It’s pretty unlikely that anything ‘The X Files’ delivers for the rest of this season will equal, much less top, last week’s highlight. This week’s episode certainly doesn’t.
Almost like a bait-and-switch, ‘Ghouli’ initially presents itself as a Monster of the Week episode, but then reveals itself to actually be a mythology story. Considering how bad most mythology episodes have been lately, that’s a bummer, but at least this one’s not written by Chris Carter.
We start in the middle of the night, as two teenage girls, separately from one another, are drawn to an old wreck of a ship in a boat graveyard. They’re both searching for someone or something called “Ghouli,” and they each suspect that the other is really that Ghouli in a human disguise. When they finally meet in the same room, each sees the other as a scary, tentacled monster. They immediately pull knives and violently stab each other until they collapse.
Meanwhile, Scully is having trouble sleeping, and is plagued with hallucinations of a dark figure luring her to chase it. When Mulder tells her about the open X File, she feels compelled to go to the boat. While investigating the scene, she spots a strange man (François Chau from ‘Lost’ and ‘The Expanse’) staring at her, but doesn’t think anything of it.
Both girls survive the stabbing, but seemingly don’t know each other. By searching their internet browser histories, Mulder learns that they were both obsessed with a creepypasta viral horror story about a monster called Ghouli. It also turns out that they both have a common boyfriend, named Jackson Van De Camp. When Mulder and Scully get to the boy’s house, Scully feels like she already knows the place. Before they can ring the doorbell, they hear gunshots from inside. They kick in the door and find two adults, Van De Camp’s parents, dead in the living room. Jackson is also dead, seemingly from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
The local police want to write this off as a murder-suicide, but Mulder is skeptical. Among the things Scully finds in Jackson’s room is a gross self-help book on how to pick up women. The author photo on the dust jacket is clearly the man who stared at her earlier, but Scully doesn’t make the connection.
For seemingly little reason, Scully becomes convinced that Jackson Van De Camp was actually William, the son she gave up years earlier. She has felt a psychic connection with William, and believes he was sending her mental messages to lead her to him. While taking a DNA sample at the local morgue, Scully has a breakdown and delivers a very emotional speech to the body, apologizing to her dead son for not being there for him. After she leaves, Jackson sits up on the table. He isn’t dead after all.
The DNA test confirms that Jackson was Scully’s son. She’s shocked when the police tell her the body has vanished, and still feels drawn to following a dark figure. She interviews Jackson’s therapist and learns that he had visions of a global pandemic – the same ones she had. She takes this as confirmation that he projected those visions to her. (Whatever happened to Scully being the rational skeptic?)
Scully also bumps into the author in person and still doesn’t recognize him.
Mulder goes digging into Department of Defense files on something called “Project Crossroads,” which claim that the U.S. government conducted secret eugenics experiments mixing human and alien DNA. He also develops a theory based on blood spatter patterns in the house that the Van De Camps were murdered by two shooters, not by Jackson. He believes that Jackson has the ability to make people see whatever he wants them to see, and faked his own death by projecting the image of a gunshot wound in his head that wasn’t really there.
That last part is confirmed when Jackson sneaks into the hospital to visit one of his two girlfriends. He says that he made up the Ghouli story and tricked the girls into seeing the monster as a prank, but didn’t intend for them to hurt each other. What a lousy boyfriend!
As they get closer to the truth, Mulder and Scully are ordered off the case, and DoD agents who are clearly assassins move in to take over. They track Jackson and chase him through the hospital. The boy tricks two agents into shooting each other by making them see the Ghouli monster. Scully then runs in and has a shootout with another agent, and it appears that both of them die. But no, it’s another fake-out. The real Scully comes in and finds two dead men. Jackson escapes the hospital by disguising himself as a nurse.
With Jackson/William missing, Mulder and Scully head back to D.C. On the way out of town, they stop at a gas station, where Scully once again runs into the stranger who’s obviously been stalking her. She thinks that he might be the doctor who ran the government eugenics program, but he claims that he’s not a doctor and she immediately takes him at his word. They exchange a few pleasantries and he seems like a nice man. Oddly, he leaves by quoting Malcolm X: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
After the man is gone, Scully remembers that Jackson’s bedroom had a Malcolm X poster on the ceiling. She suddenly realizes that this man was William the whole time, merely projecting a different face (one that happened to be on a book he’d been reading) so that he wouldn’t be recognized. Knowing that he’s OK, and that he even tried to make contact with her, leaves Scully feeling reassured that she’ll see him again.
For a mythology episode, this isn’t nearly as bad as the season premiere (or the Season 10 finale, for that matter). The early parts of the episode involving Ghouli feel like a good, classic Monster of the Week ‘X Files’ entry. Even after it shifts into mythology territory, the story is almost coherent, as if writer/director James Wong actually understood Chris Carter’s game plan and struggled to get it back on track.
It’s still very frustrating, though. Aside from her tear-filled monologue in the morgue (which is a nice piece of acting), Scully’s behavior this episode is extremely out of character. David Duchovny looks bored and disengaged the whole time. You can easily gauge Duchovny’s level of interest in an episode script by how flat his performance is; Mulder was very animated and seemed to be enjoying himself last week, but this week not so much.
Most perplexing of all is the decision to introduce William as a total creep. He cheats on two girlfriends and intentionally puts them in a dangerous situation that nearly proves fatal for both, allegedly as a joke. He appears to feel no remorse for that, and may have even wanted to kill them. He then orchestrates several deaths. (Yeah, they were all bad guys, but how many teenagers do you know who would coldly murder federal agents without giving it a second thought?) He seems to be a little psychopath, and I’m not sure if that was intentional.