Ranking Mulder in The X-Files Season One (#18 – Beyond the Sea)

I’m continuing my reverse rankings of Fox Mulder in Season 1 of The X-Files and we’ve arrived at #18. This one is a doozy because Beyond the Sea is a phenomenal episode and is full of quality Mulder moments. His characterization is nuanced, his relationship with Scully grows naturally, and David Duchovny is great. So why not higher? Quite simply Mulder just isn’t in it much compared to other Season 1 episodes. I rank these based on the quality of Mulder’s scenes as well as how much of the episode he is in. So no matter how great Mulder is here, Beyond The Sea is a Scully-centric episode that derives much of its incredible drama from isolating Scully, both physically and emotionally. That isolation is achieved by having a skeptical version of Mulder who essentially vanishes from the episode half-way through.

Mulder reacts as he vanishes into Dr. Chester Banton’s shadow.

That doesn’t sound like the best of descriptions and I generally don’t like when the show resorts to making Mulder a skeptic. His skepticism in an episode like Excelsis Dei is completely arbitrary and feels thrown in to say “hey wouldn’t it be totally cool if Mulder believed in everything except for ghost rape?” His skeptical attitude towards religion and his distrust of himself in Season 5 feels more in character but Mulder comes off as petulant in those episodes, making him unpleasant to watch. But Mulder’s characterization is subtly brilliant in Beyond The Sea. He is not skeptical about psychic abilities so much as he’s skeptical about Luther Lee Boggs.

“I ordered an orange Knicks sweatshirt from you and this is what I got. Screw you man.”

Throughout the episode, the Mulder we get is quite different from the one we had grown used to in the previous twelve episodes. He’s noticeably subdued and is lacking his normally flippant sense of humor. On my first (and second…and thirty-eighth) watch, I just chalked it up to Mulder being respectful towards Scully losing her father but examining Beyond The Sea closer, I believe its much deeper than that. Luther Boggs is introduced to us by Mulder describing him as a remorseless killer and I believe Mulder perceives the notion that Boggs has any good intentions as laughable. Mulder’s profile essentially concluded that Boggs is evil. For him, that’s that, case closed.

Good and evil are absolutes for Mulder who has shown numerous times throughout the show’s run that he struggles with shades of gray. This can be a positive as it directly relates to how he’s able to believe and support so many victims throughout the show. But its also why he has a penchant for undermining Scully during congressional hearings with self-righteous diatribes and its why he’s constantly butting heads with Skinner who has a bit too much self-preservation for Mulder’s tastes. And of course, there is no way Luther Lee Boggs could be anything other than evil. A man who killed his family just for the pleasure of it could not possibly be trying to save a couple of kids. Mulder’s black and white view of evil makes it almost impossible for him to trust that Boggs has an altruistic goal here. Its also why Mulder will often make situations about himself, including this one. Someone shutting down the X-Files has to be some sinister plot aimed directly at his heart rather than a logistic decision; similarly Boggs making psychic claims has to be about nefariously getting back at Mulder for putting him on death row.

“Some killers are projects of society. Some act out past abuses. Boggs kills because he knows how much I hate it.”

So based on that interpretation of Mulder, his skeptical behavior in Beyond The Sea works pretty damn well. It doesn’t feel arbitrary in the slightest; instead its a natural and clever way to flip the roles of Mulder and Scully. (Interestingly enough, Boggs’ newfound psychic abilities could be interpreted as religious in nature, which might add another layer to Mulder’s skepticism). Duchovny is phenomenal playing this version of Mulder as you can almost feel him rolling his eyes in disdain whenever he mentions Boggs and his claims. Gone are the jokes and Mulder witticisms. Instead, we’ve got Mulder acting, for lack of a better word, childishly. When he brings up “psychic transference” to Scully, he does it in this mocking voice that tells Scully right then and there “can you believe how stupid this shit is”? When he shows up at Scully’s motel room, he mocks Boggs “channeling” in a sing-song voice more reminiscent of a ten year old insecure bully than a thirty-three year old brilliant FBI agent. It’s like Mulder is…overcompensating?

What could he be overcompensating for? I really think Mulder subconsciously suspects Boggs is telling the truth but he shuts it down because there’s too much emotional baggage going down that route. We all do some interesting mental gymnastics to convince ourselves we are right and I think Mulder is no different; its easier for him to believe his previous profile and view of Boggs as a person were correct rather than have to admit that maybe there are some shades of gray here. (I honestly wonder if Mulder would have had an easier time believing Boggs had someone else arrested him and Mulder only learned about Boggs during this particular case.)

This is why I think Mulder lashes out at Scully in the motel when she tells him how she found one of the victims necklaces. I think it hurt him on a fundamental level when the first time she shows she might believe in something, it happens to be in the one situation where he’s wrestling with himself over what he believes. He immediately makes the conversation about himself, accusing her of not wanting to be compared to “Spooky Mulder”. Its a really interesting and almost-out-of-nowhere criticism he drops on Scully, but it makes sense to me based on how I think Mulder is dealing with this entire Boggs situation.

But thankfully, Mulder is not a complete asshole here; he very quickly recognizes why Scully is not her normal self and drops back into being supportive. And this is the second area where Mulder’s characterization is on point in Beyond The Sea: his interactions with Scully are incredible. Up till now, we had gotten some great doses of the chemistry between Duchovny and Gillian Anderson but it was always through witty banter or some clever investigative shenanigans. Here though, there is a real sense of tragedy, raw pain, and pure (romantic or non-romantic, who cares) love in their interactions that is truly powerful. Compassion and empathy are positively dripping from every one of Mulder’s lines as he tries to be there for her as best as he can. (Of course this is Dana Scully he is talking with, someone who is renown for not showing any emotion or perceived weakness. But that’s a topic for when I get to my Scully rankings sometime next…decade at this rate?)

Unfortunately, despite all of that awesome Mulder stuff, he just isn’t in the episode enough for me to rank it higher based on my nebulous “Mulderific” criteria. That’s not a weakness of the episode; if anything I think Beyond The Sea is stronger once Mulder gets shot. But its just an unfortunate statement of fact when it comes to these rankings. Such is life.

“You know that is some complete bullsheeeeet”.

I have to say though I don’t really like how Beyond The Sea attempts to mine unnecessary drama from Mulder’s injury. Yes he gets shot and theoretically, his life is in danger, but you never really feel the stakes. Boggs and Scully talk about Mulder’s life hanging in the balance but moments later, Scully sits at Mulder’s hospital bed and there is no mention or indication that Mulder is in actual danger. Its a minor issue but I don’t think the dramatic stakes quite work in those moments and so a tiny bit of the epic confrontation between Scully and Boggs feels deflated. (But please let me re-emphasize the word “tiny” because that scene is fucking incredible.)

And one complaint I have over Mulder’s characterization occurs in the final scene. All episode long, he’s been adamant about not believe Boggs or in his abilities. So in the final scene when he gently asks Scully why its so hard for her to believe, his sudden turn back to being the believer feels unearned. This guy has been fighting tooth and nail to disprove Boggs but we needed that final line from Scully about being afraid to believe. And the only way Morgan and Wong could get there was by having Mulder suddenly and artificially swapping back to being the believer. For an episode with some of most impeccable, subtle and layered writing in the entire history of the show, that final scene falls flat on its face for me.

But minor complaints aside, that was a lot of effusive praise for Mulder considering this is #18 in the season. Still so many great Mulder episodes left! Granted there are still several episodes remaining on this list where I don’t think the character work is nearly as good as Beyond The Sea but are higher solely by having Mulder be a bigger part of the episode (but honestly, criticizing weaker episodes is always easier than discussing stronger episodes).

And now for some random bits of Mulder information.


1.) Number of Sarcastic Mulder Jokes: 1

Mulder drops most of his sarcasm in this episode out of respect for Scully and out of absolute disdain for Boggs.

2.) Number of Self-Righteous/Pretentious/Hyperbolic Mulder Moments: 1

That scene in the motel when Mulder rips into Scully is Mulder at his most self-righteous. And I have to think if Scully weren’t grieving throughout the episode, she would have called him out for his behavior.

3.) Number of Mulder theories: 0

You know Mulder doesn’t really have any theories in this episode. He’s so busy fuming and raging against Boggs that he just backs into the simplest idea that Boggs is orchestrating the kidnapping with Lucas Henry.

4.) Number of Mulder leaps: 0

Mulder is at his most close-minded in this one and so it makes sense that he doesn’t really have any leaps.

5.) Number of quality Mulder investigative moments: 1

He has that incredible moment with the torn up piece from his New York Knicks shirt. But that always makes me wonder…if Boggs was psychic, shouldn’t he have known that Mulder was playing him in that moment? Maybe this was some over-complicated way for him to push Mulder away so he could focus on Scully but I’ve always wondered about this scene.

6.) Number of times Mulder’s voice goes into that trademark sad “Duchovnyish-Whisper”: 1.5

He actually uses the voice with Boggs in the above moment but its laced with anger. He uses the real version with Scully in the motel immediately after making the situation about himself and realizing he probably shouldn’t have.

7.) Number of times Mulder’s gun is drawn: 1

He has his gun drawn when he gets shot but dammit Mulder, if you are told explicitly that your blood will be spilt on a white cross, even if you don’t trust the messenger, wouldn’t you be a bit more cautious and aware of your surroundings?

8.) Number of times Mulder is in danger: 1

The aforementioned scene where Mulder is shot and removed from the episode.

9.) Number of fiery Mulder interactions: 2

I’ve talked at length about him yelling at Scully in the motel but how about the first scene where he interrogates Boggs? This doesn’t fit into the standard definition of “fiery” but man, he is just simmering in rage during the entire scene!

10.) Number of times Mulder pisses someone off: Infinite?

Mulder is pissed off at Boggs throughout the entire episode so its kind of impossible to get an actual number here. Also I forgot to keep track when I watched the episode a month ago and I’m too lazy to go back and count now.

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