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The X-Files – Never Again (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Not everything is about you, Mulder. This is my life.

Yes but it’s m–

– Glen Morgan and James Wong take their bow; David Chase eat your heart out

...

Context is everything.

Never Again is a very different episode, depending on how you approach it. Given that Never Again was broadcast right between Leonard Betts and Memento Mori, the episode feels like an organic exploration of Scully’s flirtation with her mortality. Leonard Betts had diagnosed Scully with cancer, suggesting that she had finally succumbed to the disease that affected many of her fellow abductees. Although the word “cancer” is never mentioned in Never Again, it looms large over Scully’s decisions in the episode.

“Blinked or winked?”

Or, at least, it seems to loom large. The reason that the word “cancer” is never mentioned in Never Again has little to do with subtlety or nuance. Instead, production realities intrude. Never Again was actually produced before Leonard Betts, and had originally been considered to air after the Superbowl. The writing staff had not decided to give Scully cancer at the time that Glen Morgan and James Wong were furiously working away on their last-ever episode of The X-Files. This was not produced as a story about Scully facing cancer, but it aired as one.

In many respects, this says a lot about The X-Files as a show, at this point in time. It invites the viewer to speculate how much continuity is intentional or designed, and how much seems to evolve by happy coincidence. Without changing a line of dialogue, or doing any reshoots, the simple act of pushing Never Again back a week changed the story entirely. Perhaps Darin Morgan was wrong when he suggested that the edit was the final re-write. Perhaps the broadcast schedule is the real last re-write.

Kiss me deadly...

Kiss me deadly…

Of course, Never Again was a notoriously troubled and rocky production for all involved. It was written at a point where Glen Morgan and James Wong had one foot out the door. It was originally written as a completely different story, and then radically re-written for a celebrity guest director Quentin Tarantino. It was hastily re-written once again when Tarantino was forced to drop out. Worried about the expectations of a the Superbowl slot, Jodie Foster was recruited as a special guest star. Then the episode was moved at the last minute.

There is a book to be written about all the difficulties and challenges facing Never Again as it stumbled into production and then unleashed itself upon the world. It is a hot mess of an episode, but that is a large part of the appeal. While Leonard Betts told a fairly standard X-Files story with incredible skill and technique, Never Again is a completely off-the-wall X-Files episode that just about holds itself together by sheer gonzo force of will. It is crazy, absurd and insane; but it is also just a little ingenious.

Flame on...

Flame on…

The original pitch for Never Again had been quite different. Morgan and Wong had been recruited after the cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond to write four episodes of The X-Files and three episodes of Millennium. It seems like the other three episodes of The X-Files developed roughly as Morgan and Wong would have liked. Sure, there were some pretty significant disagreements and compromises, but it seemed like the finished episodes resembled the original ideas.

In contrast, the episode that became Never Again began its life as “a sort of Lincoln’s ghost in the White House type of thing”, according to Morgan. Reminiscing nostalgically about interesting episodes of The X-Files that never made it into production, producer and writer Frank Spotnitz described the episode as a story about “a ghost in Lincoln’s bedroom.” Of course, it is worth noting that the ghost of Lincoln is a phenomenon that has actually been discussed and recorded a great deal – it is said that Lincoln haunts the White House. More than metaphorically, of course.

“Hey! Free Millennium advertisement!”

Morgan and Wong divided up their workload across this half-season. Morgan focused on The X-Files episodes, while Wong worked on Millennium. Morgan was the driving force behind Never Again, and the original idea was close to his heart:

“I had done a lot of research and I had always wanted to write a feature about Lincoln’s ghost,” Morgan said, “But I felt they didn’t want my heart and soul anymore, so I wouldn’t give this one to them. I thought it was time for a Scully episode and also time to do something for Rodney Rowland. ”

This wasn’t the first time that Morgan and Wong had adapted a feature film idea for the series. The second season premiere, Little Green Men had been based on a movie the two had wanted to write. Morgan’s reluctance to push for his “Lincoln’s ghost” episode perhaps suggests that he knew his time with the show was coming to an end.

Smoking...

Smoking…

The “Lincoln’s ghost” idea fell to the wayside around the same time that Quentin Tarantino became involved. Tarantino was one of the biggest film directors of the nineties. The director had made a name for himself with hits like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. In early 1995, the director stepped behind the camera to direct Motherhood, the penultimate episode of the first season of E.R. Apparently Tarantino had contacted E.R. about getting some tapes of episodes he missed, and mentioned he might like to direct for them. It all went from there.

Tarantino was something of a pop culture sensation in the mid-nineties. Although Pulp Fiction failed to claim the Best Picture or Best Director statuettes at the Academy Awards, Tarantino did establish himself as a creator to watch. He did not rush his feature film projects into production, and in fact seemed to luxuriate in the freedom and profile his success had afforded him. He seemed to pop up everywhere – from a guest spot in an All-American Girl episode called Pulp Sitcom to a major role in the video game Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

The King is dead.
Long live the King.

It was actually David Duchovny who convinced Tarantino to direct an episode of The X-Files, although it was Tarantino himself who reached out to the show:

“David Duchovny is responsible for getting Tarantino interested,” Morgan stated. “David was at the Emmys the year before, and he tapped Tarantino and said, ‘When are you going to direct one of our episodes?’ I think David auditioned for Reservoir Dogs and Tarantino said to him, ‘You know what? I really like what you do, I just don’t want you to do it in my movie.’ So I think they’d known each other, and David said, ‘Come do one.’ And Tarantino’s the one that called Chris.”

There is a sense that The X-Files would have been perfectly in keeping with Tarantino’s aesthetic. After all, the writers share the same fascination with quirky pop culture. Tarantino seems like he would have adored the guest casting in the third season – actors like Peter Boyle, Ken Foree, J.T. Walsh, Michael Berryman.

Her name on a desk...

Her name on a desk…

However, despite his enthusiasm, Tarantino was soon forced to drop out by forces outside of his control. Tarantino was not a member of the Directors Guild of America. As such, he would need a waiver from the union to direct an episode of a television show:

Quentin Tarantino is in line to direct an episode of Fox’s The X-Files that would air following the Super Bowl broadcast in January, however, his lack of Directors Guild of America membership could prevent him from doing so. Sources say the Pulp Fiction director is currently negotiating with the DGA for a waiver allowing him to direct the X-Files episode, and both sides hope to resolve the matter. However, because the DGA granted Tarantino a similar waiver last year to direct an episode of NBC’s E.R. — and assumed that he would join the guild soon after — the DGA might be less permissive this time. Tarantino declined comment, but a spokeswoman said Thursday that he does intend to join the DGA at some point and is “not making a political statement” by delaying membership. A DGA spokesman declined to comment on the waiver, but said the guild looks forward to Tarantino joining its ranks.

The waiver never came through, and so Tarantino was never able to direct Never Again. However, Tarantino did eventually make his peace with the Directors Guild. He eventually joined in 2012. However, even before that, he was able to direct the fifth-season finalé of CSI for CBS television.

Phone home...

Phone home…

It is worth noting that Tarantino is not the only director to take issue with the policies of the Directors Guild. George Lucas famously departed the Guild after a dispute concerning the credits for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, describing their policies as “extortion” in a 1983 interview with Aljean Harmetz:

I quit the Directors Guild because the union lawyers were locked in a traditional combat with the studio lawyers. The union doesn’t care about its members. It cares about making fancy rules that sound good on paper and are totally impractical. They said Lucasfilm was a personal credit, not a corporate credit. My name is not George Lucasfilm any more than William Fox’s name was Twentieth Century-Fox. On that technicality they sued me for $250,000. You can pollute half the Great Lakes and not get fined that much. When the DGC threatened to fine Kershner $25,000, we paid his fine. I consider it extortion.

The salary benchmarks imposed by the Directors Guild can often seem daunting to low-budget or independent films. Their refusal to allow multiple directors to “share” credit (outside of recognised teams like the Coen brothers) prompted Robert Rodriguez to quit when they threatened to shut down production on Sin City.

Happy families...

Happy families…

So Never Again was suddenly left without a special guest director. Morgan and Wong revised the script again, toning down on the Tarantino-esque touches, although a few remain – most notably early in the episode, when Mulder and Scully discuss “the adventures of Moose and Squirrel.” However, despite these revisions, Never Again retains a decidedly pulpy aesthetic – as if Tarantino haunts the episode like Lincoln haunts the White House. There is something endearingly trashy and hyper-real about the episode, even by the standards of The X-Files.

Given that he is the most cinematic director to work on The X-Files, Rob Bowman was the logical choice to fill in for Tarantino on Never Again. He gives the episode a very cinematic feel. There are a number of memorable and effective tracking shots here that help create a sense of artistry – the stately pull back from the door as Ed murders Kaye Schilling, or the slow pan around the furnace room as Ed disposes of the body. The seedy bar and the tattoo parlour are captured well, atmospherically lit and beautifully shot.

In memorium...

In memoriam…

Bowman works very well with Mark Snow. A number of the sequences in Never Again come together quite beautifully as both Bowman and Snow embrace the pulpier aspects of the material. Snow goes for broke when providing the soundtrack to the disposal of the body, a synthesiser roaring like the furnace as Ed lugs the body through the building inside a cardboard box. Similarly, the sequence where Scully gets her tattoo is incredibly charged, shot and edited (and scored) like a sex scene – it feels much more erotic than the actual make-out scene.

Never Again is also notable as the last script for The X-Files to be written by Glen Morgan and James Wong. Along with Howard Gordon and Chris Carter, the duo were among the longest-serving members of the creative team. Morgan and Wong had scripted Squeeze, the first episode of The X-Files not to be written by Chris Carter, and the episode that really defined the “monster-of-the-week” format. It was such an effective template that it was still in use almost four years later for episodes like Teliko or Leonard Betts.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Morgan and Wong had departed The X-Files towards the end of the second season to work on their own show for Fox. Space: Above and Beyond had been produced concurrently with the third season of The X-Files, but had been cancelled at the end of its first year. Morgan and Wong were promptly assigned back to The X-Files and Millennium, to help Chris Carter manage some of the strain being felt on both shows. Fox had sweetened the deal by agreeing to produce Morgan and Wong’s latest pilot – The Notorious Seven.

However, it felt like Morgan and Wong could not go home again. The four episodes they wrote for the fourth season were incredibly controversial. Home was perhaps the most successful of the four scripts, even though it generated considerable headaches for Fox. In contrast, there were more fundamental problems during the production of the later fourth season episodes. The final edit of The Field Where I Died ran too long, and so had to be cut for time – leaving the finished episode a little incomplete.

Green for go...

Green for go…

Still, it was Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man that pushed Morgan and Wong into a confrontation with Chris Carter. Morgan and Wong had planned to close Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man with the murder of Frohike at the hands of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Carter had overruled them. The situation came to something of a head, to the point where footage actually went missing, preventing Morgan and Wong from editing the episode in the way that they would have liked. It seemed like the duo were brushing up against the limitations of their roles on The X-Files.

Morgan and Wong had just spent a year running their own television show – making big and gutsy decisions about the direction of their vision. Space: Above and Beyond feels very much like a Morgan and Wong production, making a number of incredibly daring creative decisions towards the end of its run. After all, Morgan and Wong had written Who Monitors the Birds?, a mostly-silent episode of television. When it became clear the show was not coming back, they ruthlessly massacred the cast in … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best.

A delicate flower...

A delicate flower…

Carter had always allowed his writers a great deal of freedom in defining and colouring the show. For example, the idea to give Scully cancer at the end of Leonard Betts came from John Shiban and/or Frank Spotnitz; Carter just agreed to it. Here, however, Morgan and Wong seemed to find themselves at odds with Carter’s vision. For example, the sex scene between Ed and Scully became a bone of contention during production:

Morgan and Wong argued to keep the sex scene in, but to no avail. “I said, ‘Why not film it? Gillian wants to do it. You tell her that if it goes overboard, we’ll cut to the door closing. You’ll have complied with something that she asked for, and who knows, maybe you’ll get something really wild.’ They said, ‘No way, it’s not even in the script.’” Morgan had the unhappy task of telling an understandably upset Anderson that the scene she specifically requested had been cut. As to why it was cut, Morgan said that Carter and the other writers felt that every other woman on television was jumping into bed, and they had worked very hard to differentiate Scully from other female television characters. Morgan’s response: “She’s different, but the way she is now, she’s not human.”

Something of the scene does remain, in that it ends with Scully embraced roughly by Ed, and at that point the camera slowly backs out the door, which shuts itself, as if by magic. Whether Scully and Ed actually have sex is ambiguous; they wake up in different rooms, both dressed. “I think that’s cowardly,” Morgan lamented. “If I knew I was going to stay and it was still my show, I would have put up a fight, but I was on the way out.”

To be fair, Scully’s sexuality has haunted The X-Files from quite early in the show’s run. The show seems to have something of a double-standard when it comes to the two lead characters. While Mulder is allowed any number of hot and heavy scenes with female guest stars (in episodes like 3 or Syzygy), Scully remains pretty much chaste for the entirety of the nine-season run.

Burn, baby, burn!

Burn, baby, burn!

Mulder has a number of pseudo-love-interests-of-varying-severity over the course of the series. The writers consciously play up the cheeky homoerotic tension with Krycek, but there are more serious attempts at suggesting a long-term romance when the show introduces the character of Diane Fowley at the end of the fifth season. In contrast, Never Again is the second and last time Scully goes on a date over the course of the series – following an awkward sequence in The Jersey Devil.

Scully does get a number of in-episode flirtations in stories like Bad Blood or Milagro, but there is a very different tone to the way that the show treats Scully’s potential romantic interludes as compared to Mulder. Mulder seems more likely to hook up with a victim or a random guest star. In contrast, Scully seems more likely to find herself romantically or sexually linked to the monster itself – consider Gender Bender or Milagro or Never Again or Lazarus or Small Potatoes or Dreamland. There is something a little uncomfortable about that recurring thread.

Phoning it in...

Phoning it in…

There is a sense that The X-Files is quite wary of Scully’s sexual life. Over the course of the series, we meet a couple of ex-boyfriends, but she does not seem to have any real life outside of Mulder and her nuclear family. Even Gillian Anderson seems to have taken exception to the sexless portrayal of Scully. She pushed for the inclusion of the sex scene in Never Again. However, even with that sequence removed, it is hard to interpret Anderson’s performance during the tattoo sequence as anything less than orgasmic.

Even outside the role, Anderson has rejected the idea that Scully is sexless. At one convention, a fun observed that Scully was “the epitome of womanhood” because “not only can she kick butt, she can work with Mulder without jumping him.” Anderson seemed less than thrilled at the description, replying, “So the epitome of womanhood is sexual restraint? I don’t think so.” Years later, fans asked Carter, Duchovny and Anderson what Mulder and Scully would do on a date. Anderson answered, “Have sex.” In contrast, Duchovny and Carter suggested dinner.

Face-off...

Face-off…

Never Again goes out of its way to provide evidence that Scully did not sleep with Ed Jerse. It seems quite obvious that she did, but there is just enough material to provide the show with plausible deniability. After all, who climbs out of bed after a night of hot sex, gets dressed again, and falls asleep on the couch? It seems like the episode is trying to imply nothing happened, despite the fact that the camera cut away from a passionate make-out session in the apartment at the end of the act.

The episode is edited in such a way as to make it possible (if far from plausible) that Scully and Ed never quite went to bed together. Never Again is just missing the section where Ed breaks off the kiss to explain which toothbrush is his. It feels like a rather transparent (and awkward) attempt to maintain Scully’s chaste persona. The “morning after” sequence with Ed Jerse asleep on the couch is perhaps the most implausible element of an episode featuring a talking and murderous tattoo. (Well, that or maybe Scully snores. I don’t know.)

On the road again...

On the road again…

It is worth noting that Never Again can be seen as a postmodern feminist show, one commenting on typical attitudes towards women and sexuality. As Karin Beeler notes in Tattoos, Desire and Violence, the treatment of Ed Jerse’s tattoo is an interesting twist on the traditional aesthetic of such tattoos:

The Betty Page tattoo functions in a curious way. On the one hand, it may simply be seen as an extension of Ed’s desire to contain women as he has done by acquiring the Betty Page tattoo. (This containment is an imitation of the tattoos of nude women on men’s arms, or the proliferation of nude tattooed women in magazines geared to a male readership.) However, the tattoo may also serve as a kind of postmodern feminist aesthetic or commentary; it resists or subverts the aesthetic that has historically been created for tattoos that depict women as objects of male desire; the Betty Page tattoo is transformed from an object of desire to an “agent.”

It is just one clever twist in an episode full of clever ideas and observations, an element that turns a pretty standard image on its head. Ed Jerse is a bitter misogynist who ironically finds himself entrapped by an expression of that hatred and sexism. (Much like Scully’s tattoo seems to trap her. “Everyone gets tattoo they deserve.”)

This image made quite an impression on eleven-year-old me...

This image made quite an impression on eleven-year-old me…

Of course, sex seems to be at the heart of what makes Never Again such a controversial episode – particularly among certain sets of fans. Much like The Field Where I Died before it, it seems like Morgan and Wong are making a very clear statement about the relationship that exists between Mulder and Scully. In The Field Where I Died, the duo controversially rejected the idea that Mulder and Scully were soul mates – thus alienating a significant part of the show’s fanbase.

In contrast, Never Again seems to accept the idea of a relationship between Mulder and Scully. The interactions between Mulder and Scully in Never Again are far more personal than professional, feeling like a romantic couple struggling with their relationship. After a heated disagreement, Mulder reflects, “Well, maybe it’s good that we get away from each other for a while.” It feels like a line that Ross might have used with Rachel on The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break, airing less than a fortnight after Never Again.

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

Similarly, Mulder rings Scully from Graceland. It opens like the sort of “just checkin’ in” phone call that people expect from their significant other. “I’m just at that special place, and I wanted to share it with you,” Mulder tells Scully, and it seems like he is genuinely sincere – even if the plot dictates that the two eventually talk shop. Later on, Mulder is able to figure out where Scully is staying because the pair always use that hotel in Philadelphia, and he checks up on her with the hotel reception desk like a partner investigating a possible infidelity.

Of course, while Never Again seems to take the idea of a possibly romantic (or at least deeply personal) relationship between Mulder and Scully at face value, it is an episode about how deeply dysfunctional that relationship actually is. However, despite some lovely jokes and the charm of seeing Mulder at Graceland, Never Again is not as wry or as cheeky as something like Bad Blood. It doesn’t seem like Never Again is being playful or funny. Instead, it is quite serious in its assessment of the relationship between Mulder and Scully as dysfunctional and borderline toxic.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

It seems weird that this should be so controversial an implication. Mulder is a man who has spent quite some time alone in the basement of the FBI, to the point where he refers to himself as “the FBI’s most unwanted” and watches porn while in the office. Mulder is incredibly self-centred and driven on his own crusade to find “the truth” to the exclusion of absolutely anything else. More than that, Mulder never seems to pay too much attention to Scully, constantly reflecting her own issues and problems back unto himself.

In contrast, Scully seems to have made her peace with everything that her association with Mulder has cost her. In Ascension, she was abducted and tortured as a way of punishing Mulder – to take away his most crucial ally. Her steadfast support of Mulder has seen her alienate most of her old friends and put her at odds with her family. Her sister Melissa was murdered as a result of her involvement in Mulder’s quest. However, Mulder takes her largely for granted, constantly poking and prodding her about how useless her scientific knowledge is.

Desk jockey...

Desk jockey…

Never Again amplifies all of these characteristics of the relationship, but they have been an important part of the dynamic since the first season. Mulder is just as much as a self-important ass as ever. His paranoid martyr complex kicks into high-gear when he’s forced to take a vacation. “I don’t like it, but I got to do it. I got to pay the rent. I got to eat. Part of me can’t help thinking this is just another way to get me out of here. But it is only a week, and you’ll be here to keep an eye on things for me, so… here’s a few things for you to keep an eye on while I’m gone.”

It sounds like Mulder is more concerned about his precious X-files than he is about his partner. He hands her a list of assignments to complete, treating her as a caretaker rather than a partner. “That’s your assignment while I’m gone,” he dictates to her, handing out pre-prepared documents. “I want you to run an INS check and a Bureau NCIC check on these individuals. All of whom now reside in the ‘Little Russia’ section of Philadelphia. I’ve also made arrangements for travel so you can administer eye-to-eye surveillance on their activities.”

Scully rose to the occasion...

Scully rose to the occasion…

There is a sense that Mulder doesn’t entirely trust Scully to take care of his office while he is gone. He talks to her as if he is her handler. “It makes it sound like you’re my superior,” Scully remarks to him. Mulder immediately gets defensive, indulging in his paranoid victim complex. “Do what you want. Don’t go to Philadelphia. But let me remind you that I worked my ass off to get the files reopened. You were just assigned. This work is my life.” There is a sense that Mulder is too possessive of his work to ever truly share, or to ever treat Scully as an equal.

This is entirely consistent with Mulder’s character, at least as defined by Morgan and Wong. Mulder is a character who tends to seek validation for his own theories and ideas. In Tooms, he refuses to compromise in order to keep a serial killer off the street. In Beyond the Sea, he gets very upset with Scully for lying about her own supernatural experience, quickly making it all about himself rather than focusing on the fact that she is upset and might need support. In Ice, Mulder makes no real concessions to help Scully build trust with the rest of the team.

The best date Scully's been on in a while, bar none...

The best date Scully’s been on in a while, bar none…

The problem is not that Mulder is intentionally jerkish. Mulder can just be a little too self-centred to understand other perspectives. He is not a team player. After all, he did end up alone in the basement. He tends to take Scully for granted. When he contacts Scully in Philadelphia, she wonders how he found her. “I checked where we always stay in Philadelphia. I knew you wouldn’t abandon me.” There is no attempt at reconciliation or understanding after their argument in the basement. He just takes her for granted.

In fact, Mulder is completely blind to the fact that Scully’s existential crisis in Never Again has nothing to do with him – well, not directly, at any rate. When Scully advises him that the case in Philadelphia is closed, Mulder’s immediate response is to bicker with her. “Okay, just hold off until I get there, okay?” he asks her, clearly just wanting to confirm for himself that the case is a dead end. Scully, naturally, takes umbrage at this. “What? You don’t think I’m capable?” It’s a perfectly solid reading of Mulder’s question, but Mulder seems to miss it.

You know, as a doctor, you think she'd be more concerned about the hygiene of her tattoo parlour...

You know, as a doctor, you think she’d be more concerned about the hygiene of her tattoo parlour…

Instead, Mulder focuses on the matter most important to him – the investigation. “Of course I believe that you’re capable,” he replies, brushing Scully off, “it’s just that in this case I need you to…” Scully tries to bring him back on-topic, “It’s not just in this case, Mulder.” Mulder completely avoids the conversation that Scully is clearly trying to have – whether by design or through a simple unwillingness to actually listen to what his partner has to say. Instead, Mulder tries to press his angle on the case, “What’s the agent’s name in Philadelphia?”

It is a clear attempt by Mulder to steer the conversation back to what he considers to be the subject at hand, but it is also a textbook example of Mulder being condescending and patronising. It isn’t that Mulder wants to argue with Scully, it is just that he can’t see past his own interest in the case. He is oblivious to the hurt and offence that his line of questioning might cause. Mulder is so focused on the X-file at hand that he doesn’t stop to think about Scully. Why would he? She’ll always be there for him.

She's got no inkling what she's letting herself in for...

She’s got no inkling what she’s letting herself in for…

Never Again is very much a Scully-centric episode. As such, Mulder does not come out of it looking particularly good. Then again, it makes sense that Morgan and Wong would return to the character for their last script on The X-Files. The duo had worked really hard to define Scully as character. Beyond the Sea remains one of the best episodes of the show ever written. In fact, Never Again calls back to it rather directly. Not only does Scully acknowledge the influence of her father, but she also recalls the story about stealing cigarettes and smoking them outside.

Scully is a character who is just as multifaceted and just as complex as Mulder. She has her own set of foibles and issues that make her much more than a simple archetype. Glen Morgan and James Wong have been better at digging into Scully’s character than any other writers on the show – with the possible exception of Darin Morgan. For example, Scully is quite candid about her daddy issues – something hinted at with her past relationships and her fixation on her father.

In a bit of a dive...

In a bit of a dive…

“It usually starts when an authoritative or controlling figure comes into my life,” she confesses to Jerse at the bar. “And part of me likes it, needs it, wants the approval.” Indeed, Never Again is quite candid about how creepy this subtext is during the tattoo sequence, as Scully looks up at Ed with a bizarre mixture of excitement and yearning – eager at the thrill of getting the tattoo, and yet looking for the approval of this mysterious man who has just wandered into her life.

“And then… along the way, there are other… fathers,” she admits – in a line that makes a great of sense. Scully has always had a stronger connection to older men. In Lazarus, it was revealed that she had a relationship her instructor at the Academy. In all things, it will be revealed that Scully also had an affair with one of her professors while at university. In light of all that, and coupled with Mulder’s patronising attitude towards her, it seems like Scully is almost responding to Mulder as another father figure.

Graceful...

Graceful…

To be fair, this is not the first time that the show has made this connection. In Quagmire, Scully compared Mulder to Ahab. In Beyond the Sea, it was revealed that Scully affectionately referred to her father as “Ahab.” For all that Mulder tends to take Scully for granted and to ignore her feelings, Scully still follows him. Scully allows herself to be treated in that way. She is reluctant to stand up for herself, to articulate the doubts and anxieties that are festering inside. She might hide it better, but she is just as messed up as Mulder is.

As with a lot of Morgan and Wong’s writing, it feels like Never Again may have been influenced by events outside show itself. The same way that Scully fights for acknowledgement and recognition, Gillian Anderson had fought for equal pay. She didn’t find herself on a level salary to Duchovny until after the show’s third season. In fact, Duchovny was reportedly less than thrilled at her salary bump. Scully’s questions about that lack of a desk or the nature of her professional relationship to Mulder seem to hint at these behind-the-scenes dramas.

Ol' blue eyes...

Ol’ blue eyes…

Interestingly, the scenes focusing on Ed Jerse’s divorce were not drawn from Morgan’s on-going separation. Morgan had drawn from that personal anguish in writing The Angriest Angel, but he would not actually sign his divorce papers until after the episode had aired:

“It’s a really weird thing to write a scene and then go through it yourself,” Morgan commented. “Ed signs the papers and then four or five months later I was in court, going, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I suspected that Gillian, who was going through a separation at the time, would understand that. I didn’t want to be specific with her life, because a lot of fans are familiar with it. And nobody at the time knew my problems.”

Nevertheless, there is an emotional rawness to both Scully and Ed that counts among Morgan’s best character work. It seems like their arcs are very personal and candid. Despite the pulpier elements of the script, the emotional beats feel very real.

“C’mon. I haven’t had a character-centric episode since Christmas…”

It is hard not wonder if Morgan and Wong emphasised with Scully while writing Never Again. Following the cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond, the duo found themselves back on The X-Files again – despite their desire to branch out and do different things. When Scully talks about her life as “an endless line – – two steps forwards and three steps back”, it seems to capture the mood of Morgan and Wong’s interviews around the time of the fourth season – fighting against the confines of a show that they had left over a year earlier.

In a way, it feels appropriate that Never Again is the last script that Morgan and Wong wrote for The X-Files. It often felt like the writers working on The X-Files were drafting their own pocket version of the show, with their own unique take on the characters and the world around them. Darin Morgan wrote a different version of The X-Files than Howard Gordon; Vince Gilligan wrote a different version of The X-Files than Chris Carter. They were all recognisably the same show, but with a different slant or emphasis.

Scully is not amused...

Scully is not amused…

So the last script contributed by a given writer can often feel like a series finalé, at least for their own vision of the show. Darin Morgan closed his work on The X-Files with Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, which handily wrapped a lot of his core themes and ideas – offering his re-work of Quagmire as something of a postscript. Vince Gilligan bid farewell to the show (or to particularly iterations of the show) twice, with Je Souhaite and Sunshine Days both closing out a particular facet of The X-Files as a show.

As such, Never Again serves to draw a line under Morgan and Wong’s work on The X-Files. It is a story that bend the Mulder and Scully dynamic to a point where it almost breaks. Just as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” makes it very hard to take the show’s mythology seriously, Never Again makes it very hard to imagine Mulder and Scully as a functioning team. It exposes all of the little flaws and dysfunctions that exist between the duo, and ends with the implication that neither Mulder nor Scully are strong enough to take steps to fix those problems.

Nothing like a post-coital couch nap...

Nothing like a post-coital couch nap…

“I’ve always gone around in this… this circle,” Scully explains. It seems to capture a lot of the quiet desperation of Never Again. Scully gets the image of the oroboros tattooed on her lower back as an act of rebellion, but it ultimately feels like she is branding herself. A snake eating its own tale seems like the perfect metaphor for the problems facing Mulder and Scully; the sense that they are trapped in a recurring and mutually destructive pattern of behaviour. They just go around and around and around. It is a tragic non-ending, a cynical conclusion.

Scully is trapped. She is caught in this situation. Mulder and the X-files seem to have slowly eaten away at her. She was once a promising young agent with a bright career ahead of her. First season episodes like Squeeze and The Jersey Devil suggest that Scully had lots of friends out there in the world. However, those people slowly disappeared as she was sucked into Mulder’s world. In Never Again, she discovers that she cannot escape. She tries to break out of this pattern and cycle, only to find out that even her personal life has been contaminated.

“Hm. I think this place does tattoos.”

Scully does not have any life outside of Mulder and the X-files. The one time she tried to go on a date, she wound up becoming her own X-file. “Congratulations for making an personal appearance in the X-files for the second time,” Mulder teases, sarcastically. “It’s a world record.” Scully tried to rebel, tried to step away. It didn’t work. Mulder will never get Scully a desk for as long as he is around. It is a nice touch that Scully makes the magnanimous gesture of ordering Doggett a desk in Patience, suggesting that thought lingered, even if Scully never articulated it again.

There is something incredibly bleak and tragic in that closing image of Mulder and Scully staring at each other in silence. It feels like a grim finalé to Morgan and Wong’s work on The X-Files, a bitter and stinging final word on the series. Something has been lost, something so deep and so fundamental that neither character can quite articulate it. Things are broken, and cannot magically come back together. In many ways, Never Again seems to taint and poison the relationship between Mulder and Scully, offering a rather cynical conclusion.

Steady, Eddie...

Steady, Eddie…

As such, the cancer subplot becomes a convenient excuse. Moving Never Again further into the season, so it follows Leonard Betts, Chris Carter is able to shrewdly diffuse a lot of the more stinging and angry implications of the episode. Understandably, Morgan was quite unhappy with the switcheroo:

“I felt horrible,” Morgan stated. “Those are not her motives for her actions in this episode. The motives in Never Again are completely altered by posing that she has a disease or a death sentence. But I was about two months behind on our pilot for The Notorious, and I just wanted to leave.”

Morgan speaks with what seems like resignation. Like Scully, it seems that he has just accepted how things will be. Nevertheless, changing the broadcast order radically changes the meaning of the episode, providing a unique context for Scully’s insecurities and rebellions.

Mulder needs to dial back the jerkishness...

Mulder needs to dial back the jerkishness…

In that context, Never Again can be dismissed or cast aside. Scully is simply reacting to the uncomfortable reminder of her own mortality. The problems and criticisms broached by Never Again become situational and temporary, rather than fundamental and continuing. The versions of Mulder and Scully in Never Again are responding to the cancer. It becomes easier to forgive Mulder’s thoughtlessness if he doesn’t know about the cancer, even if he has been just as thoughtless in the past without any such justification.

It is easy to understand why Morgan and Wong would be upset by this last-minute revision to their episode; the underlying basis of their script had been fundamentally altered. However, it is also easy to understand why Chris Carter felt that this schedule change was necessary. It would be very hard to go from the closing image of Never Again into something like Kaddish or Unrequited without a buffer or an excuse or a justification. Without an excuse like the cancer subplot, Never Again puts a sizeable crack in the foundation of the show.

Title drop!

Title drop!

That said, this does raise some interesting questions about the nature of continuity in a show like this. Is continuity an external construct? Does it rely on the viewer to piece it together so that continuity might be implied from one episode to the next? After all, The X-Files was something of a strange hybrid – it was partially serialised and partially episodic. The episodes centred on the conspiracy were best watched together, while the stand-alone adventures could be enjoyed in almost any order.

So, how much does continuity actually matter in the show? Scripts would occasionally feature clever callbacks and shout-outs and references, but how much of the perceived “continuity” is simply implied by fans rather than explicitly existing. Never Again doesn’t even mention the word “cancer”, but is positioned in such a way that the ending of Leonard Betts looms large. Watching the season in broadcast order, it is hard not to see the connection. Watching the season in production order, the episode makes just as much sense; but in a different way.

What's in a name plate?

What’s in a name plate?

As Henry Jenkins suggests in his discussion of Star Trek in Textual Poachers, it could be argued that a large part of the episode is actually inferred by the viewer from external cues:

For fans and perhaps many regular viewers, Star Trek is experienced as something closer to a serial. No episode can be easily disentangled from the series’ historical trajectory; plot developments are seen not as complete within themselves, but as one series of events among many in the lives of its primary characters. For the fan, it is important to see all of the episodes “in order” in a way that it is not for the average viewer of that same program. The character’s responses to a particular situation are seen as growing from that character’s total life experiences and may be explained through references to what has been learned about that character in previous episodes. While Star Trek: The Next Generation makes occasional explicit references to program history, fans are capable of reading that history into a look, a raised eyebrow, the inflection of a line, or any other subtle performance cue that may be seen as symptomatic of what the character “had to be thinking” at that moment.

It is fascinating to consider just how much of something as popular and successful as The X-Files is inferred and implied by the viewers rather than explicitly stated by the show itself.

Burning passion...

Burning passion…

In his defence, Morgan has argued that the closing scene of Never Again was originally intended to jump-start a plot thread that would run through the fourth and fifth seasons:

“My understanding at the beginning of the year was that we were going to drive to a point where Mulder and Scully didn’t trust each other,” Morgan said. His own scenario for plotting out the season was somewhat different from what Carter and the other writers came up with this year, but the fundamental issue was the same: trust. “I would have slowly split Mulder and Scully up over the course of the season, then in the last episode have Scully put Mulder away for his own good, which he would perceive as the ultimate betrayal,” Morgan said. “And then the next season, they would have had an entire year’s healing to go through.”

Given how important the Mulder and Scully dynamic is to The X-Files, it seems like a rather dramatic year-long arc. That said, the fifth season does rather clumsily try to invert the traditional believer/sceptic dynamic.

Millions of people in Philadelphia. Of course Scully hooks up with a goddamn X-file.

Millions of people in Philadelphia. Of course Scully hooks up with a goddamn X-file.

Perhaps it is another illustration of the difficulties facing Morgan and Wong working on a show overseen by another showrunner. It is worth noting that their work on the second season of Millennium would be just as ambitious, splitting up the two lead characters and then building towards a reconciliation. Of course, Morgan and Wong enjoyed a great deal more freedom with the second season of Millennium than they did on the fourth season of The X-Files. They were allowed to kill of major characters, direct year-long arcs and much more.

That said, Never Again even seems to foreshadow these justifications and excuses – the desire to have some external factor that might be used to account for “dangerous and unlikely behaviour.” Here, Never Again sets a very clear red herring. When Scully researches the ink used in the tattoo, she discovers that it has hallucinogenic properties. As such, it seems like the voice inside Ed Jerse’s head could just be an auditory delusion. The killer tattoo might be reducible to “some chemical reaction.”

Fox Mulder. Paragon of sensitivity...

Fox Mulder. Paragon of sensitivity…

It is a nice thought, just like the idea that Scully’s act of rebellion could just be a result of her cancer. However, it is not the truth. In a clever twist, the final scene of Never Again reveals that the tattoo was not responsible for the voice inside Ed Jerse’s head. “Traces of ergot were found in his bloodstream as in yours, but not to the degree that should cause hallucinogenic ergotism,” Mulder explains. It turns out that Ed Jerse was just acting out on his own insecurities and personal issues. Betty was correct when she teased, “I go all the way to the bone.”

As such, perhaps Never Again insulates itself slightly from the “Scully is dealing with her cancer diagnosis” defence. Perhaps Scully has received her cancer diagnosis, but is still working through some more fundamental issues. Just because Scully has cancer does not mean that the observations and criticisms raised by Never Again are any less valid. After all, Mulder was just as insensitive before she received the diagnosis, and he will continue to be just as insensitive long after.

Full circle.

Full circle.

Whatever the intent behind the scripting of Never Again or the scheduling of Never Again, the episode does have a very funereal atmosphere to it. It feels like a pretty solid “last X-Files script” in the same way as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Je Souhaite or Sunshine Days. There is a sense that perhaps Morgan and Wong have said all that they want to say with these characters, and that this is really the end of the line for them. There is a version of The X-Files that ends with Mulder and Scully just sitting and staring in silence at one another.

It is uncomfortable. It is bold. It is also brilliant.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fourth season of The X-Files:

10 Responses

  1. I think it’s really unfortunate that the broadcast position of Never Again enables (a segment of) the audience to respond to the episode in the same way that Mulder responds to Scully within the episode.

    Without Leonard Betts’ cancer revelation to fall back on, without the option to dismiss everything that happens in this episode as “Scully acts out because she’s emotionally destabilized after receiving traumatic news” — essentially “Scully acts hysterical” — the audience would be forced to actually come to grips with the questions Scully raises.

    Thinking “It’s a reaction to the cancer news” misses the point just as badly as “It’s an overreaction to not having a desk” does. I think it’s crucial to take episodes like this one out of continuity and put them into context, as you’ve done here. Great write-up.

  2. Great review. Just finished the episode and loved how they ended it,had to look it up and see what other peoples thoughts on the ending were. The column you wrote was one of the best I’ve read about an x files episode, so much extra information. Had to say thank you.

  3. I’ve just finished re-watching this episode and reading your review, also listened to the x-cast you did with Clara Cook. First off, I’d like to say I very much enjoy your reviews, they’re very insightful, among the very best available.

    In this case, however, I have to side with Clara considering Scully’s character in this episode, and I’m very glad the broadcast schedule pushed it back to air it after “Leonard Betts”, as it makes Scully’s behaviour somewhat more relatable for me. While I agree that at some point she was bound to resent Mulders self-absorbtion and tendency to take her availability for granted, I have difficulties with her reactions towards it. I feel that her complaints come across borderline bitchy and whiny, and her jumping into a ONS (assuming it happened; the episode isn’t quite clear on that as you say) with Ed Jerse is completely out of character.

    I don’t mind Scully having a relationship or sex, but this is the same woman who in “Gender Bender” found it incomprehensible how in this day and age a person could have sex with a complete stranger (we’re talking the 90s here, the AIDS scare was everywhere). Now all of a sudden she’s about to do just that, while having a clear mind, no pheromones at work here, out of sheer frustration over her work situation on the X-Files? I’m not buying it. Dana Scully would find another way to deal with her frustration, unless she’s in a very exceptional situation (the cancer diagnosis). I think the argument that “the way she is, she’s not human” is a very pseudo-feminist attitude (I’m a woman); women don’t need to have ONSs with complete strangers to be “human”. You don’t need to have the character throw out some of their basic beliefs in order to show her dark side, either. I think Carter was right in that they’ve worked very hard to keep Scully from being turned into yet another TV bunny; I believe if this ep would have aired the way it was supposed to, they’d have regretted it.

    Anyway, as I said, most of the times I largely agree with your observations; just this time I couldn’t keep from giving my perspective. Thanks for your good work, looking forward to read and hear more o fit!

    • No worries. It would be boring if we all agreed all of the time.

      I don’t think that women need to have one-night stands with strangers to be human, but I do think that even buttoned-down professional people can have sexual identities without having been consistently sexualised to that point – that the idea that just because somebody (male or female) has never been depicted as overtly sexual before doesn’t mean that they never are; the fact that our culture is so anxious around concepts like sexuality means that these facets of a person are often buried. I also think that a mid-life crisis (which this is overtly framed as, even stripping away the cancer diagnosis) can often have an explicitly sexual component to it, whether for a man or a woman.

      (And that it’s worrying that society is more tolerant of that sort of sexual adventurism when men engage in it.)

      • I don’t mind women showing sexual adventurism, I just think it’s out of character for Scully (for the above-mentioned reasons). Her father nicknamed her Starbuck alright, but other than that, she has little in common with Kara Thrace.

  4. Just re-watched this again, and the more often I see it, the more it borders on character assassination of Scully. What the hell is this discussion about this desk? Have M&W really thought this through?

    So she complains he’s talking to her as if he’s her superior but then she complains to him she doesn’t have a desk? Since when is it the business of your co-worker to get you a desk? Shouldn’t that be Skinner’s or Blevins’ business? What keeps her from going to Skinner and request a desk – does she need Mulder to baby her, or play the cavalier? Sorry, but this is really annoying. “Strong female character” – sheesh.

    • I think that’s more that the basement is his space, in that it was his space before she arrived. In fact, the show seems to suggest that Mulder almost lives out of there, even on weekends. (Even at the start of The Unnatural, Mulder is already there and it’s Scully who arrives into the scene.) The whole point of Never Again is that the X-files is Mulder’s domain that Scully happened to get assigned to; she never arrived with the same passion that he had, she didn’t get to define it in the way that he has, and that is reflected down to the way the office is seen as “his.” (Notably, the “I Want to Believe” poster is Mulder’s.) So it makes sense that as the person responsible for the space, her getting a desk moved into that space would be a conversation between the pair of them.

      (Which is what the conversation is really about, about her trying to assert some ownership of the shared space. Which isn’t a gendered thing; I’ve been in those situations with people.)

      • There’s certainly a point to your argument that the x-files basement is Mulder’s territory, so to speak. Yes, she was only assigned there to assist him in the beginning, but at this point she’s been through so much, the work has become as personal for her as it is for him. (And it’s quite inconsiderate of Mulder that he doesn’t realize this.)

        My issue with this conversation is that I don’t like it how Scully comes across as just that kind of dependent damsel who can’t stand up for herself and expects to be pampered by a male. I feel that this is totally out of character for her – like so many things in this episode.

        Yes, if he was thoughtful (which we know he isn’t) he could have taken the initiative and asked Skinner or Blevins or whoever to get her a desk. As a matter of courtesy, so to speak. But if she’s going to complain that she doesn’t have one, Mulder is definitely the wrong address.

        I’ve been in situations when I moved into an office with another co-worker already present. And if some item was missing, it would have never occurred to me to complain to the co-worker that he didn’t get it for me.

        If I want to be respected as an equal, at the very least I should be able to ask for a desk. The proper address would be those who assigned her to the x-files.

        I realize you like this episode a lot, and it’s not that I hate it. If I had to rate it, it would perhaps be a 6 out of 10. But when it comes to Scully, I feel that M&W really dropped the ball here. Yes, humans are complex and all, but not to the point where they change into a completely different, almost unrecognizable person all of a sudden. She suddenly depends on Mulder to get her a desk, she’s disinterested in her work, she jumps into bed with a total stranger, she gets a tattoo in a questionable establishment – as a medical doctor she should know better. It’s a complete U-turn on so many levels. All of a sudden she’s acting like a nagging, dependent, irrational woman driven by hormones. As if M&W lost their grip of the character during their absence.

        I can accept such a radical change as a result of the cancer diagnosis (like Mulder’s sudden adventure with a vampire woman as a result of the loss of Scully in “3” – I wouldn’t buy that either if not for that turning point of Scully’s abduction motivating it) – she feels helpless faced with the disease, she feels she’s running out of time and needs to try out things she never did before, she’s dying anyway so to hell with medical risks, etc. But if that happens just because it occurs to her at this point in her life, I’m not buying it. I never saw Scully as a particularly volatile character.

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