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The X-Files – How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Building off episodes like Triangle and Dreamland, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas continues to develop and expand upon the sixth season’s fascination with issues of time and love.

With the closing of the X-files in The End, it seems like The X-Files has abandoned any real focus on the procedural element of the series. Instead of being a show about two people employed to investigate weird phenomenon together, it seems that The X-Files has evolved into a series about two people who investigate weird phenomena in their spare time. It seems likely that Mulder would have invited Scully on his Christmas Eve stake out even if they were working on the X-files together, but the fact that this is a recreational activity certainly recontextualises it.

Semi-title drop!

Semi-title drop!

The first half of the sixth season of The X-Files is perhaps the most invested that the show has ever been in the nature of the relationship between Mulder and Scully. After all, the seventh season shies away from questions concerning a Mulder and Scully romance; the eighth season keeps William’s parentage a mystery until the last possible moment. The opening stretch of the sixth season is really the only point in the show’s run where the series has an extended conversation about what the two mean to one another and how they express that.

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is essentially an episode about Mulder and Scully receiving paranormal couples’ counseling that goes horribly wrong.

"Merry Christmas, everybody!"

“Merry Christmas, everybody!”

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is the second episode of the sixth season to be both written and directed by Chris Carter. That is a remarkable accomplishment for an executive producer dividing his time between two different shows and overseeing a move from Vancouver to Los Angeles. It is quite impressive that Carter found time to write and direct two of the season’s first six episodes, particularly with everything else going on. It is also worth noting that neither of the two episodes directed by Carter in the sixth season are mythology episodes.

Instead, both Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas put the emphasis squarely on the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. Sitting either side of the Dreamland two-parter, Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas seem to consciously mirror one another in a variety of interesting ways. The touch on a variety of similar ideas and themes, providing a nice sense of thematic continuity to the opening stretch of this sixth season. Both Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas are episodes about time and love, and how the two impact one another.

Wrapped up in a neat bow...

Wrapped up in a neat bow…

Although both Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas are consciously constructed as “lighter” episodes, it is interesting to note that their approaches are radically different. Triangle is an episode that features an incredibly large cast and a diverse range of locations, but was famously edited together from a relatively small number of shots. In contrast, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas has the smallest cast of any X-Files episode, largely takes place on a single set that is shot in such a way that it can be edited together to appear like multiple locations.

It does feel like Carter was consciously trying to stretch himself as both a writer and a director. Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas are both quirky romantic comedies, but they are constructed in very different ways. Their differences are not coincidental; they are elements of conscious design. Carter decided to do Triangle in as few takes as possible after the crew pointed out he used a lot cuts in The Red and the Black. When Carter decided to write and direct How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, he made a conscious choice to limit the location work and cast.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

According to The End and the Beginning, the episode was notoriously cheap:

“It’s the absolute record holder for fewest dollars spent on a sixth season episode, and also one of the most difficult  shows that we’ve ever done,” says Carter, proudly. “We worked very hard on this one, especially toward the end of the shoot. The final day, as I remember, we filmed for nineteen hours straight, from 3pm on a Friday afternoon to 10am Saturday morning.”

This was a conscious decision to help manage the show’s budget, which had ballooned since the move to Los Angeles.

He needs this like he needs a hole in the head...

He needs this like he needs a hole in the head…

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas also save money in casting. Triangle was an episode that celebrated the sheer diversity of the show’s ensemble. The episode was packed with just about ever recurring member of the show’s cast who was still a regular since the series moved to Los Angeles. The Lone Gunmen, Skinner, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Spender, Kersh… they all got invites. Only Krycek seemed to be excluded from the party. In contrast, the cast of How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is limited to four actors; the two regulars and two one-shot guest stars.

However, the contrasts between Triangle and How the Ghosts Stole Christmas extend beyond simple production constraints. Triangle is a story that emphasises the timelessness of Mulder and Scully. Mulder finds himself sent back in time to the start of the Second World War, where he discovers that apparently the details of his life are a universal constant. It seems like Mulder will always find Scully, whether he is lost in time or simply cast adrift in the Bermuda Triangle. The episode ends with Mulder confessing his love for his partner, after kissing her 1939 self.

Mulder hits the wall...

Mulder hits the wall…

In contrast, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas seems to haunt Mulder and Scully with the idea that time does pass. Early in the episode, Mulder and Scully find themselves staring at their own decrepit corpses. The skeletal remains are eroded and worn away by time; even if Scully can still recognise their outfits. Mulder and Scully find themselves mirrored in the characters of Maurice and Lyda. Maurice and Lyda are an old couple still in love after all these year, with their own quirky way of celebrating Christmas together.

As with Dreamland, there is a sense that How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is preoccupied by the passage of time. The X-Files is a show entering its sixth season. Mulder and Scully are more than five years older than they were when the show first began. However, there is a sense that the two characters are stuck in amber. In Dreamland, Scully wondered whether they would even get out of the car that Mulder drives up and down the highways and byways of America. In How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, she ruminates on spiritual immortality.

"Boo!"

“Boo!”

“I mean, what it really shows is how silly and ridiculous we have become in believing such things,” she insists. “I mean, that we can ignore all natural laws about the corporeal body, that we witness these spirits clad in their own shabby outfits with the same old haircuts and hairstyles never aging, never in search of more comfortable surroundings. It actually ends up saying more about the living than it does about the dead.” It is worth bearing in mind that this run of The X-Files leads up to Tithonus, which ends up making Scully literally immortal.

After all, six seasons is a long time in television, and The X-Files was already guaranteed a seventh. However, things could not remain stuck in a perpetual moment. Nothing lasts forever. “Everything dies,” the opening credits of Herrenvolk assured us. Mulder and Scully cannot be the exception to the rule. As much as the audience and the show might want them to remain in the same instant forever and ever, trapped in a perpetually chaste romance, there is a point where the show needs to accept that its characters can grow and evolve.

"So much for leaving a good-looking corpse..."

“So much for leaving a good-looking corpse…”

Around the release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, writer and producer Frank Spotnitz wrote three issues of the Wildstorm X-Files comic book. Exploiting the advantages of flexible “comic book time”, Spotnitz opted to frame the comic in an ambiguous time period some time between the second and fifth seasons:

“It’s just fun to play with again,” he explained. “This is kind of an interesting thing about the comic books – in my imagination anyway – [it’s] that they’re sort of ‘out of time.’ The situation is the situation that we found between seasons two and five of the series. And yet, they’re wearing clothes and using technology that is contemporary of today. It’s not like they’re period pieces. It’s sort of like they’re unstuck from time. I look at them as if that situation in ‘The X-Files’ were still going on today; a sort of parallel universe to the one that we have in the movie.”

It is an interesting choice, if only because it demonstrates that Frank Spotnitz (and likely a certain segment of fandom) believes that the archetypal Mulder and Scully relationship is that featured in the second through fifth seasons. It suggests that those versions of Mulder and Scully were trapped in amber, frozen in time.

"... off the beaten path, the creepier the better?"

“… off the beaten path, the creepier the better?”

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas acknowledges the romance of such ideas. At the start of the episode, Mulder regales Scully with a narrative of timeless love. “He was a brooding but heroic young man beloved of Lyda, a sublime beauty with a light that seemed to follow her wherever she went,” Mulder narrates. “They were likened to two angels descended from heaven whom the gods could not protect from the horrors being visited upon this cold, grey earth.” It is a story in which the listener might easily get swept up.

Maurice and Lysa decided to reject growth and change, instead opting to commit suicide – freezing their development in that one romantic moment. “Driven by a tragic fear of separation they forged a lovers’ pact so that they might spend eternity together and not spend one precious Christmas apart,” Mulder tells Scully. It is a story that is rooted in the unspoken assumption that the dead do not age or decay or mature. The moment of death is like the flash of a polaroid, capturing a soul in the same way that a camera captures a moment; frozen perfectly for all eternity.

"Yeah, Scully. The decor is quite impressive..."

“Yeah, Scully. The decor is quite impressive…”

“It’s a good story, Mulder, and very well told,” Scully admits in the teaser. “But I don’t believe it.” Mulder immediately jumps on Scully for her refusal to believe in ghosts, but How the Ghosts Stole Christmas suggests that this is not the real issue. Sure, the episode’s coda is careful to have Scully dismiss all the paranormal absurdity of the episode by suggesting “none of that really happened out there tonight” and “that was all in [their] heads”, but is seems like Scully has more trouble believing in the idea that even the dead are stuck in a blissfully stable eternity.

Mulder is shocked to discover that Maurice and Lyse have aged to the point where they can be played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. “What happened to the star-crossed lovers?” Mulder wonders when confronted with Lyda. “Oh,” Lyda assures him, “let me tell you the romance is the first thing to go.” Mulder takes a moment to figure it all out. Apparently it’s harder to believe in ghosts aging than reincarnation or flukeman. “It’s you,” he realises. “You’re Lyda, and that was Maurice. But you’ve aged.” He seems profoundly shocked by the idea.

"Oh, so THAT'S what the smell is..."

“Oh, so THAT’S what the smell is…”

This seems very much in keeping with the themes of Dreamland. Mulder could not fathom that his life with Scully was not “a normal life.” That episode pushed Mulder into the uncomfortable role of a middle-aged man with a wife and family, while Morris Fletcher took advantage of the body swap to help Mulder to grow up just a little bit. Of course, Dreamland was also quite cynical – suggesting that any real changes to Mulder and Scully would inevitably snap back like a rubber band. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is not quite as bleak in its assessment.

Maurice and Lysa might have aged a great deal. They might have grown old together. They might be a little grumpy and cantankerous with each other, prone to making snipes and criticisms. However, Maurice and Lysa do clearly love one another. They still get their kicks from their quirky adventures. Maurice might question Lysa’s decision to turn this into a Christmas tradition, but they still deeply care for one another. “We haven’t forgotten the meaning of Christmas,” Maurice assures Lysa in their final scene together.

"Someone left a light on..."

“Someone left a light on…”

There may be hope for Mulder and Scully. The show has been teasing the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple since the third season at the latest. Darin Morgan wrote War of the Coprophages around their dysfunctional relationship, while Chris Carter wrote Syzygy as a dysfunctional anti-romantic comedy around the duo. Since Carter and Spotnitz wrote The X-Files: Fight the Future, the show has been mercilessly teasing the possibility. Mulder and Scully spent extended portions of the fifth season flirting. It is quite possible that they have been hooking up since Detour.

The sixth season suggests they might be ready to move on to a more overtly romantic relationship. The X-files have been taken away from them, and the show has essentially evolved into something resembling “the many date nights of Mulder and Scully.” It just so happens that their date nights involve time travel and body swapping and ghosts, because Mulder is quirky like that. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas does not labour the point too heavily, but Maurice and Lysa tend to target romantic couples.

"It's not a couch, but it'll do."

“It’s not a couch, but it’ll do.”

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas suggests quite heavily that Mulder and Scully are a couple, even if they would not admit it to themselves. After all, Mulder essentially concocts a way to steal Scully away from her family on Christmas Eve. “Mulder, tell me you didn’t call me out here on Christmas Eve to go ghost busting with you?” she asks, knowing full well that this is exactly what Mulder has done. Mulder avoids the question, replying, “Technically speaking they’re called apparitions.”

The episode is decidedly ambiguous on what happened to Scully’s car keys. Both Scully and Maurice suggest to Mulder that he might have stolen them. Scully tries to paint the possibility in a positive light, suggesting, “Maybe you grabbed them by mistake.” Maurice is more direct, “How’d you get her to come with you? Steal her car keys?” When Maurice frames the question, Mulder seems deeply uncomfortable. While Maurice does have the car keys later on, it is possible that he took them from Mulder. After all, the car keys went missing outside the house.

A hole lot of trouble...

A hole lot of trouble…

That said, there is a sense – as in Dreamland – that the show has really deconstructed Mulder and Scully to the point where it is hard to say something new or insightful. When Maurice describes Mulder as a “narcissistic, overzealous, self-righteous egomaniac”, he is simply reiterating criticisms that have been repeated time and time again. The idea that Mulder is an unhealthy individual has been suggested repeatedly over the run of the show, particularly in the third season scripts of Darin Morgan.

Similarly, Lyda’s observations about Scully’s own dysfunctions are just as familiar. “You must have an awful small life,” Lyda reflects. “Spending your Christmas Eve with him; running around chasing things you don’t even believe in.” Lyda continues, “I can see it in your face: the fear; the conflicted yearnings; a subconscious desire to find fulfillment through another. Intimacy through co-dependency.” These are all aspects of Scully’s personality that have been well-developed in scripts by writers like Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan and James Wong.

"So they confiscated those gigantic torches when they took the X-files off us, then?"

“So they confiscated those gigantic torches when they took the X-files off us, then?”

Of course, the episode also throws in the old stock criticism of Scully as something of a perpetual killjoy. “Maybe you repress the truth about why you’re really here pretending it’s out of duty or loyalty, unable to admit your dirty little secret,” Lyda reflects. “Your only joy in life is proving him wrong.” It is an exaggerated position, but it is one that the show has occasionally embraced, with episodes like Kaddish, Synchrony and The Beginning all forcing Scully into the position of knee-jerk skeptic who seems to exist simply to tell Mulder that he is wrong.

To be fair to Carter’s script, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas seems to acknowledge that all of this deconstruction is old hat. In the same way that Dreamland undermines its subversive take on Mulder by insisting that his dysfunctions contribute to (or are a result of) his heroism, it seems like none of the characters in How the Ghosts Stole Christmas are convinced by these particularly shallow character critiques. Maurice and Lyda land a few glancing blows on our heroes, but there’s nothing that we haven’t seen before.

"What do you mean this isn't romantic?"

“What do you mean this isn’t romantic?”

Mulder balks at the use of the word “paramasturbatory”, even though it might be a sly in-joke reference to the closing monologue of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” For his part, Maurice complains about the cheap parlour tricks to which the ghosts are forced to resort. “This pop psychology approach is crap,” he whines. “All it does is annoy them. When’s the last time we actually haunted anyone?” These psychobabble arguments are not enough to manipulate Mulder and Scully into murder-suicide; instead Maurice and Lyda resort to cheap trickery.

In a way, this feels like something of a cop-out from the script. After all, Maurice and Lyda are only able to get Mulder and Scully at each other’s throats through impersonation and manipulation. There is a certain inelegance to the final act, as Maurice and Lyda simply ramp up the violence in an attempt to force the murder-suicide. Then again, the episode needs an ending. How the Ghosts Stole Christmas only has forty minutes of screentime. “We used to have years to drive them mad,” Lyda complains. “Now we get one night.”

"Hey kids, it's Ed Asner!"

“Hey kids, it’s Ed Asner!”

Then again, that would seem to be the point. Mulder and Scully might be dysfunctional, but they are not psychotic. The show is well past the point where simple verbal manipulation could push them into conflict with one another. The rather forced nature of the episode’s climax underscores the recurring sense that Mulder and Scully have a much stronger and deeper bond than the superficial criticisms would suggest. Sure, Mulder might be a little weird and Scully might have co-dependency issues, but they do care for one another in a genuine and meaningful way.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson work well together; they generally do, but the structure of How the Ghosts Stole Christmas really underscores their bond. There is a playful comfort to their work here, particularly during the early scenes where Mulder and Scully are just goofing around. Even when things start to get a little weird, Mulder still pulls an old “boo!” scare on Scully. The show really gives a sense of why these two people would choose to visit a haunted house together on Christmas Eve.

Smile time!

Smile time!

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is also notable for its guest cast. Apparently, actress Lily Tomlin had wanted a role on The X-Files for quite some time, but Chris Carter kept turning her down:

Well, when X-Files came on, I asked to meet with Chris Carter, because I wanted to get on the show. I went over to see him, and he said, “Well, Lily, we rarely cast anybody who’s really recognizable because it stretches the credibility.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a kiss-off.” And then three years later, I’m driving in my car and my cell phone rings, and it’s Chris, and he says, “I just got an idea, and I’m writing it right now.” And that was it. I went and did it, and it was great. I loved that show.

As with Michael McKean, there is a sense that Tomlin landed the perfect role on The X-Files. It is very difficult to imagine anybody else in the role of Lyda, just as it is difficult to imagine Lyda in any other role in the show’s run.

"Until neXt Christmas..."

“Until neXt Christmas…”

Apparently the production team were set on Lily Tomlin for the role. Although she did not actually sign up until the last possible minute, costume designer Christine Peters was told to take her presence for granted:

“She came in Friday night for a fitting to work on Monday afternoon,” she says adding that the consumers took the liberty of working ahead to ensure that the costume was ready. “We decided what the costume was going to look like before the actress was even cast. We cheated and called another costume house and got [Tomlin’s] measurements. We pretty much knew it was going to be her, so we started without her. We decided if anything changed, we’d change accordingly.”

As with the casting of actors like Michael McKean and Bruce Campbell in other sixth season episodes, there is a sense that Carter was willing to let the show’s verisimilitude slide a little bit.

Fade out.

Fade out.

Six years into its run, The X-Files was loosening its grip on reality and embracing the fantastical and the absurd on a more regular basis. After all, The X-Files would feature no less than three different stories dealing time travel during its sixth season. This was after Chris Carter had explicitly identified time travel as something he wanted for fear of taking away from “the groundedness of the show.” It seems like the sixth season was more willing to get off the ground, to take flight.

Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner are brilliantly cast in the roles of Lyda and Maurice. The two actors are among the finest performers of their generation, and do consistently great work. They bring a wonderful tiredness and cynicism to Lyda and Maurice, but offer a sense of deep and abiding affection underpinning all that gloominess. Watching How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, it is quite easy to believe that Lyda and Maurice have spent eighty years together haunting the living.

"Woah. We did not age well."

“Woah. We did not age well.”

How the Ghosts Stole Christmas is an enjoyably light Christmas episode, one very much in keeping with the larger mood of the sixth season of The X-Files. The show has changed dramatically in this stretch of episodes, transforming into something quite unlike what it had been just a year earlier. Still, as Maurice and Lyda demonstrate, just because something has grown and changed does not mean that it is not the thing with which you fell in love.

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

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