Be advised: this will go into detail about various plot elements of the episode, and there will be SPOILERS. Trust no one.
Now that... THAT was an episode of The X-Files to love. Darin Morgan, writer of (and occasional actor in) some of the funniest and most memorable episodes, rides in like a crusading hero to save the day with his trademark brand of meta comedy, morbid fascination with monsters and just a little dash of revealing the human condition. And the in-jokes! Just subtle enough to not be intrusive, but easy to spot for fans and likely, in one or two cases, to bring a lump to the ol' throat.
We kick off in a familiar X-Files stomping ground, the forest, on two stoners (Tyler Labine and Nicole Parker Smith), who have graced two previous episodes of the show, one, War Of The Coprophages, a Morgan special). Their night spent alternating between huffing paint and musing on life is rudely interrupted by screams, shouts and the sounds of a struggle. They're shocked to see what looks like some sort of lizard monster, which may have just attacked several humans. As it dashes away, we cut to credits.
Mulder is bored. He's disenchanted. He's wondering where he's gone wrong with his life. As he sits in the office, throwing pencils not at the ceiling but at the I Want To Believe poster, Scully arrives, and Mulder – with David Duchovny sounding more alive than he has this season even as Mulder seems more world-weary than ever – goes on a rant about how he's seeing old cases with fresh eyes. As so many of the mysteries he chalked up to supernatural events have turned out to have more rational explanations, he's not happy, questioning his life choices. "I'm a middle-aged man, Scully," he says. "Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my days? Chasing after monsters?" But what do you know... Scully says they have a new case. And it has a monster in it. Mulder's back, baby! If anything this scene feels like it should have been in the second episode, though it's actually two and four that were switched.
Still, Mulder and Scully are on the case in the forest, and it's a fun scene in which Mulder and Scully effectively swap viewpoints for a few minutes, with Fox offering explanations for the attack and Dana shooting them down. It really plays to their strengths and gives both actors a chance to shine.
Then we're at a truck stop, where a prostitute is trying to snag a client. She's suddenly confronted by the monster, and swings her giant purse, which is holed by one of the scaly brute's horns. Our heroes show up and talk to her - the officers who interviewed her previously thought she was on crack. She is.
Over near a crop field, we're introduced the animal control officer Pasha (Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjaini, an avowed X-Phile who hosts a podcast about the show) who appeared to be among the victims of the initial attack. He's terrified by what might be lurking out there, and is scared by an off-screen roar. The agents react – Scully draws her gun and Mulder his phone. He has an app that takes multiple pictures, but the thing is glitchy. It's a wonderful nod to two characters who seemed to spend half their lives on mobile phones in their early years. They stumble on another kill and then Mulder and Pasha are attacked by the creature as it lurks around the trucks. Scully runs to Mulder's aid, but he's okay, and the creature is off at speed. They reach a Porta Potty, but the only person inside it is a seemingly innocent man dressed very much like The Night Stalker's Darren McGavin. This is Rhys Darby's Guy Mann (Murray... Present!) and he'll be very important to the plot. In another stealthy touch, the Porta Potty has the logo of a wolf howling at the moon.
It's autopsy time as Scully investigates one of the bodies and Mulder is joyfully showing his picture haul. And lot of out-of-focus shots and a video pointed the wrong way, but it reveals that the creature shot blood out of its eyes. Scully's not convinced. A great line here, "Mulder, the internet is not good for you."
But he takes her advice and returns to their motel to get some sleep, only to be rudely interrupted by the sounds of a fight and mentions of a monster. Arriving at the manager's office (the grungy motel owner is played by Alex Diakun, another veteran of Morgan's X-Files work), and Mulder learns that the manager is a creepy peeping tom who has viewing spots in the walls covered by animal heads. Turns out he saw something horrible in Guy Mann's room: Guy transforming into the lizard creature.
When Scully arrives, Mulder goes through both sides of the possible argument for and against the creature, in another stand-out speech that lets Duchovny flex his comedy muscles and Gillian Anderson enjoy having fun at his expense.
Having grabbed a pill bottle from Guy's room, Mulder heads to see the psychologist who prescribed it, a Dr. Rumanovitch (Richard Newman). He goes on at length about a creature from folklore that had to be killed with a lance made of green glass. Guy was clearly troubled and the doctor gave him both the pills and the advice to go and walk in a cemetery to contemplate the inevitability of death. Sounds like a terrible doctor, and he even tries to give Mulder a dose of anti-psychotic medication. It's going to take a lot more than that to help him, doc...
Scully calls to say that she's found Guy himself – working in a Smart Phones Is Us store near the motel. When Mulder arrives, the place is trashed, and Scully explains that Guy went on a rampage. Following his target to a cemetery, Mulder confronts guy as they stand before two tombstones. Beautiful meta reference alert here: the stones are for two dearly departed members of X-Files creator Chris Carter's collaborative team. Jack Hardy, who worked on Millennium and The Lone Gunman and legendary X-Files director Kim Manners, whose tomb even bears the inscription, "Let's kick it in the ass", a favourite saying of his.
Guy initially tries to get Mulder to kill him, brandishing a broken bottle (a lance made of green glass!) but when our trusty FBI agent refuses, he relents and tells his story. There's no way we can really do what follows justice with a simple description, but suffice to say it's one of the most wonderful twists the show has done on monster-of-the-week episodes, with Guy revealing that he's actually a lizard man who was bitten by one of the humans in the fight we saw at the top of the episode, a wound inflicted in self-defence. It turned the creature into a human, who suddenly found himself full of mankind's urges - clothes, a job... Even worrying about getting a mortgage, despite the fact that he doesn't know what a mortgage is.
His winding tale encompasses his side of events for most of what we've seen already - what happened in the motel (he watched porn, which should surely help him find common ground with Mulder), his encounter with Mulder at the truck stop, even Scully arriving at the phone store, which is luridly spun into a sexual encounter as Scully behaves like a sultry porn star, which, he then admits, never actually happened. The whole story he tells is loaded with explorations of what it means to be human and how someone might react if they were suddenly transformed from an instinctive creature into a human burdened with everyday concerns. He even got a puppy, one he named Dagoo (the show'a latest Moby Dick reference, which is later tied to Scully's dearly departed pup Queequeg), but who escaped the next morning when the maid cleaned his room.
The meeting in the cemetery wraps up with Guy accusing Mulder of being the true monster in this whole situation, accusing the poor lizard-man (man-lizard?) of murder. Mulder decides to just drink the extra bottle Guy had and wakes up the next morning to a very particular ringtone; the theme music of the series itself. It's Scully calling, saying she went to see the animal control officer. Guess what? He's the real murderer in this situation, and has been strangling his victims with the leashing pole he uses in his everyday job. He attacks Scully and Mulder sets off to help, only to show up as Scully is subduing Pasha. He has a quick moment to explain himself with the usual spiel about killing small animals before graduating to humans and then he's dragged away by the cops Scully, meanwhile, has decided to adopt Dagoo, who was in a cage at the animal shelter.
Finally, Mulder tracks Guy back to the forest, where the creature has decided to go and hibernate in the hopes that he won't wake up a human again. Apparently he stays dormant for 10,000 years, which seems impossible to Mulder, but why wouldn't he believe him after everything he's seen? Guy transforms back into his natural scaly state one last time and we're left with the image of Mulder, smiling to himself amongst the trees. Faith restored? Does he believe fully again?
Far more than either of the previous episodes, this felt like classic X-Files, albeit with the usual sly Morgan twist. Both writing and directing this one, he's an expert in debunking the central premise of the show, or at least having fun with it, before bringing everything back around with a warm heart and a goofy gag here and there. He's not the person you want writing every episode: a little like Steven Moffat, it's one thing to parachute in and write a little chunk of wonder, it's a whole other job to actually run the series, as Moffat has discovered. But even as the comedy is ramped up, Morgan never forgets to keep the characters in focus, and Duchovny and Anderson clearly had a blast. Credit must also go to Nanjiani and particularly Darby. The latter gives real pathos and fun to Guy, chewing on Morgan's writing as though it was prime steak. And that's what the entire show was – a satisfying X-Files meal that sets the standard, if not the tone, for the other episodes to live up to.