Television series are often judged by their series finale, for better or worse. Here at 25YL, we’re going to be looking at both the best and worst finales and what made them great (or not so great) in our “Art of the Finale” series. Got a finale you think should make the list? Be sure and let us know!
Oh The X-Files, The X-Files…so bad I said it twice, and you gave us two finales to prove me right.I am about to get churlish and all-out fanboy for a moment. Bear with me.
I need to confirm something upfront—I was (am?) a huge, geeky, slightly-obsessed X-Files fan, and I am fairly proud that I was before it became the buzz series to watch. Way back when it first aired, in the UK, it was on a fledgling satellite TV station which not many folks had, so I had tapes of it passed to me by a friend who was lucky enough to have Sky. I guess that made it even cooler. The strange, the unexplainable, the scares, the rallying against powerful conspiracies, the sexual tension, the intelligent banter, the striking camerawork and lighting, the atmospheric score, the charismatic leads…there was much to love about The X-Files.
In hindsight I can see the troubles developing within the show later on, but at the time—at least until around season 6—I was hooked, along with a great many people. Not that the loss of Mulder around season 7 made the show unwatchable, no it was just…it was crawling a bit, like it didn’t know what made it cool and original to begin with. It was becoming more and more obvious to me that the overall arc, the mythology, wasn’t really making sense. Well, it must have made sense to someone, but that someone wasn’t me.
I watched it crawl to the end, the finale—finally “The Truth” was here. Did you live up to your name, oh long-awaited showdown? Did you offer answers? Did you give a fitting send-off to two amazing characters/actors (and a wealth of great supporting characters too), that had almost managed to keep 202 episodes worth watching, no matter what?
No, finale, you did not. You gave with one hand and slapped with the other, and then the hand you were supposedly giving with gave me the finger.
Right, that’s my childish, sarcastic fanboy rant done. Let’s get serious.
The season 9 finale opens with…a lot of running. Mulder running around a complex to get to the truth of the alien “invasion/occupation/colonisation,” followed by running away from a super soldier to escape with that knowledge. This doesn’t happen as Mulder—for the first time in, like, forever—wins a brief scuffle and happens to kill the solider, and then he gets himself arrested.
Then the pacing screeches to a halt. It’s courtroom drama time. Mulder is held on trial for murder and it’s up to Skinner et al. to come to his rescue, along with several supporting characters from episodes gone by. Despite all that they admit to, all that they reveal, it does little to dislodge the prosecution’s case. In the end, they all want Mulder to testify, but he says that “they” control the game—“They own it.” So in almost one fell swoop, we are back to square one. It’s all circuitous, repetitive, and narratively nonsensical. We spend an age literally getting nowhere.
If this were a “Previously on The X-Files” episode to set up the actual finale, a courtroom drama (emphasis on actual drama) extracting “the truth” would perhaps have been an interesting way of doing things. Rather than an extended clip show with a random voice-over, having an episode within the show deal with its overarching plot from season 1 through to season 9 (movie included), with a little actual resonance to the overall plot could have been, at the very least, trying something different. However, having the entire first half (and a bit more) of your end-of-the-whole-series finale become a staid, lifeless retelling of all that has gone before is disrespectful in some fashion. By now, nine-plus years later, if you weren’t a fan of The X-Files, you weren’t about to become one. Spoon-feeding us the whole mythology, whilst great to finally hear it laid out rather than given piecemeal during the series, was a waste of an opportunity to get to the truth.
Yes, the truth: the title of the episode and the core quest of the show’s protagonists for so long. As Mulder explicitly tells us early on, “What is on trial here is the truth!” so we know that the goal is to understand what that truth is. However, we are told at various times that the truth is very much dependent on someone’s point of view. So already there’s a built-in get-out clause for the show. Curiously enough, it doesn’t need it—in fact, this episode is as straightforward as they come. No huge revelations, no shocking reveals…at least, none that you didn’t expect. I mean, who didn’t think that the Cigarette Smoking Man wasn’t going to make an appearance sometime?
That’s the core problem with the finale; it’s perfunctory, like the show ran out of steam, its budget was slashed, and the writers finally ran out of coffee and ideas. Mulder on trial could have been interesting. Mulder seeing the “ghosts” of friends and foes past (Mr X., Alex Krycek, etc.), signalling a decent into madness brought on by his singular “crusade” (as many have put it throughout the length of the show)—that could have worked. There’s mileage in seeing how a man, hell-bent on exposing a conspiracy against mankind (resulting in the deaths of his father, Scully’s sister, etc.) could end up broken and beaten, relying on his friends and co-workers to fulfill his lifelong pursuit. But instead, following the regurgitation of nine years of plot lines, we have the final 20 minutes pull itself out of a dour courtroom to head out into the desert…but not before, after his death-sentence judgement is given, Mulder gets to deliver one of the infamous soliloquies that the show has (unfortunately) become a little famous for:
“I’d like to congratulate you—on succeeding where so many before you have failed. A bullet between the eyes would have been preferable to this charade. But I’ve learned to pretend over the past nine years—to pretend that my victories mattered only to realise that no one was keeping score. To realise that liars do not fear the truth if there are enough liars…That the devil is just one man with a plan, but evil, true evil, is a collaboration of men, which is what we have here today. If I am a guilty man, my crime is in daring to believe; that the truth will out and that no one lie can live forever…I believe it still. Much as you try to bury it, the truth is out there. Greater than your lies, the truth wants to be known. You will know it. It’ll come to you, as it’s come to me, faster than the speed of light…You may believe yourselves rid of your headache now, and maybe you are…but you’ve only done it by cutting off your own heads.”
He’s right in essence—at least to begin with, before his speech goes off the rails “faster than the speed of light”—but real-life man of words David Duchovny, you deserved a better script than this.
So, having said all that, in the dead of night Skinner and Doggett manage to spring Mulder from his (maximum security?) prison with a little help from (surprise!) enemy-up-’til-now Deputy Director Kersh (phew, lucky). And after a pit stop where we have the ghosts of The Lone Gunmen question the truth (again), we are in the desert for our last visit on the tour of recurring characters: Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM). All that results is more exposition and poor dialogue, where it turns out that CSM was the “Deep Throat” character that led Mulder into the secret complex in the first case, and subsequently his discovery regarding the colonisation of the planet. And not only that, he admits that he has protected Mulder all these years to reach this moment—this moment when he “is broken and afraid”—and that now, Mulder can die. Really? Did he really keep Mulder alive (and I think there are a few episodes to the contrary) just to be smug nine years later regarding a truth he could have shocked Mulder with at any time? Is this the kind of resolution that viewers of the show deserved?
Actually, I should be generous at this point. I firmly believe that the writers, the creators of any show, should have license to end it as they see fit. Yes, there are shows where I have been disappointed by the endings (Battlestar Galactica) and those where I have been rewarded (The West Wing and Buffy). There have also been those that left me on a precipice, concerned for my investment in the characters and where they have been left (Twin Peaks and Angel, for instance). But I have been respectful that they ended as they began, with well-written scripts, great characters, and some narrative sense to them, no matter how they finished their runs.
However, I have decided to ignore those beliefs where The X-Files is concerned. Because at this point, only five minutes from the end of the whole series, the government sends two helicopters to the desert location, spends most of the episode’s budget blowing up the caves where CSM is, and then conveniently disappears, leaving fugitive Mulder and his beloved partner Scully to find a hotel in time to nicely recreate the very first episode’s nighttime confessional scene.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to come full circle. It can be bittersweet—acknowledging the passage of time, the changes undergone, the triumphs and tragedies. Star Trek: The Next Generation did it well. Lost ended with Jack lying in the jungle, staring up at the trees and the sky, much as the first shot of the show had begun. There’s closure to be found in returning to the place where things began, having experienced a journey, a right of passage, a fight against dark forces or a freedom from suffering—almost spending a lifetime (on screen) with characters you have grown to love, respect, and admire. And I respect and love Mulder and Scully, which is why this final scene—as poignant as it is with the rain outside, the soft light through the window, the cuddling up of our two heroes with their renewed statement of determination not to give up—just doesn’t work. Their final dialogue lacks any real power or connection to the rest of the series:
Scully: “You’ve always said that you want to believe. But believe in what, Mulder? If this is the truth that you’ve been looking for then what is left to believe in?”
Mulder: “I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us. That they speak to us as part of something greater than us—greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen to what’s speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves.”
Where on earth did this come from? Aside from the mysterious ghostly visions that Mulder interacted with in the finale (one of which passed him an actual piece of paper with an address to a key witness for his defence), where was this plot thread from? It appears shoehorned in, to give a higher calling to their continued quest, some kind of payoff for losing friends and family to the shadow conspiracy, with their plotting and their duplicity. But I am afraid all it did was add a last minute “Whhhhhaaaaat?” to the lips of fans everywhere.
In fact, I am guessing the one thing that fans around the globe were happiest about with this finale occurred very close to the beginning of the episode. In a beautifully shot scene we had Mulder, his back to the doorway that Skinner and Scully have just come through, saying out loud, “I smelled you coming Clarice”—a cool nod to The Silence of the Lambs, where Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling set the tone for Scully’s character to follow. The other element of that scene is Mulder’s full-on smooch with Scully directly following that amusing line. I, for one, wasn’t a big fan of them becoming intimate, as the tension between them was far more interesting, but who am I to deny other fans their wish?
Did the oft-talked-about mythology come to a conclusion? I guess it did. A series that generates inertia from such world-building tools can thrive (Star Trek, Babylon 5, Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, Buffy—ok, any Joss Whedon show) but it feels like it suffocated The X-Files by the end. The finale didn’t expose anything except how dense that mythology had become. Like Kryptonite around Superman’s neck, it almost drowned the show. With an ending that suggested the battle would continue, it lacked power and I felt sorry for the characters/actors. In the earlier days, the budding mythology was intriguing, glimpsed at in shadow and through the endless fog of deception, red herrings, and dead ends. I recall a friend of mine preferring the show Dark Skies because the plot was all there, the alien battle front and centre. There was no enduring or drawn-out mystery, but he preferred it that way. He knew where he stood. I preferred The X-Files and the ongoing investigation, the hints at something more. But at the end, with the whole convoluted mythos laid out in front of me, the show lost something. The finale botched the endgame in my thinking, but perhaps that’s exactly what viewers and long-time followers wanted from Chris Carter. They wanted to know the whole deal, as messy and questionable as it was. I guess that’s not what I hoped for.
And on that note, we turn to another wish of fans (including me): the return of our duo several years later in the season 10 and 11 miniseries. Again we were treated to a finale that I hoped would give closure in a more satisfying and complete way than “The Truth” did all those years ago. “My Struggle IV” marks the end of season 11 and, to date, signifies the very end of The X-Files.
Of course, it starts with another recap, trying to give everyone a fighting chance of understanding what has happened to date and set up what is about to happen. This time it’s all about William, Scully’s (and Mulder’s?) super-powered son. William has grown up to be a criminal-in-waiting, using his powers to cause car accidents and lover rivalry for fun. This could be interesting in its own way, but it deprives the audience of any real emotional interest in him. He’s a potential bad guy, but without any serious investment in his character over the series to date, not to mention the poorly handled psychic connection to Scully. He is almost a MacGuffin for the season that just needs to be paid off by the end.
The episode fails in so many respects. The X-Files themselves are to be closed down (again). The FBI Director wants our heroes’ badges (again). We don’t know if we can trust Skinner (again). Cigarette Smoking Man (alive!) is spewing potential lies (again). There’s such a reliance on older, trusted, perilous situations that it doesn’t make for great drama. We’ve been here before. Many times.
The episode goes on to become one long chase, in various scenarios throughout the duration. Almost as if attempting to make up for the drawn-out, single-location-bound antics of “The Truth,” there’s constant movement this time (via car, truck, and on foot). There are frantic phone calls, jarring visions of the future, and violent deaths. It attempts to do much that a cliffhanger would. There’s drama aplenty, but it’s dealt with in bursts of exposition, short confrontations, and a false economy designed to wrap up as much as possible in less than an hour. Ironically, this time around there’s no space to breath, for our characters to ruminate on events and revelations. Again, the emotionality of the situations our heroes find themselves in is cut short. Time to move on. It’s interesting to consider if grand dramatic stakes should outweigh intimate, smaller moments. As an audience, do we demand that kind of imbalance? Is it a necessity in a genre drama? I think most of us would argue that it isn’t, but from a finale point of view—end of season or end of the entire series—The X-Files has usually struck a balance. Until now.
This episode is all about William. Mulder and Scully spend no real time together, have no real impact on events, and are the victims of larger forces in the main (aside from Mulder casually shooting several people). Perhaps it is a conscious effort to be sufficiently different from “The Truth” in that regard. It’s a hurried closure—one that seemingly answers enough questions to be satisfying and leaves Mulder and Scully facing a new future, with a new miracle child of their own. How the maelstrom of threats and deaths around them will factor into that future…well, that’s not up for discussion. They deserved more than a two-minute wrap-up, and we deserved more after countless hours invested. However, we are left to our own thoughts, and perhaps that’s really as it should be with a finale.
History repeats itself. Is that the message of both finales? That it’s ok to try and stand up for what you believe, to fight the good fight, but in the end it may all be for nothing? Or that it’s enough to survive the events that befall you, to be able to walk away and live/fight another day? That’s a valid message, if that’s what you want to deliver, but it’s how it’s presented to us—not just in terms of dialogue, cinematography, score and sound, but in narrative and subtextual terms, in resonance, in tonal familiarity, in emotional engagement. The balance of these things is important in any episode of a show, but I think that a finale is that last chance to shine, to fire on all cylinders, to capture the essence of a show in its final moments. If that’s what “The Truth” and “My Struggle IV” did for The X-Files, then I think I was watching a different show for quite some time beforehand.