“If I’m putting my ass out there, I need to know it’s hanging by more than just a very slender thread.”
After eight years of radio silence, the number stations are spinning back up. Returning to the air with the inauspiciously-named ‘My Struggle,’ The X-Files manages to wed frenetic pacing and herky editing to David Duchovny’s affectless performance to create something as breakneck as it is soporific. From the opening spasms of director Chris Carter’s attempts to make Duchovny’s deadpan series recap exciting to the shaky cam plaguing even the episode’s quietest moments, ‘My Struggle’ is a visual and substantive wasteland with little to justify the return of this long-dormant cult favorite to the airwaves.
The episode is an artless tangle of events and exposition which serves as a hard reboot to the series’s convoluted alien invasion mythology. Watching Gillian Anderson and Annet Mahendru struggle through clunky dialogue about alien DNA while characters give one another the runaround for reasons beggaring belief goes from awkward to frustrating at a fair clip. The show’s approach to developing its own mystery is well-illustrated by a scene in which character actor Rance Howard, here portraying a doctor who participated in the coverup at Roswell, meets with Mulder by night in a park and refuses to divulge vital information he admits to knowing. He seems to want Mulder to reach his own conclusions, to form a complete picture, but the stakes are so high and the potential revelations so staggering that it mostly feels like an excuse to drag the episode out for another 20 minutes.
The episode’s most meaningful thread is its soft focus on the dissolution of Mulder’s and Scully’s relationship. Gillian Anderson remains magnetic and engaging as Dana Scully, always the more interesting and complex of the show’s two leads. Her skepticism, her faith in God, her deep concern for Mulder’s well being and her capacity for both compassion and vengeance are all on full display as she attempts to navigate reuniting with her old flame and dredging up attendant memories. Duchovny is serviceable in their scenes together, so like wallpaper that he can be more or less ignored without missing much. Of the show’s new additions, neither Joel McHale’s millionaire right wing conspiracy nut Tad O’Malley nor Annet Mahendru’s multiple abduction survivor, Sveta, have room or material enough to make any kind of impression.
The plot at the episode’s heart is absurd, cutting the original series off at the knees in order to suggest a darker and more pessimistic conspiracy: that venal men, not aliens, are wielding extraterrestrial technology in preparation for the conquest of Earth. The mental gymnastics needed to accept how swiftly Mulder starts believing that every alien abduction in history was the work of corrupt and shadowy organizations only draw out and accentuate the show’s structural weaknesses, essentially unchanged since its original run. The flaw at the heart of The X-Files has always been its inability to meaningfully engage the idea of conspiracy. We’re meant to see Mulder as a searing intellect often swayed by the unorthodox, but bizarre pacing and uneven dispersal of information make him look like a loon who can be made to think and feel anything if fed a few tidbits of random information.
The show’s core concept is meant to redeem Mulder’s methods and beliefs, but his every triumph is less sleuthery than guesswork and dumb luck. He seldom follows clues, never attempts to disprove his own ideas, and blindly embraces the paranoid jargon of Internet pundits. It’s simply that in the world of the show, conspiracy really is lurking around every corner. Chem trails warp thoughts, there’s something in every water supply, and Bush most definitely did 9-11. I dislike playing what-if, but a smarter show might give us a Mulder whose burning need to believe was tempered over time or refined into some methodology or ethos. Instead we have a man who, pushing 60, spews an entire subreddit about weather wars and electromagnetic credit destruction after one limo ride with a very wealthy imbecile.
Even given its bleak worldview, though, The X-Files never manages to create any believable feeling of paranoia or suspicion. The resurrection of the Smoking Man, dragged out of that pueblo from season 9 with a few burn scars and a replacement stoma, is shopworn and rote from its potboiler dialogue to its ominous pan around familiar shoulders. ‘My Struggle’ offers a shallow retread of a series that never achieved consistent quality and which has grown no fresher in the years since its conclusion. Twin Peaks, another mystery-heavy show returning as a limited series after a long hiatus, went out with stories left untold and themes left undeveloped. Rich in unanswered questions and in character material, its return promises a chance to make good on those dangling threads. The X-Files ended after seasons of declining quality and faltering focus, and its revival does little to correct that course.