“Tithonus”/“Borrowed Time” S6 & 3 / E10
- A- Community Grade
“Tithonus” (season 6, episode 10; originally aired 1/24/1999)
In which Scully doesn’t die.
There’s a moment roughly halfway through “Tithonus” that sums up everything I love about Dana Scully. Director Kersh has teamed Scully up with Ritter, an ambitious agent out in New York who thinks he’s stumbled across a long-hidden serial killer. His suspect, Arthur Fellig (Geoffrey Lewis), has taken a lot of pictures of dead people, but that’s to be expected; Fellig is a licensed crime scene photographer, and snapping shots of corpses comes with the territory. Some of those pictures don’t quite add up, though, like a clock that tells a time forty-five minutes before anyone called the cops. So Ritter decided to investigate, and Scully, sans Mulder, is along for the ride. Ritter isn’t a very good agent, though, and they hit a wall in the case, which leads to a stake-out in front of Fellig’s apartment building. When it’s Scully’s turn on the clock, instead of spending her night staring out the windshield and drinking endless cups of coffee, she goes into the building and confronts Fellig directly.
That’s the moment right there: the choice to go off book and just cut to the chase because why the hell not. Scully gets a lot of credit for being the more grounded of the show’s two leads (there are hot air balloons more grounded than Mulder), but she’s also no-nonsense, and once she realizes that whatever is going on is a lot weirder than Ritter will ever admit to, she takes the next logical step and asks Fellig what the hell his deal is. It galvanizes the story in an unexpected way, changing the relationship between the protagonist and the latest monster of the week into something more intimate and dangerous than the usual cops-and-robbers routine. If I hadn’t seen this episode before, I would’ve assumed that eventually, Scully would follow Fellig and catch him in the act of taking one of his photographs; instead, she meets him head on, and he invites her along for the ride. Fellig isn’t a monster, at least not in the usual sense, and while he is on the run, it’s in the opposite direction you’d expect. He’s not trying to escape anyone. He’s trying to catch Death.
At times, Vince Gilligan’s script plays like a secret homage to “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” one of The X-Files' greatest hours. Once again, we’re faced with a man who knows too much about death for his own good, but where poor Clyde was tormented by an unshakable understanding of the machinations of fate, Arthur doesn’t know how his subjects will die, just when. In the unsettling cold open, the photographer stalks a pretty young woman as she delivers mail in an office building. She gets on an elevator, he joins her, but before they can get to the next stop, Fellig sees in the reflection of the elevator doors that everyone else in the car but him has gone monochromatic. He quickly exists the elevator, and then races down stairs as the elevator cables snap, plunging everyone left inside to their doom. It’s a great sequence because it establishes Fellig as a creepy guy, but it doesn’t give you the satisfaction of watching him sink fangs into a victim, or scuttle on the ceiling, or turn into a wolf. That elevator was going to fall no matter what he did. He’s just the guy taking photos of the bodies while they’re still warm, for reasons we don’t yet understand.
For all his weary cynicism, Clyde Bruckman still had his soul; Fellig’s seems to have been lost somewhere in the past. “Final Repose” leavened its grim fatality with dark wit, but “Tithonis” is rarely funny. While it doesn’t play out like a classic monster episode, it feels like one, and even when you realize just what kind of man Fellig is (and that he really hasn’t been killing people), nothing ever feels safe. That’s partly due to Geoffrey Lewis’s low-key performance. Lewis’s hang-dog expression is one of his great assets as a character actor, and on Arthur Fellig, it’s the face of a man who doesn’t give a shit about anything. Bruckman’s tragedy was that deep down inside, he still cared, which meant he still felt every death he foresaw. Fellig is a ghoul, ground down by the decades until all that drives him is a single, burning need. It’s not just that he’s tired of living; he’s resentful of the people he photographs, jealous of them for having access to the only secret still left. I’ve seen and read other stories with character ground down by the tedium of immortality, but this episode isn’t about the unseen costs of eternal life. True, Fellig’s long life hasn’t done him any favors, but the impression I got from his monologues, from his exhaustion, from his complete disinterest in trying to help anyone he sees, that he was never much of a man to begin with. Bruckman talked about trying to prevent what he foresaw and failing, because he was trapped by fate; Fellig wants people to die, and even though Scully is unable to prevent the one death she witnesses with him, that doesn’t mean all the deaths he sees are inevitable. Or maybe it does, given how many times Fellig has tried and failed to kill himself over the years. He’s obsessed with looking Death in the face, because he saw Death once before, a century ago when he was struck by the yellow fever. He turned away when Death came for him, and it took the nurse by his side instead, and he’s been doomed to wander the earth ever since. Maybe death can’t be forestalled, merely exchanged. That still doesn’t make Fellig any easier to pity. In fact, one the episode’s subtler points is how it suggests that Fellig’s immortality, his exclusion from one of the two things that must happen to every living thing, has made him something less than a man. He’s a monster not for what he does, but for what he is.
In my review for “The Rain King,” I said I wished the show would go back to being scary, and “Tithonus” does the job well. What makes it especially powerful is that the scares are never obvious or telegraphed. I called Fellig the monster of the week, because it’s his powers and decisions which drive the story, but you might as well say Death himself is the one lurking in every shadow. And it’s not the loopy, slapstick loving Death of the Final Destination movies, either. This Death is a nasty, brutal bastard, and all of the fatalities in the episode are realistic (comparatively) enough to be creepy in a different way than death at the claws of some slavering beast. Scully isn’t trying to track down a threat which can be neutralized or defeated. Fellig is dead by the end of the hour, but even if he’d died ages ago, the people in the elevator would still be goners, just like the mugging victim and the hooker who gets hit by a truck. And people will still die tomorrow and the day after that, and the day after that. Fellig just happened to get a glimpse of the underside of everything, and, like a protagonist in a Lovecraft story, what makes him awful is the knowledge he brought back.
Yet this isn’t an entirely despairing episode. (We’re not watching Millennium, after all.) That brings me back to Scully, who, as with “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is the heart of the story. Her efforts to understand Fellig, and to grasp the implications of what he tells her, belie the criticism that her character’s skepticism was static. Yes, there are episodes in which she’s written as nothing more than a doubt delivery system, a wall for Mulder to bounce his theories off of so that they come back sounding slightly more reasonable. But the show’s best writers realized that Scully’s philosophy is less about unbelief than it is about stability. She grounds the show, a sane observer in a reliably insane world, and her struggle to reconcile her faith in God and the essential practicality of life with Mulder’s lawless visions is one of The X-Files most powerful dramatic arcs. It’s not always handled well, but Gilligan knows the characters and he knows what he’s doing, and Scully is at her best here, curious, relentless, and dismayed all at once. She goes into the case with her eyes open, and when the details don’t add up, she starts asking questions, much to the dismay of Agent Ritter. When she doubts Fellig’s story, it’s sanity speaking, not obduracy, and she’s smart enough to catch on when something goes wrong. Not that she can do much about it.
The centerpiece of the episode comes in Scully’s conversations with Fellig, once he’s told her his secret. While the sixth season is probably late in the game for a series’ star to have a defining moment, Scully’s baffled response to Fellig’s despair comes off as one. She doesn’t understand his misery, his listlessness, his barely veiled contempt. “I think you’re wrong. How can you have too much life? There’s too much to learn, too much to experience.” It’s simply stated, but it tells you everything you need to know—for all the horrors she’s had to endure, Scully remains an optimist. She still believes in life. Which is why it’s so horrifying when we see through Fellig’s eyes that she’s turned to black-and-white; by the story’s logic, she’s doomed. The climax of “Tithonus” is a fine example of misleading suspense. When Fellig sees Scully’s changed color, he pickpockets her cell phone, and he instantly becomes ten degrees creepier. Mulder finds out that Fellig (under a different name) killed two patients at a hospital in his hunt to find Death, and that goes even further towards guiding us down the wrong path: Fellig is going to murder Scully before he disappears again. Only, that’s not what happens. Already on edge (and willing to bribe a witness and let a murderer go free in order to catch his man), Ritter arrives at Fellig’s apartment and opens fire as soon as he sees the photographer, not realizing that Scully is standing behind the other man. The bullet goes through the lens of Fellig’s camera, through his body, and into Scully’s stomach.
So Fellig wasn’t the threat, beyond his usual peeping tom act. But as Scully bleeds out on the floor, he reachs for her hand and tells her to look away—she can see Death now, but she looks away from it the way he did so many years ago, she’ll be safe. She does, and Fellig finally embraces his fate. He was never a threat, just the messenger, and in his selfishness, he gets to do one last nice thing for the world: he makes Dana Scully immortal. One of the reasons I mentioned the Bruckman episode is the great scene in it when Scully asks Clyde how she’ll die, and he tells her, “You don’t.” It was a lovely exchange, a chance for a man pummeled by things he couldn’t unsee (and it’s fascinating that Bruckman got his “gift” by looking too much, while Fellig was cursed for turning away) to lie a little, but “Tinthonus” makes it real. That’s a bold choice, and if this wasn’t Scully, it would probably be too much; as is, I doubt it gets referenced again on the series, and I also doubt it’s treated as canon. Besides, going by Mulder’s last line (“I think Death only looks for you once you seek its opposite.”), Scully is probably just as mortal as the rest of us; after all, she’s still reaching for life. But I’d rather believe she’ll go on forever.
- Gilligan’s ability to play with audience assumptions and jump start narratives is, of course, part of what makes Breaking Bad such a great show.
- In Greek mythology, Tithonus was the mortal lover of Eos, Titan of the dawn. When Eos asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, she forgot to ask the god to grant her boyfriend eternal youth. So, to tie in the with the episode, he can live forever, but all the joy in life is gone.
- This is one of the few times I can think of that Scully went off on her own, had a few conversations with Mulder, and Mulder doesn’t come off like a jerk or an idiot. At worst, he’s a little lonely.
- I like the idea that Fellig’s immortality is as much a fluke as anything, but it does seem like this season of The X-Files has given up trying to find even remotely scientific explanations for its stories. (Well, apart from the nanobots.)
- As shocking as it is to see Scully in black and white, I almost wish the episode had saved that moment until after Fellig told her, “You’re very lucky, you know that?”
“Borrowed Time” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 1/15/1999)
In which Jordan gets sick, and the show gets (a little) better
What do you know: it’s a Millennium episode from the third season I don’t hate! Which isn’t to say that “Borrowed Time” is a classic, or even that it’s all that good, but it moves the show away from “weak-ass X-Files rip off” and “misery porn,” and I appreciate that. At times, the story approaches the religious mania that used to drive the series, and while it never reaches those heights, and plot never entirely makes sense, it at least feels like the writers are fumbling towards something I’d want to watch on a weekly basis. There are scenes in this hour that achieve actual emotional intensity, in a way I thought the series was no longer capable of, and in its striving for the ineffable, it loses the empty hollowness which has been dogging it ever since the reboot. Sure, it’s also a muddled mess, but it’s an interesting mess, and I’ll take that over neat boredom any day of the week.
The confusion starts with the cold open. A priest prepares to perform the Last Rites over a little girl in the hospital, while somewhere, a train is traveling through the night. There’s a different little girl on the train, and she notices a man passing by her and her mother’s room. There’s nothing obviously strange about him, but he makes eye contact with the girl before moving on. He’s got a set of keys in one hand, and, in a way I don’t quite understand (get used to me saying that), he appears to arrange for the train to switch to a closed track and ultimately fall off a broken bridge. The effects work is atrocious, starting with the shot of the switched tracks, and ending with spraying water and what I guess is supposed to be a falling train. Meanwhile, the priest is going about his business, and the sequence ends with the reveal that he’s speaking over Jordan Black, Frank’s daughter. Dun dun dunnnnnn.
Apart from the terrible effects, the cold open suffers from an excess of obscurity. The two events we’re watching don’t seem to connect in any logical, or even illogical, way. But hey, cold opens often have a certain mystery to them. Five minutes isn’t really enough time to explain an idea of even the most basic complexity, so it’s better to just go with the emotions and hope it will come clear in the time ahead. (Of course, this requires a certain level of trust in the show, and I’m not sure Millennium hasn’t squandered that trust by now, but I’ll let that slide.) This is all gloomy and portentous, but at least it’s not outright wallowing in despair. A scene of a priest performing a death ritual over a child? That’s manipulative and melodramatic. The train crash suggests there’s more going on.
There is, and it’s a curious coincidence that this episode just happened to be paired up in our coverage with “Tithonus.” Both hours are about cheating death in some form or another, but where Alfred Fellig is desperate to die, the various people who drown on dry land in “Borrowed Time” aren’t happy to go. Hence the presence of the Staring Guy (Eric Mabius, who will always be “the good guy in the first Resident Evil movie” to me). He’s never named in the episode, but the credits list him as Samiel, so that’s what I’ll call him. Samiel is a handsome young man, and he smiles easily, but he has the uncanny habit of showing up just before someone starts choking up water and dies. Late in the episode, we learn that he hangs around near death experience encounter groups, which provides him with targets: people who, through accident or illness or something else, should have died, but didn’t. They get extra time on earth (hence the title of the episode), but that time is something everyone shares. As Samiel tries to explain to Frank, not everyone gets to live as long as they want to; someone has to sacrifice their time to keep the others on the clock.
This is a great idea, even better, it’s a step towards mysticism and away from the government conspiracy crap that’s bogged down so much of this season. And there are some powerful scenes in this episode, like a sequence which shows Samiel breaking into an apartment, sitting down next to a sleeping man, and slowly counting to ten while the man chokes to death. It’s an unsettling, creepy scene, and it gains power from how little we know about what’s going on; it’s clear Samiel has power, but who knows why he does what he does. By the end of the hour, Samiel has gone from frightening monster to someone who just might be an angel, but is still pretty scary, and that works very well. Some of the second season’s best moment suggested that just because there was a God and all His holy host, that didn’t mean they were friendly, or even comprehensible by human standards.
For my money, the best part of the episode is Frank’s struggle to protect Jordan. The little girl hasn’t played much of a part in this season so far; she mourned for her mother earlier, and we know Frank’s taking care of her, with some help from Catherine’s parents, but there hasn’t been any mention of her special abilities. “Borrowed Time” doesn’t bring those up, but it does have Jordan getting sick, suffering from an apart relapse of the meningitis which nearly killed her years ago. Jordan is, like all the victims in the episode, someone who arguably should’ve died, but didn’t, and Samiel targets her the same as all the rest. Frank, unsurprisingly, is having none of it, and his growing panic and rage over the course of the hour gives an often abstract storyline some emotional weight. The scenes of him dealing with the professional but unsympathetic nursing staff are especially strong; the shot of Jordan screaming as they try and force her into an ice bath may be manipulative, but it works very, very well. (It reminds me a little of watching Reagan MacNeil from The Exorcist having to endure a barrage of painful physical tests so doctors could shrug their shoulders and say, “Eh, it’s probably psychological.”)
What keeps “Borrowed Time” from greatness is that it never quite comes together. Here’s the story, as I’ve been able to work out: Samiel is killing people who had near death experiences because he believes other people could use their time. He targets Jordan in order to save the girl we saw on the train at the start of the episode, but after talking with Frank, has a change of heart, so that when the train crashes, Samiel sacrifices himself instead, saving both Jordan and the girl.
That’s it. We don’t know who Samiel is or where he came from (I’m just guessing about the “angel” thing), and I’m not a hundred percent sure my interpretation of what happened is the right one. It’s not an incredibly complicated idea, but it is one that needed clarification going into the end game. In order to make Samiel more threatening, the episode never connects the people we see die with other people surviving life-threatening situations, so the cause and effect relationship is too much of an intellectual one. I appreciate the idea that this was trying to work more on our nerve endings and our gut than the brain, but the script and the presentation are too jumbled to achieve the impact a story with this much potential should’ve had. Still, the theme is one that fits well with Millennium’s outlook: there are a limited number of happy endings available, and none of them last forever.
- In the last scene, Jordan tells her father that she saw Catherine, and that Catherine wanted her to tell Frank that she “made the right choice.” What does that mean? Are we supposed to think that Catherine’s death is connected to Jordan’s survival somehow? If so, I’m not buying it.
- It doesn’t help that the episode has a lot of shots of the girl getting on the train, riding the train, staring out the window of the train—just knowing she could potentially drown in a couple days isn’t enough to give those scenes meaning. (Also, is she on the train for the whole two days? The ride seems to go on forever.)
- Jordan isn’t very well developed, but I love it when her father urges her to go back to school, and she says, “But I’m sick, and it’s not fair to the other kids.” She’s not coming up with an excuse; she honestly means it.
Next week: Todd dives back into the mythology with “Two Fathers,” and hopes the upward trend continues with “Collateral Damage.”