Living in the X-Files
With daily revelations about Twitter and long holiday evenings, perhaps now is a good time to revisit The X-Files.
Every few months, there is a new prestige TV show that everyone I know watches obsessively. Right now, The White Lotus and Euphoria share the crown. Earlier, there was...actually, I can’t remember what the “it” show was a year or two ago, because to be honest I never watch these things anymore. Since Homeland, Mad Men, and The Wire, I haven’t devoted a single minute to prestige TV. I just don’t have the time for it.
But this summer, while finishing my latest book, I returned to a very different kind of television: a show rooted in the schlock science-fiction of an earlier age but pointing in the direction of the sleek, edgy TV to come. I’m speaking of The X-Files, the 1990s Fox phenom that at its peak commanded the attention of something like a fifth of U.S. households. And for good reason: It is a show suffused with delicious paranoia, clever sociopolitical commentary, and a strangely memorable kind of pathos. Rewatching the entire series in a few weeks, I was struck by how effective it was, and is—and how its political themes jibe with our current moment.
(You might ask, if you don’t have time for The White Lotus and the like, how did you make time for The X-Files? Fair question. Having already watched The X-Files as a teenager, I didn’t really watch-watch it this time around. With my family away for the summer, leaving me alone to finish my manuscript, I would often have the show running in the background, occasionally tuning in for episodes I found particularly interesting as a sort of mental break.)
For a measure of the show’s intelligence, consider three of my favorites:
Start with “Home,” from the second season, one of the most controversial, visceral, and celebrated of the whole series. It tells the story of an incestuous family in deep-rural Pennsylvania, with the three brothers breeding new members with their own mother, a horrifically malformed creature they keep in a cupboard. The genius of the story lies in the way it subverts every expectation: The brothers’ victim isn’t a victim at all, but their own mother who commands them to keep it in the family, as it were, pushing the ideal of filiality to a perverse extreme; the rural idyll is likewise revealed to be a potential site of horror, and by the episode’s end, our protagonists, Agents Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson), are filled with gratitude for urbanity.
Then there is fifth-season episode “Folie à Deux,” which concerns a telemarketer (Brian Markinson) who suspects that his boss is a horrible insect creature with the power to turn his fellow employees into zombies. A hostage situation ensues, and Mulder intervenes to stop the crazed employee—only to realize that he might be telling the truth about his boss. Here you have all the elements of the strongest X-Files episodes: high production values that make the utterly implausible a little less so; sheer terror mingled with a light touch of humor; and provocative social commentary (the zombifying boss/monster is an allegory of capital, of course, the kind of imagery that Marx himself might have deployed in his more literary flourishes).
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Finally, there is “Per Manum,” from the eighth season, which saw Mulder replaced by Special Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick) as Scully's main partner. “Per Manum” is part of the show’s overarching mythology involving a government conspiracy to facilitate an alien invasion of our planet. The full plot is far, far too convoluted to summarize here, but the upshot is that a pregnant Scully begins to suspect the baby she is carrying is an alien—and that an entire government-corporate apparatus is conspiring to make sure she gives birth to this monstrosity. “Per Manum” is an absolute masterpiece of paranoia, reminiscent in the way in which, in Rosemary’s Baby, seemingly everyone the pregnant woman turns to winds up being an accomplice of evil.
Except, in this case, as in the whole of the series, the main evil is the state security apparatus. And it is this aspect that makes The X-Files such an of-the-moment show in our time. Think about it: In 2022, we learned that the Pentagon has been taking unidentified flying objects seriously for decades, revelations sure to inflame old Spooky’s excitable mind. Closer to earth, we learned that the FBI and other elements of the security apparatus work hand-in-glove with at least one Silicon Valley giant, Twitter, to censor information contrary to governmental policies on issues like Covid lockdowns and vaccine mandates. FBI agents, in other words, shape the perceptions not just of ordinary Americans, but even of media elites. The Twitter Files were the real X-Files, and reality is catching up with TV fiction.
The truth is out there, indeed.