Fairly early in “Ghouli,” Mulder complains about the state of modern monsters while Scully looks up creepy pasta on the Internet. Where’s the pathos, he wonders. What happened to the creatures that were terrifying and yet strangely empathetic. It’s a cute gag, and fits in well with the season’s general willingness to steer into the skid of its age; it also raised my expectations that we were going to get the X-Files equivalent of a Slender Man. (It didn’t hurt that the cold open, which had two teenage girls mistaking each other for monsters and stabbing each other nearly to death, could’ve been an urban legend.) That’s not how this one goes, and I was a bit disappointed in the mid-point course correction. Yet I found myself going back to that line. Because it turns out that the episode is, in fact, all about a monster with pathos: Scully’s son, William.

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Like “This” before it, “Ghouli” starts life as an apparent Monster Of The Week entry before opening up into the season’s larger mythology by the midpoint. It’s an awkward shift, and it creates some awkward moments, to the point where I almost wonder if the William stuff was just grafted on after the fact. There’s an explanation for the cold open, but no real justification of it; the closest we get is that William was dating both girls and thought it would be funny to fuck with them. Given that they both ended up in the hospital, and his parents ended up dead, it’s hard to have much sympathy for his short-sightedness. Yet the episode clearly wants us to have sympathy for him, blaming the whole “ghouli” incident on a misguided prank and William’s struggles to control his powers—powers which, by the way, he seems to have got a pretty solid lock on at this point.

So yeah, there was a decent chunk of time when I was prepared to hate this—or if not hate it, at least strongly dislike it. The William storyline requires us to invest an awful lot of emotion into a completely new character, and “surly teen” isn’t really filling me with a lot of hope; I just get flashbacks to Dawn from Buffy (who was admittedly too chirpy to be legitimately sullen) and I need to go lie down. Besides, when I watch The X-Files I want to see Mulder and Scully going on adventures, not watch them get bogged down with regret over past behavior. Acknowledging history is one thing; being buried in it is another. And given how loopy the show’s history has become, it’s hard to argue with the temptation to just let it all go.

Besides, the first part of the episode had all the signs of a solid MOTW entry. The cold open was creepy and odd, and Scully’s waking nightmare vision made for an interesting connection with the case. Regardless whether or not this was always planned as a mythology episode (and we may be getting to a point where the usual “MOTW/mythology” distinctions aren’t as useful as they used to be), the shift in focus from “what cool weird monster is causing all this chaos?” to “Is William dead?” is an awkward one. What seemed like a promising scary story turned into something more personal, for better and worse.

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The thing is, though—the more I watch these new episodes, the more I realize that my grass-is-greener view of MOTW potential is a fantasy. We’ve talked about this before, but there was a lot of bad in the last few seasons of the show (even the generally undervalued season 8), and a lot more that was mediocre; and a fair chunk of the badness/mediocrity came from undercooked one-offs. The lure of the MOTW concept is the possibility of a fresh slate, which means every week can bring some unexpected classic. But the reality is, great ideas are rare, and there’s no such thing as a fresh slate. Every new creature Mulder and Scully encounter has the weight of every other creature they’ve ever fought behind it. There’s a reason Darin Morgan’s entries have been the best part of the new seasons; he’s a talented writer who understands that deconstruction and affectionate self-mockery is really the only novelty left.

But much as I’d prefer it, not every week can be a Darin Morgan week. The new X-Files is still trying to tell serious stories, however misguided that effort might be, and in that light, it makes sense to try and bring this all back to the main storyline—as weird and clumsy as that storyline might be, it at least plays on our emotional investment in Scully and Mulder in ways that a more typical MOTW entry can’t. Bringing in William means there are consequences past the body count of this week’s guest stars.

And you know what? It works better than I would’ve expected. A large part of that goes to Gillian Anderson’s commitment to playing Scully’s grief as convincingly as possible; her monologue to William’s “corpse” in the morgue has an impact regardless of what you think of William as a character (at that point, he isn’t one), because Anderson just goes for it, and that commitment helps to give everything else that happens just that much more weight.

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It helps that even if William doesn’t make that much sense as a character, his powers are fun to watch. The way he takes out the bad government guys chasing him in the climax is resourceful and smart, and his final scene with Scully is unexpectedly touching. The fact that he’s pretending to be the author of the pick-up artist book that Mulder and Scully found in his room suggests some unflattering angles to his character, but what’s a monster without a little bit of asshole in him?

Stray observations

  • Of all the angles I would’ve expected them to go with Scully’s kid, “he wants to be a player” was not on the list. (The pick-up guy was played by Francois Chau, who I mostly remember from Lost.)
  • So: William is the result of some alien/human hybrid experimentation (under the name “Project Crossroads”) which was discontinued when the government was unable to predict the results.
  • I could’ve gone for an entire episode about hypnagogia.
  • “It’s an alternate reality. Fox doesn’t exist in coffee shops.” The running gag of Mulder using a different name when ordering coffee was great. 

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