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The Truth Is In Me: Scully's Cancer Arc (X-FIles, Season 4)

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I’ve already posted about my own response, as a cancer survivor, to the three-episode series in which Scully’s cancer is introduced. Now that I’ve rewatched all the way through “Redux,” the Season 5 two-part opener, I have some more to say about what Scully’s cancer arc does to The X-Files. Back in the day, somewhere around Season 7, I conducted an unscientific online poll attempting to find some consensus about how, why, and when The X-Files went wrong. Most of the responses suggested that the rot set in sometime in season 5 or season 6. But on rewatch I think that, although the show still has a lot of good left in it as it rounds the turn into Season 5, the cancer arc of Season 4 actually introduces most of what will eventually kill the show.

First, there’s the question of what it does to Scully’s character and the dynamics of her relationship with Mulder. The stroke of genius that made this show fascinating—to me, anyway—was Chris Carter’s decision to violate gender typing in his initial conception of Mulder and Scully. Having decided he wanted one believer and one skeptic, he then thought it would be fun to make the believer a man and the skeptic a woman. Scully’s ‘masculine’ detachment—her dispassionate appraisal of the available evidence, her preference for scientifically explicable solutions, her willingness to challenge the male hero’s most deeply held beliefs—is what made her one of the best female characters on TV in the early 1990s, while Mulder’s traditionally feminized traits (irrationality, huge and tragically unmet emotional needs, and emotional volatility) made him 1000X more interesting to watch than most male heroes. As they spend more time working together, each comes to appreciate the other’s point of view more; but Scully’s refusal to entirely share Mulder’s worldview remains an important part of their dynamic and generates much of the show’s humor as well as a lot of its pathos. You see this in Season 4 even as late as “Paper Hearts,” in which Mulder is led to believe that his sister was murdered by a serial killer that he helped put in prison. She believes—rightly, I think, though the episode never resolves this question—that the killer is only manipulating Mulder’s desperate need for answers. But at some point, as she’s going on about why this guy is a liar, Mulder turns on her and says, “What do you think happened to my sister? Do you believe that she was abducted by aliens? Have you ever believed that?” And she doesn’t answer—because they both know the answer is “no.” Despite their bond, she’s still maintaining her independence and her autonomy, and it makes the relationship mutual instead of the more typical hero/sidekick thing.

Then Scully gets cancer. And in “Memento Mori,” Scully explains to Mulder that she’s leaving the investigation to get treatment for her cancer by saying something very important and very ominous: “I think we both know that the truth is in me.”

In the 1990s I didn’t know enough to appreciate that statement. Now, it sets off all kinds of alarm bells. Because now I realize that what’s happening here is something that has happened to so many female characters written by so many men in so many genres for so many centuries. She’s started to embody the hero’s fantasy.

It probably doesn’t help that I saw Black Swan at around the time I was rewatching this. Black Swan is a particularly nightmarish and rather hallucinogenically concrete working-out of this trope: Nina is put under so much pressure to incarnate the vision that her male artistic director has in his head that her existing identity disintegrates and she becomes—in her own mind, literally—that imaginary swan-woman that he wants so badly to see. Doing this first drives her mad and then kills her; and that’s because the thing he wants her to become is something that does not and actually cannot exist. He wants her to be two mutually opposing things—the pure swan-virgin and the seductive swan-whore—at the same time; and this is no more possible than it is for a woman to actually turn into a swan. And yet what do we see, all around us, not only in culture high and low but in real life, but women reshaping themselves so that they may more closely approximate the impossible desires of the men around them. 

Mulder’s desires are, thank God, not that traditional and not that crude. But that doesn’t make things any easier on Scully. What he desires is the truth. What he wants more than anything is incontrovertible proof of irrefutable answers to the questions that have been driving him mad since he was twelve. And the cancer arc turns Scully into what Mulder’s wanted from the day we first met him: living proof that alien abductions do happen, that tests are in fact being done, that there is a conspiracy, and that extraterrestrial life exists. Her cancer, which nearly everyone accepts as the outcome of her season 2 abduction, is the proof. It’s the medical mystery which, once solved, will give Mulder all his other answers. 

So as of “Memento Mori,” the truth is not ‘out there’, but inside the ever-mysterious female body. Scully becomes the path to the truth. And that’s the end of her autonomy. Her body has been invaded and colonized by Mulder’s storyline and from now on she’ll never have the same detachment. She’ll never be truly independent of it. And Season 4 starts to subordinate her character to his in a way that the earlier seasons didn’t. Scully tries to assert her independence from Mulder and his craziness in “Never Again;” the results are pretty catastrophic. In “Elegy,” an episode whose last five minutes just flat-out infuriated me, we see Mulder acting as if the truth Scully embodies is more important to him than Scully herself.

Early on in the investigation, Scully sees an apparition of one of the future murder victims; it is later established that these apparitions are visible only to people who are dying. Scully doesn’t tell Mulder about her own vision until the very end of the episode. Mulder’s immediate response is not concern but anger: “Why didn’t you tell me?” She asks him, with long-overdue anger, whether he wants her to believe—or to say she believes, even if she doesn’t. He denies that, but in fact that’s what he’s always wanted from her: confirmation from someone he trusts that he’s not insane and that these things he experiences are real. “Don’t lie to me,” he says, “because if you do you’re working against me.” He adds “and you’re working against yourself;” but it sounds like an afterthought, and to the writer, it probably was. It matters more, at that moment, that Scully hasn’t revealed the truth to Mulder than that her vision suggests that she is at death’s door.

Then we move to “Demons,” where Mulder’s search for the truth drives him to do things so outrageously stupid and dangerous that the cancer-riddled and dying Scully has to forget about her own problems in order to save Mulder from himself—until he winds up pulling a gun on her and she has to talk him out of shooting her. Now, this is a situation that both of them have been in many times before. In “Anasazi” Scully has to shoot Mulder to stop him from shooting Krychek; but that’s because Krychek has been putting homicidal juice in Mulder’s water supply and he’s not himself. In “Pusher” Mulder just barely avoids shooting Scully; but that’s because the mind-controlling villain is pushing him into doing it. In “Wetwired,” Scully’s review of the subliminally-doctored rage-inducing videotapes gives her paranoid delusions about Mulder betraying her, which explains why, when he shows up at her house, she tries to shoot him. But this is the first time that Mulder’s threat to shoot Scully is partially volitional. He’s still under the influence of the ketamine; but he’s the one who decided, knowing full well what the risks were, to go back to that quack psychiatrist for another “treatment.” He’s in this state because he wanted to be in it because recovering those memories is more important to him than being sane—or, though the episode is not churlish enough to emphasize this, remaining emotionally stable enough to be able to support his partner, who as he knows is dying of cancer. Then, in “Gethsemane,” Scully pushes herself to the point of collapse trying to buy Mulder time to investigate the claims Krichgau has made about what’s really been going on with all these supposed alien sightings. It’s not until he actually sees her hooked up to all the tubes in “Redux” that Mulder appears to appreciate the gravity of the situation. In “Redux” Scully’s cancer finally becomes priority one for Mulder—but again, that’s partly because the suggestion that Scully was given this cancer specifically in order to make Mulder believe in the ‘hoax’ makes her cancer even more all about him. 

So, the cancer arc is doing some pretty bad things to Scully’s character; but it’s also doing kind of a number on Mulder, who is at his least sympathetic in “Elegy” and “Demons.” But the most important thing is what it changes about their relationship. Scully will only become more and more consumed by Mulder’s quest, continuing to carry it on even after he rejects his original beliefs—and even after he is abducted. Her character becomes part of his story, instead of living out her own.

But there are other bad signs here. The way the cancer arc replicates features of the season 2 abduction arc, for instance, confirms Carter’s tendency to repeat himself. It’s already happening in the single episodes—“Wetwired” is basically a retread of “Blood”—and now it’s happening in the mythology. And yet, at the same time, Carter also tries to use the cancer arc to reboot the show’s entire mythology, introducing Krichgau to tell us that everything we think we’ve seen is a lie. It’s his first sign that Carter is not so much developing the show mythology as desperately trying to avoid developing it—after all, if Mulder and Scully do ever expose this conspiracy, that’s the end of the show. It doesn’t work very well. Neither will his other attempts at introducing new conspiracies and new characters and new everything without trying to make them consistent with what we already know. In the end I gave up trying to make sense of it all…because it was clear that it was never going to.

Ah well. I may linger over seasons 3 and 4 for a while before moving on. There were good times to be had in 5 and 6…but overall, it’s not going to get better from here.