It’s (still) the end of the world as we know it in the newest season of The X-Files, and I feel… tired.
Last season—aka Season 10, aka the unfortunate and, barring one truly delightful outing with a “were-monster,” pretty much superfluous revival season—ended with unusually high stakes for the paranormal crime series. Breaking with the show’s venerable tradition of deferral and deflection (“the truth is out there”), the season finale seemed to usher in an apocalypse, a final revelation. A deadly virus, engineered from alien DNA, had been unleashed, Flood-like, on civilization. A conspiratorial deep state, architect of the end-times and inheritor of this bloody Eden, had stepped into the light. And our heroes Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, gamely played by Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, were waging an eleventh-hour battle to right the world’s ship.
My description perhaps makes it sound better than it was. The finale—which didn’t even have the decency to cover up the fact that it was a naked plea for a sequel (at the time, Fox was still debating whether to renew The X-Files for another go-round)—wasn’t all that good. Like the rest of the season, it was actually kind of a train-wreck. Still, the finale did promise something different. Whatever its sins, it had piqued, if not really earned, my curiosity.
Enter Season 11. Following distantly on the heels of the 2016 revival, Season 11 aired its first episode on January 3 of this year and picks up, sort of, where its predecessor left off. I say sort of advisedly. Although the pieces remain the same—an alien virus threatens the world, the deep state and perennially vile Cigarette-Smoking Man are behind it—the show’s writers have effectively rolled back the clock. In a creative decision as gutsy as it was ill-advised, gutsy because ill-advised, the season premiere functions as a partial retcon that establishes the finale as (no kidding) Scully’s prophetic vision, a truthy fever dream induced for reasons unclear by her long-lost son, William.
The trope, one step shy of the “it was all a dream” gambit, deserves every exasperated sigh with which fans and critics greeted it. Exacerbated further by the episode’s overreliance on voiceover and shoddily frenetic plot, the premiere was, predictably, a flub.
Of course, in the weeks following the premiere, a number of critics have turned to a favorite punching bag to account for the episode’s failings, as well as the more thoroughgoing problems of the revival seasons. While Anderson and Duchovny themselves have been as entertaining as ever (which, yes), these critics hold that Seasons 10 and 11 have relied too much on the show’s so-called “mythology” (which, also yes). In contrast with the relatively freestanding monster-of-the-week episodes, which were always The X-Files’ bread and butter, the mythology constitutes the narrative backbone of the series and dabbles frequently in shadow governments and alien shenanigans. Notoriously, however, these episodes make little sense when taken collectively. As a result, it’s only natural, according to this argument, that the showrunner, Chris Carter, would have to turn to this prophesy-contrivance to force some kind of resolution—or at the very least to haul the series back to turf where it’s comfortable. “This,” the action-packed and entertaining follow-up to the premiere, would seem to confirm this hypothesis, given the extent to which it disengages from its predecessor’s nonsense.
As a member of the minority who found the mythology episodes entertaining, however, I find this argument only halfway convincing. True, the series is, I think, just one space-time leaping donkey wheel away from a Lost-style conclusion, but the problem has less to do with the mythology per se than with the sense of an ending more generally. The series’ original run, back in the 90s and early 00s, owed its success in large part to Scully and Mulder’s endless—and endlessly frustrated—quest to shine a light on the world of monsters, aliens, and conspiracies lurking just beneath the everyday. Pushed along by characters likable for both their chemistry and their banter, the show worked because it knew better than to give us—or, for that matter, Mulder and Scully—what we supposedly wanted. The hunt continues. Deferral and deflection. The show’s strength lay in its capacity to make us want, and not want, a conclusion. Now, however, with the stakes as high as they’ve ever been and our heroes gone grizzled and gravelly with age, it seems that a conclusion is exactly what we’re getting.
It gives me no real pleasure to sound the note of despair about this latest iteration of The X-Files. So I won’t. But last season did not inspire much confidence in me, and this season is off to a rough start. We’ll see where it takes us. The world may still end with a bang.