“Home Again” is one of those X-Files episodes where the actual weirdo case Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate is little more than set dressing for the much more pressing, much more metaphysical quandaries taking over their plain-clothes realities. Whereas Glen Morgan’s regular partner James Wong used “Founder’s Mutation” to pry into Scully’s and Mulder’s regrets regarding their giving up their son William for adoption—while a case about government genetic experimentation wound down to a literal eye-roll—Morgan here does pretty much the same, but amps up the emotional ante to a degree this season hasn’t yet reached. It works, and it’s some gut-punching, tearjerking stuff, but there’s something unbalanced in the fact that a case about how five people are mysteriously torn to pieces only serves to teach Scully a lesson about parenthood.
This week, after an especially gruesome cold open in which a federal HUD employee (Alessandro Juliani: Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica!) in Philadelphia is ripped limb from limb by a giant Lurch-like monstrosity, Mulder and Scully are assigned to figure out what happened. This means some overbearing one-liners on Mulder’s behalf, making light of mangled corpses as he’s wont to do—but it also means the show has yet another chance to go full-on gross, as director Morgan shoots a Mortal Kombat-style decapitation in gorgeous silhouette, pushing, as the show has so many times in the past, the boundaries of taste and what passes for acceptable on popular network TV.
Before Scully can get deep into the investigation, though, her brother calls to tell her that her mother’s (Sheila Larken, reprising her role) had a heart attack. Considering that Scully’s father died in the first season (during the episode “Beyond the Sea,” which, if you’re looking for X-Files to make you cry, start there) and her sister was killed by Alex Krycek in “The Blessing Way,” the fates of Scully’s family members have always served as a natural foil to her supernatural occupation.
While Mulder keeps the investigation going, connecting more murders to a municipal redistribution of the City’s homeless in order to make way for gentrified development, Scully struggles to convince her estranged brother Charlie to reconnect with their mother, at least over the phone: Her mother, Scully learns, only called out for Charlie before she slipped into a coma. When Charlie finally does call, it’s right before Scully’s mom passes, though her last words are to Mulder, who has joined Scully in the hospital. She wakes up briefly before flatlining, grabbing Mulder’s hand and tenderly proclaiming, “My son is named William too.”
In shock, and pretty shaken over her mother’s last words referencing the child she and Mulder gave up, Scully insists they go back to work. So the partners return to Philadelphia where Scully, as always, is impressively on point under pressure, and where Mulder’s eased back on the smarmy quips, sobered by all the sad shit happening to his best friend. Which is when the episode’s investigation kicks into high gear, rushing to some sort of conclusion to essentially get the subplot out of the way. The agents descend into a dilapidated, underground lair—pausing a moment to pull out their flashlights and proffer some fan service to the legions of press photos built around X-shaped beams of light—to confront a Banksy-esque street artist who admits he basically conjured the Lurch-sized creature from the palpable ire and outrage he felt in watching so many of Philadelphia’s homeless population treated like garbage.
Which is when Mulder points out that the street artist’s reasoning for the monster’s manifestation doesn’t really make any sense—to which the street artist responds that it doesn’t matter what does or doesn’t make sense: It still happened. It’s all still real. So, regardless of whether or not Mulder thinks the street artist’s ability to craft his feelings of injustice into a humanoid agent of murder falls squarely into the realm of the Buddhist beliefs the street artist references, Mulder and Scully still convince the guy to follow them to the potential last victim, who is in the final stages of moving the homeless population into government housing, away from the redeveloping areas. They’re too late, of course: The guy is sorted into a pile of appendages only seconds before they make it—and with that, the investigation is over, the street artist skips town, and Mulder and Scully return to collect her mother’s ashes.
“Home Again” is an emotional triumph for the series, handling even its core, titular metaphor, while obvious, with a light touch: By drawing parallels between her hospital stay with her mother’s, recognizing how Mulder’s strength helped pull her from the brink of death, Scully begins to understand what “home” truly means—for her and Mulder, but also for William. Did she and Mulder leave William without a home, displaced and dispossessed?
But what keeps “Home Again” from being a sincerely great episode is the way in which Morgan loses track of the case itself. I’m quibbling here, of course, but the mechanics of the case, the procedural aspects that bring the agents to the street artist and the case’s “explanation,” are too sloppy to be little more than a series of cool kills and a foundation for the emotional terrain Scully will be navigating with her mother’s death. Much doesn’t add up: How does Mulder find a sticky band-aid (a major clue) at the fucking crime scene after apparently the forensics team has done their job? Why, after two people involved in the redistribution are brutally murdered, does the program carry on seemingly unhindered? Wouldn’t one way to keep people alive while Mulder and Scully get to the bottom of the mystery be to halt the project indefinitely, especially since the agents make it clear that, within five minutes of showing up in Philadelphia, they have the jurisdiction and power to do just that? Especially when they need to tend to personal problems, and maybe by stopping the redistribution from happening could buy themselves some obvious time.
Anyway, the investigation simply ends, the monster having killed everyone he apparently was planning to kill—which is of course nothing new for the series, even within this 10th season—and Scully is encouraged to talk frankly with Mulder about their responsibility as parents. She fears that, in light of the whole Lurch monster thing, she and Mulder may have treated their son like garbage, casting him away when his existence in their lives proved untenable. They convinced themselves, and still do, that it was for William’s safety—but how much of that, she wonders, had to do with their own paranoia and inability to give up their obsessions rather than their selfless concern for their child? Mulder has no answer, and stays mostly silent, though we know he’s thought the same, with equal—if silent—regret.
It becomes clear: This is Scully’s moment, and this is Scully’s grief. This season, in fact, is Scully’s. If Mulder’s quest for the truth kickstarted their lifelong affair, then it’s Scully’s longing for answers that will keep them moving forward, far past the point of Mulder figuring out the difference between wanting to believe and belief itself.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention, no more than five. You can follow him on Twitter.