Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The X-Files: “The Truth”

Illustration for article titled The X-Files: “The Truth”

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Zack Handlen: For the first five minutes, I had actual hopes. I missed “The Truth” when it originally aired, which tells you how much my appreciation for the show had dwindled; the first four or five seasons were some of my favorite television ever made, but at some point, my real life got in the way, and I lost track of things. In the years before streaming and DVRs, that was easy to do. All I knew about the finale going in was that it wasn’t very well regarded by fans; oh, and I knew Mulder, Scully, and Skinner all had to survive, because I’d seen the second big screen movie.

So those first five minutes weren’t so bad. True, Duchovny looks half-stoned the way he so often looked in the final seasons, but there’s not a lot of dialogue, and all that frantic running around puts the emphasis more on action and visuals than anything else. And the visuals, at least initially, are pretty damn good: There’s a cinematic quality to Mulder’s brief trip into the heart of darkness, including the reveal of the giant chamber full of government (alien) scientists doing god knows what—the over the shoulder shot just looks so much bigger and more impressive than the series’ usual claustrophobic intensity. Plus that office with the magic floating computer screen that reveals the end game (helpfully labeled “End Game”) of the aliens’ efforts—that’s fun stuff, and classic X-Files mythology craziness. 12/22/12! Tell your friends!

I was even on board through Mulder’s initial capture; the brutality of the treatment (“What are you thinking?”) was a smart way to set up the stakes for the hour-and-a-half to follow. Then Skinner and Scully show up, and the ghost of Krycek comes back, and things start to go downhill. Partly, it’s Duchovny’s evident boredom contrasted against Anderson’s everything-she’s-got, partly, it’s the reminder that Mulder’s disappearance was never very well explained or justified, and partly, it’s the seemingly endless trial in which half a dozen characters try and lay out the entire mythology over a series of monologues and previously-on montages.

Screw “partly”—the trial scenes are just a terrible, terrible idea, stopping any sort of momentum or suspense dead in its tracks as we march inch by inch toward a verdict that will surprise absolutely no one. I should admit that as much as I love the show, the specifics of the mythology were never a big draw for me. I didn’t frequent message boards to argue about the motives of the shape-shifting alien bounty hunters, or to discuss the origins of the black oil; so far as I can remember, I experienced the mythology episodes and enjoyed them (for a while), but I never really wondered about the whys or the hows. To me, it was just a lot of crazy, scary shit that kept happening, and I’m not sure I ever expected it to come together in some neat, cohesive whole.

Or maybe I did, I dunno. It was a long time ago. But I’m pretty sure that I would’ve been frustrated with “The Truth” regardless, because having all these characters—Scully, Skinner, Doggett, Reyes, the various witnesses—try and drag the murky, half-improvised back-story of everything out into the open is both dramatically airless and enormously irritating. For years, the contrast of Mulder’s obsession against the skepticism and common sense of everyone else (represented mostly by Scully) was one of the series’ main engines. Mulder’s explanations always sounded batshit, other people always mocked him (or lectured him exasperation, in Scully’s case), and then Mulder would be proved right. That’s what was horrifying. Not just that there were monsters and government conspiracies and aliens, but that all the freaky, insane, dark shit that we typically dismiss as the ramblings of lunatic was really real. To have once hard-nose characters like Skinner going along with tales of alien viruses and everything else—to make the only “skeptics” left be the villains—means that there’s no tension anymore, and it just becomes really, really silly.


That’s the problem with trying to give answers, especially in such a pedantic, repetitive way: We need the mystery, and the shadows, to bring this stuff to life. The mythology should be a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. Relying on it to carry so much of the finale is assuming that handing the audience answers is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

There’s more I’d like to talk about—especially the fact that I actually started enjoying myself again once Skinner, Doggett, and Kersh bust Mulder out of prison—but I’ll break off here for now. Todd, you were a super-fan longer than I was; what were your expectations going into the finale when it originally aired? And has time changed your opinion of it at all?


Todd: I’ll be honest: I didn’t watch much of season nine first-run either. I was in college, then, and I just didn’t make time for the show like I used to. (I had watched most of season seven and much of season eight, but once the show shifted to the Doggett/Reyes pairing, I lost interest.) When the show was canceled, I felt a keen sense of relief and a passing thought that it should have happened years earlier. But that also didn’t drag me back to the series in its final hours. I caught “Sunshine Days,” because I wanted to see how Vince Gilligan would close up shop on his corner of the show (I was a TV writer nerd even then), and then I sat down for “The Truth.” I remember watching it in my little bedroom of the apartment I shared with three other guys, and I remember watching it with my fiancée. I remember the trial, and I remember the Cigarette Smoking Man burning to death. And I remember that Doggett and Reyes were reduced to chauffeurs. But that’s really it.

Rewatching “The Truth” now, it’s easy to see why I forgot so much of it: It’s really, really boring television. I found it fascinating to watch this in the wake of several high-profile finales that went bust for a lot of their fans (at least two of which—the finales of Battlestar Galactica and Lost—I will defend endlessly), because this is another finale that takes the opposite approach of Lost. It reveals just how much planning went into the show’s mythology. It lays all of the cards on the table. It gives us answer after answer after answer, until it feels like we’re reading somebody’s Geocities fan page for the show. I won’t lie. Having all of this laid out exactly as it is here sort of appeals to my inner nerd that was really into this stuff around the series’ midpoint. But it’s also drastically, death-defyingly boring, in a way that finales that supposedly “avoided” answers never were. I guess the advantage to turning your finale into a dry lecture with Power Point presentation is that it’s difficult to really get people too angry about it. They’re mostly falling asleep.


There’s some okay stuff in here. I liked seeing all of the ghosts—particularly of Mr. X, by far my favorite of Mulder’s shadowy government informers and a character it felt like the show forgot about far too quickly after his death—and I thought the very final scene in the motel was pretty good until Mulder started talking about how he hoped we all live on after we die, and Jesus was involved somehow. (What is with finales of science fiction shows and randomly piling on religion, even in corners where it wasn’t present in the show previously?) I’ll agree the action stuff was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed that Mount Weather—which is a real place!—popped up in the show’s mythology finally. William Devane makes a credible final boss (even if he only shows up the once), and I like the suggestion that Mulder can never win, that he must always hide in the shadows. I also liked how the series stayed prescient about just how paranoid we should be of the government to the last, as Mulder’s treatment after his capture is more than a little similar to lots of illegal detentions that were being carried out unknowingly at the very moment this episode aired.

But for the most part, “The Truth” is an onslaught of not particularly interesting information that feels all too excited to get rid of Doggett and Reyes (who get shit-all to do here, outside of Doggett letting Mulder down in the clutch because he can believe in superpowered soldiers but not UFOs) in favor of Mulder and Scully. And, look, Mulder and Scully are much better characters than the two later agents, but Doggett, in particular, is a hugely underrated figure in the show’s world and among the series’ fanbase, and Reyes is okay, I guess. In attempting to squeeze everything into these two episodes, “The Truth” turns into a long version of somebody showing you their vacation slides. The series finale it most reminds me of, God help me, is that of Full House, which similarly flashed back to earlier episodes and put one of the characters on trial after he supposedly killed a member of an alien conspiracy. (Uncle Joey, how could you?!) I think you’re right, Zack. The X-Files gets a lot of shit for its mythology not making any sense. But it does make sense. It’s just that the more light you shine upon it, the goofier it all seems. Not even Gillian Anderson can make the words “super soldiers” sound intelligent.


But at least the Cigarette Smoking Man gets killed by a helicopter. That feels like a fitting way for the character to go out.

Are you with me on how weird it is that this episode just pretty much turns back into the Mulder and Scully hour? And how about Mulder’s final impassioned courtroom speech? Is that Chris Carter’s worst Mulder speech or just in the running?


Zack: I feel like it should have bothered me how much Doggett and Reyes (and hell, even poor Skinner, who’s reduced to a nice man who asks questions) were pushed to the side, but I'm not sure as it did. Thinking about the finale now, I can recognize how much of a patch-up job the whole thing was; how much the writers leaned on a story thread (Mulder’s “quest”) which hadn't really been relevant to the show for at least two seasons now; and how much all that exposition dumping was supposed to stand in for any kind of character resolution or closure. Because there really isn't any closure in this hour. Apart from CSM getting blown up (which, okay, was pretty awesome), nothing gets resolved, no enemies are beaten, and there's no clear sense of where these characters are going to end up next. While I prefer endings which don't tie everything up too neatly, and while I actually liked the fact that the big alien threat goes unanswered (I guess they were still hoping for a movie?), this still feels more like something that had been sitting on the back-burner for a few years, only to get dusted off, punched up with a few “super soldiers,” and thrown out to the wolves.

There's been a lot of talk this week about how series finales so often don't really resemble the shows they're ending, and that's definitely the case here; “The Truth” often plays like an abstract rendering of what an X-Files’ finale could be, rather than an episode of television that builds off what came before it. Sure, Mulder’s encounter with Knowle means that this particular secret underground government lair technically connects with the super soldier plot, but it's still basically Mulder doing the same thing he's been doing for years, and the attempt to frame him for Knowle’s murder isn't the most compelling of plot threads. The endless court testimony, so out place on a show that did its best work by showing how the inexplicable could lurk under the currents of normal life, is quite possibly the least imaginative way to indicate things are coming to an end. Yet apart from that, there's so little here that's recognizable as a conclusion that it’s laughable. Oh no, the X-files offices have been tampered with! Oh no, the Cigarette Smoking Man is dead! Oh no, aliens are coming! Take out the live-action FAQ segment and this doesn't play that much differently than any other season finale, cliffhanger and all; and yet the trial itself mostly serves as a kind of punishment for anyone who wanted anything like closure.


And yeah, Doggett and Reyes do get screwed. Doggett is reduced to doing leg-work on a case that doesn't really matter. I wasn't hugely upset by this, but it does underline how little faith anyone on the show really had in either character's importance. Despite the efforts of the previous two seasons, everyone involved still considered this the Mulder-and-Scully show. Whether or not that was a self-fulfilling prophecy, we'll never know.

Oh god, that Mulder speech was grotesque, the character at his most blindly insufferable; and worse, it's clearly supposed to be a big hurrah moment, as though we'd been waiting years to see Fox finally get to tell a bunch of bureaucrats—and an alien—just what he thought of them. That's another problem with the finale; the show had managed over the years to mitigate Mulder's obsession and self-righteous streak by giving him a healthy sense of humor and (even more importantly) being more than willing to take him down a few pegs. At its best, this wasn't just the “Mulder Conspiracy Hour,” and yet the finale often pivots in this direction, reducing every character, even Scully, to passive participants in his drama. It’s unpleasant to watch a show hero-worship it's own lead, and I think that, more or less, is what happens here.


Is there anything you liked in the finale, Todd? Like I said, I thought the opening wasn't bad. And while I agree that the religious angle was a bit much, I liked the last scene between Mulder and Scully. I also thought CSM’s final speech, and his death, were fun, and that the episode improved considerably once it got out of the courtroom and put Mulder and Scully on the run. (Although it still pisses me off that Mulder just kept on making decisions and Scully just kept rolling with it.)

Todd: Yeah, I do like that last scene, which leaves Mulder and Scully in a good place, even if it's tinted with some strange religiosity. And I do love that final encounter with the CSM, whose voice Chris Carter just instantly captures as soon as he starts writing him again. Mostly, I think, I want my finales to leave the characters in a place that feels appropriate. For the most part, in comedies, this means I want them left in a place where I don't have to worry about them, if that makes sense, while in dramas, it leaves them in a place that feels commensurate with their actions throughout the show. (This makes it sound like I spend all of my time pondering the fates of TV characters, which is not really true.) The X-Files fails this test, I think, because while it leaves Mulder and Scully in a surprisingly appropriate place (on the run, but together and assured of their righteousness), it mostly just leaves everybody else in the midst of a cliffhanger that we now know will never be resolved, not even in the movie. We can assume that Doggett and Reyes and Skinner and even Kersh are going to get by just fine, but we can’t know.


The show was hoping to spin into a series of new movies, something that didn't happen for a variety of reasons, but I'd argue that this is just another artifact of how solely the final two seasons were driven by the twin impulses to make this a new television program, while also still pining for the days of Mulder and Scully. That worked in season eight, where the text was very much about returning to those days, and the show could incorporate Doggett into those adventures (by making him Scully’s partner), but it became a problem in season nine, where the series obviously just didn't give a shit about making the Doggett/Reyes partnership anywhere near vital enough to carry the show. Where “The Truth” ultimately fails, I think, is in drawing to a close not the show we had been watching—which had changed and evolved and adjusted over time—but the show The X-Files had been three or four seasons ago. Which, hey, sounds a lot like another finale that just aired, come to think of it, right down to all of the empty answers that ultimately mean so little. This was a finale that was less about taking our leave and more about trying to build something new for a future that would never come. That's a little nuts, but that's this show for you.

Zacks grade: C-
Todds grade: C

Stray observations:

  • The ghost appearances were odd; like Todd, I was happy to see Mr. X again, and I certainly didn’t mind the Lone Gunmen getting a chance to say goodbye to Mulder (in their way), but it mostly just reinforced the feeling that we were watching Mulder’s finale, and not Scully’s or anyone else’s. [ZH]
  • Looking at that picture, Zack, makes me remember just how much this finale played to the ‘shippers, in hopes that would be enough. That it almost is is kind of impressive. [TV]
  • “I believe, as do many respected scientists, that life came to Earth from a meteor or a rock from Mars.” -Scully, shredding her credibility [ZH]
  • At all times, Chris Carter’s desire to create Native American characters who seem to have stepped directly out of a mid-90s New Age philosophy self-help manual overrides any amount of writing ability he has. [TV]
  • Mulder’s Hannibal Lecter impression made for an odd moment. I appreciated the attempt at humor, but it was too forced to be legitimately funny. [ZH]
  • That said, I found the bits where the government was trying to brainwash him pretty horrifying. Mulder in captivity isn’t a bad angle for this episode. Too bad it abandons it so fast. [TV]
  • Okay, I’ll admit it: Kersh being in on the plan to free Mulder made me cheer, just a little bit. Kersh! [TV]

Next week: We close out the show with a look at The X-Files: I Want To Believe. Plus, trophies!