Thursday, February 14, 2013

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Beyond the Sea" (January 7, 1994)



In “Beyond the Sea,” which originally aired on Fox TV on January 7, 1994, Scully’s father (Don Davis) unexpectedly passes way during the holidays following a sudden, massive coronary.  Scully (Gillian Anderson) experiences a premonitory vision of her late father immediately before her mother (Sheila Larken) notifies her by phone of his death.

At work the next day, Scully and Mulder (David Duchovy) attempt to locate and rescue two kidnapped teenagers in Raleigh, North Carolina by meeting with a notorious death row inmate, Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif). 

Boggs claims psychic powers and knowledge due to a recent brush with state-sanctioned execution.  He wants to bargain for a pardon, if he helps to save the missing kids.  Scully gives Boggs’ claims of psychic knowledge special credence in part because she feels vulnerable after her father’s death, but also because Boggs seems to possess first-hand knowledge of her father, including his nickname for her (Starbuck) and his long-standing affection for the song “Beyond the Sea.”

When one of Boggs’ channeling sessions proves unexpectedly fruitful, Scully wants to pursue the lead, even as a skeptical Mulder is warned by Boggs that his life is in danger “under the white cross.”  Sure enough, Mulder is badly injured by the kidnapper while attempting to recover one of the missing teens.  His absence leaves a vulnerable Scully to negotiate with Boggs for information regarding the missing youngsters…and her father’s final disposition.  On the latter front, Boggs promises to deliver a “message” for Dana.



The X-Files almost universally vets its tales of the paranormal and extraordinary through two distinct lenses. One lens is rationality or science, as seen and understood by Scully.  The other lens is romanticism and belief, as embodied by Mulder. 

This duality might also be specifically parsed in terms specifically regarding belief.  In “Beyond the Sea,” Scully notes that she is “afraid to believe,” while Mulder is famous -- across the series and films -- for the refrain “I want to believe.”  He even says so directly, early in this episode: “Don’t get me wrong, I want to believe.”

Yet “Beyond the Sea” is a crucial episode in the early X-Files canon in part because, for a time, it flips the traditional roles/viewpoints of these characters in the drama.  Scully wants to believe at first…but then backs away from that particular precipice.  Mulder refuses to believe at first, but by episode’s end is actively upbraiding for Scully for her failure to do so.  Still, this episode offers the novel pleasure of Scully arguing for the paranormal, and Mulder arguing against it.

The crux of the issue in this story is Boggs himself, the flawed, even despicable person who offers otherworldly or paranormal knowledge.

Luther Lee Boggs is a brutal murderer, a man who would say and do absolutely anything to avoid dying on death row.  He’s terribly afraid to die, and already knows he is “going to Hell.”  These motives make Boggs an unreliable -- and desperate -- source of information. 

Yet, contrarily, Boggs seems to legitimately understand several things about the future, and about Mulder and Scully’s live.  Perhaps some of this knowledge could be known, as Scully insists, through research.

But it would be abundantly difficult for Boggs to access information regarding Scully’s pet name (Starbuck), or the title of the song played at her father’s funeral.  Those are facts that wouldn’t be reported in a local newspaper, for instance, and certainly not an out-of-state paper.  And Boggs is in North Carolina, remember, while Scully and Mulder are in Virginia.  If Boggs had requested a Virginia newspaper, his jailers would have reported that information to the F.B.I. agents.

So the question becomes this:  Would you want to hear your loved one’s final, loving words from the lips of a serial killer and monster? 

From a person you consider vile? 



This problem recurs throughout X-Files history.  Father Joe in The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) serves as a book-end reflection, essentially, of Boggs.  He is another fallen man (a pedophile), but another one boasting legitimate psychic powers.  Yet neither Father Joe nor Boggs are believed by society at large because of their crimes, and because of an understandable and legitimate abhorrence of those crimes. 

Thus the implication is that human beings sometimes can’t hear “the truth” if the mouthpiece of that truth is someone whom we deem fallible or fallen in some crucial way.  The irony of this approach, and one also suggested by The X-Files, however, is that we are all fallible in some way.  Therefore, in failing to accept “psychic transmissions” from Boggs or Father Joe, we are also cutting off the possibility of accepting such information from any human vessels.

Thus, the “truth,” whether we want it or are afraid of it, is unknowable.

If God indeed moves in mysterious ways, is it impossible to believe that message of hope and renewal could come from Luther Lee Boggs

That’s the question that roils underneath this narrative.  Why would God let a Boggs or a Father Joe be that vehicle, knowing how reluctant we would be to accept the information?

The episode, if examined closely, seems to suggest that a brief reunion between Scully and her dead father is indeed possible….through Boggs, if only Scully can set aside her judgment of the man. 

In elegant and artistic terms, the veil separating our world from the next is contextualized in this story from James Wong and Glen Morgan in the terminology of the Bobby Darin hit, Beyond the Sea (1946).  In that song, the singer is separated from a loved one by the water, by the ocean.  That loved one is there on the other side, “watching” for the singer.  But the singer can’t reach that loved one; he can only wait.   Failing the ability to fly “like a bird on high” to the afterlife, the singer must satisfy himself with belief “beyond a doubt” that his heart will lead him to the same place, “beyond the shore.”

For all of his contemptible, anti-social behavior, Boggs offers the possibility of breaching the sea now, of connecting Scully and her father again in this world.  Finally, Scully refuses the offer because of her fear. Because, perhaps, she is afraid of learning what her father knows about the boundaries of death, and the afterlife.  It might better, in a sense, to hope for an eventual reunion “beyond the sea” than to meet again, under these circumstances, with the unreliable intermediary, Boggs, in control of the dialogue.

I would suggest again that this is actually a missed opportunity, however.  Late in the story, Boggs tells Scully the truth (as he understands it, from psychic information) about the kidnapper’s lair.  He even gives her the key to save her own life, warning her not to approach “the blue devil.”  She sees the illustration of a blue devil at a critical juncture and stops chasing her quarry.  Meanwhile, the kidnapper falls through the planks of a bridge…to his death.

At this point, however, Boggs knows he will be denied a pardon, so there is no earthly reason for him to help Scully. So why did he do it? Why did he save her life?

Well, I  mentioned earthly reason.  There’s always a reason of the soul or spirit:  personal redemption.  I alluded to this factor in my review of I Want to Believe, but our culture professes a deeply-held, Christian belief in redemption.  Yet often those who seek redemption are denied that second chance,  that forgiveness.


If redemption is not for a man like Father Joe, or a man like Luther Lee Boggs, then who is it for, precisely? The righteous have no need of it.

I submit that much of the final (emotional) imagery of “Beyond the Sea” -- which depicts Boggs going to his execution -- concerns this matter of redemption.  We see Boggs surrounded by his victims (including his family) as he takes his final steps on this mortal coil.  He goes to his death, as he should, for his grievous misdeeds.  But his family is present with him, a reminder both of what he did wrong, and of the comfort of human companionship.  Thus Boggs is not alone when he dies, as he feared.  Instead, he is with those who have crossed, “beyond the sea.”  His act of redemption allows him to see that beyond death, another plane of life exists, and perhaps because he has sought forgiveness and redemption, it will not be the Hell he fears so greatly, the Hell his original actions brought about.

“Beyond the Sea” has frequently been compared to Silence of the Lambs (1991), and that is for two reasons, primarily.  The first is that both Silence of the Lambs and “Beyond the Sea” involve a female F.B.I. agent who attempts to contextualize her father’s death, and more than that, her father’s very meaning in her life.  Secondly, of course, both stories feature lengthy interview sessions with an imprisoned, loquacious serial killer.

But where Silence of the Lambs is very much about a woman without a father, and having to choose between two surrogate fathers (either Jack Crawford or Hannibal Lecter), “Beyond the Sea” is a story about Scully’s inability to grow beyond her father.  She wonders again and again if he is proud of her, if he approves of her life and career choices.  She can’t move beyond the lens her father imposed upon her in childhood.

In perhaps the ultimate of ironies, her father’s final message to Scully is forever unheard because Dana chooses, ultimately, to double-down on fear and disbelief, the same viewpoint that made her father skeptical of her career choice in the first place.  The catch-all phrase “he’s my father” doesn’t reveal pride, love, support, or anything beyond a biological bond.  But by episode’s end, Scully is parroting that empty term, as if it is Scripture.  That’s all that needed to be said.  She doesn’t want or need a further message, especially from Boggs.  

Scully's predicament -- her entrapment -- is visualized explicitly in the episode in a composition pictured near the top of the post, with the good doctor standing behind bars, Boggs behind her, in the background.  She can't move forward, but she won't let herself deal with Boggs.

In terms of the Mulder/Scully relationship, “Beyond the Sea” is indeed an intriguing, if brief flipping of roles.  Ultimately, each individual can’t escape their established viewpoint.  This notion could be made clearer, however, in the epilogue.  It is abundantly plain why Scully shifts back to her position of rationality: fear.  But Mulder flip-flops from telling Scully not to believe Boggs to asking her why she refuses to believe Boggs in light of all the evidence..  It would have been helpful to an include a scene in which Mulder admitted that he was wrong initially, and that he now believes Boggs was indeed a conduit to connect souls on Earth and souls in the afterlife.


“Beyond the Sea” also ups the ante in terms of the physical relationship between the two F.B.I. agents.  Mulder places his hand on Scully’s cheek and caresses it gently after expressing his sadness over her father’s death. 

The moment is unexpectedly powerful because, as we’ve seen before, the sex roles are largely reversed in terms of typical TV stereotypes. Usually, it is the man who silently soldiers on in the face of grief, tending nobly to his duties and responsibilities.  Here it is Scully who assumes that role, repressing her grief, and stoically returning to work. 

And Mulder, for his part, tends not to matters of duty and job (and emotional denial…) as we stereotypically expect of our male heroes.  Rather, he openly addresses issues of grief, and with physical re-assurance to boot.  In a very real sense, Scully is often the “head” in the X-Files duo, while Mulder is often the expressive, emotional “heart.”

Next week: “Genderbender.”

7 comments:

  1. Brilliant review this one John, really enjoyed it.

    To me this episode always signified the beginnings of Scully's struggles with her faith. While Bogg's powers have ostensibly nothing to do with Christianity, the existence of the afterlife he claims to channel does. Plus, as you point out, God works in mysterious ways; if Bogg's gift was given to him by God and he saved Scully's life as a way of at least partially redeeming himself in God's eyes, the episode takes on a definite religious sheen.

    There are multiple examples of Scully's skepticism being tested when it comes to matters of faith, and I think that's one of the strongest aspects of the series. Since Scully represents modern science versus Mulder's romanticism, it is only right that the current conflict between science and religion should be manifest in her life. This duality, the fact that she is not written as merely a cipher for one viewpoint or the other is what makes her one of the most interesting characters on television in my opinion.

    Interested to see what you make of Gender Bender. I feel it's often discounted because of the deus ex machina nature of its ending, but those who dismiss it out of hand forget the intriguing treatise on temptation and sexuality that is at its heart, specifically the temptation of Scully.

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    1. Hi Jez,

      I think you are absolutely right about the Christianity/religion subplot, and "Beyond the Sea" introduces that subplot, albeit obliquely.

      Mulder and Scully each possess shades and contradictions, which is what makes them seem fully human and real, as opposed to just characters on a program.

      Scully rejects everything science can't find evidence for at the moment, but holds on to Christian faith. Contrarily, Mulder is willing to give every belief a fair hearing -- now matter how crazy -- except Christianity.

      They each boast a unique blind spot and I've always felt that this is a way of acknowledging that we all possess that kind of depth and conflict, and even hypocrisy. Like Pro-Life people who support the death penalty, for example. Or those who claim government is bad and evil, taking government support to get through school, or support their family in times of crisis. Philosophy and reality don't always mesh cleanly in the human animal.

      And I'm a huge fan of "Genderbender," even though it is widely disliked. I can't wait to write about that one!

      Thank you for a thoughtful and stimulating comment.

      best,
      John

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  2. This episode is greatly helped by the casting of Brad Dourif. "The X-Files" consistently made terrific casting choices, be it well-known actors like Dourif or up-and-comers like Giovanni Ribisi. In this case, the Dourif persona is just scary enough to make us question if he is just a bad man trying to get out of execution, just squirrely enough to make us question if maybe he's hallucinating all of this, and just empathetic enough to make us "want to believe" him. At least 50% of a great performance is getting the right actor in the role, something "The X-Files" was always good at. And just as an aside, it was something that "Fringe" was quite brilliant at as well. ;-)

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    1. Hi Terri,

      I agree with you regarding Dourif. He's a great actor who can suggest many qualities, often simultaneously. You're right that it is hard to "read" Boggs, and that's one thing that makes the character such an extraordinary one. He's creepy and weird, and yet also, at times, zealously (frighteningly...) sincere. I don't many other actors who could have pulled off the character so successfully.

      I've got problems with the episodes of Fringe I watched (The first five or six) but I am very open to giving it a second go. I understand the series really developed and evolved from its origins as, I felt, a weak X-Files knock-off.

      Excellent comment!

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    2. The first half of the first season of "Fringe" did indeed have a few plots that seemed to be directly lifted from "X-Files" episodes. But by the halfway mark, they really started developing their own stories and plotlines. Still, it's good to put up with the occasional rip-off and watch ALL of the episodes because the first episodes have information pertinent to the myth-arc.

      Their casting, though, was impeccable all the time. Their use of horror and scifi icons was inspired. Christopher Lloyd and Peter Weller come to mind as the perfect actors for the episodes they were in.

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  3. John,

    This was indeed my favorite entry in Season One. I absolutely loved it. It was poetry in motion. The use of Darin's song Beyond The Sea offers so much to the ghostly atmosphere here too and the beauty that is inherent in the episode's elements of loss and reflection.

    I also found so much of it seemed to influence Carter's move toward Millennium. I think of that wonderful episode The Thin White Line and perhaps elements of Millennium in general.

    I too genuinely experienced the role reversal in this particular episode. It was very powerful, but like much of The X-Files it was very subtle.

    I genuinely enjoyed your additional analysis and reflection of the entry concerning redemption. It's always a pleasure to get the additional depth behind a classic like this that does not show up even in the X-Files companion books.

    I certainly see the surface comparisons to Demme's film, but, once again, The X-Files offers its own special and unique depth that sets it apart from that film entirely.

    Your analogy of the head and the heart is indeed fitting. That scene visually is not uncommon. The man often touches the woman's face, but emotionally roles are indeed reversed illustrating your point.

    Loved Beyond The Sea and your special look at it here. Dourif, like Anderson and Duchovny, makes it an extra special treat.
    all the best, sff

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    1. Hi SFF,

      I understand why "Beyond the Sea" is a favorite first season episode for you. It boasts remarkable depth and ambiguity, and at the end, no easy answers are offered. This kind of equation is exactly what the X-Files does best, in my opinion.

      Thank you for the comment, my friend!

      best,
      John

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