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 NeverAgain 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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, 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.
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.
First, I think it’s notable that the highest scoring episode is the Pilot, in which 23 of the details I consider iconic appeared. Only Fight the Future scored higher, with 24 points, but it’s a full length feature film. I find this amazing! So many of the details we came to identify as necessary to the show were there right from the start. A friend asked me if it’s possible that we look to the Pilot for what to expect, and that’s why the details we find iconic are the ones we see in that episode. It’s an interesting question. I think that’s true of things like “Spooky” and “Medical doctor”, or Scully performing an autopsy, or the basement office. But many of the details I’ve included in the spreadsheet are incidental to the story being told, like the random touches or Mulder’s rolled sleeves. Those details became just as important to the look and feel of the show, so I think their presence in the Pilot is a remarkable bit of consistency, especially for a show often criticized as lacking that feature.
My next observation is that generally mythology episodes score higher than monster of the week episodes. That’s not true across the board. Vince Gilligan’s stand alone episodes tend to score pretty high as do Darin Morgan’s episodes. It’s possible that the mythology episodes were the closest to a “formula” the series ever came and thus needed a certain look, while the monster of the week episodes could be more experimental. And both Vince Gilligan and Darin Morgan were masters at detail continuity, so it makes sense we would see a lot of these details in their episodes. This idea might be something I’ll explore further.
My top five favorite episodes scored pretty high. Paper Hearts and Memento Mori each scored 17 points, Requiem 15, Pusher 11, and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space 10. Not surprisingly, my least favorite episodes scored fairly low. Excelsis Dei, First Person Shooter, and Fight Club each scored 5 points. I can’t draw too many conclusions from these scores. I created the spreadsheet, so it makes sense that the episodes I love are going to be filled with the details I chose to focus on. There are a few lower scoring (<5) episodes that I like a lot, but no higher scoring (>17) episodes that I don’t love.
When I started this project I was curious whether the details I was focusing on could help pinpoint moments of change in the Mulder/Scully relationship (because for me it’s all about the MSR). I think I had some success with that. In Beyond the Sea Mulder calls Scully “Dana” for the first time. That and his reassuring random touches make me think this is when they go from being just partners to friends. As I’ve noted before, these two characters touch each other a lot. There are loads of little random touches, and those continue throughout the series. But in season 4 we start seeing more personal touches. The forehead kiss in Memento Mori makes it clear these two characters are more than friends; they’re necessary parts of each other’s whole. The forehead touch in Fight the Future is so intimate that we know their feelings have progressed even further. Scully pretty consistently “checks Mulder for head trauma” by ruffling his hair, but when Mulder touches Scully’s hair in Redux II and The Red And The Black, it’s because he’s facing the possibility of losing her. That intimate gesture shows his need to hold on. And when he repeats it in all things…well we know something’s about to happen.
I learned some things that surprised me while tracking these details. Scully doesn’t “not see” all that often (only 8 episodes). That’s about as often as Mulder loses his gun (9 episodes). Although I hear a lot of complaints that the show puts Scully in peril too often, the numbers show otherwise. Throughout the series Mulder is attacked or shot 66 times, while Scully is attacked or shot 47 times. And Mulder saves Scully a total of 18 times, but Scully saves Mulder a total of 17 times. I’d say that’s a pretty fair balance. Another fun realization: I knew Mulder and Scully rarely call each other by their first names, but I was surprised to learn that Scully only calls Mulder “Fox” twice in the entire series, and both instances were written/co-written by Glen Morgan.
I think the biggest surprise for me by far was how seldom Mulder places his hand on Scully’s lower back. I was under the impression that this was the most commonly used gesture in the series, and I expected to see it in almost every episode. It’s there right at the very beginning, and we see it in 13 episodes of the first season. But after that it’s pretty rare. I was so happy to see it make a reappearance in season 11.
Just a note about the scoring. When I created the spreadsheet I tried to choose details that could be identified objectively. I didn’t want to include anything that would require me to interpret a scene or a character’s motivations, partly because I wanted to be able to mark the spreadsheet quickly as I watched, and partly because I recognized that others might have different interpretations. But how do you know precisely when Mulder calling “Scully” becomes “Scuullllaaaayyy”? As I did my rewatch, it became clear I would have to make some judgment calls. For instance, I defined a “Mulder ditch” as any time Mulder went off without telling Scully where he was going or why, but someone else might also include any time Mulder did something even though Scully asked him not to. I counted times Mulder or Scully were shown in hotel rooms they were staying in but not times they were investigating a case in a hotel. I counted not only times Scully said “Mulder, it’s me” but also times Mulder answered the phone “Mulder” and Scully immediately said “It’s me” (and vice versa). So it’s quite possible that someone else using this same spreadsheet could come up with different scores.
Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who has followed along with this project. I loved your comments, encouragement, and suggestions for future spreadsheets. I loved when friends pointed out details they spotted or asked for answers based on the data I’d collected. You’ve helped make this whole effort extremely enjoyable!
So here it is, the completed spreadsheet. Take a look, and please let me know if you find any surprises or draw any interesting conclusions!
I want to believe that I can talk meaningfully about The X-Files in any situation, that I can find something to say about the show that’s relevant to any conversation. I recently put that belief to the test.
I’ve been part of a Bible study group for over 10 years. In that time my group has seen me become increasingly obsessed with The X-Files. These friends have learned that I can come up with an X-Files reference for almost every conversation (they have no idea how many times I’ve held back), and I’ve learned that the themes in the show are often particularly relevant to the discussions we have in our group. I’ve joked for a while that I could come up with an X-Files themed Bible study for us to do, and my group kept encouraging me to do it. So finally I decided to give it a try.
None of the other members of my group are X-Philes. A few are casual fans with some familiarity with the show, others have never seen a single episode. Instead of using clips from various episodes, which might require more knowledge of the show than my friends had, I chose to focus my study on I Want To Believe. I love the movie for what it shows us about Mulder and Scully at that time in their lives, but more importantly for this purpose, it’s a stand alone story which doesn’t require a vast amount of prior knowledge.
I wrote a brief X-Files primer to get everyone up to speed. Then I wrote a series of discussion questions focusing on themes I saw in the movie: purpose, justice, forgiveness, and perseverance. My discussion questions are written from a Christian perspective, because that’s who I am and that was my audience, but I think those themes can be relevant to anyone regardless of belief and background. I got inspiration from John Kenneth Muir’s review of IWTB, We Want To Believe: Faith and Gospel in The X-Files by Amy Donaldson, and Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
I wanted some feedback before leading my group in this study, so I shared my study guide with a few people. I showed it to a pastor friend who knows nothing about The X-Files, an X-Phile friend who is not religious, an X-Phile friend who’s an expert on the Bible, and an X-Phile friend who’s an expert on the movie. I felt like that covered the bases! I incorporated their suggestions and felt very encouraged about my project.
Finally the big night arrived (there was a snow delay, and while a trek through the snow would have set the tone for the movie, it wasn’t worth the risky drive). I introduced the study by going through the primer and then asked if there were any questions before we started the movie. There was a bit of confusion: “wait I thought it was a TV show” and “was this actually shown in theaters?” Oops! Apparently my primer wasn’t quite thorough enough. I’ve revised it a bit in response.
The X-Files aired on television for nine regular seasons in its original run, from September 1993 through May 2002. There were two motion pictures, The X-Files: Fight the Future, which was released in June 1998 between seasons 5 and 6 of the show, and The X-Files:I Want To Believe, which was released in July 2008. The television series continued with two revival seasons, airing in 2016 (6 episodes) and 2018 (10 episodes).
The main characters of The X-Files are FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder and Scully worked together on the X-Files, a unit investigating unsolved cases and paranormal phenomena. Mulder is an Oxford-educated psychologist recognized as a brilliant profiler who had a promising future at the FBI when he discovered the X-Files and managed to get assigned to them. He was the only agent working the X-Files until his superiors assigned Scully to work with him, expecting her to debunk his work so that the unit could be shut down. Scully is a medical doctor with a background in hard science, who was recruited out of medical school by the FBI. She’s also a Catholic who struggles with her faith.
Instead of finding reasons to shut down the X-Files, Scully helped Mulder keep them open, lending scientific credibility to the investigations. During most of their investigations Mulder was the believer in paranormal phenomena, while Scully was the skeptic who looked for scientific proof. They were sometimes seen as a bit of a joke because of the kind of cases they investigated, but their combination of knowledge, intuition, persistence, and integrity led them to solve cases no one else could.
One of the reasons Mulder wanted to work on the X-Files was to find his sister. She had been abducted from their home when she was 8 and he was 12, and Mulder came to believe she was abducted by aliens. Mulder finally learned what happened to her and gained some closure, but he has always been motivated by a desire to search for and save the lost.
There’s a huge storyline involving government/global conspiracy and aliens, which you don’t need to know about for this discussion. But both Mulder and Scully were often in grave danger as they worked to uncover the truth behind this conspiracy.
Mulder and Scully eventually developed a romantic relationship (it took 7 years to get there) and they had a son together (William). Scully had to give their son up for adoption to protect him at a time when Mulder was in hiding.
When Mulder came out of hiding he was placed on trial (not a real trial but a military/FBI trial, it was stupid) on a falsified murder charge and sentenced to death. His friends at the FBI helped him escape, and he and Scully went on the run.
I Want To Believe opens six years after Mulder and Scully disappeared. Scully is again working as a doctor, but Mulder, still technically a wanted man, is living as a recluse.
My X-Files Primer
After we cleared that up, one friend asked what it was I loved about the show. I really appreciated that question. It was a lovely reminder that we were doing this because this group of friends wanted to share something I was passionate about.
As we were watching the movie, though, it occurred to me that I Want To Believe doesn’t contain much of what I love about the show. The humor is there, and the chemistry between Mulder and Scully, both of which came across even to new viewers. But one aspect of the show I really love is that Mulder and Scully are working together as FBI agents to investigate cases within the system and to uncover the truth that goes beyond the system. The movie doesn’t show us that at all. So I found myself sort of defending my love of the show a bit and wishing I could get my group to watch Pusher or E.B.E. But the point was to lead an interesting discussion, not recruit new members to the fandom, and IWTB is much better suited to that.
Although the movie wasn’t to everyone’s liking, it was, as I suspected it would be, a great catalyst for discussion. I introduced topics using four quotes from the movie.
“There’s a question of credibility.” Scully can’t accept that Father Joe’s visions come from God, because of the crimes Father Joe has committed. She can’t trust him and can’t believe God would use him.
“Cursing God for all his cruelties.” Scully is troubled by the suffering of her young patient, for whom there doesn’t seem to be a cure. She’s equally troubled by Father Joe’s crimes and his attempts to atone for them. Mulder is concerned for the missing FBI agent and the other kidnapping victims. They can’t make sense of the pain and injustice.
“All is forgiven.” There’s nothing comfortable or easy about how this film portrays the central moral dilemma. The crimes Father Joe committed against the innocent are utterly monstrous, as Scully rightly points out. Father Joe knows that society will never forgive him, but wonders if God can do so.
“Don’t give up.” Father Joe’s exhortation to Scully can be applied to many aspects of the story: Mulder and Scully in their relationship, Scully in treating Christian, Mulder in searching for the missing agent, the villain in finding a way to save his husband, Father Joe in seeking forgiveness/redemption.
We discussed a series of questions on each topic. The movie manages to show different perspectives on themes relevant to the human condition, and it got us thinking and talking about relating to others with different experiences and beliefs. I think anything that gets us to look outside our own limited worldview, that can lead to greater understanding, compassion, and acceptance, is worth the effort. It thrills me that the show I love so much can be so relevant to these kinds of conversations.
I found this entire project very fulfilling. I’ve always enjoyed leading group discussions, but this was my first time writing the study guide. Being able to use that guide to lead a thoughtful discussion about challenging issues, set in the context of The X-Files was not only meaningful but also just plain fun. I felt honored that my group indulged me, encouraged me, and responded with enthusiasm.
I’ve been doing a complete rewatch of The X-Files, using a spreadsheet to track how often 57 specific details appear in each episode. I wrote about how and why I started the project here: myxfilesobsession.home.blog/2019/12/05/the-spreadsheet/ I’ve finished the first three seasons, and I thought it was a good time to look at the data I’ve gathered and make some observations.
I assign a score to every episode by counting one point for each of the details I find. I don’t track when a detail occurs more than once, because that just gets too difficult. The highest score in Season 1 is the Pilot, with 23 points. In fact, that remains the highest scoring episode in the first three seasons. I’m currently in the middle of Season 4 and I haven’t found an episode that scores higher. I’m still blown away by this fact: so many of the details we find iconic were present in the very first episode! Space and Roland both scored 3 points, the lowest for the season. The remaining episodes averaged about 10 points.
In Season 2 End Game, the first episode penned by Frank Spotnitz, takes the high score at 22 points. The lowest score is F. Emasculata, with 3 points. In between there’s a greater range of scores than in Season 1, from 4 to 17 points, but again the average score is 10 points.
Apocrypha scores the highest in Season 3, with 17 points. Three episodes come in a close second with 15 points each: Nisei, War of the Coprophages, and Grotesque. Hell Money scores the lowest, with 5 points. The average score of the remaining episodes is 8.5 points.
Okay, I’m boring myself with these numbers, so let’s talk about the good stuff.
Scully doesn’t say “Mulder it’s me” even once in the first season, and Mulder says “Scully it’s me” only twice. This trope starts to take off in season 2, though, and we see Scully using it more often than Mulder. Mulder tends to start talking as soon as Scully answers the phone, whereas Scully will occasionally even say “Mulder it’s me” in person. If you throw in the number of times Mulder calls “Scullaayyy!” they’re about even.
agents in peril
I think the show often gets knocked for over-using the “Scully in peril” scenario, so I found the numbers very interesting. In Season 1 Mulder and Scully are each attacked 8 times, Scully saves Mulder 3 times, and Mulder saves Scully 3 times. Mulder is attacked more often than Scully in Season 2, 12 times to her 10, although her abduction is more significant than anything that happens to him in the season. Scully rescues Mulder twice, and he rescues her 4 times. And then in Season 3, Mulder is attacked 9 times and Scully only 3, and they save each other 1 time a piece. I’m just not seeing a trend that places one agent in danger over the other, although that could change moving forward.
clothing, places, and things
Mulder rolls up his sleeves so often that I get distressed in episodes where he wears a jacket or overcoat the whole time. I know he’s got to be uncomfortable! For Scully, there are quite a few episodes in Season 1 that show her in casual wear (10), usually while she’s writing reports in her apartment. As the show moves away from Scully voiceovers, though, we see less of Scully away from the office and therefore less of casual!Scully (5 times each in Seasons 2 and 3).
Aside from the basement office, we see Mulder and Scully most often in rental cars. I had to make a call in tracking this detail. In many episodes you can see the “Lariat” sticker on the car, and so that clearly counts. (Yes, I have been known to freeze the episode, take a screen cap, and enlarge, just to check for that “Lariat” sticker!) In other episodes we see them driving, but there’s no clear indication that the car is a rental. I count that detail if the case is far enough away from Washington D.C. that they wouldn’t have driven but not if they’re within driving distance of their office.
Flashlights appear too often to be interesting, and I’m almost sorry I included that detail in the spreadsheet. Although the count just solidifies why the flashlights make such an iconic image.
last, but not least, the touches
This category held some surprises for me as well. When I think of Mulder and Scully, I think of him placing his hand on her lower back as they walk out of a room or down a hall. I expect to see that in every scene, or at least every episode. So I was really kind of surprised how seldom that actually happens. It’s fairly common in Season 1, occurring in 13 episodes. But it happens only 6 times in Season 2 and only twice in Season 3!
But that’s okay, because we’ve got the random touch. This is by far my favorite detail to track because there are so many variations on this theme, from a shoulder grab, to an arm squeeze, to a cheek tap, and more. Mulder touches Scully, Scully touches Mulder, in almost every episode. These two are just really touchy, and I’m here for it. Moving into Season 4 and beyond, as their relationship grows, we’ll start to see some of the more personal touches, and those are wonderful too. But these little random touches, which often serve no purpose other than a quick connection, are really the heart of the show for me.
Here’s a link to my spreadsheet if you want to follow along:
A couple of weeks ago I was watching D.P.O., when I noticed that Scully was wearing sunglasses. It occurred to me that we don’t see that very often, so I took this pic and posted it on Twitter, commenting about how unusual it was.
That started a discussion about the many recurring details in The X-Files, and a lot of folks chimed in about the ways they’ve tracked them. Some use a journal or their phones to jot down noteworthy details as they watch. Some look for recurrence of just one or two specific items. A few of us suggested that a spreadsheet would be an effective way to keep track of all this data, and I decided that was exactly what I needed for my next rewatch.
I should mention that I’ve never created a spreadsheet before in my life. My brain isn’t really wired for that kind of information organization, and my eyes typically glaze over when I come across charts and graphs. So I guess that’s why this seems like a pretty big deal for me and why I felt compelled to blog about it (writing about my experience comes much more naturally).
I began collecting details to include and got LOTS of suggestions. I had over a hundred items on my list! I knew I’d never be able to track that many details in a single viewing, so I had to narrow it down a bit. I took out details that were sufficiently tracked elsewhere, such as recurring characters, and others that occurred too often to be considered noteworthy, like Scully’s cross (although times that Scully wasn’t wearing her cross could be an interesting detail to track…). Since my goal was to create a list of items I could track while watching every episode without stopping to analyze each scene, I removed items such as facial expressions (Scully’s eyebrow lift and Mulder’s eyebrow wag, various lip/tongue activities), tone of voice, and innuendo, which would take a closer examination or were subject to interpretation.
I ended up with 56 details on my list. That’s a lot, I know, but they’re all easy enough to spot so I think it’s manageable. I grouped them into categories to make tracking easier as I watch. Here’s the list:
Phrases Mulder it’s me Scully it’s me Sculllaayyy Mulder voiceover Scully voiceover Mulder “Dana” Scully “Fox” Medical doctor Spooky Mulder Things sunflower seeds flashlights Mulder’s porn green acid blood
Actions Scully autopsy Scully doesn’t see Mulder profiling Mulder is shot/attacked Scully is shot/attacked Mulder in hospital Scully in hospital Scully saves Mulder Mulder saves Scully Mulder sport Mulder touch/taste evidence Mulder cries Scully cries sharing umbrella Mulder loses gun slide show Mulder ditch
Platonic activity hand on lower back forehead touch forehead kiss hair touches random touches hugging
Locations Mulder’s apartment Scully’s apartment basement office rental car hotel elevator parking garage
I scored a few random episodes to test out the spreadsheet, and I was able to track everything pretty easily. Moreover, it was really, really fun to do (admittedly I don’t get out much). So I’ve started my complete rewatch. I’m about halfway through Season 1, and one initial observation I’ve made is that the two most commonly occurring details are “random touches” and “Mulder’s rolled sleeves”. That’s really no surprise. I mean Mulder touches Scully a lot. A lot a lot a lot. And Mulder’s rolled sleeves are almost as ubiquitous as Scully’s cross. In fact, that’s a difficult detail to track since it’s so common.
I’ve also thought of some details I wish I’d included in the spreadsheet, such as “1013” or “1121”, Mulder telling Scully “always”, a call to Danny, a trip to the forest, anyone saying “I want to believe”, a scene in a cemetery, an Elvis reference, a scene in a stairwell, and a reference to cattle mutilation. I guess those will go in a spreadsheet for my next rewatch!
So what will I do with all this data once it’s collected? The possibilities are endless!!! First thing that comes to mind is creating episode- or season-specific drinking games. That’s always fun. And imagine being able to answer whether Scully saved Mulder more often than Mulder saved Scully, or whether Mulder really lost his gun often enough to justify the ankle holster, or whether there was ever an episode where they DIDN’T touch in some way. Seems like essential information for an obsessed Phile, so it’s high time I started collecting it!
I’ll post periodic updates and share observations as I go along. I might even make some predictions and then report on how accurate they were. My goal for Season 1 is to see whether these details can be used to pinpoint the moment Mulder and Scully went from being just professional colleagues to friends. I’m also interested in identifying any details that seem iconic but really don’t occur very often. I’ll let you know what I find out.
I’d love some feedback on this project, so if you have thoughts or suggestions please let me know, either here or on Twitter!
Here’s a link to the spreadsheet for anyone who wants to follow my progress:
Mulder and Scully have a history of speaking in riddles. Their words often don’t express what they’re really feeling, leaving us to ask one of Mulder’s favorite questions, “What’s that supposed to mean?” I find this an endearing quality for the most part. These are complicated characters, and it wouldn’t make sense if their innermost thoughts and feelings came pouring out of their mouths in a way that left no room for us, or them, to question what they mean. But sometimes I need a little more clarity. Sometimes I wish they would just come out and say what they really mean!
This feeling struck me the hardest after THAT SCENE in Plus One. You know which one I mean. The scene with a conversation that just seemed so off, so wrong, so confusing and unsatisfying but then led to a very satisfying reunion. So what did I miss? What were they really saying to each other? I actually had to sit down and translate the scene for myself to make any sense of it, focusing on their facial expressions and body language. And I found it helped. In fact it was really kind of cathartic. So I decided to give it a shot for some of their more enigmatic exchanges. I’ve chosen some lighter moments, just for a bit of fun. Maybe I’ll do an angstier version later.
What they said
Mulder: They’re out to put an end to the X-Files, Scully. I don’t know why, but any excuse will do. I don’t really care about my record, but you’d be in trouble just sitting in this car, and I’d hate to see you carry an official reprimand in your career file because of me.
Scully: Fox. …
Mulder: (chuckles) I, I even made my parents call me Mulder, so … Mulder.
Scully: Mulder, I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you.
Mulder: If there’s an iced tea in that bag, could be love.
What they meant
Mulder: I’d hate to see you carry an official reprimand in your career file because of me. I meant it when I said you could be head of the Bureau someday. I don’t want to stand in your way.
Scully: Our work is more important to me than any career advancement; you’re more important. I need to make you understand that, Fox …
Mulder: That look on your face is scaring me, so I’m going to back off a bit. I need to keep you at arm’s length for now because I may be getting too attached to you, and that won’t do you any good.
Scully: I don’t scare that easily MULDER. I need you to understand, so I’m going to be very clear. I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you.
Mulder: I’m a little overwhelmed by my feelings and your honesty, so I need to make a joke, but I hope you understand. Iced tea or not, it could be love.
What they said
Mulder: Scully, I love you.
Scully: Oh brother.
Mulder: *enigmatic smile*
What they meant
Mulder: I know this isn’t the best time, and maybe you’re not ready to hear it, but I can’t stand the thought that something could happen and I missed my chance to tell you. So you’re going to laugh this off or pretend you think I’m delirious, and that’s okay. You do what you need to do. But what I need to do right now, without waiting another minute, is tell you that I love you.
Scully: Now? You’re going to tell me that right now? When I don’t even know if you’re lucid? But that look on your face, the tone of your voice, I could almost believe you mean it…I’m not ready for this Mulder! I need to process, I need time to think. I…I…I’m not ready for this.
Mulder: *will be waiting when she’s ready*
What they said
Mulder: What are you gonna call him?
Scully: William, after your father.
Mulder: *meaningful look*
Scully: *soft smile*
Mulder: Well, I don’t know. He’s got your coloring and your eyes, but he looks suspiciously like Assistant Director Skinner.
*Both laugh softly*
Scully: I don’t understand Mulder. They came to take him from us, why they didn’t.
Mulder: I don’t quite understand that either, except that maybe he isn’t what they thought he was. That doesn’t make him any less of a miracle though, does it?
Scully: From the moment I became pregnant I feared the truth, about how, and why. And I know that you feared it too.
Mulder: I think that what we feared were the possibilities. The truth we both know.
Scully: Which is what?
Mulder: *Leans in to kiss Scully*
Mulder and Scully: *Kiss, softly at first but then digging in*
What they meant
Mulder: What are you gonna call him?
Scully: William. That should be sufficiently frustrating to those idiots at the Bureau betting on who’s the father, with all the Williams in both our families. But we’ll be sure anyone who needs to know understands he’s named after your father.
Mulder: *It’s up to you whether you want to tell anyone Scully. It always has been.*
Scully: *It’s been nice keeping this to ourselves, but we can let others in on the secret now.*
Mulder: I don’t know, he looks a little like Skinner. I wonder if anyone bet on him in the pool.
*Both chuckle softly. They’ve been joking about this for a while.*
Scully: I don’t understand Mulder. They came to take him from us, why they didn’t.
Mulder: I don’t quite understand that either, except that maybe he isn’t what they thought he was. That doesn’t make him any less of a miracle though, does it?
Scully: From the moment I became pregnant I feared the truth, about how, and why. And I know that you feared it too.
Mulder: We’d been told this wasn’t possible for us, and we’ve been through so much that we had to wonder how it happened. But in the end, that just doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what we already know.
Scully: Which is what? I need a little more reassurance after all we’ve been through.
Mulder: *We love each other and we have a baby*
Mulder and Scully: *That’s our truth, and no one can take that from us.*
What they said:
Scully: Can you hold me?
Mulder: Yeah, I can do that.
Scully: What’s gonna happen?
Mulder: What’s gonna happen when?
Scully: When we’re old.
Mulder: What do you mean “when”?
Scully: I mean, sooner or later we’re gonna retire, and …
Mulder: I’ll come push your wheelchair with my wheelchair.
Scully: *chuckles* That’s not what I mean.
Mulder: Oh I’ll always be around, Scully, offering bullet proof theories of genius that you fail to assail with your inadequate rationality.
Scully: And I’ll always be around to prove you wrong. No, but that’s not what I mean.
Mulder: What do you mean?
Scully: What if you meet someone? What if you meet someone younger who wants to have kids?
Mulder: Oh, that’s what you mean. Well…you could do the same. You could meet someone and have kids.
Scully: *laughs* That’s not gonna happen.
Mulder: That’s nonsense.
Scully: No it’s not. I’m at the end of that journey.
Mulder: Do you want to have more kids?
Scully: Well, I would have liked to have had another one.
Mulder: Mm. At the risk of sounding insensitive, what’s stopping you?
Scully: Mm…besides the fact that the first time was a miracle? And besides the fact that I don’t have anyone to have one with even if I could?
Mulder: You’re a woman of science.
Scully: *laughs* Mulder, sometimes I think the world is going to hell and we’re the only two people who can save it.
Mulder: The world is going to hell Scully, the president working to bring down the FBI along with it.
Scully: What if we lose our jobs?
Mulder: Yeah, then what would we do?
Scully: We’ll think of something.
What they meant:
Scully: What would you think if I told you I wanted to come back? I don’t just want to work with you; I want to be with you. Do you still see me that way?
Mulder: That’s what I’ve been waiting for. Are you sure that’s what you want?
Scully: We make sense together. I don’t want anyone else, I never have. I think I’m ready to start over with you.
Mulder: I’ll always be here Scully. It’s your move.