I’ve had a week plus to process this one, and I still don’t have the emotional capacity to do so. This show is going to kill me.
Spoilers beneath the cut.
The William story arc has been a sore spot in the X-Files fandom ever since Scully gave him up for adoption. (Why bring a baby into the series only to give it away after a few episodes? Why???) And for a long time, it seemed we wouldn’t get any resolution; the characters were never shown processing their grief, and there were hints at the loss in IWTB and season 10, but nothing concrete. Last season’s “Founder’s Mutation” (also written by James Wong — WHO HURT YOU, WONG???) dealt with William only tangentially, and that was an emotional rollercoaster, so I braced myself for “Ghouli” and was glad I did.
The episode starts with two teenaged girls exploring an abandoned ship at night, both wielding knives and flashlights in search of a monster they call “Ghouli”. What they find is each other, except each thinks the other is the monster, and the result is a bloody fight that lands them both in the hospital.
At the same time, we learn that Scully is still having visions, although now they’re dreams, in which she’s compelled to follow a dark figure through an unfamiliar house and to an abandoned ship — the same ship the girls were exploring.
Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate the attacks, and find an internet blog devoted to Ghouli (it’s powered by WordPress, y’all) — “mostly fanfiction”, Scully says — before interviewing the girls separately. Each shares their version of the same story, and, unbeknownst to each other, the name of their boyfriend — a Jackson Van de Kamp.
As we know from the first episode, Van de Kamp was the surname given to William after his adoption. Just a coincidence? Of course not.
Arriving at the Van de Kamp house, Mulder and Scully hear two gunshots, shortly followed by a third. Mulder breaks down the door to find the parents dead in the kitchen, and Jackson Van de Kamp on the floor upstairs with a gunshot to the head, gun still in his hand.
The local cops call it a murder-suicide, but Mulder doesn’t buy that; something doesn’t add up. As they zip Jackson into a body bag, Scully is visibly distraught. She goes through the boy’s room, obviously feeling a connection, but not knowing for sure if he is her son. A stack of pictures traces his childhood through the years; birthday parties and Halloween costumes and little league pictures — everything she’s missed.
As an aside, season 11 Mulder is a national treasure. Throughout this episode, he’s obviously grieving, but he’s there for Scully first. She wants answers, he makes it his job to get them. As they’re wrapping up at the Van de Kamp residence, he confronts two agents, purportedly from the Department of Defense, who’ve been following them since they arrived in Norfolk.
“Keep cracking wise. You have no idea my state of mind.”
A younger Mulder would have gone for the throat (literally), but Grown-Ass Mulder keeps his hands clean while hitting his target with the perfect measure of composure and seething rage. David Duchovny’s delivery gave me chills.
At the morgue, Scully hovers over the boy’s body, verging on tears as she tries to tell him what’s in her heart. It’s a gut-wrenching moment, and Gillian Anderson plays it brilliantly. Just watch this and tell me you’re not heartbroken.
A DNA test reveals that Jackson is Scully’s son, but before they can confront that fact, his body disappears from the morgue. Scully is hopeful, Mulder is cautious. He’s been down this road with his sister before, he knows how it can end, and he steadies her as gently as he can: “Hope is not a fact.”
Mulder and Skinner share a tense meeting, where we learn that Jackson/William was part of Project Crossroads, a secret DoD experiment that attempted to create superhuman hybrids with alien and human DNA. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, and now the DoD is trying to erase history by killing all the unwitting participants.
Jackson is proof that the project wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. In addition to sharing a special connection to Scully, he’s also able to project his consciousness to others, allowing them to see what he wants them to see instead of what’s real — making his girlfriends look like monsters to each other, for example…or making himself look dead to escape the DoD.
So it appears Jackson is too smart for his own good. He got curious about his new abilities, hacked the DoD, and brought the whole thing crashing down around him. (Sound like anyone we know?)
At points throughout the episode, Jackson bumps into Scully (probably not by accident), projecting himself as an older man, sharing a few words of advice that seem a bit obscure, but leave Scully visibly touched. It’s not until the end, when a surveillance camera catches their last conversation and shows Jackson’s true face, that Mulder and Scully realize the man is their son.
“You seem like a nice person. Wish I could know you better.”
What I love about “Ghouli” is that it has the feel of an old X-Files episode, complete with Mulder/Scully character development, a creepy monster, and actual progression of the William story arc.
The problematic part of this episode for me is Jackson Van de Kamp. Baby William is all grown up…and he’s kind of a creep. I have to wonder why they couldn’t find a different way to show off his powers without giving him two girlfriends and making him a pick-up-artist wannabe. His apologies came off as insincere, his behavior was reckless and nearly killed the two girls (who are treated as an afterthought). And I know some will let him off the hook — “he was troubled,” as Scully puts it — but the “boys will be boys” excuse is tiresome.
There’s a tone-deafness throughout this season that nags at me; medical rape in “My Struggle III”, the ham-handed treatment of mental illness in “Plus One”, the bombing and waterboarding scenes in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”. Every episode (with the exception of “This”) has made me cringe at certain points, and “Ghouli”‘s use of pick-up-artist culture as a plot device puts another mark on that board.
But to end on a positive note, “Ghouli” gave us a lot to chew on, and finally started to address the giant alien-human-elephant hybrid in the room. Moreover, we see Scully (and to a lesser extent, Mulder) confronting their grief about the situation that’s haunted them for going on 16 years. It gives me hope that we might actually see a satisfying conclusion, and it’s such a long time coming.