The X-Files: “Drive” / Millennium: “Exegesis”
C+

The X-Files: “Drive” / Millennium: “Exegesis”

“Drive” (season 6, episode 2; originally aired 11/15/1998)
In which Mulder tries to prove he’s a real human being, and a real hero

Momentum. At the most basic level, that’s all plot really is: an excuse for momentum. There are many ways to approach this. Some stories parcel out forward motion sparingly, using long stretches of dialogue and contemplation to make those moments when events do jump ahead all the more shocking. Other stories run like mad for the finish line, throwing out crazy twist after crazy twist as the ground gives away beneath their feet—call it the bridge burning approach. (For an example of the former, see Mad Men; the latter, The Vampire Diaries.) And then there are the shows that go for constant, steady pressure. The shows with doom coming up behind them and darkness ahead, and heroes who find a way to behave believably and even logically as they trudge closer to death. It’s a blend of slow drama and bat-shit pulp, and it has to walk a thin line, maintaining believability while still finding ways to menace a protagonist enough to keep tension high. Breaking Bad is the best version of this type of show I’ve ever seen (and basically my favorite show ever), and if you want to get a sense of how Vince Gilligan got so good at doing what he does, you could do worse than watching his work on The X-Files, particularly this week’s episode. The obvious reason is that “Drive” is where Gilligan met Bryan Cranston, the man who would go on to star as the cancer-ridden, meth-cooking chemistry teacher Walter White; the less obvious reason is that this hour is a great example of the engine that keeps great television moving. It’s simple: you have to keep moving. If you stop, you die.

I haven’t watched The X-Files since Todd and I concluded our coverage of the fifth season last August. Back then, I was excited about shifting over to The Twilight Zone, and, to be honest, I’d gotten a little sick of the show; you can only write, “This plot is representative of Mulder’s obsessions” or “The mythology doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” or “Scully is just the greatest” so many times before the words lose what little meaning they once had. But watching the sixth season premiere reminded me how much I love all this craziness, as even with the various plot setbacks and cul-de-sacs, “The Beginning” was scary and cool and a lot of fun. With “Drive,” I was reminded of something else before we even got to the title sequence: this series has done some of the best cold opens ever. Here, we get a phony “news bulletin” (from a Fox affiliate, meaning the less than sharp-eyed viewers might be forgiven for thinking this was real—at least until we start cutting to close ups), setting up one of the most purely satisfying premises Mulder and Scully ever had to face. We don’t learn the details for a while, but it’s easy to put together in those first few moments. Initially, it looks like a driver with a hostage is leading police on a high speed chase. The cops use a spike trap to stop the car, and yank the driver out (at which point people in 1998 were saying, “Why is Seinfeld’s dentist fleeing the police? And why does he have a mustache?”). He struggles and screams as these guys always seem to, and while the some officers hold him down, others lead his “hostage” from the car—a woman. The driver’s wife, maybe. He calls out to her, and she’s sick or confused or drugged, and they put her in a cop car, and it looks like everything is fine again. The disruption is over, the criminal has been apprehended, and now it’s down to the paperwork. Until the woman starts bashing her head against the window in the car, and then there’s a burst of blood as her skull bursts.

It’s hard to get much more X-Files than that, right? We think we know what’s going on, but it’s so much worse than our assumptions, in a way that threatens to undermine our view of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that Mulder gets one whiff of the case and jumps on it. He and Scully are on assignment interviewing farmers about fertilizer purchases, and Mulder gets a glimpse of the news footage we saw in the cold open, and he’s off. Scully protests, but barely. It’s not the episode’s flashiest aspect, but where Scully spend “The Beginning” backtracking and rejecting character growth, here she’s basically open-minded and interested in what’s going on. She spends most of the hour doing usual Scully stuff: autopsy, haz-mat suit, poking dead things, talking urgently with Mulder on a cell phone as she tries to save his butt for the umpteenth time. But there’s no “Mulder, despite having seen dozens, if not hundreds, of cases of strange and inexplicable events, I’m still going to act like weird things don’t exist” bullshit. It’s something I’ve noticed in a far number of monster of the week episodes. Scully in the mythology is inflexible to the point of absurdity, a human representation of the show’s inability to ever make a definitive change. But down in the trenches, she’s allowed to be skeptical (and given Mulder’s tendency to grab at any idea which sounds even remotely cool, I think you need some skepticism) but still sharp and adaptable. She’s even responsible for the theory behind what happened to the Crumps, and it’s as nutty a theory as Fox ever dreamed of.

Oh right, the Crumps: I haven’t talked much about them yet, but that’s the couple we meet in the cold open, one of whom dies before we get much more out of her than whimpering. Patrick Crump, on the other hand... It’s funny; we never really know much about Mr. Crump beyond the surface. He’s a roofer, he’s a bigot (he hears Mulder’s name and immediately starts complaining about Jews), and he doesn’t much care for the government. Beyond that, we don’t get a back-story, because we don’t really need a back-story; who Crump is doesn’t matter as much as what happens to him, and learn enough to keep the character from being just an expendable piece of meet. And yet, the climax of this episode, which has Mulder racing to get Crump to Scully before the ringing in his ears finally does him in, is as moving as it is suspenseful. Gilligan doesn’t go out of his way to make us feel bad for the man, and Mulder spends most of his time as a hostage (deservedly) sniping at the guy. Maybe that’s why his death is as sad as it is. Cranston does excellent work in the role, and if much of his time is spent looking scared and furious and in pain, the actor makes the most of the few pieces we get of where he came from. In particular, his short monologue about what happened to his wife the morning she got infected is haunting in a way these monologue often aren’t; I’m so used to hearing victims give speeches about how crappy it is to be a victim that I’m usually immune to the simple pathos those speeches are intended to illicit, but Cranston sounds and looks so haunted and lost and alone it’s hard not to feel for him. The guy’s a redneck asshole, but not even a redneck asshole deserves this. (And it goes without say that he’s probably not in the best frame of mind when we meet him.) Cranston takes a decently written role, and invests the character with an unexpected sort of dignity, one which acknowledges his failings while still forcing you to give a damn. His final moments, as he begs Mulder to go “Just a little bit faster,” make for one of the better ends I’ve seen on the show. Scully has just come up with a cure, and we’re allowed a moment to think this all might turn out okay in the end. But then Crump starts whimpering, and Mulder checks the speedometer, and the look on his face is all you need to know.

“Drive” is well cast, and our two heroes are both in top form, doing what they do best. The script also manages to wring as much suspense as it can out of its premise without diluting the concept. The episode’s tensest scene has Mulder forced to make a pit stop for gas in the middle of the night. First he pulls up on the wrong side of the pumps; then the hicks in the station won’t switch on the feed, because hicks don’t tend to jump to their feet when some city asshole starts screaming at them. So Mulder steals a handy station wagon just to get back on the road. It’s a short scene, but it works well, and it’s a mark in the episode’s favor that Gilligan doesn’t go out of his way to come up with more contrived threats. At one point, Mulder makes a joke about how similar all of this is to Speed, but where that movie spent most of its running time finding increasingly loopy ways to make “bomb on bus” relevant, “Drive” is more direct. (Admittedly, Gilligan doesn’t have as much time to fill.) There are quibbles you could make over the concept, which is so thin as to be transparent; something to do with low frequency radio broadcasts and the weapons potential thereof, and the possibility this may all have been an accident, or maybe not. But in a weird way, that thinness, and the basic absurdity of the premise, work to the episode’s advantage. The X-Files has always been interested in finding horrors in the thinnest of threads, and this is just another example of a seemingly ludicrous idea turning lethal. It stops being ridiculous when it starts being you.

It all comes back to Mulder in the end. The episode doesn’t force the connection, but the fact that we start with Fox choosing to get involved with a case which has nothing to do with him, a move which means directly disobeying the orders handed down from on high, is telling. And of course he gets involved, and of course once he realizes what’s happening to Crump, he does everything he can to save the poor guy. Partly because he wants Crump to have a chance to tell his story, but I think it’s more that this is just who Mulder is. He has to act, and in his way, he is as damned to forward motion as the poor bastard in the back seat. Throughout the series, Mulder’s determination to press on, his desperate compulsion to seek and hunt down and fix things, has been heralded, undercut, mocked, and even vilified, but “Drive” presents it as a simple and necessary fact. This is who he is, and while we may regret the trouble it causes him (and feel bad that Scully gets dragged along time and again), we can’t deny the necessity. Director Kresh runs through a long list of charges the adventure in Nevada has cost the Bureau, but as Scully points out, their work saves lives. And even more, we need them to keep going; we need them back in the driver’s seat, because without them, there’s no show. I could be reading too much into all of this, and the fact is, “Drive” works perfectly well on its own, without striving to find deeper symbolic significance. But I can’t help thinking of how elegantly it summarizes both Mulder’s character—he is defined by his refusal, his inability, to stop—and how that character, in turn, defines The X-Files. The truth is out there. But it won't stay still for long.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • So why did it take so much longer for Crump to be affected by the sound than it did his wife? Skull shape? (As goofy as it as, I love Scully’s suggestion that all of this is happening because the sound matches the frequency of the human skull. There’s something wonderfully visceral about that image.)
  • I was shocked to find out this episode predates Malcolm In The Middle. There’s an entire series between “Drive” and Gilligan and Cranston teaming up for Breaking Bad.
  • “This is the FBI equivalent of being made to wear an orange jumpsuit and pick up trash by the side of the road.” Mulder is not happy on shit detail.
  • Between “Drive.” and “Run!”, Cranston has demonstrated a gift for compelling monosyllabic motivational imperatives.
  • “Well, on behalf of the International Jewish Conspiracy, I just need to inform you that we’re almost out of gas.” -Mulder, keeping it real
  • “Mr. Mulder, could you please go a little faster.”
  • “You can always quit.” Oh Kresh, you have no idea.

“Exegesis” (Season 3, episode 2; originally aired 10/9/1998)
In which blond ambition pales in comparison to the end of the world as we know it

If there was any question as to what direction the new season of Millennium was heading, it’s dispelled as soon as Frank starts narrating about Greek oracles. Well, that’s a little unfair. This show has done voice over before, and it’s not like there’s anything immediately objectionable about Lance Henriksen talking about future sight, and man’s pesky tendency to keep their glimpses into tomorrow focused on battle and death. (In many ways, Henriksen is a born narrator; his thoughtful rasp lends credence to everything he says.) But given how much the plot of last week’s episode was starting to resemble an X-Files scenario, it’s hard not to hear the words and not get suspicious. Like Todd, I can understand how the people working on the show might want to distance themselves from the second season. Morgan and Wong’s work was beautiful, heart-rending, shocking, but most of all, it was unique, and unique can be a hard act to follow, especially on television, when so much of success is driven by the audience’s love of seeing what they already know, only slightly different. But man, of all the directions to pick, knocking off Carter’s most successful TV work to date would’ve been low on my list. As dour as the first season of Millennium was, at least it felt like its own show; a miserable, grim crime procedural that wallowed in its self-created ugliness, sure, but that’s still an identity. The events of “Exegesis,” from the narration that opens and closes the episode to the reveal of a government conspiracy, to the sight of two leads—the male a little crazed but brilliant, the female uncertain but intrigued—all serve to confirm what was already fairly obvious. Whatever ambition Carter and the others might have had for this show in the early going has been drummed out, most likely due to the rapidly dropping ratings. We’re in knock-off land.

Thankfully, “Exegesis” doesn’t have to spend as much time as last week getting us accustomed to the changes from the end of the previous season. We still haven’t had any explanation for why Frank’s hair is brown again (is he dyeing it? That seems out of character to me, unless he’s doing it to reassure Jordan, and oh god I think I just thought about this more than the writers did), and we do get an FBI agent talking about the plague which killed “70 people,” but at least the whiplash isn’t nearly as strong. Yeah, the plague explanation is laughable, but so is nearly everything about the retooling. It’s hard to keep track of what “counts” from the second season, and the episode’s attempt to build relationships and establish itself is strained even at the best of times. The problem with retooling is that it pulls the curtain back so much that’s hard to re-invest in a show. All of a sudden, we’re getting constant reminders of just how made up all of this is, and it’s hard to care as much as we used to when we know that all of this could change yet again if someone got an urge to do so. It sounds silly—obviously you and I know this is made up, and that season two is no more “real” than anything else on the series—but being engaged with fiction demands a willingness on both sides to play the game of pretend. And that goes doubly true on television, when so much of what we value in the art form is the persistence of an illusory reality. Constantly pulling do-overs is a move of such obvious desperation it makes faith in this nonsense exponentially more difficult; and sadly, little of what we’ve seen so far makes the effort seem worth it.

The biggest change we get in “Exegesis” is the reveal that Peter has gone from the complex, somewhat tragic figure he was at the end of last season to a full on bad guy, popping up unexpectedly during an FBI briefing, and then following Frank to pick up Jordan from school. I’m not quite sure how to take this. Terry O’Quinn remains awesome, and he does his best to invest Peter’s scenes (particularly his single conversation with Frank) with some ambiguity, but it’s hard to escape the fact that, as written, he’s a thug, existing primarily to serve as a familiar representation of the Millennium Group, as well as a reminder of how much the group betrayed Frank’s trust. As someone who thought Peter’s presence in the second season was one of the show’s highlights, and really appreciated the sense of him turning his back on the group in the season finale. Hell, it was strongly implied in that episode that Peter was either dead or at the very least shot, but there’s no mention of that here; maybe we’re supposed to believe he was taken to some secret hideaway and given the Stepford treatment. Regardless, it’s frustrating, and bothers me even more than the compromised “plague.” I can understand wanting to step back from the end of the world, but eliminating Peter and Frank’s friendship is a significant, inexplicable loss, especially considering how little Agent Emma Hollis brings to the table. And yet, the few scenes with Peter here are among the episode’s strongest. Frank’s fury at the Millennium Group’s attempt to monitor and even control his life is exciting, and gives us some direction for the season to go; and while I’m not a huge fan of Peter turning evil, I do like the arc of Millennium revealing itself as a bunch of controlling assholes. That has more meaning than some faceless government conspiracy, at least. Frank trusted these people, he worked for them, and now they’ve betrayed him, which gives this season something to build on.

As for the conclusion of the mystery of the dead blonds, once you get past the unshakable feeling that Mulder and Scully must’ve gotten caught in traffic, it’s not too bad. I’m always dutifully impressed when a show manages to bring everything together in a rough kind of sense, and there’s enough of that here so that I didn’t feel as though my time was entirely wasted. To sum up, once upon a time, the government created a psychic so they could spy on other countries. That psychic, a woman named Mildred Carson, was so effective that the government, doing what they do, started cloning her. Hence the legion of blond psychics Frank has been wading through over the course of these two episodes. The Millennium Group has been hunting the women (and children) down because their psychic abilities threaten to expose the group’s long term plans for destruction and control. Mildred herself reveals this to Frank at the end of the episode, in a vision she shares with him which can’t help but seem paltry after the visions of chaos in season two. The reason for the plane crash and the other deaths, though, isn’t entirely Millennium’s purge. The blonds, knowing they were in danger, chose to sacrifice most of their number (as well as a whole bunch of innocent people on the plane) in order to save Mildred and one of the young girls.

Too much of “Exegesis” plays like re-heated X-Files. The existence of a government project devoted to creating psychic spies to project themselves into enemy territory sounds like something Mulder’s kept buried in a file cabinet for years. Plus, Emma finds herself at odds with her employers for much of the episode, and its only her determination to see sings through (along with Frank’s help) that gets the case “solved,” as it were. But I do like the idea of these secret groups running around underneath the surface of day to day life, sniping at each other with their plans and killing anyone with the bad luck to get in the way. I like that we’re not really sure who to root for here. The women were victims, exploited and targeted for reasons beyond their control, and yet they aren’t entirely blameless; their willingness to sacrifice anyone to help their cause makes them somewhat less sympathetic. Of course, shadowy cabals lurking behind the American dream is also pretty much X-Files territory, but the weirdness of the Millennium Group is better defined, and more definitive in its way, than the Syndicate, with its constantly shifting motives and alien allegiances. My biggest question after watching this episode is, what next? Frank will be squaring off against the group for the rest of the season, I’m sure, but I’m curious as to what kind of standalone episodes we’ll get. Will Carter continue to bring us leftovers from his other show, or will we go back to the serial killer carousel of the first season? The tone is different than it was back then; we’re not grim to the point of self-parody. But at least the grimness was distinctive. I’m not sure I want to set through twenty-plus episodes of a show reminding me how much I like these songs the first time I heard them.

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

  • The climax of this one, which has Frank and Emma running around a missile silo, was a bit flat. Although it did give us a scene of Frank nearly getting smooshed by an elevator.
  • Like Todd, I remain unconvinced by Emma. She’s not actively annoying. She just exists. (And the chemistry between her and Frank makes it seem like they aren’t even in the same room together.)

Next week: Todd takes a look at a classic standalone episode which makes terrific use of sustained cuts as it tells the story of Mulder and Scully and time travel and Nazis in “Triangle,” and helps Frank face the worst Scrabble hand ever in “TEOTWAWKI.” 

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