New X-Files Review: "My Struggle III" Is The Worst Episode Yet

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The X-Files has found a new low with its Season 11 premiere episode "My Struggle III."
The X-Files has found a new low with its Season 11 premiere episode "My Struggle III." 20th Century Fox Television

Season 11 of The X-Files premieres Wednesday with “My Struggle III,” a direct continuation of the previous season’s cliffhanger. By now, The X-Files ’ mode of storytelling should feel familiar, roughly dividing episodes into one-off adventures (often of the “Monster of the Week” variety) and more continuity-intensive episodes charting the sprawling conspiracy against humanity orchestrated by a powerful cabal that may or may not be in league with alien powers. For years The X-Files thrived within this framework, largely because of its essential incompleteness — the more answers, the worse the show got. That rule of thumb has never been more useful than with “My Struggle III,” one of the worst episodes of television I’ve ever seen.

The X-Files thrives in the ambiguous gray zone between human evil and unknowable extraterrestrial motives. For years, the series danced back-and-forth between two distinct and equally creepy possibilities: either the government is in cahoots with aliens, or so maniacal and devilish as to fabricate aliens as cover for their own sinister ends. This fit well with the predominant conspiracy atmosphere of the 90s, both deeply paranoid about an all-powerful New World Order government — think black helicopters — and simultaneously suspicious that even that all-powerful elite conspiracy was subjugate to alien or demonic motives above any human paygrade. In later seasons, the conspiracy began to cohere: the world elite have already surrendered to an inevitable alien invasion, cutting a deal to save themselves. It still worked in the aggregate, but became increasingly tedious episode to episode.

The first episode titled “My Struggle” premiered last year and tried to return some ambiguity. Sure, there are alien craft flying around everywhere, but Mulder had once again come to believe the conspiracy was predominantly human. In “My Struggle II,” the alien Venus Syndrome (as Mulder first called it) or Spartan Virus (as it’s now called) was unleashed on the world: the elite plan had been set in motion, aliens or no aliens. It was all catastrophically dumb, but not nearly as dumb as it got with the premiere of Season 11. For, you see, the actual worldwide plot hadn’t been set in motion at all, it turns out instead that it was just a vision experienced within Scully’s feverish brain. Yes, the new season of The X-Files opens with “last season’s cliffhanger was a dream.”

This could have worked, or at least swept the playing field clean for some new adventures, but “My Struggle III” decided instead to strap itself to that cliffhanger anyway, like the second in line on the human centipede. Scully is in a coma, her brain beeping out Morse code, instructing Mulder to find their son.

Instead, Mulder goes after the Cigarette Smoking Man, who has the deadly world-ending virus in a little bottle in his pocket. And this is where the entire X-Files mythology crumples into useless dust. That massive, worldwide conspiracy has been reduced to the Cigarette Smoking Man, who orchestrated everything forever, ever, anywhere, always, and it was just him forever. Now he’s going to end the world so he can spend some time with Scully and her superhuman son William. The world-spanning conspiracy boils down to a family living room; a little chamber drama played out between the Cigarette Smoking Man, his son Mulder and his involuntary surrogate mom, Scully (big twist, lands with a thud: William’s not Mulder's son).

It’s impossible to overstate just how badly “My Struggle III” mistreats Scully. Not only did Carter retcon a grotesque, drugged impregnation (inserting it into Season 7 episode “En Ami”), he mostly confines Scully to a hospital bed. At one point, she busts out… only to immediately get in a car crash and wake up in the same hospital. Gillian Anderson is absolutely right to leave this mess behind, Carter’s treatment of the character almost feels like contempt played out across millions of TV screens.

While “My Struggle III” marginalizes Scully, it turns Mulder into the pathetic, noirish pastiche The X-Files had previously been too nimble to let him slip into. He spends vast swathes of the Season 11 premiere driving his car and delivering rancid voiceover narration (“I was running only on adrenaline and…” yada yada). The interminable driving scenes and Mulder peeking from around corners before tactical running through an unlocked door feel like something high schoolers would do with a camcorder and a water pistol. Even the writing weren’t busy wreaking complete destruction on everything The X-Files had ever built, “My Struggle III” would be terrible for its utter lack of style, polish or visual flair. It’s all hospital rooms and unintimidating men sitting around in unintimidating parlors, giving speeches to no one.

“My Struggle III” succeeds in making The X-Files feel chintzy and small. In trying to bring resolution to his years-long conspiracy sprawl, Carter simplifies it down to nothing, putting it profoundly out of step with the modern conspiratorial mindset, with its #TheStorm and #QAnon mega-conspiracies. Even aliens get tossed aside with a shrug, dismissed in a single line: they’ve abandoned their invasion plans because they have "no interest in a warming planet with dwindling resources.”

In a far more complicated world, The X-Files has turned Cigarette Smoking Man into one of the most boring arch-villains in TV history, who has no motive but cackling, world-ending destruction and no mechanism beyond a bottle in his pocket and the certainty that if his plans were exposed “they'd be dismissed as so much fake news." Conspiracies are fun because they sprawl and insinuate all sorts of delicious and evil possibilities. The X-Files, in its vast error, has decided that what we really wanted all along was an evil plan right out of a kid’s cartoon.

There’s reason to hope that Season 11, like Season 10, will have a high point or two, particularly with the return of legendary X-Files writer Darin Morgan, who penned last year’s peak, “Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster” and upcoming episode “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (premiering Jan. 24), but the only reason to watch the first episode of this new season is for the depressing spectacle of seeing a series’ creator fundamentally misunderstanding the appeal of his own show.

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