Far More Absurd Things: The X-Files, “My Struggle III”
When we last saw Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, they were stuck on one of the 14th Street bridges between Virginia and Washington, D.C. Mulder was near death thanks to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s unleashing of the Spartan Virus and Scully, convinced the only way to save Mulder was an emergency stem cell transplant from their son William, was looking up into bright lights in the sky. Were these lights from helicopters or aliens or something else? The episode, “My Struggle II,” ended before such questions could be answered.
2016’s six-episode mini-event, a.k.a. the tenth season of The X-Files, was met with decidedly mixed responses from fans and critics, but pulled in such good ratings that FOX gave the green light to ten new episodes. Since that season aired, TV viewers have been exposed to two seasons of Stranger Things, 12 episodes of Black Mirror, the first season of Legion, and the long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks, the latter arguably a big influence upon The X-Files series itself. So is the world still open to the kinds of mysteries and conspiracies that The X-Files has to offer?
Season 11 began January 3 with “My Struggle III,” an episode which seems to have caused much consternation among fans of the show, notably the big reveal regarding William’s true parentage.
It’s true that this episode did feel like a huge information dump that seemed to be out of sync with Season 10’s finale, indicating that perhaps those events were just a vision conjured by a seizure in Scully’s brain. Even Mulder seems doubtful of whether Scully was dreaming or able to predict the future. When Skinner notes that Scully’s brainwaves seem to be Morse code for “find him,” Mulder scoffs. No doubt there were fans watching who also felt this was more than a little unbelievable, even for a show as far out there as The X-Files.
Yet in “Founder’s Mutation,” the second episode of last season, a high-pitched noise is interpreted by Mulder to be code for “find her,” in that case, a young woman named Agnes, who is part of a secret project that experiments on pregnant women. Is Skinner’s suggestion that much different from Mulder’s, or indeed any of the huge leaps in logic that Mulder has made throughout the entirety of the show’s run?
“My Struggle III” also asks viewers to consider the veracity of its opening narration, a Zelig-style trip through memory lane according to the Cigarette Smoking Man. Stating his name as “Carl Gerhard Bush,” he explains that he’s been a witness to history, “much of it an abomination of the values Americans hold dear” as images of mushroom clouds, white power rallies, and Adolf Hitler fill the screen. “Too much is made of the will to power,” he intones, while footage of Donald Trump being sworn in as the 45th President of the US appears on the screen, “as if our will is free, our choices our own.” He mentions that he’s had two sons who were in the FBI; viewers observe scenes of Mulder and Jeffrey Spender from previous X-Files episodes. “I ask only for the years to show my sons and their sons that I was right,” he continues. “What their father did had to be done.”
This soliloquy closes with footage revealing that not only was the 1969 moon landing faked, but also that the Cigarette Smoking Man was present on the film shoot. Those suggesting that this claim is too far-fetched for The X-Files need only rewatch Season 4’s seventh episode, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” which indicates that he was responsible for, among other things, the Kennedy assassination.
Are such things any more outrageous than Twin Peaks showing Special Agent Dale Cooper being reborn into the body of a seemingly non-existent real estate agent named Dougie Jones? Or Stranger Things depicting how a Lovecraftian monster dwells in tunnels beneath the small town of Hawkins, Minnesota? With Twin Peaks’ third season, fans had a week to digest the frequently fantastic, seemingly non sequitur events of each episode. With Stranger Things, each season was released all at once on Netflix, allowing for immediate gratification through binge-watching. While the narrative and mythology of Stranger Things is decidedly less complex and more straightforward than that of Twin Peaks, could it be that the way viewers watched these shows affected the way they were received?
In a 2015 article on Indiewire, Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix seemed to promote binge-watching, confident that “giving our members all episodes at once is more aligned with how fans are made.” On the other hand, The Leftovers’ creator Damon Lindelof advised critics against the practice, suggesting “just because there is an entire can of Pringles in front of you does not mean you should eat them all in one sitting,” even as he admitted that he himself “ate an entire can of Pringles last night while watching the entire first season of Fleabag until three in the morning, so y'know, hypocrite."
With so many shows available to watch on any given day, a TV episode that is more structurally dense than your average sitcom might be difficult to fully parse upon first viewing. So viewers can be forgiven if “My Struggle III” seems confusing at first, if they can’t recall exactly who Monica Reyes is or how she’s connected to the events of The X-Files at large. Mulder’s voice-over might seem cheesy if one hasn’t recently watched “The Field Where I Died,” the philosophical, internal monologue-heavy fifth episode of the series’ fourth season.
Yet beyond the scope of the show’s internal logic or how it is consumed, there are the events of the world outside of The X-Files to consider. While Season 10 paired Mulder with a fictional Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist named Tad O’Malley, it also indicated that there was a conspiracy behind the alien conspiracy. Viewers were no longer asked to accept that aliens were real and that the government knew they were real, but that the alleged government conspiracy to hide the existence of aliens was a ruse designed to prevent the world from knowing that alien technology was used not only to perform experiments on humans under the guise of alien abductions, but also that this was done to further the global control of humanity by an elite group of men.
Since the end of Season 10 of The X-Files aired, there was a US Presidential election in which an alleged underground Satanic pedophilia cult became a viable reason for some people not to vote for Hillary Clinton. Then in November, Donald Trump was elected as the President of the US, a fact that even seems to shock him. While the list of outrageous words and deeds by this President over the last year are too numerous to list here, the overall tenor of the reaction to Trump’s presidency has been shock and dismay and continually checking the Internet to see if he actually said or did the thing he's being accused of. Then there has been the continued speculation about the role that Russia has played in Trump’s election, speculation that has ultimately led to an ongoing investigation and at least one indictment.
In the midst of all of this, barely anyone seems to have noticed that the US government declassified documents indicating that the Pentagon spent $22 million investigating the existence of UFOs. According a New York Times article:
“…the program produced documents that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift.
Officials with the program have also studied videos of encounters between unknown objects and American military aircraft — including one released in August of a whitish oval object, about the size of a commercial plane, chased by two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Nimitz off the coast of San Diego in 2004.”
After all of the events of the last year, is it really so difficult, then, to accept that the Cigarette Smoking Man impregnated Scully with alien-assisted science on The X-Files? The flashbacks that are shown during this reveal are not retconned; they’re from an actual X-Files episode (Season 7’s “En Ami”). It’s not a stretch to imagine that this idea has been planned for a while.
The opening titles of “My Struggle III” show the familiar quote I WANT TO BELIEVE, but in a flash, it transforms to I WANT TO LIE. Who is lying? The Cigarette Smoking Man? The Syndicate? The government? Fans are angry that Chris Carter is toying with their emotions. But in this post-Trump world of 2017, the dense and often baffling mythology The X-Files presents does not contain the kinds of lies that should outrage us, but the ones that should make us consider how they aren’t as far-fetched as we may think.