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The X-Files: ‘Musings’ of a Not-So-Wonderful Life

Cigarette Smoking Man lights up a cigarette in the X-Files

The following contains spoilers for The X-Files “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” (directed by James Wong and written by Glen Morgan).

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. And when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence (It’s a Wonderful Life)

“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” is a tour de force in ‘90s network television. The seventh episode of The X-Files’ fourth season, “Musings” manages the task of providing the audience with a supposed backstory to the show’s mysterious “smoking man” (or “cancer man”), while also showcasing what the series could do within the episode’s four vignettes. (Glen Morgan and James Wong deserve major props for the writing and directing of this episode, as of course does William B. Davis, who is insanely iconic in the role.)

Though offscreen for nearly the entire episode’s runtime, Frohike of the Lone Gunmen tells series leads Mulder and Scully that he has discovered something very interesting in a magazine to which he subscribes. It’s a supposed fictional narrative, but Frohike believes it holds some truth regarding the eponymous “Cigarette Smoking Man” (CSM). Hence, most of the episode consists of dramatizations of the story Frohike reads to Mulder and Scully.

Now, is the narrative at the center of “Musings” what really happened, or is it CSM’s imaginary adventure story, where he sees himself doing so many fantastical (and horrendous) things? Given that The X-Files dabbled in the fantastic, it’s not out of the question to accept these accounts as having happened. However, some events conflict with the series’ mythology. As such, it stands to reason that a lot of what we see might not have actually happened. Either way, what might the episode be saying in regard to CSM?

Cigarette Smoking Man in the X-Files

I’ve seen this episode many times since I first saw it over 25 years ago, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I discovered how it seems to be an anti-version of Frank Capra’s seminal film It’s a Wonderful Life. In the movie’s iconic extended sequence, George Bailey is shown a world where he was never born. Through this experience, he’s able to understand just how important he was to the world.

In “Musings,” CSM is, to an extent, shown an alternate version of this, as he listens to Frohike read aloud his story. Whether the story is completely true or not is beside the point in this respect, because the episode could be about CSM coming to understand the wrongs he has done in his life. Unlike George Bailey, CSM’s existence actually resulted in a lot of bad, rather than a lot of good. As such, his life is not so wonderful.

In the episode’s first vignette, “Things Really Did Go Well in Dealey Plaza,” we learn that CSM was handpicked by a mysterious group of men to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. We then follow CSM as he goes about setting up Lee Harvey Oswald as the patsy and eventually see him commit the murder. We also see the immediate aftermath of this, as he seems to come to grips with what he’s done. By segment’s end, though, as he lights up a cigarette in the Texas Theatre, as Oswald is dragged away by police officers, he seems to have accepted what he did.

In the second vignette, “Just Down the Road Aways From Graceland,” CSM is now a major player in this mysterious group, and after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s comments concerning Communism decides King must be assassinated. He volunteers to do the killing himself because he “has too much respect for the man.” Whether or not that’s true, he murders King. Later, at home, he watches Bobby Kennedy on television reading a line from Aeschylus:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget…Falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair and against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

In an interesting moment, about midway through the quote, CSM begins speaking the poem as well. Even though he is the person directly responsible for King’s death, perhaps he is moved by Kennedy’s speech and quote, and because he’s actually quite learned, he recites the line as well. Perhaps, like when he assassinated JFK, CSM does feel bad for what he did.

Then again, perhaps he wrote the speech and had Bobby Kennedy read it. This former take is cynical, but CSM leads a very cynical existence, wherein he is the man who does what needs to get done in order to protect the country.

Cigarette Smoking Man on bench with homeless man in the X-Files

Vignette three, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” jumps ahead a few decades and concerns two things: aliens replacing Russians as the enemy of the U.S. and the loneliness of CSM. The two go hand in hand. For the majority of his life, CSM has seemingly put the best interests of the U.S. ahead of his own happiness. When news hits that “GORBACHEV HAS RESIGNED,” apparently there’s nothing to protect the U.S. from anymore. As such, CSM is free to do what he’s always wanted: be a writer.

In the second vignette, we saw CSM working on a piece called Take a Chance: A Jack Colquitt Adventure. A publisher rejected it. As we see in the fourth and final vignette, “The X-Files,” CSM has continued to work on this as the years have passed.

He just couldn’t fully pursue his writing, though, mainly because, as stated earlier, aliens have arrived, and the U.S. continues to need protection. It ultimately doesn’t matter, though, because in the last vignette, even after the creation of the X-Files, CSM not only completes his life’s work, now titled Second Chance: A Jack Colquitt Adventure–possibly a re-telling of many events in his life–he has seemingly found a publisher for it.

However, things do not turn out the way he hoped. His work is published, yes, but it’s in a periodical called Roman a Clef, an off-brand Playboy or Penthouse kind of magazine. Still, he’s excited to purchase a copy. When he does, though, he finds that his work has been edited quite severely, with the ending changed.

He tosses it in the trash, alongside an envelope holding the resignation letter he wrote that morning. The Cigarette Smoking Man had finally done what he wanted to do for so long. He quit so that he could write full time. So, what if aliens posed a threat to the country? He was going to be a published author!

Do I feel bad for CSM as the episode comes to a close? Not really, even as I completely identify with the constant rejection of my narrative writing. Because even as I manage to empathize with him in that one aspect, it’s pretty clear that CSM is no George Bailey. He didn’t have a wonderful life, and neither did we, despite him “protecting” us from whatever threats were deemed as such.

Cigarette Smoking Man behind a sniper rifle in the X-Files

Of course, it’s also possible that the majority of the episode isn’t true. After all, Frohike is reading an adventure story about a character named Jack Colquitt, not the memoirs of CSM. It’s entirely possible that CSM never killed JFK or MLK or was never involved with the murder of an alien one Christmas in the early ‘90s. Perhaps CSM is just an anonymous man in a suit who constantly smokes cigarettes.

It’s the episode’s final line that supports this possibility. Earlier in “Musings,” CSM typed this line, as he finished the latest draft of his novel:

“I can kill you whenever I please…but not today.”

As Frohike exits the building he’s been in with the rest of the Lone Gunman, as well as Mulder and Scully, CSM has his sniper rifle aimed right at him. He says:

“I can kill you whenever I please…but not today.”

The Cigarette Smoking Man may just ultimately be a lonely man who longs for a greater life. Jack Colquitt may not actually be a pseudonym; he might just be the person CSM always longed to be. He then doesn’t so much as relive his own life in the episode as he overhears Frohike. CSM relives Jack Colquitt’s. In the end, though, he understands that it’s just a story, one nobody ever really wanted. This is pretty sad because no one knows who CSM is, and aside from those in that room, not many know who Jack Colquitt is either.

Close up of Cigarette Smoking Man's typewriter in the X-Files

“Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” portends to be about who the Cigarette Smoking Man is, but as the episode fades out, we’re still not entirely sure who he is. Is he the man who did horrible (yet fantastical) things for decades, all while staying in the shadows, or is he a man whose life is ultimately meaningless?

If it’s the first one, he’s the series’ true villain. If it’s the second, he’s just a regular guy. I guess it could be both, though? And maybe that’s the point of the episode. Villains don’t always have superpowers. Some come in the form of old men in cheap suits, who will do bad things for what they consider to be the greater good. I mean, how scary is that?

Just how different would life have been had CSM never been born? Would it have been better or worse? We’ll never know, I suppose, whether CSM would leave an awful hole or whether the world would just be fine without him. Actually, that can apply to a lot of us. Most of us aren’t George Bailey or Jack Colquitt. Oddly enough, most of us are the Cigarette Smoking Man.

As such, whether the happenings in this episode are true or not, the point is that for the first time in the show, the Cigarette Smoking Man was more than a mystery. He was human.

Written by Michael Suarez

I write and occasionally teach English classes. When I'm not doing either, I'm watching something awesome, reading something awesome, listening to something awesome, eating something awesome, or resting. Actually, not everything I do is awesome, but I'm okay with that. My loves include Lost, cinema from the '90s and aughts, U2, David Bowie, most of Star Wars, and - you know what? I love a lot of things. More things than I hate.

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