When ‘The Truth’ Turned Out Not To Be Out There
Twenty Years after The X-Files Series Finale: Why It Failed and Why It Was Important Anyway
Those of you who have followed my blog more than my column may know that I am a fan of The X-Files. It was not only the first major ‘adult’ series I watched growing up, it also helped set me on my path towards criticism. Some of the very first online criticism I ever wrote when I was out of college was a series of episode reviews for the series on various websites (now no doubt lost forever). A decade ago, I began a rewatch of the series for the purposes of my very first column for another defunct website, most of which can now be found (if you have the patience) on my blog.
Like almost every fan of the series, I have a very complicated relationship with The X-Files. We all consider it a masterpiece and groundbreaking, but we also all know it’s deeply flawed. The reason that it was groundbreaking when it debuted — it was the first hit show to have what could be considered an ongoing mythology that made up the backbone of the show — nearly thirty years ago is now practically pedestrian among all television, which is frankly astonishing when you consider who poorly the writers handled at the time. The reason most fans consider it special now, by contrast — the Monster of the Week’ episodes — is something that no TV series would even bother to try today, even in series that are now almost entirely sci-fi, fantasy or supernatural.
I have written so much about The X-Files and will do so even more later on, but what I want to focus on in this article is how it ended. Twenty years ago, the series finale aired and I want to discuss why that was so important at the time, what Chris Carter (the creator) fundamentally got wrong, and why I still think it was significant. ( And yes, I know the X-Files got the equivalent of three more chances to end, but let’s save that for another day.)
Let’s start with something that most viewers in Peak TV may have forgotten by now. In the 21st Century, series finales were considered irrelevant to whether a show was good. There’s actually an argument that they may not have been important even to most of the creators. In 2002 Peak TV had barely begun: Six Feet Under was still in the middle of its second season, the world was waiting for the fourth season of The Sopranos and no one even knew that Oz was on the verge of writing its last season. The only model anybody had for the ending of series was broadcast television, and I think at this point, no one cared how shows ended.
To paraphrase MacArthur, up that point in TV history, hit shows didn’t die, they just faded away. Network TV was a business, and when you have a successful product you keep turning it out until the public stops buying it. That was true of really every series that had aired on television. Most of the hit shows were cancelled so abruptly that they some — like Dynasty — ended on cliffhangers. MASH was considered the greatest series finale of all time not so much because of well it had ended but because it had the largest audience in TV history to that time and for decades to come. Similarly while people may have thought the ending of Cheers was brilliant at the time, it was considered successful because it was watched by more than fifty million viewers.
Ending a series on the terms the creator might have had in mind was never in the interest of network executives in the 20th Century. And to be clear, even when they were allowed to do so — in other words, be told in advance this was their last season — few noted anything special. Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law managed to end their runs on more or less successful notes by saying there was no true ending, but they got little credit for it at the time. By contrast when St. Elsewhere chose to radically end, it was, to that point in TV history the most divisive finale ever, with more people remembering it than the actual show — and usually not favorably.
Most series didn’t even get that far. Over the years I watched shows I liked get cancelled either on a cliffhanger — Chicago Hope is one prominent example — or to relative indifference — Homicide ended well both as a series and a movie, but I’m not sure that beside its fan base anyone cared. Series just stuck around until the plugged was pulled, only noticed if the final episode was a sensation, most people shrugging it off by saying: “They should have cancelled it years ago.”
There was no reason to think the final episode of The X-Files should have been any different. By even the most devoted standard, the series had run out of creativity energy years ago. David Duchovny’s departure, measured out in the eighth season, sapped most of the remaining interest in a flagging series, and when he left for good the next year, they lost a lot more viewers. The mythology, the series strength for a very long time, had become cluttered beyond repair years earlier (more on that later) and the fans were mostly unwilling to give new leads Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish any credit.
There was also a major cultural shift that was a problem. Throughout the 1990s, the major draw of The X-Files had been distrust in the American institutions, mostly importantly the government. After 9/11 (which delayed the premiere of the series until mid November) the attitude of rallying around the flag made the paranoid attitude of the series something most viewers weren’t willing to take any more. (It didn’t help matters that simultaneously on Fox 24 — a series run by several former X-Files writers — was doing every The X-Files used to do, much better and had a better note of the era.) I have a feeling that when the cancellation of the series was announced in February of 2002, most fans greeted it with relief.
There was, however, one reason that there was anticipation for the series finale of The X-Files. With David Duchovny scheduled to return, Carter and his writers announced the finale would give a summation of everything we had watched for nine years. It was called ‘The Truth’ which seemed to indicate that we would finally get the answers we’d been hoping for.
In hindsight, all of us should have known better. Carter and the writers had been promising us the answers for years, only to keep pushing the date that they would be learned back further and further. When I read earlier this year that Carter had written the series with no bible at all, it was the least surprising thing I’d ever heard. Of course Carter and his writers had been making it up as they went along; they never expected the series to be a hit and kept having to move the goalpost. Ironically, all the standards that future showrunners got for their mythology series — support from their network and most importantly a fixed end date — were completely absent from The X-Files for the reason was such a hit. Carter had planned originally to end the series after five seasons and then do a series of movies. Instead Fight the Future was filmed before the fifth season and both the series and the movie had to run in place. The series was supposed to end with Mulder finding his sister, but when Duchovny announced he was leaving the show, they had to come up with a really half-assed solution for that. Even the cliffhanger ending they had after Season 7, which would have been perfect, had to be negated when the show was renewed after it aired.
Admittedly, being slave this system comes with running a network series: what was unforgivable was the complete lack of consistency with the mythology. Carter and his writers actually gave the game away after the series when the mythology episodes were released in a series of four DVD collections, each telling a different part of the saga: in essence, they admitted there was no unifying theme for each part of it.
The long time viewer really should have known better by this point: the mythology had started to fray at the edges by the third season and was completely dissolved by now. We should have seen the finale as one last gimmick to make it a ratings bonanza for Fox more than any hope for an explanation. But none of us did. I admit to being no different. I had stopped watching the show after Duchovny’s departure, but on May 19th there I was: still wanting to believe. We shouldn’t have surprised to be disappointed; I don’t think any viewer suspected to be so badly betrayed.
‘The Truth’ takes place after Mulder, who breaks into Mount Weather, a facility where the shadow government works. He learns something, is caught, runs away and in trying to get away kills a marine named Knowle Rohrer, who’d been the heavy for the last two seasons. Rohrer is a ‘supersoldier’ who can’t be killed (the less explaining I do, the better) and Mulder is held in a military prison, tortured and is going to be tried for Rohrer’s murder. Mulder gets Skinner to defend him, saying “this is a trial for the truth.”
Trials can be dramatic no question. But this wasn’t a trial. For basically an hour, we watched every ally Mulder have give what amounted to an information dump — telling the jury (made up of FBI directors and military personnel) the truth about the conspiracy. Already you’re asking: “how does this help Mulder’s defense of killing a man?” It doesn’t. Scully spent her entire testimony and didn’t give a single bit of evidence that could have helped Mulder; all she did was sound like a crazy person. Witness after witness for the trial came up to tell their stories. None of them said a thing that would help with Mulder’s acquittal; all of them just sounded like the kind of thing that would have made you doubt their sanity. The cross examinations were barely perfunctory; the prosecution really didn’t need to say anything.
Mulder, however, seemed more concerned with protecting his friends’ safety than his own life — or even the lives of those who had betrayed him. At one point, one of his informants (who the ghost of his past informant somehow gave him the location too — don’t ask) is about to reveal — something — when Mulder tells his boss to stop his questioning. It’s never clear how this might have saved him or why he’d want to save a woman who had surrendered him to an alien abduction but he does.
All of this was filled with perfunctory, purple and pointless prose. Pointless because we knew at the start that the fix was in. This is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt when Scully learns that the dead man in the morgue is not in fact Knowle Rohrer, but when she comes in to present genuinely exculpatory evidence, the request is denied and the trial is ended. When Kersh, the heavy of much the series latter half, is told by a military bigwig (William Devane) that he wants a guilty verdict, anyone knows what is coming. But even the villains were inclined to listen; no sane jury would believe what the defense offers. That was the point of The X-Files for almost its entire run — Mulder tells everybody that the supernatural is the explanation; he is dismissed, and we learn Mulder’s right. That was the horror of the show, and what made it so brilliant: that the things we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe in were responsible for so much horror in the world. In ‘The Truth’, everybody believes Mulder but the villains. It’s the opposite of the point of the show.
Of course, Mulder is found guilty. He finally gives another speech of purple and self-congratulating prose to the jury. He is sentenced to die. Skinner and the rest of the team — including Kersh — break him out of prison and he and Scully on the run. You wonder why no one bothered to do this at the beginning, but I guess we had to fill an hour.
I’d go into details about the rest of the series finale, but it wasn’t one. I don’t just mean in the sense of the movie that came six years or the revival nearly fourteen years after the show ended. No the reason I’m not calling it a series finale is because, at its course, there was nothing in ‘The Truth’ that wasn’t part of a season finale before. Indeed, many parts of it were lifted outright. The X-Files was shutdown…again. The Cigarette-Smoking Man, the series villain thought to have been dead after two years of being absent from the screen, was alive…again. Then he ended up being killed…again. Even the fact that Mulder and Scully were fugitives with death sentences on their head was eventually ignored by the time I Want to Believe, the second film aired; both of them were living more or less normal lives in Virginia. And I should add that both the movie and the revival showed that there seemed to be no consequences for anybody who helped Mulder escape: Skinner and Kersh, both of whom were threatened with losing their jobs or worse, were both still work at the FBI at the time of the revival. The Smoking Man was alive too, of course, but that was far less surprising. Honestly if you thought him being blown apart by missiles would kill him, you didn’t know how the show work. (Of course I spent the interim certain he was finally dead, so…)
‘The Truth’ not only has all the worst parts of the series as a whole. It says that the mythology was more important then the characters, despite the fact it actually sounded crazier when it was said out loud. It said the series was fundamentally about Mulder and his quest when it had been just as much about Scully. Gillian Anderson had been increasingly regulated to the sidelines in Season 9 and she still took a back seat to Duchovny for much of the finale. And it seemed to be doing even worse when it tried to make it a reunion of all the major characters. It was bad enough when they did it with the living, but as I implied they also did with most of the dead regulars. Krycek, X and The Lone Gunmen, all of whom had died by this point in the series, all showed up as ghosts that only Mulder could see. Did they help him on his quest? No, they all told him to give up. Really makes you wonder why they were there.
So to be clear, the final of The X-Files was a failure. But I think it was a consequential one. First, it showed its most successful writers — Howard Gordon and Vince Gilligan — a lesson for the future. I have a feeling both men knew learned from Carter how not to handle a serialized drama, and both took those lessons to Homeland and Breaking Bad respectively. It showed them the way to give an effective for a serialized series, something that Gordon used to good effect in both 24 and Homeland and Gilligan used spectacularly in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
It also showed future series that were about mythologies how not handle the ending. Battlestar Galactica and Lost’s endings are divisive — no one will argue otherwise — but the one the thing they didn’t do in their last episode was deluge their audiences with an explanation for everything. I can’t imagine that was satisfying to a lot of fans either — Lost fans are bitter to this day for the creators not explaining everything in the finale — but both series did a lot better job at making their finales about the characters fates rather than some nebulous explanation of the story. I am of the opinion that there is no satisfying ending to a mythology based series because no real explanation can ever be as good as the theories the fans have made up. The best you can is try to give a satisfactory ending to the fate of the characters rather than try to explain everything to an audience that doesn’t like most of your explanations.
And at its core that may be the most important take away from ‘The Truth’. Make the last episode tell us what we want to know about the characters. This is the real reason why so many were pissed at the final episode of The Sopranos but consider the end of Six Feet Under perfect. It’s why millions are not happy with the end to Mad Men but thought the ending to The Americans were spot on. We’re not always going to be happy learning their fates, but it’s better than a half-assed explanation and some endless ambiguity.
This is a lesson, by the way, that The X-Files still hasn’t learned. In both Season 10 and Season 11 of the revival, either of which might have been a series finale, Carter was given a chance for closure and muffed it both times. In Season 10, he seemed to have an alien invasion finally happening — but when Season 11 happened, said it was a dream. In Season 11, he came somewhat closer — there were a lot of violent deaths and there seemed to be resolution, but when it came to fate of Mulder and Scully, there was still far too much ambiguity. Maybe he’s still hoping for some kind of renewal down the line, some final truth to be learned. Carter still doesn’t get that even though the truth may be out there, learning it isn’t what a true ending is.