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The X-Files – Emily (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The biggest problems with Emily can be summed up in five words:

“… and then Mulder showed up.”

Sorry, Mulder.

Sorry, Mulder.

Christmas Carol was a very flawed episode of The X-Files, but it was interesting. With David Duchovny unavailable due to outstanding commitments, it was left to Gillian Anderson to carry a mythology episode solo. The result was a show that emphasised the differences between the two leads. While the Mulder-driven mythology episodes had been bombastic blockbusters, the Scully-centric Christmas Carol was more reflective and considered. Christmas Carol might just be the quietest mythology episode that the show ever produced.

Almost as soon as Mulder shows up, he begins to reassert control over the narrative of the two-parter. Gone is the melancholic introspection of Christmas Carol, replaced by lots righteous anger and running around. Emily sees Mulder in the role he has traditionally enjoyed in mythology episodes – he gets to do a lot of fighting, chasing, sneaking and infiltrating. In contrast, Scully spends a significant portion of Emily away from Mulder in a hospital, looking sad. It is not a decision that serves either character particularly well.

Is Mulder cribbing Scully's story?

Is Mulder cribbing Scully’s story?

Mulder is in full defensive and possessive mode here, an approach to the character that doesn’t really suit him. “Why didn’t you call me sooner?” Mulder demands upon arriving to meet Scully’s newly discovered daughter. It doesn’t matter that discovering you have a child is probably a deeply personal experience for anybody that they might want to try to handle in their own way and in their own time. Mulder is no less self-righteous when she asks him to witness for her. “I should have declined… if I never want to see you hurt or harmed in any way.”

Mulder is repeatedly portrayed as patronising and condescending towards Scully, but Emily doesn’t seem to have any real problem with it. When Scully asks why Mulder kept such personal information about her to himself, Mulder replies, “I thought I was protecting you.” Scully doesn’t point out that these are not Mulder’s decisions to make. After all, the show seems to be suggesting that Scully’s decision to choose this career instead of pursuing a family was incorrect, so it’s not unreasonable that the show might side with Mulder.

A cross to bear...

A cross to bear…

Indeed, when Mulder first shows up to talk with Scully, he is presented as a character with secret inside knowledge and wisdom. Ignoring the fact that Scully is Emily’s mother, Mulder insists, “No matter how much you love this little girl, she’s a miracle that was never meant to be, Scully.” It seems like Scully’s entire emotional arc over the course of Emily is learning to accept that Mulder is correct in his assessment. She even parrots the line back to him at the end of the episode. “You were right. This child… was not meant to be.”

Emily presents Mulder as a heroic figure who has just arrived late into this particular story. He is the one who makes the strongest case for Scully’s right to adopt Emily. “Dana has known for quite some time that she can’t bear children,” he advises a judge. “She doesn’t know why, but however that happened, that fact that she can adopt this child, her own flesh and blood, is something I don’t feel I have the right to question and I don’t believe anyone has the right to stand in the way of.” Scully never gets to make an argument as convincing or self-righteous.

The mother of all emotional manipulations...

The mother of all emotional manipulations…

Emily feels like a rather conscious effort to emulate Memento Mori – right down to giving Scully a purple prose opening monologue and splitting the agents up so Mulder gets fun action adventure and Scully gets to look really sad and morbid. It is hard to blame Gilligan, Shiban and Spotnitz for mimicking Memento Mori so closely. The episode won Gillian Anderson an Emmy and earned the trio (and Chris Carter) a nomination for writing. It is a show that seems to have been well-loved by fans and critics, so trying to repeat it makes a great deal of sense.

However, this division of labour rather undercuts the episode in a number of ways. Most obviously, the Mulder plot line feels largely redundant. There are only so many times that Mulder can run around and find miracle cures for Scully before it loses any real impact. Memento Mori and Redux I covered this ground quite thoroughly. It feels like there is only so often the show can go back to that well. More than that, there is a point at which the visual of Mulder witnessing the systemic exploitation of women while searching for a miracle to help Scully seems almost banal.

Scully is sad.

Scully is sad.

More than that, it sets up an uncomfortable gender dynamic that will become even more problematic as the show goes on. As Elyce Rae Helford points out in Fantasy Girls, Emily clearly sets up a dynamic whereby Scully is presented as inactive and passive while Mulder is characterised as dynamic and aggressive in his protection of her:

Scully’s resignation to death as her reward for choosing guns and autopsies over a more womanly life’s work of “healing” therefore informs and qualifies her choice of letting Emily, her alien-human hybrid child, die. Her reasoning is that this child “was not meant [by God or fate?] to be.” Thus, while Scully assumes custody and asserts the power of choice over her ovum, her reaction can hardly be described as pro-active. With Emily’s situation, as with her own, what should have been moral outrage and political consciousness are domesticated, redirected in part by her family into her grief and guilt throughout several episodes, notably A Christmas Carol, Emily, and All Soulds. Scully expresses primarily sorrow and morbidly sentimental religiosity. It is Mulder who (like a “good” husband) expresses her repressed rage in terms of gender and body politics: he names the issue and points the finger at the scientists who are “abducting women and stealing their unborn children […]. Medical rapists, that’s what you are.”

In a way, this sets the tone for the way that the show decides to approach Duchovny’s absence during the ninth season. Mulder gets to be the heroic father-figure who runs around trying to save the world – even if it is mostly off-screen during that troubled final year; Scully is cast as a maternal figure reduced to emotive outbursts about the well-being of her child.

Scully is super sad.

Scully is super sad.

In a very clear and conscious way, Emily paves the way for Scully’s baby-centric anxieties in Nothing Important Happened Today I, Nothing Important Happened Today II, Trust No 1, Provenance and Providence. There is a sense that the show is trying to force Scully into a very conventional maternal role, one which diminishes her agency and reduces her to little more than a series of melodramatic emotional reactions. For all that Scully is haunted by the Ghosts of Christmas Past in Christmas Carol, Emily offers a heartbreaking glimpse at the Ghosts of Christmas Future.

To be fair to Anderson, she is very good at this. There is a reason that she won an Emmy for her work on the show, and she really commits to the idea that Scully is going through a heartbreaking trauma. However, there is only so much heavy-lifting that Anderson can do without the support of a strong script or the show around her. Emily divides its airtime almost equally between Mulder and Scully, but Scully’s sequences with Emily feel highly repetitive and emotionally transparent. There is new no information or emotion conveyed by the decision to keep going back to these scenes.

Scully is super dooper sad...

Scully is super dooper sad…

Emily watches cartoons on television. Scully looks sad. Emily has scientific tests run upon her; Scully looks sad. Emily is placed in an oxygen tank; Scully looks sad. Emily goes into a coma; Scully looks sad. However, Christmas Carol and Emily never give us any real exploration of the relationship between Scully and Emily, no prolonged or meaningful interactions. Emily does not seem like a character so much as a convenient stand-in for the idea of Scully having a child. Emily could easily have made room for more poignant interaction, but does not.

After all, what does Mulder’s adventure add to Emily, aside from some stock tension and familiar action beats? What does it tell us about the conspiracy that we don’t already know? While the revelations about the abuse of the elderly are shocking, they are hardly groundbreaking; why isn’t the government simply conducting these experiments in the Pentagon, like we saw in Redux I? The action beats in Emily feel overly-familiar and completely superfluous. They crowd out the narrative and take attention away from what should be Scully’s story.

Alien bodies...

Alien bodies…

Instead, Mulder’s plot thread in Emily becomes a collection of stock conspiracy clichés. Action? Check. Secret meetings? Check. Murdering the loose end? Check. Shape-shifting aliens? Check. Green blood? Check. Creepy fetus? Check. Women being exploited? Check. It is a twenty-odd-minute X-Files madlib that adds nothing substantive to the story being told. These are moments that could be spent allowing Scully and Emily to grow closer, for Scully to reflect on what taking care of Emily would mean, for giving Emily a personality beyond “physical embodiment of Scully’s yearning for motherhood.”

Emily never really convinces us that there is a bond between Scully and Emily. Emily is very transparently a plot function. In Christmas Carol, Scully admits that she longs for a child – only to discover on Christmas morning that she has a child. However, the show has no idea what to do with Emily outside of simply having her exist. We never get to see Emily and Scully connect on an emotional level. Instead, the show trusts the audience to accept that the fact that Scully has a biological connection to Emily is enough to sell us on the emotion of all this.

This routine is getting old...

This routine is getting old…

All of this leads to Scully’s decision, at the end of the episode, to allow Emily to die. The rational is that Emily was never meant to be, and that she was conceived outside of love. “Mulder, whoever brought this child into this world… didn’t intend to love her,” Scully explains. Mulder replies, “I think she was born to… serve an agenda.” Scully responds, “I have a chance to stop that.” There is a surreal logic at play here. Emily almost plays a pro-choice feminist fable, but is undermined by the fact that the child has already been born by the time the story begins.

After all, just because a child was not conceived in love does not mean that they will never be loved. It seems like Roberta Sims genuinely loved Emily – enough to recognise that the trials conducted upon Emily were horrific and hurtful. It seems quite horrible to suggest that a child is condemned by the emotional circumstances of their birth – that children cannot escape unpleasant emotional circumstances. Then again, The X-Files is deeply fascinated with the idea of love as a force transcends reproductive biology. Once again, Emily harkens towards the future.

"You see, while conducting this research, I was contacted by a recent fugazzi, who in one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction, actually was named 'Fugazzi'."

“You see, while conducting this research, I was contacted by a recent fugazzi, who in one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction, actually was named ‘Fugazzi’.”

There is something quite transparently manipulative about all this. All fiction is blatantly manipulative – it is about trying to make the audience respond emotionally and/or intellectually to abstract and unreal concepts. However, the trick is in disguising the manipulation. Once the audience becomes aware of how cynically they are being maneuvered, the story loses some of its appeal. Emily doesn’t just tug the audience’s heart strings, it yanks them so hard that it might as well be a Mortal Kombat fatality.

Reflecting on the pending death of Emily, Mulder observes, “I don’t know. But the fact that you found her… and had a chance to love her… Then maybe she was meant for that too.” It is a very sweet and heart-warming sentiment, albeit one delivered in the most clumsy manner possible. It feels like Emily cannot even be bothered with the pretense that Emily might exist as anything beyond simple wish-fulfillment for Scully. This is not the death of an abused and victimised young girl, but the death of Scully’s dream of having a daughter.

Back of the neck!

Back of the neck!

On a purely practical level, it seems hard to justify the choice. Asking a child to live with an agonising illness is a terrible choice to make in the real world. Scully’s decision to end Emily’s suffering is perfectly understandable within that context. However, Mulder and Scully do not live in the real world. They live in the world of The X-Files. This is a world where miracle cures exist. Scully herself is proof of how medical science is one step short of magic. There is no reason why Scully shouldn’t believe there’s a convenient cure-all for Emily somewhere out there.

Of course, there is a very clear and obvious reason why Emily has to die at the end of the episode, and it has nothing to do with science or compassion or mercy. Emily needs to die at the end of the episode so that all the pieces can go back in the box and the show can pick up next week with a story about some guy with mind control powers or killer trees or evil dolls or something like that. Scully doesn’t get to have a daughter because the show won’t let her. At this point in the run, it cannot allow for the change in the status quo. It makes the whole drama all the more unsatisfying and transparent.

Airing these thoughts...

Airing these thoughts…

Vince Gilligan conceded as much in his discussion of the episode:

“I’m very happy with these two episodes, although when you end part one with Scully saying, ‘This is my child!’ where do you go from there?” he asks. “I had a feeling, I think we all did, that we were doing something dangerous as far as writing ourselves into a corner. Part two was very good as well, and we did the best we could with that situation. But you can’t just drop a child into The X Files. You can’t suddenly make Scully a mom and have her investigating crimes while taking care of this young child. So we had to get rid of the child, and we got in [sic] lot of trouble for that with viewers. Some hated it. I don’t blame them. Everyone loves Scully, and we have put her through a lot in the past few seasons, not because we WANTED to torture her, but because Gillian’s such a wonderful actress. We wanted to give her some great stuff to play. Christmas Carol and Emily were meant to be heart-breaking.”

Gilligan makes a fair point, but it still feels obviously cynical.

And when a child is born... into this world...

And when a child is born… into this world…

In a way, this plays into the recurring anxieties of the fifth season. The fifth season of The X-Files seems quite keenly aware that the show has developed into a massive pop culture institution. Not only has the show succeeded, but it has succeeded spectacularly. This is the midpoint of the show’s nine-season run. This is the year with the highest ratings. This is the year that was designed to leas up to the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future. The fifth season saw The X-Files at its zenith.

However, the fifth season was also the first year without any of the first season writing staff, save for Carter himself. It was also the only season with a definite endpoint set in stone before a single frame of footage was shot. Carter has conceded that he had originally planned for The X-Files to run only five seasons before retiring it and taking Mulder and Scully to the big screen. Fox had made it quite clear that they would not abide this decision. The fifth season was the point at which it seemed like The X-Files might never end – it might be a perpetual storytelling engine.

"I really appreciate the effort that the conspiracy puts into moodily lighting these ominous green containers..."

“I really appreciate the effort that the conspiracy puts into moodily lighting these ominous green containers…”

This anxiety plays out across the fifth season, perhaps most obviously in the fascination with pregnancy and reproductive horror that comes to centre around Scully. The Post-Modern Prometheus feels like Chris Carter is grappling with the fact that he has created a pop culture monster. Christmas Carol and Emily find Scully facing the fact that she will likely never get to start a family or have a child. Even Kitsunegari plays as a parody of bad sequels, a self-aware nightmare about a future where The X-Files has started eating itself.

For all that the second season of Millennium is fascinated with the image of the ouroboros and the circle, the fifth season of The X-Files is similarly fascinated with the idea of being trapped in a repeating loop. Kitsunegari actually opens with a character pushing a giant wheel. The first two episodes of the fifth season are called Redux I and Redux II. The last episode of the fifth season is titled The End, and the first episode of the sixth season is The Beginning – suggesting that one leads into another in an eternal circle.

Scully is deserted...

Scully is deserted…

The fifth season literally begins and ends with Fight the Future. The movie is the alpha and omega of the twenty-episode season. It was filmed before the season and released afterwards. In a way, everybody working on the fifth season of The X-Files is trapped between the production and the release of the feature film. Nothing can be allowed to change or grow over the course of the season that might disturb or upset the feature film, which is already written and shot. It is no wonder that Emily tidies away after itself.

There is a self-awareness to all this. Emily opens with the sight of Scully wandering through a desert. “It begins where it ends… in nothingness,” she assures us. “A nightmare born from deepest fears, coming to me unguarded. Whispering images unlocked from time and distance. A soul unbound – touched by others but never held. On a course charted by some unseen hand. The journey ahead promising no more than my past reflecting back upon me.” It reflects Scully’s own anxieties and uncertainties, but perhaps those of the show itself.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

The script to Emily acknowledges as much. The teaser closes on the image of Scully staring at her crucifix as she wanders lost in the desert. The episode itself comes a full circle and closes on a similar image of Scully staring at her crucifix in the church after Emily’s funeral. It is a nice touch, if just a little heavy-handed. It might have been more impressive if the show had opened on that image outside of a dream, or if the book-ending had encompassed both Christmas Carol and Emily. Still, it effectively underscores the theme.

With all of this in mind, it makes sense that Emily draws so readily from existing continuity. The episode makes casual reference and homage to a wealth of classic mythology elements. It almost plays like a mixtape of classic mythology moments. Mulder discovers sinister pregnancy experiments being conducted on elderly women – another conscious connection to “it begins where it ends”, but also a shout-out to Terma. When a doctor is exposed to Emily’s toxic blood, Mulder assures Scully that they have not forgotten about the ice bath used in End Game.

Cross it off the list...

Cross it off the list…

This makes the various continuity slip-ups all the more noticeable. For all that the incidental details seem carefully researched and painstakingly synched up, some of the core aspects of Christmas Carol and Emily become quite difficult to reconcile with established continuity. “She was missing for four weeks, that’s documented in the file,” Mulder advises the judge. Apparently it is not as well-documented in the writers’ room – One Breath suggest she was gone three months. Similarly, the origin story of Scully’s cross here differs with that suggested in Ascension.

Emily is a mess of an episode, a story that never quite comes together as well as it might. It undermines a lot of what made Christmas Carol so fascinating, while heaping even more problems in on top. It is an awkward and poorly-constructed piece of television, but its biggest problems lie in how it uncomfortably it foreshadows what lies ahead for Scully.

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

6 Responses

  1. I’ve never taken season 5 seriously. Maybe it’s the shortened running order of 21 episodes. Maybe it’s the silly, half-arsed ‘Mulder is a sceptic’ arc. I rank it with seasons 1, 7 and 9 as mostly skippable.

    Season 4 was so unremittingly somber that it should have ideally been followed by the goofy 6th series. Season 5 though is just…nothing. There’s no running shade of dark, or light. No running commentaries on anything. It has the black oil, but nothing else that gets a highlight in the movie.

    Shapeshifters, Gibson Praise, the Rebels – all of these might has well have been saved for a series jumping straight into another as opposed to launching into a movie, and as it was, all those elements were all resolved by the first half of season six! (I know Gibson came back, but that was only in the final episode from what I recall).

    And as for ‘Emily’ – well, I loved Christmas Carol. It was intimate, a personal exploration of the mythology and its impact on people. ‘Emily’ though is like ‘Herrenvolk’. A lot of action, but minus the brain and heart of the opening chapter. It’s ultimately disposable, like the Tempus Fugit two parter, or ‘Trust No1’ (shudder).

    • I’m actually a big fan of the fifth season, despite admitting its many faults. It’s not as consistent as the third season, and it doesn’t have as many peaks as the fourth.

      I’d argue that Patient X/The Red and the Black represent the best mythology two-parter after Nisei/731, even if they do have the odd effect of making the movie feel somewhat redundant.

      More than that, I kinda like the “everybody’s on vacation” feel of the season, with a sense that Carter is free to do stuff that he really wants to do – like have Stephen King and William Gibson write for the show or do his Frankenstein homage – and the way that the production team capitalise on the limited availability of Duchovny/Anderson with a number of episodes that aren’t always well-executed (Travelers) but can be fun and weird (Unusual Suspects, Christmas Carol).

      I actually think season five has stronger themes running through it than season four, which is really distorted by the last-minute addition of Momento Mori right smack in the middle. Season five feels more consistent from end to end. It seems to be fascinated with both origin stories (we get three origin stories for The X-Files, lots more implied history for Mulder, the first adventure of the Lone Gunmen) and children (The Post-Modern Prometheus, Emily, Schizogeny, Chinga, Kill Switch, Mind’s Eye, All Souls, etc).

      I think it feels like the show contemplating its own success – both in realising that it can expand its stories both backwards and forwards, but also in contemplating the fact that the show was quickly reaching the point where Carter had originally wanted to end it.

      (If the fifth season seems concerned about what The X-Files might actually become, it seems like the sixth season is terrified of what it might never become; if the fifth season is packed with monstrous children, the sixth is full of immortality and time travel, suggesting that Mulder and Scully might be trapped in a moment they will never be allowed to escape.)

      All in all, I think the fifth would be my third or fourth favourite of the nine seasons, which is high praise indeed.

      • Good call on the children & origin themes of S5, I overlooked that. I do respect the experimental feel of the season, but, Post-Modern Prometheus & Bad Blood aside, find that the less conventional episodes don’t stand out much more than the conventional episodes quality-wise.

        That said, I loved the mythology of the latter half of the season (and I’ve remembered that Gibson Praise and the Shifters did return at the start of S8, although by that point the mythology was quite a different beast to what it was pre-Fight the Future).

      • I can see why S5 is almost as divisive as S6 among fandom. There are a lot of polarising episodes (and arguably a polarising approach) driving the season.

  2. I felt the same way about her final decision to let Emily die. What a weird rationale. I went to find a review of this episode just for that reason.

    • Yep. It’s a very cynical, mean-spirited episode. I think it’s the weakest script with Gilligan’s name attached to it, by a considerable margin.

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