Season 1, Episode 13: “Beyond the Sea”
Original Airdate: January 7, 1994
So we’ve had aliens, UFOs, a liver-eating mutant, Arctic worms man, what is missing, here, what’s next, anyone, does anyone even—wait. Wait, hold up, I got it, here we go. “Beyond the Sea” features one of the scariest villains an FBI agent could ever face, a monster that can get you so turned around you’re not even sure what you believe anymore, an evil that cuts to the most fearsome of fears: grief. Also a serial killer. But mostly grief.
Never trust a cold open that features your main characters, I always say, so when the show begins with Scully bidding a seasonal farewell to her visiting parents, you know someone’s in trouble. Captain Ahab, né William Scully, suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving his first mate Starbuck, née Dana Scully, bereft and spooked. Moments before receiving the bad news, Scully wakes to a vision of her father, bathed in an eerie light, eyes wide and mouth moving as though he is speaking. At the funeral, while “Beyond the Sea” plays like it was always born to be a mourner’s song, Scully asks her mother if her father was proud of her. Her mother replies, “He was your father,” and we all know that’s not an answer. We also know that Scully prefers answers. And so, our Scully is already compromised. She’s been served a vision of her father with something to say and nothing left to say it with; further, she carries with her a weighty question that her mother can’t or won’t answer.
Scully’s first coping mechanism is to go into work and make fun of Mulder (“Last time you were that engrossed, it turned out you were reading the adult video news. PS my dad died!”). Her second coping mechanism is to demand to know what Mulder’s working on. A serial killer on death row, name of Luther Lee Boggs, claims to have information about a kidnapping investigation and he wants to talk to Mulder about it. And when he says information, he means information. The psychic kind. Mulder is skeptical (WHAT) of Boggs’ abilities, which Boggs claims he acquired while locked in the gas chamber, just prior to receiving a stay of execution. Mulder is in fact pretty convinced that Boggs is trying to screw with him, on account of back in the day, Mulder wrote a profile on Boggs that led in part to his conviction. Scully listens to all this and is like yup yes great, that sounds great, let’s go repress our feelings by hanging out with a serial killer ASAP. Mulder looks at her sadly and pats her on the cheek and calls her Dana. It’s actually kind of sweet. It is also actually not at all something that Scully is willing or able to accept at that point.
They head to North Carolina to interrogate Boggs, who wants to strike a bargain—his life for the lives of the kidnapped teenagers. As Mulder questions him, Boggs channel-surfs. One second he’s a pretty lady, next second he’s a stern gentleman. Boggs is played by Brad Dourif, and for this we are pleased. He tears into the role, eyes shining, body contorting, drawing clear lines between each soul he’s channeling while still saving room for Boggs himself. Mulder’s goal is to debunk (WHAT), so he hands Luther a piece of his old Knicks shirt and tells Boggs that it belongs to one of the victims. Luther turns his performance all the way up, spouting out this and that about waterfalls and angels until Mulder reveals the t-shirt trick and smugs on out of there. So we’re fine, except that then as Scully turns to go, Boggs begins to sing “Beyond the Sea.” She looks at him and sees her father, blinks, and sees Boggs again. Boggs says, “Did you get my message, Starbuck?” and Scully bails. Out of the jail and into her car, where she should be safe! Except on the drive home she spots an angel. And a waterfall on a neon sign. She takes a Mulder-esque leap and the next thing we know she’s in a warehouse, kneeling next to clear evidence that the kidnapper and his victims had indeed been in that space.
When a shaken Scully admits to Mulder that she found the warehouse because of Boggs’ clues, Mulder is not half as proud of her as you might think. “Why now?” he snips, “After all we’ve seen, why Boggs?” And maybe Scully’s embarrassed to say, or maybe it’s just too much to explain, but she keeps quiet on the point of “Beyond the Sea,” on the point of Boggs knowing her father’s nickname for her. She keeps quiet as Mulder explains his next hare-brained scheme, something about planting a false story in the paper to make Boggs think the teenagers have been found and then seeing what happens, but all that happens is Boggs sees straight through it and presses the issue of a deal. He also feeds them enough information to find one of the teenagers and warns Mulder to avoid “the white cross.” Sure enough, in the midst of the rescue, Mulder gets shot underneath a two pieces of white-painted wood, lashed together like a cross.
And it’s maybe a little ridiculous, at this point, that Mulder doesn’t believe Boggs, that he’s still convinced that Boggs is working with the kidnapper and not a real live X-File. Even if Boggs is faking it, the idea that he “created the whole charade to get back at [Mulder] for putting him on death row” is wrongheaded. Boggs isn’t trying to get back at Mulder. He’s afraid of death. And you know who else is afraid of death, or at least, afraid of the repercussions that death has on the living? Let me give you a hint. Scully bursts into the interrogation room, wild-eyed and shouting at Luther. She yells that if Mulder dies because of a trap Boggs set, “no one will be able to stop me from being the one that will throw the switch and gas you out of this life for good, you son of a bitch!” Kindred, now, Boggs takes his chance and encourages her to ask for what she wants. And Scully bends, and asks to speak to her father. And Luther bends, and in the first moment her father is there, and in the second moment he is gone, replaced by the serial killer that Mulder put on death row. “Don’t underestimate my fear of dying!” he says, and mightn’t any of us say the same?
After that, the way it goes is that Scully tries to get Boggs a deal and fails to get Boggs a deal, and Boggs knows it even when she lies and tells him he’s got one. He feeds her the last piece of information they need to find the kidnapper, but his tone is different, less wild, less revival tent. It’s the only channeling he does that seems faked, but it doesn’t matter. They find the kidnapper. They save the teenager. And the only piece of business remaining is what was Ahab’s message for his Starbuck. Boggs offers it to her on the condition that she be present at his execution, but Scully doesn’t take him up on it. Instead she sits by Mulder’s bedside and recites the skeptic’s act of contrition: Boggs could have researched me. Boggs could have set me up. Visions of deceased loved ones are a common psychological phenomena. Amen.
And Scully is Catholic, and Scully is a doctor, and Scully wears a cross, and Scully knows about eternal life, and about heaven, and about hell, and about hearts that pump life and souls that are life and about what it means to be shot under metaphorical and nailed to actual crosses. Mulder tells her, “open yourself up to extreme possibilities only when they’re the truth,” in other words, stay cool. Treat the otherworldly just like it’s a fact, like it’s any other thing, like it’s worlds removed from the grief you’re feeling right now. Problem is that it’s easiest to open yourself there, at the point of grief and uncontrollable emotion, at the point where nothing makes sense. That’s when you go to church and that’s when you devote your life to little gray men and that’s when you make a deal with a serial killer. Scully says she’s afraid to believe, and I say she’s afraid of death, and maybe it’s all the same thing. The ground gone, the beyond further beyond. And never again I’ll go sailing.