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11X05: Ghouli

X-philes have been waiting for this episode for 17 years: the reunion of Scully and Mulder with their son William! What a set up! If the search for Samantha was The X-Files‘ longest-running storyline, resolved after 7 years, William returned after twice as long, and with twice as many expectations. The return of William is something anyone could have expected despite him being given up for adoption in 9X17: William, with much of Scully and Mulder’s characterization being centered around him since the beginning of this revival — notably in James Wong’s semi-mythology episode 10X2: Founder’s Mutation. And fittingly it is with a James Wong episode that the William story becomes front and center again, with a stand-alone investigation that morphs into a mythology episode — something reminiscent of the Samantha resolution two-parter, 7X10: Sein und Zeit / 7X11: Closure.

James Wong writes and directs. He is a veteran director and that shows: he is able to instill tension and create scares in the teaser and the hospital chase scenes; he makes use of silence and long takes to maximize the emotional impact of Scully’s monologue in the morgue; he gives us the show’s first drone shot, in that zoom out from the boat; the episode flows smoothly and the tension is managed expertly, without the excessive speed which was one of the negatives of Founder’s Mutation.

The script seems to have developed in a similar way as the episode develops. The starting point would have been Wong’s interest in doing a scary story based around creepypasta, the internet’s version of urban legends (and not “fanfiction” really): the Ghouli monster and the ghouli.net website are based around the Slender Man story, an internet legend around which two teens attempted murder using knives. However, for an episode called “Ghouli” there’s surprisingly little about it, and the episode quickly turns towards the Scully-William connection — one could think that Carter contributed with some ideas here in order to make this of one piece with his My Struggle mythology, but very little evidence of that has appeared in interviews.

Meet Jackson Van de Kamp

After so many years of absence, William is an actual character on the show! The season gradually builds towards a reunion of the whole family, with glimpses in 11X01: My Struggle III, a proper introduction but no real meeting here, and we suppose much more in the finale. Ghouli is built around the mere (re)introduction of William as a character; this would be fine if this were one episode in an on-going story with a long future, if we still had many seasons ahead of us, but everything points to this being the final season! Any real character development that might take place for William might be limited to the duration of the season/series finale. Although Ghouli is a good episode in and of itself, in the context of the show’s history and what is left of it, what we get is frustratingly little.

And so we meet Jackson Van de Kamp, i.e. William. With so many Biblical parallels, prophecies and messianic promises, much could have been expected of his character. He could have been a Jesus-like immaculate being living far away from the spotlight in rural America; he could have turned out cynical and prone to evil, full of wrath at the world (something that Joe Harris’ comics could have explored had Carter specifically told Harris not to go there, which could have been a hint at Carter’s plans for William). What we get is more mundane.

What is most surprising about him is not the casting — he is portrayed by Miles Robbins, a 25 year old that somewhat could pass for a 16/17 year old, and we still need more scenes with him to judge his acting skills — nor his physical appearance — a Bobby Briggs / young John Connor / angel from Millennium‘s 1×18: Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. What is most surprising is that he is sort of a jerk, one could even say he has signs of an emotionless psychopath. He has two girlfriends and reads about how to be a good pickup artist. He thinks that using his powers for a prank involving knives is a good idea. He shows absolutely no emotion regarding his foster parents’ death. He waits patiently playing dead while Scully cries her guts out.

Scully finds evidence that he seemed to have lived a normal childhood, or so it would appear to her; after all, she wants to believe that her choice to give him up for adoption was the right one. How would a normal life be possible given his developing abilities? He also has an interest in astronomy (ties well with his would-be memories with Mulder in Founder’s Mutation), snow globes and Malcolm X. He holds a diary, which Scully reads with a similar passion as Mulder read Samantha’s diary in 7X11: Closure. He is internet savvy enough to hold a website, and to find and collect secret information about Project Crossroads. That he would search for Project Crossroads is proof enough that he knows more about his nature than it first appears, and that he must not be in the best of psychological conditions.

The Van de Kamps are here a rich suburban family in Virginia — at complete odds with the God-fearing humble farmers in Wyoming of 9X17: William, and it is difficult to imagine anything that could have happened in the meantime to justify these changes. Could it be that they somehow profited financially from having their child be part of secret medical experiments? (as was apparently the case with the Sims in 5X05: Christmas Carol / 5X07: Emily, who also end up dead) Hopefully we will get some more background in My Struggle IV.

Project Crossroads

The CSM, hanging out and smoking in Skinner’s office as if it were 1995 once more and saying things like “Mulder is close“, provides some exposition: “We’ll be able to find what we’ve been looking for.” The CSM is looking for William and uses the X-Files unit to find him. Evidently the Department of Defense agents that are tracking William to kill him are not on the same side as the CSM. Would any government agency with surveillance powers like the ones exhibited in 9X08:Trust No 1 have trouble finding William despite the adoption? — but let’s accept that for the sake of the narrative. One would expect though that the CSM, the self-described most powerful man on the world, would have been able to use the DOD’s resources to track William down.

Skinner provides exposition to Mulder about what experiments William is the result of. The entire dialogue is worth analyzing here: “After the crash at Roswell, our government’s interest in alien technology exploded in all directions. And finally, in the ’70s, our science caught up to our ambition. A eugenics program was initiated by a Dr. Masao Matsumoto using components of alien technology, hybrid DNA. Project Crossroads. It was ultimately deemed a failure because they couldn’t predict what attributes the test subjects would get from the hybrid DNA. The project was defunded 15 years ago. Dr. Matsumoto burned all the files pertaining to the subjects to save their lives, and then… he disappeared. The DoD has tried to track them down ever since.” And later Mulder: “Scully, I believe that, through the Smoking Man, you were an unwitting participant in a eugenics program called Project Crossroads. It was spearheaded by Dr. Masao Matsumoto. He disappeared two years after William was born. I believe our son was one of his test subjects.

This description of events is really a very simplified version of the mythology for the purposes of the revival. There is talk of hybridization, of eugenics (to create a “superhuman“, as per the CSM in My Struggle III), of defunding due to scarce results, but nothing about alien colonization and the time pressure this created on anyone working on hybridization, nor is there anything about the hybrids created before the 1970s or about all the different purposes hybrids were created for.

Dr. Matsumoto was never referenced before (a previous Japanese connection is explored in the hybridization experiments of Dr. Ishimaru / Shiro Zama in 3X09: Nisei / 3X10: 731). William’s conception and early years were involved in many different experiments (Zeus Genetics, Valor Victor chloramine project, apparently the CSM’s own impregnation with science), however the show never quite made it clear if William was special from his conception and surprised the scientists in all these projects or if a combination of all these projects made him special. Matsumoto’s Crossroads feels like a generic umbrella term that encompasses everything in the past, without going too much into the details.

The use of “Project Crossroads” here is interesting: a crossroads between a before and an after, a crossing between human and alien (also, the ship’s name “Chimera” calls back to the hybrids in 4X24: Gethsemane / 5X02: Redux), and reminiscent of Operation Crossroads, the US military project that fine-tuned nuclear bombs in 1946 in the Pacific atolls. Is William a sort of weapon, the result of a DOD experiment? The children of 10X2: Founder’s Mutation were also part of a hybridization project that was of interest to the DOD, are they of the same kind? Was Matsumoto’s disappearance after William’s birth a coincidence, or could Matsumoto consider William a success and be keeping tabs on him?

Where do we go from here?

The developments in this episode render some weighty scenes from 11X01: My Struggle III useless. What was the point in Jeffrey Spender telling Scully about the name of William’s foster family if Scully was to find William through her visions anyway? The name Van de Kamp does raise Scully’s attention in Ghouli, but it’s really William’s visions and the investigations that leads her to him, not Jeffrey’s information. What is certain is that Jeffrey’s magnetite injection in 9X17: William was of no use — William did develop superhuman abilities, and the adoption did not protect him more than what Scully could have.

The viral apocalypse itself is put into question here: “What if I didn’t get a glimpse of the future? What if I was just a receptacle for his message to me?” What if the visions of a viral apocalypse are the result of William’s mind trying to make sense of this world and his place in it as a lab rat in hybridization experiments, and 10X6: My Struggle II was these visions as seen from the point of view of Scully? Season 11 could very well not be leading us to a realization of the My Struggle II future after all.

William’s powers are to convince those around him that things are not like they really are, as if the shapeshifter ability of the hybrids in the 1990s has been updated to mind manipulation (a la 3X17: Pusher!). As the tagline says, “I see what I want you to see” (4 out of 5 tagline changes in season 11, a weird record!). He seems to be partly in control of his powers, at time trying very hard for a result and at time easily slipping in and out of it. When Scully receives William’s vision, she is in a hypnagogic state or sleep paralysis, shot in an intense way similar to the strident sounds experiences in Founder’s Mutation, reminiscent of many alien abductees’ accounts — and Mulder’s memories of Samantha’s abduction. (The episode kicks off on a bad note with a Scully voiceover about her dreams — an inspiration from My Struggle III?)

William/Jackson assumes the appearance of Peter Wong, and that actor (Francois Chau, of Lost and The Expanse fame) portrays William as a much more caring and warm individual. Given that this actor is relatively well-known, could he be returning in the future?

Oddly enough, Scully describes William’s ability as creating an “alternate reality“, although we are certainly far from anything like an alternate universe here. An alternate theory, reinforced by all the dream-man “This Man” sightings in nearly all the episodes this season, would be that the apcalypse is indeed coming in the future, and future William is creating an alternate reality where it is not happening, i.e. all of season 11. We are heading towards the events of My Struggle II but William’s future powers switch us to a different outcome. This might be too far-out science-fiction for the show to attempt. And yet, Jackson/William’s handle on his ghouli.net site is “rever“, i.e. “to dream” in French; in a Twin Peaks fashion, we can wonder, “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?

A mother’s pain

However, everything written above is not really what the episode is about. Ghouli is really about Scully and her anguish and pain.

Mulder does feel pain but it is much more internalized — which is arguably not that characteristic of him, but between this episode and 10X4: Home Again it seems Mulder/Duchovny is shown as much more introverted, if not relegated to a supportive role for Scully’s drama. And while Mulder was running a DNA test to find out if Jackson is Scully’s son, he could have saved everyone a lot of worries if he also ran a comparison with his own DNA! “Our son” is mentioned several times, but the question of who William’s father is hovers over the episode, and seems to be torturing Skinner (oddly enough, Wong had no idea about the games Carter would play in My Struggle III when writing Ghouli!). If Mulder did not, it would evidently be because he is convinced he is the father? Incidentally, William’s new name “Jackson” could be “Jacob’s son”, i.e. the son of Jacob and Rachel, continuing a Jacob/Mulder and Rachel/Scully parallel introduced in 11X03: Plus One!

Just when Scully feels she will find her son again, here he is lying dead. “This is torture, Mulder“, and indeed it is! Scully found a daughter of hers, Emily, only to see her die; she later had a vision of her on a morgue slab (5X17: All Souls). This is repeated here, in the most harsh manner possible. Just when she might have met him, Jackson/William chooses to postpone their true meeting, perhaps wary of them being FBI, and assumes a different identity. This is high drama, giving Anderson plenty of opportunities to showcase her talent. The ending scene of the realization of what happened at the gas station could very well be this season’s most powerful image. Ghouli might be problematic in the way it is part of a larger continuity, but as an episode it is very effective.

Despite all expectations, My Struggle III had ended not with a re-energized Scully & Mulder searching for William, but with Scully saying that William will find them — despite an impending viral apocalypse. Ghouli ends with us certain that William is not actively searching for Scully & Mulder, he is mildly intrigued but nothing more (“This woman…I don’t know, she’s maybe my birth mother“). Nobody is too worried of the viral apocalypse it seems. And it might be a given that My Struggle IV will focus on him, but actually if we were not to see William anymore it would not be surprising either: we know he is alive, out exploring the world, with some special powers that could be one more X-File, and that’s that.


8 Responses to “11X05: Ghouli”

  1. Anna says:

    I enjoyed the episode very much, it was one of the better mythology episodes since s5 maybe (as an episode) and although some things that you mention doesn’t bother me as much as others, I agree with your criticism. One must wonder why they chose to create a new project and a doctor when they could use the ones from the older mytharc episodes when they had exactly the same purpose. They could simply state that Dr. Matsumoto was part of Dr. Ishimaru’s team and continued his work or the assistant of Scully’s doctor in s8 (I forget his name). I also wonder why the characters keep mention these experiments like they’ve never heard of them before (it’s an exposition for the audience but still they could do it in a more natural way). We still have to see what Carter has for us in MSIV but I think the intention of James Wong was not to imply that William was a test subject all his life like Emily. I think he somehow wanted to justify Scully’s decision and that William grew up somewhat normal and the seizures and visions started few months ago and then he hacked the DoD files and found out what he was. (IIRC he mentioned in an interview that he has an adopted child and he took that under consideration) I see why some people speculate that Van De Kamp’s could work for the conspirators but I don’t think Wong had that in mind (but what is in Carter’s mind could be very different since I doubt the writers coordinate their ideas). But I wish he won’t go there, he has little time to tell William’s story and he has to cover the world’s end sl, Cancer man, Skinner, Monica and Scully’s pain if she feels her sacrifice had the opposite results so I hope he will ease himself. How Van De Kamps went rich? Idk, maybe they won the lottery or their farming work really payed off. But the real reason is that the writers don’t coordinate their ideas.
    Thanks again for the excellent review and I can’t wait to see how all this are gonna end.

    • orodromeus says:

      It is unclear whether Matsumoto was responsible only for experiments upon William’s conception, or if he also experimented on him after birth, a la Emily. I agree that Wong is trying to justify Scully’s decision for giving him up for adoption, but at the same time he presents us with a William that has issues as a result of being part of an experiment. Did Wong mean that Matsumoto had nothing to do with William after his conception, or did the experiments continue afterwards? (defunding 15 years ago: William would be about 2)

      The writers’ lack of coordination is problematic – we won’t know for sure until MS4 airs but Wong’s and Carter’s backstory for William might differ. In Ghouli it looks like Jackson/William was an experiment at his conception and then had a normal childhood before his special abilities started appearing recently. The ghouli.net entries tell a different story, and they might be a hint as to what direction Carter might take: William was experimented on with the knowledge of his parents at a young age, and William has had emotional issues for a long time.

      • Anna says:

        I didn’t know that about ghouli site, I’ll read it as soon as I can. Thank you. I hope Carter won’t follow that road (although that seems the most possible now) for the reasons I said. I think the characters and we need a closure at some point. If he make William a lab rat then he will put himself in the corner once again for their decision to get rid of him in s9, I hope he knows better. But yes there is no excuse why the writers don’t work closer together.

  2. Jason Thompson says:

    I can’t remember where, but after Ghouli aired I saw someone connecting Project Crossroads to the Valor Victor, which was apparently in NIHT. I remember almost zero from S9, but I don’t see any mention of it here in your review. Is there anything to that? Mr. Wong does appear to have done quite a bit of research on the mythology after he left the show.

    This episode was probably my favorite of the revival series. I don’t mind the show exploring and branching out. For example, Nisei could have easily used a Nazi scientist in place of Zama. I think William’s characterization is bold. It’s not a romanticized version so many want, but it’s probably true to his character.

    I do agree with you, though that if they now know William is not seeking them out, Mulder and Scully would seem to need to refocus on the impending apocalypse. I doubt the next 4 episodes will do that effectively, but we’ll see.

    • orodromeus says:

      There’s no specific reason why Project Crossroads should be the same thing as the Valor Victor project (which I do mention here but just as what happened “previously on”). Valor Victor involved the creation of Supersoldier embryos triggered by additives in tap water, and quite likely genetic modifications on the embryos and the babies once they were born. This could be described as eugenics, and William was quite possibly part of that program too. However, in the simplified mythology of the revival there’s been no mention of Supersoldiers at all, no mention of modified humans that would serve the alien colonists, which is what the Supersoldiers would be, unless the Supersoldiers had an alien conscience themselves — while Project Crossroads seems to be a human-run hybridization program for the purposes of the DOD or the elites conspiracy. We simply don’t know enough.

      Per se it’s not problematic, but how many experimental programs could William have realistically been part of?

      William’s characterization is interesting in that he’s not romanticized and idealized as you say, it is interesting to have flawed characters and William does have reasons to be in a weird position psychologically — but he’s not very easy to relate to either. Hopefully he will be more fleshed out in the season/series finale.

      • Jason Thompson says:

        You did mention Valor Victor. My apologies. Your thoroughness is remarkable, actually. And your notion is right, that he can’t be a part of every “project.”
        I dont know if william was difficult to relate to or it was just jarring going from a motw story to mythology and william is dead less than 10 minutes in.
        While I think “plus one” is the weakest of the season so far, it did have the best pacing and flow. The rest have felt rushed or off tone in some way, or both.

  3. Deep Throat says:

    Thank you for the hard work you do to put all these reviews and data together. This is the best site I’ve ever visited.

    • orodromeus says:

      Thank you! I was perhaps too harsh on Ghouli, it is a good episode, it does tell a complete story that works in terms of pacing and emotion (which is not something you can say about most of the revival episodes!). But it has its issues.