Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
** This article contains spoilers for season 11 of The X-Files. **
It is fairly well-known to even the most casual viewer that cult TV phenomenon The X-Files has been a long-running meditation on the search for “capital T Truth.” Lurking below the surface of its narrative of alien forces, and the grand plot to conceal them, is an allegory of humanity’s spiritual longings, which has transformed the pulpy sci-fi drama into something deeper. The show’s main characters, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson), embody differing epistemological approaches. In this context, conspiracy theory—with its insistence on hidden knowledge and a belief in the fundamental connectedness of all mysteries—functions as the religious mysticism of our age.
Throughout this recent season, Carter has magnified this sense of the divine purpose represented by William by depicting Mulder, Scully, and their son as a contemporary Holy Family.On March 21, The X-Files aired what is almost certainly the final episode of its 25-year run. The show returned from a 14-year hiatus from television in 2016 with a six-episode event series, followed by another ten episodes in the winter of 2018. These recent seasons since the show’s ’90s heyday leaned heavily on a narrative of salvation, now that the threads of the earlier seasons’ mythology have either been forgotten or come to fruition. During the two-season revival, four “My Struggle” episodes written by show creator Chris Carter functioned as a miniseries within the whole, advancing the show’s storyline as it questioned how humanity will survive, how we can “fight the future,” in the face of plague and environmental destruction. Immediately following the opening credits of the series finale, “My Struggle IV,” in place of the iconic phrase “The Truth Is Out There” instead was the Latin mass term for Christ, “Salvator Mundi”— “The Savior of the World.”
From the beginning, The X-Files has not shied away from using Christ-figure imagery or from dropping hints about the role of divine intervention in its storylines. Most explicitly, in the season seven episode “The Sixth Extinction,” Mulder is put through trials and temptations, complete with images of him stripped, arms spread wide on an operating table, a cervical-brace where a crown of thorns would be. These episodes directly explore Mulder’s position as a reluctant Christ-figure, drawing on Kazantakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Indeed, for the bulk of the original run of the series, Mulder is positioned as a type of savior, or as a Knight of Faith, pursuing knowledge of ultimate truth at the expense of nearly everything else in his life.
In addition to these images of Mulder as a Don-Quixote-style holy fool, the original run also occasionally hinted at moments of divine intervention in Scully’s life. Early in the series, she is abducted—whether by men or by alien forces, we’re never certain—and then inexplicably returned. In the episode “One Breath,” it seems that she has been returned to Mulder and their work as part of the manipulative plan of a group of shadowy figures. But one fleeting interaction with a nurse, Nurse Owens, who Scully remembers as caring for her during her abduction, suggests that other, angelic, forces may also be at work. Similarly, in season four, Scully goes through a crisis of faith while battling a cancer of indeterminate origin. When she is eventually healed, the news of her healing immediately follows a scene of her recommitting to her Catholic faith and praying with a priest. While one proffered explanation is that an alien technology implanted in her neck is responsible, the script leaves us with the inescapable possibility that her healing has been a miracle.
Indeed, as the show progressed into its waning years in seasons eight and nine, Carter continued to suggest the possibility of divine intervention into the narrative through the way in which he tells the story of the birth of William, Mulder and Scully’s son. After failed in-vitro fertilization treatments, a previously infertile Scully becomes pregnant (we’re led to believe, in the old fashioned way). She gives birth dramatically in the season eight finale, in a location as rustic as a stable, with a possibly-alien host of onlookers, a bright light (from a helicopter?) shining down on her location. She is then visited by three series favorites, The Lone Gunmen, who bear gifts and play the unmistakable role of the wise men.
It’s not the first iteration of Scully as the divine mother, but it’s an image Carter conveys deliberately with a great deal of emphasis placed on the miraculous nature of William’s conception and the possibility that he represents a “perfect human child,” immune to the coming alien-virus apocalypse (as nonsensical as that sounds: the show’s mythology became ever-more-tangled as the years went on).
Thus, it is William (Miles Robbins), not Mulder, who the finale’s phrase, “Salvator Mundi,” refers to as The X-Files came to a close this March. Much of the last two seasons in 2016 and 2018 (as well as the 2008 film, I Want to Believe) has revolved around the search for William, along with Scully’s guilt over having given him up for adoption shortly after his birth (which calls to mind another infertile woman, the Old Testament Hannah, who voluntarily gave up her son for a higher purpose). Carter’s four “My Struggle” scripts paint a picture of a doomed planet, helpless to escape a coming viral apocalypse, save for an elect few who’ve been granted immunity through the scientific machinations of the series villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). William is a wrinkle in his plan, though, because somehow (we’re never told how exactly) he possesses a genetic makeup that would enable the creation of an antidote to the alien viruses about to decimate us all. His blood, quite literally, could save the world.
Throughout this recent season, Carter has magnified this sense of the divine purpose represented by William by depicting Mulder, Scully, and their son as a contemporary Holy Family. In the penultimate episode, “Nothing Lasts Forever,” we are given multiple scenes of Scully praying in the chapel of St. Joseph’s church—St. Joseph being, of course, the non-biological father of Christ. In an earlier Carter-penned episode this season, there is a scene of Mulder and Scully arriving at the Saint Rachel motel (incidentally named after another infertile Biblical woman) and finding “no room at the inn”—or only one room anyway. Scully as the troubled Catholic mother, uneasy about the cosmic fate of her son, serves as an image Carter returns to repeatedly throughout his four episode “My Struggle” arc.
In the story Carter has seemed to be telling since William conception in season seven, Mulder, Scully, and their miraculous child are key to humanity’s salvation, and only their combined efforts yield answers to the truths they seek throughout their 25-year quest. When the series initially wrapped in 2002, John Wilson of Christianity Today reflected on the final scene of “The Truth,” pointing out that the “X-Files ends with the sign of the cross”—a tender and moving scene in which the two main characters have circled toward a meaningful resolution of their search for the Truth (read, God) and finally “believe the same thing.” In that initial ending, Mulder and Scully, and their at-that-time absent child, represent the fullness of understanding possible through the combined human faculties of reason, faith, and love.
Given the breadth and depth of Christian salvation imagery that has permeated the show then, it is perplexing that, in these recent revivals, Carter’s reliance on Christian parallels falters when explaining William’s origins. This January, the newest season opened with the nauseating revelation that, rather than the divinely conceived union between lovers, William is instead the product of the villainous Cigarette Smoking Man’s alien experimentations. In a flashback that upends what we’ve believed about him for a decade and a half, we’re shown a new take on an episode in which CSM impregnates Scully—“with science,” Carter assured viewers in an Entertainment Weekly article—with the intent of creating an offspring to continue his nefarious projects into the next generation. If his procreator is not divine but instead the story’s devil, this revelation undoes any sense in which William can be positively viewed as “the savior of the world.” The incarnation, after all, was not a rape, but what Scully endures is undeniably a sexual assault.
This retcon of William’s storyline muddies a salvific reading of the final episode, then, because while we are clearly meant to read William’s story as that of a suffering savior, viewers now know him to be the product of rape and twisted alien science. Nevertheless, Carter structures the finale as William’s Golgotha. We see William struggle, Gethsemane-like, against carrying out his father’s plan (understanding his father to be the Cigarette Smoking Man). We see him attempt to gather his teenage friends around him, wanting simply to kill himself, as the outlines of his purpose become sickeningly clear. We see him push away and disown his mother, Scully, attempting to convince her that it is better if he leave her behind. Predictably, in the end, William sacrifices himself, taking a bullet meant for Mulder between the eyes and then sinking beneath the murky waters of an industrial port.
In the final shot of the episode—and probably the whole 25-year series, barring the unlikely renewal of the show for another season—William’s head rises from the water, eyes open and very much alive, before the screen cuts to black. It’s a shot that cannot help but call to mind the last moments of The Passion of the Christ, just the barest hint of resurrection gleaming from the edges of the screen. What is not easy to assess, though, is how we’re meant to feel about this moment. If William’s origins are sinister, if he represents the outworkings of twisted science rather than a divine hand, then we cannot root for his resurrection. The final sense we’re left with suggests that the legacy, the lineage, that will continue into the future is not that of our heroes, but that of evil itself.
This question of legacy, of how to manipulate and direct the course of the future, has been at the heart of The X-Files mythology from the very beginning. The initial conspiracy that Mulder and Scully uncover is that a secret consortium of powerful men long ago made a pact with alien powers to create alien-human hybrids able to survive a coming invasion. The consortium of men make this agreement by trading their own children in exchange for the genetic technology that will enable this hybridization.
How do we “fight the future?” the story asks. The answer is, through our children, through those things we bring into the world that will extend beyond our lives, by shaping them (literally, physically) in ways that will allow for their survival. Thus, many of the show’s storylines and subplots have revolved around the ways in which genetic manipulation might either save us or fundamentally alter the nature of humanity. In this framework, the story’s villains have always been those who callously disrupt and manipulate human genetics, and our heroes have been committed to undoing and exposing their projects.
I am hopeful that The X-Files will be remembered as an allegory of faith and faithfulness, rather than the twisted Greek tragedy it seemingly became at its close.So this question of how we “fight the future” in The X-Files is very much a question about what saves us. We are all born into a world that is flawed, full of secrets and evils that take a life’s work to uncover and oppose. In the show’s pilot episode, Scully comes into Mulder’s life—someone whose obsessions and beliefs have been shaped by the sins of his father. She sees the quest he’s on, and instead of turning away from him, she joins him in it. They go about seeking for answers and doing whatever small part they can to be redemptive figures amidst the structural evils that they uncover. Taken as a whole, then, the show is about finding ourselves with the baggage of those who have come before us, and what we should do to redeem or alter the legacies of pain we’re born into.
This is why so many have found inspiration in reading The X-Files as a quasi-spiritual quest. It is very much the Christian story of discipleship and commitment in the context of a fallen creation. In our own lives, we have to choose what to do about the evils we’re ensnared in, and we have to work to undo them so that the generations that come after us are not subject to the same distorting forces. It’s the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, that our life on earth should aim to “repair the world.” We partner with people—our families, friends, colleagues, spouses, children: that’s what The X-Files has been about, and why the central relationship between Mulder and Scully has proven so meaningful to a generation of viewers. The X-Files has remained a powerful and compelling story because it explores this question of how we join one another in undoing and exposing evil, and how we fight to act ethically and truthfully even as we’re buffeted by forces we can’t know or fully understand.
Chris Carter has always liked to play fast and loose with imagery, and bringing closure is not something he has ever been interested in, preferring instead to leave his narrative doors perpetually open. Some see this storytelling method as a commentary on truth itself, suggesting its fundamental unknowability. Yet the way a creator ends a story has inescapable implications for how we read what has come before. Prior to the finale, The X-Files could have been read as a quest for truth, a holy errand, in which Mulder and Scully’s sacrifices and devotion to one another would pay off in revelation, in salvation, and in the redemption of their painful personal stories. Instead, longtime viewers were left trying to read a salvation narrative onto parts and pieces that finally, did not quite resolve—or worse, seemed to indicate that, no matter how much of a life you give to the pursuit of the truth, evil will always thwart you, reaching even backward into your own history to undo whatever good thing you believed you had accomplished.
I am hopeful that The X-Files will be remembered as an allegory of faith and faithfulness, rather than the twisted Greek tragedy it seemingly became at its close. Those of us who have our own suspicions that history’s story will, in fact, be redeemed, that the struggle against evil will at some point come to fruition, can hope for no less.
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