Eight Reasons Mulder and Scully Are Actually Terrible FBI Agents


Many heroes are really bad at their jobs, and for good reason: how many people want to watch a movie about Robocop dutifully standing outside in the parking lot with the rest of his support team while his superiors handle everything? Still, we often willfully forget about the gulf between what we see onscreen and what would probably happen in real life, and in the case (ha!) of everyone’s favorite pair of paranormal-fighting G-person lovebirds, it may have been for the best. Because when you get down to it, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why, despite their best qualities, The X-Files‘ Fox Mulder and Dana Scully weren’t the sort of agents you’d really recommend for career advancement. I’m not saying they were bad people, bad characters, or even bad at dealing with aliens or demons or ghost rapists or stretchy people or what have you. It’s just that, although I’ve only made it through the first eight seasons, something tells me these guys wouldn’t have lasted very long if not for the dense layers of TV magic and fan love keeping them on a regular investigation schedule.

Detailing why this is so is going to be a little more difficult than, say, calling the CSI characters out for not following correct forensic procedure, because a) The X-Files employed a scientific consultant and endeavored to be accurate when possible and b) many times the writers had other characters fully acknowledge the absurd things Fanox Sculder were able to get away with, especially in the later seasons, when that seemed to become a lot more interesting to them than a typical monster story. Mulder and Scully do seem to spend some time on the more mundane aspects of federal investigations, at least more than most television crimefighters seem to. But that doesn’t mean that they still weren’t hopelessly reckless when it comes to actual FBI protocol (of which I admittedly know very little) and common sense (of which I definitely know little). Obviously, some some seriously expired spoilers follow.

8) They’re horrendously high-profile

Quick: name five active real-life FBI agents whose names were the title of a ’90s alt rock song. Can’t? Secrecy would appear to be a fundamental part of the job for the X-filers’ work, yet about ? through the series Mulder is described as being too well-known to show his face in Las Vegas, a city famous, of course, for being predominantly quiet and easy to spot people in. The seventh season took this idea to a whole new level, with two episodes in particular treating Mulder and Scully essentially as if they were celebrities first and law enforcement second: “X-Cops” had the agents appearing on national television, and “Hollywood A.D.” even saw a movie made about them using their real names. Yeah, the movie was probably a flop, but it’s a record of the agents and their work that anyone could theoretically see. By this point in the series, the two of them don’t seem all that concerned with the security risks of their names and histories being public, and that’s a bit of a problem if your entire job description involves matters of national security (Scully, to her credit, did hate being on TV). Oh, and for the record, part of me does want to see a movie featuring the Richard Gere version of Mulder, if solely on the chance that it might at least be better than I Want to Believe.

7) They rack up the travel budget

Ok, they didn’t pay for this one, but still.

I don’t care if it’s for work or not: you can’t exactly say these two are stingy when it comes to booking flights, renting cars, or in Mulder’s case, furthering his crippling porn addiction on the company dime. Incidental, maybe, but when you consider the money spent on travel, lodging and sunflower seeds per episode, you can see how quickly it could accumulate. On some level, those are probably our hard-earned tax dollars sending them to places like Antarctica and the Bermuda Triangle for something that totally won’t end up with more job growth for this country, and you don’t have to be a fiscal hardass to find that a teensy bit questionable. However, it’s not like anyone’s stopping them, and the citizens of the U.S. have probably collectively already funded enough of the Cigarette Smoking Man’s Morley’s to have covered the national debt twice over. Like a few other items on this list, this is directly addressed in an on-the-nose scene in the season 7 finale “Requiem,” with the agents getting a list of all their expenses read straight to their faces, but you’d think the people in charge would have caught on a little sooner than that.

6) They get along terribly with local law enforcement

Fun fact: when FBI agents work together with the authorities of specific areas, they do so in a cooperative capacity, and contrary to popular belief, don’t take authority of these cases away from those police forces, at least according to their official FAQ. And in most cases, The X-Files doesn’t necessarily get this wrong. However, if the goal of these kinds of collaborations is to get different parties to, well, collaborate, then the classic X-Files team fails pretty hard on a lot of fronts, as the star agents usually do most of the real work themselves while the grizzled local sheriff or whatever hems and haws and refuses to buy any of it. Sometimes they allow for their forces to show up and shoot the bad guy down at the end, or bust open a door right as the killer is about to get away. Even when their investigations go smoothly, though, the end result is usually some reluctant praise from the former doubters at best. Chances are Mulder and Scully don’t have a whole lot of character recommendations to bank on, which is great if you’re a roguish TV lead, not so much if you’re actually trying to build up a resume. And while we’re on the subject…

5) They often don’t call for backup when they need it

Yes, there are instances where these two successfully marshal larger forces together to fight evil, or act as part of a larger plan (sometimes under Skinner’s direction). But once again, it’s mostly just them going alone, probably not the best course of action when a dangerous killer is on the loose, especially if they can pop out of your toilet. It’s one thing to antagonize small-minded hicks because they can’t see that a certain disemboweling was CLEARLY done by a creature out of mythical African folklore or something. That’s understandable (kind of). Barging into danger with your
pants down and your ass hanging out, as Colonel Tigh would say, is just foolish (though a little impressive on an athletic level). When the other officers show up, it tends to be to after the big brawl, not before. This becomes even more apparent in some of the Doggett episodes, like “Roadrunners,” where we get the strange sensation of having our male lead ask for assistance and the local police essentially say, “ok.”

4) They get transferred and reinstated, like, seven times

While not every season ends with the X-Files being shut down, it certainly feels like it, and this happens so frequently the further you get into the series that it starts to feel as perfunctory as the opening credits. Yes, I know this is part of the “mythology” and that most of these plotlines do provide (somewhat convoluted) reasons to bring Mulder and Scully together again after each fake ending, even if it takes a few episodes (or Robert Patrick) to get us back there. Still, that’s not a very stable job history. It’s hard enough to work your way up the ladder if your employers see that you took a gap year: I feel like explaining to them about how you were recuperating in a Native American spirit dimension would not generate much sympathy.

3) They aren’t wizards

So, the general line about the show, as it ends up pointing out itself numerous times, is that Mulder is the one with the wild theories, and Scully is the one who brings him down to earth and she’s factual but he’s “right,” etc. It’s easy to see that “Spooky” has a difficult time being accepted by the rest of the FBI establishment as it is, and often his partner is the only thing keeping him from being considered a complete lunatic (and sometimes not even that). But maybe instead of keeping his fanciful, occult interests contained, it would have best fit Mulder to go deeper: learn some magic! I mean, we establish pretty early on that the supernatural exists in this universe and that demons are practically begging to be tracked down (or else they go bother Lance Henriksen), so why not give Fox more of a Carnacki or Van Helsing streak and arm him against the forces of evil? This might not have made him a better FBI agent in the traditional definition, but if he at least arrived with the appropriate arcane equipment it could have lent him a bit more credibility as a monster hunter. The more you think about it, it makes no sense for him to make fun of Scully for not believing in aliens when he brings nothing more than a dinky ordinary gun to a ghost fight. And he clearly has enough knowledge of the occult to recognize dark rituals and hoodoo when he sees it, so why can’t he actually use any of it for himself?

Later seasons had other FBI officials going so far as to acknowledge the X-Files team’s forte and send them on missions of a paranormal nature (without saying so much specifically), so I’m sure they might have come around eventually. But despite this, Mulder has yet to become fully schooled in the dark arts, and the closest Scully’s ever been to a magic caster was that one time she wore a top hat for a few seconds, which I’m pretty sure was more for promotional reasons than anything else. Maybe Fox and Dana: Vampire Hunters wouldn’t have been quite the same show as the one we fell in love with, but it certainly would have made some of the duller MotW stories that much more interesting knowing at least one of our heroes was walking around with bandoliers of silver bullets under their shirt.

2) They’re both victimized routinely

It pains me to say this, but as much as X-Philes like to point to Scully as an example of a strong, sensible, well-realized female character in science fiction (which she generally is), when you actually sit down and watch the show, she spends an awful lot of time on the shit end of the paranormal stick. Abducted, impregnated, cancered, drugged, beaten up, sexually menaced, blinded, entranced, threatened by unearthly children and temporarily inhabited by a slug version of Jesus, she’s subjected to all manner of horrors and many times has to be rescued by a male counterpart, especially in the first few seasons. But to be fair, Mulder is as danger-prone himself, and some of the situations he gets trapped in, like pretty much the entire third act of the infamous “First Person Shooter,” rank high up on the embarrassment scale.

So let’s just call it even: they both suck at staying out of trouble, and have each wound up in enough hospital beds to make one wonder if they aren’t secretly nursing painkiller addictions. Think about it: if you were an Assistant Director in the FBI, and you had a pair of agents who were nearly killed pretty much every week, would that really be the first team you turned to whenever a new crisis popped up? Even with a track record like they have, you’ve got to consider your liabilities. Is there a team that doesn’t almost die every time they’re assigned to a new case? Because you could probably just pick those guys instead.

1) There’s a whole bunch of episodes where they don’t actually solve anything

From the very first episode we’re told that the nature of these cases that show revolves around, the titular X files, is that they are unsolved; paranormal, perhaps, but primarily of governmental interest because there was never any official wrap-up. As such, the open ending is a bit of a staple of the X-Files, with whatever evil is being faced driven away at the finale but not destroyed completely, and rarely fully understood. Even by these standards, though, many episodes feature our heroes as surprisingly powerless against a given antagonist, and, if you’ll excuse another pun, display remarkably little agency. Towards the end of the sixth season, starting around “Alpha,” several episodes follow where Mulder and Scully prove irrelevant to the actual resolution of whatever case they’re called in to investigate, while the bad guy either screws themselves over or is foiled by somebody else. And in some cases, such as the admittedly classic “Field Trip,” it almost results in our two favorite agents getting themselves killed (and you could in fact argue that that’s indeed what happens, and that the rest of the series is one long, crazy fungus dream, which would at least explain the Kathy Griffin episode.).

But this trend can be seen in other episodes outside of that streak, too, and even some of the earlier installments have the duo barely making it out of the fray with their lives.

They don’t fare much better in many of the pre-Doggett mythology episodes either, and when anything good in those storylines happened, it was often the result of somebody else saving our heroes’ bacon and getting ice-picked for their trouble. And some of the most pivotal moments, like the murder of the Syndicate (including the Well-Manicured Man, the Raspy-Voiced Jowly Man, the Man Who Kind of Looks Like Willem Defoe, etc.), weren’t directly caused by them either, but by things happening to or around them. The fact that so many cases end up, in the long run, as little more than big fish stories means that for all their adventures, Mulder and Scully have precious little to show for it. Of course, we knew that, as this is once again referred to in-show several times, including “Requiem.” Still: what does it say when the most productive thing to happen to you in your line of work is getting abducted?