MULDER: I’ve always wondered how this was gonna end.
Originally the eighth episode in the ten hour run of The X-Files’ eleventh and almost certainly last season, ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ was switched around with last weeks ‘Familiar’ and you can understand the decision. Karen Nielsen’s script has an undulating sense of finality about it, as if Agents Mulder & Scully know the end of their journey is in sight.
We have, of course, been here before, more than once. Season Five cheekily concluded with ‘The End’, ’Requiem’ at the end of Season Seven was mooted as being the final episode to segue into a cinematic franchise for the show, before eventually Season Nine’s ‘The Truth’ brought back an absent David Duchovny and proved to be a hugely divisive (even to this day) mixed bag of a *series* finale. That was back in the age when a series, certainly in American television, concluded without any real chance of reprisal. British TV has long had a tradition of ending a show and then reviving the property years down the line, but American TV didn’t tend to do it until the advent of streaming services and the full embrace of digital TiVo changed the paradigm of how we digested television. The X-Files itself is proof that while nothing lasts forever, where beloved properties are concerned, we should, to borrow another phrase, never say never again.
Nonetheless, Season Eleven does, at this stage, appear to be the final curtain. ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ therefore, should that be the case, will go down in X-Files history as the last ever standalone episode. I’ve discussed the importance of the standalone story versus the ongoing mythology in previous pieces—indeed in last week’s ‘Familiar’ I touched on the subject—but to fans the difference has more sharply moved into focus with the revival series. Arguably, many felt we simply didn’t have enough episodes where Mulder & Scully investigated strange goings on across the American landscape, and episodes such as ‘Plus One’, ‘Familiar’ and here ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ have worked hard to remedy that. ‘Familiar’ goes the furthest to position itself akin to a historical episode of the original run of the series, but ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ stands out as a stranger brew than anything else the entire revival run over both seasons has yet given us.
Thematically, Season Eleven of The X-Files has been all about reality. What do we consider to be truth? In the age of fake news and distorted layers of reality in everything from governments of the Western world down, our global society has started taking a mirror to our very existence, and where modern capitalist democracy has taken us. ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ examines these same concepts from a personal, self-improvement angle. Beauty proves to be the Devil in Nielsen’s script.
The bizarre grotesques Mulder & Scully end up encountering are working to preserve their youth, to present a false truth about who they are, and crucially what they look like, in order to survive in an age where image is everything. Instagram, Snapchat, reality TV shows – all propagate the idea that only the beautiful people have any value to the world at large. It perhaps serves as one of the biggest lies in our civilisation today. Even Mulder feels embarrassed at the prospect of wearing glasses, as age creeps up on him.
Despite an innate sense of feminine anxiety about image which courses through the episode, Nielsen has admitted the concept of the murderous ageing cult was more a product of the fertile creative minds of Glen Morgan and episode director James Wong:
I’ve been fascinated with people that are very religious. My sister is very Catholic and I am not. (Laughs) It’s always been fascinating to me that Scully is very Catholic and Mulder is not. I pitched that I think it would be interesting to have Scully reflect on her religion a bit, especially with what was going on in her life with William. And then Glen thought a cult would be a really interesting way to juxtapose that. And I was like yes, you’re right. And Jim was super excited too. So, Glen brought on the cult idea, and that is where I think the germ of the emotion journey came.
Nielsen’s angle into the episode revolved primarily around exploring a facet the revival seasons have largely ignored over the last couple of years: Scully’s faith. This was a major component to the original run of the series, from Season One episodes such as ‘Beyond the Sea’ all the way through to the Ninth Season mythology which fused Scully’s difficult belief in the possibility of an extra-terrestrial source for the God she has always trusted in, and how that connected to her son William. Scully’s religion and faith tied directly into crucial areas of the mythology, as she was dying of cancer in ‘Redux’ or episodes such as ‘Christmas Carol’ & ‘Emily’. Scully the sceptic but believer in God in opposition to Mulder the believer but sceptic of organised religion, certainly the Judeo-Christian idea of a higher power.
Nielsen, from the outset of getting a writing opportunity on the latest season, wanted to fuse the standalone sensibilities of the original series with the ongoing character development of Mulder & Scully, and that’s precisely what she does. The spiritual tether to the concept of the ageing cult is probably the weakest aspect of the episode, with the avenging sister character Juliet (or ‘La Avispa’) almost being forgotten about once the more interesting villainous players come into the frame (I had to look the Juliet character’s name up on IMDB, that’s how much of an impact she made). Juliet’s faith of ‘repaying’ the sinners who have corrupted her sister with the promise of beauty and eternal life doesn’t work in juxtaposition with Scully’s introspective return to the Church as the script would perhaps like, but it at least allows a way into the contemplative reminders of this key aspect of Scully’s character.
Though the spiritual element serves as the way into the episode for both the audience, and in particular our dynamic duo of agents, Nielsen and director Wong are really interested far more in the star villain of the piece: Barbara Beaumont. Played with delectable, unhinged comic relish by Fiona Vroom (who earlier cameoed in ‘My Struggle III’ as a young Cassandra Spender), Barbara comes off as a twisted hybrid of Elisabeth Bathory and Lucille Ball; a 1960’s, perky TV comedy personality in the fictionalised ’The Barbara Beaumont Show’ (shades too of Mary Tyler Moore perhaps) who after her career went into free fall and her husband died discovered a commune and the extreme life-extension experiments of second husband Dr. Randolph Luvenis. Almost instantly, Barbara becomes of the most vibrant and memorable X-Files monsters in some time.
It’s odd, in fact, that ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ could well serve as the penultimate episode of the series, because in some ways it resembles ‘Sunshine Days’ from Season Nine, the original penultimate episode which came before ‘The Truth’; though a wildly different plot, its use of The Brady Bunch house and reference points to kitsch American TV entertainment from a bygone age served as crucial to the narrative in that story, as it does to Barbara in her quest to retain her youth by consuming the blood and organs of corrupted, ‘ugly duckling’ young men and women who are brought into her orbit. Admittedly, the episode probably owes far more of a debt to previous X-Files ‘Hell Money’ from Season Three (which dealt in organ trafficking in the Chinese gambling community) and ‘3’, a memorable Mulder-solo Season 2 episode which featured vampires in their one and only conventional appearance in the show’s run.
Until now, perhaps, because Barbara and her cult *are* vampires, in most senses of the description. They drink blood, feast on human flesh, rarely go outside or see daylight, retain a level of immortality and corrupt the young and innocent with a suggestion of pleasures of the flesh, and the Devilish promise of salvation through beauty. They may not sprout fangs, be defeated by garlic, crosses or sunlight, but Juliet’s religious avenging in contrast definitely suggests they could be considered a demonic presence in some fashion – or at least people who have sold their souls to darkness in exchange for eternal life.
These aren’t the only inspirations. James Wong does not hold back on the gore or body horror, clearly enjoying the opportunity to throw buckets of blood at the screen in a manner he couldn’t do in his previous episodes ‘Ghouli’ or ‘Founders Mutation’. Wong takes a clear visual cue from The Human Centipede movies (even if he may never admit it), while you can certainly see the influence of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story—a show Wong has written for for years—in the production design and direction of Barbara and her cult specifically; indeed Barbara could easily have been portrayed by a Jessica Lange or Sarah Paulson in full manic mode. American Horror Story may be quite kitsch itself, but it *is* unsettling and ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is absolutely the most wince-inducing, disturbing X-File we’ve seen in years. It’s remarkable it made it past the network censors, in all honesty.
Much of course will be made of the final conversation between Mulder & Scully, which in the truest fashion of teasing Chris Carter would be proud of, Scully whispers a personal secret and truth to Mulder which we don’t hear. Nielsen has suggested the moment is “between David and Gillian”, but there undoubtedly is greater plot or thematic resonance:
I would definitely look at Jim and Glen’s architecture of knowing these characters really well. And it’s just organic. That’s why I think it works so well, because you’re not forcing anything. You’re just going with what these characters are feeling, and going through, and reflecting on. It just felt true and honest to where they were in their journey at that time. Yes, there was some architecture to it, and Jim and Glen did orchestrate that, but I think the reason it’s going to resonate with people is because its honest.
Many have speculated that Scully could well be with child, but ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ doesn’t confirm that going into the final episode. What Karen Nielsen’s script does is confirm, and affirm, the bond between Mulder & Scully, and how they are both considering their position and place in regards to one another not just as FBI partners, but partners in life. For all the myriad threads ‘My Struggle IV’ has to try and unravel in just over forty minutes—and will almost certainly struggle (pun intended) to do—‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ at least gives our two characters room and space to breathe before the end of the end, to contemplate their own reality in the sight of God and the context of each other. It is, indeed, an honest and moving moment, down even to references to Scully’s long-deceased sister; a conversation that honours the past while considering the future.
There isn’t much of that future left now. ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ is a fascinating, delightfully weird final standalone episode of The X-Files which, in its own odd way, places Mulder & Scully neatly in place for what could be their final step into the unknown.
They seem ready. Are you?