2016 is young, but already, the year in pop culture is full of epic relationship drama.
The latest edition of The Bachelor is afoot, complete with crazy eyes and stripteases, and next week, FX is premiering its own account of the death of Nicole Brown Simpson in The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first installment of its hotly anticipated new anthology series, American Crime Story.
Even as new conflicts - or new takes on old tragedies - grace our screens, I've found my thoughts turning back to a couple of old relationships and the surprising sadness of a pair of fictional breakups.
The Force Awakens
was marked in part by the revelation that Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) had broken up after their son turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). And now on
, we've learned that while Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) may have had a child together, it wasn't enough to keep them a couple.
There's something striking - and welcome - about seeing two pieces of genre fiction ground their drama in the kinds of grown-up conflicts more often depicted in the sort of mid-budget movies that constantly seem in danger of going extinct. The power of the Sith and the existence of extraterrestrials add extra gravity as these two couples try to negotiate their relationships. But the issues that have divided them aren't fantastical creations: They're deeply human.
Part of what makes it hurt to see Han and Leia apart in The Force Awakens is the fact that they clearly still like each other so much.
There's none of the sniping that characterised our early glimpses of their relationship.
This is not a case of two people who are better off apart than together - in fact, it's possibly the reverse. It may be entertaining to see Han trying to gull another set of customers and saving himself thanks to a combination of luck and sheer audacity. But if Han was at his best when he was with Leia, and when she convinced him to give up his cynicism and fight for a cause rather than for money, to see him back in the game is to see a man who's backsliding, and who's lost the most noble part of himself.
And in the original trilogy, Han gave Leia permission to be vulnerable, flawed and passionate. The Force Awakens may not do as much to fill us in on what Leia's been up to and what she's become during the years since she and Han broke up, but seeing a smile flood back against her face is a genuine delight and makes us wonder what she's lost as well.
It's certainly true that it was a lot of fun to see a new set of characters, particularly Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), embody all the youthful exuberance and growth that characterised the original Star Wars trilogy so many years ago. But the truly original thing about The Force Awakens was the way it showed us the costs Han, Luke and Leia have had to pay over all of those decades.
The Star Wars movies have always been set apart by the seriousness with which they treat violence and death: To see Leia in Han's arms, her face contorted with grief and exhaustion, is to know that the stakes are real. Sometimes the small things register more profoundly than yet another grand conspiracy or exploding star base.
And while The Force Awakens has plenty of parallels with the original trilogy, there's one that mostly escaped mention. One of the quieter, more powerful moments in the original trilogy comes when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) goes to meet his father (James Earl Jones), taking the wild risk that he might be able to salvage whatever good is left in the older man. It's a gamble, but one that has a good result.
The Force Awakens
may have been conservative in trying to deliver old thrills to new audiences, but it took its one real risk in echoing that scene when Han, at Leia's behest, tries to bring their son (Driver) home. This time, the hopeful gesture fails: A parent sacrifices himself, but he can't save his child with the gesture. It's a mature choice in a sometimes deliberately youth-oriented movie.
In its first two episodes, the revival of The X-Files has been rather more of a jumble than The Force Awakens turned out to be. But if the miniseries doesn't always feel like the same show from one episode to the next, dropping threads and spinning out new ones, the air of melancholy between Scully and Mulder has been one of the most compelling elements of the revival.
Like Han and Leia, Mulder and Scully had ideological differences before they had personal ones. Scully has always been the scientist and skeptic to Mulder's believer. Mulder is eager for evidence that will validate what he badly wants to be true, while Scully is inclined to doubt - if she doesn't affirmatively want Mulder to be wrong, her threshold for confirmation is much, much higher.
At their best, they balanced each other. Scully's devotion to science kept Mulder's brain from running wild, while Mulder's openness to new possibilities helped Scully cope when faced with phenomena beyond her understanding.
And what lies between Scully and Mulder is a similar tragedy: the loss of their son William (Travis Riker). Parenting William might have given Scully and Mulder a way to resolve their intellectual differences. Grappling with his unusual and inexplicable abilities, and the risks that come with them, could have forced Scully to reckon with the parts of the world she can't rationalise. And parenting a child, accepting the risks of being fully emotionally attached to another vulnerable young person, might have given Mulder some of the emotional closure he's lacked in the wake of his sister's disappearance.
Neither of these stories are done: It'll be years before we see the full conclusion of Leia and Han's story in Star Wars, and the new X-Files still has four episodes to go. But other pop-culture phenomena could take a valuable lesson from the idea that marriage is as mysterious as the Force, and grief is as vast and unfathomable as any alien conspiracy.