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The X-Files – My Struggle II (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

“This is the end,” the opening credits tease.

This is not the end.

This is not the end.

Upon the announcement of the six episode limited series, there was a sense that Chris Carter might use the episodes to bring closure to the characters and the show, that this might legitimately represent the end for Mulder and Scully. Gillian Anderson had even suggested as much in some of her early public appearances following the announcement. Perhaps they would reconcile with William. Perhaps Mulder would finally get to tackle the threat of colonisation that had lingered over the show since Talitha Cumi.

In some ways, this theory was rooted in a contemporary understanding of how television works. In recent years, it has become increasingly trendy to think of television as a format that is “novelistic.” This attitude reflects itself in a number of different ways, most notably in the diminished importance of the episode as its own story and in the increase importance of the episode as an installment or unit of story. However, it also affected how television shows approach endings, in that audiences came to expect that their shows would have clear delineated endings.

"I'm still tripping balls, right?"

“Whoa. Those were some powerful mushrooms.”

Under the classic model of television, shows would continue for as long as was deemed viable. There were two reasons for this. The most obvious was that a successful show continues to make money for all involved. Creating new shows takes an investment of time and money in something that has (statistically speaking) a low chance of success, while keeping an old successful show on the air comes with a built-in audience and a known brand. Popular returning shows tend to generate more news and more coverage than new shows.

There was also the issue of syndication. Until relatively recently, the ideal was to produce a large volume of episodes that could be sold into syndication, thus allowing old shows to keep earning a profit. The more episodes had been produced, the longer the show could run in syndication without repeating itself; the more attractive the package was. Syndication was also a driver in the episodic nature of most shows in the late eighties and early nineties; the idea being that viewers should need to watch a syndicated show everyday to understand a given episode.

Flashback fever.

Flashback fever.

Until relatively recently, syndication was treated as the be-all and end-all of television production. There were a number of reasons for this. In practical terms, television shows had historically been too cumbersome to sell directly to customers on home media. While the advent of VHS made it practical to sell popular (and even unpopular) films to home audiences, a full season of a television show took up a lot of shelf space. That was changing by the time that The X-Files went off the air, with DVD making it practical to sell shows directly to the audience. Streaming makes it easier.

Generally speaking, the old model of television production kept successful shows on the air too long, at least from a creative point of view. Commercial concerns were paramount and there was never any convincing business reason to cancel a show at its peak. Shows that were successful were allowed to continue. It was only when shows became unsuccessful that they were allowed to retire. This meant that show typically had to reach a point where they were losing viewers in order for the network to pull the plug.

"Boy, this Ford sure is spacious," Scully thinks to herself.

“Boy, this Ford sure is spacious,” Scully thinks to herself.

On top of that, those involved in production typically had incentives to keep shows running longer; contracts signed at the start of a series tend to favour the network, as the show is an unknown quantity and considered something of a risk. Running the show long enough for those contracts to elapse means that new deals have to be negotiated, and those new deals tend to favour the talent producing the show. There are a host of famous examples of star and producers whose salaries bumped dramatically when contracts came up for negotiation.

This was true of The X-Files during its original production run. Chris Carter had initially talked about plans to retire The X-Files after five seasons, transitioning from a weekly television show to a feature film franchise. However, the show had grown its audience in each of its first five seasons, so Fox was reluctant to let the show come to an end after five years. However, David Duchovny was able to leverage a move to Los Angeles for the sixth season. However, the show entered a slow and gradual decline from that point.

Requiem for Requiem.

Requiem for Requiem.

It happened again at the start of the seventh season, when various key creative figures like Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz gave interviews to the effect that they expected it to be the final season of the show. Ratings were now in an appreciable decline, and David Duchovny had signaled his reluctance to commit to another twenty-odd episode season. However, outside forces intervened. Fox had a disastrous season, and so it needed an eighth season of The X-Files despite the stated desire of the production team to bring the shutters down.

Network shows have historically been victims of their own success in this regard. Indeed, the ratings success of the eighth season inspired Fox to commission a ninth season of The X-Files, with Gillian Anderson contractually mandated to stick around while David Duchovny vanished into the ether. The result was a horribly misjudged season of television, one which ended with a large volume of pop culture critics (and a significant portion of the fandom) wondering what the entire point had been. There is a sense that The X-Files never ended on its own terms.

End times.

End times.

This is another example of how television changed in the years since The X-Files went off the air. As home media and streaming rendered syndication less of a pressing concern, and as the executive producers came to be seen as creative figures constructing stories rather than filling episode orders. This was a shift that was largely driven by cable television, with channels like HBO and AMC allowing shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men to finish on something approaching their own terms.

(There were, of course, some measure of creative compromise involved. In many cases, channels convinced creators to split the final season into two slightly extended half-seasons. This allowed for a few more episodes and gave the channels a bit more time to groom possible replacements. Of course, there may also be other financial and contractual reasons for defining these two-part final seasons as a single split season rather than two separate seasons. While the creative value of this split is debatable, it still demonstrates how television production has changed.)

Dialling it back a bit.

Dialling it back a bit.

As with the reduced order counts and a tendency to treat individual seasons a cohesive miniseries within an existing framework, it was not long before these changes filtered down from prestige television production into network television production. The most high-profile example of a network television show setting its own end date was Lost. Producer Damon Lindelof described negotiations with ABC, who had a vested interest in keeping the show on the air:

“Obviously they want the show to go on as long as possible,” Lindelof added. “And all that we can say is, ‘There’s a show with us running it and there’s a show without us running it, and if you want the show with us running it, this is when we think it should end.’ And like negotiation, therein lies the rub. I think you’ll find, if you talk to [ABC entertainment president] Steve [McPherson], in Steve’s vernacular, he’s begun to embrace the idea that the show needs to end. Now the question becomes when.”

It was a big moment in network television history. When Chris Carter considered walking away from The X-Files after the fifth season, he admitted that Fox would easily have replaced him as showrunner. ABC’s eventual understanding that Lost needed to be one consistent creative vision more than it needed to continue past the point of immediate profitability. It was a huge moment for the evolution of television narratives.

"Look, you were on Six Feet Under. You understand how this works."

“Look, you were on Six Feet Under. You understand how this works.”

Gradually, this idea of allowing a television series the chance to retire gracefully became an accepted part of television production. Even largely episodic shows like House reportedly considered abridged final seasons to afford fans and characters a sense of closure. Discussing the case of Girls, Todd Van Der Werff argued that this shift represented an acknowledgement of the role that legacy and reputation play in the current digital market place:

Instead of simply petering out, Lena Dunham’s comedy will have a chance to conclude with a finale that will hopefully be properly foreshadowed and plotted. And a good ending can mean the difference between a show that becomes an all-time favorite and one that slowly fades from memory. 

In some ways, the future of TV lies in the idea of being able to sell shows to streaming services and other new media platforms as “entire series” that tell full, satisfying stories. Breaking Bad will probably be on streaming forever (and at top dollar) because it’s perhaps the ultimate example of this — and it will always appeal to new generations of viewers.

After all, that is the big choice between binge watching and syndication. On conventional broadcast television, there are only so many options for a person sitting down to watch a show; historically, these viewers were curtailed by the choices of the networks. With streaming, the viewer has much greater control and much greater choice. Selling the series to the viewer is more important. Given current expectations, that means promising audiences that it ends well.

The O'Malley factor.

The O’Malley factor.

This perhaps explains the audience expectations going into the six-episode miniseries. It was tempting to look at the X-Files revival as akin to the truncated final season orders of something like Person of Interest or Boardwalk Empire, an opportunity to get a “do-over” on the dire ninth season and offer some proper resolution with both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson available for all six episodes. Unfolding more than three years after the date of colonisation laid out in The Truth, many fans expected closure.

In many ways, this is an example of the chickens coming home to roost. In many ways, the narrative of The X-Files has been one of anticipation. The mythology finds Mulder and Scully excavating a twisted secret history of the United States, but in the hopes of averting a future catastrophe. Talitha Cumi promised an inevitable alien colonisation of the planet. The show’s first feature film was titled The X-Files: Fight the Future. The show seemed to be counting down towards cataclysm.

Scully should know better than to check Mulder's browsing history.

Scully should know better than to check Mulder’s browsing history.

It was not just fans who felt this way. Gillian Anderson acknowledges that she initially considered My Struggle II to mark the end of the line for the show:

It can be a cliffhanger that is forever, so it didn’t really at the time… it didn’t alert me to anything untoward, I think. [laughs] I mean, I went into the sixth [episode] as it being our final goodbye. And I think I feel a little bit differently about that now. It’s all going to come down to logistics and various other things, but whether we were continuing or ending, I feel like it needed to be some kind of a cliffhanger.

This is no surprise, given that Anderson had initially been reluctant to commit to a television series and had repeatedly pointed to the miniseries as an opportunity for closure.

Let's face it, this is not the worst thing that could be on there.

Let’s face it, this is not the worst thing that could be on there.

In its own twisted way, My Struggle II seems to acknowledge and tease out these ideas. On the most basic level, My Struggle II seems to suggest that the apocalypse teased since Talitha Cumi has arrived. It is different than most viewers would have imagined it, distinct from the vision glimpsed briefly in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. However, this is very much the end of the line for mankind. The Cigarette-Smoking Man describes it as the culmination of over sixty years of work.

In a small but significant detail, Monica Reyes states that it has been happening since 2012. “It’s been in motion since 2012,” Reyes advises Scully. In some ways, this is a quick and clean continuity fix. It accounts for the date that Mulder discovered in The Truth, but which passed unmarked in the real world. Reyes suggests that perhaps the end of the world really did come about in 2012, but the planet has been limping on for almost half-a-decade. The “big-brained beasts” are too stupid to realise that they are already dead.

Judgement Day.

Judgement Day.

In a way, this recalls the suggestion in DeadAlive that colonisation had already begun by the year 2000. The activation of the super soldiers in the eighth season was meant to represent the culmination of the mythology to that point. The preparatory phase was over. The colonists were actually in the process of asserting their dominion over the planet, retaking it for their own. However, this clever suggestion that the promised apocalypse was already happening was quickly forgotten. The eighth and ninth season mythology quickly became even more set-up.

To be fair, Chris Carter has always been fascinated by the idea of an encroaching apocalypse, the idea that mankind stands on the edge of a complete social and political collapse. In the nineties, this was very much a reflection of millennial anxieties about standing at what Francis Fukuyama described as “the end of history.” After all, that turn of phrase suggests an existential apocalypse, evoking the image of Alexander weeping as he realises that there are no more worlds to conquer.

"And you sir, should be ashamed of yourself."

“And you sir, should be ashamed of yourself.”

The apocalypse looms large in the writing of Chris Carter. In The X-Files, that apocalypse manifested itself in the threat of alien colonisation. In the first season of Millennium, it seemed like society itself was a fragile institution that threatened to collapse in the face of all the evil in the world. In Harsh Realm, Hobbes and Pinocchio find themselves wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland that exists in parallel with the modern world as a twisted reflection of America at the end of the nineties.

After twenty years, the apocalypse was no longer an abstract idea. Carter seemed ready to bring the apocalypse to television. His first television project following the end of The X-Files was the Amazon pilot for The After, a show that imagined a modern-day apocalypse inspired by the writings of Dante Alighieri. In many respects, My Struggle II is a spiritual companion piece to The After. The episode even opens with the idea that the apocalypse is already in progress. It is not Mulder and Scully racing to prevent the end of the world; it is happening.

The Truth of the matter.

The Truth of the matter.

In a way, this reflects the modern world. Writer Max Brooks fictionalised the apocalypse in World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, but he confesses that the modern fascination with apocalyptic fiction is a way of processing contemporary anxieties:

“Since 2001, people have been scared,” he explained. “There’s been some really scary stuff that’s been happening — 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, D.C. sniper, global warming, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu, SARS. I think people really feel like the system’s breaking down.”

He can be a little intense, but hear him out.

“It’s Hurricane Katrina. It’s neighbors knifing each other for food, women being raped, the cops not showing up, children dying of starvation, an old lady dying in a wheelchair.” Brooks reasons that many folks can’t cope with real-life dangers; they (like him) would prefer to metabolize their anxiety through science-fiction. “If all that happens because of a zombie plague, then you can say, ‘Oh, well, that would never happen, because there’s no zombies.’ ”

This sounds like an extreme position, but consider the information pouring through the media. Breakdown of social order and massive increases in gun violence in the United States. A wave of global terror attacks sparked by an apocalyptic death cult. Mankind might have already reached the tipping point in their battle against climate change.

A Tad concerned.

A Tad concerned.

These are just the headlines. There are all manner of fears lurking beneath the headlines. The one-in-ten chance that mankind will develop an artificial intelligence in the next century that decides it doesn’t need us around. Water shortages in two-thirds of the world. Fear about another pandemic on the scale of spanish flu or the black death. The collapse of Detroit. The long-threatened death of small towns. The opiod epidemic. The possibility of an asteroid impact in 2032. The fear that contemporary civil unrest might “go viral.”

This is to say nothing of the abundance of apocalyptic imagery in contemporary film and television. The apocalypse has been a subject of fascination for mankind for millennia, but it seems like the twenty-first century has been dominated by depictions of the end of the world and devastation on an impossible scale. It is all but expected for contemporary blockbusters to deliver harrowing depictions of urban devastation and planet-wide threats that threaten to push mankind to the brink of extinction.

The road to disaster.

The road to disaster.

Big studio tentpoles trade in 9/11 imagery on a massive scale. The Avengers and Man of Steel are perhaps the most obvious examples, but it bleeds across genres and settings; War of the Worlds, Guardians of the Galaxy, Godzilla, Thor: The Dark World, Cloverfield, Star Trek Into Darkness. It seems like film and television are prone to relive that destruction and devastation, amplifying the terror and destruction so that a horrific terrorist attack that killed thousands is reconceptualised as an extinction-level cataclysm.

To be fair, it might be argued that this fascination with pop cultural apocalypse simply reflects advances in technology. During the nineties, Independence Day really pushed the boundaries on realistic urban devastation in blockbuster cinema only five years before those attacks heralded the dawn of the twenty-first century. As computer-generated imagery becomes more convincing and less expensive, it becomes practical for shows like Jericho and Revolution to depict the end of the world and the collapse of civilisation.

A bridge too far...

A bridge too far…

Alex Wagner has argued that film and television are inevitably part of this cycle of apocalyptic anxiety, contributing to a larger sense of political polarisation and explaining why the stakes in these sorts of political debate are presented as cataclysmic:

Say what you will about 2016, but undeniably, it is a season of villains and heroes. The national landscape is already populated with unprecedented violence: innocents killed en masse or in singularly catastrophic fashion. Independent of these unsparingly awful events, politicians now conjure evils so pervasive (in government, on borders, overseas) they verge on the unspeakable; candidates boast of bravery (usually their own) so daring it knows no measure. Depending on whether it’s the left or right side of the aisle, the hero may have a blonde, cotton candy-like halo, or a crown of snow white—but either way, he is singular and unlikely, striking out on his own against the menacing dark of Wall Street or Muslim America. For both grassroots conservatives and activist progressives, the institutional failure is profound and the insiders are hacks, losers, criminals, or all of the above.            

These epic battles have been unfolding on the small screen (the TV) or the even smaller screen (the Twitter) for the better part of the last few years. If we were not already at #PeakApocalypse, this summer, as Democrats convene in Philadelphia and Republicans converge on Cleveland, you can find similarly Manichean endtimes on a third screen, the silver one: the movie theater.

There is definitely of a faint whiff of moral panic about this argument, akin to blaming  real-life violence on films and video games. It seems more reasonable to suggest that this is a broader cultural issue, that the current tenor of apocalyptic pop culture reflects (and speaks to) modern anxieties more than it cultivates them.

A sick new threat.

A sick new threat.

Whatever the explanation, it is all very scary. Watching the news, a person might get the sense that the apocalypse is actually happening and that society is in a process of collapse that is so gradual that nobody has noticed it. This is particularly true for people hooked into social media and online journalism, where there is a constant feed of such information reinforcing and feeding these anxieties. Even the major online publishers have taken to doing live blogs to track and document the most shocking news of the day, feeding into that cycle of non-stop terrible news.

The internet and modern media undoubtedly contributes to this climate. By just about any objective measure, the world is a safer place than it was. Crime in the United States is down dramatically since 1993, meaning that audiences should in theory feel much safer now than at any other point after The X-Files launched. In major cities, murder rates are down dramatically. In 2012, Americans were as likely to be killed by their own furniture as by a terrorist attack.

Looking the other way.

Looking the other way.

With that in mind, it seems fair to suggest that at least some of the climate of anxiety is down to how information is processed and conveyed, with a much greater emphasis on providing and receiving instant information in a manner that is unfiltered and often unstructured. There is an immediacy to this coverage that is visceral and affecting, one that gets the barriers that existed before the explosion in instant online content. When bad news used arrive as part of a package at specific times in a familiar format, it somehow seemed more distant.

Now it there is a strange urgency to all this, a visceral reality. These horrible things might be happening half the world away, and might only be filtered through a smart phone, but they are still happening right now. It has an almost numbing effect, one that seems to mount slowly but builds to a deafening roar. It is no longer just militia groups and paranoid survivalists who fall asleep worried about what unannounced horrors the morning might bring. Following news feed occasionally feels like inhabiting the opening scroll of a horror film.

"It's all gone a bit Dawn of the Dead, hasn't it?"

“It’s all gone a bit Dawn of the Dead, hasn’t it?”

In fact, Chuck Klosterman argued that this anxiety helped to explain why zombies had become the dominant monster of the twenty-first century:

This is our collective fear projection: that we will be consumed. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.

Battling zombies is like battling anything … or everything.

This is a very palpable modern anxiety, the sense that the world is falling apart and there is nothing that can be done except to keep our heads above water.

"Hey, look ma! I'm already in the opening slide show!"

“Hey, look ma! I’m already in the opening slide show!”

This idea of communication breakdown and information overload plays through Carter’s scripts for the miniseries. Tasked with reinventing the mythology for the twenty-first century, My Struggle I opts for a postmodern approach that finds Mulder and Tad O’Malley describing almost every possible conspiracy theory. The premiere offers a cocktail of crazy and contradictory ideas that cannot possibly be reconciled with each other, Mulder and O’Malley getting swept away by the rapid influx of information in a way that makes identifying a singular truth almost impossible.

Similarly, Babylon is fixated on the idea of communion and communication. The episode is fascinated by the power of ideas, whether the belief that inspires Shiraz to become a suicide bomber or the suggestion that leads Mulder to find spiritual communion with Shiraz. The episode is populated with dead ends and incongruous details that emphasis the frailty of human communication. The episode’s title even refers to the myth of the Tower of Babylon, in which an angry and spiteful God destroyed the notion of a common tongue.

"Just tell me you didn't give him magic mushrooms again."

“Just tell me you didn’t give him magic mushrooms again.”

In a way, all of this comes to a head in My Struggle II, when Carter arguably reaches the apocalypse that had loomed for so long over his work. The apocalypse presented in My Struggle II is not an alien invasion or a government coup. It is not a singular foreign threat. Instead, the breakdown of society in My Struggle II comes through any number of separate and distinct factors rather than a singular unifying cause. Although the apocalypse is explicitly viral, it is not a single virus.

The X-Files has always been fascinated with viral metaphors, both inside and outside the mythology. Episodes like F. Emasulata and Teso Dos Bichos offered viral monsters of the week, while viruses were also incorporated into the show’s alien invasion story arc. In The Erlenmeyer Flask, Scully discovered traces of a mysterious virus in a suspect’s green blood. Colony and End Game revealed that the alien blood contained a virus toxic to mankind. Fight the Future revealed that the colonists themselves were ultimately a sentient virus.

"I've known the conspriacy since it was only an alien foetus."

“I’ve known the conspiracy since it was only an alien foetus.”

These references largely ower to the show’s nineties context. The AIDS panic was still fresh in the cultural memory. In fact, Tad O’Malley still defines this pandemic in those terms. “You’re describing it as a fast-moving AIDS without the HIV,” O’Malley reflects. It is telling that he does not describe it as a more modern source of anxiety like avian flu. The terms of reference for My Struggle II are still rooted in the nineties, with the viral apocalypse in My Struggle II feeling very much of a piece with the rest of the show.

However, it is also an example of how Carter has tweaked and updated the mythology for the new millennium. The adjective “viral” means something completely different now, as compared to during the nineties. Building off the theories of Richard Dawkins about the transmission of thoughts and ideas as akin to viruses, the word “viral” is frequently applied to the spread of particular information through complex systems. The threat posed by a viral epidemic in 2016 is distinct from that posed in 1998, reflecting this fractured social framework.

"Doctor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?" "Yes I would, Tad."

“Doctor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?”
“Yes I would, Tad.”

Scully identifies a soldier suffering from anthrax, but she warns that it is “a rolling first wave of contagion.” Interviewing Doctor Robell, Tad O’Malley inquires, “A massive contagion, then?” Doctor Rubell responds, “Not one contagion, but a variety of contagions.” Much like My Struggle I seemed to hint that there was more than one single conspiracy at work, My Struggle II suggests that the apocalypse itself will not be down to a singular cause. It is not anthrax or bubonic plague. It is not smallpox, despite the plan teased in Zero Sum.

Even then, the actual mechanics of the outbreak are kept muddled. Part of this is perhaps Carter hedging his bets, but part of it feels like part of the recurring theme of fractured information. Tad O’Malley is at best an unreliable narrator in all this, one who responds to the threat of a global epidemic by simply piling on more conspiracy theories and more information. “If you see graffiti like this in your neighborhood, you can suspect your DNA is being targeted by a release of aluminum into the atmosphere through chemtrails,” he warns his viewers.

"You can tell this is serious because we changed the back lighting to red."

“You can tell this is serious because we changed the back lighting to red.”

Even within My Struggle II, there is a sense of confusion and disorganisation. The actual nature of the threat is kept ambiguous and vague, while the panic and uncertain it creates is very tangible. This is a very definite thematic decision from Carter, but it does mean that My Struggle II feels somewhat scattershot and fractured. The episode first suggests that alien DNA in the smallpox vaccination is causing the outbreak, and then offers a complete reversal; it turns out alien DNA is what keeps Scully safe.

Much like My Struggle I, Carter’s script for My Struggle II bombards the audience with exposition and information. It is very much an episode that is far more interested in telling the audience what is happened more than showing the end of the world. As far as My Struggle II is concerned, the actual end of the world is a fairly muted affair. There are some shots of patients writhing on hospital beds, some sirens driving past Mulder, and some rioting in downtown Washington. However, most of the threat is presented in dialogue by characters like O’Malley and Scully.

The sound of the world dying.

The sound of the world dying.

In fact, on the commentary, Chris Carter points out that the short scene of rioting towards the end of the episode was not originally in the script:

This actually – this bit right here – came as a note from Gabe Rotter, who’s sitting right next to me. Who thought that we needed something on the street rather than Scully just running to her car. Something else that escalated the action and the stakes.

It is a very good addition, one that serves to show the end of the world rather than simply telling the audience that society is collapsing.

A face you can trust.

A face you can trust.

Still, there are a host of intriguing ideas at the heart of Carter’s apocalypse. The actual form of this apocalypse is intriguing. In many respects, it fells almost like an echo of the apocalypse that Carter depicted in The After. Carter acknowledged these similarities when asked about the apocalyptic overlap between his earlier work on The X-Files and the pilot for The After, “I think the show will take a lot of my storytelling experience on The X-Files and apply it in a really new and creative way. “ The reverse ended up being true; The After echoes through My Struggle II.

The most striking parallel is Carter’s vision of social collapse. In The After, the nature of the apocalypse was kept deliberated vague. The episode suggested that the end of the world was inevitable, and the particulars of the cataclysm befalling mankind are largely irrelevant. Instead, the most striking apocalyptic imagery in The After was the breakdown of social order. Police officers rendered powerless and indifferent, emergency services unresponsive, people lost with nobody able to help.

Heal thyselves.

Heal thyselves.

In some respects, this imagery mirrors the concerns that bubbled through Carter’s work on Millennium. With the creation of Frank Black, Carter acknowledged his own concerns about a world in which nobody was able or willing to help one another. The breakdown of communication that ripples through Carter’s three scripts for the revival miniseries plays into this idea. The end of the world comes at a point where society simply stops caring, where people no longer attempt to communicate with one another, where everything becomes too big and chaotic to process.

The viral apocalypse in My Struggle II explicitly targets the emergency services and the social infrastructure. It is no coincidence that the first victim that Scully encounters is a soldier and the first sense of apocalypse comes from a hospital. “Who will be first hit?” O’Malley demands. Doctor Robell responds, “The people we most depend on – the police, health care workers.” Agent Einstein even substantiates that observation, warning Scully that this is not a pandemic, “That’s not what I’m seeing here, Agent Scully. I am seeing one class of people infected.”

"Also, Agent Scully, the way you keep calling me Agent Einstein sounds like you're being really condescending."

“Also, Agent Scully, the way you keep calling me Agent Einstein sounds like you’re being really condescending.”

The real viral infection is not the contagion affecting individual people. The soldier is a victim, but he is not the target of this attack. My Struggle II seems to suggest that the victim is society itself. Society has been infected and contaminated by what appears to be an auto-immune deficiency. When O’Malley describes the threat as “a fast-moving AIDS, he is not talking about the individual cases. The body politic has been infected by a malicious invasive organism that is targeting those individuals who are supposed to provide an immunity to such threats.

As with My Struggle I, this new mythology has a clear emphasis on class. Building on earlier Morgan and Wong stories like E.B.E., Little Green Men and Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the new mythology adopts a more sympathetic and compassionate approach to the alien. The aliens at the heart of the mythology are no longer colonists. They are innocent victims brutally murdered by greedy men seeking to exploit their technology and harness it for material gain.

More like the disarmed forces.

More like the disarmed forces.

My Struggle I suggested that aliens were drawn to Earth by the detonation of the atomic bomb, as if heralds racing towards humanity’s destruction or moths drawn to a cosmic flame. My Struggle II suggests that the aliens are not conquerors or invaders. Instead, they are sympathetic. They share fundamental similarities with mankind. “Aliens predicted all this,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man advises Mulder. “They saw it happening to themselves.” In fact, the Cigarette-Smoking Man makes it clear that mankind has no one to blame for themselves for this apocalypse.

“Look at world history, Fox,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man begs. “Neither you nor I could save mankind from self-extermination.” He promises, “I didn’t set out to destroy the world, Mulder. People did.” When Mulder accuses him of trying to justify his actions, the Cigarette-Smoking Man retorts, “We have just had the hottest year on record on planet Earth. I didn’t do that. I’m not responsible for the 40% loss of-of bird life or the decimation of the megafauna.” He might be a selfish evil old man, but he is not entirely wrong.

Cutting off his nose to spite his face...

Cutting off his nose to spite his face…

This characterisation of the Cigarette-Smoking Man dates back to earlier episodes of the show. In the show’s later years, the Cigarette-Smoking Man was defined as a selfish cowardly hypocrite with absolutely no claim to the moral high ground. However, the second season had allowed the character some small sense of legitimacy, whether defending his actions to Mulder in One Breath or justifying keeping secrets from the public in F. Emasculata. In some ways, My Struggle II marks a return to this portrayal. He is still a monster, but he might have a point.

In fact, My Struggle II seems to suggest that the aliens behind the mythology are not plotting to enslave or conquer us, but might actually be mankind’s salvation. In the original mythology, the process of hybridisation was presented as (at best) a necessary evil. It was the only way to survive the pending apocalypse, but was presented as a monstrous act by a cadre of selfish men seeking to prolong their own lives at the expense of the entire human race. In My Struggle II, the implication is that hybridisation will save mankind. Embracing the alien is the best way forward.

Shedding some light on the matter.

Shedding some light on the matter.

This is all quite pointed. Mulder manages to track the Cigarette-Smoking Man down to the small community of Spartanburg in South Carolina. In fact, the plague sweeping across the planet takes its name from that small community. It should be noted that Donald Trump won the Republican South Carolina Primary only two days before the episode aired. Trump’s victory in South Carolina helped to cement him as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. It was a victory that would have a huge impact on contemporary politics. The symbolism is heavy.

(It is possible that this creative choice was simply fortuitous. However, it is also possible that it was intentional. Of course, the production team were very meticulous about the context in which the episodes would air. Despite moving around in the schedule, a poster early in Home Again specifically dates the events of the episode to the exact air date. It is perhaps a more mundane example of the wonders of computer-generated imagery.  The name “Spartanburg” is only mentioned once in the episode, and the commentary explains the signage was added in post-production.)

Primary concerns.

Primary concerns.

Even the name “Spartan Virus” hints at the social commentary underscoring this twist of the mythology. Sparta is an ancient Greek city often deliberately contrasted with Athens. Although Athens adhered to its own (admittedly flawed) democracy, Sparta hewed closer to a more dictatorial style. Sparta was home to warriors, its depiction in myths and legends portraying it as a truly brutal society in which only the strongest survived. In tying the conspirators back to that Social Darwinist aesthetic, My Struggle II presents their scheme as a war upon democracy.

Indeed, the Cigarette-Smoking Man insists that the current epidemic is simply an excuse to wipe the slate clean so that the planet can be reimagined to his own specifications. “The world will go on,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man promises Reyes. “Just in my image instead of God’s.” Whereas the original mythology frequently presented the conspirators as middle-men working in the service of colonising aliens, the revival instead presents them as a ruling “elite” who seek to impose their own order on the planet. This is all literalised class warfare.

Yep, nothing suggestive about this imagery.

Yep, nothing suggestive about this imagery.

Still, as much as My Struggle I and My Struggle II repackage and reconceptualise the mythology for the twenty-first century, they are still very much Chris Carter scripts. This is perhaps most obvious in the dialogue, which is very much written to Chris Carter’s sensibilities. There are long monologues from characters, who speak in a consciously stylised way that sounds like no human being ever. This is most obvious in Scully and Einstein’s conversations, which do not feel like conversations so much as exposition phrased in a lyrical manner.

“You know little of my history, Agent Einstein,” Scully explains. “And while we share a faith in science, I have come to the understanding that the science that we were taught takes us but a distance towards the truth.” Given the panic that has taken root and the scale of the threat, Scully has taken a lot of time to carefully craft that rejoinder to her younger colleague. It is not so much an argument as the introduction to a nineteenth century letter, which is very much in keeping with how Chris Carter writes.

"Well, it really sounds like you're just being sarcastic every time you use my name."

“Well, it really sounds like you’re just being sarcastic every time you use my name.”

(Indeed, at this point in the run of the show, it seems very much like something that just has to be accepted about how Carter writes. Glen Morgan’s script for Home Again and James Wong’s script for Founder’s Mutation both afford Mulder and Scully more naturalistic dialogue that allows David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson more room for human moments. Darin Morgan’s dialogue in Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster is a bit more stylised, but it is also less laboured. It feels closer to how people actually talk than Babylon or My Struggle II.)

To be fair, there are points at which Carter’s heavily stylised approach to dialogue can work beautifully. Improbable is an example of an episode in which the writer and director’s sensibilities work beautifully, but even the introductory monologues to My Struggle I and My Struggle II have a certain charm to them. This is something that is a feature of how Chris Carter writes. At its best, it can enhance the story. At its worst, it distracts from it. The problem with the dialogue between Scully and Einstein is that it is more the latter than the former.

"It's only a flesh wound."

“It’s only a flesh wound.”

On the commentary, Carter confesses that My Struggle II was written under a great deal of time pressure while the miniseries was in production:

I can tell you that this episode was unwritten as late in the game as the fourth or fifth episode. I was very fortunate to have the help – the now credited help – from two people who were fans of the show. One was the science advisor on the show originally; that was Anne Simon, Doctor Anne Simon. And Doctor Margaret Fearon, who is a friend of hers and also a Canadian in the Public Health Department in Toronto.

This accounts for the disjointedness. My Struggle II feels like an episode that is a couple of drafts away from being a classic. It has a great hook, some great scenes, and incredible stakes. However, it also feels rushed.

"Well, Chris Carter said he wanted a 24-style split screen."

“Well, Chris Carter said he wanted a 24-style split screen.”

In the past, the show’s strongest mythology episodes have offered an incredible sense of scale and ambition that pushed the limits of what could be done on television. The cable car misadventure in Ascension; the submarine in End Game; the mine scenes in Paper Clip; the train jump from Nisei; the gulag escape from Terma; the plane crash from Tempus Fugit and Max; the mountain sequences in Gethsemane; the international scale of Patient X. It seems like My Struggle I and My Struggle II are largely missing a big spectacle like that.

My Struggle I opens with a spectacular crash sequence that looks fantastic, and carries the audience’s interest for a significant stretch of the episode. In contrast, My Struggle II only has a brutal fight sequence inside Mulder’s home. It is a scene that looks grand. In some respects, it feels like Chris Carter is making another teasing jab at 24, following on from Babylon. More than that, it is ridiculously gratuitous. Mulder beats a goon who was sent to bring him to meet the Cigarette-Smoking Man; Mulder then goes to meet the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

"I don't think that this what Clyde Bruckman had in mind when he said auto-erotic asphyxiation..."

“I don’t think that this what Clyde Bruckman had in mind when he said auto-erotic asphyxiation…”

With regards to that fight sequence, it seems like 24 is very much a point of interest for the revival miniseries. Although this idea never made it through pre-production, Chris Carter confesses on the commentary that he originally planned for the final act of My Struggle II to unfold over split screen:

I’m not wild about the way that I shot this scene, because I originally wanted a split screen effect, because I was going to tell a lot over the end of the story split screen. So the framing is… inelegant, for me. A little static and just pointing the camera. I didn’t move the camera much, because I needed to be mindful of how people would be framed for that split screen effect.

Ultimately, My Struggle II would opt for a much more conventional climax. Although Carter does not mention 24 by name, that series was responsible for re-popularising split screen as a televisual narrative device. The show would often use split screen to contrast events happening simultaneously affecting multiple characters.

"What would Jack Bauer do?"

“What would Jack Bauer do?”

This fascination with 24 makes a great deal of sense. In a way, 24 was a replacement for The X-Files. When Fox retired The X-Files in 2002, it made 24 the cornerstone of its television schedule. In some respects, 24 was a post-9/11 mirror for The X-Files. Both The X-Files and 24 traded in paranoia and mistrust, exposing conspiracies and cover-ups. However, while The X-Files was highly skeptical of government authority, 24 was infused with a certain amount of rah-rah patriotism that could occasionally be overzealous.

Carter seems to be intrigued by 24. On the surface, Babylon is a season of 24 filtered through the aesthetic of The X-Files. It is a story about an improbably large and well-coordinated nest of suicide bombers planning to unleash a wave of terror as the clock ticks down. In 24, Jack Bauer would torture his way to the ringleaders. In The X-Files, Mulder simply pops magic mushrooms and takes a psychedelic trip. My Struggle II seems a bit less subversive in playing with 24 tropes, relishing a gratuitous stunt battle and toying with the idea of a split screen finale.

"Now sir, maybe you shouldn't have attempted to remove the tattoo yourself."

“Now sir, maybe you shouldn’t have attempted to remove the tattoo yourself.”

Still, for an episode that is nominally about the end of the world, there is very little sense of that in the episode itself beyond some footage of sick people in a hospital ward, some indications of failing powers, a relatively low-key riot, and the fact that the characters keep reiterating to one another that this is the end of the world. There is something rather old-school about how Carter chooses to portray the fall of civilisation. It feels very much like a modern twist on an episode of The Twilight Zone, driven more by dialogue than by spectacle. But spectacle is still important.

There is also a sense that this apocalypse comes out of nowhere, barring the trumpet that sounds at the end of Babylon. It is not that episodes like Founder’s Mutation, Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster and Home Again fail to do the work setting up the season finale. After all, part of the charm of The X-Files has always been the idea that writers like Glen Morgan, James Wong and Darin Morgan write their own version of the show. The issue is that My Struggle I does very little to set up the stakes for this episode.

Moment of enlightenment...

Moment of enlightenment…

It feels like Carter did not plan ahead, with the revival miniseries entering production before he knew how he wanted to end it. In the documentary Season X, Carter explains that he is not a proponent of the “series bible” approach to writing television:

I’ve always felt that the bible approach for a show is limiting, because it doesn’t take into account the people who come to work on it. You hire people like Glen Morgan and James Wong, Darin Morgan, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. If it’s too laid out, I think it hems those people in.

This explains a lot about the development of The X-Files, which seemed to evolve in a free-form manner. It is not a bad idea. As Carter notes, it empowers his writers to bring their own slant to the show, which is something that has worked very well for the show as recently as Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.

Talk about putting them on the spot.

Talk about putting them on the spot.

As such, it should be conceded that My Struggle II is bold and ambitious. A lot of the episode’s intrigue and excitement stems from the spontaneity of it all. Although My Struggle II might be read as the inevitable arrival of an apocalypse that Carter had been promising since 1996, it is still a delightfully exciting twist to position as the last episode in a six-episode miniseries with no second season commissioned. It is something that is very much “out there”, in a way that few contemporary television shows are willing to be.

Still, this approach does have drawbacks. It is easy to understand why Amazon were reluctant to commit to The After without any long-term plans from the writer. My Struggle II feels like it would be stronger with another draft or two to smooth over some of the clunkier exposition and convey a stronger sense of what the collapse of civilisation actually feels like. While the episode sets out to accomplish a lot in forty-three minutes, planning ahead would allow Carter to shift some of that set-up back to My Struggle I, which is explicitly the first of a two-parter.

Reyes-ing expectations.

Reyes-ing expectations.

Perhaps reflecting the rush in which it was written, there are a number of recognisable Chris Carter quirks to be found in the plotting and structuring of My Struggle II. As with My Struggle I, there is a clear sense that Carter is taking the mythology back to the fifth season and is marking the Vancouver era as the “golden age” of the series. This makes a great deal of sense, given that The X-Files was at the peak of its popularity during that stage of its life, in the lead up to the release of Fight the Future.

My Struggle I borrowed a lot from the fifth season premiere, Redux I and Redux II, suggesting that the entire mythology might be untrue and challenging Mulder that he never understood the depth of what was happening. As such, it is appropriate that My Struggle II touches on the themes of the fifth season finale, The End. Both The End and My Struggle II change the opening text to (falsely) assure viewers that this is “the end.” As with The End, it is suggested that humans with alien DNA are the next evolutionary leap for mankind.

Family photos.

Family photos.

It is perhaps telling that Scully’s introductory monologue extends as far as the events of Redux II, in which her cancer was cured. She references “a life-threatening disease, its cure as mysterious as the illness itself” as a picture of the alien implant appears. The two closing photos are lifted from Redux II, including a shot of the Cigarette-Smoking Man meeting with Mulder to tempt him to the dar side in return for a cure to Scully’s cancer and a picture of the Cigarette-Smoking Man meeting with the First Elder at the race track. The show’s history ends with Redux II.

Tellingly, the opening monologue completely avoids later developments like William. The child born at the end of the eighth season is left as a plot point to be explained and explored later in the episode. It is a striking omission, given how important William becomes at the climax of the episode. Setting William up in the introductory monologue would seem to make a great deal of sense, even as a way to ensure that new viewers understand everything that Scully has lost in her time working on the X-files.

"Boy, did I back the wrong horse."

“Boy, did I back the wrong horse.”

More than that, the suggestion that alien DNA renders a person immune to the plague raises all sorts of questions about why Mulder is affected by Scully is not. Scully underwent experimentation during the second season, but Mulder found his alien DNA activated by the remains of a crashed ship in Biogenesis. The Cigarette-Smoking Man identified Mulder as a hybrid in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati. The inference seems to be that Mulder’s alien DNA “does not count” because it happened after the so-called “golden age” of the show. It can be downplayed.

To be fair, My Struggle II does reintroduce the character of Monica Reyes. However, it chooses to do so in a massively controversial way. It is revealed that Reyes essentially sold her soul to the devil, as played by the Cigarette-Smoking Man reprising his role from fourth and fifth season episodes like Memento Mori and Redux II. The dialogue explicitly acknowledges as much. “You think you can play God?” Reyes demands of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. “Oh, not God, certainly,” he wryly retorts.

Quality father-son time.

Quality father-son time.

The idea of a character selling their soul to the devil is a recurring Chris Carter motif. In Memento Mori, Skinner makes a deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man to protect Scully. The horrible costs of this deal are explored in Zero Sum. Carter adopts a moral absolutism to these compromises, with Skinner suffering horribly for his choice. In contrast, Carter’s true heroes recognise that such deals never actually work out in the long-term. Mulder rejects the deals offered by the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Redux II and My Struggle II, because he is a real hero.

(Carter wove these themes into the first season of Millennium. Frank Black was offered a number of deals with a less metaphorical devil in episodes like The Judge or Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. In both cases, Frank declined those offers in order to continue doing good work. This very straightforward morality was somewhat undercut when Morgan and Wong took over the second season of Millennium. In The Beginning and the End, the show suggested that the issue with these deals was not that the contract was unfulfilled, it was the price paid.)

Rain of disaster.

Rain of disaster.

To be entirely fair to Reyes, this is not the first time that Carter has done this to a supporting character in order to elevate his heroes. In The Truth, Mulder makes one last journey to discover the truth from the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Along the way, he is visited by the ghosts of old friends and enemies. Krycek helps Mulder to make an escape, Mister X passes on vital contact details. Towards the very end of the episode, the ghosts of the Lone Gunmen show up. They urge Mulder to give up on his quest and stop fighting the good fight.

This feels like a substantial betrayal of their character. The Lone Gunmen were defined as characters who fought the good fight even though they were bound to lose. While the decision to kill the characters off in Jump the Shark was misguided and mean-spirited, the episode at least afforded the characters their dignity. Burying the trio in Arlington was a bit much, but at least Jump the Shark afforded the characters their integrity. They died doing the right thing. Having their ghosts betray that, urging Mulder to give up, was a fundamental misunderstanding of their characters.

"That reminds me, I still have your whale song CD."

“That reminds me, I still have your whale song CD.”

In My Struggle II, Monica Reyes is presented as a traitor who sold Mulder and Scully out for her own safety. She even kisses Scully on the cheek when they first meet, so as to consciously evoke the story of Judas. In interviews, Gish conceded that it was initially “concerning” to her, but argued that Reyes was still trying to be heroic:

“My first question for Chris was, ‘Has Monica gone to the other side? Is she a foe?'” Gish continues. “And we agreed that no, she is not. There’s a much larger reasoning there for her actions.”

Though Gish acknowledges that much of Reyes’ time off-screen is still a question mark for her, she feels Monica’s move in the finale to contact Scully and give her the key to the vaccine was an act of defiance to CSM versus something he put into motion. “I definitely think she put her life at risk to do that, for sure,” she says. “Cigarette Smoking Man, I think he is an evil, evil person.”

In a way, this adds a layer of retroactive foreshadowing to the introduction of Reyes in This is Not Happening midway through the show’s eighth season. In that episode, Reyes was introduced as a smoker struggling with her addiction. Naturally, Morley were her brand of choice. In hindsight, that feels like fifteen years of set-up.

"So, eh... think about that spin-off idea?

“So, eh… think about that spin-off idea?

Still, however effectively this reveal resonates with Reyes’ introduction in This is Not Happening, the creative choice still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. My Struggle II already heavily features Miller and Einstein, two weird copies of Mulder and Scully intended to parody the idea of doing The X-Files without Mulder and Scully. In that context, it feels particularly mean-spirited to cast Reyes as a traitor, given that Reyes was one of the characters who actually replaced Mulder and Scully during the final two years of the show.

(As if to add insult to injury, My Struggle II has Miller pointedly decline the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s offer of immunity. The inference is quite clear, at least according the morality of a Chris Carter show. Miller is a better human being than Reyes. Given that Miller is essentially a walking punchline about how stupid it would be to do “X-Files babies”, it feels like a conscious attempt to marginalise and diminish the role that Monica Reyes played in those final troubled years of the show.)

Although, to be fair, Miller might just be an angel.

Although, to be fair, Miller might just be an angel.

Using Reyes in this way feels like a dismissal of the final two seasons of The X-Files. Carter has gone on record defending those two years, but his scripts for the revival miniseries repeatedly and consciously avoid them. The bulk of the heavy lifting with regard to William had been done by Glen Morgan and James Wong in Home Again and Founder’s Mutation. Writing Reyes as a traitor feels like it belittles and undercuts those last two years, minimising their place in the show’s history.

The urge to forget those final two seasons makes a certain amount of sense. To the public consciousness, The X-Files is Mulder and Scully as played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. If Fox could find a way to continue producing The X-Files with Mulder and Scully, Doggett and Reyes would never have needed to exist in the first place. More than that, an extended portion of the ninth season just terrible. There is a strong argument to be made that the ninth season is the single weakest season of the show.

"Doggett? Who the hell is Doggett?"

“Doggett? Who the hell is Doggett?”

As such, it makes sense that Doggett and Reyes will never hold the place in popular culture reserved for Mulder and Scully. Nor should they. In discussing the revival, Glen Morgan emphasised the importance of Mulder and Scully to The X-Files:

I’m not putting down what Chris did, but David and Gillian are this thing now – they are now Seinfeld and Kramer, they are iconic. I don’t want to watch The Honeymooners with someone other than Jackie Gleason, it won’t work.

It is a fair point, and it makes sense that Doggett and Reyes would never headline a revival of their own. But it still feels like a very mean-spirited attitude to take to a character who largely existed because David Duchovny had left and Gillian Anderson was planning to leave.

An artist's impression of David Duchovny at the end of his final twenty-odd episode season.

An artist’s impression of David Duchovny at the end of his final twenty-odd episode season.

More than that, it dismisses a lot of the good work that did take place during the eighth season. In many respects, the eighth season is an underrated season of television, one that teased an approach to modernising The X-Files and which suggested that the show could survive without Mulder and Scully. Fans and audiences might have wanted David Duchovny to stick around forever, but that was unreasonable. The eighth season a year of transition that worked phenomenally well, even growing its ratings relative to the seventh season towards the end of the year.

As much as the mythology’s frame of reference has shifted to the new millennium, there is a sense that Carter is still rooted in that season of television stretching from 1997 to 1998. It is not just the fifth season of The X-Files, although that is a clear influence on some of the structural elements of these two mythology episodes. The second season of Millennium also feels like a clear influence. Although Carter had to step away from Millennium to focus on the fifth season of The X-Files and Fight the Future, production on the second season was overseen by Morgan and Wong.

Scratching the surface.

Scratching the surface.

The second season of Millennium remains one of the best television seasons of the nineties. Although Carter did not watch it at the time, the revival inherits a number of themes and ideas from that rollercoaster season of television. My Struggle I embraced the postmodern approach to conspiracy theory that drove episodes like Sense and Antisense or 19:19 or The Hand of St. Sebastian or Owls and Roosters. If The X-Files suggested there was one big conspiracy theory, Millennium seemed to suggest that there were an infinite number of competing conspiracies.

However, My Struggle II owes a debt to the season finale, The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. That two-parter saw a deadly virus unleashed upon mankind and charted the collapse of civilisation as Frank Black tried desperately to hold his family together. My Struggle II takes that basic premise, but also a number of other touches. Most notably, The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now filtered the apocalypse through the language of television including static and commercials; My Struggle II filters its apocalypse through Tad O’Malley and his failing signal.

Signal strength.

Signal strength.

Of course, one hopes that Carter finds a elegant way out of the cliffhanger at the end of My Struggle II. Although the second season of Millennium closed on the end of the world, Fox renewed the series for a third season. Working with executive producers Chip Johannessen and Michael Duggan, Carter decided that the best way to roll back from that particular apocalypse was to pretend that it never happened. The Innocents and Exegesis opened the third season by dramatically scaling down (and mostly ignoring) the ending of that sophomore season.

To be fair, the big problem with the third season of Millennium was not the retcon itself. The big issue was that the series refused to simply move on. Over the course of that troubled third year, it seemed like the show spent more time figuring out how much of the second season did or did not happen than it did telling its own story. The result was a hugely disappointing season in television that is comparable to the mess around the ninth season of The X-Files. One of the big worries watching My Struggle II is that Carter may repeat that mistake.

"Okay, I'll tell you where I keep my reset button."

“Okay, I’ll tell you where I keep my reset button.”

Still, Carter has been quite candid. My Struggle II is all a massive red herring. It is not the end of the world in any practical long-term sense. After all, it ends on a cliffhanger. More than that, Carter has been quite candid that he does not want to turn The X-Files into a post-apocalyptic show:

Carter spoke about how much he loved bringing in scientific ideas, but while The X-Files has always toyed with apocalyptic concepts (especially when it comes to a potential alien invasion), he didn’t think it’d ever actually descend into a truly “Walking Dead”-esque scenario. Asked directly about it: “No, because that’s futuristic science-fiction, and I don’t see that being done unless it’s in a dream or a fantasy.”

So there is absolutely no chance that the conclusion to My Struggle II will find Mulder and Scully doing their best impression of Mad Max: Fury Road or The Book of Eli. Somehow, all the pieces will fit back together. All the toys will go back in the box.

"I would kick ass in a version of The Road with William."

“I would kick ass in a version of The Road with William.”

It is quite a scary premise for a cliffhanger, from a storytelling perspective. Carter offers a season finale that promises to change everything while also promising that nothing will change too dramatically. There is a lot of tension there, and it seems like the whole thing might snap at any given moment. With My Struggle II, it feels like Carter has wandered out on to the middle of a tightrope with only the vaguest of notions about how he might possibly get back. There is every chance this could go horribly wrong.

And yet, in spite of that, there is something exciting about all this. My Struggle II is an ambitious episode of television in the same way that Babylon is an ambitious episode of television. It is Carter consciously paying off twenty years of foreshadowing while at the same time promising to take it all back. It is an incredibly risk gambit from an executive producer who has never had the strongest track record when it comes to bets like that. It is the type of risk that very few shows would willingly take, because there are so many ways it could go off the rails.

Even Tad O'Malley has no idea how the show is going to get out of this one.

Even Tad O’Malley has no idea how the show is going to get out of this one.

The most obvious possibility is that the hypothetical eleventh season may simply never happen. Carter has stressed that there is interest from Fox in continuing the show, but he wrote and directed My Struggle II long before the revival miniseries become a record-setting success. More than that, there is still no firm plan in place for a hypothetical eleventh season. Gillian Anderson has already begun signalling to the press that she is “getting on with the rest of [her] life” and booking up her schedule.

It is entirely possible that an eleventh season may simply never materialise, due to lack of momentum or availability or other concerns. Look at how long it took for the tenth season to happen, for example. The third feature film never quite came together. The history of film and television is littered with projects that seemed like a sure bet until they weren’t, from Star Trek: Phase II through to an adaptation of The Honourable Schoolboy starring Gary Oldman. Of course, the immediacy of the success of the miniseries does make a follow-up more likely.

Renegotiating William B. Davis' contract was a huge challenge.

Renegotiating William B. Davis’ contract was a huge challenge.

Perhaps more likely is the possibility that Carter will fumble the resolution to this massive earth-shattering cliffhanger. Carter has always been a writer who struggled with resolutions. Despite the stock criticisms of his writing, it is not that Carter leaves dangling loose ends and unanswered questions. It is just that Carter is not very good at offering satisfying resolutions to his stories. The problem with The Truth was never that it failed to answer questions, it was that the episode simply wasn’t any good.

This is true on both a micro and a macro scale. Talitha Cumi is a very good cliffhanger, but Herrenvolk is a disappointing second part. Two Fathers and One Son were a rather clunky conclusion to five-and-a-half years of mythology, despite their good ideas. Sein und Zeit and Closure never felt like a satisfying wrap-up to the six-and-a-half years of mystery surrounding Samantha Mulder. The Truth was a disaster. Ironically, Essence and Existence are the best finale that Carter ever wrote, but they were undercut by Nothing Important Happened Today I.

"Hm. maybe Scully was right. Maybe I am never getting out of this car."

“Hm. Maybe Scully was right. Maybe I am never getting out of this car.”

In a way, My Struggle II seems like a cheeky self-aware acknowledgement of all of this from Carter. It is a candid admission that Carter cannot really write a satisfying ending, but he now knows that he never really has to. In this era of revivals and resurrections, popular television shows never have to actually end. They can continue forever. For a television show with a strong enough base, a cancellation is any more serious than an extended hiatus. The story can continue indefinitely, to the point that even a global apocalypse cannot stop Mulder and Scully.

Carter acknowledged as much in interviews and publicity during the run of the miniseries. “Mulder and Scully will be in wheelchairs before they are wheeled off stage!” Carter assured reports in Cannes in October 2015. In some respects, this is a horrifying image. It reflects the anxieties that the show hinted at as early as the sixth season while exploring themes of immortality and time. In Dreamland I, Scully dared to wonder if there would ever come a time when the duo no longer stalked the American landscape in search of monsters and truth.

"That wheelchair doesn't sound so bad right now."

“That wheelchair doesn’t sound so bad right now.”

It appears that the Cigarette-Smoking Man will be with them. My Struggle II offers very little explanation for how the character could have survived have his flesh burnt off in The Truth, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The character is a part of the show’s iconography, so he returns. Glen Morgan acknowledged as much when asked why Mulder didn’t just shoot him:

I kind of  – and Bill Davis is a great guy – but I would love to write the scene. Here’s the danger. You’re a lit major, you know what I mean. The CSM is really one of the great villains in TV history. And you better have a better villain – not an equivalent villain, a better villain – when you eliminate him.

In a way, that was one of the problems with the final two seasons of the show. The X-Files never quite managed to find convincing replacement villains for the Cigarette-Smoking Man and the conspirators. Perhaps, after seven years, it never could. So the Cigarette-Smoking Man finds himself drawn into this cycle of perpetual resurrection and renewal, even with his body scarred and half his face missing.

"My son Jeffrey recommended a place."

“My son Jeffrey recommended a place.”

In the past, there was a point where Mulder and Scully could retire, when David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson tired of the daily grind of twenty-odd episode seasons. Mulder and Scully would be retired when the actors no longer stuck around, when the show was cancelled, when there were no more stories to tell. However, the changing nature of television means those possibilities no longer offer any real closure. Scheduling flexibility and event miniseries mean that Mulder and Scully can keep adventuring forever.

In a very real ways, that is deeply unsettling. James Wong touched briefly on the idea in Founder’s Mutation, suggesting that things had reached a point where Mulder and Scully could not even imagine a happy ending that didn’t draw them back into the world of the show. In another sense, it is liberating. Carter never has to worry about resolution or closure, he does not have to worry about an ending to the sprawling series. “The truth is still out there,” promised advertising for the revival. The truth will always be out there.

The burning man.

The burning man.

In many ways, this is the truly cheeky aspect of My Struggle II. It might be the end of the world, but it cannot be the end of the show. There is something very ambitious and wry underpinning all that.

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4 Responses

  1. I like how you’ve used The X-Files revival as a way to discuss the changes in television in the last 20 years. Season 1 was the first full season of television to be sold on dvd so it seems appropriate that the show is still part of that discussion.

    I could see MS2 being a finale for the series and it works fine as such. But I would love a season 11 with Morgan & Wong back if only to have a glimpse of how they might have navigated a season 3 of Millennium. I Want to Believe was more Millennium season 1 than it was The X-Files. The revival had a lot of Millennium season 2. I think the key is trading Frank Spotnitz for Glen Morgan. That said, I would like to see some added names on a season 11 notably Rob Bowman, Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren. It wouldn’t hurt to try again for a Frank Black appearance written either by Morgan & Wong or Chip Johannessen or Carter himself. Maybe that is just wishful thinking. If so, I don’t mind seeing MS2 as the last of the series. It’s better than The Truth or IWTB. The debate would go on then over Existence vs Requiem

    • Thanks Jason!

      I thought that was one of the appeals of reviewing the revival, was to look at how the show had changed and how expectations had changed since it went off the air. I suspect a lot of the polarising response of the miniseries is down to the gulf between the two; how Carter modernised in ways people didn’t expect (the new postmodern information overload mythology) and declines to modernise in the way people expected (no serialisation, no closure).

      I suspect that’s why I’m generally more sympathetic to these six episodes than most, in that I think I’m more accepting of what the production team are doing, rather than imposing my own expectations upon it. If that makes sense?

      • Yes it makes sense. Some wanted the revival to wrap up the mythology, some wanted to see Mulder and Scully romantically involved, some wanted all scary monsters of the week, some (newer viewers) wanted a serialized self-contained story in the 6 eps. In a lot of ways, the season was what the series always had been. It was uneven but original. I enjoyed it all, MS1 and Babylon being the weak links, it holds up against just about any 6 episode stretch of the series (except for probably that first third of season 2).

      • I wouldn’t got quite that far – I think that there are several six episode stretches in season three and season eight that are much stronger and more consistent – but I think that the point largely stands. In particular, the much-loved fourth season is similarly variable in tone and quality, which I think a lot of the coverage missed or glossed over.

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