Work Header

You Can't Handle the Truth: X-Files Series Finale, "The Truth"

Work Text:




The more I think back over the X-Files rewatch, the more I have come to believe that the skeptic/believer dichotomy is nearly as big a lie as Watson’s insistence that Holmes doesn’t have emotions.

Yes, Scully believes that science can ultimately account for all things that happen in the universe no matter how mysterious, and this does make her initially skeptical of Mulderian explanations which are essentially magical. And yes, Mulder is willing to believe just about anything if it appeals his imagination, supports his belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life and the frequency of alien abduction, or plays into his paranoid view of his own government. This produces a lot of surface tension between the two of them which provides the spark and the banter that drew many of us to the relationship in the first place.

Once we get below that, however, I think we see that the reason their partnership actually works—and the reason that the show works—is that what they have in common is more important than what separates them. While writing up my reaction to the season 6 episode “Tithonus,” I had this insight:

"Scully is willing to go where the evidence takes her, even if it’s outside her comfort zone. This is what allowed her to become Mulder’s partner instead of just his babysitter (as the FBI originally intended). Unlike Ritter, who doesn’t want to hear it if it doesn’t confirm his preconceived solution, Scully changes her interpretation of a situation based on what she learns about it. Her ‘scientific’ orientation, in other words, is not just a belief system; it’s a methodology. That means that it’s not so much about being a ‘skeptic’ or a ‘believer,’ but about examining evidence and drawing logical conclusions from it. And in that sense, she and Mulder are actually not that different. The main difference between her and Mulder, really, is not that he believes things and she’s skeptical of them, but that they disagree on what constitutes evidence. Mulder is far more willing to accept personal testimony at face value. Scully wants material evidence—you know, the kind created by the operation of the laws of physics. But for both of them, what matters is to find the truth to which the evidence is leading them.”

That, in the end, is what distinguishes not only Mulder and Scully but Doggett, Reyes, and Skinner from the rest of their FBI superiors and colleagues: they come to believe that the truth that is being revealed through their work on the X-Files is more important than anything else, whether it be career advancement, money, power, sanity, the safety of loved ones, or even (for poor long-suffering Scully) the chance to raise her own child. Over nine years, what this truth is has changed a lot; but the show’s finale, “The Truth,” tries to cut through at least some of the false starts, frolicks, and detours to return to what was always supposed to be the main through-line of the mythology: aliens attempting to colonize Earth, with help from human collaborators. It’s not a great episode. It’s certainly not what one would have hoped for as the grand finale to such a compelling and yet chronically frustrating saga. At times, it becomes downright infuriating. But, in a roundabout way and most likely against Chris Carter’s will and conscious intentions, it does reveal a somewhat uncomfortable truth about what made this show so simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. 

Basically, what made The X-Files great was that underneath all the craziness, there was Chris Carter’s perception of an important and (pace Al Gore) very inconvenient truth about the society that he was part of. And what made it go out—from a mythology point of view—with such a pitiful whimper is the fact that Chris Carter just could not handle that truth.

Carter’s fascination with Native Americans is by no means unique among white men writing for American television. Star Trek was originally pitched by Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” which tells you how firmly the Western and its major tropes were gripping the imaginations of network executives back in the 1960s. Roddenberry’s personal fascination with Westerns and especially his coveting of the coolness of the “Indian” cultures featured in those narratives produced some of the most embarrassingly bad individual episodes of original-series Star Trek, including “The Omega Glory” and “A Private Little War.” The phenomenon of white men identifying with the Native Americans whose cultures were decimated by their own ancestors is well-documented in the American entertainment industry. Stories about individual white men who are accepted and often eventually loved and venerated by Native American communities are common enough that I invented, many years ago, the term “Dances With Wolves Syndrome” to describe this narrative trope. One of the features of DWWS is that the sufferings and the fate of the lone white man who ‘goes native’ are always treated as VASTLY more important than the fate of the Native American community which he joins. 

There are many ways in which Carter’s use of Native Americans in the show mythology simply replicates long-established Hollywood cliches and somewhat more recently-established New Age bullshit regarding the cultures that European colonization devastated. Native Americans are presumed to have some kind of mystical knowledge, hidden from white people, about the earth, its history, and its fate (“Anasazi”); they are wise, brave, and pretty much saintly; they are in touch with an otherworld in which Westerners no longer believe and able to pass back and forth between this world and the next; they practice magically efficacious healing rituals; and so on. “The Truth” even stoops to dignify the infamous Mayan Apocalypse by selecting the spurious 2012 “end date” as Day One of the alien invasion. 

And yet, underneath it all, we could feel Carter’s grasp of something that seems to have totally eluded Roddenberry and Costner: the fact that our society was still shaped by the fundamental injustice of the original “alien invasion” on which America was built. By connecting the mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi tribe to that boxcar full of dead aliens and to the Holocaust-inspired mythology episodes of the first several seasons, The X-Files did—obscurely and inconclusively, the way it did everything else—acknowledge that initial invasion as an instance of genocide which was continually being repeated, throughout American history, by cadres of too-powerful white male leaders controlling the US government. It was important to Mulder’s characterization, and to the initial success of the show, that he’s constantly fighting the all-male and all-white cabals, and that he has voluntarily sabotaged a brilliant career which might have led him to a seat amongst this elite group of manipulators. Mulder is a hero precisely because he renounces what Cancer Man would see as his birthright in order to pursue the truth about alien abduction—a truth which, if he could only substantiate it, might prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the gang of geriatric white men who control our destinies and our government definitely do not have our best interests at heart.

But Carter was never willing to follow through on any of that. He was extremely reluctant to allow the mythology to progress at all, and whenever it looked as if the conspirators had suffered an unambiguous defeat, he always wound up reversing it somehow. In the end, I think he was afraid to face the possibilities that Mulder and Scully’s success would have created—including the possibility that after this exposure, white men might not rule the world any more. Like Mulder and Spender, who could never totally break free from their complicit father figures, Carter could understand what was wrong with the system but he could not really face its destruction. It’s significant that despite ample proof that he’s being sabotaged from above, Mulder never quits the FBI; he’s suspended, abducted, and eventually fired, but he remains convinced for a very long time that he won’t be able to get to the truth unless he can remain inside the power structure; and the show validates this, because Mulder is apparently incapable of uncovering ANYTHING without help from an informant who is even closer to the center of the web.

Carter seems to have had a pretty strong desire to—from a metaphorical point of view—kill his Great White Fathers; but somehow it never sticks. The reveal of Cancer Man amongst those ruins in “The Truth” is unintentionally hilarious partly because we just can’t believe that old bastard is back from the dead AGAIN. He’s shot and apparently killed in one season-ender only to be Dramatically Revealed living amidst the snowy slopes of Canada in “Two Fathers”/”One Son.” He is then, at the end of “Requiem,” pushed down a flight of stairs and supposedly killed by Krychek and Kovarrubias. And look. HE’S BACK. Quelle surprise.

So, in this godawful final confrontation, Cancer Man actually gives up that one nugget of truth: that the agency Mulder and Scully have been serving for so long is part of “the first shadow government”—the alien regime raised up by the first wave of invaders from across the seas over the bodies of the Native Americans they displaced. But at the same time, Cancer Man usurps and occupies the position of the supernaturally wise Native American elder; and since we are meant to be shocked and awed by this revelation, instead of rolling on the floor laughing our asses off, I think we can safely say that Carter meant this reveal to confirm the invincible badassery of those earlier generations, the unkillability of those old white men who will always survive and who will always find ways to replicate their evil, and hand over control of the universe to the next alien “shadow government.” And, staying true to DWWS, Mulder’s search for a truth apparently known only to Native Americans simply leads to their destruction, as a band of military helicopters swing into view and blast the fuck out of the ruins while Mulder and Scully escape. 

So in the end, really, we do learn something from this finale about the show itself; what made it good, what made it bad, what prevented it from fulfilling its initial promise. But the only part of the episode that I found I could really enjoy was the reunion of Mulder and Scully. Despite the steep decline in the show's overall quality after Duchovny's semi-departure, the chemistry is back once they reunite in "The Truth." Mulder and Scully are responsible for just about all of the things I liked about the finale:

* Mulder revealing his non-brainwashed status by doing his Hannibal Lecter impersonation. Would have been better if Scully had gotten it earlier, but still classic Mulder.

* Scully telling Mulder about the adoption. 

* Monica Reyes chewing the ‘tribunal’ out at the end of her testimony. Yes Annabeth! Shit just got real! You are on fire! At last your performance has power! What a tragedy that it is the final fucking episode!

* Doggett’s response to “they own the game”: “Then let’s shove it up their ass.” You know, Doggett, you were on the wrong show, but I’m glad they let you go out in style.

* Mulder and Scully’s final scene in the motel. OK, I could have done without the saccharine reworking of the opening credits theme into Love Theme From The X-Files. But really, I thought that despite the cheezwhizziness of some of the writing, it was a beautifully understated picture of two people in a lifetime relationship drawing strength and comfort from each other and moving on. Mulder’s speech about the dead people is of course hackneyed; but let’s mark the fact that it means that after nine years during which he’s apparently been dragging Scully down the rabbit hole of his own belief system, what finally happens is that Scully’s belief system drags him back out of it.

So the end reminds of what we've really been here for, all this time, as the 'skeptic' and the 'believer' come together, philosophically and physically, to draw strength from each other for the fight ahead. That relationship is probably the best and most lasting thing to ever come out of that show; and it is something that it wasn’t totally betrayed and fucked up by the craziness going on all around it. Goodbye, X-Files. It has been a great adventure. I’ll be going now, but I’m sure I’ll be back. Like Cancer Man, my love for this extremely flawed show has taken its share of beatings; but it’s always been impossible to kill.