This X-Files review contains spoilers.
The X-Files Season 11 Episode 8
March 7th is a significant date in the X-Files universe. It’s the date of Mulder and Scully’s first case as partners. It takes place in the show’s pilot, in which the two agents venture out to the Oregon forest where Billy Miles and his classmates were abducted. In the episode we get some now classic X-Files tropes: missing kids, burned evidence, and strange occurrences in heavily wooded areas. Of course, Mulder has his “spooky” explanations, and Dana Scully, despite seeing timely literally stop before her eyes, does not buy them. Sound familiar?
By nature of being old enough to rent a car, it’s nearly unavoidable that The X-Files will tread some familiar ground. What’s been refreshing about this season is that the creative team recognizes that and wants to subvert our expectations. Better yet, they’ve been trying to show us something new, as we saw in last week’s tech-heavy episode. If the killer robots didn’t keep you up at night (after the episode concluded, I smashed my Amazon Alexa into little pieces as a precaution), The X-Files sure did try its best in this week’s installment, appropriately titled “Familiar,” to inject a healthy dose of nightmare fuel into its latest monster-of-the-week case.
Whereas last week was X-Files x Black Mirror, “Familiar” is plain old X-Files standalone fare. I mean that in a good way. The episode doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. When a missing little boy turns up dead in the woods, it’s initially ruled an animal attack by local police in a small Connecticut town. When Mulder and Scully arrive on the scene, it’s Scully who questions the initial report and puts something more sinister in the head of the grieving father, a town policeman. After all their years of investigating violent crimes, the case looks like a straight up abduction. Scully suggests it could be of the predatory nature, which sends the father on a witch hunt to find a local man who’s registered for a sex offense with a minor.
Watching along as the episode unfolds is an exercise in catching red herrings. A child predator being the culprit is far too easy. Open and shut. Why would Mulder be sniffing around the crime scene then? The cold open tells us a person or what appears to be a person lures the child into the woods. What the child saw was Mr. Chuckleteeth, fictional character from a children’s show (On a side note: Mr. Chuckleteeth is creepy as hell. Who would let their kids watch that?). As the episode continues, we see the same shoes and Mr. Chuckleteeth mask in the sex offender’s house, only to find out that the guy is, of course, a birthday party performer with an alibi that day.
Lazy pedofile characterization aside, all of the drama in the episode comes from the adults in the town. At first, it looks like the police chief is guilty. Mulder finds another red herring at the police chief’s home when he spots a book that the chronicles the town’s history of witchcraft. Everything starts to come together for Mulder when the police chief’s daughter is lured out of the living room (again, watching an insanely creepy Teletubbies knock off) and summoned to the same spot in the woods where the little boy is killed. They find the body of the little girl inside what appears to be a salt circle, the kind of ritual circle that witches use to cast spells and harness energy.
So Mulder finds all the evidence he needs to conduct a justified (in his mind) witch hunt. The problem is the cop dad and the townspeople have given in to their puritan roots and have anointed the sex offender as guilty in a witch hunt of their own. The vengeful cop dad decides not to wait for due process and murders the innocent man in cold blood. Somehow it only gets crazier from there. The episode turns into Big Little Lies, relegating Mulder and Scully to supporting roles as the town is overcome with death, grief, and adulterous behavior.
The police chief ended up being a big, fat red herring himself. He was sleeping with the wife of the cop dad. In an act of revenge, the police chief’s wife made a ritual circle in the woods and brought this madness on the town. The problem? She’s a rookie witch. And this episode in the end should have been titled When Keeping It Witch Goes Wrong. She assumed she could just open a spell book, turn to a random page, and summon a wolf creative to lure her cheating husband into the woods. Eventually it worked, but it cost the life of an innocent little boy and his mom, a registered sex offender, and her own daughter. A fuckup for the witch record books, my friends.
The allegory the X-Files was going for here was a simple case of mob mentality. It’s done differently now, mostly through social media, but innocent people are sometimes caught up in these whirlwinds before they receive due process. As they watch a woman go up in literal flames, Scully is still a little skeptical (maybe it was the candles?), because time rarely changes people. She does at least leave the question lingering, was it: “evidence of human faults and frailty or the grip of a curse unleashed by a modern day witch?”
It’s both. Open and shut. OK so it wasn’t the cleanest path to the truth, but it was at times a gripping, if not campy, journey to get there. The episode did have some genuinely scary and disturbing moments. While we’ve seen some good, not great, monsters in seasons 10 and 11, Mr. Chuckleteeth is one I’m not going to forget. If I ever see that mask I’m running the hell away.
Whether it’s people who don’t know how to cope with the pain of loss or puritans living in fear of that which they do not understand, our great human flaw is that we constantly let emotions get the best of us. Mulder knows that well. Scully is far more often emotionally in check. It’s why this partnership has lasted so many years. But remember when I said time doesn’t change people? 25 years ago, a fearless Fox Mulder leapt into the darkness (and the light) in Oregon. On the whole people might not change, but time does have a way of softening some of us. In “Familiar,” Mulder, who has seriously seen it all and has barely flinched a muscle, is genuinely startled by a spider monkey in a cage. Talk about showing us something new.