Life is a series of moments, strung together, rarely with much sensitivity or sense. Let’s look at two such moments, each from the teaser sequence of The X-Files’ second episode of its eleventh season (an installment titled “This,” written and directed by series executive producer Glen Morgan). The first: A car—its radio blasting the Ramones’ cover of “California Sun”—races toward a destination. The second: A pair of people—colleagues at first, then friends, then lovers, now middle-aged familiars—rests on a couch. One moment active, one moment passive, both on a collision course. But at this juncture, each instant exists unto itself. “There is only this—all else is unreal,” mused a character in Terrence Malick’s great romantic historical The New World (2005). (A prescient rhyme, perhaps, with the final spoken line from his recent Joycean saga of love, damnation and redemption, Song to Song : “This…only this.”) And yet to exist in “this” is to be forced to acknowledge “that”: That which has happened and that which will.
That car, for example, will deposit a trio of gun-toting assassins on the doorstep of that sleeping duo, FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Death would be assured was it not for a semi-garbled, existentially-tinged video warning on Mulder’s phone from old friend Richard “Ringo” Langly (Dean Haglund)—the now-deceased former member of a much more friendly threesome, the conspiracy-theorizing hackers known as The Lone Gunmen. “Am I…dead?” asks Langly. “If I am, they know that I know.” There’s barely time for Mulder and Scully to reflect on this strange transmission before all guns are a-blazing (and the editing by Eleanor Infante, like that pitter-patter Ramones tune, gets punkishly frenetic). Two of the hired killers go down, while the third, a long-haired, granite-faced palooka nicknamed Softie Boy (Dean Friss), escapes. That happened. Now what?
The goal, you might say, is to get back to that couch. Because who wouldn’t prefer to kick back for all eternity with their immortal beloved? (Netflix and chill, even while mankind devours itself.) But life has a way of interrupting Mulder and Scully, especially these days, when their righteous indignation, often directed at the very institutions within which they labor, is that much more pronounced. “What world are you living in?” asks the commander (Andre Roshkov) of the security contract firm Purlieu Services, whose operatives are sourced from Russia and who have, with the blessing of our own executive branch (collusion! Look over here, Mueller!), free range to do what they will to whomever they want. The commander and his cronies appear ready to finish the job that those first cut-throats could not, though it takes more than handcuffs, machine guns and a gaggle of thick-accented adversaries to fell Mulder and Scully.
When they slipped away, each shackled to the other, into the night, I swore we were about to get a cheeky, lovey-dovey homage to The Defiant Ones (1958). Leave it to Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) to burst that balloon. Mulder and Scully’s ever-beleaguered boss reluctantly sets them loose and directs them to Arlington Cemetery, where The Lone Gunmen were buried after their demise in Season 9’s “Jump the Shark.” Now we see how all that informs all this: Langly’s grave is the wrong way around, and his birthdate is off. After a little deduction (“Who needs Google when you’ve got Scully,” quips Mulder) the agents find themselves at the tomb of another old acquaintance: Mulder’s Season 1 informant Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), his full name (previously hinted at in a throwaway line from Season 4’s Morgan-penned “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”) finally revealed as Ronald Pakula. It’s a reference, surely, to Alan J. Pakula, the mind behind such masterfully moody thrillers with a provocatively political bent as Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). (The plot Mulder and Scully uncover in “This,” aided by a memory card left behind the decorative cross on Deep Throat’s gravestone, would slot nicely into one of Pakula’s films.)
The 1970s tend to be reflexively looked on as a Golden Age for motion picture art, in ways not too far removed from how a wistful Mulder reflects on his own conspiracy-busting salad days. “Who’d have thought we’d look back with nostalgia and say, ‘That was a simpler time,’” he says to Scully. “Everything we feared came to pass. How the hell did that happen?” (Skinner, in a later, melancholic scene: “How did we get here?” he asks our intrepid agents, grappling with his own plaintive remembrance of things past.) The omnipresent trap of life is to privilege that over this. Live among the dead and you miss what’s right in front of you. But to live too much in the moment (to be blissfully ignorant of what came before or of what could be) is another kind of prison—a figurative black hole that avatar Langly’s new digs quite literally approximate.
Imagine the unnerving assassin-training montage from The Parallax View, but re-conceived as a world unto itself. “It’s like I designed heaven,” says Langly in another transmission, as he describes the alternate digital reality into which he was willingly assimilated after his death. Here there are no consequences to sex or gluttony. The Ramones play every night. The New England Patriots never win. “And I’m begging you…destroy it,” Langly pleads, noting how, in this place, the sun “has no warmth” and everyone is an oblivious digital slave laboring to serve a dastardly real-life elite. Anything imagined there will come to fruition here, but only a select few will see the benefits. (I love how Morgan and cinematographer Craig Wrobleski visualize this sequence, isolating both Langly and Mulder & Scully in separate yet similarly abstract shrouds of darkness, as if each world has hypnotically breached the other.)
Langly implores the agents to go to the Long Lines Building in New York City, where the server containing this cybernetic otherworld is housed on an upper floor. (The AT&T-owned skyscraper is also reported, here as in real life, to be home to an NSA surveillance facility nicknamed TITANPOINTE.) It’s in this climactic sequence that some of the series’ limitations (alternately endearing and vexing) come to the fore. Mulder and Scully sneak onsite with barely any effort, just a bit of deceptive banter that includes a Hannibal Lecter joke and a hilarious finger-in-the-mouth gesture after a supercilious FBI agent—Colquitt (Dejan Loyala), a character name that recurs in several Morgan scripts—puts some verbal moves on Scully. Once inside the building, there’s barely a guard in view (the extras budget must have been pennies that day), though I’m always down to revel in the inventive production design (very Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner, in this case) of Carter series regular Mark Freeborn. The server is also fairly easily destroyed, though that’s all setup to a very X-Files punchline, revealed after Mulder and Scully make their way back to their couch: There’s a backup server and Langly is still trapped inside. And so the wheel turns, eternally.
There’s admitted charm to this kind of spartan aesthetic approach, which harkens back to the series’ early days, when an episode like Season 1’s “Beyond the Sea” (with its pulp-Carl Dreyer jousting between Anderson and guest star Brad Dourif) could fully turn skimpy resources to the script’s thematic and emotional advantage. I’ve frequently said that The X-Files started as a low-budget cult show, became a big-budget phenomenon, and then, as its zeitgeisty popularity curdled, morphed back into a cult show, albeit with much of the money behind it still in place. The trick of it, and the occasional frustration, is that the series can never entirely recapture the scrappiness of what it once was. It can only be what and where it is, and the results, these days, are as regularly half-baked as they are fully realized.
That said, The X-Files still manages to have—to use the words of corporate lackey Erika Price (Barbara Hershey), who returns this week to further connect the episode’s plot to the series’ ongoing alien virus mytharc (in brief, her consortium’s plan to colonize space is being test-run within this digital realm)—an “instinct for survival.” We might transpose that sentiment to an old-hand writer like Morgan, who was there at The X-Files’ inception in 1993, and who seems fully aware that the tension arising from the show’s shifty identity (forever trying to reconcile its that with its this) is oftentimes the primary source of its power.
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• The Ramones cover of “California Sun” opens and closes the episode—fitting since Langly was almost always seen wearing a Ramones T-shirt throughout the original series and its one-season spinoff, The Lone Gunmen (2001). In the scene in which Mulder and Scully take refuge in a bar, the more popular 1964 version of the tune, sung by The Rivieras, and which placed #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks, is on the radio.
• Langly’s inamorata, Professor Karah Hamby, who explains the consciousness-digitizing tech to Mulder and Scully and summarily dies for her expositions, is played by Sandrine Holt, a TV stalwart who’s been on 24, House of Cards, Fear the Walking Dead, Mr. Robot, and many other series. Early in her career, she was the female lead in both Bruce Beresford’s Jesuit priest drama Black Robe (1991) and Kevin Reynolds’ Easter Island-set historical adventure Rapa Nui (1994).
• Dean Friss, who plays the leering assassin Softie Boy, has worked on many a Glen Morgan project, usually behind-the-scenes as his go-to focus puller. But he was also cast as both a teenage and early twenty-something woman in Morgan’s 2006 remake of Black Christmas. So, range!
• Morgan lingers over two tombstones in the Arlington sequence, neither of which belong to the Lone Gunmen or Deep Throat. One is for Julie Ng, who produced the special features for the Season 10 Blu-ray and is doing the same for the Season 11 set. She interviewed me for the Season 10 Blu (a real pleasure, that). So take a gander at those documentaries if you want to see me make a face-palming fool of myself. (No joke, I actually face-palm.) The other grave marker is for George Donald Rivers, who I’m to understand was a beloved personal friend of the Morgan family.
• There are several what I’ll call “errors” in the episode, so air-quoted because part of me wonders if they might be intentional, playing into the idea, as I proposed
, that this whole season might be taking place in some sort of alternate reality (could Langly be in a simulation inside a simulation?). For one, the name on the tombstone for John Fitzgerald Byers, the Lone Gunman played by Bruce Harwood, is misspelled as John Fitgerald Byers. Then there’s the fact that the address of the Long Lines Building is incorrectly given as 33 Church Street, when it is actually 33 Thomas Street (Church is one of the cross streets). I could see these being winking plays with the “truth” as much as I could see them being practical mistakes. More to come on that, I suspect, as the season unfolds.
• Even in death, Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood), gets to be the butt of several jokes, one about his age (“Frohike looked 57 the day he was born”), the other about his enduring lust for Scully (the clue that leads the agents to Professor Hamby is contained in the diminutive former hacker’s “Spank Bank” computer folder, which has a Scully face icon on it).
• Now here’s something that, of course,
: There’s a ghostly figure behind Langly in the Lone Gunmen photograph on Mulder’s desk. Initially I thought it looked like some weird digital composite of Yves Adele Harlow (Zuleikha Robinson) and Jimmy Bond (Stephen Snedden), the two costars of the trio’s spinoff series. In actuality it’s “This Man,” an eerie, nonexistent face/person who several thousand people worldwide have reported seeing in dreams. Head on over to
to explore further.
• The “Truth Is Out There” tagline is changed once again in the opening credits. This time it’s to “Accuse Your Enemies of That Which You Are Guilty,” a saying
, no less) to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. I’m sure that’s not Morgan side-eyeing anyone or anything in particular.
• Speaking of Donald Trump: Skinner refers to the current POTUS in a scene in which Mulder and Scully search a digital archive of X-Files. While the duo looks through these e-versions—which contain references to Home, Pennsylvania (all you X-Philes know that one, I’m sure) as well as a scan of the FBI ID of a goofily smiling guy who I will only say figures prominently in an episode to come—Skinner makes a call to his superior to see if he can get the killers from the Purlieu group off Mulder and Scully’s back. No dice: “The Bureau’s not in good standing with the White House these days,” he explains. Whatever reality you’re living in, some things are constant.