“I have lived with a fragile faith built on the ether of vague memories from an experience that I can neither prove nor explain. When I was 12, my sister was taken from me, taken from our home by a force that I came to believe was extraterrestrial. This belief sustained me, fueling a quest for truths that were as elusive as the memory itself. To believe as passionately as I did was not without sacrifice, but I always accepted the risks to my career, my reputation, my relationships, to life itself.” — Fox Mulder, Episode 2×16: Colony
Fox Mulder: It’s a name that has gone down in pop culture history as one half of a dynamic duo that helped propel The X-Files toward becoming a worldwide phenomenon. It’s also a name synonymous with a staunch belief in paranormal activity and extraterrestrial life — sometimes to the detriment of others. And yet, despite having some rather stubborn and even insensitive moments on The X-Files, Mulder became a character loved by many — the underdog everyone was rooting for and the character many people didn’t want to watch the show without during his absence for a season and a half. After all, Mulder’s quest to find his sister and to uncover the truth about the paranormal was the spark that fueled the series. So what was it about Mulder that drew the fans in?
When viewers and a certain Dana Scully first met Mulder, he was presented to us as an outcast — “the FBI’s most unwanted” working out of a basement office, tucked away and something of an embarrassment to the Bureau. We also quickly learned that Mulder was more than a capable agent, Oxford educated in psychology and a former member of the Behavioral Sciences Unit. But somewhere between stumbling across the X-Files, the FBI’s accounts of paranormal cases, and revisiting the night of his sister’s disappearance via hypnosis, he grew more obsessed with uncovering evidence of extraterrestrial life and other paranormal phenomena.
Convinced that aliens abducted his sister, it became Mulder’s greatest quest to uncover government conspiracies. Even when his beliefs wavered, this particular iteration of his personality never really disappeared. He remained the butt of other agents’ jokes and he certainly had his moments where he could be genuinely irritating in his determination to figure out “the truth,” assuming that Scully would be equally happy to use her little free time to do autopsies or carry out unofficial career-threatening investigations with him. But a wisecracking intelligence and snippets of warm humanity would also shine through that damaged surface, making him a somewhat unlikely source of levity and life on a dark program. For all his flaws and the catastrophes he unintentionally caused, Fox Mulder remained a deeply caring and loyal individual. It is perhaps this loyalty that made him so determined to find out what happened to his sister — and part of what made him such an important figure in Scully’s life.
“Trust no one” may have been a motto that Mulder took to heart, but despite all his paranoia and the occasional tendency to lose faith in himself, he never lost his ability to believe in others. It was Mulder — despite all his clashes with senior members of the FBI — who stood by Skinner the most in the episode, “Avatar,” when the assistant director was suspected of murder. And even though it became pretty clear early on that the Mulder family dynamic was a cold and dysfunctional one following Samantha’s disappearance, Mulder always seemed to hold out hope to connect with his parents — and his utter devastation as he lost each of them years apart could really be felt by the viewers. It was that desire to connect with other human beings that also ultimately helped seal the Mulder/Scully dynamic viewers still remember so fondly to this day.
When we look back at the Pilot, it’s clear that Mulder wasn’t completely prepared to take a liking to Scully right away — he was nice enough to her, but also ready to fight back with a sarcastic jab. But it wasn’t long after the events of that first episode where Mulder, exasperated as he could get with Scully’s unwavering rationality, became willing to admit to how much he respected Scully — something that soon became obvious in his behavior. The X-Files ended up getting shut down pretty quickly after Mulder and Scully were assigned to work together, but the two agents still conferred secretly and found ways to work together. When Scully was abducted, Mulder was devastated, alternating between acting out self destructively and trying his best to find his partner, even when everyone was ready to presume she was dead. (This same determination would later come full circle when Scully would find herself dealing with the aftermath of Mulder’s abduction in season eight). His joy and subsequent overprotective behavior upon Scully’s return showed how much Mulder still wanted a human connection and companionship in his otherwise quest-driven life. And of course, his efforts to save Scully during her illness and his willingness to help her when she wanted to try for a child showed exactly how far he would go for the people he cared about.
Of course, it can be argued that Mulder’s single-minded determination to unravel a conspiracy and take down all the players behind it ended up being the cause of much harm: The fresh-faced Scully from the Pilot would eventually get dragged into a web of abductions, illnesses and terror, losing her sister along the way. And of course, Mulder’s father’s death as well as his own abduction could be blamed on that never-ending search for the truth. Even though Mulder eventually finds out the truth of what happened to his sister, he can never really drag himself away from trouble — which is what ultimately culminates in his dismissal from the FBI toward the end of season eight, after years of danger.
But Mulder is also apologetic about the consequences he has inflicted on others, many times encouraging Scully to step away from it all and to stop sacrificing her life for his mission. If he didn’t have this self awareness, he would be a far less sympathetic character — certainly even more deserving of all the laughter from fans when Scully resorted to shooting him to slow him down back in season two. And the willingness of Scully, Skinner and The Lone Gunmen to stick by Mulder despite all these unfortunate events certainly says a lot about his good character.
By the time The X-Files drew to an end, both as a series and movie franchise a few years ago, Mulder didn’t have much left in his life: The chance of any kind of conventional happiness was largely gone. But at the same time, he still had Scully and the knowledge of the truths he uncovered, making him something of a resilient tragic hero that fans will be looking forward to seeing again when the series reemerges for an upcoming short order of episodes. Mulder could be extremely misguided, yes, but he was never entirely wrong. His desire to right the wrongs in the world remained even as the show wound down, obvious even in lighthearted outings like “Je Souhaite,” where he attempted to call for world peace and ultimately just granted some freedom and happiness to an exhausted genie. For all his mistakes, Mulder’s belief in the stranger things in life and his desire to do the right thing speaks to the idealist in us all, which is what still makes him the heroic figure we kept rooting for, mishap after mishap. It might even be a large reason why The X-Files will be back in a few months.