It’s something of a surprise that “This” tries to blend a standalone concept with serialization. For most of its run, The X-Files kept its monster of the week episodes and mythology episodes distinct from one another. It’s one of the reasons that MOTW entries retained their shine long after the mythology fell into its own ass; there are arguably just as many bad one-offs in the original show as there are installments of The Saga That Never Made Any Damn Sense, but because the worst monsters weren’t connected to or building off anything, they were that much easier to forget.

Apparently season 11 has decided to double down on its ongoing storyline, which should make you nervous even if you liked the premiere more than I did. But here’s an even bigger surprise: where “My Struggle III” was often a well-intentioned slog, “This” makes a pretty good case for itself. The plotting takes a few shortcuts that seem questionable in retrospect, but it’s a lot of fun to watch, aided by good pacing, sharp direction, and Mulder and Scully being allowed to do what they do best: investigate X-files, kick a surprising amount of ass, and banter. Oh, the banter is so very choice.

It also helps that even with the shortcuts, the story here makes basic sense. Hell, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t dislike the premiere as much as it probably deserved; sure, the show was once again attempting to retcon itself, but to be fair, there weren’t a lot of other options on the table. Recentering the mythology in the present political situation and providing a small group of charismatic villains isn’t the most imaginative move, and yes, if you squint we are once again moving around the same handful of pieces the show has been moving around since its first season—but this is a credible foundation.

“This” is where that credibility really starts to pay-off. Instead of putting our heroes back in their old office (a trick they tried last season, which was good for a nostalgia boost but still felt unearned), we find Mulder and Scully on the run from one of their many, many enemies; this time it’s Price (Barbara Hershey, who is such a smart casting choice) and her American owned, Russian-headquartered private security force. The episode goes to work establishing what it’s like to be Scully and Mulder in a post-Trump world, and the results are surprisingly credible.

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Rather than coming across as a cheap play for topicality, the references to the FBI’s current lousy standing, the aforementioned Russia connections, and even Mulder’s comment about the world being a more complicated place feel like a reasonable fit, the confusion and terror of our modern world enhancing both the show’s perpetual sense of dread and its humor. A good portion of “This” is dedicated to Mulder and Scully kicking ass and being clever and resourceful and funny. That would’ve been fun to watch regardless, but the persistent sense of legitimate stakes makes it all the more entertaining.

And I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. In addition to being chased by various smug-and-creepy dudes, Mulder also starts getting phone messages for Langley. The episode pretty much confirms that, despite an attempted comic book retcon, the Lone Gunmen are still dead, but a copy of Langley’s consciousness was uploaded to a private server where he, along with a bunch of other dead geniuses hang out in a sterile virtual reality paradise, doing brain work for the bad guys in exchange for endless Ramones concerts and a perpetually unwinning New England Patriots. But Faux-Langley wants out, and he’s begging Mulder to destroy the system.

It’s a premise that wouldn’t be out of place on another science fiction series about the dangers of technology; hell, “copying your consciousness into a computer” is the premise of half a dozen Black Mirror episodes, and it’s arguable if “This” really does much new with the concept. The episode’s biggest flaw is that it needs to spend so much time getting us used to a new status quo that the Langley sections ultimately feel a bit short-changed. Apparently he had a love interest? And not just a girlfriend, but someone he was so committed to that a big motivation for signing on for the brain-copying project was the chance to spend forever with her?

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Part of “This” feel a bit like a standalone episode edited down to fit into a mythology entry, which can be frustrating. And yet the more I think about it, the more I appreciate what it achieves. While there’s still a certain narrowness to the show’s focus (it’s about the end of the world, but it’s hard to shake the sense that there’s only, like, fifteen people in this world), the direction and setpieces were cinematic enough to make that easy to overlook. Context, coherency, and great character work all combine to offer something that feels like more than a stunt or a nostalgia hack, and while I never forgot that what I was watching was a revival, there were times when it seemed like “revival” might not be such a bad word after all.

Stray observations

  • Loved the absurd, vaguely National Treasure-esque riff when Mulder and Scully visit the Lone Gunmen graves in Arlington.
  • Another downside to this is that the Gunmen’s death is still as canon as ever, and man was that a lousy way for them to go.
  • Nice Network nod in the scene where Price and Mulder chat.
  • “Frohike looked 57 the day he was born.” -Scully
  • This episode also does a better job of playing up Skinner’s divided loyalties. It’s like being friends with someone you don’t agree with politically; there are lines you know you shouldn’t cross.
  • “Everything we feared came to pass. How the hell did that happen?” -Mulder (I mean… not everything. But thematically, it’s a good line.)
  • “Why do you operate so well with your hands cuffed behind your back?” “As if you didn’t know.” Really, the banter throughout the hour is quality stuff.
  • I can’t entirely parse the logic of the final scare—in particular, I don’t really get why Creepy Thug got his brain copied—but it’s a terrific visual, and the “It’s over! ...or is it?” conclusion has long been a hallmark of the series. (And hell, it makes a bit for just how easy it for Scully and Mulder to scam their way into Titanpointe.)
  • After you’ve finished enjoying the review, here’s a fine essay on what might come next by our own Erik Adams.

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