“Monday”/“Matryoshka” S6 & 3 / E14
- B+ Community Grade
“Monday” (season 6, episode 14; originally aired 2/28/1999)
In which it’s just another Manic Monday. And another. And another. And...
By the time “Monday” starts, it’s almost over. In the cold open, someone’s robbing the Cradock Marine Bank in Washington, D.C., and it’s gone sour; the thief is holding everyone inside the building hostage, and the cops are getting ready to make their big push inside. Then Skinner shows up, and he’s worried he has agents in the building (and we all know what that means), and while he’s trying to get answers from the officer in charge, a worn out woman with droopy eyes starts shouting at him. “Stop this! Don’t let this happen! Pull them back, Skinner!” The police drag her away, and we cut inside the bank to see things are worse than we thought; Mulder’s been shot, and Scully’s holding him while he bleeds to death. The bank robber, who looks like Shaggy in his Charlie Manson phase, is twitchy and on edge, and no matter what Scully says (“It doesn’t have to end like this.”), it doesn’t matter. The SWAT team is coming in through the front doors—Shaggy sees them—and he’s got a bomb. KABOOM. Opening credits.
Striking first scenes aren’t anything new on The X-Files; neither is the looping narrative trickery the rest of the episode employs to tell its story of recursion, choice, and fate. But all of this still feels fresh and unusual, and, just as importantly, emotionally rich. It’s not just a Groundhog Day gimmick for the gimmick’s sake; writers Vince Gilligan and John Shiban use the repeating hours to play around with interesting ideas about whether or not a person’s character affects their destiny, and just how much free will we have if we’re all going from point A to point B. “Monday” also flatters our intelligence, showing its cards slowly and depending on a audience with enough patience and goodwill to work out the story without much handholding. Gilligan and Shiban earn this trust through a script which balances humor, structural brilliance, and compassion in equal measure. This is a puzzle with a soul, so well constructed and fun that it’s easy to forget the central message: we’re basically doomed.
Okay, so maybe it’s not quite that bad, but what to make of poor Pam (Carrie Hamilton), who seems to the only person aware that time has gone out of joint? I haven’t watched “Monday” in years, and I remembered the episode spending more time with Pam than it actually does. Given her predicament, you’d think she’d be the natural audience surrogate. Mulder slowly catches on over the course of the hour, but Pam is the one who is conscious of each loop backward, which means she has the same information that we do.
More, actually. If you’ve ever seen Groundhog Day (and if you haven’t, you should get on that), you’ll remember that Bill Murray’s dickhead weatherman goes through a series of intense emotional reactions to his predicament: first disbelief, then hedonistic abandon, then despair, and finally transcendence, as he decides to use his temporal prison as an opportunity to better himself. The movie does an excellent job of exploring why repeating the same day would be both a thrilling chance to cheat at life, and a hellish, nihilistic wasteland. For her part, Pam is stuck in the “despair” phase, and there’s no sense that she’s ever had any fun with her newfound super-power. Nor will she get a chance to start messing with people’s minds or using her knowledge of who steps where for personal gain. There are two reasons for this, and both are a large part of the episode’s brilliance. For one, Pam isn’t a celebrity, not even a minor one, and she doesn’t have the freedom necessary to make the most of this kind of event. Murray (Phil in the movie) had a whole 24 hours to mess around in. It’s hard to be sure, but from what we can tell, it looks like Pam gets six hours at most, and probably less. From the little we know about her, Pam isn’t financially well off (hence her boyfriend Bernard’s big bank robbery scheme), and all she really wants to do is stop the bomb from going off. Which she can’t.
That’s the other big reason Pam’s woe: each iteration is slightly different than the one before. The key trick in Groundhog Day is that, apart from Murray’s actions, nothing changed. Unless he stepped in, everyone and everything followed specific pre-ordained paths, right down to the second, which turned him into (as he points out fairly early in the film) a kind of god, peaking behind the scenes and seeing all the dials and levers. Pam is allowed no such luxury. Every Monday to her has certain basic requirements: boyfriend with bomb, bank robbery, the FBI agents (Mulder and Scully), and the earth-shattering KABOOM. Aside from that, nothing is certain. Mulder can enter the bank and get himself shot; or Scully can enter the bank first and neither of them gets shot; or Mulder can catch on just enough to shoot Bernard, but not kill him, thus allowing him to flip the bomb switch. Mulder can recognize Pam as he walks by her in her car, but he doesn’t have to. Mulder wakes up to find his waterbed is leaking, and he’s always annoyed by this, but the way that annoyance plays out, and the conversation he has with Scully when he meets her (back in the X-Files office again, huzzah!) at work, is different.
The waterbed leak is important, actually. Not only is it a very funny callback to “Dreamland” (Mulder’s irritation over the leak has to be at least partly driven by the fact that he can’t remember how he got a waterbed in the first place; he completely dodges Scully when she asks him about it), but it also serves as the instigating factor in what drags both our heroes into the heart of the loop. One of the fun things about “Monday” is the way it operates as a writer’s playground, allowing Gilligan and Shiban a chance to try out multiple approaches to the same focused settings. So long as certain beats happen every time, they can try out new approaches, new jokes (for all its sadness, this is a very funny hour), and work in some commentary on the episode’s main themes, without having to worry about repeating themselves. While the big tension of the hour is how the time loop will be resolved, the smaller moments of suspense come seeing how things fall apart on each successive run-through. Typically, the thrills come from wondering our heroes will escape their predicament, but here, we’re wondering how they’re going to fail this time, and the story never disappoints.
But back to Pam, and why she’s having no fun at all. Because it seems like, the more things change, the more they stay the same; while Pam can’t get much of a toehold in her loop, given the limited number of places she can go, and the way she can’t predict every specific because so many of them shift around, she’s also struck trying to stop the one thing it seems like never changes: Bernard flips a switch, and the bank goes BOOM. Time-loop stories often present a kind of escapist fantasy, giving characters the chance to orchestrate perfect conversations, and know exactly how to handle every crisis. There’s no such fantasy for Pam. She’s having the worst day of her life over and over and over again, and nothing she does seems stop it.
She isn’t the protagonist of “Monday,” though. This is a Mulder episode, although Scully (and, briefly, Skinner) get their chances to shine. Mulder is the one who suffers through the horrors of the whizzing waterbed, and it’s Mulder’s need to deposit his paycheck to cover the check he wrote to his landlord for the damage the bed leak caused that sends him, and Scully, to the bank. Mulder is also the only one besides Pam who realizes something strange is going on, although Mulder doesn’t have Pam’s level of awareness. It’s never explained how he’s able to slowly piece together the problem over the several iterations we see in the episode (which, judging by what Pam tells him near the end, is only the tail end of a long run of agonizing repeats), but then, it’s never really explained exactly why all of this is happening at all. The closest we get to a reason is that somehow, when this day originally happened, it didn’t go the way it was supposed to, and now it keeps skipping until Pam can get it right.
That’s reason enough, really. You can go into some meta-commentary with it (since Mulder and Scully die in every version of the bank explosion, and they’re the main characters, the story can’t continue until they make it through), but the premises justifies itself in the delivery. Like the way Mulder doesn’t ever really know that much, not until the very end, but he keeps getting this itch; given that he’s spent all of his adult life pursuing hunches, myths, and speculations, it makes sense that he’d give more credence to his slowly dawning suspicions than another character might. That makes the right kind of sense, just as the fact that it’s Pam’s death which ultimately breaks the cycle. Which is where the sadness comes in. Groundhog Day ends with Bill Murray improving himself and getting the girl; while everything else stayed the same, the hero was able to move on by escaping the life he’d been trapped in, and being the better man. “Monday” offers no such hope. At one point, Scully and Mulder debate the nature of free will and destiny, and while Mulder believes that everything is blind chaos, Scully (as befits her religious upbringing) believes there’s more sense involved: “I think that it’s our character that defines our fate,” she explains, which fits Vince Gilligan’s outlook pretty well. It also fits the episode. Pam is doomed because of who she is. Her end, like the end of every monster and victim on the show, was always certain. The rest was just details.
- Another meta-concept: The various permutations the episode goes through before Pam takes a bullet for Mulder are kind of like how a story gets put together in a writers’ room. (Or a writer’s head.) There are the basics of what needs to happen, and then it comes down to working out the how.
- One small nitpick: why doesn’t Pam tell anyone about the bomb? You’d think she’d lead off with that.
- Defining Scully line #1: “Cover for me, will you?” “When do I not?”
- Defining Scully line #2: “I just want everyone to live. That’s all.” (Scully is the best.)
- The waterbed leak is a great gag. It’s funny enough that it doesn’t wear thin with repetition, it makes sense as a way to move Mulder into position (although he must be as bad with money as I am, if he’s that dependent on his latest paycheck), and, given its connection to “Dreamland,” it helps set the tone that everything in the episode is just a little off.
- According to Wikipedia, this episode was actually inspired by The Twilight Zone episode “Shadow Play,” of which I am also quite fond.
- Defining Mulder moment: In the second to last iteration, he realizes that Bernard has a bomb, and knowing that the cycle is about to repeat, he whispers, “He’s got a bomb” to himself over and over again. It’s the sort of quick-thinking that only someone as open-minded to weirdness as Mulder is could’ve come up with; the fact that it works just makes it even better.
“Matryoshka” (season 3, episode 14; originally aired 2/19/1999)
In which a bomb makes a monster, but not in the fun way
Flashbacks, mad science, FBI agents, and monsters—the only thing distinguishing “Matryoshka” from a middling X-Files episode is its forced attempts at morality and the lurking presence of the Millennium Group. And really, the Group is just another one of Carter’s beloved shadowy conspiracies at this point. There’s still enough religious trappings to keep it interesting, thankfully, but this hour, which starts strong, can’t help but come across a little muddled. So muddled, in fact, that I can barely think of what to say about it, good or bad. The show has done worse, and there’s enough kookiness that this kind of works. And hey, Emma comes across as a bit more interesting, to the point where I can actually imagine her as an effective character, not just a way to keep Frank from having to talk to himself all the time. But by and large, it’s just a lot of reheated chest-beating about the horrors of unchecked scientific discovery.
The premise, in a nutshell: the atomic bomb is scary, and a scientist who worked on it decides to Jekyll & Hyde himself, because that always works, and his Hyde persona murders another scientist. The FBI investigates, and an early, unnamed version of the Millennium group (founded by J. Edgar Hoover and his lover Clyde Tolson) gets interested in the doomed scientist’s work. Decades later, the agent who uncovered the mystery commits suicide, and Frank and Emma investigate, because lord knows they’ve got nothing better to do. Eventually, Frank comes across a letter the dead scientist wanted sent to his daughter. The daughter is now working with the group on the very same project which killed her father, and, with Peter’s help (I think), Frank is able to see that she reads her father’s last words.
All of this makes sense, on the basic level of this happens, then this happens, and then this happens, and I’m a sucker for flashbacks to the ‘40s and ‘50s; I love the hats. But a plot summary can’t really describe how mind-numbingly mundane the episode is. It has elements which should be interesting, but when combined together lead to an hour I can barely remember even with all my notes. This wasn’t as painfully awful as earlier episodes in the season could be, and it doesn’t destroy my newly discovered faith in the show. It’s just a waste of time, full of portents of doom which fall to pay off in any significant way, and leading to a conclusion which should be powerful, but doesn’t make a lot of sense. The daughter learns that her father thinks what she’s doing is wrong! Only, she’s been doing it for a while now, and she wasn’t dumb enough to use the treatment on herself, so what is she really learning?
A major issue is that, perhaps appropriately for an episode named after Russian nesting dolls, “Matryoshka” has no center. The two characters with the most interesting arcs are Lanyard, the FBI agent (played by Dean Winters in the flashback to 1945) who shoots himself in the cold open, and Dr. Alexander, the scientist who tries to split his “bad” side from his “good,” because apparently being a scientist means you get to skip all those pesky literature classes. Lanyard goes from square-jawed hero type to someone so disgusted by his government that he quits his job, and Dr. Alexander is driven by self-loathing and fear to put himself and his loved ones in jeopardy. There’s drama inherent in both their stories, but while the episode initially looks to be told through Lanyard’s eyes, it quickly drops the device, resorting to flashbacks which never effectively cohere. The agent remains a cipher, someone who exists more to remind us just how corrupt and awful the Millennium group is, and the scientist is just a monster. He gives Lanyard a few cryptic looks, reveals the device he used to turn himself into basically a vampire from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (at least in the make-up department), and then, after a short struggle, dies. Apart from the fact that he’s conflicted and kind of an idiot, we know nothing about him.
Instead of sticking with the two people most important to the plot, the hour floats around from character to character, keeping the actual details of its premise hidden for most of its running time. Some of these scenes aren’t bad. The interviews with Dr. Alexander’s nanny work well enough, and Frank and Emma discovering Alexander’s body, heavily radiated and buried anonymously at Los Alamos, is creepy. The very fact that this involves Los Alamos is cool, and Lanyard’s early encounter with General Groves (the man who directed the Manhattan Project) had me hoping for guest appearances by Oppenheimer, or Feynman, or any of the rest. But “Matroyshka” doesn’t care about the development of the atom bomb beyond using it as a symbol, and we never get a sense of Los Alamos or the people who work there in the episode.
We never much of a sense of anything, really. There’s just enough weirdness here to keep you awake (Dr. Alexander in his monster form, the evil campiness of Hoover and his crony, how worried everyone seems to be), but Frank is basically irrelevant to the story, and no one who is relevant ever comes into focus enough for us to care what happens to them. We don’t even know why Lanyard killed himself. I’d assume it was because Peter visited him, and Lanyard found out that Dr. Alexander’s daughter was doing the Devil’s work (thus reminding Lanyard of his failure to contact her), but while that’s fine as far as it goes, we know so little about him that it’s meaningless. As meaningless as the scrawled notes everyone keeps leaving that read, “IT HAS TO END.” What has to end? In the sixty years and more since the atom bomb dropped, humanity has done some serious damage to itself and the planet, but our ability to blow ourselves up hasn’t proven nearly as devastating as Alexander believed. Yes, Alexander’s daughter is doing scary things, and by the logic of this episode she may well earn the evil of her ways, but—I dunno. It would’ve been nice if we’d gotten a chance to learn about some evil too, I guess. Instead, everyone looked worried, and then it was over.
- There is one interesting development: Peter may be having doubts about his work for Millennium. Again. At the very least, the episode portrays him as not a complete jerk, which is something.
Next week: Todd visits Mulder and Scully in “Arcadia,” and hopes it doesn’t come to “Forcing The End.”