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The Best Ships Never Come In: X-Files, "The Field Where I Died"

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So, there are all these things about Season 3 I keep meaning to write up; but first, since I just finished “The Field Where I Died,” let me address a question which has been much on my mind of late: 

Do I, in fact, ship Mulder and Scully?

It’s been surprisingly hard to answer. There is no question in my mind, and probably not in yours, that the relationship between Mulder and Scully is the one thing above all others that makes this show go. Even episodes that might seem, objectively speaking, crappy can be made watchable if the writers do a good job using them to develop that relationship. I mean, OK, nothing could make “Teso dos Bichos” better. But take, for instance, “Quagmire,” a slow episode with a pedestrian plot and a pretty dopey premise. It worms its way into your heart anyway because of that scene with the two of them stuck out on the rocks in (they believe) the middle of a lake haunted by a prehistoric monster. It’s just so touching and yet so funny—Mulder posing thought problems to Scully about when she would be willing to resort to cannibalism, Scully taking them seriously, Scully developing her theory about Mulder as Ahab—it’s sort of like those conversations you used to have with your friends at 3 am in the dorm, only they’re in mortal peril. Well, they think they are, anyway. Same goes for the season 2 episode “Ded Kalm,” which plotwise is nothing to write home about, and also slow, but is so worth it for the depiction of Scully and Mulder literally growing old together before our very eyes. The scene where Scully goes tearing through the ship looking for ANY kind of liquid she can find to help Mulder hang on just a little longer will top the list, when I finally get around to making it, of Badass Things About Scully That Don’t Involve Firing A Gun. And “Unruhe,” an episode so gratuitously horrible that I couldn’t even watch it the first time around, is redeemed ONLY by the bit at the end when Mulder finds the trailer, and he hears Scully in there, and he just loses his shit trying to get in there and save her. (Oh. As long as we’re talking about Badass Scully: how about being able to dredge up the German you learned back in college when faced with an ice-pick-wielding maniac bent on lobotomizing you? THAT is badass.) 

So obviously I invested in the relationship. The question is: what kind of relationship do I think it is? What kind of relationship do I want it to be?

Obviously, it is love. Each of them means more to the other than any other person ever will. It isn’t just that they trust each other with their lives day in day out, or that they have been forced into dramatic and intimate situations which bring to the surface emotions which most of us keep buried most of the time, or that they’re both hot (I take your word for it as far as Mulder is concerned). They’re as bonded as they are because they inhabit together a secret world which is fully known only to them. They’re the only people who really believe in the reality that has been revealed to them through their work on the X-Files—not just the conspiracies, but the other paranormal stuff. They depend on each other to confirm the existence of a reality which nobody else recognizes, but which they themselves cannot deny, though they may still differ about exactly how to explain it.

The question is, what kind of love?

This is where “The Field Where I Died” comes in. This is another episode with a fairly uninspired plot (it’s more or less copied from real-life cult narratives, mostly the Jonestown massacre and the Waco debacle) which is elevated to classic status because of what it does with the Mulder/Scully relationship. Despite the unbearably awful and often totally incomprehensible word salad of a voice-over with which it begins, which does not augur well for the episode’s treatment of a premise which can get pretty cheesy in the wrong hands, “The Field Where I Died” does a surprisingly good job of complicating the Mulder/Scully relationship and revealing some of the complexity of the emotions driving it. Also, may I say, since I have been critical of Duchovny’s acting in the early seasons, that this episode really shows how much he’s grown as an actor. He handles the tour de force in the hypnosis session well, of course; but even better and more important, to my mind, is that moment in the car where he blows up at Scully for refusing to believe in his past life experience. It shows you that as close as they are, there are still these dangerous areas that neither of them ever wants to visit—such as the question of what Scully really believes in her heart about the stuff they investigate. It’s important for the show, of course, that she uphold the skeptic position; but Mulder doesn’t have meta privileges, and at this moment you finally see how very much it bothers him that she is so reluctant to believe in what he’s experienced. 

In “War of the Coprophages” and “Syzygzy,” Mulder’s erotic interest in another woman is played for comedy in about the most infuriating way possible. But when Mulder starts to believe that he was Melissa’s lover in a past life, “The Field Where I Died” doesn’t insult Scully by turning her into a jealous ex-girlfriend. Scully is, of course, skeptical about the whole thing—but by God she’s got reasons to be, and Mulder’s not the only one she’s concerned about. Add another badass moment to the list: she risks Mulder’s wrath, and the wrath of the viewers, by calling Mulder out for putting his obsessions ahead of everyone else’s welfare. That’s because those obsessions are leading him to do some stupid and really rather unethical things which might jeopardize not only the success of the FBI operation but Melissa herself, who is obviously miserable, unstable, and vulnerable. 

But when Mulder gets himself hypnotized, Scully doesn’t scoff at it. Despite the fact that what he says under hypnosis is in many ways much less credible than what Melissa says, Scully can see how deeply held his belief in it is, and she is paying very close attention. She probably initially reads it, as indeed I still read it, as having more to do with his dreams and nightmares than with any actual life experience. Through both past lives Mulder relives his two major abduction traumas, losing both Samantha (as a son) and Scully (as a father) in the Holocaust and then losing Scully (as his sergeant) again on the Civil War battlefield. All the same, when Mulder starts giving out specific information, she starts taking notes—because she’s learned not to discount the possibility that his crazy theories might actually be true.

In the two past lives, Melissa is always his lover/spouse; Scully is always someone very close to him and, interestingly, in a position of authority over him. The fact that she turns up in the first narrative as his father shuts down all possibilities for romance unless you are a SERIOUS Freudian. But in the second one—which, chronologically, is first—she and Mulder, as two soldiers fighting side by side, are in EXACTLY the kind of relationship that gets slashed.

And I find that actually, this is how I prefer to think of them: not as a romantic couple, but as fellow-soldiers relying on each other to get through a war. It captures the mutuality of it—the fact that, at least before the show starts going south in later seasons, Mulder and Scully are about equal in terms of who saves whose life and so on—and it also keeps them in that strange but exciting transitional place between friendship and romance. 

So although it always seemed to me that a romance between Mulder and Scully would eventually become inevitable, I was in no hurry to see that happen. I did not trust Chris Carter to handle a romance properly, for one thing; but for another, I was attracted to them as friends-about-to-be-lovers more than I would have been attracted to them as a couple. M/F romance is ubiquitous; M/F friendship is rare. Friendship is important in its own right—and, I would warn the youngsters amongst us, it gets harder and harder to form real friendships as you get older, so really cultivate the close friends you have now. But more than that, I guess, the conventions of heterosexual romance are so…kind of…anathema to me that I would really rather have them leave it latent and let us appreciate the friendship without pulling our hair out over what a crap job they’re all doing writing the romance. Because, TV being TV, once a passionate friendship becomes a romance it is colonized by a host of cliches which gradually ruin the unique little details and nuances that drew you to the relationship in the first place. Anyway, it’s the anticipation that’s exciting, really—as far as canon goes. In fanfic, of course, you can do whatever you want, and it’s more likely that someone will find a way of making the romance as compelling as the friendship was.

So I guess the story is that I do ship Mulder and Scully—but I never really wanted the ship to come in. And “The Field Where I Died” is a pretty good demonstration of why. Mulder asks Scully after his hypnosis experience whether, had they known that they had all this past history together, they would have approached each other differently. Scully says, “I wouldn’t change a day.” She’s concerned about how emotionally invested Mulder is in Melissa; but not because it’s going to have any kind of corrosive effect on their bond. Because no matter how many lives they’ve been through together, nothing is ever going to tear them apart. Well, nothing except alien abduction.