This December, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the ninth season of The X-Files.
William was supposed to make things simpler for The X-Files going forward.
Although the pregnancy narrative of the eighth season had provided a solid arc across the year, it seemed like the production team had no idea what to do with William once the child actually arrived. Despite the fact that Essence and Existence insisted that William was a miracle completely unrelated to the alien colonists, Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II tried to tie William back into the mythology. Trust No 1 suggested William was part of prophecy. Provenance and Providence had the baby kidnapped.
One of the more frequent criticisms of the ninth season is that William served to handicap Scully as a character. Scully was suddenly relegated to the role of mother, with the scripts and the fans constantly wondering why Scully wasn’t spending more time with the baby. The mythology suggested that Scully was only relevant because of her connections to William and Mulder. Although William and Mulder were subject to a colonist prophecy, Scully was not mentioned. She was just a tether connecting the two, accessible because Gillian Anderson was still in the show.
The fact that the series was ending provided the perfect opportunity to clear William away. William is clearly designed to declutter the narrative of the show by disposing of a dangling loose end. Ironically, it only serves to create a whole lot more.
Again, there is a sense that the production team were really not sure about how what kind of closure they wanted to provide as the show’s final episodes drew closer and closer. One of the more frustrating aspects of the late ninth season is the way that the production team seem to pick stories and characters at random for the purposes of tying them up in a neat bow. There is a very arbitrary nature to the choice of stories and the choice of resolution in many these later-season episodes.
There is no reason why the Lone Gunmen needed a resolution, but the production team decided that they did and so Jump the Shark brutally kills them off. Throughout the eighth season, episodes like Invocation, This is Not Happening and Empedocles suggested that the death of Luke Doggett was the result of a vague concept of human evil at work in the world, but Release decides to offer a very convoluted conspiracy as an explanation and so the show offers a completely unnecessary revelation.
It almost feels as if the writers are picking characters and resolutions out of hats in the office. It is as if the production team has decided that they like the concepts of “closure” and “resolution”, but have no idea how to apply them to the handful of episodes remaining in the season. Sure, Assistant Director Brad Follmer has only appeared in five episodes, but he definitely deserves a wrap-up character arc. Agent Jeffrey Spender might have been shot off-screen three seasons ago, but what is he doing now?
It does not help matters that the hype machine around the final stretch of the ninth season began telling the audience what they wanted to hear. The last four episodes of the show – beginning with William – ran under the subtitle “Endgame.” This obviously implied some sort of long-form cohesive narrative building to a gigantic pay-off. The promos promised viewers “four final episodes, one ultimate truth.” Fans were understandably upset when the best episode of the bunch focused on The Brady Bunch.
As with a lot of the ninth season, it seems like the production team learned absolutely nothing from the success of the eighth season. The eighth season might not have been the final season of the show, but it was clearly structured as one. The final third of the season – from DeadAlive through to Existence – formed a very loosely serialised narrative building to a conclusion. Events rippled across episodes. Mulder’s relationship with Doggett grew from Three Words to Empedocles to Vienan to Alone. Scully’s pregnancy left Doggett working the unit alone.
The eighth season spent its final third building towards a finalé, taking Mulder and Scully to the point where the show might have been comfortable leaving them. A lot of fans would have been quite happy if that final shot of Existence had been the last time that Mulder and Scully appeared, ready to start a new life together and leave the X-files behind them. There was an inevitability to the conclusion of the eighth season, a sense that things were coming to a logical and organic conclusion.
Of course, the ninth season completely ignored that conclusion. Perhaps because Gillian Anderson had extended her contract to include a ninth season, perhaps because the production team got cold feet. Whatever the reason, the ninth season ignored pretty much every good idea and clever concept that the eighth had employed. While the eighth season built naturally towards a powerful and affecting final shot, the ninth season stumbles and gropes in the direction of its closing scene without any rhyme or reason.
The problems in William are all rooted in lessons that the ninth season refused to learn from the success of the eighth season. The most apparent one is in the title of the episode itself. The final scenes of Essence and Existence suggested that William was not a chosen one or a messiah, he was a more natural sort of miracle; William was simply a child born of the love between a man and woman. It was a very cheesy resolution, but the eighth season had earned enough good will to pull it off. Mulder and Scully finally had a family, which both had desperately sought.
The ninth season immediately backtracks on this by insisting that William must somehow be related to the show’s central mythology. To be fair, this is a logical way to keep William relevent while Gillian Anderson is still on the show. Nothing Important Happened Today I and Nothing Important Happened Today II suggested that William was simply a “super soldier” born from a woman’s womb. As the season went on, William’s mythology got more elaborate. Trust No 1 suggested he was subject to prophecy. Providence suggested he could save or damn mankind.
These are all very cliché ideas, with the writers following the path of least resistance in an effort to make William seem important to the overall arc of the show. It made more sense to suggest that William was simply an expression of the love between Mulder and Scully, but those choices are understandable. There is only one big problem with foisting a messianic narrative upon William; the child is less than a year old. The character has no agency. The actor(s) playing him can hardly generate a consistent character arc across the season.
This means that Scully is relegated to acting for William by proxy. However, this means that Scully’s most important role in the ninth season is “mother of the messiah.” If she exists primarily as an expression of William’s agency, then she loses a lot of her own. Scully was one of the most compelling characters of the nineties and Gillian Anderson is one of the finest actors working in television; this choice does a disservice to both the character and the actor. No wonder the stock image of Scully in season nine is that of a mother frantically screaming “my baby! my baby!”
So William does pose a problem for the ninth season. It makes sense that the production team would attempt to figure out how to resolve that problem going forward. The show cannot continue putting William in jeopardy and forcing Gillian Anderson to find new ways to express anxious desperation. It is not a sustainable model for television drama. If the show is to continue, it needs to find ways to involve Scully in the plot without reducing her to a proxy for the would-be messiah. In that context, William makes sense. Except the show isn’t going forward. It is ending.
William is the fourth-to-last episode of The X-Files to air. The production team do not need to figure out what to do with William going forward because there simply is no “going forward.” William will not continue to monopolise stories relating to Scully because there will be no stories relating to Scully. One of the luxuries of ending a television show is that the production team does not have to worry about dramatic consequences. That is why the Lone Gunmen could die in Jump the Shark, but Frohike couldn’t in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.
Ending a television show means that there is no need to worry about a status quo. While the ninth season had to figure out a workable way to tell stories building off that terrific closing image of the eighth season, the ninth season is completely free of any obligation to what comes next. Ending a television show allows characters to move and to marry, to retire and to transfer. The dramatic demands of a weekly television series usually prevents a character from achieving their goals, because then they’d be happy and there’d be no more tension or purpose.
The end of a show removes that constraint. Ross and Rachel can get together at the end of Friends, even though the writers could never figure out what to do with them when they were together. John Big can finally realise that he loves Carrie in Sex and the City. The cast of How I Met Your Mother can actually meet the mother. The ending of the show does not have to represent a stable or sustainable status quo for going forward. It is entirely possible for a television series to end by completely breaking and dismantling that status quo.
As such, William wasn’t really a plot point that needed to be solved at the end of the ninth season. In fact, The Truth would probably have been more powerful had it allowed for a reunion between Mulder and Scully and William, bringing back together a family separated by “super soldiers” and colonists. Fans could imagine Mulder and Scully and William literally living “happily ever after.” Certainly, the characters had earned a little peace of mind after all that time on the edge.
Of course, the real reason that the ninth season had to resolve the dangling plot thread involving William had nothing to do with the end of the show. As Frank Spotnitz conceded, it had a lot to do with the viability of a possible movie franchise:
“But I think the decision to have Scully give up the baby was something that, in no small way, makes it easier to do another movie, and really sort of frees you in what that movie can be, in a way that you would not be free if the baby storyline had to be serviced. You’d just have to have another threat to the baby in the movie, and that dictates the entire story of the movie.”
As with a lot of the ninth season, this resolution seems extraordinarily cynical. For all that the production team might talk about (and promise) resolution, they are just de-cluttering the board in the hopes of getting to tell another story at some point in the future.
There is a fairly sizable dramatic irony in all of this. In its own way, William failed utterly to declutter the narrative and tidy away the plot threads involving William. While the script was very clearly and consciously trying to resolve the plot surrounding William, it accidentally turned William into an even bigger issue for the show going forward. Far from tucking William away in a drawer where he might be forgotten by all but the most hardcore of fans, William made him a much more pressing concern going forward.
For all that Frank Spotnitz talked about how brushing William aside made it easier to plot hypothetical movies, William haunts the plot of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Far from unburdening Mulder and Scully, the adoption of William creates additional emotional baggage through which that movie must wade. Appropriately enough, given that The X-Files was a product of the Watergate era, the cover-up winds up causing more problems than the original crime.
William does such a spectacularly terrible job of actually resolving anything that it has generated some of the longest and most prominent dangling threads. While the media and fans have generally forgotten about the “super soldier” mythology of the eighth and ninth season, nobody has forgotten about William. William haunts The X-Files: Season Ten; both literally in terms of Scully’s memories and metaphorically through the presence of Gibson Praise. Since the episode aired, the team has faced questions about whether future stories will deal with William.
This problem is somewhat compounded by the fact that William seems to offer an anti-climactic resolution to the show’s central mythology. The show’s mythology has been fixated upon the idea of colonisation from the beginning; it was rendered explicit in Talitha Cumi at the end of the third season. The ninth season has worked hard to tie William into this mythology of colonisation. William is essential; the colonists need William to live and Mulder to die, while mankind needs William to die or both to live.
William renders strips William of all that mythological importance with a single injection. Indeed, William takes far too long to actually reach the point where Spender injects William with the magic antidote. This has fairly seismic implications given how much emphasis the ninth season has placed on William. Has Spender single-handedly thwarted colonisation, since the colonists can’t use William at this point? Did Spender unravel the mythology with a single prick? If he has not an impact, why does it matter? William never answers any of this, letting it linger.
Even beyond the fact that it creates an absence that is in many ways more distracting than the baby’s presence, there are a whole host of reasons why giving William up for adoption at the end of William is a bad idea. One of the more interesting ideas about William is the fact that Mulder and Scully are an unconventional family unit. They are not married. While putting Mulder on the run is a terrible idea, it does mean that Scully is a working single mother. Even at the start of the twenty-first century, it was rare to see that on television.
A lot of the debate around William centres on the idea that William effective drags Scully down, that he limits what she can do. Gillian Anderson articulated this argument quite quickly in discussing the ninth season:
I don’t know about this whole baby thing. It certainly adds a level of complication to the filming! I think it added an interesting storyline, but it’s also been complicated. How do you involve Scully in the cases they’re investigating to a degree without the audience thinking, “Well, where’s the baby and why isn’t she home with him?” And if she is with the baby the fans are going, “We want her out in the field. We don’t want her home with the baby.” It was a very fine balance that they had to play.
This does suggest something of a double standard for the show and its fans. Mulder is able to run off from his lover and their child without generating that same discussion. However, Scully going to work is an issue.
Working parents are becoming more and more common. A survey in 2001 revealed that both parents work almost two-thirds of modern two-parent families. The number of mothers in the work force climbed above seventy percent at the turn of the millennium. It would be entirely feasible for both Mulder and Scully to work while William was around. Raising a child is tough and life-changing, particularly for a parent living on her own. However, there are plenty functioning family units where single mothers are employed.
Scully has the luxury of a stable job with flexible hours, transitioning into a teaching and supervisory role. Indeed, part of Scully’s reduced role during the eighth and ninth season was to allow Gillian Anderson the opportunity to spend time with her own daughter. William does not have to be a burden unless the writers make him a burden. Mulder and Scully’s lifestyle would have to change slightly but it is entirely reasonable to construct a functioning (and modern) family without having both parents married and without forcing one to stay at home.
In a way, this is very much the social conservatism of The X-Files shining through. William seems to suggest that William will lead a much more fulfilling and happy life with a wholesome stereotypical midwestern family unit than he ever could with a single working mother like Scully. There is a lot of judgment inherent in the ending to William. The social worker in the teaser even observes that the decision to give up William was “a life choice by a single mother”, as if that is all that needs to be said.
As conservative and regressive as this subtext might be, it still feels decidedly more pleasant than the other unfortunate suggestion running through William. In Existence, Mulder and Scully were just happy to have a healthy and (seemingly) normal child. While the motherhood arc running through the fourth and fifth seasons was problematic, Scully had wanted a child for quite some time. William was very much a dream come true for Mulder and Scully, even if he was not the messiah.
Unfortunately, William strips the baby of his messianic arc only three minutes before Scully decides to give him up for adoption. While the episode tries to suggest that this is not the case, there is an obvious inference here; now that William is no longer the chosen one who will lead mankind to salvation, Scully does not want him. The teaser even frames the adoption in this manner. “I keep asking myself a question,” Misses Van de Kamp confesses. “I know there’s been a medical exam… but are you sure he’s okay?” The suggestion is clear; William is a defective messiah.
Spender argues that the colonists will never stop chasing William, even though he no longer has any special powers. “It’ll never be over,” Spender advises. “They’ll always know what he was. They’ll never accept what he is.” When William had special powers, he was able to defend himself against attackers; Josepho learned as much during the climax to Providence. Without his powers, he has no defenses; and the Van de Kamp family have no idea of what is hunting him. This makes Scully’s decision particularly hard to justify.
The plot involving is only the most obvious problem with William. The other glaring issue with the script is another problem common to the ninth season, it draws attention to Mulder’s absence without featuring David Duchovny. To be fair, David Duchovny does cameo in the episode as a reflection glimpsed in Scully’s eye, but it is hardly satisfying for an episode that promises the return of Mulder to The X-Files. Much like the use of the butt double in Nothing Important Happened Today I and the stunt double in Trust No 1, it feels like audience baiting.
This is particularly frustrating for two reasons. The most obvious is that Mulder’s return in The Truth had already been planned and announced. Not only could the audience wait three weeks to get their Mulder fix, but savvy viewers already knew that Mulder could not possibly be disfigured in that way. The promos leading into the broadcast of William even advertised the return of David Duchovny in The Truth, looking as handsome as ever. So the Mulder bait-and-switch feels cynical and disingenuous.
It is particularly frustrating because David Duchovny was actually working on the episode. Duchovny came up with the story for the episode. In fact, according to Frank Spotnitz, David Duchovny and Chris Carter were the ones pushing to write William out of the show:
I had a lot of reservations about that storyline and about her giving up the baby, and was not at all sure that it was the right thing to do. But in the end, I think it was the right thing to do, because it becomes unsavory. And I think everybody – David and Chris, especially – felt that this was going to be an obstacle to us in the movies. And I think the solution we came up with was kind of Solomonic in its wisdom in the end, which is, it’s true to Scully’s character and the pattern of behavior that she’s had for the past nine years: that she sacrifices her own happiness for a greater cause. It’s true to the tragic series of losses she’s endured over the course of the series, and I thought it was very moving in the end. It kind of helped us go forward with Mulder and Scully – and whether there are movies or not, it serviced them – and us, as storytellers – in a good way.
Duchovny had managed to direct himself before. Mulder had reasonably-sized roles in both The Unnatural and Hollywood A.D. The is no reason that William could not have actually featured Duchovny playing Mulder rather than having to pull the swap with Chris Owens playing Spender.
There is something quite questionable about letting Duchovny make these sorts of creative decisions for the show without committing to actually appear in the episode. It has been suggested, somewhat cynically, that part of the reason that Duchovny agreed to direct William was simply to boost his directing CV to help him raise funds for his own independent feature House of D. The argument goes that Duchovny did not necessarily have enough experience directing to reassure investors to back his feature.
Whatever the reason for allowing the Mulder fake-out, it makes for very poor television on a number of levels. The ninth season of The X-Files had alienated a lot of its fanbase, whether intentionally or not. The treatment of Leyla Harrison in Scary Monsters and of the Lone Gunmen in Jump the Shark had generated a lot of anger and resentment. Pulling this sort of trick on a fanbase already losing patience with the show was only asking for more trouble and more resentment.
More to the point, it feels like wry self-parody at a point where the show is not nearly strong enough to support wry self-parody. According to David Duchovny, he always wanted to do a “deformed” Mulder story in the ninth season, but he only decided that the burnt man could not be Mulder after agreeing to return for The Truth:
“Everybody liked the idea about the deformity,” Duchovny continued. “But around the time the idea was taking shape, we agreed that I would come back to do the final two episodes of the series [the two-part “The Truth”] and so I couldn’t come back disfigured in this episode if I was going to come back as the non-disfigured Mulder a few episodes later. I had always looked for a way to bring back Chris Owens as Spender because I really liked working with him, and so things just evolved from there.”
Whatever Duchovny’s motivations – and one might suggest that the solution to this problem is not to do the “deformed Mulder” storyline rather than doing a “deformed Mulder is really Spender” storyline – it all feels a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
Chris Owens does great work, and is very game for being willing to go through all that make-up to reprise a role that he last played three seasons earlier. Owens is also gracious enough to bury his “guest star” credit so the twist is not given away ahead of time. Nevertheless, it is quite clear to any astute audience member that David Duchnovny is not playing the role of the burnt man. While there is some ambiguity as to whether or not the character is actually Mulder, it is unconvincing that Scully and Doggett should be taken in at all by it.
In many ways, William feels like a cheesy soap opera plot. On soap operas, it is common to swap out actors by having characters go through horrific experiences and to have plastic surgery. Burns and surgery are very convenient excuses for swapping out actors on long-running shows. It explained how Drake Hogestyn replaced Wayne Northrop as Roman Brady in Days of Our Lives in mid-eighties. Jack Coleman replaced Al Corley as Steven Colby on Dynasty, the character having had plastic surgery after a fire on an oil rig.
Given David Duchovny’s tendency for meta-fiction and self-commentary, this convoluted soap opera plot is undoubtedly intended to be self-aware. There is a bit of grim humour in bringing Chris Owens back to play a burnt man claiming to be Mulder, given that there were rumours that the production team considered replacing David Duchovny with Chris Owens around the time his contract expired at the end of the fifth season. A Duchovny surrogate playing a Mulder surrogate.
William ladles on the soap opera elements, explicitly confirming what has been long implied. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is actually Mulder’s biological father and Spender is actually Mulder’s half-brother. At its best, the show’s mythology felt like a family drama playing on an epic scale; the story of fathers and sons trapped in cycles of secrets and betrayals. William pushes that logic to its extreme. There are now “half-brothers raised apart” and doppelgängers, characters returning from the dead.
William is a muddled episode. Chris Owens concedes that even the actors had trouble make sense of it on a scene-by-scene, line-by-line basis:
“In that particular episode, with David directing, there were a couple of scenes where Gillian says, ‘What does this mean? What am I doing?’ and David would scratch his head and we were all sitting around and David would make a suggestion ,’I think maybe this.’ His usual answer was ‘She’s confused and she’s going back and forth.’ Well Gillian herself was confused, going back and forth which was perfect for Scully. Then when I see the episode it makes perfect sense. She plays confused and confused works. It’s a good choice.”
This is very much reflected on screen, with a number of confusing character and plot developments. Why does Scully invite a stranger into her home so readily? Why doesn’t somebody stay with the burnt man?
To be fair to Duchovny, there are some nice shots and compositions. There are some wonderful mirror shots that serve to connect back to the connection between Spender and Mulder. There is also a nice buffalo motif bookending the episode. According to John Shiban, the buffalo imagery was a matter of convenience:
“It was to set the stage and tell us where we were,” Shiban explained. “People tried to read a lot of symbolism into it, but that wasn’t the case. To give credit where credit is due, as I understood it, it was a creative choice by David Duchovny. He felt, ‘I don’t want to do a legend here. Let’s do something a little more interesting.'”
At the same time, the white buffalo has significance in the context of The X-Files. In Paper Clip, Albert Hosteen suggested it was a metaphor for sacrifice and exchange; Melissa Scully’s life for that of Mulder. In William, it perhaps represents Spender for Mulder.
It is great to see Chris Owens again. Indeed, his presence feels like even more self-commentary from the production team. Much reference is made to the fact that Spender has been horrifically burned. In many respects, so was Chris Owens. Chris Owens moved down to Los Angeles on a promise given by Chris Carter at the start of the sixth season. Spender was unceremoniously killed off after only five appearances in the sixth season, leaving Owens somewhat high and dry. As such, the fact that Spender was so badly burned plays like a wry in-joke.
However, despite all this, there is a sense that William complicates the mythology rather than simplifying it as the show marches towards a resolution. Even beyond creating a lingering ambiguity around William, the episode works hard to tie the eighth and ninth season mythologies back to the original mythology from the first seven seasons. Spender himself is position as a bridge between the “black oil” era of the show’s mythology and the more recent “super soldier” mythology.
“What you can see they did to me was a failed attempt to turn me into one of these alien men,” Spender advises Scully and Reyes. “I was a guinea pig; a test subject.” There is some retroactive continuity at work here, an attempt to create a connection between the iconic and popular alien invasion mythology to the more recent revisions. William is essentially about developing connective tissue between the conspiracy that ended in Two Fathers and One Son and the one that really began with This is Not Happening and DeadAlive.
Indeed, William reestablished the Cigarette-Smoking Man a major player in the show’s mythology despite the fact that he was last seen dying at the bottom of a stairwell in Requiem. This is a character who has effectively been dead for almost two years at this point, only for William to tie his ghost into the eighth and ninth season mythology. Ultimately, Spender’s motivations for attempting to thwart the colonists amount to “screw you, dad!” on a cosmic scale.
“Having failed as a conspirator to control alien colonization, my father wanted nothing more than to see the world fail, too,” Spender reflects. This seems like something of a mischaracterisation, given that the Cigarette-Smoking Man was still trying to produce hybrids in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati long after his colleagues were burnt alive. Spender suggests that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is effectively living on in the spirit of the new conspiracy. “Your son is the one thing the aliens need. I took revenge on my father by taking William away from them.”
On one level, this makes a great deal of sense. The Cigarette-Smoking Man remains one of the most iconic characters to appear on The X-Files. There is a reason that he was the only X-Files character beyond Mulder and Scully to appear in The Springfield Files and why Hollywood A.D. includes a “cigarette-smoking pontiff.” It is no surprise that the Cigarette-Smoking Man has been tapped to return for the revival, even appearing at the end of the first trailer and as a major part of later promotion including the animated trailer.
It was impossible to end The X-Files without referencing the Cigarette-Smoking Man in some way. Indeed, his appearance in The Truth was all but inevitable. At the same time, there is an inelegance to William, hinging as it does on flashbacks from three seasons earlier and forcing connections between the work of the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the more recent colonisation mythology. It adds clutter, rather than clearing the way. With only three episodes left, it feels like a miscalculation.
After all, the eighth and ninth season mythology is fairly linear and straightforward. The eighth season took the show back to basics, sidestepping all those “…but what about the bees?” or “…what does the black oil do?” questions. The “super soldier” mythology might have been too simplistic to sustain the show going forward, but it was relatively accessible and logical. It would be fairly easy to deal with the whole “super soldier” mythology in a two-hour finalé, while still leaving plenty of time for Mulder and Scully to reconnect. Simplicity is not bad.
William signals that the show will not be adopting that approach. The show will not limit itself to addressing issues relating to the current mythology. Instead, William suggests that The Truth will be laying all nine seasons open and reconnecting with all of the mythology from the peak era of the show. If the Cigarette-Smoking Man is back in play, then so are the bees and so is the black oil. The entire show is up for discussion and debate, despite the fact it took the production team a year and a half (from One Son to Requiem) to close the first mythology the first time around.
Again, it is easy to see why the show made this decision. The end of The X-Files was a cultural event. The show was getting more media attention than it had enjoyed since David Duchovny’s departure. There was a chance to make The X-Files a topic of pop culture conversation once again. People who had not watched the show in years would be tuning in. People expected the Cigarette-Smoking Man; people expected the black oil; people expected faceless men. It does not matter that these were not part of the show any more. The X-Files would make them part of the show.
To be fair, there was probably a way to do this properly. There are suggestions that the revival is harking back to the classic mythology, bringing back everything that people loved about the show, even if that stuff was not a feature of the later years. However, bringing all that stuff back into the show’s conversation generated a lot of baggage. It might have been best to make a concentrated effort to foster and grow those connections across multiple episodes, instead of just laying the entire past open to discussion in William and The Truth.
The final season of The X-Files desperately wants to offer resolution and closure, because that is what everyone seems to want of it. However, its attempts to offer satisfactory closure only serve to reopen old wounds and inflict new ones. William is a prime example, an attempt to tidy things up that only serves to make everything messier.