‘The X-Files’ leans into classic conspiracies and features an old friend—kind of—in an episode that struggles, but shows improvement.
“They know that he knows.”
When this return of The X-Files was originally announced, many fans were excited to see that much of the show’s original writing team was returning to pen these new scripts. Who would be a better authority on knowing what sorts of stories The X-Files should be telling a decade later than these guys? Accordingly, it’s been fascinating to see which writers have gravitated to the show’s various extremes. There are a lot of different “classic” X-Files episode types and in the case of “This,” Glen Morgan chooses to bank on good ol’ fashioned government conspiracies. Complicated, overwhelming government conspiracies.
Morgan’s episode digs into the idea that the Russians have apparently had access to the X-Files documents for a large chunk of the department’s existence. Furthermore, the Russians are aware of the fact that the X-Files have re-opened while Mulder and Scully are still left in the dark. Skinner drops this bombshell on the two of them and the episode digs into the inner workings between these organizations, which touches on areas like corruption, sprawling cover-ups, and countries manipulating other countries.
All of this Titanpointe NSA material is clearly meant to shine a light onto all of the conspiracies and scandals that have happened in the past year regarding Trump, Putin, and how much Russia might actually be pulling America’s strings. This angle feels like The X-Files tries a little too hard to be hip to the current times and it’s certainly easy to cringe at a number of the episode’s theories. In the ‘90s it was easy to pull from the headlines and make X-Files episodes feel prescient, but with how far access to information has come since then, entries like “This” feel late to the game and cheesy. It’s more like Law and Order’s approach to stories that are ripped from the headlines instead of how The X-Files used to operate. A secret Russia-based X-Files shadow division would feel exciting and sensationalistic during the earlier seasons of the show, but now there’s a lot less charm to this because of how much collusion is allegedly going on between the United States and Russia.
As Mulder and Scully find themselves deeper in the whole Russia Titanpointe wormhole, the focus inexplicably shifts to a familiar face from the show’s golden years, Richard Langley of Lone Gunmen fame. Apparently, the Russians want to scrub away the existence of the Lone Gunmen. They’ve succeeded on this front with Langley and are trying to finish the job, which naturally makes Mulder and Scully curious as to why.
It’s always great to have some form of the Lone Gunmen make an appearance in the show, but this becomes an increasingly difficult task after they all graciously died in season nine’s lovingly titled, “Jump the Shark.” Season ten was able to justify a brief appearance from the dweebish trio courtesy of Mulder’s mushroom trip, but this show has made it pretty clear that they’re dead. They’ve even appeared to Mulder as force ghosts in the show’s “series finale,” which is a pretty hard thing to get around (or maybe that was just a vision that came to Mulder during a seizure). That’s why it feels like “This” verges on very dangerous territory when it appears that the ghost of Langley gets in contact with Mulder and Scully via their phone. To begin with, that’s an absurd idea, but the episode also toys with the prospect that maybe the Lone Gunmen aren’t dead. In an episode that’s all about unbelievable conspiracies, wouldn’t that even be oddly appropriate?
Fans that are familiar with the once-canonical comic versions of seasons ten and eleven of The X-Files might begin to notice some similarities or even think that the series might directly adapt the events from the comics. The Chris Carter-supervised comics prove that the Lone Gunmen actually faked their deaths and are living in secrecy in a bunker beneath the Arlington Cemetery, where they’re technically buried. It’s a hokey retcon, but one that’s tongue-in-cheek enough for The X-Files and allows Mulder and Scully to once again bounce off of these quirky individuals as well as benefit from their tech-savvy. It’s unclear if Carter and company ever directly discussed the events of these comics and if they should incorporate anything from them into the show’s return (although they too also deal with the search for William and in a much more thrilling fashion), but I don’t think people would have begrudged the show if they had decided to use this story idea.
The novelty of having Mulder and Scully back on television is still entertaining, but it’s worn off its charm and audiences need more than them alone. With Skinner now apparently a pseudo-villain this season, the opportunity to check in with the Lone Gunmen every other episode would hold a lot of value and help flesh things out. Let’s be honest, Agents Einstein and Miller might have been initially positioned to be possible replacements for Mulder and Scully, but they’ve turned into sidelined afterthoughts. So in spite of how the series might actually benefit from bringing the Lone Gunmen back to life—and Skinner even teases this idea—they ultimately go in a very different direction.
In the end, this is of course not the ghost of Langley, but it does turn into a National Treasure-esque mystery regarding a cryptic clue from Skinner about how Langley is “buried in Arlington” where they left him. There’s no secret bunker, but Mulder and Scully’s trip to the cemetery does still lead them to some crucial evidence. “This” also takes a moment for Mulder to stumble across Deep Throat’s grave and learn his real name (Ronald Pakula) in the process. It makes for a basic, yet shockingly poignant scene where Mulder reflects on how “simple” things were in 1994 in comparison to the present. It’s a nice moment that doesn’t feel manipulative and also touches on a sweet spot from the series’ origin in a touching way. In a sense, the character gets to provide one last hint for Mulder and help him out here.
The phrase from “This’” opening credits is not “The Truth Is Out There,” but instead the loaded, “Accuse Your Enemies Of That Which You Are Guilty.” This is a phrase that is very common to leftist, fascist dictatorships. It’s a sentiment that Putin surely agrees with, but it also seems to be Skinner’s philosophy in this episode, chillingly enough. He gets to go on an explosive rant here about how messed up the world is to underline all of this. Skinner’s presence is brief, but he seems to have insider information regarding the Russians. He tells Mulder and Scully that they should surrender when they’re under attack. The Russian army goons eventually take them down and appear to be some government hit squad, only Skinner can’t understand why they’d want to off Mulder and Scully (even though they’ve been wanted numerous times before).
The Russian material connects to Langley’s warnings as the episode shifts its focus to the idea of eternal virtual life, which apparently is something that the Lone Gunmen were interested in. “This” introduces the vision of a comprehensive virtual life that someone could live in and not even realize that it’s a simulation. It begins to look like maybe the Gunmen are caught up in this sort of virtual afterlife, not realizing what it is, and are trying to reach out for help. It’s crazy, but this whole episode is predicated on how concepts like this are actually happening now (apparently phreaking is also a big part of all of this?). This might seem nuts, but that’s why it’s an interesting X-Files-friendly topic in the first place. It’s a welcome reminder that there are just as many technological urban legends and mysteries as there are ones that are based in monsters and nature. It’s a fantastical idea that melds together the subconscious with the virtual in a crazy way, but it weirdly feels like an appropriate plotline for the Lone Gunmen. They’d be all over something like this.
All of this leads Mulder and Scully to the belly of Titanpointe’s headquarters where they get caught in a chase over 29 flights of stairs, which makes for a surprisingly inspired fight scene and action piece, that is until Mulder gets his ass handed to him by Russians. This is something that he should honestly be used to by now. Or does what happens in Tunguska stays in Tunguska? This scene nicely compliments the style of the thrilling home invasion shootout that kicks off the episode, complete with an anachronistic pop rock soundtrack to compliment it all. It’s also worth noting that once again Scully is the one cowering in fear as Mulder gets to wield the gun and save the day. This backseat treatment of Scully this season is bonkers stuff and it’d be easy to understand if Anderson isn’t eager to do a season twelve.
The events of “This” also happen to connect into the mythology of “My Struggle III” in an interesting way. It looks like this is all a test that’s set up by Barbara Hershey’s Erika Price as she tries to establish that she’s the new Bizarro Smoking Man. Price tries to train Mulder to understand evolution, replacements, and the efforts of her cause. She sees Mulder’s worth and now he at least understands what she’s after. The fact that Price’s virtual reality evolution plan actively seeks out Mulder for help is all the proof that she needs to understand that it’s essential that they put their shit aside and work together. Mulder maybe proctors an agreement with Price that if he kills CSM, then he and Scully can exist in this virtual afterlife. Of course, he’s almost certainly trying to manipulate Price, but it makes for a relationship that proves to be interesting so far.
As “This” attempts to tie a bow on all of these ideas, it proves to be another rough, shaky episode that doesn’t frame the season in an encouraging light. It’d be better if this episode was pushed down to later in the season so two detrimental episodes don’t hit the audience right off the bat. It’s also neither here nor there, but like so many people die in this episode from random gun violence. Approximately six people get shot to death, and half of those kills are from Mulder, who doesn’t even bat an eye at them. The second half of “This” is admittedly stronger as it connects the episode’s many dots and shows the full scope of everything. It’s still a messy episode that just feels like its lacking energy to a certain degree, but it at least ends on a powerful message that hints at what’s to come. The ending definitely goes out on an unsettling note that will likely get followed up again in some sense or just be left to haunt viewers’ subconscious.
Here’s hoping that we all get the Ramones-full, hotdog-heavy version of heaven that Langley does.
Oh, and God is it nice to hear Gillian Anderson say the words “Hannibal Lecter” again. We miss you every day, Hannibal. Every day.
‘The X-Files’ 11th season will continue Wednesdays at 8pm (ET) on FOX