clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The X-Files has its groove back in a strange, funny, heartbreaking episode

"Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" is one of the TV events of the year.

Looking for that Were-Monster.
Looking for that Were-Monster.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 31 through February 6, 2016, is "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster," the third episode of the miniseries reboot of Fox's The X-Files.

If The X-Files had never found Darin Morgan, it would have had to grow him in a lab.

The writer behind many of the show's best episodes, Morgan is exactly the sort of added spice the show has always needed — an open believer not in aliens or monsters or other weirdoes, but in the idea that the interior of the human brain is the strangest place on planet Earth.

Humanity, his episodes argue, is capable of greater beauty and greater terror than any horrors we could dream up to occupy our darkest shadows. The closing argument from his 1996 masterpiece "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" perhaps sums up his worldview better than anything else: "Although we may not be alone in the universe, in our own separate ways, on this planet, we are all alone."

Thus, when Fox announced it was resurrecting The X-Files for a six-episode miniseries, it was with great anticipation that fans of the show awaited Morgan's first X-Files script in two decades, which finally debuted in February 2016. And though "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" is the weakest script Morgan has contributed to the show, it still boasts enough tremendous moments to be one of the biggest TV events of the year.

The episode does feel a bit rusty

The Were-Monster on The X-Files.
The Were-Monster says hello. How you doing?

First, let's talk about the stuff that doesn't quite work.

"Were-Monster" is the first X-Files episode Morgan has directed, and though it contains some potent imagery — particularly a spooky full moon that triggers the titular monster's transformations — it's a little more pedestrian than the season's first two hours, which featured striking images of the rubble left behind by the alien conspiracy that dominated The X-Files' original run in the '90s and early 2000s. (There's a notable exception to this, which we'll deal with in a moment.)

Morgan's script also takes a little while to get going, and the various informants that FBI agents Mulder and Scully must turn to when tracking down a monster who's ripping out human throats don't have the sort of goofy color Morgan afforded his guest characters in earlier episodes.

In particular, a trans woman character skirts the edge of outright offense in terms of how the show regards her transition, but also doesn't really make sense as a human being, since she openly admits to Mulder and Scully that she's on crack, a character-defying narrative shortcut if ever there was one. You could remove her from the story and lose very little, which is almost never the case with Morgan's side characters.

And for a writer who has so often created stories where it's all but impossible to figure out what's going on, even for Mulder and Scully, the ending of "Were-Monster" is disappointingly perfunctory — and pretty easy to guess after watching roughly a third of the episode, though Morgan's somewhat careful efforts to hide the "true" monster suggests he means the identity to be a surprise.

But in a way, none of the above matters, because the heart of "Were-Monster" focuses on what Morgan has always excelled at — the idea that human existence is long, pitiless, and depressing, but also delightfully weird.

Humans are just animals with different instincts

Mulder and Guy in the cemetery on The X-Files.
Mulder (David Duchovny, left) meets Guy Mann (Rhys Darby) in a cemetery to hear his horrifying tale.

The plot of "Were-Monster" involves a humanoid lizard who emerges from hibernation once every 10,000 years. One night, while under the light of a full moon, he is bitten by a man; this causes him to transform into a human being when the sun rises. The "Were-Monster" is a "Were-Human."

When in human form (boasting the name Guy Mann), the creature is played by the brilliantly funny New Zealand actor Rhys Darby, and once he and Mulder hook up, the episode is off to the races. It's an episode not just about human experience, but also about the ravages of middle age, the search for purpose, and what it means to be frail and fallible.

Morgan's big idea here is that human beings are as reliant on instinct as any other animal. Which, of course, is no huge argument to make — most humans will protect their children, or immediately run from danger, or do any number of other things all animals do as a matter of course.

No, what Morgan means is that if an animal were transformed into a human being, its instincts would extend to finding a boring day job, putting on bland clothing, and lying about its sexual prowess. In the episode's centerpiece sequence, Guy tells Mulder about what happened after he first turned into a man, about his confused need to put on pants and march into a smartphone outlet store to find a job, only to immediately hate that job. The first lesson he learned about human life is that it consists of brief moments of real emotion, punctuated by drudgery.

Mulder himself is feeling some of these pangs, worrying that his life's work has been all for naught. After all, so much of what he's found in the X-Files has been conclusively debunked, and he has nothing to show for the seemingly paranormal cases he's really tracked down. He, too, is trapped by his routines, feeling like he might have transformed into something he never wanted to be along the way.

Most Morgan-scripted episodes of The X-Files (particularly his Emmy-winning "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose") have been love letters to Scully, with seemingly scathing opinions of Mulder's obsession. But Morgan seems kinder toward an aging Mulder. The character is presented as less headstrong and more doubtful — a man who has chased shadows so long he's become terrified he's chasing his own.

Thus, meeting Guy isn't just a chance for Mulder (and The X-Files) to reflect on the banalities of human existence — it's almost life-affirming for the agent. The truth might not be out there, but the weirdness is.

It's also an episode about The X-Files being back on TV

The X-Files
Director Kim Manners directed more X-Files episodes than anyone, but tragically passed away in 2009.

The smartest aspect of "Were-Monster" is the way it wraps its themes in a story about what it means to have The X-Files back on our televisions. Guy is trapped by routine, as is Mulder. And as I watched this episode, it struck me that the ritual of watching it was very similar to when I had hungrily devoured the show as a teenager. We're all stuck in ruts of our own making.

Morgan underlines this by peppering "Were-Monster" with references to old X-Files episodes and the fandom that sprung up around the show, both while it was on the air and off.

Tyler Labine and Nicole Parker-Smith reprise their roles from a pair of season three episodes, playing two stoners who always seem to be on hand for monster attacks. Mulder's ringtone is the X-Files theme song, and Scully adopts yet another dog she discovers connected to a monster attack (just like in season three). Guy dresses like Darren McGavin's character in the '70s series The Night Stalker — a double homage to that series' influence on The X-Files and this script's origins as an unproduced episode of a 2000s Night Stalker remake.

The references continue. Comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani, who hosts a terrific podcast about The X-Files, drops by as an animal control officer. And the cemetery that Mulder and Guy talk in is filled with headstones commemorating people who worked on the original series who have died. Our lives are weirder and happier and sadder than we will ever know when we begin them — and only Guy seems aware of that.

In that way, then, the closing moments of "Were-Monster" reflect The X-Files back at itself. Mulder, having tracked down Guy before he goes back into hibernation, is told by the lizard man that he's glad to have met the FBI agent. And as Guy crashes back into the underbrush, Mulder wryly smiles: "Likewise," he says.

It's the one-word antithesis to the idea that animated the end of "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." Yes, we are alone. Yes, the only person we can ever really know is the person we're trapped with inside our own brain. But we can also find these brilliant, beautiful moments of connection that give us fuel to move forward, that make us realize our lives don't have to be hollow and purposeless.

In your life, that connection might be with a friend, or a family member, or a lover. It might be with a random stranger on the street. It might be with someone who reaches out through the long tendrils of the internet to talk with you, in the middle of a long, lonely night, about how much they loved The X-Files. We have so many ways to connect to each other that we don't have to feel alone. The only thing stopping us is ourselves.

Which is, of course, what Mulder realizes in the end. He reconnects with himself, with Scully, with his life's work. And it takes nothing so mundane as anything I've described above. No, sometimes it takes a lizard man to make us realize what it means to be human all over again.

You can watch this episode on Hulu.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.