This is one of the most oft quoted episodes for understanding Mulder and Scully’s psychology and more importantly, the dysfunctionality of their relationship. The X-File itself isn’t very good, but the episode is quite fun. I wouldn’t quite characterize it as a comedy episode, but it is “light”, possibly due to the influence of Darin Morgan on Kim Newton’s script.
Before watching this again, I was prepared to write a speech about how it’s no coincidence that the two episodes that offer the most insight into Scully’s character this season were written by a woman. After all, Kim Newton is also the writer who brought us “Revelations” (3×11) where Scully’s background of faith is explored. And yet, it turns out that Darin Morgan is an uncredited writer on “Quagmire”. Rumor has it that the famous “conversation on a rock” is entirely his. Not only that, but according to Chris Carter, Morgan also contributed a “tremendous” amount of work, uncredited, for the script for “Revelations” as well. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time mentally dwelling on his episodes lately, but I never really appreciated how truly Darin Morgan-esque this episode is. True, it’s written by Kim Newton and Darin Morgan is only an uncredited contributor, but his stamp is unmistakable.
Is that not Morgan’s voice we’re hearing again after all? The characterization here is in keeping with his previous episodes. Mulder is chasing after the ridiculous and rather than looking like an abnormally clever investigator he’s painted as obstinately, if endearingly foolish. Scully, on the other hand, is chock full of insight. Then there are the recurring characters like the stoners, and even Queequeg, who were introduced in his earlier work. Not to mention the tone of certain characters like the Sheriff, and certain gags like Bertram‘s trashy hat are telltale signs. You can tell Morgan didn’t write the whole thing but it smacks of his scent. The tone actually reminds me of “War of the Coprophages” (3×12) in a lot of ways.
But enough about a question we’ll never know the answer to and back to the episode at hand. This is one of those episodes that everybody enjoys and yet it’s somehow not a fan favorite. I suspect that’s because the X-File itself isn’t very interesting. The charm of this episode is in watching Mulder and Scully interact in a most domesticated fashion. From their first moments on the screen in that funny little car ride, instead of having their typically clinical conversation about a mysterious case, they’re bickering over bringing the dog rather than putting him in a kennel.
It’s hilarious. And it’s a nice change of pace because it’s been a while since we’ve been reminded that Scully actually finds Mulder amusing. This was more their relationship dynamic in Season 1. Season 2 they were almost romantically devoted to each other (we’ll get to that definition in a moment) but Season 3 has been devoted to taking the bloom off the rose; all their faults are out in the open. This episode continues that theme by delving into the psychological complexities of their unusual relationship.
The X-Files itself has always been a romance on several levels. Setting aside for a moment the more obvious definition of romance as an idealized love, friendship or otherwise (which The X-Files also depicts), first it’s a literary romance, and I don’t mean the kind of fiction with Fabio on the cover. The Oxford English Dictionary defines literary “romance” as “a work of fiction depicting a setting and events remote from everyday life.” (And wouldn’t you know it, the theme of the episode, Moby Dick, is a famous romance novel from the 19th century.) Connected to that definition, “romance” is also considered “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.”
Now, store that information away for a moment while we discuss Scully. The question that’s subtly addressed in this episode is why is Scully still here? After all, she clearly doesn’t believe in the work; most of it, like this case, she finds patently ridiculous. True, over the past year she’s become personally involved by a set of tragic circumstances. But the man who killed her sister has been killed and she’s shown some serious reluctance to address or even try to remember the circumstances of her abduction. By the end of the last mythology episode, “Apocrypha” (3×16), she infers that the answers aren’t sufficient because they won’t bring justice. So again I ask, what is she still doing here?
Back when I reviewed the “Pilot” (1×79) I argued that despite her protestations, Scully enjoys the mystery and excitement of the X-Files and of Fox Mulder himself. Mulder gets so much flack sometimes because he’s not a realistic character and he isn’t meant to be, that’s Scully’s job. Mulder is Don Quixote, he’s Hamlet, he’s Captain Ahab. He’s given himself a monumental, otherworldly quest, one that’s dangerous, ridiculous, and incredibly exciting all at the same time. Truth be told, there’s a fantasy element to The X-Files and Scully is the audience’s stand-in; she’s whisked away into events that can’t be possible yet suddenly are.
So how does she feel about that? Well, usually she protests that the whole situation is either too dangerous or too absurd, and yet… Notice that when Mulder brings up similar legends to Big Blue, Scully is already familiar with them! As a kid she read up on them, but then she “grew up and became a scientist.” Again when they’re on the lake in the middle of the night searching for this legendary Big Blue, Scully starts to believe herself as she sees that blip coming toward her on the boat’s monitor. The look on her face isn’t that of a clinically detached scientist.
As I said earlier, Mulder, even in the context of the reality of The X-Files, is a fictional character; he’s the type of person you meet once in a lifetime. And he’s invited Scully to chase the “white whale” of alien life with him. For all her science and practicality, it’s a proposal she can’t resist because at heart, Scully is a little girl who used to read stories about men like Mulder and live vicariously through them. He’s her childhood bedtime story come to life.
Might she not be finding in Mulder a childlike faith that she thought she’d lost? I wonder whether if she had never met Mulder or seen what she’s already seen working on the X-Files if she would have returned to the church the way she did in “Revelations”. Perhaps she would have gone through life distancing herself from what she used to believe as though faith without proof was a game for children and she was a grown up. I think Mulder’s faith inspires her even as she scoffs at what it is he has faith in.
Much is made in later seasons of the idea that Scully sees Mulder as a father figure, a jumping off point from Scully comparing Mulder to Captain Ahab in this episode and from the fact that her nickname for her father was Ahab. However, I think that to take the logical leap that since both men are “Ahab” to her that they both occupy a similar place in her life is faulty. It’s true that both Mulder and Captain Bill Scully are strong and smart, but there isn’t much to compare between them besides that.
Scully sees Mulder as Captain Ahab, a romantic and tragic figure doomed to chase something that he’ll never catch and drive himself to madness in the process. In contrast, Bill Scully’s disapproval when Scully dared do something as “reckless” as join the F.B.I. was enough to cause tension between a once close father and daughter. The man was as straight-laced as it gets. He served his country, he served his family and he came home. Despite his nickname, Bill Scully was no Ahab. Bill Scully is called Ahab but Mulder is Ahab.
Now, Captain Ahab is hardly anyone’s knight in shining armor so let’s be clear, that’s not how she sees Mulder. This whole season has been an eye-opener for Mulder and Scully’s characters in regards to each other. They’re not faultless, two-dimensional characters any longer. There’s been a tangible amount of tension as well. But it seems as though when the varnish wears off they actually love each other more, not less.
Now that we know more of the history of her character, Scully’s instant like of Mulder in the “Pilot” makes sense. Rather than putting her off with his ridiculous theories the way he does most of the F.B.I. is, he intrigues her. Just because Scully realizes that Mulder is off his rocker doesn’t mean she doesn’t admire his insanity and stubbornness
Despite the danger and loss, and mostly in spite of her own disbelief, Scully sticks around because of the romance of the situation she finds herself in. Sure there are moments where she winds up wet on a rock in the middle of the night, but that’s the price that has to be paid. Her eyes are open to Mulder’s weaknesses and faults. And yet that element of romance, of mystery and excitement is still there… sometimes.
Whether they catch the whale is superfluous. It’s adventure on the high seas regardless. And if some days are more mundane than others, if more often than not she ends up stranded on a rock, at least her life isn’t mundane as long as she sticks with Mulder.
P.S. Another sub-genre of Romance is the chivalric tales of knights errant. I suppose that would make Mulder the rusty armored knight and Big Blue the dragon he failed to kill.
Oh, Queequeg, we barely knew ye!
In Moby Dick, the character of Queequeg was a cannibal. Make of that what you will.
Scully: Nature’s calling, I think we should pull over.
Mulder: Did you really have to bring that thing?
Scully: You wake me up on a Saturday morning, tell me to be ready in five minutes, my mother is out of town, all of the dog sitters are booked and you know how I feel about kennels. So, unless you want to lose your security deposit on the car, I suggest you pull over.
Dr. Farraday: See this is what always happens. This is how it starts.
Dr. Farraday: The deflection, sleight of hand… See, whenever an issue requires any real thought, any serious mental, effort people turn to UFO’s and sea serpents and Sasquatch. Afternoon talkshows and tabloid TV, they’ve reduced our attention span to the length of a soundbite so that soon our ability to think will be as extinct as the Rana sphenocephala frog.
Mulder: I’ll take that rambling diatribe to mean that you don’t believe in the existence of such a creature.
Dr. Farraday: I’m not even going to grace that statement with a reply.
Mulder: Hey Scully, do you think you could ever cannibalize someone? I mean if you really had to.
Scully: Well, as much as the very idea is abhorrent to me, I suppose under certain conditions a living entity is practically conditioned to perform whatever extreme measures are necessary to ensure its survival. I suppose I’m no different.
Mulder: You’ve lost some weight recently, haven’t you?
Scully: Yeah. So I have. Thanks for… [Glare]
Scully: I called him Ahab and he called me Starbuck. So I named my dog Queequeg… It’s funny, I just realized something.
Mulder: It’s a bizarre name for a dog, huh?
Scully: No. How much you’re like Ahab. You’re so… consumed by your personal vengeance against life whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance to your megalomaniacal cosmology.
Mulder: Scully, are you coming on to me?
Scully: Well, you slew the big white whale, Ahab.
Mulder: Yeah, but I still don’t have that pegleg.