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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The X-Files: “Per Manum” / “This Is Not Happening”

Illustration for article titled The X-Files: “Per Manum” / “This Is Not Happening”

“Per Manum” and “This Is Not Happening” (season 8, episodes 13 and 14; originally aired 2/18/2001 and 2/25/2001)

In which Scully’s baby may not be her own and then the man who may be its father is returned to her

(Available on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.)

“Per Manum” and “This Is Not Happening” aren’t really a two-parter. “This Is Not Happening” is actually the first half of a two-parter with “Deadalive” (which didn’t air for five whole weeks after the gut-wrenching cliffhanger of “Happening”), while “Per Manum” is sort of on an island by itself. But they both roughly dance around the season’s central storyline of the search for Mulder and the status of Scully’s pregnancy, so it’s useful to look at the two of them together, as examples of how The X-Files used serialization and story arcs this late in its run. The serialization the show had practiced in its first few seasons—in which the alien mythology would be trotted out to general acclaim every sweeps month—had felt revolutionary at the time. Not only did the character stories continue, as they did on other workplace dramas, but there was this huge mystery for Mulder and Scully to uncover, one that would impact every aspect of their lives.

But by 2001, that kind of serialization felt a bit quaint. Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos were rewriting the rules of how TV drama could use continuing storylines and build complicated stories out of the bits and pieces of standalone episodes that weren’t so standalone when you looked more closely at them. The X-Files had always had a more or less clean line between the monster of the week episodes and the larger mythology episodes. For as much as one might like an episode like “Roadrunners,” that Jesus slug wasn’t going to play into the show’s larger alien invasion story. And, honestly, that’s part of why The X-Files remains so watchable today. The show’s sense of experimentation and fun in the monster of the week episodes remains palpable even to this day, and even the lamer examples of the form can be a great time.

In 2001, however, that wasn’t as clear. The fans who had hung with the show through all eight seasons wanted some satisfying resolutions to the mythology, even if they sort of knew such a thing would be impossible, while the series was still largely discussed in the press as the show that had the complicated story about the aliens colonizing Earth. While season eight doesn’t mark an abrupt shift in the style of The X-Files’ serialization—there are still standalone episodes that have nothing to do with anything else—it does feel in many ways like the most “modern” X-Files season. If this were airing on Fox this year, it’s almost certain that every episode would be about Scully trying to find Mulder and the monster of the week stuff would fade into the woodwork. But it’s still possible to imagine this particular version popping up on the air today, whereas the more schizophrenic and divided nature of the earlier seasons feels increasingly like a part of its time (in a good way, I think).


Nonetheless, season eight includes both the search for Mulder or Scully’s pregnancy in some small way in nearly every episode. Even “Roadrunners”—the episode that would be easiest to lift out of this season and watch all by itself—contains that horrific moment when Scully calls out to the cultists that she’s pregnant and they shouldn’t infect her with the slug. Mulder’s disappearance and Scully’s pregnancy are such seismic events within the world of the show that they can’t just be ignored. Every episode has to check in on what’s going on with the search, and if not that, then it needs to let us know how Scully’s dealing with this seemingly miraculous pregnancy. There are other threads here—like Doggett’s quest to know what happened to his son—but for the most part, this is a season about the aftermath of season seven, and that’s what gives it such a propulsion to carry it through even the weakest hours.

It’s worth pointing out that “Per Manum” actually wasn’t intended to air immediately before “This Is Not Happening.” It was produced eighth in the season, between “Via Negativa” and “Surekill,” and it’s not hard to imagine it airing somewhere in there, either in mid-December or when the show returned from its holiday break in early January. At the same time, though, it works much better where it’s situated. The string of episodes before it outlined Scully’s attempts to force herself to become a believer, the better to honor Mulder’s memory and to potentially find her missing partner, and they did a solid job of situating Doggett as the man who can carry on in Mulder’s stead going forward, even if he’s much more of a skeptic. The dynamic between the two isn’t as charged as the one between Mulder and Scully, but it doesn’t need to be, because the memory of Mulder is always present.


After that string of episodes, then, it makes sense to check in on Scully’s pregnancy, which is just 14 weeks along. (To be honest, that timeline seems incredibly rushed to me, but what do I know?) The aliens have also been a little quiet since they took Mulder off to parts unknown, so it’s time to check in with them as well. And “Per Manum” is appropriately scary when it comes to their intentions, right down to the opening sequence in which Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables herself) gives birth to a strange, shrieking creature that appears to be some sort of human-alien hybrid. (The head is all Grey, but the body is a little more like a normal human baby’s.) And then there’s the scene where Scully gets a look at her healthy fetus, developing right along, only to realize that she was shown a videotape of some other woman’s sonogram. This is a well-executed riff on some of the other alien conspiracy stories, in which Scully inadvertently leads the people who are looking for a woman pregnant with one of the alien things right to her because she’s been so expertly set up by the conspiracy. (Left unstated is just who’s even in the conspiracy at this point in the show’s run.)

The real reason to watch “Per Manum,” though, is for the return of Fox Mulder, albeit in flashback. Unlike last week’s “The Gift,” which tried a little too hard to suggest that Mulder had been suffering from a debilitating disease all this time and just didn’t bother telling anybody, “Per Manum” fills in some happier blanks, suggesting that Mulder might be the father of Scully’s unborn child, if the aliens aren’t. Granted, the idea that Mulder is the father of the baby is one that many fans had put together by this point, but it doesn’t change the way that the flashback scene in which she asks him to help her conceive plays out as a lovely moment between friends who are about to take a very big step together. David Duchovny seems a little bored—as he often did in his last few seasons on the show—but he finds all of the tenderness necessary in the scenes where he and Scully chat about her desire to have a child and the fact that her first round of in vitro treatments doesn’t take.


Refocusing on Scully’s unborn child also ups the stakes in a lot of ways and redefines her mission. Suddenly, she’s not just looking for Mulder; she’s looking for the man who might be the father of her child and one of the few who can help her figure out if that’s the case. She’s also looking to build a better world for the life she carries inside of her, a place where the government can’t cooperate with advanced alien beings to plot an invasion of the Earth and one where said aliens can’t abduct defenseless women and impregnate them with interstellar horrors. The X-Files has a long tradition of body horror, and it’s done plenty of riffs on the terror inherent in the very idea of pregnancy, but once it’s happening to Scully, it suddenly feels so much more immediate, so much more potent. These two episodes are showcases for Gillian Anderson’s talent, and she delivers in every single moment she’s asked (including when she has to say some impossible dialogue at the end of “Happening”).

Truth be told, “Per Manum” has some issues. The actual alien conspiracy is so hopelessly convoluted at this point that it’s never really clear why those involved are doing this, other than to fuck with people, and the Doggett half of the episode doesn’t live up to what Scully’s going through. And while I like the character of Knowle Rohrer—and Adam Baldwin’s performance—having a trusted source turn out to be working for the conspiracy is just about the most expected twist the show could pile on at this point. There’s definitely a sense of the show having done all of this before, even if Anderson’s performance knits all of this together without it feeling too forced. It’s a good episode, especially because it figures out a way to unite the pregnancy and Mulder storylines into the same set of dramatic stakes, but it feels flabby and predictable around the edges.


It also probably hurts that it’s right next to “Happening,” which is one of the strongest episodes of the season, give or take a Monica Reyes. The series has portrayed alien abductions throughout its run as such a fact of life that it’s rare when the show really digs into how much being abducted would be the sort of event that rips a life in two, taking something that once felt normal and safe and turning everything into a reminder of a most unexpected trauma. “This Is Not Happening” doesn’t really dig into the psychology of what that would be like, because it’s too busy just dropping the returned abductees back onto the ground in a horrible state, where they will surely die. The episode builds and builds and builds, its central tragedy becoming more and more awful, and then it resolves in the horror of Mulder’s lifeless body on the forest floor and the only man who can save him sucked back up into a UFO to return to the depths of space.

The thing I most like about “This Is Not Happening”—outside of Anderson’s performance and the way it builds to such an expert tragedy—is how it knits back in a piece of the mythology I thought the show had mostly forgotten about. Jeremiah Smith, the alien who was healing humans all the way back in season three’s finale, returns to the show’s forefront in this episode, turning up among a UFO cult in Montana, headed up by a doomsday prophet named Absalom. (As played by Wrath Of Khan’s Judson Scott, Absalom is one of the episodes highlights.) Absalom and Jeremiah are doing their best to heal the abductees who are returned, but it increasingly feels like a thankless task, as the aliens leave behind battered, mutilated bodies barely clinging to life. And once the FBI gets involved, raiding the cult’s compound and interrupting their work, things get even more chaotic and set into motion the events that will leave Mulder lying dead on the ground, with no one to save him.


That ending is truly spectacular, with Mark Snow’s music and Anderson’s performance and Kim Manners’ direction knitting together to create this sequence of images that shows Scully’s ultimate failure and her inability to save Mulder just when he was most counting on her. The whole episode feels exhausted, as someone who’d been dragged through year after year of this ridiculous conspiracy surely would be, and when Scully howls the episode’s title in a moment that should feel a little dumb, it, instead, sounds like the cry of a woman at the end of her rope. What hope she had for the future—and for her baby, as established in the previous episode—is now left behind. The invasion is coming soon, and her only salvation is gone.

“Happening” is, for the most part, a terrific episode of The X-Files, one that would stand alongside the very best of the earlier seasons, but for the fact that it introduces Annabeth Gish’s Monica Reyes. There are episodes where I don’t mind Reyes, but she feels out of place here. The whole episode is so mournful that when she pops up, sounding strangely chipper about Satanic cults that mutilate people, it throws the episode into a bit of a tonal imbalance that seems wholly unintentional. Reyes is meant to be the new Scully—with Mulder’s easy ability to believe in the paranormal—but compare what she’s doing here to Scully’s utter torment at episode’s end, and it’s simply no question of who’s going to be more compelling to the audience.


“Per Manum” and “This Is Not Happening” end up working as the center of the whole season. Both written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz and both directed by Manners, the episodes absolutely have to work if season eight’s unusual and new approach to serialization is going to carry the day. That they do is a testament to the show’s ability, even at this late date, to sweep everything aside and simply tell a gut-wrenching story about the cost and weight of living in a world where such evils are perpetrated upon innocents. The show that had felt so tired even a season ago now feels as if it’s filled with a surprising number of possibilities for such an old show, and even if we know Mulder will have to return sooner or later, those climactic moments of “Happening” prove the tragic center the season needed. Now we pivot to whatever comes next.

“Per Manum”: B+
 “This Is Not Happening”: A-

Stray observations:

  • That’s American Pie’s Eddie Kaye Thomas as Gary in “This Is Not Happening.” Considering this was the point when everybody was trying to turn everyone even tangentially connected with American Pie into a star, Thomas must have really liked The X-Files.
  • Scott also starred in several episodes of V, which makes a nice companion piece with the birth scenes in “Per Manum.”
  • The interrogation of Absalom is another great scene for Anderson in an episode full of them, but I also love Mitch Pileggi’s work throughout these two episodes. Skinner never quite realizes when he’s in over his head.
  • Scully’s certainty that the woman’s baby was swapped is a really great, paranoid moment in “Per Manum.”
  • I can’t help but wonder if the return of Mulder at the end of “This Is Not Happening” wouldn’t have had even more power if he hadn’t popped up in the opening credits. Oh well.

Next week: Zack continues to follow this story in “Deadalive,” then finds out how someone leaves the FBI in “Three Words.”