Dana Scully’s Truth is Still Out There: On The X-Files Finale, Gaslighting, and Unexplored Narratives

close up of Scully and Mulder
X Files Season 11 DVD Cover, Fox, 2018

[Content Warnings: Discussion of Medical Rape. Contains Spoilers]

If you have loved The X-Files, then at some point, you have probably wanted more X-Files. And that’s why — for me and several million fans — it was hard to hear Gillian Anderson speak about not playing the character of Dana Scully anymore. During the The X-Files’ filming of Season 11 in 2017, Anderson adamantly proclaimed at New York Comic Con  and later on social media that she was done with the role, and in early 2018 at the Television Critics Association 2018 winter press tour, she reiterated her decision: “I don’t really want to be tied down to months and months of doing any particular one thing that I feel like I’ve done.”

After an original series run of nine seasons (1993-2002), two movies in 1998 and 2008, and a previous revival season in 2016, who can blame her? Yet,considering the ageism in the entertainment industry, as well as the current market for revivals and remakes, Anderson could have chosen to leave the door open and not to announce publicly that she was done. So then the question became: would The X-Files continue without her?

It seems the answer came when “My Struggle IV,” the last episode of Season 11, aired in March 2018 as a season (not series) finale. It was clear then that Anderson had made a choice to leave outside of any possible series developments. Although we don’t know if Anderson left due to other unstated reasons, one valid possibility could have been the show’s failure to address years of problematic misogynist and non-feminist tropes — despite it proposing to be a vehicle for a feminist icon. In particular, The X-Files at times raised the issue of gaslighting, but ultimately failed to question its effect on women’s lives.

Gaslighting is a method of maintaining power by manipulating others’ perceptions and sense of reality. For marginalized groups, gaslighting is not just an issue of psychological trauma, but one of systemic power, as inequalities are maintained by powerful voices controlling the dominant narrative. In science fiction, gaslighting as a narrative can be used to question social power and can even be empowering if the people being gaslighted are able to find ways to resist. Throughout the earlier seasons of The X-Files, FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder found ways to hold onto their truths despite being discredited by those in power. However, by the end of season 11 the audience was no longer clued in on the “truth,” and the gaslighting eventually became just another way to obscure plot and character development.

Most of Season 11 was a nostalgic return to the theme of Scully and Mulder against the machines and monsters. The episodes were retro, surreal, and sometimes fun. However, the Season 11 premiere, “My Struggle III” and particularly the finale “My Struggle IV” are both a disruption of what the entire series used to represent as well as a continuation of how the show had diminished Dana Scully.

Scully’s narrative in “My Struggle IV” devolves into a contrived soap opera subplot of midlife pregnancy, and highlights what had already been happening to this character for years: her status as a feminist icon was being undone by inconsistent and problematic narratives, particularly as her identity as a mother became her only story. Eventually, even this narrative didn’t belong to her anymore. The season 11 finale shows Dana Scully — an FBI agent, a professional in the fields of science and medicine — dismissing her lived experience of motherhood for reasons that could be related to gaslighting as well as the aftermath of her medical rape(s) and grief; this moves her towards a life that no longer questions or explores the unknown, and Scully’s truth stays untold.

The X-Files: A Complicated Love-Hate Relationship

Scully’s narrative is not the only confounding aspect of The X-Files. At times it has been a hard show to love, with its problematic exploration (or non-exploration) of issues related to race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation. With the possible exceptions of recurring characters like Mr. X and Alvin Kersh, narratives rarely centered on a person of color, let alone a person of color in a position of power. But Season 10 in 2016 found new lows with the Islamophobia of “Babylon,” the transphobia of “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” and Scully equating being gay as a “lifestyle preference” in “Founder’s Mutation.” Anderson brought some change in Season 11; after she agreed with critics about the show’s gender disparity, five women were added as writers and/or directors. However, this change did little to instill a feminist ethic within the show (and in fact, the representation of gender became more problematic, not less).

The show’s intricate mythology doesn’t help either. It started out simple: aliens. Then there were aliens working with “powerful (white) men” often led by Cigarette-Smoking Man (CSM), the main antagonist. For a while, aliens became a lie, but then they were real again. Then they were no longer interested in Earth because of global warming, so powerful men (and one or two women) were now trying to destroy most of Earth’s human population and colonize other planets.

Not surprisingly, this constantly changing mythology leaves many storylines either unresolved or wrapped up in unsatisfying ways. To add to all of that, there’s the tangled relationship mythology between Scully and Mulder. For the sake of space, we’ll skip the years of sexual tension. They have — or thought they had — a child together: William (who was given up for adoption as a baby and is a teenager with alien DNA superpowers in Season 11). Scully and Mulder were presumably his parents, yet the audience is never told when their relationship started or even sometimes if it’s ongoing. Why are we left in the dark? Who knows?! The relationship between main characters should not be a choose-your-own-adventure. Unless… it is a choose-your-own-adventure?

Why did I watch this show?!?!?!

I guess because I loved so much about how it questioned certain power structures, including the Mulder against the powers-that-be dynamic. He comes from a world of privilege and authority. Yet, he has turned against much of it in order to stay open to the inexplicable, to worlds unknown, unproven. That’s why he’s in the basement office. I also loved that Scully was not willing to buy everything Mulder was selling. She had her own experience and viewpoints as a scientist, as a doctor, as a person with religious faith, and as a woman working in the male-dominated field of the FBI. She wasn’t going to be his protégé or accept his views as her own. And she wouldn’t accept any view without compelling evidence.

Yet, I also loved when they listened to each other. Even at odds, they listened when no one else would. Despite all the authority figures who told them not to ask questions, they asked questions and explored in their own way as well as together.    

In previous seasons, Mulder and Scully were often gaslighted by those powerful men, particularly CSM. Immediately after uncovering or almost uncovering some conspiracy and/or proof of the paranormal, memories were altered, evidence destroyed, case reports dismissed as “spooky.” Clinician and author Stephanie Sarkis explains in “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” that gaslighting happens when a person or entity takes over someone’s reality through lies and manipulation to seek or maintain control. Most of the time, Mulder and Scully held onto their sense of truth even after being gaslighted: Mulder usually believed in his experiences; Scully stayed skeptical. But it wasn’t the gaslighting that made her question everything,it was her scientifically driven need for evidence.   

Gaslighting in Science Fiction

Science fiction narratives may include gaslighting because these protagonists often encounter unknown worlds that everyone else wants to ignore, dismiss, or conceal. One of The X-Files’ science fiction influences, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has a scene where government officials arrange a meeting for UFO witnesses. The officials concede that UFOs may exist, but they also insist there’s no evidence to prove anyone had experienced a UFO. The witnesses are supposed to be placated by the admission of the possible existence of UFOs; but at the same time, their experiences are denied. One of the witnesses, Roy Neary, doesn’t give into the gaslighting: “You can’t fool us by agreeing with us.”  

Aliens’ Ellen Ripley is a precursor to Scully as a science fiction feminist icon. Even as a flight officer on a spaceship in the 22nd century, she has to deal with gaslighting. Ripley is found in stasis on a space shuttle, almost sixty years after surviving an alien creature that killed the rest of her crew. The company that initially hired them questions her story about why she destroyed their expensive ship. Ripley holds onto the lived experience of her trauma, but Carter Burke, one of the company’s representatives, exploits that trauma. He convinces her to return with him to the planet where the alien was found, to destroy it, so she can get on with her life. Burke only wants to use whatever Ripley knows to preserve the alien. Yet, Ripley’s vulnerability leaves her open to believing that Burke wants what she wants — that his lies are her truth.

Close Encounters, Aliens, and some of The X-Files’ previous seasons present a clear gaslighting narrative. We, the audience, know the difference between the lies and truth.We are shown and/or told that difference, if not at first, then eventually.

But The X-Files’ Season 11 finale (really, most of Season 11) doesn’t give us a sense of what is true and what is a lie (spoiler alert — did Season 10 even exist?). There is no clear gaslighting narrative in “My Struggle IV” because the audience doesn’t know who or what to believe. Yet, Scully questions none of CSM’s questionable information. She has also — in addition to the times when she was gaslighted along with Mulder — been specifically gaslighted by CSM before. So there is a strong precedent.

For example, in Season 7’s “En Ami”, which is included in flashbacks in the Season 11 premiere, Scully is coerced into a road trip with CSM. She wakes up in a strange bed and doesn’t remember how she got there. We later learn that she has been medically raped, but Scully doesn’t know this, and the audience doesn’t know either. When Scully accuses CSM of drugging her, he insists she was tired. This is of course absurd; Scully would know the difference between being drugged and being tired. Alone in an unfamiliar place, Scully doesn’t argue with his gaslighting. I would suggest that she may have realized that an escalating confrontation would leave her more defenseless; she had no other choice but to let him think that she believed him. However, this is only a theory. We are never shown what Scully believes or knows. We are instead shown her astonishment at the end of “En Ami” when she finds that even her minimal trust in CSM may have been misplaced.         

Although it’s uncertain whether CSM intends to gaslight Scully in Season 11 he may be doing so through her boss at the FBI, Assistant Director Walter Skinner. In the premiere, he reveals (while held at gunpoint) that Scully was “impregnated by science” (i.e., medically raped) and CSM — not Mulder — is the father of  William. As CSM talks to Skinner, the “En Ami” flashbacks are shown with a new detail added by writer Chris Carter: an unseen housekeeper character helped bring Scully into the house the night before. This further complicates how truth and lies are defined on the revival seasons and even past seasons of The X-Files. Maybe it’s Carter who is gaslighting his audience, leading us to distrust what’s on-screen while we wait for resolutions that never come?

Where is the truth? The downfall of gaslighting as a narrative trope

Scully crying. Text reads I need to believe.

As in “En Ami,” we don’t know what Scully believes in the series finale. When Skinner shares CSM’s revelation, she seems to dissociate and offers no response. Eventually, she runs into a factory and finds Mulder who insists their son wants them to let him go. Scully frantically argues that they can protect him before realizing she isn’t speaking to Mulder. She’s speaking to William because his alien DNA gives him the power to control how others see him. Apparently knowing about the medical rape and paternity hasn’t changed Scully’s relationship with Mulder or her son — for now.

However, it’s the last scenes between Scully and Mulder that upend not just what has previously happened in the finale but throughout the series. When Scully finds Mulder following a showdown on a dock, their unprocessed grief from years of gaslighting and trauma starts to come out. Mulder is distraught over losing their son, but Scully repeats what William had told her: he wanted them to let him go. Then she tells him that William was an experiment, and that she was never a mother to him, a drastic conversion from the mother-protector role that Scully had embodied only a few moments before.  

Scully may have been ready to fight for her son at first, but now she takes it all in: CSM’s revelation that he was the father, and that she was medically raped. CSM doesn’t even need to be present for the gaslighting to happen. One telling moment in the Season 11 premiere that speaks of the long-term effects of gaslighting is when Scully says CSM won’t harm her. All he has ever done is harm her. Now, her son is gone, but she gives up any claim to their relationship just as CSM, her abuser, would want. In other words, she takes over CSM’s role and gaslights herself.

Yet the gaslighting narrative, like many of the narratives in The X-Files, is unclear because — again — we don’t know truth from lies. Scully may have been trying to distance herself from the grief of losing William. Or the disturbing new awareness of her medical rape may have forced the distance because she couldn’t think of William without thinking of this violence against her.

We don’t know why Scully distances herself from her son. What is certain is that Scully’s story — particularly her trauma — goes unspoken.  

The Scully of an earlier X-Files would never have accepted CSM’s paternity without scientific evidence. In “En Ami,” she never expressed that CSM may have raped her when she was drugged. Her previous medical rape (in season 2) could have led her to believe it had happened again. She may have been in denial until Skinner told her.  Maybe she had suppressed years of rage over being physically and emotionally violated in the name of unethical science. In “My Struggle IV,” Scully may feel as if there’s no way to prove anything anymore, not when those in authority repeatedly use their science to violate her.

Even without the science, Scully too easily disregards hers — as well as Mulder’s —  emotional bond with William. CSM’s story is unfortunately plausible. But emotional truths can often be a stronger truth in that they can transform one’s relationship to a traumatic experience. Mulder doesn’t need to be the biological father to be William’s father. And Scully grieved for years after giving William up for adoption, even processed some of that grief in the more skillfully told “Ghouli,” a previous Season 11 episode. William could be both an “experiment” as well as their son. But Scully doesn’t trust herself to stand by the experience of her motherhood. The Scully of early seasons would have trusted her own experience. She would have spoken up.

Yet, the Scully of an earlier season (season six’s “Dreamland) had also expressed the need for  a “normal” life. She doesn’t speak about it much again, but “normal” for Scully may have meant a life that didn’t contend with giving up their child for adoption or being held back in their careers. Scully and Mulder never fully process their grief over their past experiences, and it would have been a powerful story to explore throughout the revival episodes. It would have been even more powerful to show Scully and Mulder on the other side of these emotions and being okay with themselves because they do not need to be “normal” (whatever that means) to be fulfilled.

Instead, Scully is pregnant in her fifties. Finally, they can be “normal.” They can stop asking questions and exploring these so-called X-Files and settle into middle-aged domesticity with William 2.0. Because the new baby will save them from their grief and regrets, as if  children don’t carry the past with them. “My Struggle IV” also seems to support the idea that an unplanned pregnancy in your fifties is always welcome. Are there other options to consider? It doesn’t seem so, according to the ending.

It’s all over…or is it?

A series finale should make you realize why you loved a show. Instead, “My Struggle IV” made me ask: what had I been watching all of these years? Season 11 had its moments; any time Mulder and Scully reference their age is gratifying. Watching them get older together, hearing them doubt and then assert their relevance — we don’t see enough of that. Those moments made me want more. But those moments are not enough.

At the 2018 Wizard World convention in Chicago, someone asked Anderson what The X-Files would have been like if it was written from a more feminist perspective:  “There would probably be less focus on her reproductive abilities…it would be less of an obsession.” Anderson also added that these limitations don’t take away Scully’s influence as a feminist icon. But how does Anderson balance out her feminism with participating in a narrative that so frequently fails women? Maybe that’s why Anderson was open about her decision to leave. (Although it’s worth noting that Anderson didn’t know the complete narrative at the time. Show creator Chris Carter didn’t provide the script for the last scenes of the finale to Anderson and co-star David Duchovny until right before they started filming those scenes.)

The X-Files is a hard show to love, and I don’t love it the way I used to. But it will always be a show that has influenced me. Before Season 11, I would watch with the awareness of how The X-Files could have done better. It’s different when you know The X-Files’ “updated” writing team could have highlighted women’s perspectives in 2018, but didn’t. We need feminist icons. Yet, we need more than that: we need feminist stories.

In science fiction, there is empowerment in exploring worlds that others may not believe in or may want to keep hidden. A feminist icon can represent that empowerment even if they or their narratives are not necessarily feminist. But a feminist story is one that centers unheard voices and experiences. Scully’s narrative in the finale closes us off from truly knowing her voice and experience, and closes her off — at least in the finale’s representation of her — from being a feminist icon. However, if The X-Files has given us anything, it’s that there are always more stories — more truths — than the ones we are told. Even if no one listens to us in the basement office, we shouldn’t stop questioning what we are given. We shouldn’t stop exploring the possibilities in all of our worlds, known and unknown.

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