Something weird happens at the top of tonight’s episode of The X-Files. Well, a lot of weird things happen. It’s an episode of The X-Files, after all. But after the FaceTime message from beyond the grave, the sudden interruption of Mulder and Scully’s lazy night in, and the table-flipping shootout with a Ramones soundtrack, there’s this: a familiar photo of the late Richard Langley and his fellow Lone Gunmen, only something’s… off.
Notice the difference? Look behind Langley, in the upper right-hand side of the picture: There’s another face in there. Both times the photo is shown in those opening scenes, it sticks out. The face is not of this world, nor of the world of The X-Files. The caterpillar eyebrows, the receding hairline, the wide, froggy smile: they are all the unmistakable, uncanny features of This Man.
A phenomenon born for and of the internet, This Man first surfaced in 2009, via the eponymous website thisman.org. As it still does today, the site laid out an enticing premise, under a screaming, peculiarly worded headline: EVER DREAM THIS MAN?
In January 2006 in New York, the patient of a well-known psychiatrist draws the face of a man that has been repeatedly appearing in her dreams. In more than one occasion that man has given her advice on her private life. The woman swears she has never met the man in her life.
That portrait lies forgotten on the psychiatrist’s desk for a few days until one day another patient recognizes that face and says that the man has often visited him in his dreams. He also claims he has never seen that man in his waking life.
The psychiatrist decides to send the portrait to some of his colleagues that have patients with recurrent dreams. Within a few months, four patients recognize the man as a frequent presence in their own dreams. All the patients refer to him as THIS MAN.
Testimonials posted to the site cast This Man in a variety of nighttime reveries, playing a wide array of roles: adviser, guardian, comforter, murderer, balloon-headed Santa Claus. From this and other evidence that has accumulated over the years, several theories are proposed, hypotheses pulling in threads of Jungian psychoanalysis, pseudoscience, and theology. The site’s Facebook page keeps tabs on This Man’s activities, reporting dreams from the world over, punctuated by photos of This Man’s ongoing, IRL world tour: Supposed lookalikes, but also sightings of the “Ever dream this man?” flier that’s been translated into more than 30 languages. It’s like a real-life X-File, in which visitors to the site are both unquestioning Mulder and astonished Monster-Of-The-Week bystander, all skeptical Scullys neatly excluded from thisman.org’s “News” tab.
And they’d have to be, because if they weren’t, the jig would be instantly up: It’s all bullshit. Even as thisman.org was attracting its first round of press coverage, enterprising online sleuths caught wind of the name to which thisman.org was registered: Andrea Natella. An Italian “sociologist, marketing strategist and design fiction artist,” Natella’s portfolio contains genuine advertising campaigns (and satirical facsimiles of the same), a Change.org petition to bring David Bowie back to life, and a story credit on the 2013 curling comedy La Mossa Del Pinguino. It’s a body of work that delights in elbowed ribs and naked emperors, one dependent upon an audience that might start out gullible, but is eventually invited to share in and propagate the joke. At least that’s how it’s gone with This Man, which persists as seemingly an object of both sincerity and irony, a literally unbelievable story intended to spread like a virus, for which the truth is only a temporary cure—and there’s not enough of it going around to keep people from getting infected.
It all makes This Man a great fit for the rebooted X-Files, a piece of popular folklore to slot alongside the cryptids and serial killers and government cover-ups that go bump in Fox Mulder’s nights. And though it’s merely a prop, I think that photo could hold major significance as season 11 moves forward. Last week’s season premiere made it seem like season 10 was all in Scully’s head; but if This Man—a being of unknown motives who purportedly visits people in their sleep—showed his Andrew Lloyd Webber-like face in this week’s episode, could it be that season 10 actually happened, and it’s season 11 that’s the dream?
I bring this up not because I want to “solve” season 11, though I must admit that my affection for the season intensified once I started watching it from this perspective. (Fox sent the first five episodes of the season to the TV press near the end of 2017; I’ve seen all five.) And I don’t really want to praise it as a storytelling choice, either, as eager as I am to pretend that season 10 of The X-Files never happened. I’m wary of any art whose impact is tied too tightly to a twist, and “It was all a dream” is a twist that’s been gradually losing its punch since the day Ambrose Bierce turned in his first draft of “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” (Imagine here the corners of Bierce’s mustache wilting as an editor, midway through the story, exclaims, “Oh, the guy is imagining everything after the rope breaks!”) Today’s TV audience is too savvy for that type of thing, thanks in part to the online communities and resources that have carried This Man around the globe—communities and resources viewers may have first come into contact with during The X-Files’ initial run.
On a thematic level, however, This Man’s appearance in the Lone Gunmen photo is thrilling. If season 11 is playing out in a sort of dream state—perhaps brought upon by the UFO from the end of “My Struggle II,” maybe something having to do with Scully’s son William and his extraterrestrial abilities—it aligns the characters with Langley’s predicament in “This.” Our protagonists are in a dream, Langley’s in a digital simulation—both facsimiles of the existences the characters once knew, but with slight alterations. Pin that idea to your conspiracy board, and you can start stringing it to other elements of the new season, like the Ramones cover of “California Sun” that kicks “This” into gear—encored by the Rivieras version that plays later at the diner—or the annotated reprise of “En Ami” that Cigarette-Smoking Man presents to Skinner in the season premiere. (While we’re on the topic: CSM raping Scully “with science” is something else I wouldn’t mind being waved away with the “It was all a dream” hand.)
Nauseating though it may be, CSM’s act of retconning pulls The X-Files into a present day in which the truth is still out there, but it’s subject to a maddening amount of debate and denial. There are people who want so badly to believe—in things as frivolous as This Man, a flat Earth, and a Zack Snyder cut of Justice League; in things of graver consequence, like birtherism, the 9/11 truth movement, or Pizzagate—that they’re willing to chip away, bit by bit, at our shared state of objective reality. It’s encouraging, and somewhat relieving, to see The X-Files plugging into that fear in 2018. There’s a dialogue going on between the show and the conspiracy-hungry internet it helped foster, one that’s more playful and far less reckless than the one that formed around season 10, in which Chris Carter and company didn’t seem to recognize that conspiracy theory and narrative-questioning had moved out of the FBI’s basement and into the American mainstream. It’s one thing for season 11 to take inspiration from internet hoaxes and the Edward Snowden leaks; it was quite another for season 10 to suggest, hey, maybe Alex Jones has a point. So even if This Man proves to be a red herring, I welcome his intrusion upon The X-Files. It’s a sign of the show catching up with the present, one that demonstrates all the mysterious, unexplained territories of modern life that aren’t echoing with the vein-popping screams of a shirtless, supplement-pushing maniac.