[This is a review of The X-Files season 10, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
Whenever The X-Files turns to comedy the show has its best results when the target of its humor is the series itself, its basic conceit, and, more often than not, the utter futility of Agent Fox Mulder's pursuit of the elusive "Truth" that's out there. While the show sometimes injects moments of levity and humor into even the most staid story lines, doing an episode with the intent of poking fun at itself is no easy task; there's a fine line between finding the right darkened corners of The X-Files to illuminate and completely alienating your audience who, to a certain extent, also just want to believe (even if it's just for an hour at a time). It's one thing to deliver a knowing wink at the viewer and another thing altogether to tell them what they're watching is patently ridiculous.
There likely isn't a better-received comedy episode in the entire series than 'Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space,'' written by Darin Morgan back in season 3. This was the same season that Morgan's other humor-laced episodes, like 'War of the Coprophages' and 'Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose,' made their way onto the air. Morgan, for his part, excelled at a specific deconstruction of The X-Files ethos, while also adhering to the typical episodic format of the series. Despite this tendency for deconstruction, Morgan's episodes still felt crafted with affection for the series and its co-protagonist, who, when Morgan was at the helm, revealed a fondness for things like, say, grainy footage of Bigfoot that went beyond a mere pursuit of the truth. Sometimes, Morgan's episodes carry with them the sentiment of a parent who would lovingly refer to their child as an idiot, but indulged their proclivities just the same. And, funny as it may sound, sometimes Morgan's indulgences served to enhance the show's proclivities in spectacular ways.
Morgan's episodes were singular in The X-Files run because of their humor, but also because of their willingness to take the show apart and see how it ticked, or to paint Mulder as something other than the stalwart hero with a very open mind. But there was something else lurking just beneath the surface of the stories: it was an ongoing existential crisis that cast these oddball hours in a specific light, one that questioned the meaning of human existence and became fixated on the pointlessness of everyday life, the lonely unknowable nature of the universe, and the inevitability of death.
That's especially true of 'Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster,' in which Rhys Darby's humanity infected lizard-man – appropriately named Guy Mann – is wracked with anxieties and dilemmas facing the average human being after being bitten by a serial killer, played by X-Files mega-fan (and host of The X-Files Files) Kumail Nanjiani. The episode feels like all of Morgan's greatest hits rolled into one very funny hour of television. Not only does it deconstruct the typical monster-of-the-week format by turning what would typically be the antagonist of the narrative into the victim, but it also flips the script on Mulder's usual fanaticism by filling him with something he normally lacks: self-doubt.
All of this plays into the hour's exploration of the human pursuit of meaning and the Truth, and how, while they may intersect in some vague fashion, they don't necessarily have anything to do with one another. The irony in all of this is that Guy Mann's true form – the horned lizard-man who can shoot blood from his eyes – is effectively both meaning and Truth for Mulder; he is a living, breathing X-File. And yet this creature that can bring significance to Mulder's life and validate his efforts for the past twenty-plus years is himself tormented by the absurdity of existence: the worries, self-doubt, regret, loneliness, and, especially the feeling of not wanting to wake up the next day and go to work.
Guy asks Mulder, what if everything we know is all there is? There's a depressing realization in that question, which basically explains the existence The X-Files and its status as a touchstone of modern popular culture. The real world is sometimes a dreadfully boring and harsh place, and since the '90s heyday of The X-Files' original run, it has also become a much scarier place, one that is ready to demonstrate at the drop of a hat what a luxury it is to be preoccupied with unsubstantiated fears of alien abductions and werewolves and fluke monsters. And yet, even while it is busy deflating Mulder's beliefs – or desire to believe – and the raison d'être of The X-Files itself in the year 2016, 'Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster' finds a way to re-inflate everything, giving the series, its conflicted protagonist, and even the audience back that necessary want by first taking them through a very relatable existential crisis.
Self-doubt isn't something Mulder is necessarily known for. His level of certainty is of the obsessive kind that verges on frightening. But there's something comforting in Mulder's certitude that doesn't merely serve the episodic narratives of the series he's a part of; it makes it okay for those watching to get swept up in the "what if?" of it all. Seeing him lack that aspect of his persona is one of the aspects beyond its comical tone that makes this episode unique. Furthermore, the use of camera phones and apps and all the talk of the mundanity of profiling serial killers makes the hour exclusive to the revival – as though the ideas behind it wouldn't have come off nearly as well had the hour been a part of The X-Files proper.
Morgan's recognition of time having passed and popular culture's desire to hang on to that for which it has nostalgic feelings helps to lessen the episode's existential blow. Mulder's reason for existing is the X-Files and vice-versa -- and the episode underlines that in a surprisingly effective way. Like Scully says when Mulder's ramblings become decidedly more Mulder-y: "This is how I like my Mulder." And after this and last Monday's episode, it's safe to say, this is how most people like their X-Files.
The X-Files continues next Monday with 'Home Again' @8pm on FOX.
Photos: Ed Araquel/FOX