In a way, this latest season of The X-Files is a return to form for the show. From week to week, it goes from a really problematic episode to a really enjoyable one, to a mediocre one, and, finally, to a new classic for the show. Equally interesting is how the best episodes of the season so far have been the ones that weren’t written by Chris Carter. Picking up where 2016’s tenth season left off, Season 11 of The X-Files follow FBI Agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) as they work to stop an impending apocalypse, seemingly caused by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), and continue to investigate the titular X-Files, a collection of cases that defy conventional thinking and explanation, while searching for their missing son, William, a boy who may just be the key to averting the apocalypse. (Mild spoilers for the first four episodes of Season 11 follow)
What’s immediately clear from watching these first four episodes is that Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, should probably move into a more advisory role than one of actively writing episodes. The episodes he’s written these past few seasons have easily been the worst and most disappointing of the bunch. All three installments of the My Struggle saga have had decent ideas but been plagued by pitiful execution both in the writing and directing of the episodes, and his standalone installments, season 10’s Babylon and Season 11’s Plus One, have featured interesting premises that have been let down by Carter’s complete misunderstanding of what makes his lead characters likable and the shared history that exists between the two of them combined with inconsistent characterization between the episodes that take place directly before and after his standalone installments. While he should be praised for creating a series as amazing as The X-Files, it’s clear that he no longer understands what has made the show as popular and successful as it’s been.
In the season 11 premiere, Chris Carter’s My Struggle III, we pick up directly where the season 10 finale, My Struggle II, ended, except we immediately find out that entire episode was merely a seizure-induced vision of the future had by Scully. What follows is an episode that doesn’t particularly care much about explaining what the hell we’d just witnessed in the previous episode and, instead, pretends that much of season 10 didn’t happen. In a way, that’s preferable to Carter actually trying to continue the plotline introduced in those first two My Struggle episodes. There are some interesting ideas introduced in the episode: mainly that the aliens straight up decided not to go through with their colonization plan (the plan that was concocted in secret between the aliens and the mysterious Syndicate – the evil, shadow government at the center of the original run of the show) because us humans have essentially destroyed the planet beyond repair. Aside from that, the episode is a mess. It’s as though Chris Carter really hates the character of Scully as he keeps throwing awful thing after awful thing her way. It’s gotten to the point where it doesn’t even feel narratively earned; it just feels vindictive. Carter’s directing also leaves something to be desired as he forces the episode to move at such a break-neck pace that none of the reveals or character moments are ever given the chance to really land and impact the audience. Add to that the introduction of a NEW set of ambiguous villains (or maybe anti-heroes as they and Mulder seem to be on the same side in their desire to stop the Cigarette Smoking Man) and you’ve got an episode that’s so muddied up that there’s no way the only other episode that’s rumored to be solely devoted to this season’s overarching storyline, the finale, will be able to satisfactorily unravel the mysteries of it.
The second episode, This, is a far more enjoyable episode. It features the return of Dean Haglund as Richard Langly, one of the Lone Gunmen from the original run of the show. In This, written and directed by Glen Morgan, Langly’s brain was uploaded into some kind of simulation prior to his death, and now the version of him trapped inside the simulation has realized it’s in a simulation and is reaching out to Mulder and Scully for help in shutting down the simulation once and for all. There are a lot of problems with this episode, too, don’t get me wrong. It still suffers from some of the odd directing choices present in My Struggle III and the pacing is still off – though in a different way; This goes from taking its time telling the story, to moving at a breakneck speed in order to resolve it, as though the episode was originally designed to be a two-part story. Even with those problems, This ends up being really enjoyable mainly because of how Mulder and Scully interact with each other. In My Struggle III, it seemed like Carter had forgotten all the history that Mulder and Scully have shared over the years, but in This, Morgan very much remembers that history and utilizes it to its fullest, starting the episode (inexplicably) with Mulder and Scully napping together on the couch inside Mulder’s house and going from there. It’s those character moments that make this episode soar. I also appreciated how it ended up tying into the overarching story of the season – the search for William and Mr. Y (A.C. Peterson) and Erika Price’s (Barbara Hershey) quest to stop the Cigarette Smoking Man from bringing about the apocalypse. It was connections like these that the original run of the series lacked. It always felt weird to me how we could go from one week where Mulder and Scully uncover another element of the conspiracy to cooperate with the aliens in their colonization plan, to the next week where they have a fun adventure tracking down some cryptid in the middle of the country. Unfortunately, the next two episodes feature no connection to the overarching story, so it’s back to them inexplicably investigating other things while this huge conspiracy hangs over their heads.
Plus One, written by Chris Carter and directed by Kevin Hooks is my second least favorite episode of the season, so far. In it, Mulder and Scully investigate a series of suicides in which each victim reported seeing their doppelganger just before ultimately killing themselves. In the end, it appears that two siblings – Judy and Chucky Poundstone (both played by Karin Konoval) – are to blame for all of these deaths through a game of supernatural hangman. It’s not that the episode is bad or anything, it’s just sorta mediocre. I feel like Carter still doesn’t understand Mulder and Scully as characters, and the relationship they have with each other, even though his characterization of them is much better than it is in My Struggle III. It feels like this episode should maybe have come before This in the episode order as the way Mulder and Scully treat each other for most of this episode, as though they’re not currently sleeping together, feels at odds with how they treat each other in This and in the following episode, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat. If this episode were the second episode of the season, it would fix a lot of my problems with the characterization immediately. This seems to establish that Mulder and Scully are together (in some way that’s more than friends or colleagues) while Plus One seems to suggest the opposite for most of the episode. Then, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat goes right back to suggesting they’re together again. It’s like Carter doesn’t care about continuity in between episodes that air right after each other and the overall story and character arcs he’s exploring throughout the season. It feels more and more like Carter is more of an idea man than someone who can actually execute those ideas with any sense of finesse.
Last, but not least, comes The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, written and directed by Darin Morgan. Narratively, the episode is all over the place. It’s clearly a gag episode, not meant to be taken remotely seriously. And I do enjoy that aspect of the episode. I just wish that as a whole, the story was better. The way they examined the Mandela Effect feels like a real missed opportunity. In the end, they just sort of chalk it up to the mental instability of Brian Huskey’s character, Reggie, who drives the majority of the narrative thrust of the episode. Part of my disappointment with the episode stems from the fact that I find the idea of the Mandela Effect to be extremely interesting. Yes, most all of the reported examples of it can be chalked up to the notorious unreliability of the human brain, but it’s interesting how entire groups of people can agree on misremembering something as mundane as the spelling of the Berenstain Bears (I, personally, remember it being spelled Berenstein Bears, as do many others, but who knows?). Are these really examples of alternate universes colliding with each other? I dunno. I suppose it’s possible. It’s probably more likely that it’s just people misremembering things and then influencing others subconsciously to misremember them in the same way. I wish, though, that The X-Files had taken a somewhat more serious look at the idea, though. It feels like something so perfectly suited for the show that it’s almost surprising it didn’t come up with the concept in the first place. Yes, it’s ridiculous and makes for a lot of really funny jokes – as evidenced in the episode, but I just wish it could’ve been more of a serious episode. That being said, it was still a really fun episode. It’s nice when The X-Files doesn’t take itself too seriously. As always, Darin Morgan clearly understands what people love about Mulder and Scully as characters and knows how best to write them and their interactions with each other. The episode makes no sense for the majority of its runtime, but it’s a lot of fun and that, alone, is reason enough for it to be my favorite episode of the season.
So, as you can see, season 11 of The X-Files is every bit as inconsistent as every other season has been. The mythology episodes continue to present somewhat interesting ideas while utterly failing to execute those ideas in any kind of entertaining or meaningful way and squandering every opportunity for Mulder and Scully to have any kind of consequential character growth. Contrastingly, the monster-of-the-week episodes continue to be the best parts of the show. I wish that more of them connected to the overarching plotline – a complaint I often have for shows that try to be both procedurally based and somewhat serialized – but I appreciate that, for the most part, the writers and directors who tackle those standalone episodes still have some clue as to what has made The X-Files, and its characters, so beloved for all of these years. Should The X-Files have been revived? Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to say. While the mythology episodes continue to have nothing new to add to the series as a whole, would anybody really wanna lose such enjoyable episodes like The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat?
My Struggle III: 2 out of 5 wands
This: 3.5 out of 5 wands
Plus One: 3 out of 5 wands
The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat: 4.5 out of 5 wands (losing out on fully earning that fifth wand because of my disappointment at how they utilized the concept of the Mandela Effect.)