SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't yet watched this week's episode of The X-Files, then turn back now! This contains spoilers and plot points for episode three.
The third episode of the X-Files revival, "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster," was by far the strongest episode yet. While the first two episodes focused heavily on the overarching government conspiracy plot and dove heavily into the mythos of the series, this episode brought Team Spooky back to its roots with a sweet, hilarious, and surprisingly moving "Monster of the Week"-style episode. It shouldn't be a surprise to longtime fans: the episode was written and directed by Darin Morgan, the man behind some of the original series’ greatest episodes, including “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” to name just a few.
The episode opens on a trope: The woods at night, under the light of a full moon. Two stoners who are high as hell on paint fumes are suddenly interrupted when they hear some odd noises and then a bloodcurdling scream (with Tyler Labine and Nicole Parker winkingly reprising the same cameo roles they had in the original series). What they see next is so fantastic that they question whether or not it's really happening or if they're just, like, really, really stoned: A human-sized man-lizard rushing past, an injured Animal Control officer (played by Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani, who is himself a hardcore X-Files fan), and a very dead body.
Cut to the basement FBI office of the X-Files, where a morose Mulder is idly throwing pencils at Scully's poster. Apparently, an upbeat Mulder throws pencils into the ceiling, but a despondent Mulder can't aim that high - literally and figuratively. Mulder is struggling with a crisis of faith. In the years since the X-Files division originally closed, "much of the unexplained has been explained," he bemoans. He now feels foolish for so fervently believing in the existence of monsters that have since been proven hoaxes, viral pranks, or rooted in hard science. He's done forever with monsters, bye Felicia. He no longer believes.
But like the audience, Scully knows that a Mulder without his passion for the weird and unexplained is not a happy Mulder, so she gamely finds a new case for them. "It has a monster in it," she quips.
They pair heads out to the Oregon woods to investigate the crime, and the scene plays out in a delightful bit of role reversal, with Mulder refusing to believe in the unbelievable lest he be proven a fool again, and the normally logical Scully pointing out all the logical inconsistencies in the case. It's a moment that shows just how much she cares for Mulder and how deeply she understands him that she works so hard to pull him out of his funk.
Later that night, they interview a transgender prostitute at a truck stop after she claims the lizard-man attacked her. And here, the joke of an unreliable narrator comes in to play: No one they interview can ever seem to give a matching description of the monster. Some say he has two eyes, some say he has three, some say he has horns - but everyone agrees that it was most definitely a monster of some sort.
Still, Mulder is not impressed, more interested in fiddling with his a new camera app on his phone than in interviewing the witness or searching for more clues. But as they're speaking with the Animal Control officer, the unidentified creature suddenly reappears, sending them on a wild goose chase around the truck stop as Mulder desperately tries to figure out the new app in order to snap a picture of the maybe-monster for incontestable proof of its existence. But when the creature jumps him and the Animal Control officer, the only thing he manages to capture is an awkward selfie of himself screaming in fear.
Finally, Mulder and Scully believe they've seen the creature dart into a Porta-Potty, but when they yank open the door and snap a picture, all they find is a very indignant fellow from New Zealand with the suspicious name of Guy Mann on the throne with his pants around his ankles. But after they apologize and quickly leave, he steps out of the john to reveal a set of horns slowly sliding their way back into his head. So...a man-monster? A were-lizard? What exactly are we dealing with, here?
Cut to the morgue, where Scully goes into doctor mode during an autopsy of the corpse while Mulder tries unsuccessfully to convince her that his blurry selfies are proof of the monster's existence. The fires of his curiosity are finally stoked once more as Scully admits, "I forgot how much fun these cases can be." So did we, Scully. So did we.
Back at the seedy motel, Mulder learns the manager is getting more than they bargained for: When he's awakened in the middle of the night by a scream, Mulder discovers there's a peephole into every room, courtesy of a secret passageway that allows the manager to get back and forth and spy on the motel's guests. When Mulder confronts the manager - who is either so rattled or such an alcoholic that he's chugging straight rubbing alcohol - the manager confesses that while peeping into Guy Mann's room, he saw the man turn into...a man-lizard! Fun fact: Mulder apparently sleeps in a pair of red bikini briefs and I still can't figure out if that's something I wanted to see or didn't.
This leads to the best scene of the entire episode, with David Duchovny letting his comedic chops out to play. In Scully's room, a frantic Mulder downloads everything he just discovered to his skeptical partner. But rather than letting her get a word in edgewise, he even acts out her part, replying to himself with the logical counterarguments he already knows she'll bring up.
"So you agree with me?" he asks her.
"No! I think you're batcrap crazy," she laughs. But a batcrap crazy Mulder is the Mulder she knows and likes, same as us. She may not believe a goddamn word coming out of his mouth, but at least her Mulder is back.
The next day, Scully investigates the phone store at which Mann works as a sales consultant, but he gets spooked and runs out. After a brief, bizarre meeting with Mann's psychiatrist, Mulder tracks Mann down at the local cemetery and the pair have a conversation.
Like the Easter egg of Labine and Parker reprising their stoner roles, longtime fans should recognize the name on the tombstone in front of which Mulder and Mann stand: Kim Manners, the Emmy award-winning producer and sometime-director of 132 episodes of The X-Files original run, who passed away in 2009. The dates on the tombstone are his actual dates of his birth and death, and the inscription that reads "Let's Kick It In The Ass" was what he would say to his cast and crew before shooting each scene. It was another warm and loving tribute to a past member of the X-Files family.
It's during the conversation between Mann and Mulder that the episode goes from being a madcap romp to an existential parable about what it means to be human. In a long flashback interrupted by frequent questions from an extremely skeptical Mulder, Mann explains how he came to be in his current state: not a man who turns into a lizard, but a peaceful were-lizard who, after being bitten, transforms into a middle-aged phone salesman. It is a masterful bit of writing that can take a story so ridiculous and outlandish and turn into a gentle satire about the human condition, touching upon the fears and daily struggles of humankind. It hits you with a level of emotional poignance for which you're unprepared, a testament to how brilliant Rhys Darby is in the scene as Mann.
As Mulder pieces together the reality of the were-monster, that leaves one question: Who, then, was the original killer? Luckily, Scully has already figured out that it's the Animal Control Officer, and she heads to the pound to apprehend him. He tries to attack and kill her as well, but she easily subdues him and by the time a frantic Mulder comes running in, she's calmly handcuffing the killer.
All's well that ends well...or is it? Mulder still isn't fully convinced that Mann wasn't pulling one over on him or crazy, so he heads into the woods one last time to see if he can catch Mann as a lizard. As the pair say their goodbyes, Mann strips down to nothing in order to prepare for his transformation. And does Mulder finally see proof with his own eyes of the existence of monsters? Indeed, he does, as Mann transforms and joyfully bounds away. But there's not as much joy in his retreat as there is in Mulder's face, whose faith has finally been fully restored.
The X-Files airs Mondays at 8pm EST/PST on FOX.