In the age of the X-Files revival, you can tell a mythology episode by the “struggle.” Part 1 belonged to Mulder. Part 2 was Scully’s. Part 3, kicking off what’s officially known as “the second chapter of The X-Files event series” (forgive me if I shorten it to season 11), is technically the Cigarette Smoking Man’s struggle. It might also be ours.
I can’t start this recap anywhere other than CSM’s vile, episode-ending suggestion that he, not Mulder, is the true biological father of Scully’s child. I suspect his claim won’t turn out to be true, but that’s not the point. CSM’s story has always been marked by subjectivity, every suspicious detail told through his eyes. See for example season 4’s “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” in which he spun his own backstory, villainously Forrest Gump-ing his way into the most infamous historical events of the late 20th century. We never even knew more of his name than he wanted us to. (Now he says it’s Carl. Carl!) The ambiguity surrounding the Smoking Man has turned into an example of the show’s inability to conclusively resolve anything about its mythology, but in the early seasons, this is what made him such an effective villain: He wasn’t bound by facts because the truth was his to shape. Since its pilot, The X-Files has been critical of those shadowy government figures who withhold information in order to maintain their grasp on the power they feel slipping away. It’s still a relevant theme.
But so too is sexual abuse and consent, and this show has a shaky history there. Scully was violated without her consent when her eggs were harvested during her abduction; Mulder found out what had been taken from her before she did. That experience kicked off a series-long story that was less interested in Scully’s emotional trauma than it was in “will-they-won’t-they”-ing her uterus: She couldn’t have kids! She might be able to have kids! IVF didn’t work! She had a baby anyway! But was the baby Mulder’s?
Even when not centered on Scully, stories about rape on this show have a hard time using the word “rape.” (Season 5’s black-and-white classic “The Post-Modern Prometheus” skirted around dealing with the monster as a rapist because the women he “impregnated” all wanted kids.) Now, in 2018, the Smoking Man tells Skinner it was “science — alien science” that made him the father of Scully’s baby. Euphemisms aside, the outcome is the same. The X-Files just went back in time nearly 18 years to add in the rape of its main character by its villain and to question yet again whether Mulder is William’s father. It’s baffling. It’s irresponsible. And even if not everything CSM claims turns out to be true, dangling a terrible possibility over our heads only to eventually disprove it doesn’t usually make for satisfying drama.
Actually, this premiere already does that. Last season’s cliffhanger — an alien virus swept the planet; Scully, immune thanks to the alien DNA she was given during her abduction, whipped up a vaccine, but it wasn’t enough to save a ragged-looking Mulder; only stem cells from William could do that, but since she gave him up for adoption, he could be anywhere — has all been erased, which would be more frustrating if that episode were any good. Mulder finds Scully unresponsive on the office floor after a seizure, which either caused or was caused by the apocalyptic visions we (and she) experienced as reality in “My Struggle II.” Her neurologist, Dr. Joyet, tells Mulder, “Neurologically speaking, her brain’s on fire.” Sure, that checks out medically.
It gets X-Filesier! A scan reveals that part of Scully’s brain is lighting up in, get this, Morse code; Skinner translates it as “FIND HIM.” He assumes the “him” is William, but Mulder would rather sit by Scully’s bedside than run off chasing phantom leads. This is one of my favorite Mulder-and-Scully M.O.s: They swap places when one of them is in danger. Scully was ready to fight anyone who said Mulder’s season 8 abduction wasn’t aliens, while Mulder is never less willing to entertain a fantastic theory than when he thinks it might come at Scully’s expense. She’s disoriented when she wakes up, explaining what she saw like it’s still happening (“You’re dying, Mulder. And I can’t save you”), and Mulder listens. But he insists on talking to Scully’s doctor before he goes in search of CSM (the actual “him” who needs finding), leaving Scully looking heartbroken that he doesn’t believe her.