The X-Files: "Jump The Shark"/"William"
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The X-Files: "Jump The Shark"/"William"

The end is coming; let’s tie up some loose ends.

“Jump The Shark” (season 9, episode 15; originally aired 4/21/2002)

In which the Lone Gunmen can’t hold their breath forever...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

To be fair, it probably had to happen eventually. The X-Files has never been kind to its secondary characters; over the course of nine seasons, Mulder has lost his entire family, Scully lost a sister and a father (who admittedly died of natural causes… so far as we know), and countless other informants and friends and background figures have died in various horrible or slightly less horrible ways. Outside of Mulder, Scully, and Skinner, no one is ever really safe on the show, and by that logic, it’s almost surprising that the Lone Gunmen lasted as long as they did. This world is a bleak, terrifying place even before you factor in the alien conspiracies and government cover-ups. Monsters are real here, and the fight against darkness is nearly always fatal. People like Byers, Langly, and Frohike were bound to get chewed up by the machine sooner or later.

But if that’s the case (and I’m not even completely sure that it is; there’s a scrappiness to these three that makes them survivors in a way even Mulder is not), did they have to go out so half-heartedly? “Jump The Shark” starts off well enough. After an awkward “let’s summarize our cancelled show that none of you watched” introduction narrated by Morris Fletcher, we find Morris on a boat in the Bermuda Triangle, applying suntan lotion to a bikinied blonde, and generally being smug about everything. There’s a long con at work here, one which doesn’t get fully revealed until three-quarters through the episode, but the scene itself—maybe a little too jokey, but McKean makes it work—sets the tone for what’s to come. This is, for most of its running time, a comedy episode. And it’s a funny one, the tone landing on just the right side of camp.

There’s an undercurrent of sadness as well, though. Sadness and a growing bitterness which doesn’t always make sense in the context of the actual show. When Doggett and Reyes visit the Lone Gunmen’s office (following up on a lead Morris gave them about a super soldier who is actually just a recurring player from the trio’s cancelled TV series), the place is nearly empty. The Gunmen themselves are as willing to help as ever, but there’s a defeated air about them, and every so often, the subtext will spill out. Morris and Frohike get in a conversation where Frohike seems to be all but admitting that he and his friends are basically fucked in the grand scheme of things. Langly (wearing a “Joey Lives” T-shirt) goes on a rant about how Joey Ramone mattered because he never sold out or gave up. Characters who had heretofore been charming, odd, and a little out there, become totems of a collapsing worldview, and it’s strange to watch.

These guys were never the heroes of The X-Files, but they were heroes, and their unabashed nerd-cred and fundamental decency was one of the few reliably shining lights on the show’s horizon. To have them so clearly at the end of their collective ropes is, for a while, pretty powerful. If you put aside the fact that it reads like a bunch of writers pouting that their show got cancelled (behind the scenes, Fox tried very hard to keep the Gunmen from even returning to this show, which couldn’t have brightened anyone’s mood), the melancholy is fitting for the final season, and it’s not that completely out of place for these three to be feeling the blues. Because all they have to show for their efforts over the years is their friendship and a newspaper most people treat as a punchline. Acknowledging the frustration of that, before giving them a hard-earned triumph, is classic drama, and for good reason.

We don’t get a triumph, though. We get Frohikie, Langly, and Byers sacrificing themselves to stop the spread of a human virus bomb. Which, look: I’ve never seen The Lone Gunmen. I’ll be watching and writing about it this summer (ish) for the One Season Wonders column, but right now, all I know is what I read on the Internet, and what came out in this episode. Maybe once I watch the other series, I’ll get more out of this. There’s definitely plenty of stuff thrown at you with minimal explanation: Jimmy the Intern (Stephen Snedden) and Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson) both pop up, and both clearly have a history with the Gunmen, a history that’s rudimentarily filled in by a few quips from Morris. Having McKean do expository duty for a good chunk of the hour was brilliant, by the way; he manages to make nearly everything funny, and not just a lecture.

Anyway, my point being, Jimmy and Yves (whose name is an alias and an anagram for “Lee Harvey Oswald) are perfectly fine, but neither of them carry a whole lot of emotional weight. The reveal of Yves’s actual name—Lois Runtz—and the explanation that she’s the daughter of a terrorist, isn’t all that exciting. It gives the story an endgame (the Gunmen die when they track down and trap one of Yves’s father’s weapons), but outside of any context, it’s just pieces moving around on the board. Maybe once I see The Lone Gunmen, this will matter more to me.

I doubt it, though. As is, “Jump The Shark” is one of those episodes that I mostly liked while watching it, but which started to rot in my head the more time I thought about it afterward. Because I don’t care how bitter the writers were, or how pissed off Fox was. These characters deserved better. The show lets them go out heroically, but it’s still a waste; the sacrifice is semi-arbitrary, the sort of dangerous climax which Mulder and Scully have wiggled their way out of countless times before. It’s not about the stakes getting higher in the final season (this has nothing to do with the final season arc, really, since Morris’s bullshit about Yves being a super soldier was, well, bullshit), and while Byers, Frohike, and Langly get to leave with their dignity intact, there’s something fundamentally wrong about the whole thing. It plays like a cheat on the part of the writers to get rid of suddenly inconvenient characters, and to punish the audience for not watching their show when it was on.

This feeling is compounded by the final scene, a funeral for the three men at Arlington cemetery that passes the point of honest grief and lapses into self-parody. For one thing, Arlington? Skinner says he “pulled some strings,” and those must’ve been damn thick strings to make this work. Giving these guys a hero’s farewell seems right, but feels wrong, and it gets more wrong every time someone on screen gives a little speech about how amazing the Gunmen were. Scully is the worst in this respect. Gillian Anderson (who is only in the episode for the final scene) acts heavily medicated, and goes off about how brave and wonderful and amazing her fallen friends were, and it plays less like an appropriate acknowledgement of the loss of important characters, and more like salt getting thrown on an open wound. The Lone Gunmen were so incredible, you guys. But you didn’t love them enough, and now they’re gone.

Were it not for those last five minutes, “Jump The Shark” would be a pleasurable diversion, a fun chance to check in with old friends before the end. But that ending left a bad taste in my mouth. I can accept a world in which the Lone Gunmen had to die, but I’m not comfortable with one in which their execution came as a form of revenge.

Stray observations:

  • While I get why Mulder wasn’t available, there’s something wrong about Scully not having any scenes with the guys before the end. But then, considering how narcoleptic Anderson is at the funeral, maybe that’s for the best.

  • Doggett and Reyes are barely in this, and that’s fine; while I’m not fan of how the Gunmen go out, I appreciate they at least got to me the main characters at their wake.

  • There are some cute shark references, but they never become too over the top, so I’ll give that gag a pass.

  • I’ve been informed that the X-Files comic book series brings the Gunmen back to life. I’m not huge on post-show comics, but I’m more than happy to accept this.

  • “Nobody knows about that door. That’s our secret door.” -Byers

  • “They meant so much to me.” -Scully, laying it on thick.

“William” (season 9, episode 16; originally aired 4/28/2002)

In which Scully gives her son away...

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.)

Well, it’s good to have all that baby stuff wrapped up, isn’t it?

I’ve never been a fan of Scully’s son. Never been a fan of “female lead gets pregnant” storylines in general, although I recognize they can work. But in Scully’s case it stung, because up until the X-Files’ eighth season, Scully was one of my favorite characters ever. She still is, of course; late game crumminess doesn’t rob Dana (and Gillian Anderson) of seven straight seasons of depth, passion, and wit, and it’s not like she’s been completely ruined in these last two years, either. There are still flashes of straight-ahead Scully awesomeness, and there are a few of them in “William.” But any time anything involving her baby comes into focus, Scully disappears, and this other person takes her place: a terrified, stricken, nearly hysterical person who can’t really think or plan or have any perspective whatsoever.

You can watch this happening in real time. The first half of “William,” Scully is annoyed, curious, worried, bemused, and angry by turns. Her wonder and horror at the possibility that the hideously disfigured man sitting in front of her might actually be Mulder in “disguise” is a layered, complex response. But the instant the mystery man gets involved with William, all complexity and personality vanishes in a rush of “My baby! My baby! Stay away from my baby!” It’s like a switch gets flipped. Here’s Scully the individual; and now here’s Scully the machine who worries about a plot device which is nominally a human being.

Look, it makes complete sense that Scully would be on edge about William’s safety. He is, after all, a helpless infant who rests at the center of a vast conspiracy, and he may also be alien Jesus or something. It’s very complex. In practical terms, this means the kid is in danger a fair amount of the time, and even when the threat isn’t immediate or obvious, there’s the constant lingering worry that someone, somewhere, is coming for him. That would make anyone nervous. The problem is that the concern for William’s safety overrides every other aspect of Scully’s character—her humor, her faith, her iron will. It reduces her in a way that makes her less interesting, and less effective, and it’s immensely frustrating to watch. Mulder’s obsession with the Truth defined him, but it still allowed him room to be a person. Scully’s motherhood has, for the most part, been an excuse to get her out of the main action, something to hold over her head while Doggett and Reyes get the job done.

All of this said, it should’ve been a relief when the end of the episode (as foreshadowed in the cold opening) has Scully giving William up for adoption. But it isn’t. For one thing, it’s a waste of time to spend so much effort and focus on protecting the baby, only to give him up over the course of a single scene. The plotting is pretty goofy, even by X-Files standards: a hideously burned Jeffrey Spender shows up, confuses everyone for a while, then injects William with a metal that makes him normal. Scully, reasoning that the various conspiracies and groups which have been hunting her child won’t ever give up their search (which is fair), decides the only real way to ensure the child’s safety is to send him away.

In theory, this should solve one of the season’s biggest problems. And maybe it will; maybe in the three (!!!) episodes left, Scully will once again rise to the glories of her past self. But that won’t change this from being a bizarre, implausible, and frustrating conclusion to a supposedly life-or-death story arc. After everything else that’s happened, Scully finally surrenders when a disfigured dude makes her baby completely human? After fighting so hard and so passionately, this is what breaks her? It seems laughably naive to think that the forces hunting for William will give up just because it’ll take a little more digging to find him. (The baby even keeps his name!) And even if you’re willing to accept that this is a reasonable solution, it just doesn’t make much sense. As little as I’ve enjoyed Scully’s attack of the Moms, her devotion to her child has been ironclad and consistent throughout. To have her decide sending William away is the answer is both a betrayal of this devotion, and a sloppy way to back out of a fumbling story arc.

As for the rest of the episode… I’ll give Chris Owens this: he gives good ambiguous Mulder. After breaking into the X-Files office, and then beating up Agent Doggett, Spender spends the hour refusing to give anyone his whole story, passing himself off as a “friend” of Mulder’s, and someone who is intent on bringing down the alien-government conspiracy. Doggett, in a questionable deductive leap, decides that this mutilated person (who gives a false name) has to be the actual Mulder, which sends Scully on a path of much soul-searching until the truth is finally revealed.

Mulder’s disappearance this season has never entirely felt right, especially considering he left Scully (and their son) behind; and the idea here, that it’s somehow plausible he could’ve been so disfigured by government tests that he would hide his identity from even the people he trusted the most, just heightens the not rightness. I mean, it’s not him, but the fact that Scully, Doggett, and Reyes are all willing to entertain the possibility that it could be underlines how much the writers have fallen into the “characters just won’t goddamn talk to each other” trap.

It’s a bit like Lost, actually. I love both shows, but you can only stretch this so far before it becomes ridiculous. The X-Files has earned more leeway, simply because it’s a show about secrets and the way those secrets can corrupt just about everyone. But as much as “William” tries to sell it (they even go down the “the DNA is an exact match!” path), it doesn’t really work. Spender’s silence makes sense; he’s trying to fool everyone long enough to get access to William. But that Scully would be so willing to believe his lies that she’d actually let him into her home says a lot of uncomfortable, ugly things about her relationship with Mulder which I don’t think anyone is really willing to address.

Putting aside unpleasant implications and that troubling ending, what “William” does more than anything else is remind the audience that Mulder is gone. Duchovny directed the episode, and there are moments here and there where the actor’s personality shines through; if I had to guess, I’d say he’s the reason Anderson seems fully awake for the first time in a while. (Although even Duchovny can’t make those scenes where Scully starts shouting “My baby!” work.) The ambiguity of Spender’s identity means we get a few exchanges that echo, in a sad and broken way, the old Mulder and Scully banter of the past, and it made me realize how much I miss that, and how much that relationship grounded the show and brought it to life. Doggett is a great character, and Reyes isn’t always bland; maybe with time, the two of them could’ve had their time in the sun. But as things are drawing to a close, they’ll always be shadows, and what we’re left with are just echoes of former greatness.

Stray observations:

  • Spender’s make-up looked great. I’m not sure we desperately needed the character to come back, but the effects were cool.

  • Not sure what to say about William’s adoptive parents. I’m sure they subscribe to Reader’s Digest, though.

  • After all that, to have William “cured” by a single injection is just the laziest damn thing. “This baby might be the new Jesus! Oh wait, he has a bit of metal in him, never mind.”

  • “You’ve prevented alien colonization by injecting this metal into my son?” Not even Scully’s half-disdainful delivery of this line can save it.

  • I know Doggett and Mulder haven’t always been the best of friends, but does Doggett really think that Mulder would kick him that hard?

  • The gag of Doggett doing push ups (and making up the numbers) in the X-Files office is delightful.

Next week: Almost done! Todd looks into the murder of Doggett’s son in “Release,” and checks out what must be the show’s last monster of the week episode with “Sunshine Days.”

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