We were concerned about The X-Files' 11th season after last week - that scene where Scully gripped her throbbing noggin and shrieked "What is going on?" was, shall we say, extremely relatable. This week, there was still plenty of mystery, but with less angst - and thank goodness, way more warmth, and humour.
Episode two, titled "This," isn't one of the series' monster-of-the-week episodes; it ties directly back to last week's premiere, "My Struggle III," with the appearance of Barbara Hershey's shadowy character, whose name we learn is Erika Price. Anticipating the end of life on Earth, she's in charge of a virtual reality program - housed in a highly secure NSA building, with a well-armed, Russia-based private security company providing protection - where human minds are uploaded the moment their bodies die. One of those minds is that of vintage X-Files character Richard Langly, of the dearly-departed Lone Gunmen, and it's he who reaches out to Mulder from the digital beyond.
Remember when Scully and Mulder didn't have cell phones? Image: Shane Harvey/FOX
The plot of "This" nudges forward the doomsday vibes set forth in the season 10 finale — the events of which were revealed last week to have been a prophetic vision, rather than reality. We do know that Scully, Mulder, the Cigarette Smoking Man, Scully's long-absent son, Skinner, Reyes, and numerous other characters are all involved in a race to either prevent or carry out the end of humanity using an alien weapon, with a select few chosen to survive. Price is the first significant new face to enter the picture, and it's clear (especially from the breathtakingly speedy disappearing act she pulls at the end of the episode) that she'll be a slippery adversary this season.
The hows and whys of Price's "simulation" are sorta vague yet decidedly spooky (not to mention reminiscent of Black Mirror episodes), and as a plot device, it provides a clever way for writer-director and series veteran Glen Morgan to bring a fan-favourite character back from the dead. Also, there are some nice Skinner moments; though he's not to be trusted after seemingly taking the CSM's "deal" last week, he's still willing to aid his agents when they're in trouble, as well as serve as the conduit for some expository dialogue about how the global intelligence community has sure changed a lot since The X-Files' heyday.
Image: Shane Harvey/FOX
However, "This" is a winner mostly because of the way it depicts the relationship between Scully and Mulder. Unlike last week's Sturm und Drang of seizures, high-speed chases, tense phone exchanges, and "find our son" emoting, we get to see the partners working closely together in a high-stakes situation, focusing on a case rather than themselves, and making full use of the chemistry and affection that's developed between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson over so many years. Sure, the opening scene contains a shoot-out, but before bullets start flying, the pair is flopped out on Mulder's ugly couch, snoozing in front of the TV. Because that's what friends/lovers/whatevers are for.
Later, they puzzle through clues and Presidential trivia left in headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, devour muffins while casually pondering how to access case files despite being on the run from assassins, and bluff their way into the top-secret facility that houses the virtual afterlife. Their interplay is more loosey-goosey, and the humour — the episode is full of cheeky quips, though Mulder gets the lion's share ("You said taint!") — feels refreshing and unforced. "This" offers hope that maybe Duchovny and Anderson didn't totally hate toiling on what's likely The X-Files' final instalment, which seemed plausible after "My Struggle III." And more importantly, it suggests that things are looking up for season 11. Just because the characters are dreading the future doesn't mean the audience should dread following them there.