Disclaimer…I was in the middle of moving these last couple of weeks so I apologize to my three fans about my reviews being late. I’ll get back to them at some point but for now, you guys will get my review on Ghouli…aka an episode that, despite being deeply flawed, moved me in a way that the X-Files hasn’t since the Season 8 finale. And this despite William being a central part of the story! I never thought I’d see the day…
This episode threaded the needle for me. Basically, my feeling prior to “Ghouli” was that William ruined Scully. She used to be strong, independent, and fiercely compelling female character. Once William came into the picture, I feel like Scully got downgraded. The writer’s lost the essence of her character. She became shrill and one-note and that one note was to emote incessantly about the woes of motherhood. It felt like the writers said “hey Scully has a kid and angst is good drama so here are some angsty Scully child scenes!” They rarely worked. Hell, even that pseudo-solid conversation two episodes ago with Mulder was filled with Scully having hackneyed issues about wanting another child. William/motherhood basically became too much of the focus with Scully without actually covering any new ground.
“Hey I know this is an important meeting and all but I just gotta say that I have a son who looks just like that guy standing behind me!”
So it felt like a minor miracle that a William-centric episode shows up and actually worked for me. Why does it work? Because for once, it felt like less of a plot device to generate “emotional scenes” (that terrible “garbage” scene at the end of “Home Again” comes to mind) and more like a thoughtful examination on how this traumatic experience would affect the characters.
Now I have to interject here before I really start with the review.. I am about to rave enthusiastically about how good this episode was…but only from the mindset of someone who has rewatched it. During my first viewing, I thought the first twenty minutes were silly and melodramatic.. Here’s why…
The first act was missing something pretty substantial. Normally, I like when shows don’t hold the audience’s hand but I can’t have been the only person who felt confused as to how Mulder and Scully transitioned from investigating a standard Monster of the Week (MOTW) in the first few scenes to thinking Jackson Van De Kamp was their son. Apparently, I was supposed to remember that Van De Kamp name from the train-wreck that was My Struggle III. Without that connection, the episode becomes jarringly melodramatic with it seeming like Scully is randomly connecting people to her kid without any reason to do so.
“Sir this might sound weird but I made this off-hand comment back when I met William about him looking like Assistant Director Skinner but, and this part is funny, Scully seems to now believe that you are William.”
Yes I am partly to blame for not making the connection between the Van Der Kamp name and one line of dialogue in My Struggle III, an episode that I’ve tried to purge every line of dialogue from my brain. But I really think this is more the show’s fault. I just needed one more line of dialogue at the hospital once they heard Jackson’s name (the dialogue we did get made no sense when the name Van de Kamp meant nothing to me) and everything would have been fine. A little bit of hand-holding would have allowed it to actually sink in that Mulder and Scully believe this case involved their son. Instead I was shaking my head during the scene in Jackson’s bedroom and rolling my eyes during Scully’s tearful apology. It felt like an attempt by the show to manipulate emotions without earning it when it in fact was truly emotionally resonant.
With all of that said, once its revealed that Jackson is William, I realized I had to have missed something. Once I re-watched it and understood the meaningfulness of Jackson’s last name, things all clicked. What initially felt like melodramatic nonsense transformed into a tour de force performance by Gillian Anderson, who really rocked in this episode in a way that I haven’t seen in nearly two decades. For most of the series’ original run, she was fantastic but I hadn’t seen anything impressive from her in the revival up to now. In this episode, this felt like vintage Scully. Her quiet fear and desperation during the entire first act was a great driving force that kept the episode’s momentum up. And the scene where she tearfully pleads with her possibly dead son to understand her motivations is phenomenal…probably up there with some of her best work on the show (though is it me or did her British accent keep slipping in when she was saying “sorry”).
The rest of the episode was generally strong in the same vein as the good ol days for this show. The supernatural element was great with William able to project images and distort reality. I absolutely love that they gave him these powers in a pseudo MOTW episode rather than a complete mythology episode. Plus, the misdirection with the teaser indicating that this was going to be a fairly standard episode was executed fairly well.
This was Scully’s episode but Mulder was solid here. He wasn’t just dropping one liners left and right like he was in “This” (though the recurring joke about Bob was awesome). Here he plays the supportive partner perfectly for Scully. He’s simultaneously witty, supportive, and encouraging and I thought Duchovny played Mulder’s reactions to the situation very well. He’s understated and low key – clearly he’s concerned about Scully and a bit disturbed by how close to home this case is hitting but he suspects everything is not as it seems so we didn’t need any big “grieving Mulder” scenes. We did get the return of the vintage Mulder “barely audible mumble” that he springs out whenever he is talking to Scully during emotional scenes.
“Mulder, you do realize that I can’t hear you when you talk like that?“
The set pieces in this episode worked well. The teaser was suitably creepy and did a good job of (fake) setting up the atmosphere for the rest of the episode. And that climax at the hospital was great…good cat and mouse chase with some legitimate tension. I loved the little touch of William disguising himself as the nurse and running away from Mulder and Scully, particularly for how the direction of that scene was so restrained.
But this episode was all about the character beats. Scully mourning over William really drove home the guilt she has been feeling. Likewise, the little interactions between Mulder and Scully over “their” son were touching. And that final scene..that was a great ending. Maybe I’m rusty on The X-Files but I kept thinking “why is this Asian dude so clunkily inserted into this episode?”. So I was happy to find myself surprised again with the reveal that it was William. That last shot of Mulder and Scully had a sense of hope that the show really hasn’t had in so long and it was refreshing.
“The only thing that could ruin this moment is if we learn that our arch nemesis is actually William’s father.”
So a generally awesome X-Files episode…but there were a couple of less-than-stellar scenes here. Scully’s opening nightmare was effective but that short voice-over was pretty bad. More egregiously bad was the token scene of CSM sitting in Skinner’s office. It just seems like they can’t write CSM anymore without making everything seem cheesy. Thankfully, he was there for just a second. But this remains a problem for me…why is Skinner letting him hang out in his office??? Just because CSM told him that he is William’s father does not mean we need this forced “Skinner is playing both sides” schtick.
Almost as bad was Skinner info-dumping on Mulder everything about Project Crossroads. It was clunky and badly written and no amount of good acting by Mitch Pileggi could stop that. I’d have rather had a scene of Mulder just finding this info on William’s laptop. Props though for the end of that scene when we see some honest emotion when Skinner thinks William is dead.
Oh and not really a problem but damn, William’s game with his girlfriends was kind of psychotic. It’s given lip service when Scully talks about how he is probably a mess but its a bit hard to ignore that her son seems like a manipulative asshole.
Even with those flaws mentioned in the last couple of paragraphs, this is the best episode of the season. It hit me emotionally in a way that I didn’t think the revival could. I really, really, really wanted to give it an “A”. But I just can’t. The lack of context on my first viewing was, I believe, nearly a catastrophic misstep. It almost ruined all of the good in this episode. So I have to settle on giving it a B+.