Well, that happened.
As of this writing, it’s been a few days since My Struggle III aired, and I’m still… processing things.
A week ago, I was marveling over the fact that, after nearly 25 years, I get one more chance to feel the excitement of a new X-Files season premiere. While media outlets seem to be bemoaning the fact that this will likely be the last handful of episodes we get, I can only feel grateful that these episodes exist at all. So many years after the series’ original run ended in 2002, who would have thought that we would have had not just a second movie, but two new limited series with 16 new episodes to catch up with our favorite agents?
I’d tried not to seek out spoilers, though just through existing on Twitter, small tidbits leaked out here and there. I managed to avoid the major stuff, though. Still, reviewers I trusted had dropped some hints that maybe My Struggle III wouldn’t be the strongest episode in the first half of the series. As someone who wasn’t exactly thrilled with My Struggle I or II, I was already planning to lower my expectations, though apparently not quite enough. I couldn’t help it. As soon as I heard the words “Previously on The X-Files,” a sense of giddiness rarely felt since my teenage years washed over me as I realized that, one more time, I was watching a new season of The X-Files.
Now, I’ve tried my best to look past a number of problematic episodes over the years, but there has to be a limit. I hit that limit back in 2016 with the episode Babylon, and I was really hoping it couldn’t get any worse than that. And I’m still not sure if My Struggle III is worse than Babylon or just equally disappointing for entirely different reasons. And up until the end, I was on board for most of My Struggle III, even if it suffered from poor pacing, overuse of voiceovers, a ridiculous number of car crashes, and just overall sloppy storytelling. An episode can be structurally weak while still managing to be somewhat entertaining. I just wasn’t expecting to feel physically ill once the episode ended.
And that’s frustrating, because there were things I genuinely liked about the episode, even if it was kind of a mess. I wanted to try to work out my feelings, good and bad, on some of the more controversial aspects of the episode.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. Chris Carter’s got some issues with women. I don’t think it’s intentional, but it’s 2018, and it’s time to try a little harder.
The day before My Struggle III aired, Chris Carter did a Reddit AMA, in which he, intentionally or not, insulted a large portion of his female fanbase. Here are a few of the more controversial snippets.
“I also wanted Mulder to be very particular about the furniture in his office knowing that some people – I’m not saying women – like to rearrange it when you’re not looking.”
[In response to a question asking why Scully never got her own desk, even after both Fowley and Spender had their own individual desks in the office.] “I resent the calling of it misogyny, unintentional or not. Scully never asked for her own desk. What she would ask for is her own office.” [After which, a number of fans commented that yes, Scully did indeed ask why she doesn’t have a desk in the Season 4 episode “Never Again,” as well as promising that she’d get Doggett a desk in Season 8 since she never had her own.]
[In response to a question asking about the message it sends to women when they see that a character they look up to is being “tortured” in a way (abduction, infertility, giving up a child for adoption, etc.) and isn’t allowed to have a realistic response to the trauma.] “I think the message we need to be sending to young women would be more likely, “don’t take a job on the X-Files. You’ll be abducted like eight times, have chips implanted in you and who knows what else.”
And so on. Very dismissive responses that don’t adequately respect the legitimate concerns of female fans, especially considering that the vast majority of writers and directors on the series have been male. It put a bad taste in my mouth, but his flippant responses to fans’ concerns aren’t anything new. He’s been doing this in interviews since the ’90s, and we’ve dealt with it, since, after all, he was responsible for creating one of television’s greatest female characters. (Of course, I’d say that other early writers such as Morgan & Wong were just as (if not even moreso) important when it came to initially fleshing out Scully’s character, not to mention the life that Gillian Anderson breathed into her. But that’s another topic all together…)
What is new, perhaps, is that it’s not the ’90s anymore, and television audiences are far less tolerant of misogyny, intentional or not, and viewers are far more likely to call it out. But this goes far beyond whether or not Scully has a desk or her name on the door, or even in freakin’ 2016 answering what appears to be the only desk phone in the office as “Agent Mulder’s phone.” Let’s talk about what television audiences experience along with their iconic female characters. Let’s talk about rape culture.
Mulder and Scully were put through a lot over the course of the series. Abductions, near-death experiences, loss of friends and family, etc. Some fans have argued that Scully’s character has been tortured throughout the series more than Mulder’s, and I’m not entirely sure that that’s true. Mulder’s had it pretty bad, as well. He’s been beaten, tortured, abducted, experimented on, and even spent a few months presumed dead and buried. The difference is that in Scully’s case, she’s far more often sexualized and objectified in her abuse, and is often given less agency over it.
So, CSM’s reveal at the end of My Struggle III, that he is responsible for impregnating Scully, is extremely upsetting. Even if it’s all a lie, just the mere suggestion that he violated her in that way, even if “with science” rather than via a physical assault, is horrifying to women. I imagine that Chris Carter was going for pure shock value with this one, as the William storyline is already complicated enough as it is. But even if we just accept this suggestion as just another horror unleashed on our favorite agents, it’s Chris Carter’s denial that impregnating a woman without her consent is rape that’s draws the most fury.
From an Entertainment Weekly interview that went up shortly after the episode aired:
EW: When CSM says he’s William’s father, is he literally his father, to some biological extent? Along with alien DNA?
CC: No. He’s the figurative father if he’s not the actual father. He didn’t rape Scully. He impregnated her with science.
Medical rape is still rape. There was no consent. Her body was used without her knowledge or permission. If you’re going to abuse your characters in this way, I suppose we’ll deal with it whether we like it or not, but don’t insult us by denying what it actually is. This trivializes it and allows it be used as a plot device without proper repercussions.
And while we’re talking about retroactive medical rape, let’s talk about En Ami.
Now, I’ve actually always had a soft spot for the Season 7 episode En Ami, where Scully and CSM go on a weird road trip together as CSM tries to use Scully to obtain what is potentially the cure for all human disease, and she cautiously goes along with him, at least in part out of a desire to learn more about the chip in her neck that was the potential cause and cure of her cancer.
This episode was a bit controversial at the time, in part because part of the agreement was that Scully had to go behind Mulder’s back, and there was some clear tension between them due to her putting herself at risk in this way. Some have argued that the whole thing was out of character for Scully, though I’d argue that it was in line with her character development during Season 7 which saw Scully making a definitive transition between skeptic and believer and picking up some of Mulder’s traits along the way.
I felt that while risky, the lure of not just potentially invaluable medical knowledge, but real answers about the chip inside of her would be enough for Scully to take that risk the way that Mulder may have taken potentially stupid risks in the past for the sake of learning The Truth. And while Scully did this without informing Mulder, she had tried her best to stealthily communicate with him, even if her plan was ultimately thwarted. I actually loved the tension between Mulder and Scully at the end. It was uncomfortable, but it felt like a real consequence of a breach of trust, no matter how well-intentioned.
But what I really loved about the episode was how CSM didn’t intimidate Scully. She knows he’s dangerous, but she has no respect for him and doesn’t let him push her around.
So of course the worse part of the episode was the one that ultimately became the most significant, when Scully awoke in bed after falling asleep in the car with her clothes having been changed. I’d always imagined the real point of that scene was that CSM had found out that she was wearing a wire rather than a more stomach-turning violation. I had tried to determine a point in the episode where she may have been drugged, but I’m not aware of anything that we saw on-screen that would point to that (the only thing I recall CSM offering her to consume is a Life Saver, which she turns down with a great “WTF” look).
Perhaps the scene had been planted in the episode for this purpose all those years ago, just as the opening of All Things had been inserted to imply the potential of pregnancy by more traditional means, but digging it up 17 years later is as infuriating as it is exhausting (seriously, the “who’s the father” thing had already gotten old halfway through Season 8).
Even more confusing is the dialog change in the flashback in My Struggle III compared to the original episode, to imply that CSM’s housekeeper had helped to bring Scully in from the car. Still wrapping my head around why that change had been made and what significance, if any, it may have.
But, yeah, mostly kinda irritated that this stain has now been put on an episode that I had actually liked. Ugh.
And getting away from creepy, awful thoughts of medical rape for a while, let’s talk about the still-unresolved character assassination of Monica Reyes.
I’m still holding out hope that Reyes will be allowed to redeem herself, and despite her actions, I still can’t see her as one of the bad guys. But still, I’m having an extremely hard time wrapping my head around how a character with as much integrity as Monica Reyes would ever make that sort of deal with the devil unless there are some circumstances that we as an audience are not yet aware of. I can’t see Reyes ever accepting an offer for protection at the cost of the rest of the world. The Reyes I knew from Seasons 8 and 9 would have gone down fighting for the good of humanity. It’s possible that she made this choice just to be able to fight CSM’s plans from the inside, but between My Struggle II and III, nothing of that nature has been revealed to us.
It’s actually quite a shame that we haven’t been able to delve more into Reyes’ motivations, because that on its own could have made for a great episode, rather than a quick flashback in My Struggle II. Having Reyes in a role of an informant would be fascinating and could shed some light onto how characters like X or Marita Covarrubias could have ended up in the position they were in if we’d seen it from the perspective of a character we’d already gotten to know beforehand.
Anyway, from My Struggle III, we do see that Reyes doesn’t necessarily approve of what CSM is doing, though she’s going along with it anyway. Curious what was going through her mind when she held that gun to Skinner’s head, and if he got it from her so easily because she doesn’t actually have it in her to harm him. It seems that she doesn’t exactly have conviction in her current role, but I still want to see her side of the story in a way that makes sense for her character.
Look, Spender’s a great character and all, but after re-watching William recently, I’m having a really hard time believing that Scully would have asked him to hide her son for her, especially after the line “I have seen my share of the hideous, of the disgusting and the repellent, but you, sir, are the most perfect expression I will ever see of all that is vile and hateful in life.” And the fact that what he did to William wasn’t so much for the child’s benefit, but to spite his father.
I’m happy he got a decent face back, though. I don’t really care how unrealistic that part might be. Good for him.
Mulder, Scully, and Skinner
Okay, let’s get to the part that I actually liked about My Struggle III. For the most part, the characterizations of Mulder, Scully, and Skinner really worked for me. Maybe not the part about Skinner reading Morse Code in Scully’s brain, but the rest of it.
There was a bit of role reversal for Mulder and Scully here, which I think was used to great effect in emphasizing the characters’ current, well… struggles. Scully wasn’t quite herself, though to be fair, she’d never had to deal with her long-lost son sending her premonitory visions of the end of the world before, either. I’ve heard some complaints that Scully’s role in this episode was mostly to play the victim, and I don’t know if I really agree with that. Sure, she spends most of the episode in the hospital, got in a car accident, and some dude really wanted to kill her, but she wasn’t accepting any of it. Despite it going against her usual common sense as a doctor to leave the hospital in such a condition looking for answers, she was fueled by pure determination, because she knows it’s up to her to save the whole goddamn world.
Meanwhile, Mulder is just done with everyone’s shit. On one hand, this is an older, slightly jaded Mulder who’s so fucking tired of being lied to and manipulated and has no time for nameless people spouting half-truths at him to try to get him on their side. On the other hand, he’s grown enough to know that it’s not worth chasing shadows seeking justice just so he can try to feel useful when he knows the most important place he can be is at Scully’s side. These are the lessons he learned in episodes like One Breath and Redux II. We saw this more mature Mulder last season in Home Again, where he knew that being Scully’s anchor was more important than any case they might be investigating. This Mulder is “here,” no matter what strange twists and turns their relationship might take. He only leaves at her insistence, and even then, he’s doing it so that she doesn’t try to leave the hospital to investigate on her own and put herself at further risk.
When Mulder doubts Scully’s visions in the beginning, it’s not a dismissal so much as concern that she’s suffered an unexplained traumatic event (the first thing she tells him is that he needs to go find the Smoking Man, who Mulder believes to be dead), and he needs to know that she’s all right before he can even think about pursuing anything else. And layered somewhere below that, I’m sure he doesn’t want to believe that what she’s saying could be true, even when he knows that she wouldn’t be telling him this if she didn’t believe it with every fiber of her being. But in the end, it all comes down to her. And when he sees her being attacked in the hospital, there is absolutely no hesitation as he goes in for the kill on her attacker. The move is both swift and savage, and I found the unexpected moment of gore to be surprisingly satisfying. Could there have been a less lethal way to end the man’s attack on his partner? Certainly, but he wasn’t about to take any chances. Mulder had no patience, no sympathy, and no mercy for this man who was trying to take the most important thing in the world away from him. Scully is all that matters.
We also see Mulder’s discomfort in discussing William, which pretty much falls in line with his portrayal last season as he represses guilt, fear, and longing for what could have been. And he’s no more comfortable talking about his son with Skinner as he is with some random shadow government. I wasn’t sure how they were going to work distrusting Skinner, yet again, into this season. While the background surrounding Skinner’s manipulation still makes my skin crawl, I have to admit that the individual character interactions were really working for me. Mulder’s attacks on Skinner in the early days were often a bit misguided, but here it’s hard to blame I’m-so-fucking-done-with-it Mulder, fresh off of slitting some dude’s throat, for not tolerating any bullshit from someone who’s supposed to be a friend.
But then Skinner pushes back. He’s got his own fears and frustrations building up inside. In this episode, we see Skinner take charge, even when being bullied, threatened, or dismissed. He’s sick of people walking all over him, and it doesn’t matter if it’s CSM or Mulder (or WTF, Reyes?). He’s still being manipulated, but his patience for it is wearing about as thin as Mulder’s.
What’s up with William?
And finally, what is the deal with William? Is CSM really his “father,” and, if so, in what way? What does this mean for Mulder? For Scully? I imagine that whatever the case may be, things aren’t exactly as they seem.
Some snippets from the episode to try to pick between the truth and the lies. I’m especially focused on CSM’s cryptic conversations with Reyes, as she’s theoretically the one he’s been confiding in and has more inside knowledge than others he may be trying to manipulate.
From the opening monologue:
– “I’m a father to two men who have figured more into the future than they might ever know.”
– “I ask only for the years to show my sons and their sons I was right. What their father did had to be done.”
– Episode tagline morphing from “I want to believe” into “I want to lie.” Since this episode is supposed to be CSM’s struggle, one can imagine that this can be attributed to him.
– CSM’s face looks way better than it did last season. Is there a story reason for this? Could alternate realities or alternate timelines be a thing? Or is that make up just too much work?
- Reyes: “The boy is in danger. You said so.”
CSM: “But I don’t understand from whom.”
Reyes: “You’ve always had your enemies.”
CSM: “Yes, but why go after the boy now?”
Reyes: “Maybe they know he’s your weakness.”
CSM: “They couldn’t possibly know that.”
Reyes: “But suddenly everyone knows everything of you and your plans.”
CSM knows that William is in danger, but not from whom. Does CSM have some sort of connection to William, possibly similar to the way Scully does? In what way is William his weakness? And is there any way William could have anything to do with CSM being alive right now and not burnt to a crisp?
- Reyes: “Scully and her boy have a bond beyond you, beyond science.”
CSM: “She’s completely unaware of that.”
Reyes: “Really? What makes you so certain?”
CSM: “It’s a secret only you and I know.”
Is this referring to William guiding Scully with his/her visions? It’s something that CSM and Reyes are aware of, but theoretically not related to however CSM contributed to William’s existence.
- CSM: “I fear only for Scully and the boy, and the harm my enemies may bring on them.”
Reyes: “I think you’re in love with her.”
CSM: “I worry for her. I always had Mulder to protect her. But now he’s going to force my hand.”
Reyes: “You won’t shed a tear for Mulder.”
CSM: “Of course I will. He’s my son.”
Reyes: “What if Scully finds the boy first?”
CSM: “You and I won’t let that happen.”
Is this related to the prophecy in Provenance/Providence that either Mulder or William must die?
- CSM: “It’s the fourth turning, Mr. Skinner. Civilization is in its final stages. Alliances are crumbling. Truth is fluid and alterable. The only truth left is to survive it.”
“Truth is fluid and alterable.” Hmm.
– Altered dialogue from En Ami (added in the bit about his housekeeper). Again, is there any significance to this difference? It seems strange that it would be added in rather than just using the original clip as it was if there wasn’t a point to it.
– From the way the line is delivered, which may or may not have anything to do with the way it’s been written, I’m not buying CSM’s claim that William is his son, at least not biologically. His answer to Skinner’s question seemed a bit too opportunistic. And there wasn’t enough smugness to it.
While I don’t doubt that CSM likely played a role in restoring Scully’s fertility in some way, I’m not ready to count Mulder out of the paternity race just yet. (And not just because Frank Spotnitz confirmed after the end of the series’ original run that yeah, Mulder was supposed to be the father. We miss you, Frank.)
First, it would be emotionally dishonest considering the themes that had come before this. “The truth we both know.” Mulder thinking “About my son … about his mother.” “I think our son left us both with an emptiness that can’t be filled.” Mulder’s unresolved hopes and fears for his son in Founder’s Mutation. And probably most significantly, the dying words of an occasionally prophetic woman aimed squarely at him: “My son is named William, too.”
Though the show hasn’t always been emotionally honest with its viewers. We’d been given hints for years that Samantha was still alive, only to discover seven seasons in that she had been taken from this world long before the show ever began. But while that betrayed the promises the show had made, I think that Samantha’s fate was still intended as a beautiful, freeing resolution to that story arc and wasn’t intended as a betrayal. Meanwhile, CSM’s claim to William’s parentage is a repulsive idea that aims to shock more than anything.
And then what we’re presented in My Struggle III directly… We learn that, if indeed Scully’s gut instincts are correct, William is the one providing her with these visions. Including the vision where Scully realizes that she needs to find William in order to save Mulder. Why would they be seeing this if it wasn’t true?
And as for William’s “special” status… Can we stop ignoring that Mulder has also been through some pretty fucked up stuff that could alter his DNA much like Scully’s? He’s been infected with the black oil and given an experimental vaccine. He’s had crazy brain activity (not entirely unlike what Scully’s now experiencing) after being exposed to rubbings from an alien ship — from the same artifacts that William had been able to move with his mind. And subsequently, he’d been operated on along with CSM in some kind of crazy joint brain surgery because CSM wanted in on that. Then he’d been abducted — god knows what the aliens did to him then — and finally discarded so that an alien replacement would be able to use him as a host, prevented only by some crazy science shit that Scully was able to whip up real quick (no wonder she’s apparently humanity’s savior).
So yeah, keeping hope alive, but trying to prepare myself for some more gut-punches in the meantime. We shall see…