Considering Her Cancer

My favorite run of episodes in The X-Files is the cancer arc, which I usually think of as Leonard Betts through Detour. I don’t love every episode in that run, but for the most part those are the episodes that move me the most.

I know there’s a bit of controversy about whether Never Again should be considered a cancer arc episode. It was originally produced to air before Leonard Betts, and so arguably Scully’s actions in Never Again were not intended to be a reaction to Betts’ revelation that she has cancer. To my mind, though, the story that’s told on screen is the story. So even if that story changes from what the writers intended because of the order in which the episodes aired, the story ultimately presented to viewers is canon. I’ll draw conclusions from what’s implied within the episodes, but I won’t dismiss any part of the show as it was presented to viewers based on behind the scenes discussions and decisions. Because Leonard Betts aired before Never Again, and there’s nothing within the episodes to indicate they occurred in a different order (as in Unrequited, where the chyron sets the episode in November) then for me, it’s canon that Scully had already encountered Betts by the time she went to Philadelphia in Never Again.

But even without the revelation in Leonard Betts, there were signs in Never Again that Scully was considering her cancer. The episode starts and ends with a focus on the dead rose petal Scully picks up and places on Mulder’s desk. This image can be interpreted as a sign of Scully’s mortality. Scully even picks an argument with Mulder, asking why she doesn’t have a desk, when it’s not really about the desk. She’s asking herself, “Is this all my life has come to? I don’t even have a desk!”

In my opinion, the order of those two episodes doesn’t really change anything. I think Scully already suspected she had cancer before Leonard Betts, and that suspicion colored a lot of the decisions she was making at the time. Yes of course Scully was considering her cancer when she had sex with Ed Jerse, but that would have been true whether she had encountered Leonard Betts or not. While Leonard Betts highlighted this concern, it’s oversimplifying the story to say that the events in Never Again were triggered solely by what we saw in Leonard Betts. Scully had been heading toward Ed Jerse or someone like him for a while, but it wasn’t just the cancer diagnosis that led her there.

From the time Scully discovered the chip in her neck in The Blessing Way, we’ve seen Scully struggling with three important issues. First, she’s considering her own mortality and the increasing likelihood that she has or at some point will have cancer. Second, she’s also trying to figure out her relationship with Mulder, whether it’s personal or just professional, whether she wants more than she has, and whether Mulder wants the same thing. And third, she’s bridling at the knowledge that she’s not in control of her life and looking for ways to take back that control. Here’s how I see these issues presented, and why I think Scully would have made the same choices she made in Never Again regardless of when she encountered Leonard Betts.

The Blessing Way

Scully discovers a chip implanted in her neck. She has no recollection of it being placed there, and the reminder that she had no agency unsettles her enough that she follows Melissa’s suggestion to try regression hypnosis. In her session she remembers that she was powerless and afraid she would die, and she calls off the session to avoid dealing with those memories. Toward the end of the episode Scully has a vision of Mulder. He tells her she was looking for a truth that was taken from her, a truth that binds them together in a dangerous purpose. He’s returned from the dead to continue with her, but he feels the danger is close at hand and he may be too late. I think this vision can be seen as Scully’s premonition of her impending death, or at least a sign that she’s subconsciously pondering her mortality. Indeed, this idea is reinforced when she meets the Well Manicured Man, who tells her that someone is going to kill her, that she’s been deemed expendable.

Paper Clip

When Scully learns her sister has been shot, Mulder stops her from going to the hospital. She tells him she has to go, he tells her she can’t, and she accedes. She knows he’s right, they’ll be looking for her at the hospital. Although she’s devastated, she puts aside her personal feelings and needs for the sake of the cause.

After Mulder and Scully find the files, with a recent tissue sample from Scully to reinforce the fact that someone else had taken control of her without her consent, they meet with Skinner. Skinner offers to make a deal, to trade the digital tape to guarantee their safety, and Mulder’s automatic response is to refuse. He wants to search for the truth about what happened to his sister and his father and Scully. But Scully is more focused on the immediate personal impact. She needs to see her sister. Mulder leaves the decision to Scully, and she tells Skinner to make the deal, but not until Mulder agrees. She compromises her personal needs for Mulder’s cause. Only at that point does Mulder say he’s sorry about her sister. He’s been so focused on the search that he hadn’t yet considered what Scully was going through.

Scully arrives at the hospital too late, her sister has already died. She and Mulder both say they need to work, to deal with their personal losses, but they have different motivations. Mulder still sees value in finding the truth about what happened. Scully needs to know why it happened. She and Mulder are on the same quest, even if she doesn’t believe what he believes. This difference is significant. In many respects, the search for the truth is enough for Mulder, it is his life. But Scully needs more. She’s willing to devote her life to it for personal reasons, but it’s always the reasons that matter more than the search. Her personal autonomy, her family, and Mulder will always mean more to her than the abstract truth.

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose

Scully tells Mulder about The Stupendous Yappi’s prediction, “He said that the killer doesn’t feel in control of his own life. That’s true of everyone at times.” It’s such a revealing little comment. This episode, while comedic in tone, deals with the themes of predetermined death and hopelessness, and it sets up very well the concerns Scully is starting to have. Scully tells Mulder that by thinking he can see the future, Bruckman has taken all the joy out of his life. I think Scully remembers this observation about Bruckman when she starts to believe she has cancer, and when she considers that her fate is in the hands of others. She makes the decision to pursue joy, or at least momentary pleasure.

Oubliette

Scully seems particularly judgmental and lacking in empathy toward Lucy, a woman who was previously abducted and who is now feeling what the victim is feeling. Scully’s attitude seems to be a way of distancing herself from these victims, so as not to have to feel what they’re feeling. She doesn’t want to think of herself as a victim. Scully accuses Mulder of being so close to the case that he doesn’t see his personal identification with it. This is an ironic accusation, as she seems to be distancing herself in order to avoid identifying with the victims. In the end, Scully grabs Mulder, desperately trying to stop his attemp to revive Amy, but he pushes her away. On the surface this is very odd. As a doctor Scully wouldn’t give up so soon. She would know there was a chance Amy could still be revived and Mulder’s efforts were appropriate. But I think this scene is a clue that Scully is now resigned to her own death, and her relationship with Mulder is going to be impacted.

Nisei

When Scully goes to Betsy Hagopian’s house to investigate the MUFON members, they recognize her as one of them. Scully is shocked when they mention her abduction, but as much as she tries to deny the connection, she knows it’s true. Their descriptions of their experiences trigger memories of her own. These women all have implants, and Scully learns that Betsy has cancer, tumors that won’t respond to treatment. Penny tells her they’re all dying because of what was done to them. Scully is not ready to talk about this with them, and she leaves.

The person Scully wants to talk to is Mulder, but when she tries, he shuts her down. It’s not clear whether this is because he’s focused on his part of the investigation or because he just doesn’t want to face the possibility that something could be wrong with Scully. He says, “But you’re fine, aren’t you Scully?” She responds, “Am I? I don’t know Mulder…It was freaky.” Mulder acknowledges the news is disturbing but encourages her not to freak out until she has more information. He’s not exactly dismissive. He’s concerned, but he fails to see how important this is to her. Scully sighs, like she’s not happy with this, like she’s used to it, like she’s ready for a change.

Their continued conversation is very telling. Scully shifts focus from her concerns to Mulder’s, telling him she’s seen Ishimaru, the man in the picture. He does dismiss her this time, relying on what he thinks he knows rather than what she’s telling him. Mulder is looking for proof of a scheme to create alien/human hybrids, but he refuses to listen to what Scully is telling him, when what she’s saying could actually provide the proof he needs. Instead he accuses her of being close-minded, “After all you’ve seen, why do you refuse to believe?” Scully tells him believing is easy, but she needs proof. He’s stunned, “You think believing is easy?” There’s clearly a disconnect here. It’s not just a difference in perspective but a failure to understand, and it’s creating a barrier between them. Mulder tells Scully he’s relying on information from someone like her who wants proof, but who’s also willing to believe. This is such a slap in the face. Scully has made it clear time and again that she is willing to act on his beliefs, even without the proof she needs. His rejection here is painful. She feels it, and she shuts down, not telling him she remembers Ishimaru from her abduction.

Scully is starting to understand that she’s still under the control of those who abducted her. She starts feeling the need to take back control, to rebel against expectations. This feeling of rebellion gets associated with Mulder, not because she blames him for what happened to her. She knows she made the choice to be part of this work, and she doesn’t put that on him. But so often he leads while she follows, she puts aside her theories for his, she does what he wants, and so when she feels the need to push back, it’s against him.

731

Scully is devastated when she learns from Pendrell that the chip could be monitoring thoughts, no doubt remembering all the time it was implanted in her without her knowledge. At the Hanson’s Disease center Scully learns that the same doctor who did tests on her was responsible for hundreds of deaths there. He would round people up in groups, and the ones who were returned always came back worse. This is an obvious parallel to the abductions of the MUFON women, who are dying of cancer, and Scully can’t help but come to the conclusion she faces the same fate. At that point Scully is abducted again and brought to the First Elder. She realizes he knows everything about her and undoubtedly was responsible for the implant in her neck. She struggles against his control over her, demanding answers, but it’s clear she’s still at his mercy. He offers her information. He’s serving his own agenda, but it’s all she has, and she uses it to help Mulder.

Revelations

The divide between Mulder and Scully grows here. Mulder is completely dismissive of Scully’s beliefs because they’re based on faith, and she’s clearly bothered by his dismissal. When she tells him about the signs she’s seeing he actually laughs. She asks, “How is it you’re able to go out on a limb whenever you see a light in the sky, but you’re unwilling to accept the possibility of a miracle?” Mulder responds, “I wait for a miracle every day, but what I’ve seen here has only tested my patience, not my faith.” When Scully asks him, “What about what I’ve seen?”, he has no answer. He completely disregards her question. Scully concludes that Mulder is unable to consider her perspective, even to the detriment of an investigation. Thus, later, when Scully’s intuitive leap proves correct, she can’t talk to Mulder about it and instead talks to a priest. This trip to the confessional could also signify that Scully is returning to her faith in light of her impending death. It’s been six years since her last confession, but she’s seeking comfort from the church now.

War of the Coprophages

The friendly banter, the jokes, the late night confessional phone call all show what Mulder is capable of being to Scully, the potential their relationship has. It’s clearly more than professional. But the episode also shows that Mulder is interested in other women. He sees Scully as a friend. She’s his best friend, a trusted friend, the friend he ditches when the possibility of a little romance turns up. Scully comes off as slightly jealous, and it’s entirely possible she’s realizing she wants more than friendship. She wants some romance herself. At this point she has to be questioning whether she’ll get what she wants from Mulder or will have to look elsewhere.

Syzygy

Again, Scully sees Mulder showing interest in another woman. It’s not completely clear whether he’s actually interested in Detective White, but that’s exactly how Scully sees it. Mulder is a horny beast, and Scully would prefer to be the object of that obsession. There’s obviously some underlying antagonism here as well. Mulder seems to be making light of Scully’s concerns about the investigation, and Scully deliberately ignores evidence that Mulder points out. While the syzygy is the catalyst, the discord is clearly present in their relationship, and they haven’t yet addressed it.

Pusher

In Never Again, Scully tells Mulder they seem to go two steps forward and three steps back. Pusher is one of their steps forward, filled with wonderful relationship moments. But it provides some notable revelations as well. The episode is about people losing control when an outsider pushes his will onto them. We learn that Scully can’t be so easily controlled. She is going to push back. We also see that Mulder cares more about Scully than about himself, when it comes to personal safety. He can be pushed to pull the trigger at his own head but he fights with everything he’s got when Scully is the target. Scully of course notices this. She’s still left wondering whether he cares more about the quest than about her, though.

Quagmire

This episode strikes me as an important turning point for Scully. When they’re on the boat, Mulder tells Scully his philosophy is “seek and ye shall find” and Scully returns that there are monsters in uncharted territory. Is the uncharted territory their personal relationship? It seems that Mulder is comfortable with the idea of facing any obstacles as they arise. Scully, on the other hand, wants some assurances that she won’t get hurt by doing so. Mulder sees hope in the possibilities, but Scully has a death sentence hanging over her and sees the unknown as more ominous. She’s willing to follow Mulder without proof when it comes to their work, but when it’s personal she wants evidence that her faith isn’t misplaced.

That brings us to the Conversation On The Rock. Scully has a sudden realization about Mulder: he’s Ahab. He’s so consumed by his personal vengeance against life that everything takes on a warped significance to fit his megalomaniacal cosmology. Ouch. Scully seems to be weighing whether a personal relationship with her will ever fit into Mulder’s plans, whether she will ever be worth his time. The fact that Mulder responds with “Scully are you coming on to me?” drives home the point that he understands this is personal, this is about them, but he’s not ready to get serious. Scully concludes by telling Mulder that whether the truth or a white whale, both obsessions are impossible to capture “and will only leave you dead along with everyone you bring with you.” Her impending death is never far from her mind these days. This conversation raises issues Mulder and Scully will have to deal with in order to make any progress in a personal relationship. Scully realizes Mulder isn’t ready for that step, he still has other priorities. While she wants a relationship with him, she doesn’t want less than all of him. She doesn’t want to compromise with Mulder, so she might have to settle for meeting her short term needs with someone else.

Wetwired

In this episode we, the viewers, see how much Scully means to Mulder. He’s absolutely devastated when he believes he has to identify her dead body. It’s a heartbreaking moment, made even more heartbreaking by the fact that Scully doesn’t see it. In fact, we learn that Scully is afraid that Mulder doesn’t trust her, that he’s been working behind her back, keeping things from her, lying to her from the beginning. These fears highlight her frustration with what she perceives as Mulder’s unwillingness to include her in his life and in his work. Scully accuses Mulder of being one of the people who abducted her, who put the implant in her neck. She says she thought he was going to kill her. While all these fears and accusations come out when Scully is in an altered state, it’s clear that the implant and its implications are always on her mind.

Talitha Cumi

Scully is shocked when Mulder attempts to connect his mother’s stroke to the case they’re investigating. This is further evidence to her that Mulder is completely focused on the work, the search for the truth, to the detriment of personal relationships. She has to be asking herself, if his mother doesn’t come before the work, can she?

Herrenvolk

Mulder ditches Scully without a second thought, although he did really believe the Bounty Hunter was dead. But he wasn’t, and Scully is once again held captive, with her life threatened, due to Mulder’s quest. When Mulder calls her, she tells him she’s right where he left her because he wouldn’t answer his phone and she didn’t know what to do. Scully is being held hostage by the Bounty Hunter, but she clearly blames Mulder for her situation, for the fact that she has no control over what’s happening to her. This loss of control is further emphasized by Scully’s discovery that people are being inventoried through their small pox vaccines. While this discovery has global implications, Scully makes it by biopsying her own small pox scar. This is personal. Her need to take back control, to rebel against the feeling of helplessness, is growing stronger.

Unruhe

Scully is experiencing unrest in her relationship with Mulder. They’re not on the same page with this case, just as they’re not on the same page with their personal expectations. Mulder wants to know more about Schnauz just for the sake of knowing, it’s his quest for the truth that motivates him. But when they’re too late to save the second victim, Scully is feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, and useless, and she just wants to get out of there. In the same way, Mulder treats his relationship with Scully as a curiosity, willing to let it develop as it will, seemingly unconcerned where it ends up. But Scully is becoming frustrated with the lack of progress, and she might be ready to give up on him.

Scully’s abduction by Schauz is also significant. Once again, Scully’s control is taken from her. Schnauz tells Scully the howlers live inside her head, pointing to the place where her tumor will be found. He tells her she can’t wish them away, she needs help, and this proves to be true. Although Scully shows herself to be strong, intelligent, and resourceful, she’s unable to save herself and needs Mulder to rescue her. This man who doesn’t seem willing to put her first is the one she has to depend on. It doesn’t escape her notice that Mulder is there when she needs him, and he’s able to save her because he’s willing to pursue answers to questions she didn’t want to ask. Scully knows Mulder is the right person for her. She just wants to know that he knows it too.

Leonard Betts

Leonard Betts, the man who needs cancer to survive, tells Scully she has something he needs. This is the first direct reference to Scully’s cancer, and it’s likely that most viewers are taken by surprise by this revelation. But Scully isn’t surprised. She doesn’t tell Mulder what Betts said, but she knows it’s true. She’s resigned. When she experiences the nosebleed later that night, it’s probably the first physical confirmation of her disease. What up to this point has been an ominous consideration is now a confirmed reality.

Never Again

When we first see Scully she is wandering away from Mulder, who is following yet another unlikely lead. Scully approaches the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and picks up a petal from a dying rose. This scene suggests she’s choosing to take control over her life, or what’s left of it, regardless of what Mulder decides to do. When Mulder criticizes her behavior, Scully asks why she doesn’t have a desk. She wants to know that he values her, but he doesn’t seem to understand what she needs. When Scully tells Mulder that his work has become her life, he asks, “You don’t want it to be?” He takes it for granted that they want the same things, but they’ve never really talked about it. Scully is just as guilty of drawing conclusions about what Mulder wants without ever really talking to him about it.

We’ve seen Scully draw the conclusion that she wants more out of their relationship than Mulder is ready to give her. She sees him as a potential life mate, but the problem is she’s running out of life. As Scully sees it, she’s not going to get what she needs from Mulder, so she’s going to pursue what she can get, and Ed Jerse seems like a good substitute. Scully almost accepts Ed’s invitation to dinner, but then she has second thoughts and backs down. But then Mulder calls her, taking for granted that she would be following his instructions, questioning her judgment, and laughing at the idea that she would have a date, and Scully pushes back. She tells Mulder she has everything under control, hangs up, and calls Ed.

Although it’s not directly mentioned in the episode, it’s easy to see Scully’s cancer influencing this choice. Never Again focuses on Scully’s frustration with Mulder and her need to feel in control for a change. But all three of these factors have been at play in Scully’s life for some time, leading her to this moment.

At the end of Never Again Mulder is trying to understand what happened, asking Scully if she did all this because he didn’t get her a desk. Scully tells him not everything is about him, this is her life. Mulder responds, “Yes, but it’s m—.” In his mind, her life is his life too. He can’t imagine one without the other, and he assumed she felt the same way. In fact, she does, but they’ve never talked about what they mean to each other and what they want for their future. I think Scully’s experience in Never Again changes that, if just a little. At the beginning of Memento Mori, Scully tells Mulder about her cancer diagnosis, and she makes sure he knows he’s the only one she’s called. This is a shift, a first step. Scully is sharing something deeply personal with Mulder, the most important person in her life, because she’s the most important person in his. It’s fitting that we see this happen directly after the events in Never Again.

6 thoughts on “Considering Her Cancer

  1. Some other comments…

    First, I like your remark about Mulder in Talitha Cumi. Interesting.

    Second, and it completes my previous comment about the intentions of the writers. Never Again was written by Morgan and Wong and I’ve found an interview of them in a magazine from 1997 about this episode. They say:
    – about the fact that it was schedulded after Leonard Betts:
    Morgan : “I felt horrible. Those are not her motives for her actions in this episode. The motives in ‘Never Again’ are completely altered by posing that she has a disease or a death sentence.”
    – about their intention:
    Morgan “I thought Scully gets jerked around a lot by Mulder, and this is time for her to stand up for herself. When Mulder comes in, going on about his vacation, he’s not even paying attention to her. Scully doesn’t do a good job at telling him what’s wrong. She’s inarticulate about it, and I don’t think he understands what she’s trying to say.”
    – about the rose petal:
    Morgan “Scully takes the flower from the memorial as her own marker, or reminder, that she must move forward or risk becoming like the name on the wall. The rose is like a memorial of herself. [..] She got (her tattoo) at a point where she wanted to feel she was her own person.”

    But we know that the series is more than just the vision of the different writers.

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    1. Thanks. Yes I’ve read those remarks from the writers and understand their feelings. But they wrote a brilliant episode that works just as well even with the changed airing order. I hope, with some distance, they’ve come to appreciate that.

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      1. Yes, and I think that, as we say, “the whole is better than the sum of its parts”. The whole crew has created something bigger and with more connections and significance than planned initally. There’s also the influence of CC who was surely controlling the whole.

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  2. Weird. I actually re-watched “Never Again” the same day you published this article – though I didn’t notice it till the morning after. I avoided reading it till now, though, because I wanted to get my own thoughts about the episode down first.

    Over, all, I think your theory is pretty good. I wouldn’t adopt it myself, but it works as a headcanon. I don’t personally believe that Scully thinks she has cancer before “Leonard Betts”. I also don’t see a conflict between the desire for a personal vs. professional relationship; for Mulder&Scully, they’re the same thing. And, obviously, I’d prefer to think their feelings for each other are platonic. Still, it is credible that Scully would at least be considering the possibility of cancer. And “Never Again” does kind of invite shipping!

    “In many respects, the search for the truth is enough for Mulder, it is his life. But Scully needs more. She’s willing to devote her life to it for personal reasons, but it’s always the reasons that matter more than the search. Her personal autonomy, her family, and Mulder will always mean more to her than the abstract truth.”

    I hadn’t thought of putting it that way, but you may be onto something there!

    “Mulder treats his relationship with Scully as a curiosity, willing to let it develop as it will, seemingly unconcerned where it ends up. But Scully is becoming frustrated with the lack of progress…”

    So… you’re saying Scully is a shipper and Mulder is a noromo? 😀

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