How Not to Talk About a Relationship: The Communication Styles of Mulder and Scully [Part 1]

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So, I started writing this directly after Plus One aired in defense of the awkward dialog in the bed scene, but then it kind of grew into its own thing. Now that we’re about to embark on the end of the season (series?), I’ve decided to split this into two parts examining the evolution of the characters’ relationship and the ways that they communicate. This part will cover Season 10 up through early Season 11 (ending with Plus One), and then after the finale, I’ll evaluate how it has evolved to that point.

What’s going on with Mulder and Scully in Season 10

Mulder and Scully have been in a really weird place since the beginning of Season 10. They’ve been split up for an undisclosed amount of time when we first catch up with them. It could have been six months, five years, who knows? I always imagined it as maybe a year or two, though. Their wounds still seem fairly fresh. I can imagine Mulder starting to become restless after nothing went down back at the end of 2012. Sveta points out that Mulder’s depression is what ended the relationship, though it’s unclear exactly how that manifested and to what degree in order to drive them apart. Was he listless and unmotivated? Obsessive and irritable? Unpredictable mood swings? Alternating between all of the above? Mulder is an emotional guy, prone to both angry outbursts and bouts of self-loathing, so it’s not hard to imagine him treading into self-destructive territory. Despite their reconciliation at the end of I Want to Believe, there are still some lingering unresolved issues between them as far as Mulder’s obsessive pull toward the darkness vs. Scully’s yearning for the normal life that she can never realistically have after all they’ve been through. Mulder gives a hint in his comment to Scully in My Struggle, “I thought you were done with UFOs. ‘The stranglehold they put on your very existence,’ I believe is how you put it.”

Despite their separation, however, they’ve kept in touch and remained friends, and their initial interactions are a mix of familiarity and concern, though tinged with slight animosity. The thing that ultimately draws them back together isn’t any change in Mulder’s behavior, but rather that Scully can no longer pretend that she can ever escape her role in the conspiracy that is slowly re-emerging. Her quest for justice is reignited, along with a renewed fear for her son’s safety.

But after rejoining the FBI, they begin to fall back into their old patterns. Mulder once again has a more healthy outlet for his obsessions. They’ve got each other’s backs as partners and as friends. Any bitterness they may have felt after separating seems to have melted away as soon as they begin working together again. And when Scully’s mother has a heart attack, Mulder knows that the most important place he needs to be is at Scully’s side. And it’s here that they begin to really repair their relationship emotionally, though there are still barriers. In dealing with her mother’s death and the guilt and fears she has about William, Scully begins to open up to Mulder again, and he tries his best to comfort her, though the conversation tends to be one-sided, as their most emotional confessions often are. The subject of William seems to be especially difficult for Mulder to approach as he struggles with his own repressed feelings about his son; both his fears about where he came from and the fatherhood he never got to experience. Scully tries to confront Mulder about it head-on in Founder’s Mutation, when her emotional ties to motherhood get uncomfortably tangled in the conspiracy’s use and abuse of women. She tries to gauge how Mulder thinks of her here, as well, as she asks, sadly and pointedly, “Was I just an incubator?” His response, while touching, remains nebulous, “You’re never ‘just’ anything to me, Scully.”

By the end of Babylon, Mulder and Scully seem ready to start trying to figure out where things went wrong and if there’s any way to set them right, but they can’t bring themselves to be direct about it. Instead, they speak in metaphors, pondering philosophy, the nature of love and hate and language and God.

“I saw things, though, Scully. Powerful things. I saw deep and unconditional love.”
“I saw things, too. I witnessed unqualified hate that appears to have no end.”
“Yeah. But how to reconcile the two? The extremes of our nature.”
“That’s the question. Maybe the question of our times.”

They’re speaking about the case, but their eyes and tone of voice are having a slightly different conversation. Mulder takes Scully’s hand and walks with her. He stops and looks directly into her eyes.

“But where does the hatred end, though?”
“Maybe it ends where it began, by finding a common language again. Maybe that’s God’s will.”
“How can we really know? He’s absent from the stage.”
“Well… maybe it’s beyond words. Maybe we should do like the prophets do and… open our hearts and truly listen.”

This is how they articulate–beyond words.  By getting philosophical and layering double meaning into their conversations to avoid direct confrontation when broaching more difficult subjects.
Let’s face it, Mulder and Scully really suck at having conversations like normal people about personal topics. In 25 years, they have probably never had a direct conversation with each other about their current relationship status. They go with it, and there’s an implicit understanding between them, but if they ever need to talk about it?  Well, good luck with that.


Communication Styles

Mulder and Scully have five major methods of communication:

1. Casual Banter – Used for basic conversations without heavy subject matter. They’re pretty good at this one!
2. Metaphorical/Philosophical – Using the subject matter of a case or other topic as a substitute for what they’re actually trying to communicate to each other.
3. Desperate Confession – A more blatant, direct confession of feelings, usually following a traumatic event, and often heavily one-sided.
4. Barriers/Deflection – Shutting down and avoiding difficult conversations and/or deflecting with humor to bring down and avoid the seriousness of a topic.
5. Silent – Actual conversation consists of only eye contact and body language. May be completely silent or may take place over top of a separate verbal conversation. (See: Eye Sex.)

Mulder and Scully are most direct with each other when they’re emotionally charged. Mulder especially.

“But you saved me! As difficult and as frustrating as it’s been sometimes, your goddamned strict rationalism and science have saved me a thousand times over! You’ve kept me honest… you’ve made me a whole person. I owe you everything, Scully, and you owe me nothing.”

Scully sometimes tries to bring up serious subjects, but Mulder often counters with humor.

“Have you ever thought seriously about dying?”
“Yeah, once, when I was at the Ice Capades.”

And then, of course, there’s the classic I’m-not-emotionally-ready-to-deal-with-all-of-the-horrible-shit-going-on-in-my-life response:

“I’m fine.”

But when “real talk” does happen in those more emotionally charged moments, it doesn’t always end well, which may encourage them to continue to avoid it.

“We’re so close now.”
“And I’m asking you let it go.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“No, it’s complicated.”
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?”
“Something that I knew would happen, that I’ve been afraid of, that I haven’t had to face until now.”
“What? Just say it.”
“I’m a doctor, Mulder. That’s not my life any more.”
“I know that.”
“You’re not understanding me. I can’t look into the darkness with you any more, Mulder. I cannot stand what it does to you or to me.”
“I’m fine with it, Scully. I’m actually okay. I’m good.”
“Yeah, that’s what scares me.”


By the time Season 10 wraps up, we’ve definitely made some progress in starting to repair Mulder and Scully’s relationship, but they’re still not back to where they were. Can they go back? What would prevent things from ultimately ending the way they did before?  They can fall back into each other’s lives, but they can’t make assumptions about where it progresses from there without talking about it, and god, they suck at talking about it.

Season 11 – Part 1 (My Struggle III -Plus One)

Three episodes into Season 11 have shown us three very different aspects of how Mulder and Scully communicate.

My Struggle III is nonstop desperate confrontation. It’s honest and urgent, direct and raw. Mulder is still extremely uncomfortable talking about William… especially now that everyone seems to want to talk to him about William. Mulder and Scully are affectionate toward each other, tender and concerned, but where do they draw the line? Mulder will slit a guy’s throat for Scully without hesitation, but he still doesn’t know if he can kiss her.

Skip ahead a bit (I’ll save my thoughts on the questionable timelines for Seasons 10 and 11 for later), and we come to This. It’s been at the very least a couple of weeks since the events of My Struggle III, and Mulder and Scully are possibly more in sync with each other than they have ever been. We find them asleep next to each other on the couch – extremely familiar and comfortable with each other. From their surroundings, it looks like they had eaten dinner together and were possibly going over some case files before passing out with the TV on. Could Scully be staying there after the events of My Struggle III as she recovered from her injuries, and maybe to stop her from driving alone for a while in case she has anymore seizures? Given the continued messiness of the house (compared to the more sterile living quarters we saw for Scully in Season 10), I’m not convinced that she’s moved back in permanently yet (and we’ll see that she hasn’t as of Rm9sbG93ZXJz). Maybe she just came over for the evening, or maybe she’s staying for a while. She refers to the house as “Agent Mulder’s residence,” but she also later refers to it as “our house” when talking to Skinner. It was certainly her house at one point in the past (and chances are that her name is the one on the mortgage)… could it be again?

Anyway, This is full of fun, playful banter and silent communication. Any confrontational talk is saved for Skinner. Mulder and Scully are functioning as two parts of one whole here. Seeing them here, it’s easy to imagine how they may have functioned together during their years on the run. There are so many times that they know exactly what the other is thinking just based on a quick glance. They have entire conversations using only facial expressions. When they jump (slide!) into action when the intruders first come to the door, it’s as if they’ve practiced for this very scenario before. They’re completely on the same page, and it allows them to relax and joke around with each other, despite the danger they’re currently in. There are flirty compliments, picking at each other’s muffins, and references to past, uh, “recreational” handcuff usage. They may not be “officially” back together in a romantic sense, but after this, you’d have to imagine they’d be asking themselves why the hell not.

Well, probably because that would involve talking about it.


Plus One

And that brings us to Plus One.

One of the biggest complaints about this episode is the somewhat awkward dialogue between Mulder and Scully in the bed scene, and I admit that on my first viewing, it kind of threw me off a bit, too. On subsequent viewings, however, it really clicked with me. The awkwardness was kind of the point. The dialogue doesn’t need to be re-written, it just needs to be translated. It’s not so much about what’s literally being said, but what they want to say but can’t quite bring themselves to be direct about.

Mulder and Scully are finally back on the job and out investigating a case. And then they’re thrown a bit of a curveball… and also one of the oldest fanfic tropes in the books. They arrive at a quaint little motel without reservations, and, oh no, there’s only one suite available. But hey, at least it has a pull-out couch.

While Scully hesitates, Mulder could not have agreed to that one room any faster. Scully seems a little suspicious of his motives. Could “just trying to get some shut-eye” be an on-the-case euphemism from when they originally got together?  We’ll probably never know. But Mulder is totally checking Scully out as she walks away.

Mulder continues to flirt and drop little hints when they’re alone together. Scully continues to brush it off. Professionalism on the case, or confusion about just what is going on here?

Meanwhile, Judy starts to tap into Scully’s existing insecurities. It seems ridiculous that Mulder would ever be interested in anyone else, but with everything that’s been going on with them, can Scully be sure? She’s already been dealing with her feelings about losing the chance to be a mother to her son, but now there’s an added layer of how Mulder perceives her. He loves her, he’d kill a dude for her, but is he still attracted to her? Scully is strangely direct, but still beating around the bush, “Mulder, do you think of me as old?”  He’s taken aback by the question, because, obviously, she’s still hot as hell. He tries to re-assure her, and it comes out in an endearingly awkward Mulderish kind of way. Scully playfully kicks him out, but then leans back against the door and sighs. Where, exactly, are they? Mulder has always been flirty around her, even before he’d developed any kind of romantic feelings toward her. They’re still physically attracted to each other. But now they have history. Somewhat messy history. Where does it go from here?

That Awkward Conversation

Mulder can flirt all he wants, but nothing is ever going to move forward until they figure out where they are and what they want. Scully wakes up a third time in her hotel bed, feeling a presence hovering over her. This time no one’s there. No Mulder bringing news of another death. As relieved as she is not to have a demonic doppelganger hovering over her, she kind of wishes Mulder was there. And it’s finally time to fix that.

She wakes him up and tells him she can’t sleep. She’s done with being in FBI mode. She needs her friend. Or more than friend. Whatever they are now.

“Something about this case is getting under my skin.”

And it has nothing to do with all those deaths.

“Well, we’ve had stranger cases, Scully.”

We’re on a case and Scully is standing pouty-faced in her adorable silk pajamas at my bedside. What is going on here?

And possibly the emotionally bravest thing Scully has ever said:

“Can you hold me?”

She’s done pretending that she’s fine.

“Yeah. I can do that.”

Mulder is caught off guard again. He has no idea where this is going, but he will give her anything she needs. He pulls back the covers for her and wraps his arms around her. It’s most likely the first time they’ve done this since splitting up.

“What’s gonna happen?”
“What’s gonna happen when?”
“When we’re old.”
“What do you mean ‘when’?”
“I mean… sooner or later we’re gonna retire and…”
“Are we gonna spend time together?”
“I’ll come push your wheelchair… with my wheelchair.” He whispers this last part into her ear.
She smiles for a second, but then grows serious again; this isn’t what she’s looking for. This is deflection.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Oh, I’ll  always be around, Scully. Offering bulletproof theories of genius that you fail to assail with your inadequate rationality.”
“And I’ll always be around to prove you wrong.”
“No, but that’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if you meet someone?”
Mulder is taken aback. This is not where he thought this was going.
“What if you meet someone… younger who… wants to have kids?”

It sounds like a ridiculous question, but Scully has a history of feeling threatened by the women in Mulder’s life. She experienced slight jealousy of women Mulder seemed to be taking interest in (see: Dr. Bambi), and had extremely adverse reactions to women Mulder has had an intimate history with (see: Phoebe Green, and especially Diana Fowley), and that was before they were ever together in any kind of official capacity.  When she tracked down Mulder at home and found Sveta with him, Scully is extremely hurt and tries to shut down and leave. It’s not just his continued obsession with the conspiracies that have haunted their lives, but that he’s found a new “key to everything” in a young, beautiful woman with abduction experiences not entirely dissimilar to her own. As unlikely as that may seem to us, it’s a valid insecurity to Scully.

“Oh, that’s what you mean.  Well… you could do the same. You could meet someone and… have kids.”

She puts out a short, bitter laugh. She’d been fishing for reassurance from him, but he doesn’t take the bait and instead deflects her concerns right back onto her. But this only digs deeper into her pain and insecurities, and she responds seriously:

“Mulder, that’s not gonna happen.”
“That’s nonsense.”
“No, it’s not. I’m… I’m at the end of that journey.”
“Do you want to have more kids?”
“Well… I would have liked to have had another one.”
“Mm. At the risk of sounding insensitive, what’s stopping you?”
“Mmm… Besides the fact that the first time was a miracle? And besides the fact that I don’t have anyone to have one with even if I could?”
“You’re a woman of science.”
Another short, bitter laugh. She was baiting him again, and again he didn’t give her the answer she was hoping for.

“Mulder, sometimes I think the world is going to hell, and that we’re the only two people who can save it.”

“The world is going to hell, Scully. The president working to bring down the FBI along with it.”

“What if we lose our jobs?”
“Yeah. Then what would we do?”
“We’ll think of something.”

In the end, Scully answers her own question when Mulder poses it back to her. They’ll think of something.

Direct eye contact. Quick break to Mulder’s lips/body. Resume direct eye contact. Mulder does the same.

Eye sex. Then sex sex.

Despite everything, Mulder has always known that there will never be anyone else. This is the woman who he flew to Antarctica for after getting shot on the head. This is the woman who literally brought him back from the dead. But it was she who left him, and he can’t make her come back to him until she decides that’s what she wants.

And that is what she wants, but Scully can’t ignore their past failures. She needs to know that they’ve grown and changed before they try again so that they don’t repeat their past mistakes. He needs to have matured, and she needs to accept that their lives are complicated and will likely never be “normal” and that maybe that’s okay.

And ultimately, they need to stop taking each other for granted and finally learn to better communicate. Scully has made the first step here, but the ball is still in her court…


To be continued…  


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