After the high of Darin Morgan’s ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’, the most recent episode ‘Ghouli’ had a lot to live up to. The eleventh season of The X-Files has been steadily moving along with solid episodes and old-school monster of the week adventures without a clunker episode thus far, but ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ was an all-time great episode. With that fresh on the mind, how was ‘Ghouli’ to raise the stakes again? Could it?
The episode starts with a ripped-from-the-headlines inspired Slenderman stabbing. Two teen girls have visions of Ghouli, an evil creature invented by the internet, and stab each other nearly to death thinking the other is the Ghouli. Scully is drawn to the incident in a dream, and she and Mulder go to investigate.
It seems like we’re in for another Monster of the Week episode at this point, but writer/director James Wong takes things into another direction. The teen girls are both dating the same teenage boy, Jackson Van Der Camp, who is dead in an apparent murder-suicide with his parents. While exploring Jackson’s room and wondering why she had visions of this place, it clicks for Scully: Jackson is William, her long lost son.
Gillian Anderson is what sells the majority of the William story. Her grief is real and makes us feel for her loss, even when we know nothing about William as a character. She delivers a teary, heartfelt monologue to him in the morgue — before William comes back to life and escapes. Of course they weren’t going to bring William back just to kill him! His alien-human hybrid powers give him the ability to project images that aren’t really there, and he was able to play dead and fool Mulder and Scully after Department of Defence agents killed his parents.
This power is also responsible for Ghouli — William made the two girls see the creature as a prank. That, combined with the fact that he has two girlfriends (are we sure he’s not Mulder’s kid?) are an interesting choice for William. Instead of the golden child Scully has built up in her head all these years, he’s kind of a dick. Just a bratty, jerk teenager that holds the key to saving humanity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer called, they want they’re Dawn back.
The episode shifts from monster of the week to mythology quite quickly and it feels almost like two separate episodes were combined. The opening with the Slenderman-esque killer doesn’t really get the payoff it deserves — I almost wish the concept save saved for its own episode. Wong’s horror sensibilities really come through, both in the Ghouli attack and Scully’s sleep paralysis-esque vision, but with the William stuff added in as well it doesn’t get enough time to shine.
That’s not to say the episode doesn’t work: it mostly does! William’s powers are interesting and create a good mystery, the ‘scary’ aspects are well-done, and there’s an emotional resonance as well. The episode ends with William escaping, disguised as a famous pick-up artist, but not before he says goodbye to Scully. “You seem like a nice lady. I wish I got to know you better,” he says, echoing Scully’s morgue speech where she said she wished they could know each other. William must have heard her after all, and Scully and her son finally got the chance to connect, even if only for a minute.