The American Dream in The X-Files: Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, Tunguska and Terma

The introduction to this series of posts about the depiction and criticism of the American dream in The X-Files can be found here:

4x07 Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (Monster of the Week)

This is another complex, highly-layered episode, which apart from its brave attempt to place Cancer Man at every major historic event of post-war US history, is rather difficult to understand. According to the episode's wikipedia page the main problem its complexity causes in understanding is that viewers tend to miss that the events depicted in this episode are the fictional story written by Cancer Man. Even within the narrative of the show, what we see in the episode is not intended to be seen as real. I'm sure you will understand that it has provided me with this handy getout clause so that I don't have to go through the entire history and can just wave my hand suggestively at the entire plot.

The question of reality and perception is of course one which has come up repeatedly in the show in its depiction of the American dream. In fact in my reflections after series 3 of the show I hatched up a little theory that in the show's world view, the American dream could actually be seen as part of the conspiracy: the ideas of freedom, unrestrained capitalism, aspiration, betterment, can certainly all be seen as distractions from the realities of the military-industrial complex, massive wealth/poverty divide, repeated mass shootings, and so on.

Obviously I am not the first external observer to have noticed this:

'But it took another observer-this one, like Tocqueville a century before, a foreigner-to crystallize the untenable size of the gap between ideals and reality. Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal doesn't use the term "American Dream" in his massive two-volume 1944 study An American Dilemma, but it looms large over Myrdal's work. What he does talk about is what he calls the national "Creed," which, as he defines it in his introduction, encompasses "liberty, equality, justice, and fair opportunity for everybody." (Note that "equality" and "fair opportunity" are not considered one and the same any more than "liberty" and "justice" are.) The dilemma Myrdal referred to was the conflict between this Creed and the way Americans were actually living their lives.' (Jim Cullen: The American Dream - A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation. Oxford University Press, New York, 2003, p.117.)

If you read the episode through this interpretive lens: that the show is telling us that the American dream is part of the cover up, there are three themes which most strongly make the point that the American dream is a lie.

The first is Communism, the spectre of which has kept appearing in these posts. Perhaps most in the references to Project MK-Ultra, set up by the CIA thinking that defectors to Communist countries must have been brainwashed so they started a decade-long programme of torture to understand why anyone could be persuaded to leave the USA. The lack of self-awareness slaps you round the face here. Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man makes this opposition clear: 'Communism is without doubt the most heinous personification of evil that mankind has ever confronted.' As an outsider I cannot understand why US citizens are so frightened of another economic and political system which has never pertained in their country and is never likely to, and make out that anything unAmerican is communist. Meanwhile, that Capitalism is doing really well in making sure that three individuals own all the wealth on the planet. Make this make sense to me. Talk to me as if I'm a small child.

The second is related to Communism, which is the need for enemies. The idea of the state's enemies runs through this episode like ore. It highlights the accent placed on defending the dream, defending the American way, which tends to make other ways and nations enemies. In fact, I would suggest that the show is saying the point of the American dream is to divert attention to the wrong enemies. In this episode, the enemies are internal. Their importance is shown in the shock when Gorbachev resigns: 'There's no more enemies'. How is it possible to live without enemies?

Finally, the third theme hammers home the show's point that the dream is fake: and that is the theme of patsies which keeps coming up. It's explicitly referring to the practice of distracting from the reality. Cleverly the show once again builds on real history because Lee Harvey Oswald did claim to be a patsy, and while this was never substantiated apparently there was a wider conspiracy than just him.

So I would suggest that by using Cancer Man's storyline, the show heavily suggests that key themes of the American way of life are used as distractions from the reality. Within the show's mythology these distractions could be part of the broader conspiracy to cover up the alien thing, by suggesting that the alien cover up is part of a broader cover up and there isn't a great deal that is real.

SInce this episode drips Americanness from every frame I will include it in my list of episodes with significant content relating to the American dream.

4x08 Tunguska and 4x09 Terma (Core Mythology)

The episode picks up on the last one's references to communism as the enemy of the American dream by depicting presumably Soviet Union-era Gulag scenes inspired by the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. However if you're looking out for criticisms of the American dream and have noticed all the other references to unethical medical experimentation in the US, the experiments with the black oil aren't that different to the experiments the US government has done on its own citizens at various times.

Krycek makes explicit that he knows about all sorts of things going on which are in direct opposition to the American dream, specifically that there are men who do not face justice the way others do. The show paints a confusing picture of Krycek's motives about this, at times showing him as the all-American hero who wants to do the right thing (and actually helps to get the rock onto US territory) and also as a liar or a murderer. This could be seen as a more nuanced approach to the American state and dream.

You could of course also see Skinner and Mulder's treatment of Krycek (presumably a US citizen, son of Cold War immigrants) as indicative that justice might be quite arbitrary in the US, since they spend most of Tunguska, beating him up, humiliating him, tying him to things and actually treating him like a dog. To be frank you'd think they'd have got a room but who am I.

As the double-length episode progresses it continues to complicate what's happening and ensure we can't quite be sure what side everyone is on.

As I go through these posts I am going to keep a tally of how many episodes of Core Mythology and Monster of the Week types have significant content making the American dream in effect part of the plot rather than the omnipresent setting, and so far we have 

Core Mythology: 24 (with signifcant content relating to the American dream: Deep Throat, Fallen Angel, E.B.E., Little Green Men, Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paperclip.)

Monster of the Week: 58 (with significant content relating to the American dream: Eve, Beyond the Sea, Young at Heart, Miracle Man, Shapes, Blood, Sleepless, Fresh Bones, Syzygy, Home, Teliko, and Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.)

As always, I'm totally unequipped to do this so if I've missed anything corrections are very welcome in the comments.