Can the Series Arc Towards Closure With Grace?
Rumors are swirling that this may be the last year for The X-Files on television. The contracts of creator Chris Carter and star David Duchovny expire at the end of the season, while actress Gillian Anderson has pleaded burnout and many of the writers have committed to other projects, including a possible Lone Gunmen spin-off. Even many fans of the series believe that it's time to retire The X-Files from Fox Sunday nights and send the franchise back to feature films, where it was very successful the last time out.
Even though the show has made attempts to resolve such issues as the alien conspiracy and the fate of Mulder's sister, there are lots and lots of other subjects which really must be addressed before The X-Files closes shop. I'm sure every fan has his or her own list of must-sees, like the capture of the Fluke-Men or some indication about what happened to the bee project. And then there's the all-important question: will Mulder and Scully ever fall in love, or realize they're already in love, or make love? And if so, in what order?
Many fans seem to feel that the more The X-Files aims for closure - like the recent episode "Closure," for example, which was supposedly the last word on Samantha Mulder - the more the series reveals the lack of an overall plan. It's bad enough that the audience doesn't know who holds the fate of humanity now that the Shadow Conspirators are dead; we're starting to get the impression that the writers don't know either. The vast alien-human conspiracy, which gave the show a creepy, paranoid feel while it lurked in the background, has become convoluted beyond comprehension with every new detail revealed.
Worst of all, the show's trademark offbeat humor has become more and more incongruous as more and more horrible things have happened to the protagonists. There wasn't much to laugh at in "Memento Mori" when Scully almost died of cancer, or in "Emily" when her daughter suffered horribly before expiring. After that, it's no wonder Scully seems so serious and bitter. "X-Cops" was cute, but coming a week after "Closure," it was hard to enjoy Mulder's reversion to chasing monsters of the week. From week to week, it's hard to know whether to expect the witty folk who don't take it too seriously when they nearly get eaten by giant mushrooms, or the earnest crusaders determined to expose a web of government lies.
As entertainment, the series works even when the conspiracies don't hold up to logical analysis. That is, as long as the drama is effective. I'm still not sure whether Mulder's father is Bill Mulder or C.G.B. Spender, but I don't really care whether that mystery gets cleared up because David Duchovny and William B. Davis have given breathtaking performances despite their own probable confusion about their characters' roles and motives. Similarly, the show has never satisfactorily addressed the questions of why Scully was given an implant, why she got cancer, why her cancer was permitted to be treated, whether it might recur, why her gametes were stolen and why Emily was created. But Gillian Anderson made the character's pain so real that the question of why she was victimized became secondary.
For awhile, it seemed as though the arc of the series would not be about Mulder and Scully solving X-Files. Each layer of mystery led to another - a connected but unsolvable puzzle, in which missing links like prodigious Gibson Praise and Black Oil-infested Marita Covarrubias only addressed some of the questions. This created a creepy and effective feeling of paranoia. But the plot threads warped and knotted around one another until it seemed that the answers were simple - to be found perhaps by dissecting Cassandra Spender, or recovering the alien fetus last seen with Alex Krycek.
Recently, however, there have been new revelations about the origins of life on Earth and most religions, suggesting that the manipulations and cover-ups go back much further than anyone anticipated. So we're back to the convolutions of a mythology that keeps bringing up new questions without effectively silencing the old ones. Is this a show about exposing complex hidden agendas put forth by the most respected establishments of our society, or merely about the need to investigate pat answers to complex problems?
If it's the former, then a number of questions must be answered. We need definitive answers about the background and fate of Cigarette-Smoking man and the rest of the conspirators. How they did they discover the aliens? For that matter, why were they chosen to assist in the plot for conquest and how did they acquired the money and resources to control key figures in the government? We also need to know the nature of their interest in Gibson Praise, the cloning and fetal experiments like the ones carried out on Emily, and whether there's another equally dangerous conspiracy brewing among the rebel aliens who rescued Cassandra Spender.
But I don't honestly believe the big questions can be answered to the satisfaction of most viewers - certainly not during the remainder of this season, possibly not ever. Back at the beginning, The X-Files seemed merely to be making a case for the paranormal, asking viewers to accept answers beyond our current narrow scientific understanding, as the "Monster of the Week" episodes still suggest. Most of the series' trademark humor emerged in non-arc episodes. It has become a bit of a problem that so many such stories turned into self-parody, so that it's hard to tell whether we're really supposed to believe in the power of love in "The Rain King" or the allure of baseball in "The Unnatural." But if the series' goal is entertainment rather than enlightenment, who cares?
Two Sets of Philes
X-Files fans seem to split pretty evenly along the same lines as the episodes. There are those who want payoff for their nearly a decade of watching in the form of the truth which the opening credits assure us is out there. Then there are those who have been content to enjoy the stories with or without resolution, following the emotional progress of the central characters.
Interesting, 'shippers seem pretty evenly divided about whether or not it's important to resolve the mytharc. There are some that believe Mulder and Scully can never enjoy each other until they've put the baggage of the massive conspiracy investigation behind them. Others assume that if they've made it together thus far, it won't make any difference whether or not they get definitive answers...as long as they don't get replaced by the Eddie Van Blundhts of the world, or something. Angst fans have tended to like mythology episodes because we get to see Mulder cry on Scully's shoulder or vice-versa, but we see more spontaneous affection between the characters during throwaway moments like the fake marriage of "Arcadia" or the "Millennium" kiss.
So how come we've gotten no repeat of that momentous event? It's pretty obvious at this point even to non-shippers that something is stunting Mulder and Scully's emotional development. Not counting Tattoo Man or alternate reality spouses, when's the last time either Mulder or Scully had a date? When's the last time either Mulder or Scully had a crush? The secret agent man may have loosened up a bit since the loss of his mother and sister, but he's hardly living a normal life. And Scully, who will never have a child, who hears the ghosts and sees religious apparitions from her own childhood, seems willing to remain in the same place - at Mulder's side - despite her ongoing uncertainty about whether their work will ever make a real difference.
I can't help but believe that in the real world, Mulder and Scully would have written a book by now about all the things they've seen. In an effort to get the warning about aliens out there, they would have gritted their teeth and gone on The Jerry Springer Show, sold the story to the tabloids, in the name of protecting humanity. They have already testified before congressional hearings and other tribunals whose records are open to the public. Mulder has appeared on talk shows and Scully has been called as a forensic witness in high-profile murder cases. They should be public figures by now, with a cult following as tight as that of the actors who play the characters.
Obviously, the whole charm of the series would fade if it weren't Mulder and Scully against the world...if some of the kooks they occasionally work with, like the Lone Gunmen or the dog-woman from "Alpha" or the schizophrenic clairvoyant from "Closure," had some status in society, if the congressmen and world leaders weren't hiding under a veil of subterfuge, if people like "Deep Throat" and "X" had names and titles other than "Deep Throat" and "X." But in the world where Mulder and Scully live, humans in general seem to be far stupider than average. If a dirt-eating killer infiltrated your subdivision, don't you think you'd start to get suspicious after the second or third murder, even without Mulder around? If a kid in your neighborhood could draw down lightning, wouldn't it make you think twice about the things you've learned about Benjamin Franklin and the kite?
As British critic Vera Rule pointed out to me recently, The X-Files is trying to have it both ways. Some weeks, it wants the freedom of 1950s-era serials where each episode was self-contained and the characters not only didn't grow but also didn't even remember what happened the week before. At the same time, it wants to capture a consistent audience with story arcs and character evolution. But these two formats are mutually exclusive. Once a show starts a complicated arc, it gets increasingly difficult to expect the audience to suspend interest in it on a week-to-week basis. Other long-running shows like Xena and Buffy suffer from the same problem. And if the characters don't evolve when things start changing around them, they look superficial, like people who can't quite be believed.
If, as is widely expected, Mulder's conspiracy-seeking associates spin off their own series next season, I fear they may take their quirky brand of humor with them, never to be seen again on The X-Files. Or maybe we'll get crossovers, like this season's "Millennium" episode that wrapped up some issues from Chris Carter's former series, though if we're going to be stuck with silliness like characters gratuitously praising Harsh Realm, I'd just as soon forget it. If we're going to get crossovers like X-Cops, though, I would like for Mulder to uncover the fate of Sydney Bloom and her family, thus tying up the loose ends of terrific abortive FOX series VR5. And maybe looking up Number Six from The Prisoner to figure out whose hoops he jumped through - I bet Mrs. Peel would help him if they tracked her down. But I digress.
What's left for Mulder and Scully to accomplish? There might be any number of small-town monsters to document, big-city demons to halt, but after you've seen the highest authorities on your planet sell out to a bunch of aliens, how important can that possibly seem? The most neglected areas of their lives are personal. I'm not sure either of the agents has ever stopped to wonder whether this is what they really wanted to be when they grew up. As I've said before, I never saw either of them as the type to settle down, raise a bunch of kids, and drive his-and-hers Saabs to work, but aren't they getting tired of going home to their mostly barren apartments? Does Scully still have her dog? Who feeds Mulder's fish while he's away? These are the true mysteries of The X-Files, and they need to be addressed if another season, or another film, is going to succeed beyond the interest of dedicated fans.
Tying up plots like the fate of Cancer Man, who's apparently paying for all those years of smoking, accomplishes little. The once-omnipotent villain has been brought down to mortal level, but it feels sort of like Star Trek's humanizing of the Borg - not very satisfying, and a sort of a betrayal. If appearances can deceive so thoroughly that C.G.B. Spender will turn out to be deep down an OK guy, then we might as well assume everything is relative and Mulder's as deluded as his detractors claim. Some acts are and should be unforgivable. We've mostly let Krycek off the hook for the murders of Melissa Scully and Bill Mulder, for instance, but how many of the individual conspirators can we excuse for plotting a holocaust?
There's always been something perversely comforting for me in the Shadow Conspiracy. Sure, it would be terrifying to think that so much evil could be perpetrated by so few men, but that's also less terrifying than the notion that similar evil lurks in all humans everywhere, waiting for a trick of genetics, or a trick of the light, or a traumatic wartime experience or a mad dog bite or a lust for brain-sucking to unleash it. Above all, the question The X-Files must return to is that of whether the X-Files are all anomalies or part of the dark underbelly of all our lives. Is it Mulder and Scully's worldview that's a little warped or our own?
If the series can address that question while keeping its sense of humor, it will prove itself an unqualified success.
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