The most important X-Files character we had yet to meet finally made his debut last night. “Ghouli” brought the mysterious William—who Scully gave up for adoption soon after his birth in 2001—out of her visions and into the real world at last... where he was revealed to be a bit of a fuckboy.
“Ghouli,” written and directed by series vet James Wong, begins with a supernatural riff on the Slender Man case. Two girls who’ve been drawn to an abandoned ferry believe they see a monster that they’ve read about on an internet forum, and brutally hack and stab at each other thinking each is the horrific creature. But that’s kind of a red herring; once Agents Scully and Mulder are on the “Ghouli” case—after Scully has a vision that shows her that same abandoned ferry—The X-Files’ increasingly frustrating mythology starts creeping into the story.
Side note: That ferry is called the Chimera, which, yes, is a deliberate and heavy-handed thematic tie-in.
Sharp-eared viewers will pick up on what’s happening as soon as they learn that the teenagers, who are otherwise strangers, are dating the same boy, one Jackson Van De Kamp. Back in season nine, we learned that “Van De Kamp” was the last name of the family that adopted Scully’s psychically gifted infant son, then named William. We were already reminded of the Van De Kamp name earlier this season, and the recent mythology episodes have focused, not unexpectedly, on the search for William’s whereabouts.
To sum it up very briefly, he’s a crucial missing puzzle piece in the Cigarette Smoking Man’s evil plan to wipe out humankind with a virus that only those with alien-enhanced DNA will survive. Oh, and also... Mulder’s probably not William’s father after all, despite what we’ve been told all these years, since CSM is now claiming he’s the one who impregnated Scully.
Anyway, putting all that backstory aside, when we finally meet Jackson/William, he’s already dead. Buzzkill!
Just kidding. William’s able to make people see what he wants them to see, so while his adoptive parents are actually DOA—shot by the CSM-controlled government goons who bedevil Scully and Mulder’s investigation—William’s suicide is just a very realistically gory illusion. Of course, Scully doesn’t know that, but she’s heartbreakingly certain (even before a DNA test confirms it) that the dead teen is her long-lost son. We get a very, very heavy scene where she cries over his “lifeless” body in the morgue, utterly gutted that the child she gave up so that he’d have a safe, protected, normal life has met such a horrible end.
But William—Malcolm X fan, snow globe collector, star product of the top-secret Project Crossroads—pretending to be dead while his birth mother sobs over his faux-corpse isn’t the only thing that makes him a fuckboy. It’s his character details, both inclusive of and beyond his enhanced abilities, that make him the worst.
First of all, the fact that he’s a two-faced, two-timing boyfriend—dude literally keeps a copy of a book titled The Pick Up Artist: Memoirs of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing in his bedroom—is just so... boring and basic. Adding to that grossness is his decision to use the Ghouli legend (which he actually invented) to pit two innocent girls against each other. “I didn’t think anyone would get hurt,” he tells one of them. “I thought it would be funny, I thought it’d be like a prank.” Well, one of your girlfriends almost died, player.
What’s even grosser is that the two girlfriends end up feeling like nothing more than a plot device. The main relationship in “Ghouli” is the one between William and Scully, and that’s treated even more strangely.
Though Scully is certain that William is trying to connect with her, the feeling may not be mutual; he refers to her rather dismissively as “this woman... I don’t know, she’s maybe my birth mother?”
As it happens, William “meets” Scully in the real world beyond their shared visions on two separate occasions. Both times, he’s cloaked in a different body, so she doesn’t realize at the time that she’s talking to her son. His chosen guise is Peter Wong, the author of that pick-up artist book. The Expanse’s François Chau does an excellent job playing a character who’s not at all who he seems to be; he’s warm and sincere, not at all like a pick-up artist would be—and somehow the complete opposite of how the “real” William appears to be.
This disconnect feels a bit accidental. It could be that William’s personalities change when he slips into different personas. But it seems more likely that floppy-haired Miles Robbins, who plays William in his true, teenage form, just doesn’t have the dramatic presence this character requires. The back-to-back scenes where he exposition-dumps about his powers to his girlfriends while sweet-talking them one after the other are cringe-inducing, and he just looks constipated anytime we see him manifest a “vision” for whoever he’s trying to deceive in the moment. This guy is supposed to be half Scully, the wisest and kindest person on The X-Files, and it just doesn’t feel right.
Unfortunately, our shape-shifting wonder boy will probably return before season 11 wraps up The X-Files forever; there are still five episodes and a towering conspiracy (which he’s intrinsically a part of) to uncover. We may learn more of the truth about CSM’s sinister plan, but we may never understand why one of the most iconic shows on TV cast such a weak link as one of its key characters and then proceeded to make that character such a wet dishcloth. Literal years of “William” this and “our son” that, and this is the payoff? Can we just get him in Peter Wong form from here on out, please?
Also—exactly why in the hell did this master of disguise need to run and hide in the climactic hospital scene? I get that he wanted to trick the bad guys into shooting each other, in a mirroring of the opening “monster” scene. But why not just morph into someone else at the beginning of the chase, rather than risking his life by staying in William form nearly the entire time?
Another side note: Though Mulder takes a back seat in “Ghouli,” mostly serving as Scully’s emotional support when he’s not chest-bumping with Skinner and the CSM heavies, the ongoing joke about how he uses “Bob” rather than “Fox” when ordering at coffee shops was a nice, and welcome, touch of levity. Extra foam for you, sir.