Revisiting The X-Files: Is it still good? (YES)

I loved The X-Files as a kid, even if I was a bit late to the party (the first season aired in 1993 when I was five years old). I remember the feeling it gave me: that the world was much weirder and more mysterious than I imagined. It made me into one of the kids in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, discovering a magical world in the back of a wardrobe — maybe, I thought, if I was just willing to look, life would show itself to be something beyond rational thought.

Some twenty-five years later I now have a child of my own, and, recently, while staying up late with our infant daughter so my wife can sleep part of the night, I started The X-Files again. The show remains surprisingly familiar. I’m now watching with the eyes of an adult, from a relatively progressive cultural standpoint (no ’90s tv show ages perfectly well) — nonetheless, the show still captures something wonderful, despite feeling rudimentary (it is, after all, the prototype of much procedural television that followed).

I am still working through the first season (there are plenty of interruptions with a newborn), but already one episode stands out as a stone-cold masterpiece — the first Scully-centric episode of the show, called “Beyond The Sea” (season 1, episode 13), which revolves in part around Scully’s lingering desire to know if her father was proud of her (since she decided to abandon the medical career her father wanted for her to become an FBI agent) after his untimely death of a heart attack at the beginning of the episode.

Brad Dourif as Lee Boggs

The plot regarding Scully’s father is sort of the framing story, the main event having to do with Mulder and Scully trying to recover two kidnapped students before their kidnapper murders them, enlisting the help of an incarcerated mass murderer (named Lee Boggs) who claims to be able to psychically access information about the case from prison. The episode stands out because Mulder and Scully’s typical roles are switched: Mulder is the skeptical one (because he thinks that Boggs is manipulating them based on his prior history with Boggs), while Scully, internally divided, wrestles with believing what her experiences tell her (since they contradict her scientific identity).

As a new dad perhaps I was primed to love this episode, but I was struck by how emotional I got watching it: Scully’s dilemma — whether or not to believe Boggs is really psychic — is heightened by her emotional unwillingness to cope with the death of her father. Mulder is surprised to see Scully back at work so soon after the death of her father; the subtext is that Scully wants to pretend like her father’s death doesn’t matter to her. It would be too hard to admit how important his approval was to her now that he is “beyond the sea” — inaccessible to the living (except, perhaps, through the potentially manipulative voice of Boggs). What touched me most is the episode’s resolution: Boggs is about to be executed; he says that he’ll deliver Scully’s father’s message to her in his final moment, if, that is, Scully shows up to watch him die (if she is, as he calls it, his “witness”).

Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully

I fell into the episode’s trap: I wanted her to show up, to hear what her father was trying to tell her through Boggs. But she doesn’t go. When Mulder asks her why she echoes a line from earlier in the episode spoken by her grieving mother (when Scully asks her if her father was at all proud of her): “He was my father.” This was striking: the episode provides no definitive “yes” or “no” to Scully’s question. She never hears the words she yearns for — “Of course I’m proud of you, sweetie.”

But this anticlimax is, in my view, a profound triumph: instead of seeking verification from Boggs, she lets the memory of her relationship with her father speak to his love and pride for her. She doesn’t, in the end, submit to the skeptical demand to know beyond a shadow of a doubt (as if this was possible) that her father loved her. This is more startling than any paranormal event in the episode: she lets her relationship with her father be true to real life, where we never really know if someone loves us “for real” or “finally” or “once and for all”.

The nature of relationships is ambiguous. In “Beyond The Sea”, Scully lets love be imperfect, and at that moment emerges as a fully formed, deeply empathetic character. As a father, I would hope to follow in her shoes — to muster the trust, the vulnerability, to not demand from those I love that they prove their love to me. And to hope that my daughter can do the same.

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Ross J. Edwards

Ross J. Edwards

Brooklyn-based musician, administrator, seeker; pursuing a master's in philosophy at New School in NY.