Screwed, Blue, and Tattooed
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Glen Morgan and James Wong
Director: Rob Bowman
“This is not about you, Mulder. “ –Dana Scully
“Never Again” starts with Scully wandering away from Mulder’s interrogation of a witness, to the Vietnam Memorial, where she picks up a faded rose petal. What better reminders could she find of the brevity of life? Having had her thoughts turned this way, an intelligent woman can hardly fail to wonder if she is living the life she wants, if she is achieving the goals (distinguishing herself in the FBI) she set herself, or even associating with the people she would prefer. Having established many times that Scully comes from a conventional family with conventional expectations, of course it is natural that Scully, now well into her thirties, begins to wonder if her life has not been detoured by Fox Mulder and the X-Files. So she goes in search of someone–Scully goes looking for Dana.
Glen Morgan and James Wong’s last script (again) for “The X-Files” is an attempt to redefine our image of Dana Scully, perhaps an attempt to make her more believable and realistic. After four years of unrelenting rationality, sobriety, and conformity, she is in danger of becoming the bureaucratic drone Jose Chung once called her. The appeal of The X-Files has always been the three-dimensional quality of its lead characters, who must stand in for the audience in adventures both grotesque and implausible. The more real Mulder and Scully are, the more we can believe in the headless men, aliens, and mutants they run into. So it is long past time that we got to know what Mulder and Scully the humans, as opposed to the agents, are like.
And one of the fastest ways to “get to know” someone is sex.
Dana Scully, having come to a minor crisis in her life brought on by depression, finds herself rebelling against Mulder, against her job, against her self. When Mulder is forced to go on vacation (to Graceland, of course), he reluctantly leaves her in charge of a case. In a scene we have waited for for years, Scully finally asks why she does not have a desk, flat-out refuses to investigate a farcical case, and stonily refuses to be drawn into a debate with Mulder over her commitment to The X-Files. Mulder goes from clucking over his case like a hen with one chick to an astonished and angry sarcasm. They part on poor terms, and Scully goes off to Philadelphia, where Mulder’s “case” quickly turns out to be a clumsy extortion attempt. But in the course of her investigation, she meets Ed Jerse (Rodney Rowland), a man coming out of a divorce and a drinking binge, and when their paths cross sparks fly. The only trouble is that Ed is more than he seems to be–his own newly acquired tattoo, which Scully so much admires, talks to him. Stranded by a storm, on the outs with Mulder, alone and depressed, Scully takes Ed up on his dinner invitation, which becomes a date at a bar, which becomes a tattoo a deux, which leads to a night in Ed’s apartment.
Where the rug got jerked out from under our expectations.
Everything in this episode was leading up to sex. I didn’t need to see it, but I needed to know it happened. I emphatically did NOT need a last-minute cop-out, where Ed takes the couch and Dana sleeps in her clothes. The intent of the entire first half of the episode was clearly slanted that way. The whole point of the episode is that Scully is seeking to re-make her self–through a tattoo which symbolizes her facing of her fears (snakes, disfigurement, independence) to a sexual encounter not sanctioned by an authority figure. She spent half an hour letting down her barriers–and we did not see her put them back up. Indeed, she was clearly emotionally close to Ed Jerse “the morning after”, and he was positively glowing. So what happened? Did Ten Thirteen lose its nerve? Did a show which does not hesitate to show more blood and guts than a Stallone movie suddenly get Puritanical on us? Or is the famous double standard at work?
In “Fire”, Mulder embraced and kissed his old girlfriend, but in “Lazarus” Scully didn’t even touch her former lover. In “3“, Mulder kisses a vampire groupie in a scene that peels the paint right off the walls, but in “Never Again”, Scully doesn’t even get a lip lock. The raw sensuality and eroticism of the tattoo scene itself notwithstanding, the story’s potential for revelation and discovery was thrown away with both hands. This attempt to maintain a falsely virginal aspect to Agent Scully only renders her character naive, and there is more than enough naivete in Dana Scully as it is. Without the sexual element, the rest of the story is reduced to a tattoo, an in- joke that looks more like a cynical marketing ploy.
It’s too bad, because this episode was remarkable in many ways. Morgan and Wong’s graceful and elegant dialogue is at its best here. Scully’s “This is not about you, Mulder” is eerily echoed by the tattoo’s “Hear that? It’s you, Ed! It’s all about you!” How many times did the talk of lines and circles, of authority and rebellion underscore the events unfolding? Jon Joffin’s circling camerawork, which metaphorically echoed the dialogue, was impressive. I was particularly struck by the long tracking shot after Ed enters his downstairs neighbor’s apartment to kill her for playing the Partridge Family too loud (justifiable homicide if I ever saw it). The camera backs away from the door, circles backwards down the stairs, into the basement in a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “Frenzy”. Yet director Rob Bowman shows us only spatters of blood, lets us hear the weight of a body bumping down the stairs, and never shows us the actual violence spawned by rage and fear. This is the X- Files at its best–terror without gore.
The acting was first rate. Rodney Rowland is in the Duchovny class when it comes to smoldering. He seethes beautifully, whether it be with pain, rage, or passion. His voice control is such that he can tell us in his “Good morning” to Dana Scully that he is deeply smitten. Jodie Foster’s manic laugh (as the voice of the tattoo) was marvelous. Duchovny himself let us see the Dark Side of Fox Mulder: snotty, arrogant, self-centered, and very nasty in a fight. Anderson is outstanding, showing us Scully’s sensuality, her lack of self-confidence, her fear, her despair in subtle and understated nuance. It’s a pity that the change in the broadcast schedule put “Leonard Betts” ahead of this one in the lineup (“Betts” originally followed this episode), because it appears that Scully’s behavior grows from an external source (illness) rather than an internal dissatisfaction and desperation about her wasted life. Even so, it is a landmark performance from Anderson, who continues to shine this season.
Mark Snow outdid himself on the music for the tattoo scene, which became a raga-like purr weaving itself through an intimate moment of shared physicality. The only jarring note was the odd chiming sound in several fourth act scenes, which sounded like a ringing telephone.
As always, a Morgan and Wong script can be read at more than one level. The Rocky-and-Bullwinkle in-joke (thanks, Gia Gittleson!) worked well without being intrusive. The references to their production company in the name of the bar (“Hard Eight”), the dig at Entertainment Weekly in the birdcage liner (with producer Bob Goodwin’s face on it), and the list of Russian “suspects” including novelist Vladimir Nabokov and comedian Yakov Smirnoff, can all slide by the unsuspecting without harm while amusing those of us who “get it”. The Elvis glasses on Mulder, as well as the Elvis-fu Mulderdance at Graceland, were almost de rigeur by now. The single “in-joke” that did not work for me was the Millennium snake tattoo. Even if it was a circle, even if the snake harked back to Scully’s fear of snakes (“One Breath“), it was too obvious a tie-in. Yet sometimes this show is too subtle: it was not until the second viewing that I realized that Ed’s tattoo opened her eye when “she” was talking to him.
The crowning moment, however, was the final scene. After a quietly stormy opening, a rocky parting, and a reunion marked by Mulder’s sneer, we get a scene which, with very few words, reveals his need for Scully, his dependence on her, and the assumptions he has made about her life. Mulder does indeed think of Scully as part of the X-Files: she has become part of the office furniture, and when she rebels he is astonished to discover how intimately entwined their lives have become. It is fitting that Morgan and Wong’s last contribution to The X-Files should be an unfinished sentence spoken in a half-lit room, with no music to break the tension, the promise, or the sense of unease.
If this story had been allowed to develop naturally, with Scully exploring her sexuality as fully as she explores her fears, her loyalties, and the other facets of her personality, this would have been a five sunflower seed episode. As it is, I can only give it four out of five, and blow a regretful kiss goodbye at the Wongs. Good luck, gentlemen.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment at a tattoo parlor. I was thinking of an “X”…