Before 'The X-Files' Reboot, Revisit One Of The Most Feminist Episodes Of The Series
In preparation for the long-awaited reboot of The X-Files hitting Fox on Jan. 24, I’ve been diligently and excitedly re-watching the entire series. As a teenager, I was obsessed with the show, which follows FBI agents Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), the skeptical scientist, and Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), the believer, as they investigate paranormal, unexplained cases. The series spent most of its time in either deep alien invasion mythology or on monster-of-the-week cases, but occasionally it would indulge in a one-off, well-done character study episode. And during my recent X-Files re-watch, the 13th episode of Season 4, titled “Never Again,” caught me by surprise. I remembered it fondly as the “killer tattoo” or “Scully gets her freak on” episode, but on re-watch, it surprised me as an incredibly feminist episode that addresses men’s rights advocacy, BDSM, female agency, and self-reflection.
Although the two agents occasionally fell into sexist tropes throughout the series (Mulder loves pornography, Scully is often derided for her lack of children), re-watching the show now, I’ve noticed more and more instances of feminism popping up. For example, in the Season 2 episode “Excelsis Dei,” Mulder and Scully’s usual roles are reversed when a nurse claims she was raped by an invisible entity. It’s incredibly telling, and also interesting commentary, that sexual assault should be the issue that turns Scully into the believer and Mulder into the skeptic. And then there's the great "Never Again," the episode I most recently re-watched.
As fans will recall, “Never Again” tells the story of Ed Jerse, a down-on-his-luck, recently divorced Philadelphian who seems to have lost custody of his two children. In a drunken stupor, Ed gets a tattoo of a female face with the words “Never Again” written underneath. Meanwhile in D.C., Mulder and Scully are interviewing a potential witness, but Scully’s mind is elsewhere. She seems bored; she’s been working with Mulder for four years at this point, diligently following in his obsessions and going along with his crackpot theories. Mulder's priorities have become her priorities, and Mulder has taken advantage of the fact that she's let that happen. “This work is my life,” Mulder says about an assignment. “Yes, and it’s become mine,” Scully replies. Mulder seems hurt, saying, “You don’t want it to be?” To which Scully answers, “This isn’t about you."
While Scully heads to Philly to check out Mulder’s lead, Ed Jerse is being slowly poisoned by his new tattoo. First, he hears a woman laughing, calling him a loser. Ed lashes out at his female colleagues, and his female boss eventually fires him. Then, the voice he hears, brilliantly portrayed by Jodie Foster, finally makes her case clear: “If you were any kind of man you would have told her to kiss your ass but no, another woman sticks it to ya.” The emasculating vitriol that Ed’s tattoo spews is textbook men's rights paranoia, extrapolating on the idea that men are owed second chances, acceptance, or sex from women. The voice laughs at Ed repeatedly, driving him crazy, and it builds his paranoia up to the point where he kills the woman who lives below him.
Scully, meanwhile, assesses that Mulder’s lead is a dead end and turns it over to local police, but Mulder doubts her judgement, asking her to wait until he gets there to make any decisions. “What, you don’t think I’m capable?’ Scully asks. Later, frustrated with Mulder and by his authoritative ways, she goes to a bar, where — having met Ed earlier in the tattoo parlor, but unaware of his crimes — she divulges to him her need for an authoritative figure in her life. Says Scully,
“I’ve always gone around in this circle. It usually starts when an authoritative or controlling figure comes into my life. And a part of me likes it, needs it, wants the approval, then at a certain point along the way I just…”
She trails off, but the message relayed is that Scully has been both attracted to and has rebelled against male authority figures throughout her life in an unending cycle. This idea is explored again when she decides to head back to the parlor with Ed and get her own tattoo. She chooses a snake eating its own tail, a symbol featured in numerous cultures throughout history as a being constantly re-creating itself. Her willingness to re-examine her own life at various points gives her an agency now permanently inked onto her physical body.
The scene becomes incredibly sensual with a BDSM flare, as Ed watches Scully squirm and writhe while getting tattooed, all while she enjoys the process. Their power play continues at Ed’s apartment, where Scully tries to be nurturing as a doctor and heal his wound. When Ed immediately grabs her hand in a rough manner, a spark flies; another authoritative figure has entered her life, and this time, she likes it. Yet by the morning, her newfound empowerment gets trampled by everyday sexism. When local law enforcement arrive to investigate Ed’s missing downstairs neighbor and Scully answers the door to say she’s with the bureau, the two men don’t believe her until she shows her badge. Whether it's with Mulder or these officials, Scully constantly has to prove herself in a field dominated by men.
It’s eventually revealed that the tattoo shop had used ergot-laced ink on Ed’s tattoo, causing hallucinations and psychotic episodes. During its effects, Ed attacks Scully, but she talks him through it, encouraging him to snap out of it and take control of his actions. Scully’s shouting demands that Ed take the lead apply just as much to her own life as they do to his. As she begins to realize in this episode, she needs to stop searching for approval from authoritative relationships, and take control of herself.
At the end of the hour, Mulder and Scully have a conversation that marks a turning point in their relationship. Mulder, in shock over Scully's reckless behavior with Ed and the tattoo, asks her, “All this because I didn’t get you a desk?” The death stare that Scully gives him in that moment is pretty epic. “Not everything is about you, Mulder,” she says. The episode ends in silence, with thick tension in the room. Afterwards, the duo's relationship changes, with them sharing a new understanding of one another; Mulder finally comes to see Scully as an equal, and Scully realizes that she doesn't need Mulder’s approval.
The events of "Never Again" take the show in a new direction, and it makes the duo's reconciliation in the following episode all the more sweet. But what "Never Again" did the best for The X-Files at the time of its debut was, through Scully, touch upon issues women have faced and wrestled with for centuries: authority, being taken seriously, their own ideas of pain and pleasure. Scully was always a complicated character on The X-Files, but "Never Again" brought even more dimension to her already-interesting existence.