Should We Be Picking Out China Patterns or What? 

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files

In a basement office in the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, there are no accidents. God has no back. Nothing is without intention. “Nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted.” 

This is how Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) meet: like dolls at the mercy of a scheming child’s whims, the hulking hand of the federal government ushers them together with the single purpose of rendering Mulder—and his “spooky” proclivities—obsolete. Verify his work, they tell Scully. Debunk him, they mean. So it’s by design that the two agents are at odds: he, a crusading believer in the unbelievable, hell-bent on uncovering the whole truth and nothing but; she, a fresh-faced but discerning scientist who trusts wholeheartedly that her objectivity will reveal the world to her. It’s a match made as close to hell as any living FBI agent can get. But on that day, in that office, where there are no accidents, where God has no back, where nothing is without intention, design fails. God goes temporarily blind. An accident happens. 

Folie à deux. A madness shared by two.

***

The X-Files has a reputation for being complicated, though its premise is not. It follows two FBI agents—one a peculiar conspiracy theorist and the other a by-the-book scientist—as they travel around the country investigating the age-old question: Are we alone in this universe? But soon, that simple premise morphs into an X-File of its own; government conspiracies, alien abductions, extraterrestrial viruses made of black oil, shape-shifting bounty hunters, secret cabals of old white men who killed John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and rigged the Academy Awards, just because they could—for better and for worse, it was never a show that did things halfway. Over the course of 11 seasons and two movies (although really, over seven seasons and two movies—Duchovny was largely absent from seasons 8 and 9, and I and many other fans would prefer if the revival seasons 10 and 11 were scrapped altogether), it became a sort of living antithesis to Occam’s razor, a firm rejection of simple explanations and of explanations as a whole, an emphatic embrace of the convoluted and incomplete. Despite the show’s police procedural format, Mulder and Scully’s cases rarely ended in arrests or tangible legal solutions, the agents instead forced to find their satisfaction in the incremental pulling-back of the universe’s heavy curtain. The show’s most prominent tagline—“The Truth is Out There”—was always more of a promise than a guarantee, challenging audiences to accept its radical ambiguity, like a dim but distinct Northern Star on the path to enlightenment. The most certain thing about The X-Files? That nothing is certain.

So yes, with its tangled web of far-reaching conspiracies and excessive commitment to irresolution, The X-Files is complicated. But ask any fan of the show what drew them into that web, and you’ll find that it’s also deceptively simple. Here is a crime drama with a science-fiction twist, a show about finding the truth in a world intent on lying. About putting the “I” in “FBI.” About a skeptic and a believer.

*** 

Belief, in the eyes of the FBI, is Fox Mulder’s madness. It takes a cavernous mind to open an X-File, the FBI’s official designation for cases of unexplained phenomena. The conspiracy theories he casually spouts off represent an intellectual paradox, built on both an indiscriminate faith and a complete lack thereof. They require dissonance and disharmony and a sort of needlessly multidimensional reality that also flattens the moment that it meets your expectation. His is a world where we are not alone, where Elvis is alive and well; a world where, under the tinfoil hats and blurry telephoto lens snapshots, urgent demands for government transparency and accountability steadily hum, louder and louder. It’s all a bit too anti-establishment for a body built on abstruse rules and rampant regulation, but Mulder, Oxford-educated and whip-smart, is not so far from his past as an indispensable asset as to render him a lost cause, so the FBI does something a little different: they send in a (medical) doctor.

Science, in the eyes of the FBI, is Dana Scully’s sanity. How do you solve a problem like Fox Mulder? You give him proof, or at least a qualified voice of reason; a woman who rewrote Einstein. “The agency maverick and the female agent assigned to keep him in line.” You can tell that Scully means to cure him; they trust that she will. “Tell me I’m crazy,” Mulder dares her. “Mulder, you’re crazy,” she smiles. It should be that easy. The lines between them are supposed to be drawn in ink, not sand. But The X-Files is full of creeping shadows and nebulous landscapes; monsters and aliens often come in shapes and outlines. We don’t ever see much (literally—there’s probably a thousand jokes to be made about the show’s seemingly non-existent lighting budget), but Scully always sees…something. A lot and not nearly enough. This is a world tailor-made for the curious scientist. The logical solutions are there, she knows they have to be, but Mulder persists in his harebrained theories, so she finds herself drawn further in. And despite his madhattery, there’s something in the way he navigates this world—it’s not that he’s right, exactly, but he’s insightful and passionate. It’s blinding. It’s illuminating. At times, her course of treatment seems ill-prescribed; it’s a curious thing.

It’s the idea that belief and science are incompatible—that Mulder and Scully are intrinsically at odds—that opens The X-Files. But what drives it, what makes it work for now and forever, is the realization that, in the end, it’s all the same hail-mary prayer. A man’s terminal brain tumor gives him the power of suggestion, he whammies you and your partner into playing an involuntary game of Russian roulette, and suddenly it doesn’t matter what’s quantifiable or lab-tested: you’re still a woman under the gun. You chase an alien bounty-hunter to the ends of the earth for just the slimmest chance to give meaning to your greatest loss, and when his poisonous blood invades your body, his role in the war between man and other fades away; only science can save you now.

Like the final pieces of some long-incomplete puzzle falling into place, Mulder and Scully are together in this mad, mad world. Without hesitation, from the first episode, they are together. Though they pursue the answers differently—though, between them, the truth can be a frustratingly subjective thing—they’re there, side by side, seeking, searching. Occasionally, in darkened corners, they find what they’re looking for: a concrete answer, an incontrovertible truth. But time and time again, The X-Files reminds us that the secrets of life are fundamentally unknowable; answers are not always answers.

In the best episode of the third season—and arguably, the series—“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” Mulder and Scully are once again in pursuit of a killer, this time one who targets self-proclaimed prognosticators. In the course of their investigation, they come across a curmudgeonly but inadvertently helpful man named Clyde Bruckman, played with equal parts emotion and snark by the late Peter Boyle, who, without a doubt, deserved the Emmy for an Outstanding Guest Actor that he won for his performance. Bruckman, though it pains him to admit it, has some psychic abilities of his own, and soon Mulder and Scully’s usual twosome gains a day-tripper. He reveals to the agents his odd and isolating gift for predicting death, which he was not born with, but which he instead began to gradually inherit when he became obsessed with the unlucky circumstances surrounding the death of musicians J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Jr., Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens. A life defined by a day. 

Peter Boyle, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files

Of course, believer that he is, you expect Mulder to ask Bruckman the $64,000 question, and he does. But Bruckman refuses, openly lamenting his powers, much to Mulder’s chagrin. (Later, he casually mentions, “You know, there are worse ways to go, but I can’t think of a more undignified way than autoerotic asphyxiation.” Mulder isn’t too happy. I’m delighted.) He’s not interested in sharing his burden because doing so seems to have no effect on the end result: “How can I see the future if it didn’t already exist?” Then, the psychic killer—who seems to be psychic himself—becomes aware of Bruckman, and the agents squirrel him away in a hotel room for protection. It’s there that Bruckman, seemingly resigned to a future he can’t change, switches tactics. He opens up, but not to the agent who would readily believe him. Instead, it’s Scully with whom Bruckman makes an easy connection, and it’s Scully who explicitly asks: “Alright. So how do I die?” He smiles easily, for the first and last time. “You don’t.”

Clyde Bruckman himself is a warning, a quiet counter-argument to Mulder and Scully’s relentless pursuit of the truth. He views his so-called gift as proof of life’s unusual cruelty because for him knowledge is about fact. He sees both what was and what will be, and the feat of his knowing changes nothing: in the end, everyone still dies. (Except Scully.) He is adrift, rootless because he knows, and because what he knows means that none of it matters. “The killer…he doesn’t feel like he’s in control of his own life,” Bruckman muses. “I mean, like…who is? Am I right?” For him, even certainty is nothing more than a stab in the endless dark. Truth is there, ready and willing, but satisfaction, meaning—those are elusive, and sometimes fatally so.

 Clyde Bruckman is a warning; “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” however, is an admission: that sometimes, futility is not a deterrent; sometimes, it’s a challenge. Writer Darin Morgan—who penned multiple classic episodes like “Humbug,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—perfectly understands Mulder and Scully’s strange relationship with reality: that by virtue of their careers as FBI agents—by virtue of their perspectives cemented in belief and science—Mulder and Scully rarely deal in absolutes. Everything is subject to interpretation. In spite of Bruckman’s warnings, Mulder and Scully ask about their own deaths; unlike the reluctant psychic, theirs is a reality where facts are multifaceted, where their substance is secondary to their utility. “Mr. Bruckman, I believe in your ability, but not your attitude,” Mulder tells his reluctant helper. “I can’t stand by and watch people die without doing everything in my albeit un-supernatural power to interfere with that fate.” Knowledge is not a death sentence, but a tool. Believer and skeptic alike will use what they know to make sense of life’s absurdity: I know my sister disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and I know, because of the beam of light that carried her away, that it was an alien abduction; I know that I have been diagnosed with an incurable cancer, and I know, because it happened following the removal of the foreign object in my neck, that the cancer is the result of alien technology. For them, knowledge changes everything. Even if the facts are written in stone, there is something in the mere act of knowing them. This, as they say, is power. 

Here is what binds belief and science: not the out-there truth, not the hard-won witnessing, but the desire to use what you know to conquer the vastness of reality. Maybe belief is Mulder’s insanity; maybe Scully’s science is the cure. But this—their search for agency in a world that, every day, reminds these agents that there are no rules—this is their folie à deux. To look in the face of vast, malicious conspiracies, to daily witness Earth’s most impossible offerings, to regularly find themselves moved around and manipulated like pawns, to live with all of this in plain sight and still believe that they, by searching for the truth, can know even a fraction of life’s mysteries—I can only describe it as madness. Mulder, smug and defiant, challenges: “When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?” With equal boldness and determination, Scully replies: “What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.” From those first moments, they see in each other the same mania for knowing; the FBI gravely miscalculated.

Mulder and Scully are believer and skeptic, but they are not incompatible; they are not adversaries. They are two simple people, ready, willing, desperate to see.

Scully, you have to believe me. Nobody else on this whole damn planet does or ever will. You’re my one in five billion.

***

I sometimes doubt that Mulder and Scully’s relationship was meant to work as well as it does. Of course, Chris Carter—who wrote the pilot and serves as the show’s creator—always wanted the aspiring FBI golden girl with a rebellious past (if you can call ditching medical school for law enforcement rebellious) and the former FBI golden boy with a rebellious present to act more as equals than opposites, defying the quiet desires of the powers that be. He always wanted them to find something in each other that the world and even the ever-elusive answers could never give. But I don’t think Carter really anticipated the arrestingly electric chemistry between Anderson and Duchovny. The connection was instant, of course, obvious from “the first moment that they were put in front of the camera together,” but it’s hard to argue that Carter, who insisted for years that the relationship between Mulder and Scully was and would always be platonic, recognized—or even wanted—the sheer depth of that connection. He, like his fictional FBI, simply didn’t expect that the unknowable something between his protagonists would be palpable. 

But you watch the pilot, and the 11 seasons and two movies that follow it, and it’s there, between them and between us: Mulder’s office door opens, and immediately, it’s there. Stranded on a rock in the middle of a lake, Scully marvels at Mulder’s Captain Ahab-like qualities, his consumption with personal vengeance and “megalomaniacal cosmology,” and he smiles: “Scully, are you coming on to me?” During a weekend at the office, the agents joyfully lobby clichés back and forth before Mulder steals a bite of Scully’s nonfat Tofrutti rice dreamsicle ice cream. Later, he teaches her a little baseball, hands lingering on her hips, his body crowding hers as they enjoy a rare moment of total peace. And then, of course, there is The (Deleted) Hallway Scene from 1998’s The X-Files: Fight the Future, when Duchovny and Anderson, unscripted, unprompted, decided to give fans a little taste of what they’d always dreamed of, though it didn’t make the final cut. Even when Duchovny and Anderson hated each other, even after Duchovny’s departure in the seventh season, their connection is there, coloring the show, reminding us of what once was. 

Mulder and Scully share a look, cast a thought towards each other; they stand impossibly close (always so impossibly close), and something, easy and fantastic all at once, joins them. It’s tangible, captivating, overwhelming. This is quite literally the relationship that launched a thousand ships. A trust blossoms, as anticipated by Carter’s script: “I was under the distinct impression that you were sent to spy on me,” Mulder quips to his new shadow, but he looks at her with amused curiosity, like he already knows it’s not entirely true. “I’m not part of any agenda. You’ve got to trust me,” Scully tells her assignment—her partner—in a darkened Oregon motel room. “I’m here, just like you: to solve this.” They were always supposed to trust each other. But Mulder and Scully get caught up. Truth is all-consuming. 

***

In “The Jersey Devil,” Scully leaves Mulder to his own devices twice: once, to attend her godson’s birthday party; and again, to go on a date. The first time, Mulder ends up in the drunk tank after spending the night on the street in hopes of catching a glimpse of the creature—or person—threatening the streets of Atlantic City. She picks him up, concerned, bemused, and informs him that, once again, she cannot go creature-hunting. “I have a date.” Mulder, astoundingly and not astoundingly at all, asks if she can cancel. But Scully is firm: “Unlike you, Mulder, I would like to have a life.” Mulder looks at her, straight-faced, hair and clothes disheveled, covered in grime, shoveling food into his mouth like he skipped a meal or three, and protests: “I have a life.” (The X-Files is a comedy when it wants to be.)

Scully goes on her date, made-up, charming. But then she gets a page from none other than Mulder, who shares with her “an amazing thought.” They go to find his Jersey Devil (but they don’t, not really), and at the episode’s end, Scully implores a disappointed but focused Mulder to take the rest of the day for himself, to relax and have a beer. He refuses, determined to take the scraps of this mystery and craft the closest thing to an answer that he can get, and he leaves for an appointment at the Smithsonian. At the same time, Scully takes a call from her date, who asks her out again—before she can answer, we cut to Mulder. But then, Scully quietly appears again at his elbow, date rejected, ready to join her partner. “Don’t you have a life, Scully?” 

The X-Files dispenses with the notion that Mulder and Scully can live alternate lives as Fox and Dana very early on. Part of it is the nature of their work—chasing down the paranormal and unearthing global conspiracies does not allow for much free time. But the other part of it is the natural conclusion of finding a kindred spirit, a fellow sufferer: at the same time that their involvement in the X-Files blurs the edges of their world and expands it unfathomably, Mulder and Scully’s lives—pitted against the FBI, the universe—narrow dramatically, so that all they are left with is each other. Here are two lonely people, fueled by the strength of their manic beliefs, driven by their pursuit of some ultimate truth and misunderstood for it. Here they are, thrust together, designed to tear each other apart; instead, they endure the cruel world side by side. They find solace in each other.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files

This is something I love about The X-Files: in choosing not to bog the show down in Mulder and Scully’s personal lives, in being honest about their work-aholism, it evens the stakes of what was once Mulder’s very personal quest. It entangles them. It makes them equals. And it makes the little intimacies between them all the more precious: they have each other’s keys, they’ve memorized their partner’s parents’ phone numbers, they know what to buy each other for lunch. The trust between them is unmatched; it’s extraordinary. One in five billion.

However, we must also acknowledge the darker side of Mulder and Scully’s mutual devotion; they find solace in each other because, after a certain point, there is no one else. Both agents have their families—their tethers to the world outside of alien cabals and government collusion—systematically taken away from them, until all they have is each other. (I could, and I will, write a completely separate essay on how Chris Carter—who as the show’s creator is the primary mastermind behind The X-Files’ so-called myth-arc episodes dealing in alien conspiracy—tortured Scully and chipped away at her life for the sake of Mulder and his beliefs.) They cling to each other for survival and because they survive. Truth is all-consuming. It scorches earth. 

In the face of all that works against them, Mulder and Scully rely on each other. They become each other’s lives. And although there is legitimate critique to be made about the empty feminism of Scully’s character, although it’s easy to say that Scully is constantly made to bend to the contours of Mulder’s personal quest, this argument obscures one of The X-Files’ central tenets: that without Scully’s mediating influence, Mulder, for lack of a better word, is kind of a weirdo. We are reminded of this in “Small Potatoes” and parts I and II of “Dreamland,” three episodes in which the Mulder we see is not the Mulder we know; the lookalikes, replacements, whatever you want to call them, take over the agent’s life and find that, despite his all-American good looks and G-man job, Mulder unconvention extends into every corner of his life. He’s addicted to porn, the only people who contact him outside of work and family call from 1-900 numbers, he seems to subsist on a steady diet of sunflower seeds and nothing else; until he switches lives with Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean) in season six, he doesn’t even have a bed. “Don’t you ever just want to stop?” Scully asks as they pursue yet another case. “Get out of the damn car…settle down and live something approaching a normal life?”

But Scully is what makes him feel normal. This is why, in “War of the Coprophages,” alone for the weekend, he muses to Scully about our role in the universe, then uses her as a sounding board when he stumbles upon a population of malicious cockroaches. In “Chinga,” he waits impatiently by his phone as a vacationing Scully encounters an X-File of her own, trying all manner of things to entertain himself between her calls. In an interview I think about frequently, David Duchovny describes Mulder and Scully’s relationship:

It’s like the one friend, I guess, that he has in the world. I mean, I heard a phrase once, somebody was talking about their wife. This was a person who was very inept socially—not the wife, but the man. There were many things said about him that weren’t kind, and he said, “My wife, who is lovely and social, and everything like that, is my human credential.” It makes him a human being because people think, “Well, if she can stand him, he must have some humanity within him.” Sometimes I think about Scully as Mulder’s human credential. It’s the only thing that makes him not crazy, in many ways.

The world of The X-Files is rife with…well, pretty much anything you can think of: monsters, aliens, ghosts, malevolent governments. There are flukemen and vampires and one really strange-looking fan of Cher. But at the core of the show are a man and a woman. A believer and a skeptic. Opposites; complements. Two sides of the same coin.

But you saved me. As difficult and as frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your goddamned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over. You kept me honest. You made me a whole person. I owe you everything. Scully, and you owe me nothing. I don’t know if I wanna do this alone. I don’t even know if I can.

***

Trust no one.

The FBI brings them together to tear him apart. It should have been easy. But by the time that reformed man-in-black and guardian angel informant Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) utters his dying words, it’s already too late. They trust each other. It was an accident.