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The X-Files – Sunshine Days (Review)

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

Well, here’s hopin’ the TV stays off and he learns how to love the real world.

– Doggett stops just short of adding “… and that goes for you as well.”

The X-Files was always a more romantic show than it would readily admit.

The popular image of the show might be Mulder and Scully walking through darkness searching for a truth that may never be revealed or a hideous monster preying upon innocent victims. Chris Carter’s most successful work might be rooted in the dual betrayals of Watergate and Vietnam. The characters might stalk car parks late at night or explore the darkest corners of the urban landscape. Mulder and Scully might be abducted by forces beyond their control, and subjected to the cruel whims of uncaring fate. The show’s motto might be “trust no one.”

"Let's call it a day..."

“Let’s call it a day…”

Nevertheless, that cynicism is offset with a deep-seated romance. “Trust no one” is one of the defining mantras of The X-Files, but there are other more optimistic catchphrases; “I want to believe” and “the truth is out there.” Optimism outvotes cynicism by a two-to-one majority. It is not quite a decisive victory, but it is something in this cynical and chaotic world. While Mulder and Scully might never actually find the truth which they so desperately seek, they did find one another. That is more than either could have hoped and than some people can claim.

Sunshine Days is a staggeringly romantic and optimistic piece of television. Indeed, it suggests that the cynicism of The X-Files was really just a practiced veneer. As the title suggests, Sunshine Days allows the central cast to smile more frequently over forty-five minutes than most have in the course of their entire run on the show. As with the rest of the show, Sunshine Days is rooted in the culture of the seventies. However, there is something quite heartwarming in how Vince Gilligan eschews All the President’s Men for The Brady Bunch.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

Sunshine Days was decidedly controversial when it was first broadcast. Fans were not very happy that the penultimate episode of their show had been given over to The Brady Bunch. The reaction was so strong that even Dean Haglund joked about the production team retreating from the internet in the wake of it:

Well, Chris Carter is off surfing and climbing the mountains of the world at the moment, so I think the last thing on his mind is sitting around his computer. So it might be a little way off. I think they’re going to give it a little time so that fans can forget the Brady Bunch episode and move on!

Haglund is joking, but there is a grain of truth to his suggestion. The last thing that fans wanted from The X-Files at this point in the run was forty-five minutes of television fixating upon a television show that was over thirty years old. There were serious issues to be addressed, dammit!

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

Once again, it feels like the ninth season of The X-Files was a victim of its own hype. Chris Carter had promised to spend the final episodes of the ninth season tidying up various dangling loose ends and storythreads for loyal fans. Those fans naturally assumed that Carter was referring to the most iconic elements of the series, devoting the final run of episodes to resolving the show’s mythology and to tidying up the Mulder and Scully relationship. Promoting the final four episodes with the subtitle “Endgame” did not help matters.

As such, there was a strange dissonance between what the final episodes of The X-Files offered and what fans wanted. The fans wanted resolutions that weren’t really feasible, given that the eighth and ninth season mythology was fairly linear and straightforward and David Duchovny was unavailable. The production team responded by offering resolutions that were not really necessary with Jump the Shark, William and Release. The fans wanted closure that they could never receive, the production team offered closure they didn’t really need.

"Fan expectations are through the roof!"

“Fan expectations are through the roof!”

It did not help matters that the ninth season seemed to strain relations between the fanbase and the production team. While the production team insisted (and continue to insist) that all of their creative decisions were made in good faith, fandom interpreted episodes like Scary Monsters and Jump the Shark as passive-aggressive swipes from a show that was staring down the barrel of a gun. With all of that happening in the background, fandom was not in a position to be particularly forgiving or even-handed.

Sunshine Days is the penultimate episode of The X-Files and the last episode of the show written by Vince Gilligan. Gilligan was one of the strongest writers on the show, and probably the strongest writer still working on the series at this late stage of the run. It seems entirely fair that Gilligan should be afforded this space to bid farewell to a show that really launched his career and to which he had given so much. In fact, Sunshine Days was both written and directed by Vince Gilligan, affording the episode an auteur quality similar to that of Improbable earlier in the year.

He made quite the impression...

He made quite the impression…

Gilligan was never one of the show’s strongest mythology writer. When it comes to the central conspiracy story arc running through the nine-season run of The X-Files, Gilligan’s name only appears on a handful of episodes. Gilligan’s contributions to the mythology occurred as part of a writing team with Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban, earning an Emmy nomination for his work on Memento Mori and also writing the early fifth season two-parter Christmas Carol and Emily. Gilligan has remarked that he never wrote the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Nevertheless, Gilligan has engaged quite skilfully (if obtusely) with the central themes of The X-Files and its mythology. Although Unusual Suspects is not generally considered to be a significant part of the tapestry of the mythology, it is a vehicle that allows Gilligan to comment upon some of the core ideas related to conspiracy theory and paranoia. Similarly, John Doe might not feature any conspirators or aliens, but it does touch upon the core theme of memory that is threaded across the nine seasons of the show.

A Very Brady Murder.

A Very Brady Murder.

Gilligan’s final script for The X-Files was never going to be a mythology episode. It was always going to be a stand-alone story engaging with the themes of the series. As Frank Spotnitz noted of the episode:

We realized that by making it about someone’s obsession with another old TV show we could comment on our own show in the process. So while Sunshine Days felt like a very strange penultimate episode, period, it kind of did what we wanted it to do, which was to talk about the power of the fantasy of a TV show and life beyond a TV show and leaving a show behind. I thought it worked very effectively on that level. It was very sweet and touching.

Although it might not bring the characters any closer to thwarting colonisation or exposing a global conspiracy against mankind, Sunshine Days does feel like the show is winding down.

"We're on TV!"

“We’re on TV!”

Gilligan’s script repeatedly draws attention to the idea that the characters are all far closer to the end of their journey than to the beginning. “I gotta tell ya, I think I’m finally gettin’ the hang of this job,” Doggett boasts to Reyes, in perhaps the cruelest punchline of the episode. Of course Doggett is finally getting the hang of the job; the show is almost over. Later on, Scully reminds Doggett that she has investigated “nearly two-hundred paranormal cases”, a sly reference to the episode count.

Once Skinner gets to see Anthony’s power first-hand, he is positively glowing. “I want Kersh to see this,” he tells Doggett and Reyes. “I want the Director himself in here. I mean, do you realize what this means? This kind of proof? It ensures that they can’t shut you down. It means the X-files will go on forever.” Again, Gilligan is ladling on the irony pretty heavy, but Sunshine Days can just about get away with it. The central theme of the episode is about Anthony learned to let go of his favourite (and cancelled) television show.

Doggett's whole world is upside down...

Doggett’s whole world is upside down…

There are some other elements that hint at Sunshine Days being a final episode of sorts. There is considerable overlap with Vince Gilligan’s earlier work on Je Souhaite, another episode that might have played as the penultimate episode of the show. As in Je Souhaite, Scully is teased with final and absolute validation of her work. Anthony’s magical powers represents definitive and undeniable proof of the paranormal, completing the task to which Scully was assigned in The Pilot.

“We are due for some incontrovertible proof,” Scully remarks. “I want vindication, for Mulder and for all of us.” In many ways, Scully’s experience with Anthony in Sunshine Days mirrors her autopsy of the invisible body in Je Souhaite; it is a chance to hold tangible proof of the paranormal in her hands. Scully even gets a little further this time before that proof is yanked away by plot contrivance. “I think there’s a hell of a lot of physics books that are due for major rewrites,” boasts an independent scientific observer. “This will change everything.”

Truly Lost...

Truly Lost…

There are some problems. The promise of incontrovertible proof in Sunshine Days does not work as well as it did in Je Souhaite, simply because Vince Gilligan was done this before. The same trick loses its impact through repetition. Sunshine Days allows Scully to get a little bit closer than she did in Je Souhaite, but the net effect is the same. Even with only one episode left to go, the audience knows that the show will not allow Scully to re-write the scientific laws of the world of The X-Files; if only because that would sabotage the verisimilitude of the planned film franchise.

Nevertheless, there is something quite sweet about Sunshine Days as a place to leave Scully, Doggett, Reyes and Skinner. The X-Files rarely allows its characters to be happy for extended periods of time, if only because happiness is considered the antithesis of compelling drama – heightened emotions and dramatic tension make for more exciting television. Sunshine Days allows Scully to grin a goofy grin and chuckle, affords Skinner the opportunity to light-heartedly do a mid-air backflip, lets Doggett solve an X-file, and lets Doggett and Reyes hold hands.

Smile time!

Smile time!

As Todd Van Der Werff argues in his own review of the episode, there are a number of ways in which Sunshine Days is the ideal final episode for The X-Files despite its lack of men in expensive suits and alien invaders:

I realize that there are plenty of people who will deride a show that chooses, instead, to leave its characters in a more or less happy place, instead of providing all of the answers it can think of, but I’ve always been partial to that approach, and I think a big part of that is the one-two punch of Sunshine Days followed by The Truth. It ultimately comes down to this: Would you rather leave Scully realizing that all of the years she’s spent pursuing the paranormal weren’t for naught because of the people she worked alongside, or would you rather leave her listening to a confusing deluge of information, then going on the run for her life? Similarly, would you rather leave Doggett and Reyes quietly holding hands in a hospital hallway, imagining that they might have gotten the hang of this, or playing chauffeur to other characters? For me, the answer is simple. Always go for the ending that ties up the characters in a big, fat bow. Always go for the ending that understands what the show really is, not what it was hyped to be.

This is a very fair argument. While the fandom would have mutinied at the idea of a final episode that did not address the mythology directly, Sunshine Days is a much better piece of television than The Truth.

A great Bunch of friends...

A great Bunch of friends…

This gets into a larger debate about the best approach to ending a long-running television show. Ending any television show is difficult, but it seems to be particularly difficult when it comes to resolving a television show driven by central mysteries and riddles. It is very easy to hook audiences with profound questions and surreal images, but it is a lot harder to satisfy audiences with explanations for those interesting visual and narrative elements.

After all, the general perception is that The X-Files did not end well. That is certainly fair, even if the popular consensus is not entirely accurate. Most viewers would suggest that the problem with The X-Files was that it never answered its central questions, but the real problem with The Truth is the way in which it tries to answer everything at once. Although they were popular phenomena at the time, the legacies of mystery-driven shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost are undercut by the way their final episodes attempted to address those mysteries.

"Who the heck are Badger and Skinny Pete?"

“Who the heck are Badger and Skinny Pete?”

It could be argued shows with those sorts of central mysteries are destined to alienate fans one way or the other. Discussing the controversial ending of Lost, writer and producer Damon Lindelof suggested that they tried to avoid the common pitfalls of ending a mystery-driven drama:

It’s not that I didn’t care about the mythology of the show, it’s just like, many shows have come and gone that are very focused on their mysteries and their mythologies and their ambiguity and there is no worse scene in the history of genre than the Architect explaining to Neo everything that happened in The Matrix, and I wasn’t going to touch that with a ten foot pole.

Given that The Truth often feels like Mulder explaining to the audience everything that happened in The X-Files for about sixty minutes of a ninety-minute episode, it is easy to see where Lindelof is coming from. Trying to resolve those mysteries leads to dull exposition; leaving them ambiguous only upsets fans.

Finally looking up...

Finally looking up…

Increasingly, it seems like The X-Files might have done well to completely avoid dealing with the mythology when it came to winding the show down. It seems like fans would not have been happy either way. As simple as the “super soldier” mythology of the eighth and ninth seasons might have been, it was not really popular enough to satisfy long-term fans who had drifted away from the show but would return for the finalé. Trying to bring the original mythology back into play with William served to just make things more convoluted.

Although the mythology had been key to the success of the show in its earlier seasons, it increasingly felt like an albatross around the series’ neck. The eighth season had demonstrated that the production team could get the mythology to work by going back to basics and rooting it in character drama. Unfortunately, the mythology episodes had been among the weakest episodes of the ninth season. There was no way that The X-Files could end with anything but a mythology episode, but it looked increasingly like that was to be a fatal mistake.

Crashing down...

Crashing down…

Vince Gilligan was sympathetic to these problems, arguing from his own experience as a television viewer that final episodes are very tough:

It’s damn hard to end any nine-year odyssey of two-hundred-and-two episodes. It’s hard to end any journey like that in a perfectly satisfying manner. It’s tough. I watched every episode of M*A*S*H as a kid, I think that M*A*S*H ended its eleven-year run – even longer than The X-Files with more episodes still! – in a very satisfying manner. I think that’s a rarity. I think most TV shows, especially the really long-lived ones, whether they know the end is coming or not, kinda fall down a little bit when it comes time to end things. It’s hard. It’s damn hard to come up with a satisfying one-hour conclusion to a previous two-hundred-and-one hours of story. It’s just really hard. M*A*S*H is just about the only show I can think of that really nailed it.

Indeed, a lot of Vince Gilligan’s strongest contributions to The X-Files come from that experience as a television fan with a great deal of affection for the medium.

Turns out Anthony also likes The Shining...

Turns out Anthony also likes The Shining…

Gilligan readily cites television as an inspiration on his work. He has argued that Bad Blood was influenced by an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show rather than Roshomon. He claimed to have built Drive from an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street rather than Speed. Unusual Suspects featured a guest role for John Munch. During the fifth season, Gilligan pitched a crossover episode with Unsolved Mysteries that never materialised; he eventually got to write X-Cops as a crossover episode with Cops during the seventh season.

As such, it makes sense that Gilligan’s final script for The X-Files should be fascinated with another classic television. as with John Doe, Sunshine Days is fascinated with the idea of memory and identity. These are understandably important themes for a show in its ninth and final season. The idea of basing an episode around The Brady Bunch might have seemed quite weird at the time, but it fits quite comfortably with the larger themes of the show and Gilligan’s own interests as a writer.

Bud's buds...

Bud’s buds…

The production team did an excellent job bringing the Brady Bunch house to life. The set was essentially built from scratch, as Margaret Fearon reported:

The wizards of the X-Files crew have perfectly recreated the Brady Bunch living room and kitchen right here in the airplane hangar-size home of the X-Files at Fox studios in downtown Los Angeles. They tried to get the set used for the Brady Bunch movie, but it was not available so they had to do it themselves. They have done an amazing job, down to the large Chinese horse on the credenza.

Over the course of Sunshine Days, Doggett is shocked to discover that Reyes and Scully are both fans of The Brady Bunch; it would appear that they are not alone.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

In The Complete X-Files, Gillian Anderson recalls that the set became something of an attraction within the Hollywood community:

“They built that Brady Bunch set from scratch, which was so astounding that we had people visiting from all over Los Angeles,” Gilligan marvels. “People wanted to get their picture taken on The Brady Bunch set because The Brady Bunch set no longer exists.

“The last time I really watched television on a regular basis was when I was a teenager watching Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch,” Gillian Anderson recounts. “So it was wild.”

It is a very sweet story, and offers an example of the affection and love that went into Sunshine Days, one television legend paying tribute to another.

Not playing ball...

Not playing ball…

Gilligan’s script is chock full of references and in-jokes. The title is a reference to the song that the kids sing in Amateur Night. The vase from Confessions, Confessions actually appears. Marcia’s broken nose from The Subject Was Noses is referenced both in dialogue and in the bandages on Michael’s face. (Michael is played by David Faustino, a regular from Married… with Children a ten-season comedy that aired on Fox from the late eighties through to the nineties.) Even Anthony’s alias as “Oliver” is an allusion to the character of Cousin Oliver.

There is obviously something very reflexive in using the penultimate episode of The X-Files to pay homage to The Brady Bunch. After all, the Brady Bunch has endured in popular memory decades after it came to an end, so it serves as an optimistic metaphor for the future of The X-Files. If The Brady Bunch enjoyed a long and happy life after its initial four-season run, then perhaps the future promises a lot for The X-Files. After all, the archetypes and set-ups from The Brady Bunch are still familiar generations of viewers born after the show ended.

The road to happiness...

The road to happiness…

The choice of The Brady Bunch is very interesting. The show originally ran from 1969 through to 1974, which puts it comfortably within the frame of reference for The X-Files. Many of the show’s production team came of age during the seventies, and The X-Files was heavily influenced by the shadows of Watergate and Vietnam. It makes sense that an episode engaging with a classic television show would choose to draw upon a television show indelibly linked with that cultural moment.

However, The Brady Bunch stands in contrast to a lot of the seventies iconography associated with The X-Files. As a rule, The X-Files is rooted in the cynicism and paranoia that were fostered during the seventies. A lot of The X-Files is dedicated to uncovering buried secrets and past atrocities, with the show constantly interrogating the history of twentieth century America. As such, the happy go-lucky adventures of the Brady family seem to stand out against this broader context of The X-Files‘ engagement with American history.

The gravity of the situation...

The gravity of the situation…

Then again, that may be the point. Even when The Brady Bunch premiered, it was a very old-fashioned and traditional sitcom. It might have featured the blended family of a divorcee and a widower, but it was very conservative in its values and themes. As Molly Weinberg reflects in Still Within Boundary Walls:

The Brady Bunch acts as a form of nostalgia for a more politically and socially stable time. This nostalgia serves as a way of maintaining hegemony, demonstrating that traditional values can still have power over the counterculture movement. The Brady Bunch resembles popular 1950s sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best that defined the nuclear family, domesticity, and stereotypical gender roles as paramount to everyday family life.

The Brady Bunch was nostalgic when it first aired, let along when it was filtered through countless reboots and remakes and reimaginings. Even in the context of the seventies, it represented a yearning for a better and simpler time.

Why, jell-o there!

Why, jell-o there!

In many ways, The X-Files has rejected that nostalgia. The show has been highly critical of American popular memory. This is reflected in the way that stories like Paper Clip, Nisei and 731 interrogated the legacy of the Second World War, but also in the way that episodes like Anasazi tied the mythology back to the genocide of the Native Americans by the European settlers. A large portion of The X-Files has been dedicated to picking apart popular memory and demonstrating that things were never as clear-cut or convenient as people would like to believe.

At the same time, there is a definite sense of old-fashioned conservatism running through The X-Files. This is reflected in a number of different ways over the nine-year run of the show, from the double-standards that were applied to Mulder and Scully’s sexual lives through to the show’s unease with the idea of Scully as a working single mother that was implicit during the eighth season and explicit during the ninth. The show was particularly uncomfortable with assisted reproduction, as demonstrated in Per Manum.

"Well, hello there, partner."

“Well, hello there, partner.”

This conservatism only seemed to increase as the show grew older. As much as episodes like Two Fathers and One Son might suggest the conventional nuclear family was patriarchal in nature and prone to abuse, the show was still inexorably drawn towards it. When Essence and Existence were forced to imagine a “happily every after” image for Mulder and Scully, they settled on the idea of the duo forming a conventional family unit with a young son. Although this shift was clear at the turn of the millennium, it might have been accelerated by the trauma of 9/11.

After spending nine years rooted in a paranoid nightmare of the seventies, Sunshine Days offers a reprieve and an alternative to the horrors of Vietnam and the betrayal of Watergate. That contrast comes in the form of The Brady Bunch, a past so ideal and perfect that it could never actually have existed. It had to be conjured from a hybrid of memory and imagination, but Sunshine Days suggests that it is no less tangible or real for that fact. Perhaps there is some benefit to remembering the past as we might want it to be rather than what it was.

Doggett hits the roof...

Doggett hits the roof…

That said, it is not as if the choice of basing an episode around The Brady Bunch came from nowhere. Although it exists in sharp contrast to much of the imagery and iconography of The X-Files, it is very much part of the same cultural context. One of the big recurring themes of The X-Files is the rift that exists between parents and children. Fox Mulder spent so much of The X-Files searching for a surrogate father-figure; he was presented with options from the idealised Deep Throat to the flawed Bill Mulder to the villainous Cigarette-Smoking Man.

The relationship between parents and children plays across the show, with Mulder’s strained relationship with his own father even informing stand-alone stories like Roland or Aubrey. Mulder was a child of divorce, with his parents breaking up following the loss of his sister. Although Samantha might have been taken as part of a sinister government conspiracy, Mulder’s formative trauma was the dissolution of the family unit. The X-Files is largely about a generation gap between parents and children.

Make themselves at home...

Make themselves at home…

Anthony speaks to that. When Doggett asks why Anthony fixates upon a classic television show, Reyes offers, “Because they’re the family everyone wishes they had. Loving parents, lots of brothers and sisters, everybody getting along.” It seems as though The Brady Bunch function as a surrogate family unit. “They’re the perfect family,” Scully adds. “And since Oliver didn’t have one as a child, he created one.” Anthony looked for an idealised family, and he found one provided through television.

This is perhaps something true of children who grew up during the seventies and eighties – and beyond. During those decades, the family unit changed significant. Divorce became more common, as did single-parents. Even children growing up with both parents could find themselves left alone in the house for hours in the afternoon. Social realities created a very different version of family, one that stood in clear contrast to the idealised images that appeared in popular culture.

Talk about projecting...

Talk about projecting…

Ironically, these children who were growing up in unprecedented family situations had easy access to idealised representations of traditional old-fashioned family units. As Rob Owens argues in GenX TV:

The term latchkey kids (children whose parents worked who returned home from school to empty houses that they unlocked with their own keys) never existed before the birth of Generation X. These kids often returned home to TV as their after-school companion. For the youngest of Xers, teething rings were quickly replaced by remote controls: one for the TV, one for the VCR, one for the cable box. Boomers had no remotes and were able to watch only a few channels. For Xers, the number of channels boomed. Xers quickly learned how to program the VCR and how to surf through the various cable networks. While their working parents climbed the corporate ladder, Xers watched TV.

Writing in 1990, Anna Quindlen would wryly observe that “some of the most popular baby sitters in New York City are named Nintendo, Bugs Bunny and the Brady Bunch.”

"The Brady Bunch? They've Ben and gone..."

“The Brady Bunch? They’ve Ben and gone…”

Even how children consumed these images changed, providing a clear contrast between the images depicted on screen and the reality of the children consuming them. As Karen Ritchie reflects in Marketting to Generation X:

Families no longer gathered around the television set, with TV trays and Uncle Miltie. First came transistorised “portable,” which were dragged from room to room to keep Generation X amused while doing the dishes or doing their homework or even while visiting with friends. Later came battery-operated sets, some small enough to be carried in a pocket. Television could, and did, go everywhere: to the street corner, to work, camping, school. For many Xers, television was their babysitter, their entertainment, their teacher, and their night-light.

At the same time that children found themselves more isolated and removed from the traditional and idealised family unit, television become more and more prevalent and accessible.

"This is not creepy at all."

“This is not creepy at all.”

This is arguably the ironic truth of The Brady Bunch. While the show was popular enough to last five seasons, it was not a breakout hit upon original broadcast. In fact, despite the cultural cache of the brand, it has proved very difficult to resurrect the Brady family in any significant way. The Brady Bunch Hour only lasted nine episodes. The Brady Brides made it to ten episodes. The Bradys lasted a sum total of six episodes. Despite the success of two feature films in the nineties, a planned reboot with Vince Vaughn never got off the ground.

Given the popularity of the family, this failure rate seems quite striking. The true success of The Brady Bunch was never on initial broadcast. Instead, The Brady Bunch became a fixture of American life through syndication. The show was a fixture of after-school television schedules for decades after the cancellation of the series, to the point that a lot of people far too young to have seen the show on initial broadcast will have had access to it through reruns and repeats.

Ceiling his fate...

Ceiling his fate…

Discussing the phenomenon of “Bradymania” in the early nineties, Jess Cagle argued that this assimilation was largely due to the way the show had been consumed by a generation of kids rather than its original broadcast:

We are a generation obsessed with the Bradys. We watched them religiously — after school, every day, sometimes twice a day, five days a week, singing that “Here’s the story” theme song, effortlessly memorizing the pilot and 116 subsequent episodes, turning The Brady Bunch into one of the most successful syndicated shows ever to be delivered over American airwaves. Now we have come of age. Nostalgia-hungry and shy of the real world, we retreat back to the Brady home, where there’s a live-in maid to serve us Kool-Aid and a really cool freestanding staircase designed by our fabulously successful architect dad.

The Brady Bunch represents an idealised depiction of American family life that was so appealing because it existed in contrast to a radically-changing reality.

"Didn't stick the landing, huh?"

“Didn’t stick the landing, huh?”

It was a fantasy that served as a balm to the existential uncertainties of the seventies. That is how Sunshine Days deals with it. In keeping with those themes, it is suggested that Anthony was looking for a family unit and found a convenient surrogate in The Brady Bunch. It is an idea with which certain viewers might empathise. The television serves as a light that never gets turned off, a window into a world that makes more sense than the complicated mess of the real world.

“You can’t use your power,” Doctor Reits tells Anthony at the end of the episode. “Not ever again. I forbid it.” In a line that has a lot of poignancy in the larger context of the nine seasons of The X-Files, Anthony responds, “I can’t be alone.” Doctor Reits offers the happiest possible response to that. “You won’t be,” he assures Anthony. “You’ve got me.” In many ways, it is an affectionate literalisation of one of the core themes of The X-Files, the idea that the human mind is conditioned to seek distraction from its own existential loneliness.

Anthony is arguably a stand-in for Mulder, a metaphorical doppelgänger. After all, Mulder is still the central character on The X-Files, long after David Duchovny stopped appearing in the show. It feels entirely appropriate that Mulder should be a key figure in Sunshine Days, even if only through metaphor. Much as Mulder tried to get past his own family trauma by burying himself in the X-files, Anthony immerses himself with The Brady Bunch. Anthony reconciles himself with his surrogate father, reflecting Mulder’s own journey.

One of the nicer touches of Sunshine Days is allowing Doggett to be the character to figure all of this out. The ninth season has a tendency to forget about what makes Doggett unique. Like Mulder, Doggett’s character is informed by the tragic dissolution of a family unit. However, perhaps reflecting the maturity of The X-Files as a show, Mulder’s trauma was seen through the eyes of a child while Doggett’s was seen through the eyes of a parent. Eight years changes a lot. Doggett can recognise what Anthony wants. “You’re the father he never had, and he loves you.”

In fact, Gilligan does a lot of nice work with Doggett. Building off the events of Release, there is a joie de vivre in Doggett’s character here. Robert Patrick is having a great time as Doggett tries to get into the spirit of the X-files. Even in the first act, Doggett’s theories about how Blake died are delightfully surreal. “And how, exactly, did he wind up in a helicopter, when supposedly he was busy breaking into someone’s house at the time?” Reyes asks after Doggett outlines his theory. Without getting defensive, Doggett handwaves the criticism. “Details.”

Despite only running forty-five minutes, Sunshine Days does a much better job of servicing the show’s cast than The Truth. It feels like all four of the credited leads get some development and a chance to shine, with even Mulder present in spirit in a way that feels more meaningful than the cameo of his butt double in Nothing Important Happened Today I or his stunt double in Trust No 1. One of the nicer choices of Sunshine Days is to allow Doggett and Reyes the final shots of the episode. This is their last moment in the sun, and Sunshine Days graciously allows it.

There are parts of Sunshine Days that don’t work. The episode tries to fit a bit too much into its runtime, occasionally leading to a distracting dissonance. It appears Scully has finally found definitive proof of the paranormal… for all of about three minutes. The episode opens with the death of two minor characters as a result of Anthony’s psychic powers, but that is quickly forgotten once the characters get a chance to discover what a sweet and sincere individual Anthony actually is. Sunshine Days is far from a perfect episode.

Nevertheless, it is still a far more satisfying resolution to the show than the actual resolution. So that’s something.

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  1. I get it. After the dust settles the closing moments of Sunshine Days are better than just about anything The Truth would offer with the big exception being the closing scene in The Truth and that only features Mulder and Scully. Regardless, both fail to compare to Existence. Which leads me to the observation that the cohesive and serialized storytelling, heavy on the mythology, at the end of season 8 came at a time when Vince Gilligan was working on The Long Gunmen. He only wrote 1 season 8 episode. After Morgan& Wong and Howard Gordon left the show he as probably the lone standalone writer to be left alone by Carter. He certainly put out a lot of quality work in that time but I disagree about Sunshine Days and Je Souhaite. Whereas Je Souhaite was somewhat mean spirited towards its guest characters in the first 2/3 of the script, Sunshine Days is somewhat mean spirited towards the fandom and the show itself. “Stop watching tv, get off the couch and go outside,” is a fine message, but making that in the second to last episode risked irking a lot of fans. Gilligan points out that it’s hard to cap off a 9 year run with a 1 hour episode. With Breaking Bad, he had the luxury of capping the series off with a “final season.” This is why season 8 works better: because it gives the final episodes more room to breathe and remain cohesive. Gilligan had the disadvantage of not being a mythology writer. I still love Gilligan’s work even in the last few seasons. Roadrunners and John Doe were possibly the best two standalones from the final 3 seasons. I would even submit that John Doe would have been a much better penultimate episode than Sunshine Days. You’ve already made all the points I would make about it – the themes of memory, family, etc. I forget when or where, but I recall Carter making a comment once about his fascination with memory and how it forms much of who we are. Memory was as big a theme in the show as the faith vs science struggle. Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ understood this. John Doe “gets it.”

    • I can understand why fandom might have been tetchy about Sunshine Days, particularly following Scary Monsters and Jump the Shark. At the same time, I think Sunshine days has a sense of sincere wonder that is lacking from Scary Monsters, the ninth season’s other (and infinitely more misguided) attempt to engage directly with fandom.

      • Fair point and I don’t loathe the episode like a lot of fans. It is one of the better episodes of season 9 but would have been a fairly run of the mill episode if slotted in the first half of season 6 or even 7 for that matter. I did not enjoy Gilligan’s “lighter” episodes nearly as much as I remember so there may be a problem running through Bad Blood, Je Souhaite and Sunshine Days.

      • That’s a fair point.

        But I remain fond of Sunshine Days as a swansong for Doggett/Reyes. After Release, it feels like Doggett is finally getting into the spirit of the X-files, which is certainly a much better place to leave the character than letting Mulder down in a crunch in The Truth.

  2. There’s no doubt that season 9 is a hot mess. There’s not one episode I would recommend to anyone other than The Truth (and not because it’s good, just because it’s the end). That being said, there are a few priceless moments in the season. The look Doggett gives Reyes when she says she once took a picture of the Brady Bunch house is one of them.

    • I don’t know. I’d recommend John Doe, Hellbound, Audrey Pauley and Sunshine Days. But, dear goodness, I would not recommend The Truth. I’d offer a two-line summary, or tell the person to watch the teaser and pretend the rest of the episode was just as awesome. (Seriously, the finale goes from “Mulder does sixties James Bond” to “Mulder delivers the world’s longest and most pointless self-serving clip show” so fast.)

      • Fair point. I just rewatched The Truth and have to say I had forgotten how bad the trial sequence was. Still, there are scenes in the episode I like a lot. For me the show has always been about Mulder and Scully, and they have some good moments in The Truth. I do wish their story had ended with Existence, though.

      • I’d agree with that. The final shot of Existence is such a perfect place to leave them. Maybe bring them back for the odd guest spot once a year, but afford them a happy (and lasting) ending.

  3. Another episode I wasn’t fond of when it initially aired, Sunshine Days has risen immensely in my opinion after a recent rewatch. The optimism it offers left me with a smile on my face throughout. It was refreshing after a long run of fairly average episodes. I agree with you Darren: it’s a far better send off to the show than The Truth, servicing just about everything that needed servicing outside of the mythology. Along with John Doe and Improbable, it rounds out season nine’s best episodes nicely.

  4. Darren
    How immensely fascinating and useful your takes on these episodes are! You really help me see deeper and appreciate the seasons in context. I may be in an absolute minority as someone who adores Doggett and Reyes and I tend to enjoy the same episodes of the 9th season as you (although I might have liked Scary Monsters a tad more than you.) I can think of a million other TV shows that I wish had your analysis about them. That’s the highest compliment I give

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