"Tempus Fugit"/"Walkabout" S4 & 1 / E17
- B+ Community Grade
In Which Time Stops For 134 People
We've long ago passed the point in the X-Files run where I could remember much about the mythology episodes, but I do remember the cold open for "Tempus Fugit." It's a good one, mostly because it's not particularly complex. A plane flies through the night sky. One of the passengers is at the flirting-with-the-stewardess level of drunk, but his seat-mate isn't drinking, which is too bad. The poor guy looks like he could use a hit of something. He doesn't say much, just keeps checking over his shoulder at the scary bald dude sitting a few rows back. Scary bald dude returns the look, but it's not really a Mile High Club moment. SBD gets up, goes to the restroom, and starts putting together a plastic gun, so hopefully he isn't drinking either. Last thing this plane needs is a drunk guy with a gun, amiright? Anyway, gun in hand, he leaves the restroom, and it looks like the shit is about to get real—and it does. It's just not the kind of reality we're expecting. A wash of light floods every window on the plane, and the cabin shakes, and as the poor guy, who was probably about to get shot, stares on in horror, something sucks at the the emergency door next to his seat, something beyond comprehension, that's coming... for him...
I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that's the best cold open the show ever did—X-Files has a lot of really excellent pre-credit hooks—but it's striking. By now, it's hard to imagine a fan of the show not watching this and immediately drawing the obvious conclusions. The SBD is a government agent (if he was working with the aliens, he wouldn't need the gun), and the flashing light that seemingly shakes the plane right out of the sky is from a UFO, perhaps aiming for some kind of interstellar Guinness Record for "Most Inconvenient Damn Place To Hold An Abduction." The show's mythology has gotten so complex by now that it's nice to have such a primal, immediate conflict. We don't know the details, but the triangle the scene forms is easy to plot: Someone is being chased, and two forces are chasing him. Filling up the spaces in between? All the people on the flight who are about get a real quick lesson in the concept of collateral damage.
It helps that the man being chased here is a familiar face, although we haven't seen him in a while. We met Max, an epileptic alien abductee, waaaay back in the season one episode "Fallen Angel," and at the end of that episode, he was abducted again; at the time, it was one of the first clear signs that all of Mulder's crazy talk actually had real world consequences, and Max's story was a terribly sad one, an innocent man tormented by forces he could barely understand, let alone escape. "Fugit" is a two-parter, so we don't get the full backstory here, but what we do get makes it hard to understand why the show decided to pull poor Max out of an ambiguously unhappy ending, only to throw him into a straight-up tragic one. I don't mean this as a criticism, exactly. The show's scattershot approach to continuity (it always surprises me when it remembers events more than a season old) is such that it's just inherently exciting to see a nod to something this far in the past. But there's something weirdly random about it, too. I haven't seen "Fallen Angel" in a while, but did Max have a sister back then? And, y'know, what's he been doing with himself since that whole "zapped up into space by purple-blue light" incident?
Apparently he's been working undercover, and he's come up with some terrifically important information that he needs to get to Mulder, and then the whole "dying in a plane crash" happens. Genre shows can often be cruel to their secondary characters, but The X-Files always seemed particularly ruthless to me. This makes sense. For one, it's as much a horror series as it a science fiction one, and the mortality rate helps to create a mood of ever-encroaching doom, as if the darkness that seems about to swallow Mulder and Scully in so many scenes (man, even his basement office isn't very well lit) is as much symbolic as it is literal. Plus, in order for the show to keep the conspiracy plot going (and going and going), anytime anyone gets a crucial piece of the puzzle, they also get a bullseye on their forehead. Knowing things on this show is a bit like, well, smoking too many cigarettes. Sooner or later, all that shit's gonna catch up with you.
While we won't know how well the plot holds up till next week (and no, I haven't watched the second part yet, as I'm just that committed to verisimilitude), "Fugit" is a strong enough episode on its own, full of iconic set-pieces and a clear sense of purpose. There's a clarity here that surprised me, as there's nothing about alien bounty hunters or black oil or smallpox scars. Mulder and Scully find out about Max from his sister, and they join forces with the team investigating the wreck of Flight 549. Mulder's immediately convinced something sketchy went down, and the stopped wristwatches at the crash site—and the way those wristwatches all seem to mysteriously "disappear"—seems to confirm his theory. Max's sister gets abducted, and our heroes question some military guys from a nearby base who have more information than they're willing to share at first. But then one of them gets himself suicided by, presumably, the government forces dedicated to shooting loose ends in the face and the surviving soldier, Sgt. Louis, turns to Mulder and Scully for asylum. Mulder comes up with his craziest (and, by the logic of the series, truest) theory: that Flight 549 was shot down by a stealth plane sent by the military to shoot down the UFO that was a attempting to swipe Max out of his seat mid-flight. Or else the stealth jet was intending to shoot down 549 all along to get rid of Max, because they didn't trust the SBD to get the job done. Whatever the specifics, there's another wreck out there, and the corpses on this one aren't going to be human.
"Fugit" gets a lot of mileage out of the 549 crash site, first showing the wreckage from high overhead, and then following Mulder and Scully as they pick their way through the mess, sticking flags in the ground to mark the location of bodies or limbs. This is one of those situations where I kind of wish Todd were here, as he's much better at historical context then I am, but I seem to remember a period of my childhood when planes were constantly falling out of the sky and when, all of a sudden, everyone knew about the indestructible black boxes every plane carried and how important those boxes were to figuring out what went wrong. (This also led to the endless stream of "Why don't they just build the plane out of the same material they make the boxes out of?" jokes.) I can't give you the specifics, but I can tell you that when this episode first aired, it felt extremely timely to me, and there's power in that. The X-Files' conspiracy paranoia works best when it connects to something real world, and it's hard to deny the reality of all those yellow body bags lined up in a hangar, however they got there.
This episode also features a nice mixture of Mulder at his most infuriating and his most charming. I'd completely forgotten about it, but "Fugit" has one of my favorite Mulder/Scully moments, when he takes her out to dinner for her birthday and gives her a medallion commemorating the Apollo 11 landing. It's a sweet, believable exchange, and while it doesn't completely off-set the fact that Mulder's still kind of a jerk sometimes, it does go a long way to reminding us why they work so well together. (And on a sadder note: The scene opens with people singing "Happy birthday" to Scully. I initially assumed that she and Mulder were part of some larger party of well-wishers, but it's just a couple of waiters singing to her, and when they leave, Mulder and Scully are alone at the table. How lonely is that? I can buy that Mulder doesn't have many friends, but I always assumed Scully had some kind of social group to spend time with when she wasn't chasing after things she didn't believe in. Either her commitment to Mulder's quest has slowly isolated her from the world, or else she was pretty lonely to begin with, which made her and Mulder's relationship all the more inevitable.) For most of the rest of the episode, Mulder is as bullheadedly dickish as always, and Scully's expression of pained embarrassment seems practically frozen on her face, but because they had that birthday dinner, I didn't mind so much. However, I do question Mulder's logic in sharing with the entire crash site team his conviction that the plane was brought down by a UFO; not only does he sound like an idiot, but he also lets the people on the team with nefarious purposes know he's nearly on to them.
The "stealth plane shot down the alien plane that was going after Flight 549 and wrecked 'em both" story is a little convoluted. We may find out next week, but it's hard to understand why the UFO people would suddenly decide to grab Max off of 549, as opposed to any another time. (Maybe they'd heard about SBD?) Then again, "convolution" is a hallmark of mythology plots, and overall, what I enjoyed most about "Fugit" is it's somewhat startling simplicity. There's a clear mystery to solve, with a clear cost, and while it may not fit in quite yet with all the other info we have on the black oil/shapeshifter craziness, it works very well on its own. A number of episodes from this season suffer from murky writing that relies on mood and the actors to carry it across, but "Fugit" is refreshingly direct, for all its moving pieces. The aliens are up to their inexplicable wackiness again, the government spooks are murderous and unmerciful, and Mulder is, well, Mulder.
But there's something a little more despondent about him, and maybe a little bit crazier. Like I said, there are some swell scenes here. I loved the crash site team leader stumbling over the UFO doing recon at night over the crash site, before the ship drops off Max's sister. Alien abductions have become weirdly predictable on the series, and it's nice to have see things from an outsider's perspective, however briefly. "Fugit" ends strong, with our heroes separated and in over their heads (literally, in Mulder's case). Agent Pendrell returns briefly, only to die for no reason he'll ever understand. That the last thing he sees is Scully's face isn't much in the way of consolation, but there are worse ways to die. Like, I dunno, crashing into a lake thousands of light years from your home. Mulder finds at least one alien body, which means that next week, the writers will have to come up with some way for him to lose the corpse, but we can at least briefly hope that this might change things. But Max will still be dead. Mulder found the body in one of those anonymous yellow bags, and he found his business card tucked into Max's pocket, bloodied but legible. Maybe it's not that hard to understand why Fox is so driven. There has to be some way to justify all these corpses.
Grade: A- (pending on how part 2 turns out)
- Pendrell got screwed. He and Max should start a support group in the afterlife.
- "Mulder, we've been up for over 36 hours-" "I know I know I know I know. I just need you to come over here and listen to this."
- Scully: "Oh promise me this isn't leading to something really embarrassing." Which makes you wonder, what exactly is she expecting here? Is Mulder in the habit of hiring pale, schoolmarmish strippers to accost him and his partner during meals?
- Hey, remember when Scully had cancer? And still does?
- Really, at this point, the show should have just thrown caution to the wind and put Mulder on the offensive somehow. I get that part of the point of the conspiracy is that it makes you feel helpless, but he and Scully have been following breadcrumbs for four seasons now. It would've helped considerably if they didn't seem quite so reactive all the time.
In Which Frank Takes A Trip And Tea Bags Are Not To Be Trusted
So, after all of Todd's talk last week about in media res cold opens, "Walkabout" opened with a fake out that I'm not sure was really intended to be a fake out. An adorable dog pokes around a med clinic. The front door is locked, but we pass inside anyway, since we're all ethereal and awesome, and that's when we hear the screaming. Past the front desk, down the hall, to the doorway at the end. A nurse forces her way out, and someone tries to grab for her, but she manages to slam the door against their arm and then lock the door shut before fleeing. Inside the room, some bad shit is going down. People are crazy. A woman is taking off her clothes, and a guy is digging his eyes out with his thumbs. (Presumably, the two are not connected.) It's all very creepy, but let's be honest; this is Millennium. This is a show about bad things happening, about hells on earth and self-immolation. None of this is a surprise.
Until we see Frank Black is in the room, and he's bashing on the door, screaming to be let out.
Not bad, eh? (Seems to be my week for describing cold opens.) Millennium's pre-credits sequences nearly always introduce us to the Killer of the Week or whatever horrorshow Frank will spend the next forty minutes unraveling, but Frank himself is hardly ever directly involved. Seeing him here already sets this episode apart from the usual run of the show, and it's even more intriguing that he's just as lost and insane as the people around him. Frank is often troubled by what he witnesses, and he's occasionally angered, but we rarely see him vulnerable. It'd be unusual for any show to start with one of its heroes drugged out of his mind, but it feels especially troubling here, seeing just how much Lance Henriksen holds all of this misery-wallowing together. He's supposed to be the reasonable one, the guy we can relate to and root for while the center keeps failing to hold. We see Mulder ranting and raving? We get nervous, but hey, it's not like he's ever been the most stable person in the world. But a character like Frank (or, come to think of it, Scully), whatever made him crack has to be serious. Whatever drove him around the bend is going to be more than just another serial killer with religious dementia, thank god.
That's not the fake-out part, thankfully; "Walkabout" is about Frank's attempts to find a medical cure for Jordan's psychic potential, and that's a lot more compelling than seeing another group of sex-workers butchered. What surprised me is that I expected that, once the teaser finished, the episode would throw up a "Three Days Earlier" title card on the screen, and we'd spend the next half hour building to how this moment actually happened. In this case, I wouldn't have been hugely disappointed if that's how things had gone, since the mystery of Frank's freak-out is strong enough that I really did want some explanation. I was so convinced that the episode would follow expected lines that a few minutes into Catherine and Peter's conversation at the Black house, I actually reversed back to the start of the scene just to make sure I hadn't missed any subtitles.
I hadn't. Most of "Walkabout" does revolve around figuring out just how Frank got into that room of crazy, but the episode doesn't use a time-jump to do this; instead, when we finally find Frank, battered and sleeping in a cardboard box, he's missing crucial pieces of his memory. He knows who he is, but he has no idea how he got to that alley or where the marks on his hands came from. Nor does he remember sending a series of e-mails to a Dr. Daniel Miller (Zeljko Ivanek, one of the all time great "Hey it's that guy"s). This last is especially troubling, since Frank used a fake name when he was communicating with Dr. Miller, and that fake name (David Marx) is the same name he used years ago, when he started disappearing from his home right before he had a nervous breakdown.
So what we have is mystery, but it's one of my favorite kinds of mysteries, the sort which directly acknowledges that mysteries are as much about reconstructing the past as they are about finding answers to questions. Some of the details here are a bit fuzzy, and the specificity of Frank's amnesia is maybe a little convenient for story purposes, but the haggard look on Henriksen's face is more than enough to cover the occasional bump in the road. (And to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm just being needlessly nitpicky or what. The idea that Frank just lost a couple of weeks' worth of memories after using an experimental drug isn't impossible to believe. It just seems odd that the other people in the trial don't have as many gaps as he does. Maybe that's because they do this professionally, though. And I doubt any of them were using fake names.) Once he discovers that the drug trial was for a medication that could theoretically block out his "visions," he's convinced that he would never have taken the drug willingly, and he's just as convinced that someone died during the trial and that there's some kind of cover-up.
"Walkabout" might have done more by playing up the possibility that Frank, in a drugged state, murdered someone, but I'm glad they didn't. That's an old trick, and it's rarely a successful one, especially with main characters. Millennium especially needs Frank to be a white knight, and even something as gray as pharmaceutically-induced manslaughter really isn't going to work on him. Peter keeps trying to talk Frank down from his convictions (although in a nice touch, Catherine believes him from the start), which gives everything a weird Mulder/Scully vibe, but even that's not hugely fascinating. It's a solid new dynamic for the two, but we all know that Frank is right here and that the truth will eventually out. So we enjoy the novelty of seeing our hero thrown a few degrees off center (every so often he gets this baffled look on his face, like he can't decide just how nervous he should be about all this), but we don't wallow in it too much.
As for the actual plot, turns out Dr. Miller—who isn't allowed to practice medicine anymore, due to a predilection for hallucination—was running the trial for a guy named Hans Ingram (Gregory Itzen, best known for his work on 24, although he's younger and significantly less evil-president here). Hans has developed a kind of anit-Proloft that he intends to force feed to the population at large, in order to counteract the growing number of people who are already on some form of anti-depressant. He thinks they're all zombies, and while "Walkabout" isn't exactly pro-psych-meds, it at least portrays Ingram's attempts to counteract the "zombification" of America as definitively evil. (Frank is super pissed when he finally confronts the man.) There have been a great many shows and books and movies about the so-called horrors of psych meds, and it's the sort of easy to agree with concept that gets overplayed without much in the way of nuance. This episode, thankfully, acknowledges that drugs really can help people. At least in theory, when they aren't created by a mad scientist who wants to drive the world insane.
Actually, the potential good of psych meds gives "Walkabout" one of its strongest and most emotionally powerful threads. Midway through the episode, Dr. Miller talks about how his mental problems drove him away from his family, and how worried he is that he might've passed on his own condition to his daughter. Frank doesn't come out and say why he was investigating this particular drug trial till the episode's end, but we learn what we need to know from that earlier scene. This whole season, the show has been poking around the idea that Jordan may share her father's "gifts," and "Sacrament" flat-out confirmed this. But while Frank is comfortable with who he is and has no interest in trying to treat his condition, he's worried about what his daughter will have to go through, seeing what he's seen. So even though he almost certainly knew from the start that this drug trial wouldn't pan out, and even though it's doubtful that he'd be willing to give his daughter this kind of medication, even if it hadn't proven to be a lie, well, he still had to see if it was possible. Psych meds aren't a philosophy, or a form of brainwashing. They're a tool, and whether or not you use them, it's good to know what's out there.
- I was debating going full A for this, but I'm not entirely sure that the backstory Frank pieces together holds up. I don't have any specific reservations, but there's a lot that happens here, and I can't pin down all of it.
- Great scene when Frank goes investigating at the hospital, only to find out that he's been there before—and he left a very distinct impression last time.
- I wonder how often an actor appears in two different roles, in two different series, in two different episodes with the exact same title?
Next week: Todd finishes the two-parter with "Max" and watches the most appropriately titled Millennium episode ever, "Lamentation."