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The X-Files – Improbable (Review)

This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.

So I am convinced, from many experiments, I could not study to any degree of perfection either mathematics, arithmetic or algebra without being a deist, if not an atheist.

– John Wesley, The Use of Money

Dio ti ama.”

God loves you. A nice though. An ordering principle.

Three simple words.

There are worse Gods to believe in.

There are worse Gods to believe in.

Improbable marks a turning point for the ninth season of The X-Files. It marks the point at which the show really begins tidying everything up and clearing away the board. The production team had discovered that the ninth season was to be their last season while filming Scary Monsters. Although Audrey Pauley was the next episode produced, it seems like it was Improbable before the production team really got to grips with that. There is a celebratory atmosphere to the episode, as if the wrap party kicked off early. It even closes with a musical number.

This is the last episode of the show to be directed by Chris Carter until My Struggle I, almost fourteen years later. As Carter notes on the episode’s commentary, this was the last time that Gillian Anderson would conduct an autopsy on those familiar sets. There is a sense that this is the end. Not just the end of an era like The End and Requiem were in their own way, but an end to the show itself. There is no lingering ambiguity like there was during the production of the eighth season. The X-Files is definitely coming to an end. There is no chance of survival.

Improbable marks the point at which the production team start to focus on wrapping things up. Dutifully, the remaining episodes in the season are assigned the task of closing off various plot threads and bidding farewell to various institutions. Although produced earlier, Scary Monsters engages with fandom. Jump the Shark takes care of the Lone Gunmen. Release handles Luke Doggett and Brad Follmer. William handles the eponymous baby. Sunshine Days is the last “monster of the week.” That just leaves the actual final episode, The Truth.

An ace in the hole...

An ace in the hole…

As such, Improbable marks a point of transition, a point at which the season turns around it. To borrow the poker metaphor that plays through the episode, Improbable is very much “the turn” in the season. It is a warning that the last hand is about to be played, that the possibilities are now quite finite. In its own way, Improbable is as much a turning point in the ninth season as Per Manum or This is Not Happening were during the eighth season. However, the ninth season lacks the focus or energy that made the application of this structure so compelling.

While The X-Files would spend the rest of the ninth season dealing with continuity and wrapping up plot threads, Improbable feels like Chris Carter is taking his first bow. Much like Sunshine Days, there is a sense that Improbable would actually be a much more satisfying final episode for the show. It might not feature colonists or “super soldiers” or men smoking cigarettes, but it does encapsulate a lot of the big themes running through the show. Improbable plays very much like a thesis statement from Chris Carter, his final word on the show’s worldview.

In its own way, The X-Files has always been a spiritual show. Perhaps religious is too strong a word, but The X-Files is predicated on ideas of faith. “I want to believe” is as much a mantra as “trust no one.” In fact, “the truth is out there” is almost a reassurance that faith will be rewarded and that there is some larger existential purpose. The X-Files was very much a product of the nineties, an era in which material success served to emphasise spiritual emptiness. The show frequently returned to ideas of hope and faith.

Perfect nine?

Perfect nine?

The show’s imagery was explicitly religious from the first season. The closing scene of Conduit placed Mulder in a church, making a visual connection between Mulder’s pursuit of the truth and religious enlightenment. During the second season, Chris Carter used scripts like Red Museum and Fearful Symmetry suggested a link between the alien and divine. The “war in heaven” motif running through two-parters like Colony and End Game or Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions or Patient X and The Red and the Black.

Carter’s religious themes built to a zenith in the late nineties. Seven and One, his last script for Millennium, ended with the lead character reasserting his religious faith. Biogenesis featured a crashed ship covered in writings from the Bible and other religious texts. During the seventh season, En Ami presented an alien abduction as an angelic encounter while Sein und Zeit and Closure revealed that Samantha had been abducted by benign spirits rather than (or in addition to) aliens. Closure even opened with a monologue from Mulder cursing God.

The ninth season marks a return to these religious themes and ideas. It seemed inevitable, given how discussion about religious belief had been pushed into the mainstream in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. While the eighth season suggested that William was a rather low-key miracle, the result of a loving union between a man and woman, the ninth season would repeatedly cast the child of Mulder and Scully in the role of messiah. There is prophecy and deliverance, faith and fate.

Dominoes best...

Dominoes best…

Religious belief bubbles through the season. Provenance and Providence marks a return to the engravings that first appeared in Biogenesis, focusing on the workings of an extremist religious cult fixated upon the colonists as deities. Underneath features a monstrous killer who is the result of transubstantiation, an unholy hybrid of Jesus Christ and Charlie Manson. Even in Audrey Pauley, it is suggested that the title power was directed to build her imaginary hospital by some higher power.

On the commentary for Improbable, Chris Carter reflects on the religious themes of the episode; he explains that it was in some way a response to the existential questions posed by 9/11:

The idea for this episode, it came out of a kind of big idea that I’d been thinking about since September 11th which had just happened a few months prior, and the idea that all these people died and many of them were believers in God and so were their families, and what that tested; the idea that God interferes in our lives or he listens to us and he acts and pulls the strings. And I think it tested a lot of people’s faith in a very horrible way, that so many people could be so affected, innocent people, by this one act and it made it hard for people to believe that God was someone who was listening to us or helping us.

Of course, “why do bad things happen to good people?” is one of the oldest religious quandaries. However, recent events have thrown it into sharp focus. Improbable is largely about that question.

In hindsight, it makes sense that The X-Files should be so fascinated with the question of God. In many ways, God serves the same purpose as conspiracy theory. Much like conspiracy theories, the belief in God imposes an order on an otherwise chaotic universe. If God exists, everything is imbued with meaning. If God exists, everything happens for a reason. Even horrible events can be explained as part of some larger plan that exists beyond the purview of mere mortals. In its own way, God is a benign version of the conspirators, a power behind the wheel of the world.

Dance, baby, dance!

Dance, baby, dance!

Understandably, belief in God is entangled with all manner of other beliefs – including national identity. Although God is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution of the United States or the Bill of Rights, religious belief plays a major part in the myths of the country’s foundation and history. Reports that Barrack Obama omitted reference to “the Creator” from his quotations of the Declaration of Independence generated considerable controversy. Indeed, certain vocal political groups tend to take exception to such things.

As with a lot of nations, political rhetoric in the United States makes frequent reference to divine authority. This is perhaps most apparent in the doctrine of “manifest destiny”, the divine right of the European settlers to move westward. The doctrine was articulated by John L. O’Sullivan in The New York Morning News in December 1845:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

This is by no means a political view unique to the United States. Many other nations believe that God has smiled upon them. The Preamble to the Irish Constitution acknowledges God as an authority to Whom “all actions both of men and States must be referred.”

The ninth season of The X-Files acknowledges this argument. The second episode in the mid-season two-parter is titled Providence, acknowledging that divine authority that is imagined to be looking out for the United States. After all, the Eye of Providence appears on every dollar bill accompanied by a Latin phrase that translates as “God favours our enterprise.” This was particularly relevent in the context of the twenty-first century, when President George W. Bush was prone to reference and acknowledge the divine will in his speeches.

Trapped by fate...

Trapped by fate…

There is an irony here. There is something comforting in the belief that the United States will succeed because God wills it to be so. However, this is very much at odds with the other underlying myth of American identity. The United States is frequently presented as the land of the self-made man, a country where an immigrant can arrive with nothing and find himself on top of the world. As much as God might have encouraged the European settlers to move westward, the frontier myth suggests that those same settlers made something of the country and themselves.

This is the idea of the American Dream, the myth that anybody can make it in America if they are smart enough and strong enough. Although it is a core part of the American identity, many trace the origins of the American Dream to James Truslow Adams’ The Epic of America. In the preface to his 1931 history, Adams outlines his own objectives:

He has endeavored in particular to trace the beginnings at their several points of entry of such American concepts as “bigger and better”, of our attitude towards business, of many characteristics which are generally considered as being “typically American”, and, in especial, of that American dream of a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces that appear to be overwhelming it.

The American Dream is part of the social fabric of the United States, underpinning every immigrant tale and reverberating across American popular culture. It reverberates through narratives about the country, from the mythology of Superman through to the story of Fievel Mousekewitz.

At the heart of the American Dream is the idea that there is no predetermination and no destiny, that people can start again from their beginnings and make something of themselves from nothing. Immigrants leave behind the ghosts and legacies of the old country, confident that the United States will offer everybody a clean slate from which they might climb to the very peak. This success is often measured in material terms, but it can also represent a more spiritual liberty. The United States seems to offer its citizens freedom from its own past.

No deal.

No deal.

The conflict is quite obvious. It is the classic paradox of predetermination and free will. If one believes that the United States is favoured by divine will, then how can one truly believe that a man’s destiny is entirely in his own hands? These two fundamental beliefs become hard to reconcile, creating a philosophical and existential nightmare. Improbable seeks to explore these issues, tackling some of the uniquely American themes underpinning The X-Files. (After all, the Little Italy setting is nothing but a reminder of that immigrant side of the American Dream.)

Indeed, the gambling metaphor that plays across Improbable is a very effective metaphor for the American Dream. As Aaron M. Duncan reflects in Gambling with the Myth of the American Dream:

In many ways poker is a game more democratic than the country that loves it. At the start of a poker tournament everyone begins with the same amount of chips. In this sense poker tournaments most closely resemble a society constructed under the veil of ignorance imagined by John Rawls … – a society where all people begin with the same basic resources and the same mathematical probability of success.

The reality is obviously far more complicated than a game played with fifty-two cards, but Improbable makes good use of its gambling and “game of chance” metaphors.

For all of its light-heartedness, Improbable does not avoid the unpleasant implications of some of its internal logic. After all, the shot of the brutally murdered Vicki Burdick stands in sharp contrast to the quirky tone of the episode around it. Similarly, the teaser features Amy playing out her own version of the American Dream – “she comes here every Friday, loses her paycheck, cries all weekend.” Amy never gets to win. She steps away from the machine for a moment, long enough for Mad Wayne to murder her. By luck, the next person to use her machine wins.

Dealt from the bottom of the deck...

Dealt from the bottom of the deck…

For all the bright colours and joyful music selections, there is a melancholy running through Improbable. It is not that the world is messed up because God doesn’t care. God cares a lot, but that doesn’t stop the world from being a cruel and unfair place. Improbable is silly and goofy, but it never quite romanticises its worldview. It might be comforting to imagine Burt Reynolds as God, but God doesn’t really offer any answers. God isn’t going to stop colonisation or protect William or directly stop a serial killer. He does have some killer dance moves, though.

Improbable proposes a uniquely American version of God, and not only because that version of God is played by Burt Reynolds. Improbable presents God as a trickster and a fool, a decidedly more playful deity than most Christian interpretations. Then again, the huckster has always played an essential role in American history:

It’s one of the stranger quirks of history and geography. The continent that was supposedly discovered by Christopher Columbus is named for a decidedly second-rate Johnny-come-lately of an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci was an Italian who sailed on occasion under the flag of Spain. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci was more at home in a counting house than a sailing ship. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, normally a booster of all things American, dismissed him as a mere “pickle dealer.”) What Vespucci did have, according to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s wonderfully idiosyncratic and intelligent new biography of the explorer, was a gift for chicanery and self-promotion, along with an aching need to be remembered. As it turns out, America — this nation of notorious hucksters, dreamers and spin doctors — was named for just the right guy.

The idea of a trickster God is not unique: the Vikings believed in Loki; the Ashanti believe an Anansi. Even the veneration of the trickster is not uniquely American: the Irish love a “chancer”; the British love a “wide boy.” At the same time, Improbable suggests a uniquely American God.

Mark Twain wove the trickster into the fabric of American identity. Will Ferguson would boldly claim, “Forget the cowboy. The true all-American hero is the confidence man: breezy, self-invented, ambitious, protean.”  The New York Times‘ obituary of P.T. Barnum described him as “the great American showman.” It makes sense that Improbable would present a version of God who stands on street corners, passing his time playing cards and turning up “two clowns and a man with a crown.”

"Only how many episodes left?"

“Only how many episodes left?”

The God presented in Improbable is keen observer of human nature. He is very clearly in love with humanity. Like a lot of the ninth season around it, particularly episodes like Nothing Important Happened Today I and Providence, Improbable is very highly saturated. The colours are turned up to the point where everything seems hyperreal. This is, Carter suggests, the world as God must see it. He suggests as much through a wonderful overhead tracking shot of Reyes, but also through the high saturation and the obvious sound stage sets. The world must seem unreal to God.

“God loves you,” the opening credits promise. God even loves Mad Wayne, the serial killer at the heart of the story. “You’re a card,” he observes. “You really are a card. But I love you.” The episode suggests that God loves humanity because of their flaws, because of the mess. In some ways, human lives must seem like those CDs in the back of God’s car. In The Truth About Season Nine, Burt Reynolds offers his own take on the scene:

You cut to this Cadillac truck, which… you know, Joel Grey could live there and have two or three children… and there are a thousand CDs in there.  Just thrown in on top… there’s no order, they’re just thrown in there. And it was absolutely right, instead of them being in some sort of perfect order, that they were just there and he could grab one. They were all totally different, I’m sure. And they all… just gave him joy.

It is, in many ways, a reflection of the beautiful chaos that is day-to-day life. Improbable suggests that God takes a certain amount of pleasure in the chaos of the world, in the sheer improbability of human existence. In the teaser, he reaches out to Mad Wayne in the hope that he might somehow be surprised. “I know, you’re bluffing me, right? You’re gonna show me Fifth Street. Walk right out of here, surprise me, for a change.”

God might not play dice with the universe, but he still loves to watch those dice fall; there are so many possibilities in those simple numerical combinations. God is introduced playing solitaire to himself, listing off probabilities to Mad Wayne. “”Two million, five hundred and ninety-eight thousand, nine hundred and sixty possible five card hands. Twelve hundred and seventy-seven flushes, and then you got your suit. One million, ninety-eight thousand, two hundred and forty ways to make two pairs.” And yet every pair is unique; just ask Mulder and Scully.

The show is on the Wayne...

The show is on the Wayne…

God loves to game. When Mad Wayne asks him to identify himself, God offers, “I’m part of the regular game.” God is playful, seemingly wanting nothing more than for somebody to play with him. Solitaire, poker, “pick a card”, checkers. It is no surprise that God should be invested in numerology, given that Scully dismisses it as “a child’s game.” When Scully and Reyes attempt to outline the case to him, God frames it in terms that relate to his own behaviour and outlook. “So… it’s kind of a game.”

Games have rules. Games have order. Games impose structure. There are delineated codes of behaviour within the confines of games, and there are codified outcomes. Games are useful as analogies or thought experiments, because they presuppose a universe in which all factors are always perfectly under control. Even randomness is ultimately the result of some creative intent. Once again, it seems like the clear and conscious desire of The X-Files is to imposed a narrative order on a chaotic universe, even as it rejects more literal attempts to impose order.

This is perhaps the paradox of The X-Files. The show’s central mythology suggests an ordered universe, where everything is controlled by a cabal of sinister interests. The Cigarette-Smoking Man gives human form to institutional corruption and systemic moral decay, reassuring Mulder (and viewers) that there is some sinister intent behind all that suffering and trauma. At the same time, as episodes like Patient X and The Red and the Black imply, all of those structures are easily undermined by simple human self-interest and free-will.

The red and the black...

The red and the black…

Improbable suggests that God sits on the sidelines hoping for the best outcome, but His direct interference with the game is minimal. When Mad Wayne worries that God is going to hand him over to the authorities, God explains that it does not work that way. “Far be it for me to rat you out,” he observes. “Can’t show ’em what they can’t see.” The implication is that God is at work in the world, albeit in an indirect example. He might tease Scully and Reyes (and even Doggett) with possibilities, but they have to reach those conclusions on their own.

God is not an active protagonist. At the climax of the episode, He watches as Scully and Reyes reason their way through the case. “You’re part of this,” Scully accuses him, even without knowing His true identity. Maybe He is; it is certainly difficult to argue that God had no impact in how the case played out. As Scully and Reyes talk their way through the facts of the investigation, He inquires. “So you’re saying I didn’t have anything to do with it?” It seems quite clear that He did, even if it was not direct literal involvement.

This is very much in keeping with the religious philosophy of The X-Files. The show has repeatedly suggested that benign divine forces are at work in the world, lingering just at the cusp of human awareness. However, people have to really open their minds to understand what is being said. Scully’s closing monologue in Revelations lamented the possibility that God might be speaking while nobody is listening. Doggett seems to have heard the voice of God while he was in his coma during Providence. God moves in mysterious ways. (“Amazing… from a game of checkers.”)

Topsy turvy...

Topsy turvy…

According to The X-Files and Millennium, there are answers available for those willing to listen. God is very clearly speaking, although what He is actually saying remains ambiguous or mysterious. The X-Files is largely about uncovering secrets buried in the past, but there is also a spiritual element to it. At a number of points in the show’s nine-season run – including final scene of The Truth – the series suggests that “the Truth” is as much a spiritual truth as a literal truth.

Of course, there is a catch here. It the universe is governed by rules and numbers, then it becomes a lot harder to believe in free will. If God is simply watching cosmic cards get dealt, it is hardly the most reassuring of images. As Stephen Hawking reflected in A Brief History of Time:

Of course, one could say that free will is an illusion anyway. If there really is a complete unified theory that governs everything, it presumably also determines your actions. But it does so in a way that is impossible to calculate for an organism that is as complicated as a human being.

That is a fairly depressing notion. However, Improbable returns to the metaphor of the cards to suggest that free will definitely exists. While Mad Wayne might get frustrated by his own lack of success, the audience is not invited to pity him. “You know, there’s a secret to this game, Wayne-O. And I’m gonna tell you what the secret is. Choose better.”

God is surprising candid in dispensing moral advice. “You know your problem, my friend?” he asks. “It’s not the cards. It’s playing the hand you were dealt. Well, you guys get a bad deal, it’s all in what you do with it. You know what I’m saying, partner? You can think. Cards can’t. They just lie there. You gotta make them work for you.” After outlining all of the mathematical probabilities in a hand of poker, God makes his position clear. “The game can’t beat the man. Man only beats himself.”

Eye see.

Eye see.

This is one of the core themes of the mythology, the implication that human lives can never be completely dominated or destroyed by hostile systems. Episodes like Nisei and 731 or Tunguska and Terma suggest that human self-interest and self-determination is too strong to allow the imposition of the “hegemony” that Jeremiah Smith suggested in Herrenvolk. Even the use of checkers at the climax of Improbable seems to allude to Patient X and The Red and the Black, episodes that suggested free will and self-determination could defeat the conspiracy.

For Carter, this conflict between the unique identity of the individual and the rigid ordering of the universe was at the heart of Improbable. On the audio commentary, Carter explained that the contrast had always been of interest:

This whole idea for this episode is about numbers and that significance of numbers in our lives starts here on the card table where the players are being dealt a hand each which is a sort of, the idea is that we’re all dealt hands, genetic hands, and maybe even numerological hands that give us basically the tools with which we deal and/or use for our lives. So the idea is that there is free will and there is fate, and fate is somewhat determined by our genetics, but how much it is determined by our genetics is the question. So, this is the idea that begins the episode and sort of informs the whole story.

In many ways, The X-Files is about that conflict. It is about the struggle of the individual against an uncaring universe that seeks to impose its own order. Improbable is a microcosm of that conflict.

The numerology underlying Improbable is just one such system. The conspiracy that runs through the show is another such system. Repeatedly, The X-Files has suggested that the conspirators are seeking to impose homogeneity upon mankind, whether through cloning or brainwashing or shape-shifting or “Purity.” However, that central anxiety about systems that smother individuality also plays out in other forms, in episodes that deal with themes relating to suburbia or globalisation. Improbable is just more direct, making it feel like a thesis statement.

"We should split(screen) up. Cover more ground."

“We should split(screen) up. Cover more ground.”

Of course, things are not necessarily as simple as all that. Free will is fantastic, but people are trapped by factors and systems outside of their control. People are born into social advantage or social disadvantage. The playing field is not level. While God might be correct that Mad Wayne has a choice in how he plays the hand that he has been dealt, Mad Wayne cannot force that two and that three to materialise into a straight. As romantic as the American Dream might be, it fails to take into account the complicated realities that many people face.

Indeed, it could be argued that the American Dream is not supported by the facts. Studies suggest that social mobility is not as easy as those two words (and all the promise that they hold) might suggest:

Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion.

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.

It could be argued that a lot of contemporary social strife is rooted in the realisation that the gap between rich and poor is widening and that the opportunities to transcend the gap are no longer there.

It is to the credit of Improbable that Carter engages with this observation. While Improbable is a quirky and fun hour of television, there is something almost mournful about it. watching Amy blow her paycheck on the slots, God observes, “Such a nice girl. I keep hoping her luck is gonna change and she could catch a break.” Of course, she doesn’t. When a woman in the bathroom finds the body, she screams, “Somebody help me! Oh, God!” God cannot help. He just keeps playing cards. And hoping.

Who loves you, baby?

Who loves you, baby?


A book just came out about the Nobel-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr who was a diagnosed schizophrenic. He believed in aliens, he believed the Bible has the codes, he started to believe he was the Messiah. Someone asked him, ‘How can you believe all this crazy stuff?’ He said, ‘I figure that stuff out the same place I figure out the other stuff.’ The allure of the number pi is that, while it seems to promise all the insights of the universe, all you get from it is an endless string of seemingly random digits. You start with this simple, perfect shape, the circle, and then you do a simple formula and suddenly you have this complexity – all these numbers that stretch on to infinity, and it makes you wonder what is in those numbers.

Darren Aronofksy discusses the inspiration behind pi

Chris Carter wrote and directed Improbable.

It is not a mythology episode. At least not based on plot. Nevertheless, Improbable feels like it’s significant. As if Carter is saying something. The end approaches, suddenly everything matters. Every statement is rendered more important.

What does Improbable have to say?

Windows of opportunity...

Windows of opportunity…

Chris Carter knew that the end was coming. The ninth season was definitely going to be the end of The X-Files. There was no chance of reprieve. At the end of the seventh season, the future of the show was trapped in limbo. There is no limbo now. Improbable is airing towards the end of what will be the final season of The X-Files. Possibilities of a movie franchise aside, the show is being retired. For the first time in nine years, there will be no weekly adventures of paranormal investigators operating from the basement of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in November 2003.

Almost immediately, fan and media attention turned towards the mythology. After all, the mythology was perhaps the most iconic part of the show. Even casual viewers could identify the Cigarette-Smoking Man, to the point that he was the only character other than Mulder and Scully to appear in The Springfield Files. Even the most casual of viewers knew that aliens were essential to the mythology of The X-Files and that Chris Carter had spent nine years telling a story about alien cover-ups and government mysteries.

As such, one of the big questions facing the ninth season of The X-Files was the question of how the show would tie up its central mythology. Would there be an invasion? Would there be exposure? Would all the questions be answered? If the nine seasons of The X-Files were to be considered a single linear story, then this was make or break or time. Endings are generally considered quite important in fiction, and there was a question lingering over the second half of the ninth season as to whether the show could stick the landing.

Lift me up...

Lift me up…

Indeed, it has been argued that the revival might have been commissioned as an attempt to retroactively remove some of the lingering disillusionment over how the ninth season actually ended. There were a lot of expectations around the end of The X-Files, and a lot of viewers were eager to find out whether Chris Carter and his production team could find a way to force nine years of storytelling into a tidy (and satisfying) conclusion. That meant demonstrating that the mythology made sense.

When the cancellation was announced, Carter made a number of bold promises to the media that suggested he wanted to resolve as much as possible:

“I want to be able to wrap things up for the fans who have been there from the beginning and throughout,” the producer said. “My determination was to go out with a series of very, very strong episodes that are going to pull a lot of threads together from the last nine years.”

It is a familiar sentiment. The producers who worked on Battlestar Galactica and Lost faced similar challenges going into their own final run of episodes.

It is a lot tougher to answer questions than it is to ask them. More to the point, The X-Files had covered a tremendous amount of ground in its nine-season run. By the time the show had been cancelled, it had actually shed so many of the iconic elements of the mythology. The Well-Manicured Man had been blown up in The X-Files: Fight the Future. The conspirators had all been burnt alive in an airplane hangar in Two Fathers and One Son. The Cigarette-Smoking Man had been shot in Redux II and thrown down the stairs in Requiem.

Case in point...

Case in point…

More to the point, the old men in suits and the little green (or grey) men had given way to “super soldiers” and “replicants.” Casual viewers who had absorbed the show passively at the height of its popularity might still be asking questions about black oil and killer bees, but The X-Files had long since moved past that point. To be fair, the show had not handled the transition gracefully. Instead of definitively ending the conspiracy in Fight the Future or One Son, the mythology was allowed to lumber like an undead husk through the seventh season.

Although the answers had not always been satisfactory, most of them had been provided. They were needlessly complex, highly illogical and bordering on obtuse. What use was there in going back to deal with leftover baggage from half a decade earlier? Nevertheless, it seems that fans expected those answers. As Tim Goodman argued:

One month from now, The X-Files comes to an end after nine seasons, ending one of the great, influential runs of modern-day television.

Too bad all signs point to Chris Carter, the show’s creator, reneging on — or at least drastically fudging on — a promise he made when he decided to pull the plug on the show: to wrap up as many of the myriad loose ends as possible.

With five episodes remaining, including a two-hour series finale on May 19, it appears Carter decided to back away from a pledge (one he told The Chronicle the day he announced the end of the show) to stock each episode with answers. True X-Files fans know that five episodes (there were seven left to write when he made the call) isn’t nearly enough to shine a light on the dark mysteries of this groundbreaking series. But fans deserve more than what appears to be coming — a few less murky dodges and feints and then the finale, called The Truth, which Carter now says will satisfy longtime fans and newcomers.

And if you buy that, then you’ve got Fox Mulder’s “I Want to Believe” poster hanging in your bedroom.

There is more than a hint of fan entitlement to all that (“fans deserve more than what appears to be coming”), but it accurately captures the mood of the time. Fans were demanding answers, even if it was not entirely clear that the questions were particularly relevent to the current incarnation of the show.

It could be argued that the biggest problems with The Truth are rooted in those demands. The Truth is a very clunky piece of television, with an awkward structure that is built around exposition-drive flashbacks. Mulder is put on trial, a surrogate for the show itself. It seems like Chris Carter constructed the episode as a defense of the show, a rebuttal to all those arguments and insinuations that The X-Files never made sense. The Truth is a ninety-minute answer to a pub argument. “See? The X-Files does make sense! Here’s clips and monologues to prove it!”

The Cinncinnati shuffle...

The Cincinnati shuffle…

In some ways, Improbable feels like a meditation on these ideas. Can The X-Files make sense? Does it have to make sense? Is there an invisible order to the universe? Scully and Reyes argue about that fact in the basement scene at the start of the episode. “Do you believe the universe is knowable as a mathematical calculation of the whole, reducible to a single equation?” Reyes asks Scully. She is, in essence, asking if it is possible to make sense of the world around them. Scully responds, “I don’t think that its complexity allows for it to be reduced so simply.”

As usual, Scully’s skeptical position is only wrong because she happens to be a character in a television show. The X-Files is not the real world, as the ninth season has been constantly reminding the audience. Everything that happens within the world of The X-Files is the product of an intelligent design. Everything that the audience sees happens for a reason. Events are quite literally scripted ahead of time. Nothing is truly random, serving some narrative or thematic purpose.

Improbable draws attention to the artifice of this world. As Reyes walks through the building, the camera tracks her from above. As director, Chris Carter literally positions himself as God. The street scenes throughout the episode were all shot on a backlot at Universal Studios, and the show makes no attempt to disguise their unreality. Characters mime along with (and keep time with) music that is playing on the episode’s soundtrack rather than in their own world. Special effects are able to render a cityscape in the face of Burt Reynolds.

God is dead. To rights.

God is dead. To rights.

The episode repeatedly draws attention to its artificiality. It is a ninth season episode of The X-Files that culminates in a meditation on just how important the number nine actually is. The big twist is that the pattern of the killings actually references the season of the show. “Nine is completion,” Reyes offers. “You’ve evolved through the experiences of all the other numbers to a spiritual realization that this life is only part of a larger whole.” Given that the show had been cancelled, the nine really does represent “completion.”

As such, Improbable suggests that the world of The X-Files could be ordered by numbers and systems in a way that the real world is not. Whether or not one believes in God, Scully and Reyes do exist within a world created by Chris Carter. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect that world to make sense and to tie together in a way that the real world does not. There is enough chaos and randomness in the real world without having to worry about stories that don’t make sense.

However, it seems that the God of The X-Files is not a fan of order; the opening shot of Improbable features a bunch of cards randomly shuffled on a poker table. Over the course of Improbable, God embraces chance and luck. He plays cards, he hangs around casinos. Improbable is not the story of a God with a clear plan or agenda. Improbable is the story of a God who watches the world unfold with wonder and awe, who wants so desperately to be surprised by his own creation.

Of course God drives a Cadillac.

Of course God drives a Cadillac.

This is perhaps a reflection of Carter’s own relationship with The X-Files. He had originally planned for the show to run five years, but it ran nine. The mythology got a jump start when Gillian Anderson became pregnant, forcing the production team to write Duane Barry and Ascension. Gillian Anderson won an Emmy during the fourth season for Memento Mori, an episode that changed the course of the series and was only written because Darin Morgan’s script for the show fell through.

Overseeing the production of The X-Files has taught Chris Carter a lot about chance and luck. It is impossible to plan for chance and luck. Part of what made Carter such a successful producer was his willingness to just go along with whatever chance threw at the show. While Carter had his own clear ideas for what he wanted The X-Files to be, he encouraged his writers to find their own voices and to put their own stamp on the show. Chris Carter might have been the Creator of The X-Files, but he was often just as much a spectator as anybody else.

Even if Carter did want to tie a nice bow around The X-Files, it is debatable whether it would have been possible. That is a big “if”, of course. When it comes to figures representing authorial intent, God is pretty high up there. Improbable suggests that the author of the world happily sits on the sidelines as an observer. This feels entirely appropriate, given how reluctant Chris Carter has been to spell out the meaning or the logic underpinning the mythology. In Improbable, God refuses to spell everything out. Carter might empathise.

Doggett's got the killer's number...

Doggett’s got the killer’s number…

Carter has a history of engaging with his own writing through allegory or metaphor. Mulder’s crisis of faith in Gethsemane came a year after Carter address the World Skeptics Congress to defend his show, incorporating footage of high-profile X-Files critic Carl Sagan into its narrative. The Post-Modern Prometheus plays like a meditation on the double-edged success of The X-Files, the sense that Carter had inadvertently created (an endearing) pop culture monster.

Indeed, Carter has been quite obtuse about Improbable. Citing it as one of his favourite episodes of the ninth season, he suggested that fans had not interpreted it correctly:

I was very happy with the episode I wrote and directed [Improbable]. Most people probably didn’t get it, but if you watch it again and again, you’re going to see things in there that you might not have seen the first time. Burt Reynolds did a great job. I was thrilled that we were able to get Burt for the show.

Even Carter’s commentary for the episode avoids delving too deeply into the numerological significance of various choices or the deeper meaning of certain scripting decisions.

A bonus track on the soundtrack to Fight the Future is the closest that Chris Carter has come to spelling out the story behind the show’s mythology. There is a sense that – on some level – Carter believes his work should speak for itself, that the audience must figure out some of the internal logic on their own terms. At the climax of the episode, Scully balks at the implication of reducing everything to a simple equation. “Look, Agent Reyes, you can’t reduce all of life, all creation, every piece of … of art, architecture, music, literature… into a game of win or lose.”

Me and my family are looking for six...

Me and my family are looking for six…

It is notable that Scully singles out the arts. There is a sense that simplifying art reduces and diminishes it in some way. Carter has been more than willing to talk about his inspirations and his influences, but there seems to be a limit. Improbable seems uneasy at the prospect of reducing nine years of The X-Files into something so simple and basic. In some ways, Improbable plays like a preemptive rebuttal of the approach that Carter would adopt over the remainder of the season in general and in scripting The Truth in particular.

In some respects, then, Improbable feels like a more fitting (and appropriate) final episode than The Truth ever would have been. It is debatable whether any mythology episode could have properly satisfied audiences looking to close the book on The X-Files. In hindsight, it seems like a stand-alone episode might have been the best approach. (Then again, the response to The X-Files: I Want to Believe suggests that Carter was stuck in a lose-lose situation.) Still, Improbable is a much better (and more satisfying) episode that ties off some thematic loose ends.

Of course, the fans would have mutinied at closing the nine-year run such an obtuse meditation on imposing meaning upon life and television, but it is not as if The Truth was universally acclaimed by any measure.

Post-mortem.

Post-mortem.


The creator of the universe works in mysterious ways. But he uses a base ten counting system and likes round numbers.

– Scott Adams

Improbable is a just a fun piece of television.

The episode is held together by joie de vivre.

And, to quote The Guardian, “Burt Reynolds plays God.”

Play your cards right...

Play your cards right…

Chris Carter has always been one of the strongest directors on the show, ever since he made his debut with Duane Barry during the second season. In some respects, Improbable feels like it is tempting fate. The last time that Chris Carter wrote a goofy and light-hearted episode towards what he though was the end of the season with a special guest star, he produced Fight Club. Indeed, the colour and tone of Improbable and Fight Club are worryingly similar, both unfolding in a hyper-saturated cartoonish surroundings.

Improbable works. A lot of the comes down to the casting of Burt Reynolds. According to The Truth About Season Nine, Reynolds had suggested that he might like to appear on the show in casual conversation with Robert Patrick:

I said, in passing, I’d love to do the show. So much time went by that I completely forgot about it. And then, out of the blue, I heard from Chris Carter.

Given that Burt Reynolds and Robert Patrick had met on the set of Striptease, it could convincingly be argued that Improbable was the best thing to come out of that particular Demi Moore vehicle.

Burt Reynolds is an American icon, a quintessentially American performer. He embodies a certain sense of playful American masculinity and confidence, charm and swagger. Reynolds is also an actor rooted in the seventies, which was a time of tremendous significance for The X-Files. It makes perfect sense that Reynolds would be the God of this particular universe, a universe that treats All the President’s Men as its foundation stone. The biggest tragedy of Improbable is that Reynolds does not get to play off David Duchovny. But Reynolds is willing to reprise the role.

"Okay, I promise I won't make a sequel to Striptease!"

“Okay, I promise I won’t make a sequel to Striptease!”

Improbable is an odd piece of television, but in a very charming way. It is too much to describe Improbable as a musical, given that it features some very questionable lip synching, but that might be for the best. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had aired Once More, With Feeling in November 2001 at the start of its sixth season. The last thing that The X-Files needed at the end of its final season was to be accused of riding on the coattails of a younger and hipper show. Making it “the lip synch episode” instead of “the musical episode” helped in that regard.

The numerology references throughout the episode are also fun. Numerology is just crazy enough to support a quirkier episode; indeed, there are faint echoes of Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose to be found in the discussions between God and Mad Wayne. More than that, this is an episode that feels particularly suited to Monica Reyes as a character. The ninth season has struggled to push Reyes out of the shadow of Mulder in the same way that the eighth season distinguished Doggett from Scully. Numerology is just crazy enough to do that; even Mulder would blink.

It helps that Improbable makes good use of its leading trio. The ninth season has frequently struggled with Scully, the third wheel in the cast. Many of the strongest episodes of the season have benefited from pushing Scully back into the ensemble with supporting characters like Skinner and Follmer; the weaker episodes have struggled to figure out what exactly Scully’s role it be in this new version of The X-Files. The internal logic of Improbable is just fuzzy enough that the show doesn’t really have to explain what Scully is doing. The audience can roll with it.

What's on the cards?

What’s on the cards?

Teaming up Scully and Reyes is always a good idea. Reyes arguably works better with Mulder and/or Scully than she does with Doggett. While Scully often seemed stubborn or ridiculous in questioning Mulder’s crazy theories, Reyes suggests possibilities that are so far out that Scully’s skepticism seems like the only rational response. The audience might know that Burt Reynolds is God and that Reyes is right, but Reyes innocently phrases her arguments in such absolute terms that Scully’s reactions feel entirely rational.

It helps that Gillian Anderson and Annabeth Gish work very well together. Despite the efforts of 4-D and Audrey Pauley, there is more sexual tension between Scully and Reyes than between Reyes and Doggett. Existence featured Reyes taking time out from killing super soldiers to compliment Scully on how attractive she was looking, while Improbable has Reyes tell Scully that she is “a nine.” All that’s missing is a short scene where Reyes awkwardly suggests that Mulder might not be coming back anytime soon.

Improbable is a fun, enjoyable episode with a lot of infectious energy. The show could certainly use more of that, given what is coming.

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4 Responses

  1. What a beautifully written piece!

    Leave it to Carter to self-insert as God… though it’s a common enough conceit so we’ll let it pass..

  2. The soundtrack of ‘Improbable’ features the usual Mark Snow atmospheric incidental music as any other X Files episode but someone in the production team fell in love with a Karl Zéro record called Songs for cabriolets (y otros tipos de vehículos), released in 2000. In all my years watching TV, I had never heard such an intensive use of an album in a episode, maybe it was a Burt Reynolds favorite!

    • I think Carter cops to that on the commentary. It seems like precisely the sort of esoterica that would catch his eye; a hint of mainstream, a hint of weird.

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