Season 4 is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement on 3’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi.
It’s biggest problem – well, actually two biggest – is hauling out the cheap “mystery” of Mulder being dead. Of course he isn’t dead, so Chris Carter is onto a massive loser trying to milk any kind of tension from the thread. A thread that, to make matters worse, is teased out over the course of the episode by yet another of the series’ tiresome “Scully gives evidence” framing devices. Was Carter unaware how weak and unpersuasive a crutch this had quickly become?
The only vague credit due this set up is one that relates to the episode as a whole, and which is an interesting gambit for the series to make in terms of cliffhangers, knowing full well its cachet is built around the mystery of ETs. Suggesting the mystery is itself a conspiracy, that ETs are simply a bait and switch to distract from more heinous acts (an explanation with appreciable credibility, even if I’d resist any assumption of it being the whole story) directly counters the very reason The X-Files’ cachet was what it was: that the audience’s quest was allied with Mulder’s.
Here, though, Scully has “won”, in terms of giving evidence to an FBI committee – and so referencing her initial remit – that the X-Files are illegitimate. Her scepticism of Mulder’s quest has been proven. And we’re asked to entertain the idea that, in despair at being comprehensively hoaxed, Mulder has blown his brains out. While none of this has much elasticity in terms of plausible behaviour, it plays out surprisingly well in relation to the episode’s strongest suit, which comes via Scully’s encounters with Michael Kritschgau (John Finn).
Particularly as Finn is required to serve the role of exposition machine, pumping out an alternate take on Mulder being “deceived and used”, and how “they made you… believe so badly”. Belief that includes military aircraft (UFOs) and naturally occurring biological chimeras (aliens): “The lies are so deep, the only way to cover them, is to create something even more incredible”.
And you can buy the conceit, and very nearly the notion that much of what we have seen is BS. Even the Alien Bounty Hunter? Well, perhaps he’s a “Tartarian”, or from beyond the ice wall. The problem with this is that Mulder would surely have point-by-point refuted this version of events, being as geeky as he is on the subject, rather than relying on the audience’s vague recollection of half-glimpsed figures in murky mountainside facilities and muggy boxcar corpses. Certainly, the idea that the government is actively utilising the UFO/alien mythos for its own ends is probably the most on-point aspect the series has portrayed. Which is not to discount there are phenomena beside those that are manmade, but to suggest the additional explanation may be less galactic (at least, in a NASA, space-hopping sense) than ultraterrestrial in aspect.*
The precursor to all this, and preventing the episode from reaching a consistent level of quality, is the sub-Thing quest for a frozen alien corpse. There’s some solid production value in the location footage of snowy Canadian peaks, and the fates of the crew – for such a swizz – are effectively nasty, but it needs to be emphasised that this is the third time in the space of two seasons an alien autopsy has been seen (the previous ones in 3.9: Nisei and 3.20: “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”). Evidently, Carter was understandably taken by the Ray Santilli zeitgeist, but he arguably also relied too heavily on it as a source of inspiration or reference.
Notably, Gethsemane’s alien design is decent but noticeably less decent that the “legit” ETs/hybrids we’ve seen in the show to date. And for all that this is a Mulder-first episode in terms of the motivation, it’s another, like Anasazi, where the main common sense comes from Scully (well, it has to occasionally, simply for the sake of any credibility). I like the way she won’t be ensnared by Mulder’s attempts to use her own beliefs to justify his behaviour and make her understand how important this is; it’s proof of ET life. Wouldn’t she feel the same if evidence of God came down the pipe? “I don’t think it can be proven” she replies evenly, and he’s left without leverage.
He also stands charged, as her brother points out, as the guy at the centre of her life, yet he’s willing to leave her in the lurch to chase fake aliens in the ice while she visits the hospital (of which, as surprises go, I genuinely thought they’d resolved her cancer by this point in the run, rather than continually milking it).
Gethsemane isn’t a great episode by any means – the title is a bit on the nose too, and evocative in a way the piece doesn’t quite earn – but credit to Carter for bringing in the “doubt” scenario (of course, the movie was already waiting in the wings by this point, and no fan was going to assume other than it featuring “actual” aliens, so whatever happened in the meantime would obviously see this hiccup resolved).
*Addendum 22/08/22: With regard to the Greys themselves, the “future humans” explanation has the most cachet; it’s significant, I feel, that the show expressly avoids giving us reptilian aliens, for example, and instead focuses on telling us a lifeform that isn’t an alien at all is one. As to the point about ETs generally, the deception would be more about the workings of our officially prescribed universe than necessarily their absence from it.