Our Lady of Sorrows: On "The X-Files"

By Sarah Mesle, Phillip MaciakJanuary 26, 2016

Our Lady of Sorrows: On "The X-Files"
DEARTVLOGOPHIL: Dear Television and Sarah, The X-Files is back! Before we get started, I want to tell a story about The X-Files. My Dad and I watched the show together every week when I was a kid. My mom didn’t like watching scary(ish) things, so she’d read a magazine, and my Dad and I would watch Mulder and Scully get into scrapes. In my recollection, we had picked it up a ways into the series. So this summer when Melanie, my partner, suggested that we re-watch the series from the beginning on Netflix, I said, hooray, I’ll finally get to see the first episodes! But guess what, Sarah? It turns out I’d seen them all already. It turns out, in fact, my Dad and I had started watching the show with the Pilot episode, and I didn’t even realize it.

xfiles LEAD IMAGE scully with blood
What’s the point of this story? I think it’s that The X-Files, unique among network series of that era, really hit its tone right away. So much so that it felt as if my Dad and I had hopped on board an already moving train. It’s shocking how much — the smoking man, the Mulder/Scully sexual tension, Eugene Tooms — is there fully-formed very early, how much the X-Files world feels like the X-Files world out of the gate. And, to me, at least, it was a little disappointing how much this first episode of this reboot didn’t feel like that world. This is less like a reboot to me than whatever Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer is. I can’t imagine a televisual sense memory stronger than the one I have for what it’s like to be around these two handsome creatures, but, from Joel McHale’s I-Won-A-Sweepstakes-To-Be-An-Extra-On-The-X-Files mugging to the porn-level production value of Scully’s Room of Earless Children to the show’s stumbling embrace of new technology — nobody Googles like that, Dana! — the whole thing felt a little, um, alien.

SARAH: Phil! I have an entirely different story to tell here, one you will perhaps be shocked to hear: I managed to escape the nineties without really caring about The X-Files! Are you shocked? It’s shocking! It was just never really my jam. I was around it a lot — in college, everyone watched it a ton because it aired Sunday nights when you were trying to avoid your homework — but I couldn’t really get into it. The monster episodes always ended so unsatisfyingly, and I wasn’t committed enough to get into the mythology.  

PHIL: So, you watched The X-Files, but you didn’t inhale. [nineties emoji]

SARAH: Exactly. I do have some concerns here that my failure to deeply care about The X-Files makes me a… I don’t know, bad person? Failed intellectual? But on the upside, I’m hoping that it makes me a provocative interlocutor for you, because we really are coming at this from different angles. And from where I’m coming from: this was good, if not totally riveting, TV. Maybe I liked it because it was alien? For me the narrative interlocutors are less the original X-Files episodes than the other sci-fi shows I liked more: Battlestar Galactica, obviously, and then, at the end there, I was delighted to find in Big Sis “Mind-Meld” Molly a veritable clone of the Firefly’s River Tam. Phil! River Tam is the best! Do you think Molly is also going to be a gifted knife fighter? Are there going to be Reavers?! Reaver battles are always so sketched out and swashbuckling! I mean, give me a reaver any day over these suited X-File dudes.

Here’s the other thing though: this reboot reminds me of Battlestar and Firefly most obviously because of its deep dive into monstrous maternity: hybridity, reproduction gone awry, technological flesh. Was X-Files always like this? Did I somehow miss that?

PHIL: I think the answer is yes and no. (To a previous question, the answer is: no, you are not a bad person.) There are two X-Files: the case-of-the-week procedural overcast with a serial conspiracy and the serial conspiracy occasionally interrupted by the case-of-the-week. The other way of saying that, I think, is that there’s the X-Files I remember and love and the X-Files I almost immediately forgot about once it was over. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to take a trip to the X-Files wiki to remind myself if the off-screen child Mulder and Scully sired was supposed to be a new revelation in Sunday’s episode. Maybe that makes me a bad fan, I don’t know. To me, the threat of the conspiracy, its shadowy omnipresence, was always the important part. (I don’t need to know who the smoking man is for his presence to be effective. In fact, I would argue that I’d rather not know.) Whenever the show — especially in its later seasons — endeavored to articulate, explain, or build out the conspiracy, it compromised some of the irresolution that was such a key part of its aesthetic. The truth, they keep telling us, is out there. It’s not supposed to be here.

SARAH: That is very smartly said, Phil, and gets at what I always found so annoying about the monster episodes — the way they were so neatly wrapped up. One of the great things about Battlestar, by comparison, is that the overarching arc of that narrative — the desperate attempt to unravel the riddle leading home — structured and infused the daily life of all the show’s characters, so that even the episodes that weren’t “about” the larger arc could glean some sustaining energy, some forward momentum, from it. (Now I really want to know if you liked Battlestar. Phil, remember Battlestar?!) And of course, that quest for a safer future played out around the question of reproduction. It’s interesting to think about how that compares to what X-Files is trying to do with its own plot in this reboot, and Scully’s place in it.

xfiles scully mouth
PHIL: Sarah, get the frak out of here, of course I remember Battlestar. But reproduction on X-Files seems to occupy a different, maybe less-integral, maybe less-existential, place than it occupied on BSG. Scully’s motherhood emerged, I think, as a part of the narrating of the larger conspiracy, and it’s always been a fraught part of the show (not only because the unraveling of the conspiracy in the later seasons is famously confusing). From the very beginning, Scully was a foil who was more dramatically interesting than the character she was meant to counteract. (The comparisons to Peggy Olson do not end here!)

She’s a rationalist and a Catholic, she’s repulsed by Mulder and in love with him, she’s a brilliant, non-practicing doctor and a disgraced FBI agent. Scully’s arc was always the one to watch, but when the conspiracy started to take over toward the end, it seemed like Scully’s depth as a character was sacrificed a little in order to deepen the mythology, give it a body we cared about.

And so Scully’s fertility becomes an issue, then there’s the abduction and her immaculate conception, and all of a sudden this idiosyncratic swirl of faith, reason, and sexuality becomes a boiler-plate drama of beset motherhood. (Another flawed hero of the nineties recently did this to Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron.) This isn’t to say that Scully’s motherhood didn’t play out in strange and gripping ways — admittedly, an alien baby is a pretty fascinating device for resolving Scully’s constant desire for and resistance to a “normal” life — but am I alone in feeling that the reboot’s immediate re-investment in this plotline is a little off-the-mark? In other words, did you find the X-Files’ reproductive politics interesting enough for the reboot to essentially structure itself around them?

SARAH: Short answer: no, or at least not yet. I liked the second episode’s respect for Sanjay’s (the suicidal doctor’s) attachment to “his children”: there and elsewhere, I thought the show opened up some possibilities for a portrait of attachment and reproduction beyond the usual. But, more discouragingly, the moment I liked least was when Scully and Jackie Goldman gazed at each other intently over the psych ward table and meditate on the Hallmark-card insight that “a mother never forgets.” Really? Does she never? This is the sort of claim that’s predictable at best and dangerous at worse: as though the ultimate moral and emotional core of a woman’s life is always the baby she does or doesn’t have, does or doesn’t give away. Which: I guess whoever wrote this episode isn’t following the attacks on Planned Parenthood as closely as I am? (I just looked, the writer is James Wong. James! Keep up with your Grand Jury news!)

xfiles mothers
(NB: I also just learned — maybe you knew this? — that Wong has done a ton of writing for American Horror Story, which also veers precipitously in and out of an interesting relationship to the gothicized maternal bodies it’s always deploying. And also, Wong co-wrote (with Glen Morgan) the only original X-Files episode that I really did inhale: the Southern Gothic set piece “Home.” Phil! Do you remember the amputee mother under the bed?! Now, that was some smart gothic imagery! That portrait of trapped/entrapping motherhood is so much more metaphorically effective than Scully gazing in scripted and sentimental dismay at the institutionalized mothers of Founder’s Mutation.)

PHIL: I did not know this, but it makes sense! All of this comes back around, of course, to Gillian Anderson, her aura, and the pay gap. The recent revelation that we, the citizens of the world, do not deserve Gillian Anderson, that those we count as fellow humans saw fit to degrade her name and pay her less than the former protagonist of the Red Shoe Diaries actually provides a pretty fun, possibly even illuminating, context for this new show. (Instead of a contract that stipulates Gillian Anderson stand a few feet behind David Duchovny, it should stipulate that every child of woman born bow down before her.) There’s a sequence at the very end of the first episode where Scully and Mulder are talking in a parking garage. She is lit as though with the light of a million angels, and he is lit like the iPhone picture you take and discard before the one you put on Instagram. Anyway, theoretically, it’s the natural lighting of this garage, but, having this disparity seems significant — it seems like a choice.

Maybe part of the uncanniness I identified earlier is that Scully seems like she literally descended from heaven. You wrote to me yesterday that “Gillian Anderson’s beauty is NEXT LEVEL,” and I don’t disagree, but the show feels like it’s leaning into that. Despite being quite brusque with her nurse, she genuinely cares about her crazed ex Mulder’s well-being, she selflessly reattaches the ears of earless children — goodness, I hope that the earless children are a non sequitur and not a part of The Syndicate or something — her lil’ cross is choking high enough to be visible above any neckline, and her DNA isn’t even fully human! What’s at stake in this reboot in giving us a saint-like Dana Scully? And, perhaps more importantly, if they’re going to deify her this way, why is she covered in blood so much during this episode?

SARAH: Okay I think this is really important, and here’s where I think you’re right about the uncanniness. I think one of the things that pushed me away from the show originally — and I’m not saying that this is an informed or comprehensive response to the show, because my viewership was so uncommitted — was honestly Scully’s clothes. Or rather, not the clothes themselves, but the way they were inviting me to relate to her character: as someone whose force was purely cerebral rather than corporal. The shoulder pads, the draped jackets: where was her body? And before everyone gets all mad at me, let me say that I hear how that sounds! I mean, I don’t want to really complain about the presence of a female character whose force rested entirely in her intelligence, rather than her sexual attractiveness. But seriously, c’mon: it was the nineties, I was twenty, I was wearing stretch velvet and flannel and living on a diet of beer and queer theory, and it really seemed to me that this show was buying into some annoying body/mind dichotomy that I did not have time for.

So to me the provocative thing about new Scully is not that she’s so sanctified as that she’s so visceral. She is full to bursting with embodied feelings! Her blood literally will not stay inside her!

I must tell you that my pet theory here, Phil, is that we have Charles Dickens to thank for this new Scully. I mean, you just cannot go off and get cast as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, as Gillian Anderson did, and come back unchanged. You have to come back with an even bleaker, sterner, more tragic beauty; you have to come back ever more keenly aware of the deep flowing river of emotion within you! (Lady Dedlock: a mother who never forgets, true, but also a mother who basically says “fuck this noise” under her super tight composure.)

xfiles bleak house
I’m talking myself into a place where the new X-Files is a butterfly-mix of Firefly and Bleak House trying to break free from a hallmark card cocoon. So I guess I’m a little hopeful?? Firefly + Bleak House sounds to me like heaven! But how does it sound to an actual X-Files fan?

PHIL: It sounds great! Melanie put it this way: Dana Scully was always a step behind Gillian Anderson. And that’s nowhere clearer than here re: The Case of the Extra-Textual Gravitas Gillian Anderson Has Accumulated That David Duchovny Has Not. Anderson has spent 14 years realizing the latent potential of Dana Scully, from her various exploits on British television (especially The Fall) to her arc on Hannibal, and it’s something the reboot now has to deal with. So, I think you’re right about the visceral new Scully (still contrasted with Chris Carter’s commitment to portraying her as the Virgin Mary), but I think it’s important that it’s new. That blood splatter on her neck might as well be leftover from Hannibal. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about exploring in this reboot. At first I thought that the blithe — almost chummy — way she got back in touch with Mulder (her ex!) was odd, but, in context of your reading, it makes sense. Why on earth would New Dana Scully get all bent out of shape over puffy old CaliforniFox Mulder? She’s busy sippin’ on champagne in Joel McHale’s limo — get it, Scully!

xfiles get it scully
I think, ultimately, the question of this new series is whether it’s going to be able to understand itself. Does the new X-Files understand what worked about the old X-Files? Will it figure out how to integrate the past decade and a half of terrorism, surveillance, and rapidly exploding technology in a way that feels more organic than Joel McHale’s Mr. Robot-style TED talk? But, especially, does it understand the irreplaceable natural resource it has in the person of Gillian Anderson?

So, now is perhaps the time to bestow our weekly Best/Worst Awards. The Best, for me, is obviously Dana Scully, chilling in the operating theater, watching YouTube videos on her laptop, covered in blood.

SARAH: I have two Bests, and they both have less to do with the show itself than they have to do with my experience as a lady TV watcher. First, I’m sticking by my affection for how, at the end, Mind-Mind Molly totally just escaped the fuck out of there, a moment which was especially sweet because thus far we have already had two young vulnerable pregnant or formerly-pregnant women murdered by the screenwriter’s needs to show us just how very bad the government is.

My second Best is Gillian Anderson’s dye job. It’s perfect. That hair knows everything Mulder hasn’t learned yet about being a grown up.

Here’s my Worst: the torture of how Gillian Anderson’s hair doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. All the women in this show with speaking roles — with the possible exception of Scully, and also that one scientist with the slowed-down voice at Sanjay’s meeting — are either assistants or victims. I grow weary, Phil. I grow weary.  

PHIL: I know! Scully actually calls her nurse at Our Lady of Sorrows, “Nurse.” Like, is she too busy streaming web content to ask that woman her name? I’ve seen her twice, and I feel awkward that I don’t know her name. I’ve been kind of hard here on what is, after all, a series I’m really glad to have back in my life. So, instead of a Worst, I’m going to name a Not The Worst, and that honor goes to David Duchovny. I think he’s fine. These two episodes have tilted a little toward Tortured Mulder as opposed to Wily, Yet Tortured Mulder — I prefer the latter — but that’s not his fault. It’s also not his fault that maybe his acting game has slipped a little over the past 14 years while Scully was basically doing the thespian equivalent of playing sixth-man on the Golden State Warriors. I don’t hate you, Duchovny.

We want to believe,
Sarah and Phil


LARB Contributors

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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