After last season’s disastrous finale, I was surprised to find myself somehow still excited at the prospect of more X-Files. Given how much the show’s problems were baked into the very core of the mythology itself, you’d think I’d be ready to give up. And “My Struggle III” doesn’t exactly allay those fears. Once again Mulder and Scully are doing… something, while shadowy forces (mostly the Smoking Man, although some new players arrive midway through the episode) work against them. Once again, the fate of civilization is at stake. Once again, there are aliens. And once again, far too much emotional information is conveyed via clunky voice over monologues that try to lend the absurdity a certain amount of gravitas.

So yeah, this isn’t exactly a fresh start (actually, I guess it kind of is), and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t much more interested in seeing what unfolds in the weeks to come, when the show’s comparatively standalone entries can stretch their legs a little and make a case for themselves. Yet the season 11 premiere is, at the very least, a bit better than it might have been. There’s a degree of course correction, and while that doesn’t make for great, or even good, television, the shift to focus more directly on our heroes, acknowledging the show’s budgetary restrictions while still aiming for a world-ending threat, at least makes for something that doesn’t send your friendly reviewer into blathering fits of rage.

Remember all the craziness that ended last season? A deathly ill Mulder confronting the Smoking Man; a plague escaping into the wild; the first tentative stumbles of a civilization on the verge of collapse? Well, that was all a dream. Or more specifically, a vision. Scully gets a psychic whammy that puts her in a coma. When she wakes up (after sending Morse code through brain flashes), she’s determined to find her son, believing he’s the key to everything. Mulder’s less enthused, but in his determination to protect his partner, he goes on the hunt for the Smoking Man, and finds another pair of Syndicate players with their own agenda. Meanwhile, the Smoking Man discusses his plans with the still weirdly compliant Reyes, before meeting Skinner in a parking garage and laying out the whole sick scheme.

It’s all a bit of nonsense, but the direction isn’t bad. Scully’s great prophetic gulps are delivered in quick edits and shaky camerawork that conveys a sense of weight and danger even when the details don’t quite hold together. I especially like the final, quick reveal at the end of a young man in terrible pain—I assume that’s William himself, who Scully says is responsible for her recent head trips. Even after the mythology stopped making sense, The X-Files managed to coast for a long time on style. “My Struggle III” isn’t quite up to those standards, but it has its moments.

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For once, it actually works to have William at the center of things, in that it seems like everyone wants to track him done for conspiracy-related reasons. Building a story out of Mulder and Scully’s emotional need to find their son was a non-starter because it was a narrative entirely based on abstract concerns. But a story where William might be another in a long line of keys to everything has legs, especially with the late episode needle drop reveal that the Smoking Man is the kid’s actual father.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this development. It could be a lie, of course, but if it’s the truth, it’s a legitimate shock, albeit one that’s more than a little creepy (and not in a fun way). “My Struggle III” has several flashbacks to earlier episodes, including “En Ami,” the seventh season episode where Scully and the Smoking Man went on a road trip. That episode had a scene where the Smoking Man apparently drugged Scully, changed her clothes, and put her to bed, and that was bad enough, but the idea that he also impregnated her (through “science”) is unpleasant. Whether or not that unpleasantness works in the narrative remains to be seen, but I was surprised that a mythology-centric episode like this was still capable of unsettling me.

The closest “My Struggle III” comes to success is the way it frames its conspiracy shenanigans in the wake of our current reality. The show made its bones on digging into the nightmare underbelly of the ‘90s, but given things like Pizzagate and our current president, it’s hard to get that fun shiver out of late night fever dreams and paranoia the same way we use to. Where the season 10 premiere tried to delve into a weird amalgamation of Internet fear-mongering, here everything just boils down to the same threats that have always been there: the Smoking Man has a virus he created using alien DNA with which he intends to destroy most of the world’s population and restart humanity. That makes for fairly clear stakes, along with the sense that, given how hard it is get anyone to agree on anything these days, the deck is now more stacked against our heroes than ever.

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This isn’t really good, and my main hope for the rest of the season is that all of these elements are either shoved to the background or presented in a different light once the show’s other writers get on board. But at least it’s not a total collapse. There are the usual problems with character motivation, and Gillian Anderson is kind of set out to drift for large chunks of time. But Duchovny is surprisingly game, and as a placeholder for the episodes we actually want to see… it could’ve been worse?

Stray observations

  • Hey, Spender’s back! I’d forgotten Scully gave him William during the show’s original run.
  • “You’re dying Mulder, and I can’t save you. Not without stem cells from our son.” Ah yes, this plotline, definitely glad to have this back.
  • The Smoking Man’s plague is a decent story hook, and I like the idea that Scully and William are immune, but Mulder isn’t.
  • Scully ends up in the hospital twice. The second time, a goon (same guy who was following Mulder earlier) tries to smother her, and Mulder cuts his throat.
  • “You impregnated her?” “With science, Mr. Skinner. Alien science.”

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