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A killer game of Hangman makes for inarticulate X-Files

Illustration for article titled A killer game of Hangman makes for inarticulate X-Files
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We’ve had a mythology episode, and a mythology-plus-standalone episode. “Plus One” is the first fully committed Monster of the Week entry of season 11, with murders, an investigation, a self-contained threat, and a conclusion that ends the story without offering much in the way of answers. Chris Carter is back on script detail, which isn’t necessarily a negative. Carter’s MOTW work is the definition of hit or miss, but when he’s on, he can generate an unexpected, memorable quirkiness that few other writers on the show can match.


“Plus One” is hella quirky, I’ll give it that. The problem is that there really isn’t much else. There’s no actual plot here, no coherent concept to be explored, exhausted, and put aside. There’s just a collection of concepts that occasionally manage to connect, sometimes through intent, sometimes by pure accident. It’s the sort of script that will be familiar to anyone who made it through the show’s worst seasons, and a reminder that just because you’ve had a lot of time to think, it doesn’t mean you’ll manage to come up with any good ideas.

Still, it’s nice to get a traditional cold open. A guy at punk concert is having a heck of a time until his menacing doppelganger shows up and starts, y’know, menacing. So Our Doomed Hero tries to run away from his problems (“run away” here meaning “driving fast while intoxicated”), only for the double to show up in the passenger seat of his truck and force him off the road. A credits sequence and a commercial break later, and Mulder is laying out the case for Scully in the X-Files office. Apparently the truck guy (Arky) survived the crash, and he’s just the latest in a long series of people being menaced by their doubles. Everyone else who’s experienced this has died. Time to solve a mystery!

There’s undeniable charm in seeing Scully and Mulder in their old digs, in much the same way that it’s fun to see some idiot get chased and (nearly) killed by a supernatural force. But it also undercuts the previous two episodes, in that, given everything else that’s happened, it’s odd that our protagonists are back at work seemingly none the worse for wear. It’s not a plothole, exactly. The end of “This” had Mulder and Scully turning to the FBI again, and I guess the presumption is that they never really stopped working for the bureau after last season. Or something like that.

Really, this is just the show returning to the way it’s always done serialization; with routine nods towards continuity alongside the basic assumption that everyone watching this understands that it’s just a TV show, and TV shows have their own internal logic and we should just roll with that. Times have changed, though, and while consistency isn’t necessarily a requirement, the fits-and-starts approach to the mythology is more noticeably awkward than ever before.

That wouldn’t be a problem if the writing was more coherent (I realized “This” took a lot of shortcuts but I still had a lot of fun watching it), but “Plus One” is as much of a mess as it can be while still sticking to the established MOTW structure. The evil doppelganger hook isn’t a terrible start, and things seem somewhat promising when we’re introduced to a mentally disturbed woman and her jerk-ass brother, but there’s no real effort to bring any of this into focus. Sister and brother are responsible for the killings, but Mulder never comes up with a coherent crazy theory to explain where they got their power or what their power is, exactly. The script commits of the cardinal sin of introducing a premise without having any ability to pay that premise off outside of exploiting it in the most obvious ways.


Some writers can do that (although even they understand that you need to provide a layer of reasoning in the background) and get away with it, but your ability to enjoy this depends entirely on how much pleasure you get from Karin Konoval’s loopy double performance, and from scenes of Mulder and Scully sort-of flirting and discussing philosophy. Even they seem barely interested in what’s going on, mocking corpses as they show up and completely failing to even try to protect either of the men who die over the course of the episode. It’s not that Arkie or his lawyer were exactly charming, but Scully and Mulder’s complete lack of response to either of their deaths (beyond barely concealed amusement) enhances the general who-gives-a-fuckedness of the whole enterprise.

And maybe that works for you. I can see appreciating this for the smaller moments. The specifics of Mulder and Scully’s relationship are a bit blurry for me—last week they seemed to have settled into a long-term couple’s groove, while this week, Mulder’s horny and Scully’s not really into it, or something. They’re just so obviously a paired set that Scully’s question about what happens when they get older (“When’?”, from Mulder) and they lose track of one another is at once poignant and oddly misplaced. It suggests a reality for these characters outside The X-Files, and while that’s definitely something worth looking into, it’s so unrelated to everything else that’s going on that it exists solely as a meta-textual moment. I found myself wondering what Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were thinking. That’s not terrible, but that sort of self-commentary requires a much stronger, more consistent authorial vision. Here it just comes across as one of the episode’s more charming moments of flailing.


What it comes down to for me is that I can’t just get past a story this lazy. Judy and Chuckie are funny enough, but forty minutes of watching Mulder and Scully chase their own tails while a pair of cartoonish buffoons sniped at one another had me flashing back to all the show’s worst excesses. By the time Mulder was wrestling with his double and Scully was chewing on bread pills, I was ready for the end credits.

Stray observations

  • Is it me or did Duchovny look incredibly bored during that “fight” scene?