Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

The X-Files – This is Not Happening (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.

The eighth season of The X-Files is remarkable in a number of ways.

It accomplishes a lot of things, and does them in a very logical and linear way. The departure of David Duchovny at the end of the seventh season set an agenda for the season ahead, and gave the production team a very clear set of goals. The eighth season required more discipline and planning than any of the previous seven seasons, with less room for improvisation or error. If Chris Carter and his team were to succeed at bringing the eighth season to life, it would require even more care and discipline than the show usually required.

"Nooooo!"

“Nooooo!”

One of the least discussed aspects of the eighth season is the care that the production team took to structure it. The eighth season of The X-Files is the most meticulously and carefully structured season of The X-Files, clearly adhering to an internal three act structure. The first seven or eight episodes (Within to Via Negativa or Per Manum) are all set-up. The next five (Surekill to Medusa) explored that new set-up. The final eight (This is Not Happening to Existence) closed out the plots and threads of the season, leaving the show in a very different place.

The decision to shift Per Manum around in the broadcast order changes things slightly, but there is still a sense that the eighth season was entering its end game in late February 2001. Positioned at the start of the season’s third act, This is Not Happening offers perhaps the bleakest cliffhanger and puts our heroes at their lowest possible point. Adhering to the classic three-act structure, This is Not Happening serves as the emotional climax of the season. With a five week gap between the broadcast of This is Not Happening and DeadAlive, this is one hell of a cliffhanger.

"Have you seen this devilishly handsome man?"

“Have you seen this devilishly handsome man?”

The closing images of This is Not Happening are heartbreaking. Mulder has finally been found, but his body is dead. Scully realises that Jeremiah Smith might be able to resurrect him, but is not able to reach the healer in time. At the climax of the episode, Jeremiah Smith is spirited away by the colonists as part of their continuing plot to erase any evidence of the first six seasons. All is lost, to the point that This is Not Happening closes on an image of Scully dropping to her knees and letting out a big frustrated “nooooo!” Gillian Anderson is amazing.

It is a clever ending, all the cleverer for where it comes in the context of the eighth season. This is Not Happening was the last episode to air during Sweeps; with public interest in Mulder’s disappearance, it was sure to grab the attention of audiences. However, those audience members who tuned in would have to wait five whole weeks to see a resolution to the story. Although by no means as long a wait as the gap between seasons, the only thing more devastating than that cliffhanger is the fact that it would be more than a month before closure might be offered.

Good job, Doggett.

Good job, Doggett.

However, it is also a very familiar ending. This is Not Happening is an ending perfectly calibrated to push our characters (and the audience) to the very edge of their emotional limits. From the moment that Skinner explains the details of the case to Scully, it seems clear that This is Not Happening will only get bleaker. “Nothing says that we’re going to stumble over him in some field,” Skinner tries to assure Scully. “Nothing says he won’t be fine.” It seems that Skinner is blissfully out of touch with the episode unfolding around him.

The tension gradually builds and builds. Abductees are being returned, barely alive. A secret cult seems to be gathering up those bodies for some ambiguous purpose. This is Not Happening makes a point to include lots of late night location work, as if to emphasise the darkness and death running through the heart of the eighth season. When Mulder is returned, it is no surprise that he is already dead. When Scully races to find Jeremiah Smith, it is no surprise that he is gone. That does not make the climax any less heartbreaking.

This is not good.

This is not good.

The structure of the cliffhanger at the end of This is Not Happening recalls the ending to Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Our heroes are essentially defeated, hope appears to be lost; the lovable rogue of the cast has been taken off the board. Even Scully’s big “noooo!” recalls Luke’s reaction to the revelation at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. The similarities extend even beyond those of plot or narrative, extending to the way that the story is told in media.

There is a gap in time between This is Not Happening and DeadAlive. Fans have a five-week wait before they can see the conclusion; the characters within the narrative experience a three-month gap between the teaser of DeadAlive and the rest of the episode. This recalls the similar time gaps left in the wake of The Empire Strikes back, for both characters and audiences. It would be three years before fans got to see the resolution to the cliffhanger in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

Letting go.

Letting go.

It makes sense for the production team to draw upon the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Seventies cinema had been a major influence on those who worked on the show; it was very much within their frame of reference. David Duchovny’s concept of an “alien bounty hunter” in Colony seems to owe a debt to Boba Fett. Darin Morgan’s Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” borrows the opening shot of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Chris Carter’s idea of a galactic civil war in Patient X and The Red and the Black represents a very literal form of “Star Wars.”

More than that, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back is rightfully iconic. It has been suggested that the film’s cliffhanger ending “introduced an entire generation of moviegoers to the notion of tragedy.” While that might be a slight exaggeration, it has been argued that the film’s resolution (or lack of a resolution) was responsible for “forever cementing one particular take on three-act structure in the minds of an entire generation.” Certainly, litres upon litres of digital ink have been spent assessing the impact of the film on producers and audiences.

An alien environment...

An alien environment…

Over the course of the eighth season, the production team have made a point to lean upon iconic and memorable imagery. The eighth season of The X-Files features a number of major plot points that hark towards larger mythic structures. Mulder’s resurrection in DeadAlive is just another varition on the resurrection of the Christ, this time substituing three months for the three days. The birth of William in Existence is framed as a twenty-first century version of the Nativity. Doggett’s pursuit of Mulder echoes the Grail Quest, with Mulder as the Fisher King.

With all of these grand mythic structures, it makes sense for the eighth season to transition from its second act into its third by drawing on one of the most iconic cliffhangers in popular culture. There is a reason that The Empire Strikes Back is emulated with such frequency and affection; it is a devastatingly affecting. Given the structure of the season around it, there really is no better choice to serve as the template of This is Not Happening than The Empire Strikes Back.

Sad Scully is sad.

Sad Scully is sad.

Structure is key here. Director Irvin Kershner has argued that the only reason the film embraced such a bold downbeat cliffhanger was because it was not actually the end of a particular story:

I knew in the making of Empire that this was to be the second of a trilogy. Therefore I considered it the second act, the second movement—but it wouldn’t have the same climax that an ordinary film would have, where it sets up a premise, moves along, there is a payoff with a grand climax of some kind of action. The action in this film came at the beginning because it is a continuation of the first film.

After all, the ending of The Empire Strikes Back is not a playful “… and the adventure continues!” in the style of The Italian Job. It is an ending much more specific in its ruthlessness.

Picture this...

Picture this…

Producer Gary Kurtz argues that the ending of the film works so well because it is really the end of the second act of a much larger story. As radical is it might have seemed to movie-goers at the time, it was actually quite a conservative approach to storytelling:

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down,” Kurtz said. “Empire was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but Empire felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right. And it was my goodbye to a big part of my life.”

In essence, This is Not Happening is about watching Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz set the tree on fire in the most brutal manner possible. The episode sets up a cliffhanger that seems almost impossibly bleak; it is a set-up so horrifying that it seems hard to imagine how DeadAlive will get out of it.

Tree of life...

Tree of life…

(Indeed, it could be argued that DeadAlive really doesn’t know how to get out of the cliffhanger ending to This is Not Happening. While the resolution makes a certain amount of sense from a thematic perspective, it is a lot more difficult to justify in terms of basic plotting. Still, it is hard to blame This is Not Happening for creating a cliffhanger so effective that there’s no way out. Vince Gilligan has suggested writers have a fondness for writing themselves into corners. “Some people out there walk on tightropes for a living. This is our version of walking on tightropes.”)

None of this would be possible if the eighth season didn’t have a very careful and very meticulous structure to it. The writers on The X-Files have always adopted a somewhat casual approach to long-form plotting, embarking in a particular direction with a vague sense of where they might want to end up at some point in the future. This makes for very exciting television as the mythology expands outwards and outwards, but leads to an awkward conclusion where stories like Two Fathers and One Son or Sein und Zeit and Closure have to tidy everything up.

Back on the table...

Back on the table…

The eighth season has perhaps the strongest structure of any X-Files season. The third season is the only season that can match the eighth season for thematic consistency and unity, but the eighth season has the luxury of telling a (largely) self-contained story. The search for Mulder and mystery of Scully’s pregnancy provide two very clear throughlines across the season, plot points that demand resolutions before the end of the year. The production team have to resolve Mulder’s disappearance while Duchovny is on contract, and Scully cannot remain pregnant forever.

While this explains the larger structure of the eighth season, there were other factors that forced the writers to carefully plan out the season ahead. At the end of the seventh season, David Duchovny had signed on to appear in eleven of the season’s twenty-one episodes; however, the actor had very limited availability. The production team were limited in when they could actually use Mulder by the particulars of David Duchovny’s scheduling. That meant that the production team had to manage Mulder’s appearances very carefully; this affected the shape of the season.

"Just getting a bit of a stretch and tuck..."

“Just getting a bit of a stretch and tuck…”

Indeed, as make-up artist Cheri Medcalf explained to The Complete X-Files, many of the scenes with Mulder’s body in This is Not Happening and DeadAlive were actually filmed without the use of David Duchovny:

“That’s a photo double with a mask of David Duchovny,” Cheri Medcalf said of the exhumation in 2003, “It was a brilliant job because no one knew that.”

It is an effective example of the show brushing up against the limitations of imposed by the contract negotiations with Duchovny. It is also an example of the make-up department’s great work. They won an Emmy for DeadAlive.

Dumped.

Dumped.

Of course, This is Not Happening marks a point of transition for the show – several points of transition, in fact. This is the episode where David Duchovny returns, even if the episode ends with his fate left somewhat ambiguous. Although moving Per Manum around in the broadcast order meant that the actor appeared in the final nine episodes of the season, This is Not Happening is the episode that brings Mulder back as an on-going present-day concern for the series. He is part of the eighth season from here through Existence.

It also marks the point at which the eighth season becomes incredibly serialised; it is perhaps the most aggressively serialised stretch of the show’s run, surpassing the start of the second and sixth seasons. Although not every episode in this stretch is part of the larger mythology story arc, the characterisation and development remains consistent. The story of Mulder’s resurrection in This is Not Happening, DeadAlive and Three Words segues to Mulder’s developing relationship with Doggett in Three Words, Empedocles and Vienen. And so on.

Walter's PPK...

Walter’s PPK…

This final eight-episode stretch of the eighth season is about transitioning between what The X-Files was and what it would become. It is a coda to the “Mulder and Scully” era of the show, positioning the series so that it might continue on without either. It is too much to describe it as a finalé, as Two Fathers, One Son, Sein und Zeit, Closure and Requiem were already finalés in their own ways. It is, however, an epilogue that allows a happy ever after and an endorsement of the characters who will fill Mulder and Scully’s shoes.

Notably, This is Not Happening features both “generations” of X-Files characters. Scully manages to find Mulder’s body, while Doggett brings in Reyes to consult on the case. This is Not Happening is very much a point of intersection between the past and the future, offering closure to what the show was while hinting at what it might be at some point in the future. It is, perfectly encapsulating the paradox at the heart of the eighth season as a whole, the beginning and the end simultaneously.

Waiting outside...

Waiting outside…

The introduction of Reyes at this point of the season is another example of the careful structuring of the eighth season as a whole. In The Truth About Season Eight, Frank Spotnitz explained that the character had been planned since the start of the season, even if her introduction was carefully delayed:

Let’s continue the show. Let’s see if we can move on to another generation. And so we knew – really from the beginning of season eight – that we were going to introduce the Monica Reyes character. She wasn’t named at that point, but we knew another female character would be introduced who would be a believer. As Mulder had been a believer.

As throughout season eight, death and rebirth are thematically connected. It is no coincidence that the show’s fourth and final lead character is introduced in the same episode where Mulder’s dead body is returned.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog...

Jeremiah was a bullfrog…

Reyes is an interesting character in a number of respects, because she is perhaps the only one of the show’s four lead characters who never quite clicks. Mulder and Scully are rightfully iconic on their own terms, and Doggett has slotted quite comfortably into show. While the writing staff and Robert Patrick helped to integrate Doggett rather seamlessly into the show, Reyes’ arrival is a bit more jarring. The show never feels entirely comfortable with her, and she never feels entirely comfortable within it.

Of course, there was always going to be hostility to the idea of replacing Mulder and Scully, and the introduction of Reyes makes it perfectly clear what the production team are trying to do. Whereas the introduction of Doggett alone was a necessary stopgap for a Mulder-less season, the introduction of a diametrically-opposed counterpart (male-to-female, believer-to-skeptic) makes it clear that Doggett is not just a temporary substitute. Reyes makes the implicit suggestion that the show was drifting away from Mulder and Scully a lot more real.

The hills have eyes...

The hills have eyes…

So it makes sense that reaction to Reyes was strong, tending towards the negative. Completing a “next generation” of the show with Doggett, critics were quick to argue that Doggett and Reyes were “the quasi-Mulder and Scully… the Diet Coke of Mulder and Scully” or that they “were colourless and too obviously a shadow Scully-and-Mulder.” None of which is untrue, but which does demonstrate why the odds were stacked against Reyes from her inception in a way they weren’t with Doggett.

Still, there are problems with the Reyes character immediately obvious from This is Not Happening. As much as Mulder and Scully were iconic archetypes, their characterisation was almost immediately more nuanced and sophisticated. Mulder might claim to trust no one, but that was at odds with his desire to believe; Scully might be a skeptic, but she wore a cross around her neck. Doggett and Reyes lack that subtle shading, drawn in even broader archetypes. Doggett is a “knee-jerk” skeptic, whereas Reyes will believe in literally everything.

Reyes of light...

Reyes of light…

As such, Doggett and Reyes feel almost like crayon-sketches of Mulder and Scully, complex characters who have evolved into crudely-drawn archetypes after seven years of pop culture ubiquity. It isn’t so much that Doggett and Reyes are funhouse mirrors of Mulder and Scully, it’s that they are blurry black-and-white photos of Mulder and Scully captured as a distance so great that any definition or distinction has faded so as to render the duo as amorphous blobs. Doggett has it easier than Reyes, if only because the character is more grounded.

There was always a specificity to Mulder’s belief in the paranormal; there was a sense that Mulder’s in-depth knowledge of strange phenomenon was something that told us a lot about who he was and where he came from. He needed to believe in aliens, because that meant he could believe his sister was alive. The show inverted that dynamic with Doggett, revealing that Doggett’s refusal to believe was rooted in the loss of his own son. However, this means that Reyes has no such anchor or grounding.

Heal thyself...

Heal thyself…

Like Scully, Reyes has no particular grounding in her belief system. There is no trauma that explains why Reyes can belief in aliens or ghosts or demons, much as there is no trauma to explain why Scully spent six years refusing to believe in such things. Reyes is just super casual about extreme possibilities. “Let’s just say I don’t not believe,” she tells Scully. “As I said, I try to stay open.” However, while it makes perfect sense for Scully to question the existence of liver-eating fluke monsters “just because”, the same does not apply to Reyes.

Scully doesn’t need an excuse for her rational belief system because… well, it’s normal. It is a position with which most viewers can empathise. The reason that Scully has trouble believing in men made of cancer or assassins who can kill with their voice is because they do not exist; Scully’s position needs no rationalisation because it reflects the default. In contrast, Reyes holds a series of beliefs that would be completely ridiculous and contradictory if she didn’t happen to exist within the framework of The X-Files.

"Don't worry, you'll love her..."

“Don’t worry, you’ll love her…”

This makes the character feel particularly unreal and contrived. She is perfectly tailored to The X-Files, but this draws attention to her nature as a fictional construct rather than anything more substantial. It seems strange that her career has advanced to this level, given how a professional career in law enforcement would seem to favour rational deduction over emotive belief. It seems hard to believe her peers or superiors are comfortable enough with her methods that she could advance as far as she has.

Still, the biggest problems with Reyes all lie ahead, when the show removes the safety crutch of Mulder and when the production team begin to cycle Gillian Anderson into the background. She works quite well in the context of This is Not Happening, which does a great job of broadening out the cast. Indeed, it suggests that The X-Files might actually be developing into an ensemble show. All five actors who would appear in the opening credits of The Truth receive a credit on This is Not Happening.

Nike shoes...

Nike shoes…

Indeed, the character of Reyes was introduced at this point to help “balance” the show’s cast, which was really moving beyond the two-lead template for the first time:

“We were looking at a series with three leads-Mulder, Doggett and Scully-and thought it would be awkward,” Spotnitz explains. “It felt like the believer/skeptic weights were off balance, and we needed somebody else in the believer column.”

These changes make a great deal of sense from the perspective of the production team, even if David Duchovny would take issue with the shift in emphasis away from Mulder and Scully.

Hit record.

Hit record.

The show had allowed supporting characters to take the limelight away from Mulder and Scully before. Zero Sum and S.R. 819 had focused on the character of Walter Skinner, Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind centred on the Lone Gunmen, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and En Ami had devoted time to the Cigarette-Smoking Man. However, those were very pointedly “off-format” episodes. They were not a full third of the a season that also mixed in character and story arcs for Mulder and Scully.

After all, the eighth season represents (or should represent) a passing of the torch between two very different versions of the show. It makes sense that the final stretch of the season should split its focus between Mulder/Scully and Doggett/Reyes. Of course, this “passing of the torch” is somewhat undercut by the ninth season’s reluctance to let go of Mulder and Scully. It seems like a lot of problems with the ninth season are rooted in the eighth. The ninth season refuses to treat the eighth as a period of transition, instead trying to turn it into a status quo.

Big desk to fill...

Big desk to fill…

On the commentary for DeadAlive, Frank Spotnitz discussed how the final stretch of the eighth season subtly shifted its perspective to align with that of John Doggett rather than with the two original characters:

And there was a  very subtle shift in point of view over this season most especially, it wasn’t so subtle by season nine, which was that this series was gradually being told from John Doggett’s point of view. I say gradually because clearly this is a scene that’s not, this was still with Scully here, but I think your sympathies and your take on the story really sort of line up with Doggett’s more than anybody else’s, which was really kind of a bold thing to do in a series like this as well.

The eighth season manages this transition with considerable grace and skill. The first six episodes of the season (through to Via Negativa) had treated Doggett as alien and unknowable. The final stretch of the season serves to peel back the last of his layers.

Keep on (pick up) truckin'...

Keep on (pick up) truckin’…

Although the idea of The X-Files as an ensemble show was a radical idea at the time, This is Not Happening manages the transition with grace and dignity. For all the bleakness of the episode, it is notable that This is Not Happening boils down to a story about different people trying to help in their own way. No major player in the episode is hoping for anything but Mulder’s safe return. Krycek and Kersh do not appear until DeadAlive. What conflict occurs is over the best way to ensure Mulder’s safe return.

Scully and Doggett disagree over the course of the episode, but it is clear that both are trying to find answers on their own terms. Doggett even drafts in Reyes, hoping that she might find a way to reconcile their different opinions. “I don’t understand,” Scully states upon meeting Doggett in the field. “You called us all the way out here.” Doggett explains, “To get another point of view.” As in stories like Patience, Via Negativa and The Gift, it feels like Doggett is genuinely trying to understand this new world into which he has been thrown.

"Take me to your (cult) leader..."

“Take me to your (cult) leader…”

Even the mysterious cult at the heart of This is Not Happening is trying to help in their own way. Jeremiah Smith and Absalom are trying to recover the abandoned abductees so that they might heal the horrific wounds imposed upon their bodies. Their intentions are righteous, but the big question is whether or not they will actually be able to help. “We were almost too late,” Jeremiah Smith reflects as he passes his palm over Teresa Hoese’s bruised and battered face. They are trying to save Mulder as much as Scully is.

The alien colonists who are discarding these bodies are far removed from the plot of the episode. The Alien Bounty Hunter does not appear, there is no Cigarette-Smoking Man. The colonists tend to show up and dump their victims like little more than waste before vanishing into thin air.Upon studying Terese Hoese’s wounds, Doctor Desai implores the investigators, “Just promise me, whoever did this, you guys will do everything in your power to catch them.” However, those responsible are far beyond reach.

Just in case you missed it, Gillian Anderson is phenomenal this episode.

Just in case you missed it, Gillian Anderson is phenomenal this episode.

Again, this is in keeping with the themes of the eighth season. The human collaborators who drove so much of the first six seasons are now dead. The eighth season of The X-Files is the only season that does not feature an appearance from the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the very embodiment of human corruption and moral decay. The eighth season suggests that the colonists have grown tired of their fallible human associates, cutting out the middle-men in their plot to subjugate mankind.

This storytelling approach would not be sustainable in the long term. The ninth season would falter when it tried to pick up the threads laid down by the eighth season. The show’s original mythology had been so compelling because it was a study of human frailty and weakness, of the way that power structures designed to protect could so easily be used to exploit. The eighth season completely strips that away in favour of a more simplistic science-fiction set-up, in which the alien is infiltrating and subverting without human compliance.

Well, so much for those other seven episodes on his contract...

Well, so much for those other seven episodes on his contract…

At the same time, this set-up works quite well within the framework of the eight season as a whole, which is preoccupied with the gulf that exists between the self and the other. Demolishing the human conspiracy allows a firmer divide between “human” and “alien.” It changes the way that The X-Files approaches familiar narrative elements by rendering those in authority as explicitly alien, reflecting attention back to those confronted (and victimised) by abuse. This is Not Happening is about the response to horror, not the creation of it.

The theme of fear runs through This is Not Happening, exploring how fear controls the way that people process the world around them. Fear is as infectious and corrupting as any alien virus, and This is Not Happening suggests that fear clouds the ability of anybody involved in the hunt for Mulder to actually accomplish anything. “I don’t know Agent Mulder,” Reyes confesses to Scully. “And I don’t have any feelings about him. But I am feeling your fear. And fear’s not going to help you find him or anyone else.”

Step into the light...

Step into the light…

Similarly, Doggett’s insecurities are rooted in his own set of fears. “I don’t know how she’s doing it in there,” Doggett remarks as Scully works her way through an autopsy of one of the returned victims. “With everything she’s feeling. What she’s afraid of.” Reyes immediately understands the connection that exists between all of this. “You know all too well,” she observes. “It was your fear, too.” Freed from the burden of conspirators and labyrinthine plotting, This is Not Happening is free to focus on the raw emotion of it all.

The fear at the heart of This is Not Happening is not merely personal, it also unfolds at a larger cultural level. Interrogating Absalom, Doggett and Scully remark upon the security features in place around his compound. “So these video cameras that you have around your compound, how do they help?” Scully wonders. Absalom explains, “Abductees… live in fear of being taken again. The cameras give them a sense of security.” Of course, the cameras serve another purpose. “Or makes them afraid to leave,” Doggett reflects.

"Cheese it, the Feds!"

“Cheese it, the Feds!”

This discussion feels surprisingly timely for a show airing in February 2001, seven months before the events of 9/11 would change the geopolitical and cultural landscape completely. It has become quite fashionable to suggest that the events of 9/11 created a “culture of fear”, but that feels like an over-simplication. As Frank Furedi points out, fear was a part of political life long before 9/11:

Fear of terrorism is not new either. Even before 9/11 governments couldn’t resist the temptation to play the terror card. Speculation about ‘catastrophic terrorism’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was rife in the 1990s. It was President Bill Clinton who appointed a national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism in May 1998, in order to ‘bring the full force of all of our resources to bear swiftly and effectively’. In November 1998, a group of foreign policy experts claimed that, ‘The danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against America and its allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962’. 

A few weeks before September 2001, Sir William Stewart, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser, warned that the New Labour government’s difficulty in dealing with the foot-and-mouth outbreak showed just how vulnerable Britain was to any future threat from biological warfare. The ease with which he could jump from a crisis of British farming to the spectre of biological warfare highlighted the salience of fear as a political resource today.

After all, evidence reveals that the apparatus of the surveillance state was in place long before the turn of the twenty-first century. Indeed, The X-Files had explored that theme quite a bit during the nineties, with Mulder discovering this apartment is under surveillance in both E.B.E. and Gethsemane. The justifications used for the surveillance state are similar to those Absalom employs: people are scared, but this makes them safe.

Time for some J.D.? I think so.

Time for some J.D.? I think so.

Of course, Absalom’s justification for the security tapes hits on another recurring eighth season theme, albeit one that seems more uncomfortable in the wake of 9/11. The tapes are a security mechanism that help to keep his community safe; they serve as a barrier that prevents the “alien” from intruding. Absalom has set up an isolated and withdrawn community that can hold its own against the alien invaders. The cameras become a tool through which Absalom can enforce the divide between “self” and “other.”

This divide bubbles through This Not Happening, which seems to suggest that other people are so inherently alien that it becomes impossible to work together in pursuit of a common goal. Doggett can’t find common ground with Scully, so he brings in Reyes. Reyes manages to be unable to find common ground with either, with Scully suggesting the differences are so fundamental that Doggett cannot parse them. “I’m glad you agree with her, Agent Doggett, because I’m not even sure that she agrees with you.”

Body work.

Body work.

This confusion and difficulty reconciling the self only causes more trouble at the climax. “Where’s Mulder?” Scully demands. Jeremiah Smith rather calmly explains, “You came crashing in here. I was trying to help him, too.” Everything comes so close to working, only to fall apart at the last possible moment because the characters cannot understand one another. There is a dissonance between the characters, who all share a common goal, but cannot come together to realise that goal. (Perhaps Mulder is an absent centre who cannot hold.)

This dissonance is reflected in the title of the episode, which seems to an homage to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” In that episode, a confused pilot repeats the words ad nauseam as a madness mantra. However, the use of the phrase “this is not happening” in This is Not Happening feels more akin to use of the repeated phrase “I’m a dead man” in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” It is a phrase repeated with varying degrees of severity throughout the episode, applied to situations both banal and absurd.

Cult appeal...

Cult appeal…

Of course, the central point of This is Not Happening is that this is – in fact – happening. While all the characters might be attempting to disengage or detach from the story unfolding around them, there is no level of dissonance that can prevent the episode from reaching its inevitable conclusion. In many ways, it feels like a message to the show’s fractured fanbase. Many fans reacted with shock to the idea of The X-Files continuing without David Duchovny. It seems quite likely some even repeated those exact words.

This is Not Happening is careful to frame the idea of The X-Files as an ensemble drama as a temporary chapter in the show’s history. It seems quite clear that this will not be the new status quo going forward if The X-Files enters a ninth or tenth season. Instead, it is time for Mulder and Scully to take a bow, whether fans are comfortable with that or not. This is Not Happening is largely about reconciling what is actually happening. As Reyes reflects, it is perhaps about “what happened being different from what we want to have happened.”

Starin' at the stars...

Starin’ at the stars…

Fans might want the show to continue on with Mulder and Scully forever, but that is simply not possible. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are real people with real lives and real obligations beyond this show and these characters. As hard is it might be for the fans (and – as the ninth season suggests – the show), it might just be time to let them go. This is Not Happening is not an episode about bringing Mulder back so that the production team can restore the status quo. It is about bringing Mulder back so as to say goodbye one last time.

The conversation between Scully and Skinner about starlight does more than hark back to Closure. It suggests that the end is near for Mulder and Scully. “I once had a talk with Mulder about starlight,” Scully reflects. “How it’s billions of years old. Stars that are now long dead whose light is still traveling through time. It won’t die, that light. Maybe that’s the only thing that never does. He said that’s where souls reside.” It is a touching thought, suggesting that everything is immortal as long as there remains an eye to perceive it.

However, it also takes on a deeper meaning in the context of where the show is at this point in time. For characters captured on film and broadcast on television, Mulder and Scully will forever be preserved in beams of light. Mulder and Scully are immortal, in a very literal sense. It seems quite likely that copies of these episodes will exist (and, hopefully, enjoyed) long after David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have retired. The “souls” of the characters reside in the beams of light that hit the eye every time that somebody sticks on an episode.

The seventh season of The X-Files was preoccupied with a perpetual state of undeath, reflecting the ambiguity of whether or not the show would be allowed to retire at the end of the season. In contrast, the eighth season is obsessed with death and rebirth. The eighth season seems to insist that this will be the end, even if it is not the final season. The show might continue on past this point, but only after it is reborn as an entirely new show. Understandably, death is the dominant theme of This is Not Happening.

Much like Anthony Tipet in Via Negativa, Absalom is introduced as the former leader of a failed doomsday cult. Absalom was simply waiting for the end of the world, for the ultimate expression of death and destruction. Reyes explains that Absalom is “a religious zealot who escaped a shoot-out in Idaho. Where he was the nominal leader of a doomsday cult who believed aliens would take over the world at the millennium. Disgraced when they didn’t, he fled and tried a more ecumenical scam: credit card fraud.”

In some respects, Absalom embodies some of the core frustrations of the eighth season. There was a sense that The X-Files was supposed to end at the millennium, that the seventh season was supposed to be the last year of the show. The only reason that the eighth season is happening is because the show wasn’t allowed to retire at the end of its seventh year on the show. The eighth season is the result of a thwarted doomsday, a delayed (if not thwarted) armageddon.

It should be noted that the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance (which arguably runs through This is Not Happening) was largely based upon Leon Festinger’s study of failed apocalyptic cults. As Festinger noted in When Prophecy Fails, the mind has trouble reconciling such a huge gap:

Now what is the effect of the disconfirmation, of the unequivocal fact that the prediction was wrong, upon the believer? The disconfirmation introduces an important and painful dissonance. The fact that the predicted events did not occur is dissonant with continuing to believe both the prediction and the remainder of the ideology of which the prediction was the central item. The failure of the prediction is also dissonant with all the actions that the believer took in preparation for its fulfillment. The magnitude of the dissonance will, of course, depend on the importance of the belief to the individual and on the magnitude of his preparatory activity.

This dissonance plays through and around This is Not Happening. Absalom experienced dissonance when his prophecy did not come true. Scully and Doggett experience dissonance in the hunt for Mulder. Certain fans are experience dissonance in reconciling what they want The X-Files to be with what it is.

The trick in dealing with these sorts of conflicts and gaps is to reconfigure personal belief systems to reconcile the differences and inconsistencies. For Absalom, that means believing that the world has actually ended. “I predicted there would be an alien invasion at the millennium,” he warns Doggett and Scully. “I was right, it turns out. Because that’s when this all started.” For The X-Files itself, it is in finding a way for the show to end without actually ending; finding a way to allow the eighth season to be the final season without being the final season.

This is Not Happening does a great job reconciling all of these issues and difficulties, allowing the show to make some nods towards closure and setting in motion the final arc of the season. This is happening, whether fans want it to or not.

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

Advertisements

2 Responses

  1. In rewatching this show I’ve found I either don’t enjoy an episode as much as I remember or I really like episodes I don’t remember caring as much for. TINH is the only one so far that I remember really enjoying but this time I really like it for all different reasons.
    For one, following Per Manum seems like a smart decision. In Per Manum, Scully was frantic and almost uncharacteristically fearful. TINH pays that off very well. It sets up a palpable sense of dread throughout but her own fears of finding Mulder dead almost become a self fulfilling prophecy. Her fear of what Doggett suspects in regards to the cult prompts him to bring Reyes into the case. Their first meeting even suggests as much with Scully pointing out that it “feels like therapy.” It is Reyes who moves the plot forward from there. She finds Gary’s body, which leads her to Absalom.
    But while this episode is the climax for the abduction arc, it also transitions neatly into Carter’s themes for the last stretch of the season. Jeremiah Smith appears to remind the audience of the miraculous. But he is taken away so the show can move into territory explored in DeadAlive and Existence. The miracles in those episodes might have been deliberately ambiguous as to whether they were human or divine but they still fairly explicitly reject the notion that they are in some way tied to the show’s mythology or aliens. The use of Jeremiah Smith here is a nice jumping off point for the audience into that.

    • That’s a very good point about Jeremiah Smith, and how it builds towards the revelations concerning William at the end of the season. I had never thought of it like that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: