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The X-Files – Sein und Zeit (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Sein und Zeit and Closure don’t fit together at all.

There is a clear demarkation that exists between the two episodes, to the point where they cannot really be described as a single two-part story. Following the disappearance of Amber Lynn LaPierre from her home, Sein und Zeit closes with the arrest of a serial child-murderer and the discovery of a mass grave. There is not a whiff of the show’s central mythology to be found, despite Mulder’s insistence and anxiety. Although Closure picks up where Sein und Zeit left off, it embarks on its own separate story that does draw heavily from the show’s established mythology.

A grave subject...

A grave subject…

Even the guest casts of the two episodes are almost unique. Outside of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, only two guest stars appear in both episodes. Rebecca Toolan and Megan Corletto both play characters who die in Sein und Zeit, but appear as ghosts in Closure. The featured guest stars in Sein und Zeit do not reappear in Closure, and vice versa. Even the series’ recurring cast is firmly divided between the two halves; Walter Skinner appears in Sein und Zeit, while the Cigarette-Smoking Man plays an important role in Closure.

There is a yin-and-yang structure to Sein und Zeit and Closure, a sense that the two episodes are almost at odds with one another when it comes to the fate of Samantha Mulder. Sein und Zeit dares to ask what might happen if there was no rhyme or reason to her abduction; what if it was just a tragedy, like the tragedies that happen to happy families all the time? Mulder has invested so much of himself in the quest to explain what happened on that night in late November 1973; what would happen if there were no meaningful explanation?

"Conscience... it's just the voices of the dead... trying to save us from our own damnation."

“Conscience… it’s just the voices of the dead… trying to save us from our own damnation.”

It is a very bleak suggestion. It is a particularly bleak suggestion coming at the middle of the show’s seventh season, as the resolution to Mulder’s character arc. The audience has spent seven years watching Mulder dig deeper and deeper into a sinister conspiracy against mankind, largely motivated by the fact that his sister’s disappearance is a part of some larger puzzle. What if it wasn’t? What if Mulder’s whole quest were simply a lie that he had told himself? What if Mulder wanted to believe so badly that he convinced himself that this made sense?

What if the disappearance of Samantha Mulder meant nothing?

A man alone.

A man alone.

Of the two episodes, Sein und Zeit is probably the most honest. The world is a large place, populated by over six billion people; lives intersect and interact in unpredictable and unforeseeable ways. While every event has a root cause, that root cause does not necessarily carry any meaning that makes sense to the witnesses or survivors. Patterns of cause stretch back through time, invisible to by-standers (and even participants) who only ever see the inevitable collision; the effect is always more visible.

Given the basic structure of a two-part episode, it makes sense that Sein und Zeit is the episode that proposes an open-ended approach to the disappearance of Samantha Mulder. After all, the lack of a resolution is the entire point of the first episode in a two-part story; the idea is to build towards a cliffhanger and provide the audience with compelling questions that will bring them back to watch the second part. Sein und Zeit provocatively teases the ultimate cliffhanger; what if there is no closure? What if the lack of a resolution is the resolution?

Keep watching...

Keep watching…

One of the recurring themes of The X-Files is the way that conspiracy theory exists as an ordering principle in a confused time. Believing that the world is driven by sinister forces gives meaning and purpose to the chaos of the nineties. However, the problem with conspiracy theories is that they offer no resolution. As Kathleen Stewart argues in Conspiracy Theory’s Worlds:

Conspiracy theory is a skeptical, paranoid, obsessive practice of scanning for signs and sifting through bits of evidence for the missing link. Enter the world of conspiracy theory (as we all do and must) and you enter the world of global systems with missing details. This is a world of hopelessly arcance, obscurantist systems that are expert at leaving a paper trail that cannot track them. The moment of seduction is the moment when the puzzle is almost solved but there is always something more you need, the missing piece. Conspiracy theory dreams of an end point, an ur-text, a pure and stable past, but it never gets there because it is always pushing the REAL to the outer edge of the horizon – a carrot to struggle toward.

Sein und Zeit proposes that the resolution to the conspiracy theory is ultimately to shatter it. Mulder needs to break free of all the beliefs and theories that cloud his judgment about what really happened to Samantha, and to confront the grim reality that this is simply something that happens in the world. The disappearance of Samantha is no different than the disappearance of Amber Lynn LaPierre or JonBenét Ramsey. There is no meaning to be found.

Where there's smoke...

Where there’s smoke…

It is suggested that Mulder’s trauma has trapped him in a perpetual moment, arresting his development. The end of Sein und Zeit features the apprehension of child murderer Ed Truelove at a year-round Christmas theme park. Truelove operates a little enclave away from the world where it is literally Christmas every day. Our early glimpses of Truelove take place in a dingy little back office where he maintains a library of recordings; his victims frozen in time. This all seems like a potent metaphor for the difficulties of navigating grief, of being unable to move on.

To Mulder, the show’s central mythology has become a place to which he might retreat to avoid the reality of Samantha’s loss. As long as Mulder buries himself in stories about hybrids or colonisation, he doesn’t have to deal with the reality of his situation. Car chases and bounty hunters distract from the mundane reality that somebody came into the Mulder residence in November 1973 and shattered the illusion of an idyllic family life. Mulder might dress it up in fantasy and metaphor, but the loss of his sister has always been a much more basic loss.

Talk about dating the episode...

Talk about dating the episode…

The real world is a messy place. Life constantly provides mysteries and riddles that cannot be easily explained. There is seldom a Cigarette-Smoking Man waiting in our living room, promising to make sense of the way the world works so long as we might listen to him. Terrible things happen to children that are not dictated by sinister government conspirators or alien would-be colonists. To live in the world is to accept that life is driven by realities more arbitrary and random than a bunch of middle-aged business men plotting the fate of the world.

This reality is shrouded in lies. People lie to themselves to make sense of truths too uncomfortable and too random to understand. In Sein und Zeit, Mulder tries to make sense of the death of his mother through conspiracy theory and speculation. “She wanted to tell me something about her, or maybe she couldn’t tell me over the phone because she was afraid that they would do something like this to her,” he insists. “Whoever took my sister. Look at this place. I mean, it’s like… it’s… it’s all staged… the pills, the oven, the tape. It’s like a bad movie script.”

Restless...

Restless…

Life is not so neat. Sein und Zeit dares to suggest that Mulder might never know what happened to Samantha; that there might not be a deeper meaning to everything. It offers the possibility of a resolution that does not actually resolve anything; where the absence of closure is the entire point of the exercise. Mulder might just need to move on, to accept that there is no greater meaning to it all and finally get on with his life. There is no truth to be derived here, beyond the sad truth that terrible things happen.

Still, it is hard to reconcile this bleak possibility with any part of The X-Files. The series touched on this idea the last time that Mulder’s faith about Samantha was undermined, when he was led to believe that John Lee Roche might have killed her in Paper Hearts. The show has been populated with clones and doppelgängers of Samantha since Colony; having met a younger clone of Samantha in Herrenvolk and shared coffee with an older version in Redux II, it seems highly unlikely that Mulder’s faith could be shaken, even with all the surrounding trauma.

"Although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways - on this planet - we are all alone."

“Although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways – on this planet – we are all alone.”

With the possibility that the seventh season might be the last season of The X-Files; and with the near-certainty that it would be David Duchovny’s last season, there was a clear desire to tidy away the show’s biggest remaining loose end. In theory, at any rate. As with anything on The X-Files, it seemed like there was no real certainty of closure:

When I interviewed Mr. Duchovny last year and asked about the fate of Mulder’s sister, Samantha – was she really, most sincerely dead, as recent episodes seemed to have indicated – he put on a mischievous half-smile and answered, “She comes back for sweeps.” And Mulder’s mother – also dead, right? “Sweeps,” he said, switching to deadpan. “Whatever we need. They come back.”

Even the production team knew better than to draw a line in the sand. In The Official Guide, Frank Spotnitz explained, “Just because Samantha was taken to starlight does not mean that she’s necessarily gone. It doesn’t mean that there are not clones out there and that tissue samples weren’t taken.”

I guess we know who's behind this...

I guess we know who’s behind this…

Indeed, this was not the first time that Carter had faced the possibility of trying to explain the fate of Samantha Mulder. Carter confessed that it might have been appropriate to handle it as part of The X-Files: Fight the Future. He explained that audiences “might have been expecting the truth to be about something else, like Samantha.” Indeed, Carter subsequently planned to deal with it as part of the sixth season:

One story element Carter originally intended to include in the film – the explanation of what really happened to Samantha – was pulled from the final cut of the feature. “It wasn’t that we took something out that needed to be there,” he explains, emphasizing that the Samantha mention was getting lost in the shuffle of the movie’s bigger themes. “It’s something that is going to now be addressed naturally through the story telling process.” According to Carter, Samantha is just one of several outstanding XF issues that will be addressed in the coming season.

Given Carter’s preference to leave such matters ambiguous and open to interpretation, it is no surprise that the ultimate of Samantha Mulder slipped through the net during the production of Two Fathers and One Son. It seemed like the production team were quite happy to leave the question unanswered until the last possible moment. With the curtain drawing down on the show, that moment is here.

Sign of the times...

Sign of the times…

As the end of The X-Files looms, it seems like the production team might be willing to leave the question deliberately unanswered. In a way, it serves as a very bitter twist on the show’s overarching mythology. When Mulder is confronted with the story told by the Lynn family, he dismisses it. “What we’re hearing – it’s the delusional talk of people that don’t want to accept the truth,” he assures Skinner and Scully. What if that is ultimately the truth awaiting Mulder? That his years spent chasing conspiracies will not provide the truth he seeks?

In Signs and Wonders, Mulder meditated on the idea that people respond to certainty and romanticise unquestioning faith. Maybe it was all preparation for this moment, ironic foreshadowing of the point at which Mulder has his certainty stripped away from him. The seventh season exists at a point where the mythology has effectively imploded on itself; there is nothing left for Mulder to chase, no grand scheme for him to expose. It makes sense that Sein und Zeit would return to these themes

"I heard the news today, oh boy..."

“I heard the news today, oh boy…”

One of the central questions of Sein und Zeit and Closure seems to be that old X-Files chestnut: what if there is no grand design to all this? After all, what has Mulder materially accomplished in his quest? The conspirators were all burnt alive in Two Fathers and One Son, but the show has already suggested that Mulder has not halted colonisation. More to the point, Mulder has next exposed the conspiracy to the public; he has not been vindicated. In a very real sense, it could be argued that Mulder’s quest has accomplished nothing substantial.

The world of Sein und Zeit and Closure seems almost apocalyptic. When Mulder and Piller search for Samantha in Closure, they do not explore the secret labs traditionally associated with the mythology; they wander through decommissioned bases and abandoned residential streets, hiding amid stacks of old newspapers. It looks like a scene from Harsh Realm; it is as if Mulder and Piller have wandered into a world that ended in the late seventies. Their search continues on “Albatross Street”, perhaps a reference to what Samantha has become to Mulder.

An open case...

An open case…

Sein und Zeit suggests that it might simply be time to let Samantha go, even without resolution. “You don’t know how badly I wanted her to be in one of those graves,” Mulder confesses to Scully at the start of Closure. Examining footage from Ed Truelove’s collection, he explains, “As hard as it is to admit, I wanted to find her here riding her bike like all these other kids. I guess I just want it to be over.” Mulder’s exhaustion is understandable; it might even reflect the feeling behind the scenes on the show.

The kidnapping of Amber Lynn LaPierre is clearly inspired by the real-life murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The six-year-old girl was found dead in the basement of her parents’ house in December 1996. No suspect was ever formally charged. There have been a number of different theories about the possible identity of the killer, but it seems unlikely that the case will ever be satisfactorily resolves. Sein und Zeit draws from the real-life case in a number of different (and overt) ways.

The write stuff.

The write stuff.

In Sein und Zeit, Billie LaPierre writes what appears to be a ransom note using automatic writing. In the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, a number of independent handwriting experts suggested the ransom note had been written by Patsy Ramsey; however, a number of other experts – including John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker – rejected the idea that John and Patsy Ramsey had been party to the murder. Other nods include the connection to Christmas; JonBenét Ramsey was murder on St. Stephen’s Day, while Ed Truelove is arrested at a year-round Christmas park.

Much like the real case of JonBenét Ramsey, it seems like the LaPeirre family will forever be denied closure. although the investigation leads to the arrest of child murderer Ed Truelove, the body of Amber Lynn LaPierre is never recovered. Mulder glimpses her at the end of Closure, suggesting that her body never will be found. It is a very peculiar resolution, one that suggests the disappearance will never be official solved. Talking about the murder of JonBenét Ramsey almost twenty years later, Police Chief Mark Beckner reflected, “Some cases never get solved.”

Trying to put it all behind him...

Trying to put it all behind him…

The two-parter contains a number of nods to Harsh Realm, which is not surprising; Sein und Zeit and Closure would have gone into production shortly after Fox cancelled Carter’s latest television show. Mark Rolston appears in Sein und Zeit, having guest starred in the second episode of Harsh Realm. Rolston’s character makes a number of passing references to how good Harsh Realm was, a sly and pointed thumbing of the nose to the network that cancelled the show. It is also a wry in-joke; due to cancellation, Harsh Realm would exist forever without closure or resolution.

As with a lot of the seventh season, Sein und Zeit has a rather odd relationship with the history of The X-Files. Running for seven years, it occasionally feels like the show has lost sight of its own past; that the show’s history has blurred and distorted through time and distance. Sein und Zeit arguably owes less to legitimate bona fides mythology episodes than it does to important and influential standalone episodes; Sein und Zeit does not pick up directly from The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati so much as throw an unlikely selection of episodes into a blender.

His fingerprints are all over this...

His fingerprints are all over this…

Sein und Zeit borrows a number of concepts from certain earlier episodes of the show, in a way that doesn’t feel entirely organic or compatible. The depiction of the ghosts standing silent as their lips move (“her lips were moving but I couldn’t hear”) evokes Scully’s vision of her father in Beyond the Sea. The idea of tying the disappearance of Samantha Mulder into a serial child murderer feels like a nod to Vince Gilligan’s Paper Hearts. The episode also focuses on “walk-ins”, spirits that were mentioned in Red Museum. It is a strange collection of references.

With Sein und Zeit, Carter crafts what is in effect a mythology episode that is not a mythology episode. After all, the Cigarette-Smoking Man does not appear until Closure. There is no hint of conspiracy or cover-up here, outside of Mulder’s paranoid desire to account for the death of his mother. Instead, Sein und Zeit draws from rather isolated episodes of the show. Although it never explicitly mentions any of these relatively standalone episodes, Sein und Zeit feels a little bit like a mythology story cobbled together from bits and pieces of non-mythology episodes.

It's gonna be a long night.

It’s gonna be a long night.

There is something just a little uncomfortable about this, as if Carter is deconstructing the very idea of the show’s mythology. Ever since D.P.O., a rigid boundary has existed between the so-called mythology episodes and the “monster of the week” stories. The mythology has generally been treated as a single continuing story that exists separate from the episodes where Mulder and Scully fight mutants or monsters or flukemen. As a rule, the show has respected the invisible Chinese Wall that prevents Robert Patrick Modell from interfering with colonisation.

The mythology sort of ended in Two Fathers and One Son, as much as anything ever actually ends on The X-Files. The decision to draw upon standalone episodes rather than the clearly delineated mythology episodes in constructing Sein und Zeit is a very clever (and surprisingly subtle) way of suggesting that the Chinese Wall crumbled with the rest of the mythology. If the mythology doesn’t really exist anymore, it is just as legitimate to draw from the tone and imagery of Beyond the Sea and Paper Hearts as from the plot points of Colony or End Game.

Happy families.

Happy families.

It offers a sense that maybe Sein und Zeit might actually follow through on its bold central premise; if the barrier that separated the mythology from the monsters of the week has broken down, then everything is up for grabs. Like the suggestion that the disappearance of Samantha Mulder might have nothing to do with conspiracies or aliens, the decision to draw from the iconography of standalone episodes suggest that the fundamental logic of the series is collapsing; anything is possible, maybe even the discontinuity necessary to divorce Samantha from the mythology.

Sein und Zeit offers something of a wry subversion of the show’s mythology episode format. The position in the season, the references to Samantha, the two-part structure all make it clear that Sein und Zeit is functionally a mythology episode. However, the episode consistently subverts the expectations of that kind of story. The seemingly unrelated case that Mulder investigates… is pretty much unrelated. The suicide of an important character who wanted to tell Mulder something important… is actually a suicide.

"I'm here to help."

“I’m here to help.”

There is an interesting symmetry between Sein und Zeit and Closure, one that emphasises the difference in tone between the two episodes. The closing shot of Sein und Zeit finds Mulder amid a mass grave, an isolated figure surrounded by negative space. The opening shot of Closure features the same location that has become a hub of activity, what was once empty space is now cluttered with shots of agents marching back and forth exhuming the bodies of victims buried by Ed Truelove.

This contrast says a lot about Sein und Zeit. Michael Watkins is perhaps an underrated X-Files director, but his work on Sein und Zeit is top-notch. The director shrewdly utilises negative space to create the impression that Mulder is truly isolated and alone; that the world around him is empty and hostile. It is an effective visual metaphor that underscores the themes of Sein und Zeit as distinct from those of Closure. Sein und Zeit is a more introspective and nihilistic piece; but it is also a very clever and subversive episode.

The truth is buried.

The truth is buried.

Of course, the suggestion that the mystery of Samantha Mulder was never going to be solved would put a dampener on things. The X-Files had cultivated a reputation as a show that was reluctant to tie up loose ends. Not unfairly, fans and viewers might have read the lack of a resolution to the disappearance of Samantha as another cynical attempt to string the show along unnecessarily; akin to the efforts to stretch the mythology in the fourth season. As long as the question remained unanswered, there would always be an expectation that it must be answered.

Still, it was probably for the best that the show decided to tackle the question sooner rather than later. Sein und Zeit and Closure effectively wrap up Mulder’s character arc on the show. His father is dead; his mother is dead; his sister is dead. Mulder has apparently toppled the conspiracy, even if it is somewhat hazy what he has actually accomplished. For a show that has been pathologically afraid of resolution, that is not a bad track record. Indeed, it does invite the question of what the production team are going to do for the second half of the season.

Not every story has a happy ending...

Not every story has a happy ending…

In a way, it could be argued that Sein und Zeit and Closure are structured so as to allow the writing staff to have their cake and eat it on the matter of Samantha Mulder’s disappearance. Sein und Zeit is the most pessimistic resolution; one that suggests true closure simply might not be possible that the case may remain open forever. In hindsight, it feels like it might have made for the more satisfying conclusion.

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

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4 Responses

  1. I recall this episode feeling somewhat disappointing but in the same way Gethsemane was disappointing at the time. For lots of reasons these episodes reasonate a lot more now and for the same reasons, Scully as a character holds up better than Mulder. I haven’t made it this far yet myself but I can see where I might agree with your conclusion that maybe we didn’t need “Closure” and the search could have ended here. There could have even been a direct nod to Paper Hearts. It wouldn’t necessarily shatter the continuity. One Son already acknowledged that Samantha wasn’t taken from the Air Base with the rest of the syndicate’s family members and it has been repeatedly established that anyone who knows Mulder can use Samantha to manipulate him rather easily and so the clones in Colony and Redux could have just been paid actresses. The girl in Herrenvolk would have required some finessing. Fans, myself included, were probably most disappointed at the time with the mythology because it never went all in on the syndicate and the invasion storyline. But if the show were on the air now, which I suppose it will be in a few months, I sense the audience would be more accepting of the Gethsemane and Sein Und Zeit approach to resolving these central ideas.

    Also, it is amazing how earlier episodes that were not intended to connect to the mythology did foreshadow later mythology developments. You’ve pointed this out before with Jose Chung foreshadowing Redux and The Red and the Black. At the time Paper Hearts seemed to fully expect the audience to understand it would not ultimately connect to the mythology. But here it Carter is all willing to go that direction.

    • I think my inner postmodernist has a soft spot for Gethsemane and Sein und Zeit, even if I accept that the fans might have stormed 20th Century Fox had the show seriously developed in those directions. But I like that The X-Files always felt comfortable enough in itself to play with those ideas in big marquee episodes. After all, Carter had to know how fans would react to them as he wrote them. (Given the episode aired at the height of the show’s popularity, it is fun to imagine what Twitter would have looked like had it existed when Gethsemane was broadcast.)

  2. Extremely good find with the case of JonBenét Ramsey, I don’t recall if all this was in the official guides but it certainly helps for these reviews to have lived through the 90s and in an English-speaking country. The similarities are impressive.

    The title of the episode underlines also the existentialist themes around Mulder’s quest and the meaning he gives to his own life. It’s quite heavy-handed but in line with what the series has done in the past, see Amor Fati. I wouldn’t be surprised if Duchovny had a hand in this title.

    Are there reviews coming for the unaired Harsh Realm episodes? 🙂

    • I wish I could take credit! I think that came from the official guide, and I just pieced it all together.

      The reviews for Harsh Realm should start on Tuesday again; the idea is to preserve the broadcast order. (So there’ll be a big chunk of Lone Gunmen episodes between This is Not Happening and DeadAlive during the eighth season reviews.)

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