Waking dreams, insect monsters, and human experiments fuel an overstuffed, but admirable, ‘X-Files’ episode that might even also feature William!
“Are you Ghouli?”
“No, you are.”
“Ghouli” is an episode that has a lot of fun with the manipulation of other people’s minds and perception. It’s also an episode that’s extremely busy and attempts to get too much done in not enough time. It’s almost as if the episode hopes that it’s lulled its viewers into some hypnogogic state where they believe that this is a much simpler episode of television.
“Ghouli” begins with a very encouraging start. The episode features a cold open where two teenage girls explore an abandoned ocean freighter. When the frightened girls find one another, they accuse the other of being “Ghouli.” Both of the girls are positive that the other one must be this monster that they’re petrified of, but the audience has no idea which of these seemingly innocent girls could be the creature. What follows is an absolutely brutal sequence where the two girls slash each other apart. From their point of view, the other girl looks like the giant cockroach-esque monster, Ghouli. However, the audience sees that neither of these are this terrifying beast. They’re just girls and the real threat of this week is somehow attacking their minds. I gave a lot of praise towards “Plus One’s” cold open and how it got back to the basics of what an X-Files cold open should be. “Ghouli’s” introduction is even more effective and aggressive, not to mention it features the first actual monster of the season and it looks pretty damn gross.
Once again the phrase from the opening credits chooses to say something difficult rather than the usual “The Truth Is Out There.” The message here is “You See What I Want You To See,” which has a pretty easy meaning to extrapolate. This is an episode that’s all about perception, which James Wong’s script breaks down to a thorough degree. If it wasn’t already clear from the circumstances of this episode’s monster and Mulder and Scully’s point of views, then this direct message to the audience hammers the point home. Not being able to trust what your eyes tell you is an inherently terrifying idea and “Ghouli” pushes that premise to some very disturbing places.
Additionally, Scully breaks down the concept of hypnogogia, which is a state between sleep and wakefulness, where dreamlike visions invade reality and people become unable to trust what they see. While this episode deals a lot with perception, it also has a lot to do with duality. There’s a binary element to the murders that take place and Scully speaks of how most people render the world into two states. Mulder and Scully’s process is all about the duality of their points of view. Scully’s thoughts on hypnogogia isn’t only important because it adds a scientific angle to the Ghouli deaths, but because it shows that life doesn’t need to be so black and white and that there’s a third option to things. That’s sort of what The X-Files is all about. These supernatural cases are that third option that people don’t know about. This is a show that’s all about living in a world of grey and while this isn’t the first time the show has explored this idea, there’s a startling efficiency to the foundation of Wong’s script.
Wong does an effective job at shooting Scully’s hypnogogic fugue states. He conveys the degree of helplessness that can be felt in nightmares and sleep paralysis. The camera lingers and struggles to move on certain objects as Scully is plagued by unexplainable fear and stasis. James Wong didn’t always go for the scares, but it’s been interesting to watch him slowly turn into a more horror-centric filmmaker. The sequence of the corpse waking up in the morgue is carefully composed to accentuate its dread. His entry from last season, “Founder’s Mutation,” was also the most frightening episode of season ten and that talent is still present here. It’s easy to see why Wong is the secret weapon on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. He understands how to do horror.
Wong’s episode also feels like it indulges in its more Lynchian sensibilities as it allows Mulder to do his best Special Agent Dale Cooper impression. He tells Scully that “Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions” and he adopts a very romanticized point of view that’s all about cracking the code of Scully’s subconscious. Mulder might push this more fantastical angle, but this is still a Scully-driven episode. This shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but it’s appreciated here, especially with Scully’s treatment in some of the other installments this season.
One of “Ghouli’s” strengths is that it doesn’t waste any time. It doesn’t take long time for Mulder and Scully to spring into action on this. Scully tells Mulder that the dark figure in her “dream” was trying to take her somewhere and then they immediately arrive without complication. The two of them get led to the same abandoned freighter where the girls from the cold open murderize each other and it’s not difficult to imagine that they were probably suffering from the same “nightmare” that plagued Scully. This ship, the Chimera, looks to be some sort of nest or special area for the insectile beast that’s getting into everyone’s heads and warping their perception.
While there’s a lot to enjoy in this episode, it, unfortunately, begins to tie into some of the larger ideas from “My Struggle III.” Typically it’s an asset of storytelling when monster of the week entries can tie back to the show’s greater mythology, but the connections made here are fairly groan-worthy. Mulder suggests that Scully’s hypnogogic visions are actually an evolution of her ability to receive prophetic visions through seizure. It makes sense that Mulder would attempt to connect these dots, but the last thing that the audience needs is a reminder that Scully may be turning into some Mind Detective. “Ghouli” works better when it focuses on its monster and horror elements rather than these psychic suggestions, which thankfully don’t dominate the episode.
Mulder and Scully learn that “Ghouli” is some sort of creepy pasta Internet urban legend. This in itself isn’t bad territory for The X-Files to explore and it’s the right way for the series to appropriate modern culture. Creepy pasta lore is tailor-made for this show, but it’s really an afterthought in the case of this episode. Mulder and Scully locate the two girls from the freighter who attacked each other and they’re able to talk to them. They’re both in serious condition at the hospital, but at least they’re not dead. The stories that they tell seem eerily similar to what Scully experienced. The case becomes even more interesting when these two girls, neither of which know each other, seem to apparently have the same boyfriend. Clearly, the guy is some link to whatever Ghouli is and he becomes the next destination for Mulder and Scully. Their search hits an unfortunate snag when the boyfriend turns up dead before they can have a word with him. Not only that, but he apparently also killed his parents before he took his own life. Ghouli’s actions are becoming more regular and something needs to get done fast.
Scully has a hard time with the emotional aspect of these innocent lives lost and it begins to make her think more and more about William. This goes further than a dead child merely conjuring up memories of William. Scully actually believes that the dead boy from this case is William, due to his family having the last name Van De Camp. This leads to some deeply cathartic, painful moments where Scully pleads and apologizes to “William’s” corpse about how she’s failed him and couldn’t save him in time. It seems pretty obvious that this wouldn’t be the way that the show ultimately deals with William, so in spite of how that robs these scenes of some of their weight, Gillian Anderson still delivers a hell of a performance. It does feel a little manipulative though to make Scully go through such a painful experience when it’s (probably) not necessary. The character has already been through more than enough. That’s why “Ghouli” gains some serious points when it doesn’t back down from the fact that Jackson Van De Camp is William, but they still cheat the whole death thing.
Skinner eventually intervenes to lend a hand. It also feels pretty transparent and negligent that the Cigarette Smoking Man straight up hangs out in Skinner’s office at the FBI. Shouldn’t that be a little impossible? CSM and Skinner currently have their sights set on Project Crossroads, which is all about alien-human hybridization, but it turned out to be too unstable and unreliable. Mulder learns that both Scully and William were subjects of Project Crossroads and that the recent deaths of Jackson Van De Camp and his family are actually Project Crossroads’ attempts to cover up their tracks.
This all becomes even crazier in how it ties together with the Ghouli material. Apparently, William has been brain-invading all of the people in this episode. He made the girls think they were seeing a cockroach monster and he simultaneously planted the details that led Mulder and Scully to his house. That’s why Jackson/William’s corpse is able to stand up and walk away at the end of all of this. This whole “William’s the puppet master” angle is pretty derivative, but it’s better than the inevitable reveal that Jackson wasn’t William. At least this way Scully and Mulder both get to meet their son in some sense and the narrative towards finding him also moves a few steps forward.
On that note, the episode also shows off a little of who William is as a character, but frankly, he seems like a bit of a dick. This whole Ghouli thing was supposed to be a joke to him? How? He’s also dating two girls at once and playing them against each other? He gets to provide a little insight towards what growing up with these abilities has been like, but the incomplete picture of William paints him in a surprisingly ugly light. I’m not sure if I’m that excited over the prospect of this jerk living happily ever after with Mulder and Scully, let alone if they’d even be safe with him.
“Ghouli’s” mystery clumsily clicks together and it feels like a bit of a struggle at times. Scully’s psychic angle through all of this is especially grating and it feels like the fallback position for the episode to take whenever Mulder and Scully face an obstacle. This hopefully won’t be an element that becomes even more prominent in the back-half of the season, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that it will. “Ghouli” still pushes some interesting ideas and is full of a lot of memorable visuals. There’s enough imbalance in this episode that it amounts to merely an average X-Files. The episode’s second half is particularly messy and it feels like it turns into an entirely different story by the time that it’s over. The developments made here with William are genuinely surprising, but they should help spread out this season’s story. Hopefully, they will allow the season’s finale to not be so stuffed and capable of crafting a better conclusion as a result.
Or maybe William can just invade the audience’s collective consciousness and make everyone think that they just watched “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.’”
‘The X-Files’ 11th season will continue Wednesdays at 8pm (ET) on FOX