Friday, March 23, 2018

Watching "the end" of the X-Files

Scully and Mulder in the final scene of "My Struggle IV"
Note:  This post contains a lot of spoilers.

I was wrong.  I blogged about the return of The X-Files to TV two years ago.  The abbreviated Season 10 (6 episodes) of the series' reemergence after a 15 year absence was highly anticipated by me.  There were a couple of good episodes and I enjoyed what the show's creator, Chris Carter, did overall with the main narrative.  But it was not great television compared with the high standards and originality of The X-Files in its heyday.
In that season finale, "My Struggle II," it appeared that Carter had finally brought the show's primary narrative to fruition.  A global contagion was unleashed upon humanity.  I thought, at last, Carter had quit playing the endless and increasingly frustrating games with his audience and began resolving unsettled issues that were the backbone of the series from the beginning.

But I was wrong.  In Season 11 the previous season's ending was cleverly re-contextualized and given deeper significance to Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, the show's primary characters, while simultaneously introducing, William, the character believed to be Mulder and Scully's now teenage son, born back in 2002's Season 9.  "My Struggle III" was bizarre, stylistically distinctive, it almost didn't feel like an X-Files episode at all.  That was because, in my opinion, the central force for the narrative switched away from Mulder and Scully to the son, who has some sort of psychic abilities and is somehow plugged into (or causing) the same anxious hallucinations that his mother is experiencing.  The contagion isn't happening at all.  Rather, that is a premonition of the future.  In this way, Season 10, surprisingly, is partly an epilogue for Season 11. 

So the games Carter is so perpetually fond of continued albeit in a muted form.  Only three of the 10 episodes were devoted to the "alien conspiracy" mythology of the series.  The other seven were a mix of classic, mostly stand-alone "monster of the week" shows with a couple of "off-beat" funny and just plain weird episodes thrown-in. 

In Season 10, the cast and crew seemed to be searching for their footing after being away from these characters and this narrative for so many years.  There were flashes of the good old X-Files, but it was more of a stumbling reboot than of fresh creative invention.  That season managed to reestablish the characters in their contemporary, more mature selves, but it only marginally improved upon the challenges the series faced in overblown and overextended Seasons 8 and 9 so many years ago.

I thought Season 11 was an improvement, though many former X-Files fans would disagree with me.  Judging by the dramatic drop in the show's weekly audience (it only garnered about 20% of the show's original wider audience) many lifelong fans decided the shocking revelation in "My Struggle III" (and perhaps the morphed longevity of the original narrative) was too much and irreparably damaged the show's primary story line.  Personally, I like the surprise that Mulder is not the father of William.  Rather, the boy is a product of rape through the artificial insemination of human-alien DNA into Scully by the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM), who is, in fact, Mulder's father too.  The magnitude of that fact cannot be overstated.  And many fans viewed it as unacceptable.   I think it is the most wickedly twisted aspect of the show, ever.

Whatever.  Season 11 showed those 3.5 million of us who hung in there a better dynamic between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson's characters.  The writing was often playful and fun between them, implying a much deeper relationship than had only been alluded to before.  I enjoyed learning how this relationship matured over the missing years since Season 9 and the hastily rushed feel of Season 10.  In "This" we saw the domestic aspect of their now older lives together.  The off-beat episode "Rm9sbG93ZXJz" shows their closeness in the context of separate living quarters - as the world of automation gone wrong ridiculously engulfs them.  Mulder wonders why Scully has a better home than he does in that episode.

The show took time to satirize itself, which it managed to do so brilliantly in earlier seasons, giving us some of the best X-Files installments of all time.  "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" (directed by the ever-capable fan favorite Darin Morgan) was a splendid example of the show not taking itself too seriously while delivering a truly funny episode that was one of the season's highlights for me.

Forays into the "monster of the week" style episodes were a mixed bag.  "Plus One," "Familiar," and "Nothing Lasts Forever" all were true, classic X-Files.  You could have dropped any of these three into the earlier seasons and, but for their age, a viewer would assimilate them seamlessly into the 160-170 other episodes of this type.  They were not distinctive but they did offer the devoted fan a comfortable feel of the well-trodden path that makes up the majority of the series, outside of the mythology narrative.

"Kitten" gave actor Mitch Pileggi an opportunity to reveal more about the backstory of FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner, dealing with some unresolved issues from his Vietnam War days.  It was nice to see an episode establish more character depth among the supporting members and Pileggi has been crucial to the show for many seasons - a sub-narrative linchpin almost as important as CSM (played by William B. Davis).

But, for me, the show has always been about the alien conspiracy, one of many meta-themes threading the series together, which is more or less a metaphor for the abuse of power.  In the 1990's this was a very effective theme.  We didn't know it then, of course, but those times were innocent compared with today. The conspiracy seemed both mysterious and surprising in its nature back in the day.  It was compelling.  

In the Trumpian universe of today, the conspiracy had to be amped up a bit.  We are no longer shocked by the abuse of power.  It has become rather commonplace compared with some 25 years ago.  This metaphor had to be tweaked to shock us.  Chris Carter managed to do this very effectively, although the aliens turn out to be the alienation felt by a good portion of the audience itself who could not accept how events turn out for our heroes.

Season 11's three mythology episodes ("My Struggle III," "Ghouli," and "My Struggle IV") are all about the consequences of events that took place in the X-Files universe as far back as Season 7.  They deal with the complex interrelationship between the mythology itself and the characters of Mulder, Scully, CSM, Skinner, and, for the first time, the teenage boy William. 

Of the three, "Ghouli" was the best and probably the strongest episode in season 11, maybe the strongest episode since Season 7.  Although in "My Struggle III" we get a vague sense of William (the coming worldwide contagion is an intuition in his mind), it is with "Ghouli" that we get properly introduced to the character. Though headstrong and highly intelligent, William lacks a full understanding of himself, but he knows someone is after him because of his unique "abilities."

Like several of the best previous mytharc episodes, "Ghouli" encapsulates the entire central X-Files narrative in a single chapter.  After 11 seasons through many twists and turns and false-starts, everything has been distilled down to Mulder and Scully's search to find William before the CSM does.  Skinner, as always, is an ally to our heroes but he keeps his line of communication open to CSM, somewhat playing both sides.

William, in the meantime, is shown to be a troubled teenager with a couple of girlfriends who is gradually coming to understand his alien-hybrid capabilities and how to control them.  In "Ghouli" he has mastered the ability to project fear into the minds of others in the form of grotesque but illusory monsters.  He has also mastered the power of "shape-shifting," assuming virtually any form he chooses, including exact imitations of human beings.  This was a power explored fully in several earlier seasons of the show before William was ever conceived.

Now, thanks to CSM's alien DNA insemination of Scully, these previous manifestations of the top secret alien-hybrid project have reached their pinnacle.  William is the summit of decades of dark scientific research.  But, in a desperate attempt to protect him as a baby, he was given away for adoption by Scully back in Season 9.  No one knows who adopted William nor where he is.  In "Ghouli," however, everyone is starting to catch up to him.  There are deep state operatives attempting to capture him while another group of operatives want to destroy him.  All the while, Mulder and Scully are on the hunt for him.

Trapped by all this, fearful for his life and knowing he must avoid capture, William (played superbly by Miles Robbins) fakes his own death.  Scully has a mother's intuition about the body, however, and feels there is a good chance he is her son.  In one of the most powerful X-File scenes ever, Scully chooses to confess to William's corpse her sorrow and her sadness for missing the boy's life and not being there for him.  It is a touching and profoundly emotional monologue, an excellent job of acting by Gillian Anderson.

"I don't know if you are who I think you might be. But if you are William this is what I'd say. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry that I didn't get a chance to know you. Or you get a chance to know me, or your father. I gave you up for adoption, not because I didn't want you, or because you were any less loved. I was trying to keep you safe. I hope you know that. Uh, and maybe maybe 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. (SNIFFLES) I mean to let go. And to know that I was gonna miss your whole life. But it turns out that this is the hardest thing. To see the outcome. And how I failed you.(CRYING) I need you to know that I never forgot you. And I thought, I felt that even recently, that we were gonna somehow (SNIFFLES) be reunited.(CRYING)  I wish I could have been there to ease your pain. Oh, my God, this is so inadequate."

But, when left alone in the autopsy room, William manages to escape.  Now that he knows who is mother is, he shape-shifts into an Asian man who comes into contact with Scully twice.  Their conversations are short, causally in passing, but friendly and even philosophical.  The man seems vaguely familiar to Scully but she cannot place him.  After the second encounter, Mulder gets the idea to watch the surveillance video of the gas station where their interaction occurred.  The video reveals the Asian man is William (apparently shape-shifting is an illusion projected into specific minds and not a physical manifestation at all.)  For the first time, Scully knows that she has interacted with her son, even though she did not realize it at the time.  "You seem like a nice person.  I wish I could know you better," the Asian man says.  Watching the video of William saying this to her gives Scully a small sense of relief even if his physical presence still evades her. 

The story is wrapped up (for now at least) in the season (series?) finale, "My Struggle IV."  While there is plenty that is cheesy and overblown about this episode, I thought it did a good job of handling all the remaining fundamental characters: Mulder, Scully, CSM, Skinner, and William, all of whom are involved in the heart-racing, final 15 minutes.

William is starting to truly harness his powers.  The result is nothing short of shocking for the audience and for Mulder who witnesses the boy who he thinks is his son make, with his mind, the bodies of a half dozen agents trying to kill him explode into bloody pieces.  It is a scene of mega blood and gore that surpasses all but a few other shows or movies I have ever seen.  In that moment Mulder's perspective changes. For the first time he realizes that he cannot help or protect William.  "No one can protect him," he tells Scully, unable to even articulate what he has just witnessed.  Scully refuses to believe that and continues to search for her son.

The final five minutes brings this narrative to a reasonable stopping point.  The door is definitely left open for the future.  Mulder and Scully are still around.  Miraculously, so is William.  The series ends with the possibility of more - though it is unlikely that the original alien conspiracy mythology of the show will survive in its previous form.  That long, twisted and often frustrating part of the series is over - I think. 

In the end, however, The X-Files Season 11 was fundamentally about what it has always been about, the relationship of Mulder and Scully.  They are both older now.  They fall asleep on the couch with the TV still on.  They both struggle to make sense of social media and contemporary technology.  Mulder has begun wearing (a very nerdy pair of) reading glasses.  Mulder is even nostalgic about how the whole spectrum of horror has changed in postmodern times: "Yeah, this is my problem with modern-day monsters, Scully. There's no chance for emotional investment. You know, like Frankenstein and the Wolfman. Not only did they inspire bowel-clenching fear, but there was pathos. You know, Frankenstein he was afraid of fire and he just wanted a friend," he says at one point in "Ghouli."

But, beyond all that, the superb chemistry between actors Duchovny and Anderson, their playful banter, their debate on what is and isn't possible, between science and belief, remains solid to the end.  They are more flirtatious now, obviously more mature and more secure in their relationship.  Through 218 episodes these two characters have grown in respect and admiration for each other without compromising each one's personal beliefs or inclinations.  After all this time, they are two different individuals that have learned to accept each other for who they are and find something greater in the themselves by being together.  If a tad sentimental and if not the most original of outcomes for two television characters of considerable longevity, it is nevertheless a most hopeful outcome for what might very well be in the end of the series.

Gillian Anderson says she isn't coming back.  Chris Carter says he won't go on without her (but has since backtracked on that).  David Duchovny is comfortable whether this is the end or not, saying "I've tried to say good-bye to Fox Mulder many times and failed." We remaining fans all thought it was over back in 2002 and it wasn't.  Will there be more?  Maybe, but not likely for awhile.  And even if there isn't, the original primary narrative of the series has been left largely resolved.  It might not satisfy a lot of lifelong X-Files fans but it felt right to me in terms of where each major character ends up, even if that very last shot made me wince from the unnecessary pandering of it all.  Chris Carter just can't seem to leave well-enough alone.  But, in the long run, maybe that's a good thing.  It makes that final embrace between our heroes hopeful anyway, even if I could have done without the last few lines of dialog.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Down, Up, Down, Up

The Dow shrugged off worries over Trump's new tariffs and the resignation of his chief economic adviser last week and returned to the 50-day moving average.  This is a sign of strength, in part driven by a generally positive jobs report.  Amazingly, the Dow seems reluctant to test the 200-day moving average during what now might be just a 'mini-correction.'  This is an extraordinary 9-year bull market.  Only the markets of the 1990's under Bill Clinton surpass the present bullish streak.  It looks like this bull is clearly range-bound in a symmetrical triangle at the moment.  Such a triangular pattern will result in either a new upward or downward trend.  Notice also that volume continues to be lackluster.  Investors don't know what to make of all the conflicting signals and are not too excited one way or another.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Orbiting the 50-day Moving Average

The Dow was down some 1200 points last week, ending a 10-month winning streak for rising markets, closing at 24,530.  A healthy correction would take us down to the 200-day moving average which is currently at 23,076.  So we have much further to fall from that perspective.  The Dow seems range-bound at the moment between 26,000 and 24,000.  Notice the small pop in volume indicating a mild sell-off, nothing drastic, nothing clear yet.  By rising all day on Friday (though it was still down for the day because it opened so low, hence the hollow red candlestick at the end) the Dow seems to remain in the orbit of the 50-day moving average.  A sign of strength not weakness at this point.   
The great irony of the so-called Trump economy is that, while the US economy as a whole is strong and the news is largely positive, even as Trump attempts to boost economic growth further with tax cuts and other stimulus, the actions by the president may threaten to derail America's success.

This week the Dow and the other markets all reacted negatively to Trump's amateurish trade policy.  Trump has done nothing to prompt stability in the nation's economic growth.  The record-setting rise in the markets after his election seemed to be a harbinger for an unprecedented things for the president.  But with each passing week recently the behavior of Trump and his policies has created more uncertainty than anything else.

Uncertainty combined with fear of higher interest rates and concern of bond yields have created a hesitant Dow.  February marked the end of the longest month-over-month winning streak since 1959 for both the Dow and the S&P 500. The crazy upward acceleration of the markets also left many would-be investors worried about markets rising too far too fast.

Bottom line:  Last week, the Dow lost its footing at the 50-day moving average, which remains the level of resistance to this unconfirmed bull market.  

It would seem that the long win-streak of remaining above the 200-day moving average is finally in jeopardy.  It is unhealthy for the Dow to go so long without testing this important moving average.  The question is not if it will touch the 200-day moving average but when.  There are few historical precedents for the Dow remaining aloft in this fashion.  Markets just don't work that way.  A return to the 200-day MA would not necessarily be a bad thing.  The question will be can it hold at that average once it is tested.  We'll see.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Venus and Mercury Tonight

Venus and Mercury from my house looking southwest just after sunset.  Mercury is the faintest spot of light but, due to the orbits of the planets, it is actually closer to Earth right now - about 107,000,000 miles away.  Venus is brighter, yet further away from us at a distance of about 153,000,000 miles.  By comparison, the Sun is always roughly 93,000,000 miles away.
The position of the planets as given in my Solar Walk 2 app.  Notice the Earth (blue) is actually on the far side of the Sun compared with Mercury (yellow) and Venus (orange).  Mars (red) is ahead of Earth in orbit at the moment.