"Synchrony"/"Powers, Principalities, Thrones, And Dominions" S4 & 1 / E19
- B Community Grade
In Which Fighting The Future Proves Far More Difficult Than Anyone Had Suspected.
The X-Files is an awfully cold show. If you remember anything about "Synchrony," I have to ask you to ignore that pun. I don't mean this as a joke. There's an undeniable soulfulness to the show in its best moments, and it can often be deeply moving, but even at its most heartfelt and compassion, a certain icy detachment remains. Take "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," probably my favorite episode, and one that's shot through with mordant compassion. I tear up a bit by the end of that episode, and the final moments are powerful and heart-wrenching. And yet even then, it's a step removed from a more intimate genre show like, say, Lost (whose success was always as much about its "heart on its sleeve" aesthetic as it was about the mythology) or Buffy, because in some ways, this is a series fundamentally concerned with the idea of detachment. Mulder and Scully observe events, they occasionally get involved with them, but they always leave after the credits. We watch people suffer, and we temporarily care about them, but few of them stand out in our memories once we've moved on. When our heroes themselves get sucked into the storyline, whether it's Mulder's hunt for his sister or Scully's cancer, it's a shock; they are our surrogates, and we take it on faith that as bleak as things get, they'll be able to get free as easily as we do. But the shock fades. When Mulder and Scully become as much a part of what's happening as any random shmuck, instead of deepening my investment in the show, I find myself pulling back a little further. Someone has to take proper notes on all of this, after all.
If all of this sounds a little ridiculous, well, it's Saturday morning, and I have a tendency to write fairly ridiculous sentences on Saturday mornings. I'm trying to explain why "Synchrony," which has all the pieces of my favorite kind of episode, doesn't really work as well as it should, and I think that coldness is a big part of it. I don't mean literal coldness, of course; the frozen bodies that dot the landscape like tragic snowmen here are a fine visual, and the idea that they aren't exactly dead after all is a decent twist, despite the problems it raises plot-wise. I mean that detachment I'm trying (inadequately) to describe above, that chilly, one-step-back-from-tragedy feeling that views characters as less than people but slightly more than insects. I'm not sure exactly where it comes from, although I suspect it has something to do with Chris Carter's failings as a writer; he's great at exploiting undercurrents of paranoia, at grabbing the darker side of the cultural zeitgeist, but he seems to find basic human connection difficult, if not impossible, to effectively convey. All those fevered word jumble monologues that bracket so many episodes of the show are weirdly compelling, but there's something hollow in them as well. Simple, direct statements seem to make him nervous.
And time travel episodes need something simple and direct in them to work, because time travel stories at their best have to be grounded in regret. If alien conspiracies are fundamentally about our fear of what we don't know, time travel is about the tragedy of what we missed, of what we know now that, if we'd only known then, might have changed everything. They need a sense of stakes beyond vague portents of doom. Take "White Tulip" from Fringe. For all the structural trickery and body horror, that is, at heart, a story about loss. Or "The Constant" from Lost, which is about needing to find the one person in the world who you can hold onto. Hell, even Back to the Future gets more mileage from Marty's struggle to connect with his dad than it does out of the flux capacitor. The science in "Synchrony" plays out mostly in the background; we hear about fantastic compounds and that creepy pen-like injector that turns people into popsicles, but that's all window-dressing. And that's fine, because time travel doesn't need to be about the means. It needs to be about the ends, and, unfortunately, that's where this story sort of falls apart.
All right, the basic plot: Jason and Lisa are in love, and they are scientists, which means no good can come of this. The two are working together to create a freezing compound, but they're still years away from perfecting it. One day, an old man shows up, and life gets complicated. The old man is actually Jason, and he's traveled back in time from a future where Lisa successfully used the freezing compound to do something with tachyons and create practical time travel. This was apparently a terrible discovery. (Anyone surprised by this? Given what we've seen of the government's willingness to murder indiscriminately and betray the human race for the sake of expedience, does anybody really think it'd be a good idea if they got the ability to literally edit reality?) Old Jason doesn't give too many details, but he does describe a world "without history," which would put a lot of pipe-smoking professors out of work, and no one wants that. So Old Jason traveled back to the "present" to try and stop the compound from ever being perfected. He fails to save someone who might've exposed the technical flaws in Jason and Lisa's work, then he kills some people, and, after a lot of pained looks, tries to kill Lisa. In the end, he sacrifices himself to murder his younger self, but it doesn't change much.
This should be fascinating. I have a soft spot for time travel stories; I think it's because, on top of everything else, they're very much stories about writers, except we have writers who are working with actual events, as opposed to fiddling with words. But "Synchrony" never really works, because, outside of Mulder and Scully, I find it hard to give a damn about any of these people. Jason's younger self is the cliched arrogant academic, and he spends most of the episode in jail. Lisa, who I think is supposed to come across as the "real" villain of the story (in addition to eventually perfecting the time travel that causes all the trouble, she also falsified some research when test results weren't conforming to her expectations. Women, y'know?), is mostly just a very odd looking actress, and while old Jason certainly does his best to sell all of this, he isn't given enough to work with. Not to mention the random Asian doctor who dies not one but two horrible deaths. There's pathos here. Old Jason clearly loves Lisa, even though he knows killing her is probably the only way he can accomplish his goals. But while I can appreciate this conceptually, there's nothing all that moving or upsetting about it. It's just a series of variables.
Unfortunately, this just means I spent too much time trying to figure out how any of this makes sense from a plot perspective and failing. Old Jason's actions are easy enough to follow, but there's never any sense that he'll actually succeed. While time travel stories often work off this principle (one of the reasons I loved "White Tulip" so much is that it managed to both stay true to "Whatever happened, happened" and also, well, I won't spoil it), Old Jason seems to be going out of his way to fail. Like, I understand he needs the successful freezing agent to survive the trip back in time. At least, I think I understand it, since the episode never bothers to work out exactly how he's doing what he did, but I'll accept that he needs the injections. But why, if the whole point of this was to prevent that compound from ever being invented, does he keep using it as a murder weapon? He kills a campus security officer with the stuff, he kills the Asian doctor, and he tries to kill Lisa. Did it never occur to him that leaving samples of the compound lying around might not be the best way to erase it from history? And that's before Lisa reveals she thinks she can save someone who's been frozen. If the old guy had just shot her in the head, he would've saved himself a lot of time.
Plus, there's the fact that if time travel ever really was invented and if it became as pervasive in the future, you'd think the present would be a lot more screwed up than it actually is. Although maybe that's why all these crazy conspiracies are able to run for so long. Maybe somebody fifty years down the line is pulling the strings. (Although, if this was true, Mulder should be very, very dead.) I'm sure there are ways to explain this, but that's not the real problem here; if "Synchrony" had its emotional core in place, these questions would be beside the point. As it is, because Jason and Lisa and Old Jason are never more than concepts, we're left to focus on the details, and those details can't handle the strain. Mulder teases Scully a few times in the episode about a paper she did as student about time travel, and near the end of the episode, he quotes that paper in one of the show's most deterministic moments ever: Despite the possibilities of infinite universes, each individual universe can only ever arrive at one outcome. And really, that's the truth of all stories. No matter what happens, there's really only one ending for everybody. The trick is to make the journey worthwhile, and "Synchrony" never quite manages it.
- Pretty convenient that the one man who might've stopped Jason and Lisa's work gets hit by a bus. On The X-Files, even Fate has malevolent intentions.
- Poor, poor Dr. Yonechi.
- Note to self: When visiting a suspect's place of residence, always, always wait for the elevator.
- On a personal note, the idea of student Scully writing about time travel is just insanely adorable.
- Isn't "A world where everyone can know anything that can happen" kind of Mulder's wet dream?
"Powers, Principalities, Thrones, and Dominions"
In Which Frank Meets A Lawyer Who Makes House Calls
Now that is an episode title. That is not fucking around. It sounds like the name of some obscure paranoid manifesto published in the 1930s, full of charts and Bible quotes and dark portents of doom and decay. A book covered in dust, hidden on an unlit shelf on a floor of the library nobody ever visits anymore. Millennium episode titles are nearly always ridiculous, but instead of pussy-footing around madness with words that could double as the name of a religious-themed grunge band (you can't tell me "Lamentation" doesn't sound like something that should be opening for Creed), "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions" goes full throttle. This is some serious shit, people. There Will Be Righteousness.
Delightfully, the episode itself lives up to the hype. Nearly everything we see here should be ridiculous; there are serial killers engaging in Satanic rites, an actual grimoire (which was apparently illustrated by somebody from E.C. Comics, naturally), undercover angels, shape-shifting, and, best of all, a lawyer who is probably a demon who basically tries to buy Frank's soul. Or at least put him on retainer, which is roughly the same thing. These are elements of plot from a fever dream of Jack Chick tracts, pulp novels, and horror movies, told without a wink or any indication whatsoever that any of this is anything but deadly serious. Which is why it works, really. There's no hesitation in "Powers," no sense that anything was brought to the table but left there over concerns of going "too far." Early episodes of Millennium had an unfortunate tendency to wallow in the misery, but while there's misery a plenty here, it has a vibrant energy that I can only describe as "gleefully grim." The episode opens with a drifter zapping a businessman with lightning—no wait, he's shooting him with a gun—no wait, it's lightning. Or a gun. It plays like it should be a dream sequence, but it isn't, and yet it still works. Suspension of disbelief is never a problem here. You're too busy waiting to see what happens next.
It doesn't hurt that the actual plot continues the escalation of last week's episode by once again putting Frank and his family directly in danger. The threat here is more subtle than it was in "Lamentations," although another member of the recurring cast does end up with his throat cut. Instead of cutting the power and menacing Catherine in the dark, this week's monster uses her and Jordan as leverage to encourage Frank to accept a certain proposal, and he does it without ever raising a hand. The whole run of the series till now has been about maintaining the Black household as a bastion of warmth and sanity and in a world gone mad, so it's inevitable that the darkness would find a way back home. That doesn't make it any less exciting, or make Frank's obvious anger about the intrusion any more affecting. Remember that detachment I was talking about above? Millennium is throwing that out the window for good now, and the show is all the more interesting because of it.
Speaking of Frank, Lance Henriksen does some excellent work here. I agree with Todd in his assessment last week that Bob Bletcher's death was, while structurally important, not all that emotional for us in the audience. There are few characters on the show whose death would really upset me, and Bletch was not on that list. But Frank's obvious grief over what happened, and the way that grief throws into doubt his own faith in his abilities, makes the most out of the murder in a way that never seems belabored or needlessly manipulative. It doesn't matter that I don't really give a damn about Bob. What matters is that Frank does, and that his guilt over Bob's death is gnawing away at his seemingly unshakable calm. The past few episodes, in addition to strengthening the mythology beyond the "bad stuff happens because sex is weird and ABUSE and the Bible" vibe that the show began with, have also taken the smart step of peeling away Frank's defenses. The more worried or desperate or angry he seems, the more important the danger becomes. One of Henriksen's great strengths as an actor is his ability to project world-weary wisdom, and when that mask starts to slip, it is very frightening indeed.
Just as importantly, we're finally getting a sense of why the Millennium Group exists, and just how ill-prepared they are to face what's coming. Plot-wise, let me see if I can sum this one up: Frank goes back to work to help find a murderer who throws out all that Satanic imagery the show loves so much. The killer gets himself caught surprisingly easily, but all is not as it seems. His lawyer, Alistair "Call me Al" Pepper is really the one pulling the strings. Al's game here is to lure the Millennium Group into the open, so he can target its members and also tempt Frank with a job offer at his firm. The exact details of this offer are never made clear; he wants to use Frank's "special gifts," so this is presumably about applying pressure to get Frank to switch sides. Frank rejects the offer, even after Al makes a surprise visit at home. So Al kills off Mike, a Millennium Grouper with white hair and, uh, I guess sarcasm? Frank chases Al running from the scene of the crime to a grocery store where, as we saw in the cold open, the drifter kid who's been haunting the edges of the whole episode, steps in and zaps/shoots Al down. The kid is taken into custody, and Frank interviews him. We learn Al was killed because of what he was planning on doing, but that Al's death was not done to protect the Black family in any way. Frank wants more answers, but the kid (who is presumably an angel sent to Earth) doesn't have much more to say.
I think that's it, feel free to point out whatever I missed. (Oh, the Egyptian word "PHAESTOS" gets mentioned frequently.) It all holds together very well. Millennium, after weeks of hinting at possibilities without delivering much of anything, has finally started to give a real sense that yes, there is a lot of bad news happening, and it really does make a twisted kind of sense. It's like in the first few seasons of The X-Files when the alien conspiracy started to take on a shape, and with that shape, a weight that pressed down on our heroes through every episode. Al isn't the Big Bad, but he's indicative of some larger system, just as Teen Angel is, and while we still don't know exactly what's going, we learn from this episode that there are rules, and there are consequences to breaking those rules, and that those consequences are the closest thing to outside intervention that Frank can hope for. Al was taken out for obscure reasons, and those reasons had nothing to do with the crap he was pulling on the Blacks. It's hard to take comfort in that.
I have no idea how long the show can maintain this level of satisfying crazy, but I am definitely invested in finding out. Millennium has hit this weird sweet spot, and we're nearly at the end of the first season, and I still don't know exactly what kind of show I'm watching. A serial killer procedural? A wacky apocalyptic treatise on demons and angels? A thriller about a psychic who can't seem to get away from any of these things? Given the turgid, heavy-handed start to the show, it's exciting to see it loosening up. To quote Hannibal Lecter, "Powers" is a great example of show nearing the end of its process of "becoming," and thankfully, the freaky-ass butterfly emerging from the cocoon is a lot more interesting than the tedious caterpillar it once was.
- I continue to be amazed by the amount of gore this show managed to get on network television. That prison throat-cutting was intense.
- Didn't mind the in media res opening this week.
- "He said you should love your family as much as you can and be prepared for the possibility that it may not be enough." Angels are apparently no fun at all.
Next week: Todd lightens the mood considerably with "Small Potatoes," before diving back into the muck with "Broken World."