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The X-Files – Essence (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 mythology of The X-Files is a strange beast.

In the show’s declining years, it frequently became a stick with which the show might be beaten by critics and fans who had grown exhausted of ambiguity and labyrinthine plotting. Steven King lamented the fact that the show “blundered off into a swamp of black oil, and in that swamp it died.” In assessing the impact of the series, Joyce Millman described the mythology as a “sadistically convoluted plot line.” Juliette Harrisson complained that the entire mythology ended up “so twisted and incomprehensible by the end.”

Oh, baby.

Oh, baby.

In hindsight, it seems like history has not been kind to the mythology. In the years since the show went off the air, it seems that fans have come to value the episodic “monster of the week” stories ahead of the central story arc about aliens plotting to colonise the planet. This is ironic, given the attention devoted to the mythology while the show was on the air. The mythology dominated season premieres and finalés, taking the limelight during Sweeps and commanding impressive production values.

This assessment of the mythology is at once fair and unfair. Examined from far enough away, the mythology was linear and logical: alien colonists were coming back to reclaim the planet and enslave (or exterminate) mankind. Everything else was just window-dressing, with the mythology exploring the compromise and collaboration that facilitated this plan. The mythology was, at its best, an exploration of human weakness and the corruption of authority; a timeless (and almost Shakespearean) tragedy. From a sufficient distance, it was not hard to follow.

Oh, alien baby.

Oh, alien baby.

However, the details tend to create confusion, with everything getting a little muddled as The X-Files piles compelling and memorable visuals on top of one another. Are the bees intended to spread smallpox to thin the population as Zero Sum suggests, or to spread the black oil to aid in repopulation as The X-Files: Fight the Future implies? Is the black oil a sinister body-hopping parasite as suggested in Piper Maru and Vienen, or is it an organism that turns the body into a host for a gestating alien organism like in Fight the Future or The Beginning?

The eighth season does a lot to simplify the mythology by stripping out the conspirators and the vaccine and the rebels and the hybrids, replacing them with a more blunt central narrative about “alien replicants” mounting a stealth invasion. That said, things begin to get a bit cluttered and crowded as the season reaches its conclusion. Essence and Existence have a very clear structure and clear objectives, but there is a sense that that the narrative could still be streamlined a bit.

Oh, blood-splattered alien babies...

Oh, blood-splattered alien babies…

The eighth season has a very clear mythological throughline. Indeed, it could be argued that about half of the episodes in the season all tie into the year’s central mythology in one way or another. The search for Mulder provided a clear arc across the first two-thirds of the season, while Scully’s pregnancy also provides a focal point for the year as a whole. These are very simple story beats, that can resonate with viewers who don’t know the first thing about alien life-cycles or hybridisation.

The mythology of the eighth season has a very strong emotional core, one that much of the audience can understand. “Scully has to find Mulder!” is a much more compelling hook than “the Cigarette-Smoking Man has to finish work on that hybrid!” Similarly, “there’s something worrying about Scully’s baby!” is much more dramatically engaging than “the Well-Manicured Man is engaged in top secret vaccine research without the consent of his colleagues!” There is a simplicity to the eighth season that is quite appealing.

A jarring transition...

A jarring transition…

That simplicity extends to the decision to strip out all the byzantine plotting of the conspirators and the colonists, replacing them with a bunch of super soldiers who have conveniently replaced various high-ranking officials in positions of authority. This decision does come at cost, meaning the show can no longer enjoy the charged exchanges that made the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the Well-Manicured Man so fascinating. However, it does afford the eighth season a simplicity that is almost endearing.

Essence and Existence are always easy enough to follow, because the internal dynamics are quite simple. Scully and Reyes are taking Scully somewhere secluded and quiet so that she can have her baby in safety; at the same time, Mulder and Doggett team up with Skinner and Krycek to take on a bunch of super soldiers loose within the FBI building. There is something very simple and effective about that set-up, to the point that it is surprising the show has never done an “FBI headquarters under siege” story before.

Stop the show, I want to get off.

Stop the show, I want to get off.

Even the basic dynamics outside of those two storytelling polls are quite easy to follow. Billy Miles’ decapitation rampage makes for some compelling visuals, but his motivations are conveniently explained in simple English by Alex Krycek. “They want to knock out any and all attempts by us to survive the final days,” Krycek warns the cast, “when they come back to retake the planet.” It is a concise account of what Billy Miles is doing and why he is doing it, something that the Cigarette-Smoking Man would have buried in mountains of purple prose and abstract nouns.

Essence and Existence have a number of very effective sequences flowing from the basic set-up. The sequences of Billy Miles dismantling a resurgent conspiracy are delightfully tense and uncomfortable. Although filmed on sets that have been in use for seven years at this point, the sequences of the super soldiers stalking through the J. Edgar Hoover Building are surprisingly unsettling. They also provide an effective contrast with the more rustic ghost town setting of Scully’s nativity sequence.

Things really come to a head.

Things really come to a head.

A lot of the effectiveness of these stems from the incongruity of the super soldier casting. Adam Baldwin is just about the only member of the supporting cast who could convincingly pass as an unstoppable killing machine. Kirk B.R. Woller looks like he is more suited to play an accountant or bureaucrat than an alien replicant, more at home in the role he played in Within than he is in his role in Existence. Zachary Ansley was originally cast as a teenage victim of abuse in The Pilot, but is recontextualised as a remorseless super soldier.

Neither Kirk B.R. Woller nor Zachary Ansley could hope to match the natural menace of a performer like Brian Thompson. Even Adam Baldwin doesn’t offer quite that level of threat. However, that is part of the reason that Essence and Existence work so well; there is something surprisingly “normal” about the infiltrators. They aren’t all wearing suits like an army of corporate drones; they don’t all have the same face; they don’t all have pounds of muscle mass. Adam Baldwin is the only one who could play Captain America.

An unstoppable killing machine. No, really.

An unstoppable killing machine.
No, really.

When Mulder arrives at Democrat Hot Springs, he finds an assembled collection of super soldiers. However, they are driving all manner of vehicles and come in all shapes and sizes. The middle-aged game warden who assists Scully and Reyes is revealed to be a super soldier every bit as unlikely as Gene Crane or Billy Miles. (The scene of Mulder bouncing between the cars is a nice homage to Kevin McCarthy bouncing between cars at the climax of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an obvious influence on the whole super soldier plot.)

It is the relative normality of the super soldiers that is so unsettling. Brian Thompson gives the Alien Bounty Hunter an incredible heft and gravitas; Roy Thinnes invests Jeremiah Smith with a wisdom and profundity. In contrast, the super soldiers featured in Essence and Existence seem perfectly tailored to pass for “normal.” Doggett even picks up on the differences between the soldiers and the other colonists Mulder has encountered. “You’re ignoring the fact that he bled red blood,” he protests. “What you call ‘aliens’ bleed green, right?”

"You know, for a biologically-engineered colonisation machine, Agent Crane sure can whine a lot."

“You know, for a biologically-engineered colonisation machine, Agent Crane sure can whine a lot.”

That said, it is a thin line between chilling and goofy. As creepy as Kirk B.R. Woller and Zachary Ansley can be, there is something just a little bit silly about watching soldier!Knowle and soldier!Crane talk to one another in the doorway of Assistant Director Kersh’s office. Obviously these aliens need to be able to communicate with one another, but it feels odd to remove all this conspiring from the private rooms of gentlemen’s clubs to doorways of office buildings. It makes the audience wonder what super soldiers talk about in their “off” time.

Similarly, the sequences of Billy Miles menacing sinister obstetricians are very effective; Ansley plays soldier!Billy as completely detached from the world around him, which give the character an uncanny quality. The problem is that these tense and unsettling confrontations build to a sequence of soldier!Billy effectively karate chopping his victim’s head clean off. “Coroner says that the way his neck is severed defies logic and use of any conventional-type weapon,” Skinner notes. He certainly has that right. It is gloriously and spectacularly ridiculous.

The bitterest pill...

The bitterest pill…

Of course, The X-Files exists at the boundary between ridiculous and profound. One of the most endearing aspects of the show is the way that the production team can blend pure unadulterated pulp with sublimely literate references. Talitha Cumi managed to incorporate a gigantic homage to Dostoevsky into a conversation between a shape-changing alien and a man planning the alien colonisation of the planet. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” opens by visually quoting Star Wars and then references Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

It is hard to decide where the threshold lies between “unsettling” and “hilarious.” The eighth season of The X-Files has an endearingly pulpy aesthetic, even by the standards of a show that introduced a liver-eating immortal mutant as the basic template for its weekly antagonists. Patience has a man-bat; Alone has a mad scientist who turns into a lizard; Surekill has a murderer with X-ray eyes; Salvage has a man made of metal. It makes sense that the mythology should embrace pulp by featuring antagonistic “super soldiers” with karate chop action.

"You know, I really should start locking that door."

“You know, I really should start locking that door.”

Essence and Existence brush up against the reality that the show has escalated its threats to the point that a bunch of aliens stalking the J. Edgar Hoover Building seems almost quaint. After all, the show’s first seven seasons featured a conspiracy that had already infiltrated the United States government to the point that the Cigarette-Smoking Man could just invite himself to sit in the office of any staff member. Even within the context of the resurgent conspiracy, Per Manum and Three Words suggested Rohrer worked high in the Department of Defense.

It seems strange that the cast are so surprised that the super soldiers have been able to infiltrate the FBI. It seems strange that Krycek seems to panic about it during the climax of Existence, as he threatens to execute Mulder. “You know how deep it goes,” Krycek warns Mulder. “Right into the FBI.” Given that Krycek himself managed to infiltrate the FBI back in Sleepless, it seems like a rather strange threshold of worry. Krycek knows firsthand how deep conspiracies can reach, and he seems to be panicking over what the viewers already know.

"Come with me if you want to live."

“Come with me if you want to live.”

More to the point, it seems strange that the colonists should want to deal with Krycek. After all, the human collaborators had proven themselves somewhat unreliable, and Krycek was the most unreliable of all. If the idea of using super soldiers is to cut out the middle-man as part of colonisation, why bring one of the most unreliable middle-men into play. Why not simply turn Krycek into a super soldier and exploit him that way? It is not like Mulder and Doggett check the back of his neck.

And yet, despite these issues, there are moments when the super soldiers do pose a very credible threat. In keeping with the nice archetypal quality of the two-parter, the climax of Existence involves a car chase through the car park of the J. Edgar Hoover Building; after all, a nice car park set piece is all but obligatory for a credible conspiracy thriller. During the chase, soldier!Crane gets knocked off the side of Skinner’s SUV; soldier!Rohrer literally goes through him for a shortcut.

Kry(cek) wolf!

Kry(cek) wolf!

Christopher Knowles has argued that the super soldiers work best as a metaphor for the dehumanising effect of the military-industrial complex, the way that the state trains and programmes individuals to turn them into emotionless tools of policy:

Now, I’ll let you all in on a secret- the aliens in The X-Files are largely metaphorical, symbolizing the threat posed by the ever-expanding national security behemoth. The Syndicate of the early years snuck around and tried to cover their tracks but their supersoldier stepchildren don’t even bother with the pretense. Step out of line and you can be easily silenced (or replaced) and anyone watching better look the other way and go about their business.

A lot of fans hated the supersoldier arc, but as a lot of you know, it’s a real, ongoing program (and had been referenced in TXF since Season One). And since the supersoldiers were all concentrated in the police and military, the motif acts as an effective critique of the dehumanizing nature of rampant militarization. The Syndicate had human weakness, the supersoldiers are more perfect custodians of the Globalist agenda.

The idea that the organs of the state essentially convert people into killing machines is nothing new. It is a recurring theme of popular fiction, often literalised in popular science-fiction. Even The X-Files already touched upon it in Sleepless, the episode that introduced Alex Krycek.

Just heating up...

Just heating up…

The idea of a super soldier has become a recurring trope in popular culture, with Captain America #1 popularising the concept as early as December 1940 or March 1941. Although Captain America was created in the patriotic fervour of the Second World War, later portrayals of “super soldiers” would become more skeptical; whether Buffy Sainte-Marie’s counter-culture anthem Universal Soldier (popularised by Donovan) or the Jean-Claude Van Damme science-fiction action vehicle of the same name.

As cartoonish as the phrase “super soldier” might sound, the United States army was interested in the concept of training more efficient soldiers. During the Second World War, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall suggested that only fifteen to twenty percent of American soldiers would actually shoot at the enemy; many would fire into the air or hesitate when confronted with a fellow human being. Although his statistical methodology was challenged, his findings were generally accepted to reflect the reality of combat for American soldiers during the forties.

Continuity lock-out...

Continuity lock-out…

In Men Against Fire, Marshall noted that the soldier’s hand was stayed by his humanity:

It is necessary to take a somewhat closer look at the average, normal man who is fitted into the uniform of an American ground soldier. He is what his home, his religion, his schooling, and the moral code and ideals of his society have made him. The Army cannot unmake him. It must reckon with the fact that he comes from a civilisation in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable. The teaching and the ideals of that civilisation are against killing, against taking advantage. The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly – practically with his mother’s milk – that is part of the normal man’s emotional makeup. This is his great handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him. Because it is an emotional and not an intellectual handicap, it is not removable by intellectual reasoning, such as ‘kill or be killed.’

In short, the best way to make a more efficient soldier is to dehumanise them just as much as the enemy.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

The United States army took note of these findings, and began to look at ways of increasing the combat fire ratio. These measures worked surprisingly quickly. By the Korean War, fifty-five percent of soldiers were willing to fire at the enemy. By Vietnam, that number had risen to between ninety and ninety-five percent. That is a staggeringly effective result. Even today, research continues into the use of tools like virtual reality to further desensitise soldiers. Study of this field has com to be known as “killology.”

As such, this legacy of violence is just as much a consequence of the Second World War as the original conspiracy that ran through the first seven seasons of the show. Knowle Rohrer alludes to it in his conversation with Doggett, trying to convince the skeptical FBI agent that these soldiers are not aliens – they are merely a legacy of the Cold War. “Let me say there was a rumored program out of the Cold War,” Rohrer explains. “A plan to create a super-soldier.” Although they very clear are aliens, even the lie hints at some truth.

"Who's the daddy?"

“Who’s the daddy?”

The X-Files has repeatedly been anxious about the expansion and development of the United States military in the wake of the Cold War, what President Eisenhower famously christened the “military-industrial complex” and what Mulder would refer to as the “military-industrial-entertainment complex” in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” First season episodes like Eve and Fallen Angel were worried about Cold War legacies that had gotten out of control, as were fourth season episodes like Tunguska, Terma and Gethsemane.

Although these ideas are not new, the eighth season’s emphasis on unstoppable killing machines within the structures of authority feels particularly pointed. After all, the “super soldiers” were introduced mere months before the War on Terror would push these issues about militarisation to the fore. In some ways, the War on Terror seems to reverberate backwards across the landscape of The X-Files and its sister series, perhaps a reflection of the anxieties rippling through the zeitgeist.

"You know, for an unstoppable killing machine, Billy Miles has a pretty great sense of irony..."

“You know, for an unstoppable killing machine, Billy Miles has a pretty great sense of irony…”

The “super soldiers” seem to predict more than a decade of military turbulence in the early twenty-first century. The meditations on the culture of fear (and the surveillance culture that would stem from that) in This is Not Happening feels uncannily prescient, as do the oil-related anxieties of Vienen. This is to say nothing of the spin-offs. Much has been made about the predictions of 9/11 in The Pilot of The Lone Gunmen. However, New York was also a victim of a terrorist attack leading to the erosion of civil liberties in Camera Obscura in Harsh Realm.

Of course, conspiracy theorists have already reached for their tinfoil hats at this. However, it does serve to suggest that there was a cultural context from which the War on Terror sprung. 9/11 was a moment that changed the world, but there were subtle shifts in the mood leading up to those horrific attacks. After all, fear of terrorism had become more pronounced during the nineties, with terrorists even attempting to destroy the World Trade Centre in 1993. As shocking as 9/11 was, it did not occur in a vacuum.

"Need a lift?"

“Need a lift?”

That said, there is a sense that even the relative simplicity of the mythology Essence and Existence is unnecessarily cluttered and ambiguous. Most obviously, the colonists seem to be playing some sort of weird unnecessary shell game with Mulder and Scully. Is Billy Miles working for the same agenda as the other super soldiers? If so, why does the Game Warden shoot him? It might be a ruse to gain the trust of Scully and Reyes, but it seems a little convoluted.

Given their strength (individual and in numbers), why not just overwhelm Scully and Reyes? Scully is in labour, and Reyes has nothing but a gun and some hot water. There is no reason for the colonists to go through an incredibly convoluted song and dance. In fact, it could be argued that there is no real reason for the colonists to go to the hassle of splitting up Mulder and Scully in the first place; just kidnap Scully earlier.

Don't think too hard about it, you'll give yourself a headache...

Don’t think too hard about it, you’ll give yourself a headache…

Why leave Scully and Reyes alive at the end of the episode? The colonists have been quite careful to cover their tracks. If they are interested in (or curious about) the baby, why not kill Reyes and Scully and take it? If they are not curious about it, as implied at the end of Existence, why bother to let anybody live? It is a decision which makes no real sense in the context of what the audience knows about the colonists and what their motivations are.

The ninth season will attempt a retroactive justification in Provenance and Providence, suggesting that the colonists believe that William is prophesised to play a pivotal role in colonisation. This just raises more questions, particularly given the suggestions made about William’s capacity for good or evil. Why not just kill Mulder when he lands, if the aliens genuinely believe that an orphaned William will lead their colonisation of the planet?

That goes for you too, Mulder...

That goes for you too, Mulder…

The answer is, of course, because the writers hadn’t considered that yet. It seems quite likely that the production team had not figured out exactly what they wanted to do with William at this point, if they wanted to do anything at all with him. Certainly, a large part of Essence and Existence is about subverting the “Chosen One” narrative around William by insisting that the miracle is how normal (how “human”) he turns out to be.

All of this gets muddled by the ninth season’s gleeful embrace of the narrative subverted here, but there is a sense that the ninth season only layers more confusion atop an already messy situation. As logical and linear as most of Essence and Existence might be, they also allude to the show’s tendency towards illogical plot twists and fuzzy internal logic. Like Mulder at a church picnic, the production team can’t help themselves.

A clean break...

A clean break…

(Krycek’s allegiances also seem muddled. He claims to have been resisting the colonists in DeadAlive, but has completely capitulated by Existence. So why does he save Mulder and Scully in Essence? Why not let Billy Miles kill Mulder and kidnap Scully? Why doesn’t he just help soldier!Rohrer and soldier!Crane murder Skinner and Doggett? Still, Krycek’s motivations have always been convoluted, so it feels somewhat appropriate that they remain so.)

There is a sense of playfulness to all this confusion, as if The X-Files has made its peace with its insistence on adding needless contortions and convolutions to what would appear to be very straightforward plots. After all, characters like Duffy Haskell and Lizzy Gill appear in Essence just to muddy the water rather than to serve any real plotting purpose. They serve some of the themes of the season and the episode, but they just complicate the narrative.

It's the return of Chris Carter's original pilot, The Nanny!

It’s the return of Chris Carter’s original pilot, The Nanny!

Gill and Haskell form a delightfully odd red herring, with Essence rather brutally brushing away the conspiracy hinted at in Per Manum to make way for something a lot easier to follow. It seems strange that the season spent a whole episode setting up Haskell’s plot only to have Billy Miles knock it all down over the course of a subplot. Then again, it serves the same thematic purpose as killing Krycek, ending an era. It just feels somewhat inelegant.

Even the short scene at the start of Essence between Scully and her mother exists to acknowledge how frustratingly and irritatingly coy the show is being in reference to Scully’s baby. When Scully refuses to share the gender of the baby, her mother insists, “Oh, it’s the least you could tell your mother considering everything else you’re keeping a secret.” Even Margaret Scully has had enough of this mystery around Scully’s baby and Mulder’s possible relationship to Scully’s baby.

Reproductive horror.

Reproductive horror.

Unfortunately, while Essence jettisons a lot of the mythology implied by Per Manum, it retains a lot of the uncomfortable skepticism towards assisted reproductive technology. Mulder’s opening monologue feels like a knee-jerk reactionary diatribe against “unnatural” births, as if protesting that a child conceived with the aid of technology is less valuable than a child conceived the old-fashioned way. The fear of “unnatural reproduction” is a classic horror trope, but this iteration feels decidedly outdated in the context of May 2001.

Essence opens with a montage of conception and fetal development. “Is this just nostalgia now?” Mulder wonders. “An act of biology commandeered by modern science and technology? Godlike, we extract, implant, inseminate… and we clone.” It sounds as though Carter is genuinely worried about what assisted reproduction might mean for the future of the human race. The X-Files can feel decidedly reactionary at points.

Fertile ground.

Fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

Then again, this is a season that ends with the decision to Mulder and Scully by turning them into a nuclear family unit. While Mulder and Scully are not married by the end of Existence, there is something just a little heteronormative about all this, an insistence that the only way to really grow up is to give up everything and start a family. It is a decidedly conservative resolution to their arc.

The X-Files has always been uncomfortable around reproductive technology. The Erlenmeyer Flask offered a nightmarish vision of human bodies grown in vats, while Colony found aliens harvesting tissues from discarded fetuses. Redux II made a point to feature contemporary Senate hearings on cloning. It just feels uncomfortable to suggest that children conceived through in vitro fertilisation are less “human” than those conceived by biological “miracles.”

"What? This could be the last episode?"

“What? This could be the last episode?”

Still, despite all these issues and convolutions, there is an endearing straightforwardness to the resurgent mythology at work in Essence and Existence. The super soldiers are a rather generic threat, but they work in the context of this episode. The threat they pose is straightforward, meaning that they never distract from the emotional weight of the story around them. The super soldiers’ lack of nuance only becomes an issue when they are asked to support an entire season without an emotional hook as solid as Mulder’s disappearance or Scully’s pregnancy.

Essence and Existence might not be the best mythology episodes the show ever produced; the show has perhaps come too far to match the highs of Nisei and 731 or Patient X and The Red and the Black. However, they do capture a lot of the urgency and thrill that made those early episodes so exciting, anchored in characters about whom the audience has come to care deeply. This would not be a bad place to leave it. Not a bad place at all.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Well said. There have been aspects and episodes in the rewatch that I’ve appreciated much more than on first viewing (Gethsemane really stands out). I never subscribed to many fans’ insistence that Requiem would have served as a better series finale. On the rewatch I reconsidered. But now in reaching Essence, I’m returning to my original position. Essence is even more effective than Requiem at returning the series to a season 1 aesthetic. Billy Miles is really only continuing what the ABH started in Requiem, which was to clean everything up as part of some vague “final stages.”

    What stands out in contrast to early seasons, however, is how well the show works as an ensemble here.

    I also really enjoyed how quickly and unequivocally Haskell is taken out. Per Manum treats his character like modern serialized shows. Seasons 1-7 of The X-Files would have wrapped that “alien baby” story up in a single episode or two but Per Manum ends by suggesting that Haskell has some role to be played later. His return here seems very in tune with modern serialization. Then Carter reminds his audience that is not how he operates (somewhat joyfully by making his exit a punchline).

    The tease of Krycek’s redemption is also interesting. You discuss this more in your Existence review but Essence reminds you that, at times, you rooted for this character. There was always something appealing in how he found ways to survive and Mulder recognizes this by leaving Scully with him.

    • I also just love the idea of Haskell as representing the S1-S6 mythology attempting to reassert itself. After all, there must have been some temptation to go “back to basics” with the arc. Although the super soldiers weren’t sturdy enough to sustain the ninth season, I respect the eighth for so definitively cutting off the idea of going back to the way things were. My biggest problems with William and The Truth are the way they were more preoccupied with S1-S6 than any of the things that happened since. (So many of the flashbacks in The Truth are completely irrelevant to the show as it existed at that point, but were there because the black oil and the bees were around at the height of the show’s popularity.)

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