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The X-Files – Via Negativa (Review)

This October/November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the eighth season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of The Lone Gunmen.

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

– R.S. Thomas, Via Negativa

Facing the axe...

Facing the axe…

As a religious doctrine, via negativa seeks to define God by what He is not. The traditional argument is that the concept of God exists beyond human comprehension, and so He cannot be defined by what He is as much as He can be defined by what He is not. As William Dean summarises in The American Spiritual Culture:

The proponents of the via negativa have argued that whatever human thought affirms about God canot apply to God because the reality of God surpasses what humans can think. Because the human mind is simply not capable of grasping the divine in its fullness, whatever that mind “knows” about the fullness of God is necessarily what is not true about God. Or, conversely, with the via negativa something can be known about God, which is that God is not what humans describe God to be.

This theory essentially describes God in relation to his absence. It is not that God is or is not; it is that he exists in a state beyond being. John Scot Erigena theorised, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

“This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to crack the case wide open.”

It is an interesting idea of faith, and one that arguably fits quite comfortably with the spirituality of The X-Files. Throughout the nine seasons of the show, Chris Carter hinted that the divine is quite literally alien; a notion reinforced in episodes as diverse as Red Museum, Fearful Symmetry and Biogenesis. While this has a very literal application in the context of this fictional universe, it does also suggest something broader about the show’s philosophy. If God is truly alien, then God is truly other.

In some respects, the eighth season of The X-Files is rather more agnostic than the seventh had been. The seventh season of The X-Files seemed to embrace a very strong religious perspective – with Mulder’s monologue at the start of Closure questioning God so that the episode might put his fears to rest, The Goldberg Variation insisting upon the existence of an architect who shapes the universe, and Signs and Wonders suggesting that fundamentalist religious belief might be the way forward. Even Scully embraced religion in all things.

The all-seeing eye...

The all-seeing eye…

In contrast, the eighth season feels a bit more ambivalent on the topic. This skepticism could arguably be traced back to the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Requiem, when the character rather bluntly and cynically restates the show’s “aliens-as-divine” metaphor; whereas early episodes had suggested that this was a good thing, the Cigarette-Smoking Man tied that image of divinity more firmly into the exploitation and abuse that the colonists had conducted. For its part, Roadrunners proposed a horrific take on fundamentalist Christianity.

Of course, all of this is tempered by the fact that the eighth season eventually plays out its own version of the nativity in Existence and of the resurrection in DeadAlive. It is hard to take any of the show’s potential criticisms of religion too seriously when the series puts both of its lead characters through two of the most archetypal Christian narratives in the space of a single season. Then again, this does become a version of the resurrection where the Messiah starts a family and it also plays out a version of the nativity that ultimately chooses the human over the divine.

The sleep of the just...

The sleep of the just…

Via Negativa is an episode that feels rather skeptical in its approach to religion. Most obviously, it opens with the mass murder of a cult in Pittsburgh; Skinner compares the scene to the mass suicides at Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate. After all, Via Negativa was the last episode of The X-Files to air in the year 2000. It makes sense for it to touch on the tragedies surrounding some of these millennial movements; fringe cults who had waited for the world to change at the turn of the millennium, only to be disappointed by the absence of a revelation.

The particulars of the mass death featured in Via Negativa have more in common with the mass deaths of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda, as reported in the media in March 2000. The death toll for this particular incident eventually settled at over seven hundred. The deaths occurred in a number of different ways. Some members of the cult were poisoned, while others were burned. However, in imagery mirrored by Via Negativa, there were also reports of cracked skulls and chopped limbs.

“We did twenty takes, and THAT was the best one.”

The initial media reports about the mass deaths of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were confused. It was initially portrayed as a suicide, but closer inspection made it look like murder. As Irving Hexham notes:

When Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) producer David Perlich asked to interview me March 20 on the national TV news program Newsworld about “the latest Jonestown in Uganda,” I knew nothing about the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. But once I read the wire reports, the real story seemed very different from the one they claimed to tell.

Instead of a “cult suicide,” it looked far more to me like murder. All the reports said that a group of very traditional Africans practicing an equally traditional form of Roman Catholicism had committed suicide. This did not make sense because to commit suicide in most East African societies is to become something like what Westerners call a ghost, and no one wants to be a ghost. It was also reasonable to expect that these traditional social mores were reinforced by Catholic teachings, making suicide even less likely.

In a way, this uncertainty is itself reflected in the basic set-up of Via Negativa. The unclear cause of death and the horrific condition of the bodies cannot help but evoke the terrifying stories of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

In a way, Via Negativa plays into the broader thematic arc of John Doggett. The show never quite developed a mythology around Doggett; the disappearance and murder of Luke Doggett was never explored as well as it might have been. However, the show seems to suggest that Doggett is more fundamentally connected with ideas of evil in the world than either Mulder and Scully. Mulder and Scully chased aliens, but it seems like Doggett is tied into more existential quandaries about evil within human nature.

Invocation suggested that Doggett was a character who would feel just as at home on Millennium as he did on The X-Files, more concerned with the bad things that people do than with aliens and ghosts. Via Negativa offers another point of intersection, as Doggett finds himself investigating a cult that turned apocalyptic. This is very much in keeping with the world view of Millennium; Frank Black found himself investigating a predatory (and perhaps even demonic) cult in the show’s second episode, Gehenna.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

At the same time, the climax of Via Negativa finds John Doggett confronting the darkness that lies within himself. This notion of human evil played out through a lot of Ten Thirteen’s output, but was a core thesis statement of Millennium. Frank Black was a profiler who had the ability to stare at evil as it lay in the hearts of men. Via Negativa takes that idea to its logical extreme, with both Anthony Tipet and John Doggett connecting with something primal and evil within themselves.

In Goodbye to All That, the last episode of Millennium, Jordan Black asks her father whether good or evil will win when the end of the world arrives. Frank Black answers, quite simply, “It’s up to us.” With the eighth season’s fascination about what lies within and without, it feels like The X-Files has inherited these big existential questions about the nature of good and evil from its departed sibling. Episodes like Invocation and Via Negativa suggest that John Doggett has been chosen to carry the torch.

Everything comes to a head...

Everything comes to a head…

At the same time, this focus on doomsday cults was not the only aspect of Via Negativa that suggests a more cynical and skeptical approach towards the divine. At the very end of the episode, Doggett has nightmares about murdering Scully. He initially suspects that Anthony Tipet is responsible, but Scully informs him that Tipet is already dead. Tipet cannot be responsible for those visions that flooded into Doggett’s subconscious. When Scully suggests that it was just a bad dream, Doggett refutes this.

“In my dreams, I see… I saw terrible… violent images that… scared the living daylights out of me,” he confesses. “These things are a part of me. I can’t deny that, but… maybe… maybe they didn’t come from me.” This is an interesting idea, one that seems to suggest a much more sinister divine entity than the show has every really contemplated. Stories like The Goldberg Variation and Closure suggested that divine authority was ultimately benign. Via Negativa suggests that it might not be so.

Oh, rats!

Oh, rats!

The show alluded to this in the final act of Orison, where some strange force seemed to move through Scully so that she might murder an unarmed Donnie Pfaster. However, the execution there was kind of muddled. Although the path to Via Negativa was somewhat convoluted, Frank Spotnitz suggested in The Truth About Season Eight that the episode was about dark divinity from early in its production history:

“The idea began because I was on a rafting trip – I’d never been on a rafting trip before – with a guy I didn’t know very well. A group of friends, this was a friend of a friend. He was saying there was an image that really freaked him out — opening a tube of toothpaste and having blood come out. And I thought, ‘Wow! That is a weird image, but that’s impossible. How could you create that story where blood come out of the toothpaste?’ There was no real-world scenario I could come up with where that would happen. So I started thinking of dreams and nightmares. And then the story actually came to me very quickly about a cult trying to reach a higher plane and instead stumbling on a lower plane, a darker plane. Or what if the higher plane is a darker plane? What if we think we’re reaching up and we’re reaching down?”

It is a wonderful example of how ideas for The X-Files seemed to come from just about anywhere, and that those ideas seldom developed in an entirely linear path. Whatever the original inspiration for Via Negativa, the episode fits comfortably with the skepticism about divine power and authority that was seeded through Roadrunners earlier in the season.

Making quite a mess of it...

Making quite a mess of it…

Via Negativa combines the introspection and body horror themes of the eighth season into one grisly package. One of the big recurring conflicts of the eighth season is the conflict between what lies within and what is outside. Repeatedly, there is an emphasise on things hidden within. In Redrum, Scully suggests that the reason for what is happening to Martin Wells lays within himself. In Surekill, a man is granted the power to see through walls to what lies within. This is even expressed in the titles of the two two-parters that bookend the season.

In Via Negativa, it is suggested that the path to communion with the divine lies within rather than without. “Tipet thought he’d find God by looking in the darkness inside himself,” Doggett summarises towards the end of the episode. This is simply the latest iteration of a recurring eighth season motif. In Roadrunners, a parasitic brain slug literalises the idea of the divine within the human by posing as the Second Coming. There is a very conscious changes in emphasis between the seventh and eighth seasons.

Something's been gnawing at him...

Something’s been gnawing at him…

The scene between Doggett and the Lone Gunmen emphasises this, as they discuss Tipet’s appropriation of the Eye of Providence and how he changed the meaning of the symbol. “In the renaissance it represented an all-seeing god,” Byers explains. The X-Files itself used it in that way when the alien space-ships were designed so as to evoke the symbol; most obviously in Apocrypha. However, Tipet has inverted that meaning. Byers elaborates, “We believe its meaning here relates to eastern religion; belief in the third eye or what the Hindus call the Sahasrara.” 

When Tipet (and later Doggett) take on a third eye, he incorporates an aspect of the divine into himself. The destruction of those third eyes by way of axe represents a repudiation of that divinity. More than that, the Lone Gunmen suggest that the horrific wounds on the victims are actually wounds done to the inner self that are then projected on to the body. “The assassin makes his victims think they’re being hit by an axe,” Langly suggests. Frohike finishes the thought, “They believe it… it happens.” The internal self manifests upon the world.

“I really need to see my Optometrist.”

This link between the internal and the divine is reinforced by the recurring “bloody footprints” motif. The use of footprints in an overtly religious context cannot help but evoke the famous parable of the footprints in the sand, wherein a religious man travels alongside God in the desert. Looking back, the man wonders why there was only a single set of footprints through all the worst events of his life. The man wonders, did God abandon him at his moments of strife? God replies instead that he simply carried the man when the man was unable to walk.

It is a very effective metaphor for the power of religion to guide and strengthen a person during the worst moments of their lives. It is no wonder that authorship of that particular religious parable has been disputed and debated. However, the bloody footprint motif running through Via Negativa leads to a decidedly bleaker conclusion. The individual set of bloody footprints in the episode leads back to Doggett. The inference is clear; whatever darkness walks through the proverbial desert, it walks inside of man.

“Tipet does murder sleep.”

That said, it feels like Via Negativa is about more than just a broad statement about religion and spirituality. After all, the eighth season of The X-Files is struggling with its own issues of identity and definition without David Duchovny at its centre. Chris Carter described Mulder as the “absent centre” of the eighth season. Although Duchovny is only appearing in eleven episodes of the twenty-one episode season, Mulder remains a crucially important figure in the grand scheme of the show.

In a way, The X-Files is embarking on its own via negativa; the show is largely defining itself against an absent centre. Mulder might not physically be present, but he does exert an influence on the show. A large part of the eighth season is spent trying to figure out how The X-Files is supposed to work when one of its two most central characters just disappears from the narrative. Via Negativa is very much engaged with this idea, even though his name is only mentioned seven times over the course of the forty-five minute episode.

Knocking it all down...

Knocking it all down…

Although Via Negativa is not overtly about Mulder’s disappearance, the episode touches on the unspoken absence quite heavily. After all, Via Negativa was the last episode of The X-Files to air before the show went on hiatus for Christmas. It would be the last episode to air in 2000; it would be three weeks before audiences got a chance to watch Surekill. More than that, it was the first episode of The X-Files to be largely told from Doggett’s perspective. Up to this point, the show had looked at Doggett from the outside; even Invocation treated him as a mystery.

Via Negativa is the first time that Doggett is forced to work a case without Scully; it is the first time that Doggett encounters the Lone Gunmen; it is the first time that the show literally gets inside his head. Doggett is the viewpoint character for Via Negativa, which represents a considerable logic leap for the show. This is the first X-file that Doggett gets to close single-handedly, to the point where various characters make a point to congratulate him on a job well done. “That’s not bad, for a beginner,” Frohike muses.

Doggett's not a Lone...

Doggett’s not a Lone…

This was not necessarily a conscious choice on the part of the writing staff. Indeed, Frank Spotnitz was quite candid about the development of the episode in The Truth About Season Eight:

“I was eager in that episode to use the Lone Gunmen characters, to have them meet Doggett, because I knew I wouldn’t have much for Scully. Nobody knew how to write that episode because we didn’t have Gillian Anderson. So it was kinda like, ‘we’ve got this brand new character of John Doggett and you don’t have your continuing character; what are you going to do with this story?’ It was sort of a problem. And then it became this incredible bonus. Plus, a great opportunity for Robert Patrick’s character and for Robert Patrick the actor.

Whether by accident or design, it feels entirely appropriate that Via Negativa should be the first episode to really dig into John Doggett as a character an embrace him as a character within the central circle.

“You haven’t seen what I saw…”

A lot of the fun of Via Negativa is watching Doggett get slowly sucked into the bizarre and surreal world of The X-Files without Scully to hold his hand and easy his transition. Surveying the crime scene at the start of the episode, Doggett concedes, “This is damn weird.” Skinner effectively sets the tone for the rest of the episode by advising Doggett, “It gets weirder.” At this point, audiences are completely accustomed to the internal narrative logic of The X-Files. There is something delightfully odd about watching Doggett get thrown in at the deep end.

On paper, it would be easy to make this a frustrating experience for viewers. After all, Doggett was effectively filling the role that Scully had occupied during the first seven seasons of the show; it would be easy to treat Doggett as the show’s new stuck-in-mud skeptic, prone to the worst excesses of Scully’s stubborn refusal to accept the reality of the world around her during the first six seasons of the show. The production team cleverly avoid this problem with Doggett by allowing the character to occupy the role of skeptic without being confrontational about it.

The first eye...

The first eye…

Within introduced Doggett in a very abrasive and controversial manner, with Scully throwing a glass of water in his face. Since then, the production team have worked hard to paint Doggett as a stand-up guy; he is not trying to fight Scully or replace Mulder, he is simply trying to do the right thing. The show has gone out of its way to have Doggett demonstrate his bona fides. In Patience, he read every single X-file in the office; a fact that the eighth season makes a point to acknowledge in both Roadrunners and Via Negativa. Doggett is paying respect to Mulder.

More than that, Patience suggests that Doggett will readily defer to Scully’s experience. When Doggett talks about the difficulty he has making these sorts of “leaps”, the show suggests that he would perceive this as a weakness. He understands that the basic narrative logic of the show dictates that “leaps” are necessary, but also acknowledges that he is not a character capable of making the sorts of leaps in logic that the format requires. It allows Doggett to play the role of skeptic without antagonising Scully. This is essentially for the audience to accept him.

“The answer’s usually in the back here.”

Even without Scully, Via Negativa emphasises that Doggett really is trying to make this whole bizarre situation work. Without Scully, Doggett finds himself basically figuring out “what would Scully think?” as he works the case. “What if Tipet could invade his victims’… consciousness in their sleep?” he asks. “I mean, that’s why you’d be afraid to fall asleep, right? If you thought your nightmares might come true?” When Byers asks if he actually believes that, he honestly replies, “No… but if Tipet does… he’ll need more drugs… to keep killing.”

It is very fun to watch, if only because it feels quite different from all those sequences where Scully would stubbornly refuse to even play along with crazy concepts like Synchrony or Kaddish. Doggett is not a stick in the mud, which makes it easier to accept him as part of the team. The eighth season does a good job of allowing the audience to remain skeptical of John Doggett without giving them too much to worry about. Although introducing a new character to the show was always going to be risky, the production team work hard to minimise that risk.

“Well, he did go home with a splitting headache…”

As ever, a lot of the credit belongs to Robert Patrick for his performance as Doggett. During the promotion of the eighth season, much was made of the fact that Doggett was “a man’s man.” This is certainly true; he gets a number of big damn heroes moments in his early run of episodes. (He offers a last-minute save in both Roadrunners and Redrum, even getting to dramatically kick down a door in the latter after uttering a one-liner. “You’re supposed to say ‘What nanny-cam?'” Bam.) Patrick excels at this stuff, but he also brings so much more.

While Robert Patrick plays Doggett as a very arch and very masculine hero, there is an endearing vulnerability to the role. This shone through in Invocation, but it becomes particularly obvious in Via Negativa. Patrick is not afraid to play Doggett’s weakness and uncertainty as he copes with a world completely different than the one he knew only a few month earlier. The scene in Skinner’s office towards the end of the episode is powerful, as Dogget’s voice seems to crack under the strain, “I’m not sure… I’m awake.”

Robert Patrick pitches Doggett at the perfect intersection between

Robert Patrick pitches Doggett at the perfect intersection between “manly man” and “lost puppy.”

It is no wonder that Robert Patrick considers Via Negativa to be his favourite episode of the eighth season:

“I think there were a lot of stand-alone episodes we did that were good experiences and good episodes. The one that sticks out is Via Negativa,” he says of the episode which earned The X-Files its second viewer discretion warning for graphic content (the first being for Season Four’s Home). “That was the one where Doggett’s mind was possessed by the leader of a religious group that was invading people’s psyches and getting them to commit these atrocities on his behalf. He started to get into my head. That was a great experience as an actor. It was challenging and a lot of fun.”

Patrick gives a phenomenal performance throughout his two years in the role, but this is his first true showcase.

Some doors should never be opened...

Some doors should never be opened…

Via Negativa is an episode that is fundamentally about Doggett struggling with his place on the show. After all, the production team on The X-Files had long stressed that Mulder and Scully were the heart of the series; the show could survive while the X-files were closed or out of reach during the second and sixth seasons, but not without Mulder or Scully. This is not Doggett’s natural environment; this is not something with which Doggett is comfortable, and there is a sense that the show is not entirely comfortable with him.

Part of the joy of Via Negativa is watching Doggett struggle to wrap his head around concepts that seem pretty basic in the context of the seven seasons of The X-Files, but which are entirely alien to a former New York police officer. Doggett repeatedly stresses that he cannot simply slot into the narrative vacancy created by Mulder’s departure and Scully’s unavailability. “Just ’cause I’m assigned to the X-Files you want me to think like Scully or Mulder would,” he complains to Skinner. “You got the wrong guy.”

Eye-opening...

Eye-opening…

Indeed, the first three-quarters of Via Negativa offer a fairly standard investigation into a mysterious and inexplicable phenomena. However, the final act is where everything really comes together, as Doggett questions the very nature of his reality. In fact, it seems like the show is engaging with its own nightmares through Doggett. The final act of Via Negativa reveals that Doggett’s most deep-seated anxiety is that he might murder Scully. In a more abstract sense, it seems like Doggett is worried that he might kill The X-Files.

This was a very real fear in the context of the eighth season. The production team were desperately worried that the new character would be rejected by fans and viewers alike, that the act of replacing David Duchovny would essentially kill the show. After all, could The X-Files really continue on without Mulder? It was a question that many people were asking, whether in newspaper articles, in press coverage or even among the show’s hardcore on-line fandom. One imagines that even the production team had wrestled with the question among themselves.

Altared states...

Altared states…

This was not simply an academic issue. The absence of David Duchovny generated considerable press coverage at the start of the season. It could feel like the vultures were circling. It seemed like the show could not even count on its own fans to support it. Certain elements of fandom reacted militantly to the changes wrought by the eighth season. Some fans launched their own “alternate season eight” to fix perceived issues with the season; others launched “X-Philes for Mulder” claiming that “it’s about dignity, respect and integrity.” Also, ethics in journalism or something.

That pressure bled through into interviews with the creative team. Robert Patrick was always gracious and polite, but he was aware of the expectations being heaped upon him as he replaced a fan-favourite actor. He told one interviewer, “I hope you write some nice things about me that will help win over the fans, ’cause I’d kind of like to help keep the show going, you know?” It is hard not to root for Patrick and the rest of the staff in this situation; it feels like The X-Files is facing impossible odds.

“Do you want me to pinch you?”
Skinner, giving the shippers ideas.

It makes sense that this would bleed into the show. Via Negativa is an episode about all the darkness and unpleasantness locking inside people, so it is only fitting that Frank Spotnitz uses the script to explore the deepest and darkest fears of the eighth season. As Doggett imagines himself standing over Scully, holding a gigantic axe, it seems like a metaphor for the fear that Doggett might ultimately be responsible for killing the very show he was drafted in to save. (After all, television cancellation likes its axe metaphors – “axed”, “get the chop”, etc.)

Those fears were unfounded. The eighth season of The X-Files actually managed to mass exodus of viewers that had occurred during the sixth and seventh seasons. Although the average was still down slightly from season to season (from 8.6 to 8.2), no eighth season episode scored as few viewers as Brand X or Fight Club. The decline was also significantly smaller than it had been between the fifth and sixth seasons, or the sixth and seventh seasons. It was also much smaller than the average decline between the 1999/2000 season and the 2000/2001 season.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

By any objective measure of television at the turn of the twenty-first century, the eighth season was a success. The fears about John Doggett killing the show were completely unfounded. Of course, the ninth season would have its own problems rooted in some of the choices made during this initial Mulder-less season, but those had nothing to do with the introduction of John Doggett and the work of Robert Patrick. This should not need to be said, but it is worth repeating in the context of the controversy that still surrounds the final two years of the show.

While it is possible to look back with the benefit of hindsight and insist that any fears about John Doggett killing the show were completely unfounded, they were very real concerns at the start of the eighth season. Via Negativa plays with the idea, trapping Doggett in a nightmare version of The X-Files where he seems to deconstruct and devolve the show well past the point of recognition. Even before he brandishes an axe over Scully’s head, it seems like Doggett is afraid of doing fundamental damage to the fabric of the series.

“Hn. I guess Scully really goes for that mood lighting stuff.”

This starts when he dares to criticise the ending of Via Negativa. Deciding that he does not want to be a monster, Tipet tries to destroy his third eye with the help of a buzz saw. Doggett and Skinner intervene at the last possible minute, but Tipet lapses into a coma. In any other episode of The X-Files, this is where the “Executive Producer Chris Carter” credit would appear. This is where an episode of The X-Files usually ends, with the villain incapacitated and the threat dispatched.

In fact, it is easy enough to point out episodes that follow that format of avoiding any real closure. Tipet’s decision to kill himself rather than to live as a monster is a very tragic story beat, one that the show employed at the end of Hungry or Milagro. The idea of putting a villain into a coma rather than simply killing them has been employed in episodes like Pusher and Theef, but is really just a variation of the classic “monster is still out there!” endings of classic stories like Squeeze or The Host.

“Couldn’t you assign me over to the ‘Law & Order’ division? I think I’d do better there, sir.”

Mulder and Scully would accept this, because this is simply the narrative logic by which The X-Files must work. It is a horror show, after all. However, Doggett is simply not comfortable with this non-conclusion. He seems to pick at the non-ending, drawing attention to the logical gaps in the procedural model. “Case isn’t over yet, sir,” Doggett insists. “We have no murder weapon… no forensic evidence. Unless we accept Tipet’s own beliefs, which you yourself characterize as preposterous, we have no way of explaining how he killed any of these people.”

As a result, the episode cannot end, despite the fact that it has passed the point where it really should end. This explains why the final act develops in such a surreal and unlikely direction; Doggett has effectively broken the show by refusing to allow the resolution afforded by the script. Everything else that happens afterwards is effectively The X-Files reacting to Doggett as a potentially hostile entity, and Doggett wondering whether he will be responsible for killing the narrative that has enclosed him.

Mirror images...

Mirror images…

At one point in the dream, Doggett seems almost aware of the television show around him. “Last night I dreamt Tipet was inside my house holding an axe,” Doggett tells Skinner. Although he only caught a glimpse of Tipet in the mirror, the episode didn’t actually reveal the axe in Tipet’s hand until after Doggett had gone upstairs. It seems almost like Doggett is a passive observer of events outside his own awareness. His dream is the show, and the show is his dream.

Doggett’s hostile rejection of the script’s logical end point seems to send the series reeling. At one point, Doggett has an abstract conversation with Tipet in which his dialogue is looped backwards. This is an obvious reference to the symbolic dream sequences in Twin Peaks, a show that was very much a forerunner to The X-Files. It seems like the show is pushing back in response to Doggett’s resistance; perhaps it is trying to acclimatise Doggett to the reality of The X-Files by “easing him in” through an homage to Twin Peaks.

“You got this all backwards…”

All of this builds to climax where Doggett imagines himself sneaking into Scully’s apartment so as to cleave her skull open with a giant ceremonial axe. The entire sequence is beautifully shot by director Tony Wharmby and features a stunning performance from Robert Patrick. It turns out that Doggett’s deepest darkest nightmare is that he will kill Scully. Even before he handles the axe, Doggett imagines himself as a murderer: in an earlier vision, the bloody footprints led back to him; when he prepares to open the door to Scully’s apartment, there is blood on his hands.

Via Negativa seems to treat Scully as a metaphor for the show. Doggett is worried that he might murder the show around him. After all, certain hard-line fans would accuse the character of trespassing within the show much like he intrudes into Scully’s apartment. The image of Doggett holding a large axe over Scully is a powerfully evocative representation of how certain militant aspects of fandom interpreted the character. It is powerful and deeply unsettling stuff.

Blood on his hands...

Blood on his hands…

However, the most uncomfortable aspect of all this is not so much that Doggett imagines himself killing the show. The more unsettling suggestion is that Doggett might come to embody the series’ death impulses, the part of the show that wants to die without Mulder. Is the character of John Doggett simply an expression of those deep-seated drives? Talking about his inaction as Tipet put a saw blade through his skull, Doggett confesses, “I know that this sounds strange, but there’s a… part of me says what if… this guy was right? What if I shouldn’t have let him die?”

This is one of the more interesting questions around the eighth and ninth seasons of the show. What if the question about the eighth and ninth seasons is not simply whether it was possible for the show to continue without Mulder, but rather whether the show wanted to continue without Mulder? After all, the show never truly accepts Mulder’s absence, even when it becomes clear that David Duchovny has no interest in remaining part of its present. The decision to make Mulder so crucial a figure despite that absence does feel slightly self-destructive.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

It is impossible to know whether The X-Files could actually have survived without Mulder (and Scully) in the long-term. However, the ninth season would make it very clear that the show simply did not want to get past the characters of Mulder and Scully in the short term. The series is unwilling to press ahead into a future without Mulder, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no future with David Duchovny. In its darkest and most introspective moments, Via Negativa seems to touch on these questions and ask if The X-Files wants to die.

It is a very dark place for the show to go at this particular moment, and it is to the credit of Via Negativa that the show affords no easy answers. Perhaps there are no answers to be found, even as the show goes on.

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