October 21, 2018

The lost children of the X-Files

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:40 pm by chavisory

I meant to write this post months ago but in truth I’ve been thinking about it this whole time. (Note: This post should be considered to contain massive spoilers, mainly for seasons 5, 9, 10, and 11.)

I tended to give season 11 of the X-Files higher marks than most other viewers I knew. I found the episodes high-quality, the characterizations of an older Mulder and Scully believable and the chemistry between them still undeniable. Although the author of this post managed to capture in one line, more concisely than anything else I’ve read, why I felt the revival failed to ever quite find its footing in a very changed political climate “when power refuses to go through the motions of concealing its most brutal machinations,” I found the standalone episodes as strong and often stronger than in the original series, and in general felt season 11 struggled less than season 10. But there is one regard in which the season 11 finale left me feeling betrayed and hollow and I’m still struggling a little with it.

And my complaint isn’t with the decision to leave Scully (miraculously) pregnant (again) with a child that she knows for sure is hers and Mulder’s. That is only theirs, together, not the consequence of any experiment or alien intervention, indisputably and without any suspicion otherwise.

Unlike a lot of other fans, I wasn’t particularly turned off by the decision to characterize Jackson as not a very nice or good person, either. I think that choice could’ve provided a lot of opportunity for interesting character development and tension, if Jackson weren’t going to be so terribly shortchanged by the story in virtually every other regard.

It’s that the way the finale dispatched with Jackson was not only abrupt and callous, but illuminated certain troubling trends throughout the series.

Inter-relatedly, I found it a grave mistake and a baffling one on virtually everyone’s part to take at face value CSM’s claim that he was Jackson’s true father. CSM has never been a reliable narrator. Even when telling the truth, he is always seeking his own self-aggrandizement. DNA TESTING EXISTS. There is no reason for Skinner to just believe him because he says this. There is no reason for Scully to just believe this because Skinner says CSM told him so. Scully knows more about reproductive biology than Skinner does and would seek independent verification of this assertion, unless she were to decide, understandably, that she’d rather not know, and in that case, that’s an emotional arc I would wish to see. That Carter himself has apparently decided CSM’s claim to be true, within the dreadfully constrained storytelling time he had available this season, put his characters in the indefensible position of acting not only out of character but out of all consideration for their own history and everything that both they and we know.

It’s a betrayal of too much.

But then, Chris Carter himself has notably not always been a reliable narrator with regard to the truth of his own creations. And that may seem a remarkably arrogant statement from a fan, but consider the span of time during which Carter swore up, down, and sideways that Mulder and Scully would never be together romantically.

beyond the sea

[Yeah, this looks like an entirely normal professional interaction between two people who have worked together for a low single-digit number of months, but sure. Okay.]

Much of the background trajectory of this story has involved Mulder and Scully both devastatingly and relentlessly losing their entire families, beginning with the inciting incident of the whole story arc in the abduction of Samantha. Over the ensuing 25 years, we’re witness to the near-complete decimation of both characters’ families (with the exception of Scully having two living brothers, though I’m not left with the impression that she has much of a relationship left with either of them. Charlie she describes as estranged from the family, and her relationship with Bill seems strained at best the last time we hear from him) and it feels right to me that, at the end of it all, they have this chance to start again. To have a family entirely their own again.

And yet.

On one hand, I appreciate Chris Carter’s determination that the X-Files not turn into a domestic drama, that that was not the kind of show he was interested in making or most of us in watching.

On the other, this story is strewn with abandoned and forgotten children and it doesn’t entirely sit right.

I’m largely leaving aside children who were centrally involved in “monster of the week” cases to draw attention to those who seem to have been created entirely for the sake of advancing the mythology, but little to no further thought given to them as people or even as characters.

1. The Samantha and Kurt* clones. There were a lot of them. And in contrast to Jeremiah Smith’s assertion that they were nothing but drones, we see several of their adult iterations in multiple episodes (“Colony,” “End Game,” “Memento Mori”), and they act not only with consciousness and agency, but with conscience.

(There’s a small detail in “Herrenvolk” which touched me when I caught it while rewatching, which is that somebody, at the house where the cloned worker children live, somebody has—again, despite Jeremiah Smith’s characterization of them as drones without language—bothered to paint labels on objects around the house. The doorbell has clumsily been labeled “bell” in white paint with an arrow. Somebody is or was around who thinks at least slightly more of them than Smith portrays to Mulder.)

herrenvolk2

2. What about the other experimental hybrid children of Emily’s generation? The children, technically, of Penny Northern and the other women abducted and subjected to the same experiments as Scully. Did they all sicken and die in toddlerhood the way Emily did? Maybe, but… the nature of Emily’s illness was bizarre and dangerous in a way that threatened to attract a lot of attention. Is the horrible truth that most or all of them wound up back in the clutches of the Syndicate and the hybridization experiment, the fate that Scully allowed Emily to die to save her from?

3. Where’s Gibson?

I can buy that Gibson’s resentment of Scully’s ultimate failure to protect him might’ve been too much for him. But it has never felt okay that a kid who Scully cared so much about basically fell off the face of the earth to her.

(Edited to add: I got reminded that in the season 9 finale, it turned out that Mulder had been in hiding with Gibson in the Southwest during most of that year, and as both Mulder and Scully go underground, Reyes and Doggett promise to try to keep him safe. But…Reyes apparently shortly wound up in the employ of the CSM. And Doggett…we don’t really hear from again. So my concern for Gibson’s fate being dropped as an issue remains pretty much intact.)

And then there are parallels it’s nearly impossible not to draw between the way that Scully’s dialogue treats Emily and Jackson. That more than once, the children Scully is most apt to describe as “not meant to be” are her own. Who she fights for relentlessly, until the moment she doesn’t, with remarkably similar words.

Although I find myself more sympathetic now for Scully’s decision at the end of “Emily” than I was when the episode first aired. It’s not just that saving Emily would likely be difficult and painful, or that she would always require complicated medical care in order to keep alive. It was that, every moment she remained alive, especially if Scully failed in seeking custody, she risked recapture by the Syndicate and subjugation to God knows what.

Is it the same with Jackson, at the end? That she says these nearly indefensible words not in order to write him off but in an attempt to protect him from further torment? Is this the only way she knows how?

*

It’s hard to reconcile the person who so recently agonized over the autopsies of two children only a couple episodes ago (“Familiar”), one of whom was named Emily (which, if that choice wasn’t calculated to remind us right then of Scully’s other doomed child, was literally the dumbest character naming oversight I have ever seen) with the one who is so ready to give Jackson up as dead and get over him after learning, supposedly, that he was an experiment and not Mulder’s. After 17 years of pining. After the monologue we heard her give to Jackson in “Ghouli.”

It doesn’t add up.

Only, if it were intended to be true to Scully’s character and not simply that Chris Carter needed both Emily and Jackson out of the story, then I begin to see why CSM would even remotely think that upon learning Jackson was his and not Mulder’s, that Scully would go with him and not Mulder.

And I want to be sympathetic that Chris Carter was working with an extremely constrained amount of screen time in these last two seasons, but it still feels like a deeply discordant conclusion for a character who has always, always, been on the side of the vulnerable and especially on the side of threatened children in this story, even when she’s failed.

For a show so thematically occupied with what kind of a future we’re making, it seems to consider the trail of children it’s created remarkably narratively disposable. And I don’t actually believe that is Scully’s belief with regard to Jackson, but the words she’s given to speak make it unsettling close to being indistinguishable from it.

*

The only way I can manage to justify that dialogue is as an attempt by Scully to pre-empt her own grief for a child who she always knew, in the end, she’d never be able to keep. Who she’d already lost twice and mourned as dead once. That she’s just moments ago, “lost” more figuratively in terms of what she thought she knew about his very existence.

That at that moment, she just couldn’t let herself go through it again.

Or that what she’s trying to justify to Mulder is to let Jackson go because he desperately doesn’t want to or can’t cope with being found. (She would, after all, know very shortly or even perhaps already does that Jackson survives.) The Cigarette-Smoking Man is dead, but who else may not be or may still be in pursuit of what Jackson represents is still, in this moment, unknown.

I don’t know about anyone else, but personally, I find support for this interpretation in looking at her face rather than listening to her words in the final scene of “My Struggle IV.”

my struggle iv pic

This isn’t a loss to which she’s reconciled. She knows that this isn’t a happy ending. I don’t believe she believes her own words. These are not people at peace with Jackson’s loss here.

But I don’t believe in my heart that Chris Carter actually did any of that emotional calculus, as opposed to simply needing to exit from the story yet another kid that he doesn’t actually know what to do with. This is not any variety of a resolution as it seems we’re expected to accept; it’s a continuation of the very same ongoing tragedy.

 

*Digressive footnote: Where and who, by the way, is or was the original Kurt Crawford? I realize this is not an issue integral to the story or a “plot hole,” it’s just information we don’t have, but I’ve always wondered. One of the other children of Syndicate members taken with Samantha? Just another abductee like Max Fennig or the women of the MUFON group? We see a lot of him for someone whose very essence of character remains a complete cipher, and he’s a weird, weird foil in that regard to Samantha, whose existence and therefore absence was so very central to the character formation of Fox Mulder and the motivating force for his entire quest. We do see the real Samantha Mulder, if only in flashback and eventually in spirit; we have a sense of who she was, if not her point of view. We never see the real Kurt Crawford. He exists in the narrative not even in flashback but only as an echo, and yet he’s pervasive in it. I’m not sure that’s the case for any other character, and it places him among the very weirdest ghosts in the X-Files to me.

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