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The X-Files – Jump the Shark (Review)

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

As The X-Files trundles towards its finalé, there is a sense that the production team do not understand “closure.”

There is, of course, a cheap gag to be made here. Long-time fans of the show might joke that the show never understood the concept of “closure”, as demonstrated by the fact that the show’s mythology frequently resembled a precariously-balanced tower of Jenga bricks gently swaying in a light breeze. This is perhaps a bit unfair; episodes like Requiem and Existence had done a good job of bringing the television show to a point where it might end, only for the show to be picked up for another season.

Shot down in their prime... time slot.

Shot down in their prime… time slot.

The end of the ninth season differs from the ends of the seventh or eighth because the production team know that the show is going to end. There will be no last-minute reprieve, no green-light give mere days before the last episode is actually broadcast. This is, in many ways, the end of The X-Files. With that in mind, the final episodes of the ninth season begin tidying away dangling plot threads and narrative loose ends in the hopes of satisfying the audience. The show seems to be running through a checklist. Lone Gunmen now. William next. Luke Doggett after that.

The problem, of course, is that none of these concepts are really calling for definitive “closure.” There is no reason for the show to draw a line under these supporting characters or plot arcs. It is possible for fans to imagine life beyond a television show for many characters without engaging in ruthless pruning. The Lone Gunmen do not need an epic send-off. In fact, the idea of an epic send-off seems to represent a misunderstanding of the characters themselves.

"Chris Carter said we're invited to the wrap party..."

“Chris Carter said we’re invited to the wrap party…”

One of the more interesting aspect of the late ninth season is the strained relationship between the production team and the fans of the show. Any number of episodes in the final stretch of the ninth season provoked outrage and upset from fans and critics, many of whom seemed to take certain creative decisions as a deliberate affront to those long-term viewers. The treatment of Leyla Harrison in Scary Monsters is perhaps the most obvious example, with many critics reading the episode as a bitter (and hypocritical) indictment of certain aspects of fandom.

The production team naturally denies these readings. Paranoid fans would suggest that this is perfectly logic; it is one thing to take passive-aggressive swipes at the audience, it is another to actually acknowledge that those storytelling decisions were passive-aggressive swipes. However, it is entirely possible that the controversial decisions in the final stretch of the ninth season were made with the best of intentions, while still being terrible decisions. The ninth season has no shortage of terrible decisions.

There's no heart in it any longer...

There’s no heart in it any longer…

When Chris Carter announced that the end of the show was approaching, the bulk of media and fan coverage demanded that the production team provide closure for the show that had been running nine seasons. As Aaron Kinney complained shortly before the broadcast of The Truth:

Like other X-Files fans of yore, perhaps, I was lured back to the show by the prospect that they were finally going to put a slug in the back of this lumbering giant’s head and, in the process, clear some things up and maybe do something interesting.

The hope was that Carter, Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and company would rise to the challenge and deliver a run of shows that would approximate the peaks of inventiveness, suspense and quirky humor that The X-Files reached during its heyday.

This was very much standard for on-line discussion of the final stretch of the ninth season. Fans were demanding closure and satisfying resolutions from a show that they argued had failed to provide such closure in the past. Although the tone might have seemed a little aggressive, it was entirely understandable.

Lost in space...

Lost in space…

After all, many fans and critics had been left unsatisfied with the early attempts to wrap up the mythology. One of the most frequent criticisms of The X-Files: Fight the Future was that the feature film fudged a perfectly logical end point for the show’s central storyline. When the end of the original conspiracy narrative arrived in Two Fathers and One Son, the show consciously avoided any real tangible closure; a few anonymous characters (and maybe Jeffrey and Cassandra Spender) were killed, but most recurring players (Cigarette-Smoking Man, Krycek, Fowley) endured.

The mythology lumbered past its end date. Although Carter and Spotnitz had promised that the sixth season marked the end of the original conspiracy, the lifeless husk of the original mythology survived into the seventh season. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was still holding meetings on colonisation in Biogenesis and trying to make a hybrid in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. The conspiracy was still eavesdropping on Scully in Closure and smoking out rats in En Ami. A year-and-a-half after the mythology ended, the Cigarette-Smoking Man was still plotting.

More Morris...

More Morris…

This is the context in which fandom and media demanded closure. They wanted a more satisfying resolution for the show itself than had been afforded the mythology.  In announcing the cancellation, Carter assured fans that the show would end with “a series of very, very strong episodes that are going to pull a lot of threads together from the last nine years.” It was somewhat ambiguous as to what that actually meant, given that most of the threads from the first seven seasons had already been tied off. (Admittedly, some of those threads were tied off controversially.)

Given that Carter’s work on Improbable could be read as a defense of randomness and ambiguity, what would pulling those threads together actually look like over the course of the final few episodes of the show? Jump the Shark suggests that pulling the threads together really meant cutting a swathe through the show’s central character arcs and narrative hooks. The goal wasn’t so much to resolve anything in a meaningful fashion as it was to clear away anything that might possibly be considered a loose end.

Frohike did not react well to the script...

Frohike did not react well to the script…

And, so, Jump the Shark decides to kill the Lone Gunmen. According to John Shiban, the three writers made the decision to kill off the characters when Chris Carter announced that the show was coming to an end:

Chris Carter’s announcement that this season of The X-Files would be the last came just as the writers were plotting out this one storyline. That was when they knew what they had to do. “It gave us the impetus to do this kind of ending,” Shiban says. Although a bit traumatic to comprehend at first, Shiban found himself excited at the story prospect. “If it is done well, there is no more heroic thing to do a character,” he says. “It seems just like the perfect end for the unsung heroes of the world.”

There are number of questionable assumptions underlying John Shiban’s argument, but it does offer some context for what the creative process was in the final days of the show.

Musings of a cigarette-smoking man...

Musings of a cigarette-smoking man…

If The X-Files was coming to an end, the Lone Gunmen were now surplus to requirement. Instead of being part of the show’s supporting cast, they were excess baggage that could be jettisoned so as to increase momentum heading towards the series finalé. It is worth noting that Chris Carter had bitterly resisted Glen Morgan’s desire to kill off Melvin Frohike in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man at the height of the show’s popularity. The Lone Gunmen were considered too important to the show to lose so casually. However, things had changed.

Now that The X-Files was coming to an end, there was no need to worry about keeping the Lone Gunmen around for future use. Logistically and creatively, it was a lot more convenient – and a lot less risky – to kill the characters off at this point than it would have been five seasons earlier. This is one of the temptations facing a production team at the end of a nine-season run. Cancellation affords the writers freedom from storytelling consequences, which means that making decisions like killing supporting characters becomes a lot easier.

"That was supposed to be a second season episode!"

“That was supposed to be a second season episode!”

(It tends to happen a lot in long-form storytelling. As a story approaches its end, writers frequently realise that certain characters in a large cast serve no real purpose or have become redundant. As such, it is easy to reduce those supporting characters to canon fodder – whether to assert the credibility of a new villain or simply as cost-effective emotional leverage on the audience. Battlestar Galactica killed off quite a few of its recurring players in its final season.)

The Lone Gunmen were expendable, which meant that the production team had the luxury of killing them off. With no tenth season around the corner, and only a handful of episodes left in the ninth season, the writers did not have to worry about filling the narrative (expositional) void left by the trio. In a way, the sheer narrative convenience of their death makes Jump the Shark seem even more cynical than it would otherwise be. The production team waited until a point where they knew there would be no consequences and no weight.

Breath of fresh air...

Breath of fresh air…

As with the character of Leyla Harrison in Scary Monsters, interviews with the production team make it clear that they meant no offense with Jump the Shark. In The Making of the Lone Gunmen, Frank Spotnitz argued that the production team fought against the studio to pay tribute to the characters:

We wanted to give The Lone Gunmen a big finish. And we knew that we’d let down our fans by ending the Lone Gunmen series with a “to be continued.” There was a tremendous battle royale with the studio about bringing the Lone Gunmen back at all.

This motivation is understandable and commendable. After all, the Lone Gunmen were great characters. They were beloved by the audience. Even if The Lone Gunmen had never taken off in the way that the production team had hoped, there were a lot of people who truly loved the characters. Joey Ramone cried when the Gunmen died.

His word is his Bond...

His word is his Bond…

It should be noted that the Lone Gunmen actually appeared in four episodes of the ninth season prior to Jump the Shark. They played supporting roles in Nothing Important Happened Today I, Nothing Important Happened Today II, Provenance and Providence. That is a quarter of the season to this point. So it was possible to bring the Lone Gunmen back without killing them. Perhaps the studio objected to devoting an episode of The X-Files to the primary and recurring cast of a cancelled television show at the expense of the actual credited leads on the show.

After all, Jump the Shark is effectively a stealth fourteenth episode of The Lone Gunmen. Not only does the episode focus on the leading trio, but it also brings back the show show’s recurring cast. Zuleikha Robinson and Stephen Snedden reprise their roles as Yves Adele Harlow and Jimmy Bond from the show, with Jim Fyfe making an appearance as Kimmy Belmont. Even Michael McKean pops up as Morris Fletcher, a character introduced in Dreamland I and Dreamland II, but who became linked with the Lone Gunmen in Three of a Kind.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

In many ways, Jump the Shark is certainly a more effective tribute to The Lone Gunmen than Millennium was to Millennium. The involvement of the show’s production team helps, right down to a cameo from Lone Gunmen writer Tom Schnauz as a speaker at the conference in the final act. While Millennium seemed cobbled together by writers who had seen a few promo spots and read a few on-line articles about the eponymous show, Jump the Shark is very much the product of a creative team who know The Lone Gunmen inside out.

This is a mixed blessing. It is nice to see The Lone Gunmen acknowledged in a way that Millennium never was. However, there is also a sense that this is a bit too much like inside baseball. The script very cleverly uses Morris Fletcher to provide exposition that doubles as witty zingers, but it feels like Jump the Shark never explains why X-Files fans should care about Yves or Jimmy. The revelation of Yves’ real name (“Luis Runtz”) is obviously a big deal in the context of The Lone Gunmen, but it matters not a whit to fans of The X-Files.

"You know, turning some lights on would really help the mood."

“You know, turning some lights on would really help the mood.”

Jump the Shark introduces all of these characters who are new to X-Files fans with a minimum of context and development. There is absolutely no reason for Kimmy to appear in the episode, beyond the fact that he was a guest star on The Lone Gunmen. The character shows up out of the blue to do some hacking, which seems a little redundant given that the Lone Gunmen are the go-to hackers for The X-Files. Similarly, Kimmy brings very little to the plot beyond the need for more exposition.

At the same time, Jump the Shark squeezes the regular cast out of their own show. Although the trailer is sure to include footage of the Lone Gunmen interacting with Mulder and Scully, Gillian Anderson and Mitch Pileggi only appear in the final scene of the episode. It feels a shame to rob the Lone Gunmen of any last interaction with the characters who have enjoyed the longest relationships with them. Scully gets a few generic lines about how the Lone Gunmen are true heroes, but it feels rather shallow.

"So... sandwiches?"

“So… sandwiches?”

Still, those few lines arguably serve Anderson better than the rest of the plot serves Robert Patrick or Annabeth Gish. Too often in the ninth season, Doggett and Reyes are reduced to spectators rather than participants. It has been wryly observed that the most important plot function served by Doggett and Reyes in The Truth is the chauffeur Mulder and Scully, but that arguably reflects their larger role in other ninth season episodes. Here, the primary function of Doggett and Reyes is to bring Morris Fletcher to the Lone Gunmen.

Fletcher is able to manipulate Doggett and Reyes into assisting him by dropping the phrase “super soldier” into conversation and then by suggesting that Yves Adele Harlow might have been transformed into one of those colonist replicants. This would be a rather clumsy way to tie Jump the Shark into the messy ninth season mythology, but it would at least represent a tangible link back to The X-Files. Making Yves Adele Harlow a “super soldier” would be incredibly lazy and cliché, but at least it would be a logical crossover between The Lone Gunmen and The X-Files.

Putting the "fun" in "funeral"...

Putting the “fun” in “funeral”…

Instead, it is revealed to be a feint. Jump the Shark actually has no connection back to The X-Files. It is not a crossover episode of television. Instead, the idea that Yves Adele Harlow is a “super soldier” is just a pretense that is necessary for Morris Fletcher to hijack the episode and present it as the secret fourteenth episode of The Lone Gunmen. In fact, Jump the Shark is even packaged as the fourteenth episodes in the DVD set of The Lone Gunmen television show.

The decision to kill off the Lone Gunmen was understandably controversial. It leaked as a rumour to fansites before the episode actually aired, with some media sites accidentally spoiling the twist ahead of time. Given how popular the Lone Gunmen were with the show’s on-line fanbase, it seemed inevitable that there would be a massive backlash. Coupled with the presentation of Leyla Harrison in Scary Monsters, there was a sense that The X-Files was deliberately provoking its fanbase as it faced its own mortality.

"Hey, it's not my fault Vince Gilligan cast me in Better Call Saul!"

“Hey, it’s not my fault Vince Gilligan cast me in Better Call Saul!”

The best episodes of The Lone Gunmen have a wistful melancholy to them. Episodes like Madam, I’m Adam, Planet of the Frohikes or Tango de los Pistoleros are all underscored by a loneliness and desperation lurking behind the goofy humour and the silly gags. There are points at which Jump the Shark manages to channel that sadness. There is something very tragic about seeing the Lone Gunmen brought so low, with their headquarters stripped down and their newspaper out of circulation. The Lone Gunmen were never going to win, but it hurts to see them lose.

However, the problem with Jump the Shark is that this gloominess quickly gives way to bitterness and anger. “They meant so much to me,” Scully reflects. “I’m not sure if they ever really knew.” Of course, the writers consciously structured the episode so Scully would not get a final scene with them. “Nobody knew what heroes they were,” Jimmy reflects, with just a hint of righteous frustration. Jump the Shark really seems to suggest that the Lone Gunmen deserved more love and appreciation, which can seem quite entitled when talking about a cancelled show.

There you glow...

There you glow…

It does not help matters that Jump the Shark seems to be making a number of very clear swipes at 24. It is no secret that Fox had lost interest in The X-Files and The Lone Gunmen, championing 24 as the breakout twenty-first century drama. For better or worse, 24 ended up speaking to the first decade of the twenty-first century in much the same way that The X-Files spoke to the nineties. However, Jump the Shark cannot resist the urge to make a number of jabs at the favoured young network show.

The counter-terrorist theme seems like the most obvious of references, as does Jimmy’s reading of the stakes. “We’ve got one hour to find him,” Jimmy observes heading into the final act. Once confronted with the threat of a terror attack, it feels like the script is spoofing 24‘s ruthlessness. “Hold him till I get there,” Yves urges. “I’ll do the rest.” When the Lone Gunmen hesitate at the obvious inference, she clarifies, “If that virus gets into the air stream, we’ll have failed. People will die. Whatever it takes…” Jack Bauer would be proud.

Chip off the old block...

Chip off the old block…

Given the criticism that 24 would receive for its morally relativistic approach to counter-terrorism dilemmas, Jump the Shark feels like a rather pointed (and somewhat bitter) critique. Counter-terrorism effectively turns Yves Adele Harlow into a murderer, a line that she never crossed before. While the production team had suggest Yves was ambiguous, she never killed anybody in The Lone Gunmen. Even in All About Yves, the character refused to murder a government agent who was tailing her and who had threatened the Lone Gunmen.

Perhaps the most heartwarming moment in Jump the Shark comes when the trio are confronted by John Gillnitz and a ticking clock. “What do you plan to do?” Gillnitz teases. “Not much time for surgery.” That would not stop Jack Bauer, who has been known to perform impromptu surgery to recover swallowed data discs. The Lone Gunmen ultimately reject this notion of violence solving violence. “Whatever it takes,” the trio repeat. Yves justification for murder and horror becomes a noble mantra of sacrifice. True heroism, and a dig at the rhetoric of 24.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

There is a faint sense that Jump the Shark might be throwing the toys out of the pram, landing a few broadsides at audiences who never gave The Lone Gunmen a chance. Fans didn’t love them enough, so they had to die a horrible (and probably agonising) death. Even if it was not intended that way, Jump the Shark feels staggeringly mean-spirited and passive-aggressive. In killing the Lone Gunmen off, the episode denies the characters an after-life in fan memory or consciousness. At least fans can imagine post-X-Files adventures with Doggett and Reyes.

Chris Carter signed off on the decision to resurrect the Lone Gunmen as part of the official comic book continuation in The X-Files: Season Ten. While other popular characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man or Alex Krycek were resurrected as clones and copies, writer Joe Harris explicitly rewrote the ending of Jump the Shark to reveal that the Lone Gunmen had actually faked their deaths and were simply hiding away in Arlington Cemetary. As with a lot of Season Ten, it feels like fan fiction. But it does demonstrate how controversial the decision was.

"You know, Cap'n Toby was a much more satisfying send-off..."

“We have been, and aways shall be, your friends.”

Naturally, the production team would disagree with any such reading of Jump the Shark. It is perhaps quite telling that the character responsible for actually killing the Lone Gunmen is named “John Gillnitz”, a recurring X-Files in-joke reference to the writing team of John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz. The “John Gillnitz” name has recurred since Wetwired in the third season, but its use has become even more pointed in the years since. John Gillnitz is responsible for ruining Langley’s favourite show in The “Cap’n Toby” Show.

As such, it could be argued that the writing team are taking responsibility for the death of the Lone Gunmen. After all, those three writers were entrusted with the Lone Gunmen for the thirteen-episode run of the show. Even allowing for all the external factors that played into the failure of The Lone Gunmen, those three writers were responsible for overseeing production on the series. The buck has to stop somewhere, and by positioning John Gillnitz as the murderer of the Lone Gunmen, the three writers seem to suggest an ideal place.

Burning down the hours...

Burning down the hours…

Of course, even outside of the context of the death of the Lone Gunmen, the death itself is controversial. Why did the Lone Gunmen have to die? In The Making of the Lone Gunmen, Frank Spotnitz argues that it was an attempt to pay tribute to the characters:

The decision to kill them off was made because we didn’t want to dishonour them with a tepid ending. We didn’t know if there’d be any life for The X-Files beyond that season. And so we wanted to give them really a proper hero’s exit. So that’s why we decided to kill them.

It should be noted that actor Dean Haglund broadly agrees with this sentiment. He reflected, “If they hadn’t ended it that way we’d probably have been walking into the sunset with a stick and a bag in search of another adventure. And that wouldn’t have been the smart way to go…”

Join the club...

Join the club…

In the years since, Vince Gilligan seems to have softened on the decision to kill off the characters. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Gilligan explains that he was initially opposed to the idea and wished that he had been more vehement in his opposition:

The thing about Jump the Shark, which to this day I regret… I love the guys I work with, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban. A lot of what I know about TV I learned from working with them. But we had a big disagreement on that episode. They thought the best way to end that episode would be to kill off the Lone Gunmen. And that’s what happens, in the episode. You know, spoiler alert! But it’s like, these guys – these three guys – die at the end of that episode. And, to this day, I think that is a mistake. They argued their point very passionately and very clearly and very… they argue very well, they give great arguments and they are smart guys who think things through.

And they had good reasons for choosing to kill those characters, and they made their points very validly and very clearly, so I ultimately kinda caved in and said, “Alright, alright.” But I think their point was, “Let’s send these guys out in a hero’s fashion. It’s likely we’re never going to get to revisit these characters after this. We know The X-Files is coming to an end. Most likely, this is the line for these guys. Let’s let them go out as true heroes.” I kinda bought that argument. But I kinda like the idea that these guys live on forever. I kinda want them riding off into the sunset, not dropping dead. So that episode ends with their funeral. I kinda wish I’d fought a little harder on that one. That kinda bums me out that they’re dead. Although in true X-Files fashion, I don’t think you ever see their bodies. There’s a funeral at the end, but who knows if the caskets are empty? I don’t know. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere.

Gilligan would seem to have been on the right side of history. Although writer Joe Harris might suggest that there was always wiggle room (“they did die ‘off camera’ so I’d like to think the opportunity to bring them back in some way shape or form was always there”) it is one of the few occasions in which the comics contradict the show.

Perfect plan...

Perfect plan…

The idea that the Lone Gunmen should have been killed off because they were no longer going be used in official productions speaks to a misunderstanding of the concept of “closure.” Fans want a certain amount of resolution to their long-form storytelling, with long-running storythreads paying off in a suitable climax. The Fugitive should end with Richard Kimble facing the one-armed man. This is most obvious in sitcoms, where Friends had to finally resolve the Ross and Rachel relationship while Fraiser had to make a decision with Niles and Daphne.

However, that does not mean that every character has to end up dead or married or retired. Sometimes, it is possible for a story to end by reassuring audience members that the characters are still out there having adventures. For the characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the ending to All Good Things… is infinitely preferrable to the ending to Star Trek: Nemesis, in spite – or perhaps because – of the fact that All Good Things… ends with the promise that the characters are still adventuring across the universe.

A shot in the arm...

A shot in the arm…

This is even true in film, despite the fact that film narratives are generally regarded as more closed-off than television. The ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lingers in the memory precisely because it is not definitive; the characters are in an impossible situation, but there is still some small gap through which they might escape. The Italian Job ends on a literal cliffhanger, despite the fact that there were never any plans for a follow-up or sequel. Those are great endings. Those are iconic endings.

Part of what is so frustrating about the final stretch of the ninth season of The X-Files is how the production team seem to decide that it would somehow be impossible to leave some characters open-ended. Jump the Shark kills off the Lone Gunmen, despite the fact that there is no reason to do so. William ends with Scully giving William up for adoption, even though it makes more sense to end with Mulder and Scully and William. Release reveals what happened to Luke Doggett, when the central point of that thread was that there was no reason for what happened.

"Yeah, baby. My own spin-off."

“Yeah, baby. My own spin-off.”

“Closure” does not mean tidying every detail away. If The X-Files is going to end with Mulder and Scully removed from the X-files and from their old lives, then it might be reassuring to let the Lone Gunmen continue about their own business. The heroism of the Lone Gunmen has never been measured in lives saved or catastrophes averted, the heroism of the Lone Gunmen has always been rooted in that fact that they keep trying. The Lone Gunmen are not Byronic heroes or Campbellian heroes, they are quixotic heroes. Their victory is keeping on keeping on.

There are points in Jump the Shark where the show seems to understand that. “You gotta admit, Byers, it hasn’t exactly been our year,” Frohike complains at one point. “And to top it all off, we screwed the pooch pretty good today. Maybe we should pack it in.” Byers is the true hero of the group. He will not hear it. “And do what instead?” he asks. “We never gave up. We never will. In the end, if that’s the best they can say about us… it’ll do.” It is a sweet moment, but it would be even sweeter if the Lone Gunmen died of old age having never really changed the world.

Yves of cancellation...

Yves of cancellation…

In their own ways, The “Cap’n Toby” Show and All About Yves were the perfect spend-off for the characters. All About Yves ends on a fairly stark cliffhanger, but that feels like a nice way to leave the characters. The Lone Gunmen were always very odd and esoteric heroes, so subverting the classic two-part format feels entirely in character. They managed to escape the clutches of Morris Fletcher, but not in a way that demands an on-screen resolution. The Lone Gunmen survived, even if they did not survive in the most glorious (or conventional) of manners.

The “Cap’n Toby” Show was produced earlier in the season, but held back for a second season that never arrived. Instead, it was broadcast a few weeks after the cancellation was announced. As such, it represents the show’s own internal optimism and idealism. The fact that it was broadcast after All About Yves makes the episode feel almost hopeful. No matter how grim that cliffhanger might seem, the Lone Gunmen will always be out there, adventuring and investigating. It is comforting, in its own way. The fight continues, the Gunmen prevail.

An ooze-ooze scenario...

An ooze-ooze scenario…

Jump the Shark tries to afford the Lone Gunmen an epic send-off. In doing so, it forgets that the Lone Gunmen are not epic characters. They are not Mulder and Scully. They might have been elevated from comic relief, but they are still not conventional heroes. Placing them in a very conventional heroic ending feels like it misunderstands the characters. The final scene pushes that even further, burying the Lone Gunmen at Arlington. It is an attempt to put a very happy slant on their ending, but it feels ill-judged.

“Arlington,” Doggett muses to Skinner. “You must have pulled some big strings to get those guys in here.” Skinner responds, “It’s the least I could do.” The show is over-egging the pudding somewhat. As much as Jimmy and Scully might complain that the Lone Gunmen died unknown and unloved, getting buried at Arlington after saving thousands of lives is no small accomplishment. It feels like a suitable ending for Mulder or Scully or Doggett, but it feels like a betrayal of the character and tone of the Lone Gunmen.

Profess up!

Profess up!

The title of the episode does not help matters either. While the production team insist that they had only the best intentions in killing off the Lone Gunmen, Chris Carter has admitted that the title Jump the Shark was a dig at certain vocal commentators who had been critiquing the show:

I don’t think X-Files jumped the shark and that tongue-in-cheek title was our way of lowering the boom on anybody who thought that it did. I think it was good till the end and I think that while it changed with the exit of David Duchovny, I believe that during that period there was excellent work done, excellent storytelling, and I’ll stand by all nine years of the show.

It is a thin line between being self-aware and seeming conceited. Killing off some of the show’s most iconic characters in an episode titled Jump the Shark was always going to generate controversy and heat. That the title of the episode is a cheeky jab at certain sections of fandom makes it harder to accept the other choices at face value.

Every day is "Sun" Day!

Every day is “Sun” Day!

While the primary focus of Jump the Shark was always going to be on the Lone Gunmen, the episode does continue to demonstrate how the production team were attempting to adapt to post-9/11 realities. While the actual scripting of the ninth season mythology is terrible, the show has some interesting things to say about life in post-9/11 America. There is a sense that The X-Files did not have to die in the wake of 9/11, that the production team could have figured out ways to evolve the themes of the show to engage with contemporary reality.

This is most obvious in the revelation that Yves Adele Harlow is the daughter of a terrorist who is waging a war against the United States. “My father is a murderer, and a supporter of terrorism,” she confesses. “I hate everything he stands for.” When Jimmy points out that Yves has allowed herself to become a murderer, she responds, “The man I killed was a terrorist, Jimmy. A zealot.” There are hints of a larger debate to be had about how these conversations reflect the cultural context of the War on Terror.

Lucky number three...

Lucky number three…

Jump the Shark is very much informed by the discourse that took place in the wake of 9/11. The revelation that Yves is the daughter of a terrorist mastermind recalls all the media coverage involving the family of Osama Bin Laden; the family formally disowned him, and many of his relatives fled the United States as soon as possible after the attacks. The terrorists in Jump the Shark are suicide bombers, reflecting post-9/11 fears. In July 2002, the FBI stated that suicide bombings in the United States were “inevitable.” After all, the 9/11 attacks were suicide attacks.

“Think of him as a human time bomb,” Yves warns of the target, capturing national anxieties about terrorist hidden among the population. The War on Terror was underpinned by a fear that anybody could turn out to be a terrorist, that nobody could be trusted. Indeed, it is perhaps a little heavy-handed that both of the terrorists in Jump the Shark are revealed to come from academia; it feels like Jump the Shark is maybe pandering to certain right-wing anxieties about the perceived ideological dangers of traditionally left-wing institutions.

"Hey, terrorist. Terrorise this."

“Hey, terrorist. Terrorise this.”

Of course, the terror threat presented in Jump the Shark is very much ripped from the headlines. The threat of biological warfare on American soil cannot help but be informed by the anthrax attacks that took place in late 2001. The FBI considers the anthrax letters to be “the worst biological attacks in U.S. history” and remarked that the investigation into the attacks was “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement.” The cases were never solved, with a team of twenty-three FBI agents working on the case five years after the fact.

In the years since the attack, a general consensus has emerged that the letters were sent by Bruce Edwards Ivins. Ivins was a researcher at an army biodefense lab in Fort Detrick, which makes the choice of suicide bombers in Jump the Shark seem almost prescient. Douglas Houghton and John Gillnitz are both researchers exploring shark immune systems. There is an irony in using that knowledge to conduct terror attacks, but it is an irony that is also reflected in the case of Bruce Edwards Ivins. Ivins committed suicide in 2008, as the investigation closed in on him.

Seal of office...

Seal of office…

Jump the Shark works reasonably well as a counter-terrorism narrative. The sequence of the decoy suicide bomber being captured by the CDC is very effective; it foreshadows a lot of imagery that popular culture would use to explore the threat of biological warfare. In fact, The X-Files actually beat 24 to the punch. It would be the third season of 24 before the show actually tackled the threat of biological warfare head-on. There is a sense that this plot might have made a strong timely ninth season mythology episode, divorced from the burden of the Lone Gunmen.

Sadly, Jump the Shark cannot be divorced from the deaths of the Lone Gunmen. The end of The X-Files is near, and the show has a very particular definition of “closure.”

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4 Responses

  1. I’m of two minds on this. Killing off TLG and giving them a hero’s death are two different things.

    I don’t mind them dying, in fact their appearance in The Truth makes me happy they did. In a way it’s more disturbing than Deepthroat’s death, a man who seemed so well-connected. TLG have been protected, up ’til this juncture, by their pluck and harmlessness. The Cigarette Man could have shot Frohike, but declined, either out of grudging respect or because he wasn’t worth the bullet.

    If it were me, I would’ve had the Conspirators change their mind, quite abruptly, and blow up TLG’s van or something. I imagine this would be difficult, logistically, if we’re keeping the Lone Gunmen series in canon, since that show divorced them from the going-ons of the X-Files universe (and de-fanged them, if I’m honest). They needed an ignominious death, but the constraints of the show demanded a heroic one.

    So, ultimately TLG died because the writers lost focus on what they were really about – as they did with so many other characters. X-Files is the example I point to when arguing the point that “epicness” doesn’t necessarily make for a good story.

    • That’s a very fair point, and I would largely agree. The Lone Gunmen are not epic unsung heroes, despite what Shiban thinks. The Lone Gunmen are the guys who carry on carrying on. They’re arguably more heroes in the British vein than the American vein, characters whose continued existence in the face of humiliating defeat and constant embarrassment represents its own sort of victory.

      I’d agree more with Gilligan that killing them off here was a mistake. Oddly, I’d have less of a problem if Glen Morgan had been allowed to kill Frohike off in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. But, if you had to kill them off in the ninth season, an “epic” death with an Arlington funeral represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters.

  2. “…the perceived ideological dangers of traditionally left-wing institutions.”

    Not addressed enough, in my opinion. It’s a fascinating dichotomy and one which goes ignored in fiction… I’m guessing that right-wing fantasies make better television, so it’s to be expected. Or maybe television is, in the end, an instrument of state power, so you can’t realistically expect a self-critique from a government “at war”.

    Star Trek came closest, I think, with the Cardassians. The initial appearance of the Cadassian Union exposes the naiveté of the Federation (Troi states that they have to trust the Cardassians because they are their “allies” now!) and the hypocrisy of it, too (Worf says that their trust has to be earned). The trouble is, neither of them is especially right but there is a grain of truth in each opinion. This tension will come to a head in TNG’s “The Wounded”, the Maquis struggle and later the Dominion War.

    The Cardassia arc briefly touched on this in their own way. IIRC the world operated under a tripartite system or the military, the intelligence service, and the civilian council. In reality, the council was toothless and allowed the other two to operate in autonomy. However, after a string of military misadventures, it came time to clamp down on security, but the Central Command was hamstrung by the civilian governments, who wanted to move toward peaceful coexistence. Eventually the intelligence service was dissolved and the military took over, but at the cost of crippling their internal security; for a time the military was preoccupied mostly with putting down riots across the planet. I really like how it was presented as a lose-lose situation. Give the military too much power, and you have a police state at war with itself. Give the liberals too much power, and you get alien conspirators. It’s a lot to chew on (so unlike Babylon 5 which, despite its other merits, fell back on the hoary “religious case=good, warrior caste=BAD)”.

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