The X-Files – ‘Ghouli’

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SCULLY: I should have had the courage to stand by you, but I thought I was being strong because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done: to let go, and to know that I was going to miss your whole life.

When plans for the latest season of The X-Files were announced, quite a number of fans were surprised to be informed by FOX head honcho Dana Walden that Season 11 would feature only two episodes concerning the ‘mytharc’, Chris Carter’s long-running, labryinthian mythology which has coursed through the series over the last twenty-five years. ‘Ghouli’ proves that statement was never entirely accurate, and continues what was already established in ‘This’ – the mythology is being weaved in more with stealth than grandiosity.

Ostensibly, of course, ‘Ghouli’ is a monster story – two teenage girls try and kill each other, each believing the other to be a tentacled beast from some kind of Lovecraftian nether realm. It recalls Season 5’s ‘Folie a Deux’, which memorably dealt with the literal idea of an unspeakable ‘thing’ hiding in plain sight, with a dash of Season 3’s cosmically apocalyptic black comedy ‘Syzygy’ (just without the laughs). Before the episode, a neat level of viral marketing presented the fictional discovered by Agents Mulder & Scully in the episode as a real site fans could click on, reading the fictional urban legend recounting of people seeing or encountering the mysterious Ghouli. Everything about the episode, on the face of it, points to a classic monster of the week.

If not for a character named Jackson van de Kamp, who very swiftly establishes himself as the raison d’être for James Wong’s entire piece. Look away now—no seriously, don’t say I didn’t warn you—but Jackson is, of course, Mulder & Scully’s long-lost biological son William (or Scully’s for certain, at least). William was born at the end of Season 8 having been coveted by alien super-soldiers and later bonkers cultists for being some kind of supreme alien/human hybrid being, indeed prophecies exist about how he may either save humanity or lead the aliens to their complete destruction (in Season 9, so we try and forget about all that). Nevertheless, William is important with a capital I. He was crucial to the last two seasons of the original series. He played a key, off-screen role in Season 10. And he is central to everything about ‘Ghouli’.

Anyone taking even a cursory glance at the history of James Wong as both a writer and director won’t be at all surprised he centres his own run at a semi-mythology story around teenagers in the throes of a power they cannot control and fully comprehend. As co-writer and director of well known suspense horror picture Final Destination (with frequent collaborator Glen Morgan), Wong threw a myriad of young people up against the deadly hand of fate in supernatural circumstances. Just a few years ago he wrote a TV sequel remake of Rosemary’s Baby, a story all about the inherent darkness within a child born of strange circumstances (much like William), and he’s contributed many scripts over the years to FX’s pulpy, twisted horror anthology American Horror Story, cementing that fusion of monsters and death with a fascination about the psychological toll on the elder teenager.

Much as Wong & Morgan as collaborators dabbled most often in different areas with their classic scripts for The X-Files, you only have to look at Season 10’s Wong solo effort ‘Founders Mutation’ as indicative of a run in on ‘Ghouli’ by the writer. That script dealt with teenagers being exploited by unscrupulous scientists—in that case, their father—to tap latent telekinetic abilities, scientists with a tangential link to the historic research conducted by the Syndicate, the now deceased (almost) group of alien conspirators working to aid colonisation of the planet for more than half a century. Particularly given how that episode also dealt with the abstract psychological guilt of Mulder & Scully for letting William go, Wong seemed a shoo-in to continue the William narrative with much more of a pointed mytharc script.

Wong, interestingly enough, has stated he wasn’t given a beat sheet of requirements when it came to what he needed to do when introducing William:

I was interested in William’s story, even from Season 10, because I really felt like I wanted to know what was happening with him. But it was never a thing where we sat down and said, “This is what we need of William.” So the story came together for me in the sleep paralysis aspect of it.

This feels both surprising and unsurprising, given the manner of how Carter’s mythology has always worked. There has never, from what fans can tell, been a plan plotted out to within an inch of its life as to where the entire mythology goes, and while Carter may attest he’s had the William arc in mind since mid-Season Seven, my own recent interview with William B. Davis certainly suggests that may not quite be the case, or if it was, Carter didn’t share it. Certain tangential concepts about who or what William was may have existed back during the original series run, but the manner in which Wong brings this important character to The X-Files into the fold feels very much his own, fairly auteured design. It fits with the aforementioned themes and character beats the writer has always been interested in.

Where ‘Ghouli’ proves divisive is in how it wrong-foots you. Many have been delighted with how Wong presents a monster of the week set-up and then subverts it very quickly into being William’s introductory story, and a powerful journey for Scully to undertake, with Mulder’s ever-present support. Yet at the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity. Discounting ‘Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster’ given it’s a Darin Morgan comedy, we haven’t enjoyed a truly effective, pure ‘MOTW’ story since Season 9 (and depending on your quality threshold, maybe Season 8). ‘Home Again’ came close in Season 10 but awkwardly wedged in with a Scully losing her mother subplot, the whole never came together. Ghouli as a monster, from the terrific teaser, was filled with truly strange, unknowable promise, which ends up being just a mummers trick. It’s a shame.

The onus, of course, is preferred on William, and this is naturally understandable. He’s a character in some respects we’ve been waiting to meet for almost twenty years. While Season 9’s ‘William’ may have clumsily written out his character as a baby in order to meet the demands of an ending series and a proposed movie franchise (which never really happened), in no way did his story, or how it related to Mulder & Scully, feel complete. He was too gifted of power, too connected to the core mythology and Scully (who herself has really always been at the very centre of the entire mythology), and too crucial to the character development of our two lead characters. Once Carter had Mulder & Scully become romantic and have a child together, there was no way William could be ignored. He’s been the elephant in the room, proverbially, ever since.

In that context, ‘Ghouli’ does a good job in establishing William as an ambiguous, indeed rather dangerous figure. He isn’t some helpless teenager unaware of his extremely strange past. He isn’t ‘de-powered’ as Jeffrey Spender’s injection of magnetite in ‘William’ would suggest he was. He isn’t even, potentially, at all well-adjusted; he fakes his own death and allows Scully to deliver a heart-felt apology (beautifully performed by Gillian Anderson) next to his corpse while all the while being alive and alert; he not only cheats on two women at the same time but manipulates them into trying to kill one another, seemingly simply to lure his birth mother to him; and he gets his adopted parents murdered, people who have raised him since he was a baby, and doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid. William may get the odd beat of serene kindness in moments where he’s in disguise to Scully, but make no mistake: he’s off the rails.

This, of course, means many will be starting to wonder if the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s claims in ‘My Struggle III’, that William was created in Scully using his genetic material and not through conception with Mulder, are truer than many suspect. Surely if William is a bit of a super-powered psychopath, that points to Smokey more likely being his father than good old Mulder? Not necessarily. William is pretty much confirmed in ‘Ghouli’ to be the product of ‘Project Crossroads’, an alien/human hybridisation program created in the 1970’s (clumsily unspooled by Skinner, in a way he is utterly unsuited for, and which seems to fly in the face of the established alien mythology to date), and while there is little doubt William is perhaps the apex of such a project given his advanced ability to project visions into people’s minds, he could simply be the victim of growing up with powers he doesn’t understand with zero context as to why.

Season 11, perhaps unintentionally but most likely for a specific reason, has been consistently interested in alternative realities, in different forms. Scully’s visions here are formed as part of ‘hypnagogia’, aka a rare form of sleep paralysis William uses in a manner similar to the more protracted vision that was ‘My Struggle II’, allowing him to show Scully clues and environments which will later prove crucial to her search. Even with points such as the opened soda can, which Mulder ends up using to erase William’s computer files, there is a sense William is two steps ahead of the agents and quite possibly is visualising multiple futures and realities simultaneously. This focus on realities isn’t just a reaction to the ‘post-truth’ era either (as Darin Morgan’s episode zeroed in on), it feels like a broader point Carter wants us to understand.

‘My Struggle III’ of course was about the Smoking Man’s re-written narratives, which serves as a metaphor for Carter’s re-writing of the established alien mythology, throwing into question everything the original series had Mulder believing in. ‘This’ introduced a digital reality in which binary nirvana serves a cover for an elite abandonment of a sundered Earth, at the expense of billions, but which as Langly chillingly declared, clearly was more of an eternal, computerised totalitarian prison. And while ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ appeared to laugh in the face of fan theories about alternate realities and parallel universes, ‘Ghouli’ almost seems to give them credence again in its own way. Many are now speculating whether the ongoing ‘This Man’ meme popping up in each episode—based on a true legend—has both a connection to William, and/or perhaps the vision/dream state Scully is experiencing. Dreams are after all another version of reality, a subconscious plane.

‘Ghouli’, therefore, adds more building blocks onto the foundations of the season premiere, and many of the thematic constructs we’ve seen the writers playing with in Season 11. There really now does feel like a unified theme exists this season in a way Season 10 simply didn’t have time to accomplish, one which is pointing Mulder & Scully towards a very specific, if nebulous, conclusion. James Wong, directing in places with panache and placing his own stamp on this mythology tale, successfully introduces William as a key player who’s destination is hugely uncertain at this stage.

Even if one wishes we’d truly been given the Ghouli monster story the teaser, appropriately, teased, Wong’s first contribution this year could well go down as a key episode in the final reckoning of The X-Files.

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