J.J. Abrams has talked a lot about his love for the “mystery box” concept in storytelling, which is basically where you construct a puzzle so compelling—in theory—that finding new angles and complications is more exciting than actually solving it. To put a finer point on it, it’s why Abrams’ The Force Awakens is so much more entertaining than his The Rise Of Skywalker. A mystery box is good at introducing a story, but it’s not good at finishing one. But eight years before Abrams co-created Lost and popularized the mystery-box format, proto-mystery-box series The X-Files (which turned 30 on September 10) produced a fascinating counterargument to the gimmick in the form of a surprisingly atypical exposition-dump episode that shined a massive spotlight on one of the most enigmatic villains in TV history. And, depending on how you feel about it, not a single second of it mattered.
The episode, part of The X-Files’ excellent fourth season, is called “Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man,” and it opens with the eponymous villain—the mysterious, influential government operative known only at the time as either that or The Cancer Man—setting up surveillance on Mulder, Scully, and Mulder’s trio of conspiracy theorist buddies The Lone Gunmen. As he trains a rifle on their meeting place, one of The Lone Gunmen starts telling Mulder a story, one that he’s more paranoid than usual about sharing, and it makes The Cigarette Smoking Man hesitate … because the story is about him.
What follows is 40 minutes or so of a veritable X-Files dream. Easter eggs are dropped, conspiracies are confirmed, and at the center of all of it is a young unnamed military man given a series of top-secret assignments by the U.S. government. We see him assassinate John F. Kennedy from a secret sewer hideout in the name of bolstering the nation’s defense against communism. We see him smoke his very first cigarette afterward, an overt depiction of the cancer that begins eating at his soul. He even meets Fox Mulder’s father.
We later see him conspire to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. in a sequence backed by the audio of King’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech. He’s involved in Anita Hill’s testimony and the Rodney King verdict, he ignores phone calls from Saddam Hussein, he has a say in Oscar nominations, he rigs the Miracle On Ice hockey game, and after an existential freakout at the news that Gorbachev has resigned—“there’s no more enemies,” quips a member of his inner circle—and just as he’s about to accept contentment for the first time in his life, the government finds a crashed alien spacecraft and a living extraterrestrial, sending him down a path that leads to the events of The X-Files’ big “mythology” episodes.
The flashbacks confirm every one of fans’ wildest dreams about The Cigarette Smoking Man, catching up to his brief, silent appearance in the show’s pilot. The episode builds him up into one of the greatest villains in history, a man who was at the center of every conspiracy, every mystery, every twisted thing our government did to further its own power. To bring it back to Star Wars, it’s finding out that Darth Vader didn’t just kill Luke’s father, he is Luke’s father. It’s Thanos doing the snap. It’s Hannibal Lecter escaping at the end of the movie. It’s the moment you get definitive proof that this guy is for real.
But it’s all a bit cute. A bit too easy. A bit too—as the episode explicitly acknowledges—Forrest Gump. We go four seasons with this guy without even getting his name, just him standing in the background ominously smoking, and now we know his entire life story? This is where the puzzle box begins to fail. There’s no solution that can live up to the thrill of a great mystery like that, because it will always be smaller than it was in your mind. Even this one, where we find out that our bad guy was involved in every nefarious scheme ever, feels too simple.
And that’s where “Musings” plays its final trick: Throughout the episode, we see The Cigarette Smoking Man turning to his typewriter, writing a diary of sorts in the form of a thriller novel about a man who was involved in the Kennedy and King assassinations reflecting on his life. He considers retiring from his government job, whatever it is, when he finds out that the novel is being published, but returns to work—and buys another pack of cigarettes—when he finds out the publisher changed aspects of his story.
Frohike, the man telling this story to Mulder and Scully, reveals at the end of the episode that this is the source he’s basing all of this on, meaning it’s not only coming second-hand but that we know an editor has taken a pass on it and that The Cigarette Smoking Man himself no longer stands by it. Ultimately, The Cigarette Smoking Man decides not to shoot Frohike, acknowledging that he could do it at any point he wanted to, which seemingly implies that he knows that the story Frohike told isn’t necessarily the complete truth.
But the beauty of it is that it’s all up for interpretation. We’ve opened the puzzle box, but someone else is telling us what someone else saw inside of it, which makes the mystery—and The Cigarette Smoking Man himself—even more powerful. You have all the answers, but you don’t know if any of them are true, so you can choose how you feel about all of it. Plus, it builds a brand new conspiracy around The Cigarette Smoking Man, which perfectly plays into the vibes of The X-Files. You can’t trust anyone, even the show!
Villains tend to be more intimidating when they’re unknowable and you’re not sure what to expect from them, and by answering all of your questions about its bad guy, The X-Files made him more unknowable than ever.