fore. Mulder’s family is at the centre of the story. Talitha Cumi continues to push Mulder along the Joseph Campbell story arc, hinting fairly explicitly that Teena Mulder had an affair with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. This suggests that Mulder may be the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s son.

Duchovny’s influence on the mythology seems to lean quite heavily towards positioning Mulder as a hero in the style of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. There is a very clear influence of Star Wars on Duchovny’s depiction of Mulder’s place in the world. Colony and End Game introduce the idea of warring alien factions of – although the words are not used yet – colonists and rebels. Anasazi makes it clear that Mulder’s family is tied into these epic events, reinforcing Mulder’s importance or destiny.

“Yes, I even look badass talking on the phone, why?”

Duchovny himself has acknowledged that he was attempting to structure Mulder’s development to meet these iconic patterns. He told Vanity Fair:

I wanted Mulder to go through an archetypal journey: starting from a position of innocence, which is one of trusting his father–the elders, in mythology– being a good boy and a good son, to being an outcast, feeling like his father is Darth Vader, then going to almost as innocent a phase, in which he believes that everyone’s a liar, and everyone’s out to get him, then maturing to a kind of enlightened cynic.

In light of all of this, the suggestion that the Cigarette-Smoking Man might be Mulder’s father makes a great deal of sense. Mulder has learned that Bill Mulder was not who he claimed to be, now Mulder has to face the fact that Bill Mulder may not even be his father.

Snap chat...

Snap chat…

As if to reinforce this sense of the classic hero’s journey, the Cigarette-Smoking Man has been frequently and explicitly compared to Darth Vader outside the show. It is practically a stock comparison. As Davis himself noted in Where There’s Smoke…:

The evil intent, the constant smoke and even fire from cigarette lighters, and the shadowy presence certainly suggested a unique villain. In fact I was voted by the writers of U.S. TV Guide as Television’s Favourite Villain and comparisons started to be made with Darth Vader. (I guess I should watch that show sometime.)

Suggesting that the Cigarette-Smoking Man might be Mulder’s biological father just reinforces that comparison. It also clearly sets up further plotting along Campbellian lines, as if building to “the atonement with the father.”

“I not only heal people, but I am also a very effective dry-clean service; that doesn’t get as much coverage.”

The revelation that Mulder is related by blood to the conspiracy fundamentally changed the show. The X-Files was no longer about an outcast battling against a corrupt and anonymous system. It suddenly became the story of a son trying to atone for his father’s (or fathers’) sins. Mulder was no longer a random victim of a horrific trauma, he was heir apparent to this large secret conspiracy that had controlled America for quite some time.

While this played very well into ideas of culpability and responsibility inherited from previous generations, it did feel like the show had changed dramatically. It is no surprise that the third season worked so hard to humanise and develop the conspiracy at the heart of the American government; all of a sudden, this secret conspiracy was not something that had been imposed by a shadowy unknown cabal, it was an institution that was built on shared history and decisions made in the name of the American public.

Smoking gun...

Smoking gun…

The third season has turned the Cigarette-Smoking Man from an omniscient representation of an all-power government into a very flawed and substantial person. In The Blessing Way and Paper Clip, the Cigarette-Smoking Man was revealed to be desperate and sloppy – a character trying frantically to stay ever-so-slightly ahead of the curve. Talitha Cumi basks in his humanity. He is revealed to have had an affair with Teena Mulder, and he is revealed to be mortal.

Jeremiah Smith diagnoses the Cigarette-Smoking Man with lung cancer. It is heavily implied that Smith healed him in return for allowing his escape. This is not the last time that the Cigarette-Smoking Man will battle with lung cancer, and it certainly does not inspire him to quit smoking. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is addicted and tainted, compelled and corrupted. He is past the point of any meaningful redemption, but he is still just a man. The fourth and fifth seasons will push the character more towards the demonic, but Talitha Cumi emphasises his mortality.

What a man...

What a man…

It is also worth noting that Talitha Cumi marks only the second time that the character has been identified as “Cancer Man”, following on from Wetwired. The nickname was drawn from the internet message boards, and certainly rolls off the tongue better than “Cigarette-Smoking Man” or even the abbreviated “CSM.” The show would grow quite fond of the nickname, using it even after his “real” name is revealed in the fifth season.

However, Talitha Cumi makes it clear that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is not just a metaphorical cancer that has infested and infected the American government; he himself is as susceptible to illness and disease as anybody else. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is only human. There is a very clear sense that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is a human being consumed and corrupted by evil, rather than an ontological representation of evil. He is an evil man, rather than simply the human embodiment of evil.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

There is a sense that Duchovny is sympathetic to the character. Reflecting on the origins of the episode, Duchovny explained:

“I told Chris I saw The Cigarette Smoking Man as a Grand Inquisitor figure, because he has seen the truth and he is damning himself in order to save people. In his own twisted way, he’s a very moving figure to me: the man who will go to hell so that other people may live more freely.”

It is a very noble interpretation of the Cigarette-Smoking Man and his motivations.

Fitting the Bill...

Fitting the Bill…

However, it seems like the show has already moved well past the point where such sympathy might be justified. The second season had toyed with the idea that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was a “necessary evil.” In episodes like One Breath and F. Emasculata, the character explained that he took the sins of the world unto himself for the greater good. Those episodes suggested that the Cigarette-Smoking Man could be seen as a patriot – a misguided idealist who did everything in pursuit of “the greater good.”

The show has shifted beyond this interpretation already. The Blessing Way and Paper Clip very clearly established that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was primarily interested in maintaining his own power base and survival. Even here, Jeremiah Smith sees right through the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s justifications. “All you want is to be part of it, is to be one of the commandants, when the process begins,” Smith states, bluntly. The choice of the world “commandant” – with its Holocaust associations – is particularly loaded.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

Of course, the show would go back and forth on the suggestion that Mulder could be the biological son of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. After all, there was considerable drama to be milked from that set-up. It is another mystery for the show to play with. The X-Files was at its strongest when it played with the human element at the heart of the conspiracy. The dynamic between Mulder and Scully is more grounded and real than alien civil wars. Mulder’s personal development is more compelling than mysterious black oil.

The show would let the thread dangle for the next two-and-a-half seasons. The Cigarette-Smoking Man would offer perhaps the most conclusive evidence towards the end of One Son, although the show leaves it ambiguous enough that either position is tenable. Davis, “I don’t know if CSM is Mulder’s father,” William B. Davis would admit, “but that is ‘my’ backstory.” Indeed, one could even argue that Mulder’s biological parentage is immaterial as he decides for himself who is father is to be.

The Thinnes man...

The Thinnes man…

It is also worth noting that attempts to humanise the Cigarette-Smoking Man also mean drawing in aspects of William B. Davis, the actor playing the role. “I remember water-skiing down there with Bill,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man remarks to Teena Mulder. “He was a good water-skier your husband, not as good as I was.” Davis is an avid water-skier, to the point where he would also write the hobby into his script for En Ami.

Talitha Cumi is an episode packed to the brim with symbolism and metaphor. After all, the story was inspired by “The Grand Inquisitor”, a chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Appropriately enough, The Brothers Karamazov is an ethical meditation on fate, free will and the divine. Whatever The X-Files might be, it is certainly literate and well-read. Very few prime-time television shows (and very few hit prime-time television shows) could do something like that.

Through the peep hole...

Through the peep hole…

The influence of Dostoyevsky is most keenly felt in the interrogation scenes between the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith, which hit on both the core themes of the novel and the core themes of the third season of The X-Files. As Amy Donaldson writes in We Want to Believe:

Another question related to free will is raised by Dostoyevsky’s story of the Grand Inquisitor, and alluded to in Talitha Cumi: Is free will such a good idea? If freedom leads to suffering and human culpability for doing or permitting evil, should God have granted us free will in the first place? The Inquisitor determines that free will was a mistake, one that he will graciously undo by offering people clear consciences in exchange for their freedom. The Cigarette-Smoking Man states, echoing the Inquisitor, “We appease their conscience. Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.” The Inquisitor’s logic is that choosing between right and wrong is too great a burden for humans to bear, and being weighed down by the choice also piles on guilt when wrong choices are made. “There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting for him, either.” If there is no choice, then there is no guilt.

The third season of The X-Files has been very engaged with the idea that so much of American history since the end of the Second World War has been stage-managed, that people live in a world built on horrible and shameful secrets, and that blissful ignorance of things like Operation: Paper Clip amounts to tacit complicity.

You can't go (summer) home again...

You can’t go (summer) home again…

One of the core idea of The X-Files is the idea that the pursuit of the truth is a long and painful process. Mulder has already lost a lot by the time the show begins, but both Scully and Skinner also suffer for their support of his quest to expose the shameful secrets buried in the past. It is so much easier to just go with the flow, to just ignore all the horrific things that have been done. To accept and to trust those in authority means never having to discover what has been done in your name by the people you invested with power.

It’s a pretty heavy theme, but one that encapsulates a lot of the third season. From Paper Clip through to Nisei and Apocrypha, Mulder and Scully have been confronted with the legacy of horrific decisions made in the name of the American people at the end of the Second World War. These were decisions that helped to assure America’s place in the world, but they are also decisions constantly overlooked and ignored in favour of more heroic narratives of history.

The empty tomb...

The empty tomb…

The X-Files suggests that such ignorance is a way of avoiding guilt and responsibility. However, that ignorance also implicates the public in those horrific decisions. It allows those in authority to claim more power and to commit more acts of horror, knowing that people don’t really want to know. The X-Files very rarely directly accuses its audience of active collaboration, but its observations are often quite pointed. The Cigarette-Smoking Man may appease our conscience for his own ends, but the public allows him to do so.

Teena Mulder embodies that sense of public denial. In The Blessing Way and Paper Clip, Mulder confronted her about her refusal to confront what happened all those years ago. That development continues here, where Teena Mulder is once again defined by her refusal to confront the past. When the Cigarette-Smoking Man makes reference to their shared history, Teena Mulder tries to dismiss it. “I’ve repressed it all,” she replies. The Cigarette-Smoking Man does not seem entirely convinced of this.

“If you can make it to the second episode of next season, you’ll be fine…”

“I find that hard to believe,” he states bluntly – and with just a hint of accusation. Although she refused to make the choice between Fox and Samantha, it seems like the show implicates her in Samantha’s abduction. Her passiveness enabled the abduction. In Talitha Cumi, the Cigaratte-Smoking Man’s request that she “try very hard to recollect” is ultimately harmful to her. It is linked directly to her stroke. Teena Mulder’s denial is so firm that confronting the past is practically toxic to her.

Talitha Cumi was written by Chris Carter, and a lot of Carter’s core themes run through the episode. Most notably, there is the link between the alien and divine, something in which Carter never lost throughout the run of The X-Files. Building off the idea of aliens as gods in Red Museum, Talitha Cumi introduces viewers to an alien version of Jesus Christ. In a way, this feels like it is building to the decision to cast Mulder himself as Jesus Christ in episodes like Gethsemane or Biogenesis.

Brought to heal...

Brought to heal…

Smith is very clearly meant to be a modern-day Jesus Christ. The episode’s teaser presents him as a pacifist with the ability to heal people using the palm of his hand. Carter even explicitly acknowledges this. “God… spared my life today,” the gun man admits in police custody. “He took pity on my soul and he washed away my sins.” He adds, “He reached down and he healed me with his hand. A man, a holy man. All I can think is… it must have been the good Lord himself.”

Much like the humanism espoused by Jesus Christ, Smith preaches for love and understanding. Even confronted by the evil of the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Jeremiah Smith holds on to hope. “You can’t kill their love,” he warns the Cigarette-Smoking Man, “which is what makes them who they are, makes them better than us, better than you.” He is sympathetic and compassionate, and completely non-violent.

Prisoner...

Prisoner…

Religion is very clearly on Carter’s mind here. Jeremiah Smith is a slightly biblical twist on the classic generic “John Smith” name. Smith manages to escape from his would-be tomb before the Alien Bounty Hunter arrives. Smith is portrayed as a pacifist whose radical ideas threaten a corrupt status quo, the traditional narrative associated with Jesus Christ. In keeping with the idea that The X-Files is a show about faith in the nineties, the Cigarette-Smoking Man claims that godlessness only assists the conspiracy.

“The people believe in authority,” he advises Smith. “They’ve grown tired of waiting for miracle or mystery. Science is their religion, no greater explanation exists for them. They must never believe any differently if the project is to go forward.” There is a sense that Carter’s new age mysticism is creeping in around the edges here, much like it did with The Blessing Way. The implication is that people live in a godless time, and that has caused massive spiritual damage. People don’t just want to believe, they need to believe.

Jeremiah was not a bull frog, he was a shape-shifting alien clone.

Jeremiah was not a bull frog, he was a shape-shifting alien clone.

There’s a very potent spiritual subtext to Carter’s writing. The X-Files seems to suggest that spiritual faith has been largely abandoned and repurposed in recent years. People no longer believe in the spiritual or the divine, instead choosing to believe in their country or their government. Carter seems a little uneasy and uncomfortable with that. The X-Files doesn’t advocate for a particular religious faith, drawing from across the religious spectrum. It simply suggests that some measure of spirituality is a good thing.

This thread runs through the entire show. Episodes like Red Museum, Gethsemane and Biogenesis tie it into the mythology. However, standalone episodes like Die Hand Die Verletzt, Revelations and Signs and Wonders also suggest that true and uncompromising faith is a good thing. It is a very weird subtext to the show, and one that anchors it in the nineties. In the twenty-first century, absolute and unquestioning faith is treated as a less romantic ideal; it is something of which people are more and more sceptical.

Guest house...

Guest house…

Talitha Cumi feels like a Chris Carter script, in a number of ways. It has a whole host of big ideas that work very well. It is very strong on theme. However, there are a variety of nuts-and-bolts elements that don’t entirely add up. The mechanics of the story don’t hang together as well as they might, particularly on reflection or analysis. There is a sense that the plotting of the episode could be a little tighter, and that some of the elements need a little more thought or explanation.

Consider the stiletto that drives most of the plot. Why is it so important? We are told that it is the only way to kill an alien, but the show seems a little ambiguous on the matter. It doesn’t quite work that way in Herrenvolk; despite the warning given by Mr. X here, a bullet is shown to kill an Alien Bounty Hunter in Without. This isn’t a big problem; continuity errors happen, and The X-Files can simply explain those errors away by claiming a given character was lying (or misinformed) when they provided exposition.

The interview got a little awkward when the officer had to ask whether Jeremiah was an illegal alien.

More than that, why is this stiletto important? Why does everybody want it? It looks like the kind of thing that could be mass-produced. Maybe it is made from a rare metal, or maybe there’s a poison in it, but Talitha Cumi is never quite clear. Of course, it’s possible that the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Mr. X don’t want it for themselves; they simply want it taken out of Mulder’s reach. If the goal is simply to take it away from the Mulder family, why is it important to take it right now?

There are a host of sequences that exist for thematic purposes, but which seem to involve all manner of convoluted plotting. It feels like the only reason the stiletto is in a lamp is so that Teena Mulder can write “palm”, making the connection back to Jeremiah Smith. Who would hide a thing like that in a lamp anyway? Given that Mulder met Mr. X back at the summer house, how come he sneaks back in under cover of darkness with a torch? Did he just drive around for a while so he could make an atmospheric entrance?

Mulder will have to stay sharp to survive...

Mulder will have to stay sharp to survive…

Similarly, the scene where Jeremiah Smith eludes the authorities seems a little weird – right down to the character waiting until somebody walks in front of the camera to change, and the fact that the officer doesn’t seem no notice the stranger standing directly in front of him. Considering what he knows from Colony, it takes Mulder quite a while to figure out that Smith is a shape-shifter. “Looks like he’s gone but there’s… somebody else in his place, wearing the same clothes.” Ah, Mulder.

Smith himself is an oddity. Given that the character is a shape-changing alien, it seems weird that so many with the same name and the same face should work in federal jobs, making it remarkably easy for Scully to track them down. It just seems like the conspiracy has the worst security on the planet, and makes it seem really strange that nobody has stumbled on to any of this before. It makes for an effective visual, and an atmospheric plot development, but it doesn’t make much sense inside the story.

Not so fast (food)!

Not so fast (food)!

None of these individual elements are ridiculous of themselves, but they tend to pile up. These are all elements that serve a clear thematic purpose, even if they seem odd in the context of the plot itself. Hiding the stiletto in the lamp not only allows the script to make an immediate connection to Jeremiah Smith, but also gives us a sequence of Mulder sneaking in after dark to smash the furniture in his parents’ old house; the third season in a nutshell.

Similarly, the fact that so many identical people with identical names are working in government departments without anybody realising makes a certain amount of thematic sense. Herrenvolk would introduce the idea of bees into the mythology, and Talitha Cumi seems to suggest that most copies of Jeremiah Smith are nothing but worker drones, with no personality outside of their role in the mysterious project.

Somebody on staff was a big fan of Silence of the Lambs…

“You think you’re God,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man accuses Smith. “You’re a drone, a cataloguer, chattel!” As such, the idea of these secret anonymous identical copies staffing government departments is a delightfully unsettling image, even if it feels weird that simple name search would bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. It is something that works thematically, but also feels like terrible planning from the conspirators. Some of the Jeremiah Smith clones could at least grow beards.

Carter’s dialogue is also a little forced or artificial on occasion. The characters in Talitha Cumi seem to speak in rather stilted and awkward ways. The Cigarette-Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith feel like they are stating general philosophical principles at one another and outlining their positions, rather than having a conversation. “I’m not impressed by your miracles or moved by your trickery,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man reflects. “Your justice will be meted out.” This is not how people talk.

Bruised pride...

Bruised pride…

Then again, this is part of the fun of the mythology. Everything is a little heightened and exaggerated. Everything feels just a little bit staged. There is a sense that the show is juxtaposing  elements of high drama against pulpy thrills. Philosophical meditation and Shakespearean power struggles sit alongside alien colonisation and shape-shifting assassins. The awkwardness of the dialogue in Talitha Cumi is part of the charm. It feels unlike anything else on television at this point in time.

However, these issues would become more serious and more pronounced in later seasons, as the relative novelty wore off. Talitha Cumi comes at a point where the show has enough momentum to get past problems like these. It has generated enough good will that the audience will gloss over these little mechanical storytelling problems, because the big picture is still so fascinating. The fact that The X-Files takes its green-blooded aliens and crazy conspiracies so seriously is endearing.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

Despite the production difficulties that limited his involvement in Wetwired, Mr. X plays a much more significant role in Talitha Cumi. Once again, Steven Williams does a wonderful job with the material. Talitha Cumi plays up the ambiguity of Mulder’s informant. Mr. X is reluctant to share information, even though he saves the life of Teena Mulder. Mr. X and Mulder even come to blows in the parking lot of the hospital, an effective shout out to the scene they shared in the hospital laundry in One Breath.

The relationship between Mulder and Mr. X has always seemed more delicate and less stable than the relationship between Mulder and Deep Throat. Deep Throat was a character with considerable power and influence who helped Mulder to atone for his past sins. Mr. X feels like more a low-level enforcer with his own agenda. Talitha Cumi makes it clear that Mr. X does not consider his relationship with Mulder to flow in one direction.

The belly of the beast...

The belly of the beast…

Most obviously, Mr. X wants the stiletto from Mulder. However, the episode also implies that Mr. X wants information, even if he does not want to ask directly. Showing Mulder pictures of Teena Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man arguing, Mr. X states, “They had quite an argument, as you might gather from the snapshots. You seemed surprised. I’m sure you were aware they knew each other or what brought them here together?” The way Mr. X states it implies that he already knows why they were there.

However, later in the same conversation, Mr. X admits that he had no idea what the conversation was about. “What did they argue about?” Mulder asks. Mr. X replies, “I don’t know, I was forced to keep a discreet distance.” It seems like Mr. X was trying to find out from Mulder, but didn’t want to ask overtly. Given Wetwired‘s revelation that Mr. X worked for the Cigarette-Smoking Man, it seems quite possible that Mr. X is looking for some sort of leverage on his boss. Is Mulder just a tool in Mr. X’s career manoeuvres?

Mr. Smith...

Mr. Smith…

The X-Files never revealed too much about Mr. X or his motivations. There was a lot implied, but the character seemed more open-ended and ambiguous than Deep Throat. There is a lot of freedom for fans to figure out the character on his own terms. Just how cynical was Mr. X? Was he a genuinely good guy trying to do the right thing? Was he treating Mulder as a tool in his own private little game within the show’s sinister conspiracy? There’s a lot of room for interpretation there, a lot of lingering ambiguity.

Talitha Cumi closes out the third season on a very solid note. While Anasazi had buried one version of the show so that another might rise, Talitha Cumi comes from a more confident and secure place; as much as it brings down the curtain on what has been a fantastic year for the show, it also promising that there is more of the same on the way.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

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