The X-Files: “Alone”/“Essence”/“Existence”

The X-Files: “Alone”/“Essence”/“Existence”

“Alone” (season 8, episode 19; originally aired 5/6/2001)
In which you are not...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Mulder’s back! Okay, he’s been back for a few episodes now, but still, what a relief, right? Duchovny brings a very distinctive energy to the show, and even when he doesn’t really seem to give a damn about what’s going on, he’s a welcome presence; better, since Mulder returned from his abduction and near death, the actor’s sarcasm and irritation work for the character rather than against him, suggesting a man who has seen enough horror that he just doesn’t care about all this bullshit anymore.

Between him, Scully, Doggett, and Skinner, the back half of the eighth season has a refreshing ensemble feel; the show has pitted its two protagonists against the shadowy forces of evil for so long, and gotten so much suspenseful and dramatic mileage out of their underdog status, that it’s thrilling to see a change in the status quo. It means losing some of the sense of solitary terror, but this is The X-Files, which means there are still plenty of opportunities for people to go wandering off on their own and get menaced. Things are changing, and for once, that change feels as much intentional as it does required by circumstance.

But even the new status quo can’t last forever. The two part season finale has the whole team working together to protect Scully’s baby, ending with Doggett and Reyes officially teamed up (to Kersh’s frustration), but it’s clear even before then that Mulder and Scully aren’t going to play as big a part in the show going forward as they once did. Mulder may be back, and Duchovny’s apathy may be informing his role in interesting ways, but the actor clearly isn’t invested in the long haul, and Scully’s baby puts her on the sidelines as well. (It’s possible to imagine a show that featured the two of them trying their luck as first time parents, and it’s a measure of how likable the actors are together that I think I would watch that show; but that show would not be The X-Files.) As the season draws to a close, it’s time to start setting up for the future. And that means finding ways to say a strange sort of goodbye.

That’s what “Alone” feels like, anyway: a way to have closure on the past without actually providing any closure, at least not in concrete plot terms. The closest we get to an explicit ending comes in the first scene between Doggett and Scully in Mulder’s office. Scully is stopping by to pick up a few things, and explains to Doggett that she’s going on maternity leave; when Doggett asks her when she’ll be back, she doesn’t answer. It’s a nice, surprisingly melancholy moment, as Scully strongly implies that this is, for all practical intents and purposes, the end of her time in the department. The melancholy is heightened when Doggett hears someone coming down the hall, and immediately assumes it’s Scully, having changed her mind and decided to return to give him some more advice. It’s a weird moment, too, because it’s just a bit too much; Robert Patrick plays it like that bit in a romantic comedy when the hero thinks his luck has finally come through, and the scene feels more like a comment on the audience’s response to Scully’s absence than it does Doggett’s.

This is confirmed by the appearance of Agent Leyla Harrison (Jolie Jenkins), the woman responsible for the footsteps Doggett heard and, not coincidentally, Scully’s replacement. Harrison, who specifically requested being assigned to the X-Files and spends much of her screentime relating events to previous Mulder and Scully cases (she used to work in accounting and read through all their reports and travel vouchers), is the most obvious audience surrogate the show has yet produced. The fictional justification for Harrison’s super-fan nature is thin enough to read a newspaper through, and the script (by Frank Spotnitz, who also directed) doesn’t make much of an effort to integrate her presence. Harrison is a temporary measure to fill space before Doggett’s real partner can arrive. Her main purpose is to provide Doggett with someone who isn’t quite capable of supporting him—she’s not a bad agent, exactly, but despite her enthusiasm for the work, she doesn’t have the edge necessary to survive an attack by a were-lizard. Well, okay, she does survive it, but that’s because Mulder shows up and helps save the day.

Harrison is the most obviously meta element to the episode, but even apart from her, “Alone” plays like something of a statement. This season has had its share of Monster of the Week episodes, but this one just feels different. Seeing Mulder go through the old motions—while Doggett and Harrison are trapped, Mulder wanders around, bugging the monster who he doesn’t realize yet is the monster (Zach Grenier), and generally being the sort of determined nuisance who gets results—well, seeing that was pretty cool. But it also felt like this wasn’t something we’d be seeing again in the future. In the two-part season finale, Mulder tells Scully that her priorities are going to change once she has her baby. It’s an idea he’s expressed before, and I’m not exactly sure that Scully needs to be told this (I don’t think she’d forget she was pregnant or something), but what Mulder’s saying applies as much to him as it does to her. Duchovny’s desire to leave manifests in the text as Mulder reaching something of a crossroads. He still wants his truth, but there are things at stake now, and there’s a real sense that he’s ready to move on.

None of these concerns would be worth much if the story itself wasn’t solid, and while Herman Stites isn’t the vilest monster our heroes have faced, he is a cool one; the effects are an imperfect mixture of CGI and practical, but the impression of speed and strangeness are very strong. Spotnitz’s direction makes fun use of unusual angles, and in general, the director does a good job of conveying the constant impression of menace that is key to so many classic MotW entries. And the creature’s M.O. is neat: it traps its prey and sprays their face with bile that first blinds them, and then slowly digests their body until they’re soft and easy to digest. I’m not sure about the exact biological implausibility of all of this, but it’s nifty enough idea that I’m willing to roll with it, and the episode wisely leaves most of the backstory of the creature to implication and suggestion. The real point is to get Doggett (and Harrison) in a situation where they can’t save themselves, and give Mulder a chance to blunder in to the rescue. Which he does, in a climax that ranks as one of the show’s better monster defeats: unarmed, Mulder has to tell a half-blind Doggett to shoot at the exact moment the monster jumps for him.

It’s all a good time, and everybody leaves with a smile, except Gary, and who cares about him anyway. But it’s a little strained, too, because there’s a level of self-consciousness to the proceedings that never lets you forget that this isn’t quite as simple as it looks. At the very end, Mulder and Scully visit Doggett and Harrison at the hospital to make sure they’ve recovered from the venom attacks. Mulder tries to give Doggett back the Apollo 11 medallion Scully gave him earlier, and Doggett says they should give it to Harrison instead. Which is a cute gesture, but not an entirely earned one. According to Wikipedia, Harrison was named for a real life X-Files fan who died of cancer, and I don’t want to mock the character, or the gesture of kindness the writers make by paying homage to a real person; but there’s an overtness to the whole thing that makes it kind of strained. The final scene is Harrison asking about how Mulder and Scully got back from the arctic after the climax of The X-Files: Fight The Future. It’s a funny, adorable joke, and Scully and Mulder’s immediate debate is a sweet call-back to their old personas. But there’s a sense that it’s time for them to go. The question, then, is if the show can survive without them.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Mulder watches a lot of Oprah in his downtime.
  • Forgot to mention, a very pregnant Scully finds time to do an autopsy; it’s her work that the determines the purpose of the creature’s venom. Very old school.
  • While looking through Mulder’s office, Scully finds Queequeg’s dog tag. Poor, poor Queequeg. (Her wistful smirk is odd, considering how the dog died, but we all grieve in our own way.)

“Essence”/”Existence” (season 8, episodes 20 & 21; originally aired 5/13/2001, 5/20/2001)
In which it’s a boy...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

So Scully’s finally having her damn baby. Who, it turns out, might be alien Jesus. Or something. It’s all a bit of a blur. But for the most part it’s an exciting blur, with all of the show’s major good guy characters teaming up to protect Scully from the very confusing forces seemingly aligned together. Forces including Knowle, Doggett’s former buddy-turned-alien, and good ole Billy Miles, back from wherever he went and hellbent on murdering the doctors who’ve been working behind Scully’s back to assist her pregnancy. I think. There’s a tremendous sense of purpose, regardless of the details, and “Essence” builds to a fever pitch that makes questions of who exactly wants what largely irrelevant. “Existence” can’t really maintain that level of intensity, and tries to go for something more ambitious instead, with mixed results. But the sense of ambition, the scope of what we see (even if it’s really limited to the main cast and a handful of guest stars), and the fact of Scully giving birth and screaming how it’s her baby and she’s going to keep it, dammit, make it feel important.

The question, then, is how much does the mythology have to make sense for The X-Files to qualify as good TV? Season 8 is a solid season. Definitely in the B+/A- area, and for a show this long in the tooth, that’s damn impressive. Even the weaker episodes had a sense of purpose to them, and the mythology arc, beginning with the hunt for Mulder, and ending with alien Jesus baby, maintained a strong sense of urgency throughout. Which is the rub, really; because while there was a clear sense of import and danger whenever our heroes put aside their usual causes and focused on the bigger picture, I’m still not entirely sure what that big picture is, or if it holds together at all. There are factions fighting against other factions, red herrings, God metaphors, and Krycek, and I have the sneaking suspicion that none of it, in the end, makes a damn bit of sense. But for the most part it was enjoyable to watch, and isn’t that the most important thing?

For as long as the episodes keep moving forward, I’d say it is. “Essence” has Mulder investigating the death of a Dr. Lev—we watched the good doctor, who had shelves of fetuses in jars in his office (never a good sign) get murdered by Billy in the cold open—as he tries to figure out just where the next threat is coming from. For once, there’s a distinctly personal, and even optimistic, angle to Mulder’s quest. He doesn’t want the truth to avenge (or solve) his sister’s abduction, or to save the world, or even to enlighten the masses. He just wants to save Scully and her baby. There’s something winning about that, even as it renders Scully once again a victim in need of a rescuer.

Admittedly, she’s pregnant, which limits her physical mobility, but we rarely get a chance to figure out what’s going on inside of Scully’s head anymore. One of the plot points of the episode has Scully taking on a helper (at her mother’s insistence) played by Frances Fisher, a woman who, it turns out, is working behind Scully’s back at the instruction of Duffy Haskell (back from “Per Manum,” although Billy makes sure we’ll never see him again). This is a huge violation of trust, and yet apart from Anderson’s acting in group scenes (she looks tired, angry, and scared for the most part), we never get a sense of how Scully feels about being turned into a prop, betrayed and manipulated for reasons that passeth understanding. Hell, even the good guys have the unfortunate habit of talking around her or over her. This is driven by their desire to protect her, but it’s frustrating to see such a forceful character shoved to the background, even as the plot revolves around her. She gets more to do in “Existence,” thankfully, but even then, so much of what happens to her is related to us through the perspective of other characters.

Putting that aside, “Essence” gets a lot of mileage out of Billy Miles, a seemingly unstoppable killing machine who is hellbent on murdering anyone who was working on Scully’s baby behind her back. This would seem to put Billy in the “good guy, though slightly overzealous” column, and yet he’s such an implacable threat that it’s only in retrospect that you realize he never seriously hurts our heroes. He throughs Mulder through a glass wall, and slams Reyes into a barn in “Existence,” but while those assaults had to hurt, it’s important to remember that every other time Billy attacked someone, he chopped off their head with his hand. Maybe Mulder and Reyes avoided this because they are both main characters, but given how the end of the storyline plays out, it seems pretty safe to say that Billy intentionally refused to kill them, because they weren’t trying to interfere the same way Derek and the doctors were.

This doesn’t really become clear until the final scenes of “Existence,” though, so the shots of Billy stalking after Scully (after getting shot, run over by a car, and mulched in a garbage compactor) retain their potency throughout. The climax of “Essence” has our heroes desperately maneuvering to try and get Scully out of D.C. and somewhere safe so she can have her baby, before Billy can finally catch up with her and do whatever the hell it is he wants to do. One of the highlights of the season as a whole has been seeing Mulder’s absence bring everyone together, and the final scenes of the episode use this to great advantage, with Skinner, Doggett, Mulder, Reyes, and a new guy named Crane (who turns out to be an alien) teaming up to orchestrate the final escape. The whole thing feels a bit Terminator-ish, but in a good way, and the sense of near-miss triumph that concludes the episode sends viewers into “Existence” on something of a high.

Unfortunately, that high is then dampened by an hour that spends too much time with people sitting in various rooms and cars, waiting for something to happen. Knowle tells Doggett a story about super soldiers that tries, once again, to write aliens out of the picture; it’s bullshit, but Doggett, for understandable reasons, tries to believe it. Mulder forces him to dig deeper, which translates to the two of them staking out a parking garage and battering philosophy back and forth. It’s not bad, and the storyline (after some turns) ultimately leads to Skinner shooting Krycek in the head, which is satisfying. But the intensity is gone, leaving us to try and parse out exactly what’s happening and why, and there’s a confusion to it all that doesn’t really hold up. What was Krycek’s plan here? Is he working with Knowle? Are Knowle and Crane from a different alien faction than Billy and the others? Why are they meeting with Kersh? And so on, and so forth.

I’m sure there are ways to explain this, and I suspect that part of my lack of comprehension stems from a personal difficulty with conspiracy storylines; I tend to lose track of who’s betraying who after a certain point. But even taking this into account, the whole thing is exhausting. After a season full of fresh starts, it’s frustrating to have the mythology still lagging behind, building new twists on top of old ones until the whole scenario seems less like a coherent story, and more like a series of fake-outs designed to distract you from an empty core. To an extent, incoherency has always been a key part of The X-Files, in a good way. Grand conspiracy theories should have some madness in them, and part of the show’s genius is in using that to its advantage; in the mythology’s best years, the ideas held together but there was always a horrible, lurking possibility that Mulder and Scully might get to the bottom of everything and find out there was no bottom, just an endless series of digressions and reversals. But that sort of approach can’t work forever, and the more “Existence” tries to build to some grand, awe-inspiring conclusion, the closer it comes to tipping over into absurdity.

This comes to a head with Scully’s baby, and the various ways the show offers of looking at that baby. We’re told that it’s the “perfect” child, “more human than human,” which is a dumb phrase that people seem to love. We’re told that it’s a miracle, because Scully was medically barren. We’re told that seemingly every major alien conspiracy now revolves around it, because it will save us from/help begin the alien invasion. We’re told, by Mulder no less, that the baby is proof of the existence of God. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the strange fact that no one wants to openly discuss who the father is (even though it was pretty well established that it’s Mulder), and the group of aliens—including Billy—who show up in Democratic Hot Springs to watch Scully give birth, and then just leave after without saying anything; and there’s the bright light in the sky that Reyes sees, and that Mulder follows to find them.

That’s a lot of weight for a baby to carry, and it’s more than a little ridiculous by the end. After spending so much time setting up the danger, after getting so much tension out of various bizarre and unknowable threats, to have the entire situation resolve itself without any real sense of what happened is, well, lazy. Chris Carter is trying to rely on mysticism and Scully’s labor to carry the day, and while that’s not the worst tactic at this point in the game (I’m assuming Carter doesn’t have some other, better conspiracy ideas that he’s holding back), it doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying conclusion to an otherwise good year. “Existence” ends with Mulder and Scully embracing over little William (Scully named him after Mulder’s dead father), and sharing a definitely romantic kiss. It’s a sweet moment, and it certainly feels earned; at this point, it’s hardly a surprise that the two of them are a couple. The human pieces of the show still work, and that includes Doggett. (I’m less sure about Reyes.) A pity that the aliens don’t have the same spark.

“Essence”: B+
“Existence: B

Stray observations:

  • It’s great seeing Skinner take Krycek down. But I have no idea what Krycek was trying to accomplish here.
  • Mulder’s revelation that Scully’s baby is proof that there’s a god is a bizarre moment. It’s so bizarre that I find myself ignoring it when I think back over the episode, because if I have to accept it as an intentional, meaningful event, it blots out everything else.
  • Reyes thinks there should be whale song while Scully gives birth. ‘kay.
  • That regenerating metal vertebrae was pretty sweet, huh?
  • See you next year!


More TV Club Classic