For the majority of The X-Files’ run, the opening credits end with the show’s tagline, “The truth is out there.” Throughout the series, the message occasionally changed to something relevant to a specific episode, but in the show’s newest season, tailored versions became the norm, with the traditional tagline only appearing in front of two episodes out of the initial six-installment run. The truth has lost its prominence in the credits, just as it seems to have lost all meaning in the real world. The 10th season of The X-Files wrapped in February 2016, months before Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president, ushering in a new age of post-truth politics. For the 11th season, which launched in January 2018, the show has shifted its focus accordingly, diving deeper into political commentary than ever before.
In season 10, Joel McHale played Tad O’Malley, a conservative conspiracy theorist whose wild claims were occasionally right. Tad disappeared between seasons, as Alex Jones and other figures he’s based on have been granted new credibility through Trump’s approval. Instead, the 11th season opens with a stock footage montage with a voiceover from series big bad Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) justifying his decision to end humanity. Video of Trump’s inauguration cuts directly to footage of Vladimir Putin, Americans voting, robed KKK members, and police attacking Black Lives Matter protesters, as CSM muses on the illusion of free will and humanity’s self-destructive nature. “Truth is fluid and alterable,” he says later in the episode.
This kind of up-to-the-moment topicality is uncharted waters for The X-Files, which in its initial run typically stuck to the established conspiracies of previous generations, like the JFK assassination and Roswell. That’s part of what makes the show’s early seasons feel timeless, dated primarily by ‘90s technology and hairstyles. But the ripped-from-the-headlines approach doesn’t feel forced, perhaps because American news has drifted into territory where The X-Files has always been comfortable. The show was born of the post-Watergate view that parts of the government were probably up to no good, and it found an audience amid the scandals of the Clinton presidency. The latest season is stronger than season 10, and that might be in part because the government feels more dishonest than ever.
The nods to current events continue throughout the first half of season 11. In the second episode, “This,” FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are attacked by Russian operatives and go to their boss Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) for help. After Skinner name-drops Robert Mueller, he’s denied assistance from the executive branch, because “the bureau’s not in good standing with the White House.” Mulder has always been the black sheep of an otherwise highly respected organization, with his paranormal investigations defined by their disreputability and lack of official sanction. But now, the entire FBI is seen as a threat by those with power and secrets. The show has yet to actually name Trump, but when a real former FBI director is mentioned by name, it’s still jarring. It feels like the show is treating the real-world attacks on the FBI the same way it’s historically absorbed news about cloning, or virtual reality — as another threat to add to its roster.
The FBI / White House conflict comes up again in the season’s third episode, “Plus One,” part of a host of anxieties that lead Scully to seek comfort in Mulder’s bed. “Sometimes I think the world is going to hell and we’re the only two people who can save it,” she says, lying in his arms. “The world is going to hell, Scully, the president working to bring down the FBI along with it,” he responds.
Here the actors’ unfailingly excellent chemistry sells the moment. They feel like any couple who didn’t vote for Trump, sharing their fears about what he’s doing and what they can do to fight for what they believe in. They don’t offer a solution, they just comfort each other. Politics is a catalyst for the conversation, but the result is a beautiful moment of intimacy and vulnerability that rewards fans who have wanted to see Mulder and Scully in a romantic light for more than a decade.
If CSM represents the easy nihilism of the times, the show’s protagonists embody a will to fight for truth. In the season’s sixth episode, “Kitten,” which aired on Wednesday, February 7th, Mulder and Scully learn that Skinner’s career within the bureau has been stalled because of all the support he’s given Mulder and Scully. Just as Mulder began his relentless search for the truth after his sister was abducted by aliens, the episode reveals that Skinner’s own mission had a specific triggering event — watching a good man he served with in Vietnam transformed into a violent psychopath after being exposed to an experimental chemical weapon.
Skinner’s willingness to put his ideals ahead of his ambition fights the growing narrative of the FBI as being packed with dangerous partisans, and it contrasts with real-world politicians who seem willing to defend any lie that will allow them to maintain control. The politics are subtle here, and it’s probably the episode most palatable to conservatives who could just as easily imagine its message about the treatment of veterans as a criticism of Democrats in power during the Walter Reed scandal.
The “truth is out there” tagline appears for the first time this season in front of its most political episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.” Written and directed by Darin Morgan (also the writer-director of the 10th season’s best episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”), “Forehead Sweat” explores the nature of subjective truth through the fight between supposed X-Files co-founder Reggie Something (Brian Huskey) and the memory-manipulating Dr. They (Stuart Margolin), who appears at Trump’s inauguration wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
When Mulder confronts Dr. They about Reggie’s claims, the ensuing conversation covers how people are willing to lie about even recorded words or actions, claiming they were “taken out of context” or “misinterpreted.” “Your time has passed,” They tells Mulder. “We’re now living in a post-coverup, post-conspiracy age. The public no longer knows what’s meant by the truth. No one can tell the difference anymore between what’s real and what’s fake.”
”There’s still an objective truth,” Mulder insists. Investigating Reggie allows Mulder and Scully to discover a different truth from the one Reggie is spinning. Like a self-insertion fan-fiction writer, Reggie has placed himself in the partners’ adventures, depicted in a montage where his character is poorly edited into classic episodes. He claims he was always there, but Mulder and Scully have forgotten him. But the truth is, he’s just imagined himself to be a part of their work to escape the darkness of a career spent performing less-savory services for the government, including waterboarding, illegal wiretapping, and piloting drone attacks.
”You escaped into a fantasy where you joined a team that still did what America was meant to do — fight for truth and justice,” Mulder tells Reggie.
Reggie isn’t the only one who wants to live in that America. With that line, Morgan justifies the continued relevance of The X-Files. Its heroes come from a simpler time when films and TV clearly assumed that if a conspiracy was exposed, the story was over because the perpetrators would be punished. While the protagonists might despair in the face of the challenges they faced, it was always best to tackle problems head-on, gun and flashlight in hand. The X-Files is a heroic fantasy, to be sure, but it’s a refreshing counter to the caped crusaders and dystopian narratives dominating today’s genre television. Mulder and Scully evoke a bygone time when love, loyalty, and hard work could overcome the impossible. The series’s return is powered by nostalgia, but it’s trying to adapt by keeping some of the best parts of what made it a classic, and delivering longtime fans the message they need right now.
The X-Files’ 11th season has been moving thematically closer to Black Mirror, abandoning fears of aliens in favor of worrying about American politics and culture. But the show maintains the fundamental optimism and humanism it had in the ‘90 and early ‘00s. Mulder, Scully, and Skinner have repeatedly risked their careers and lives in the quest for truth, and The X-Files reminds us that it’s still out there. The heroes just have look harder than ever to find it.