“Folie a Deux” (season 5, episode 19; originally aired 5/10/1998)
In which there are bugs in the system
There’s something crazy-making about holding an opinion no one else shares or believing in something no one else believes. It has a tendency to make you feel just a little paranoid, just a little insane. You believe in this so strongly, but no one else does. The rest of the world just brushes on by and shrugs its shoulders, and as much as you scream in its face, no one seems to pay you mind. Science fiction, of course, has made great use of this theme, from all of those movies where the aliens are invading one person by another person, and only one man knows the truth, to something like The Thing, where men in a far-off location are turned one against the other by a malevolent force that knows just the way to bump elements off of each other.
The greatest character argument The X-Files ever made is that Scully, for as much as she doesn’t share his theories, is pretty much the only thing keeping Mulder clinging to sanity. Sure, when we (and she) meet him in the pilot, he’s a reasonably together guy. But it’s easy, over the course of the series, to see where the wheels could come off the truck, where this guy could just start shouting strange bullshit into the dead of night with no one coming back. When he lands in a mental hospital in this episode, there’s a grim inevitability to it, and David Duchovny plays that for dark laughs. Scully is a tether, the person that Mulder can spin his madness off on. Even if she doesn’t believe what he does, she’s someone who will at least listen, will at least try to acknowledge his point. What makes “Folie a Deux” one of the greatest episodes the show ever did is that it literalizes that idea. The “Folie a Deux” of the title—the madness shared by two—seems like it will refer to Mulder and the vinyl siding company employee who teaches him to see giant man-bugs in our midst. Instead, it ends up referring to Mulder and Scully. She may not share his madness, but she’s in close enough proximity to have just a little rub off on her.
The episode is even elegantly structured to accomplish just this very thing. It starts out as what seems like a Mulder-centric episode, then slowly inverts on itself to become a Scully-centric episode (though the most horrifying moment of the whole episode is pretty much just Duchovny screaming while strapped to a bed), before finally reasserting itself, in the end, as an episode that argues that these people only work with each other. It’s not a romantic pairing, not exactly. It’s a kind of perfect professionalism, as though Sir Thomas Malory came up with a courtly romance of government bureaucracy, with knights carrying cell phones and maidens doing a fair share of the saving, once they’ve been convinced to do so.
Of course, one of the things that makes this episode so fantastic is the monster. Barely seen, the giant bug-man thing is mostly suggested through sounds and through half-glimpsed shadows that… could they be trees or plants? They have to be, right? But, no, then there’s some strange shape lurching across the ceiling, about to drop down and suck out your life force, turning you into a zombie. The few times we look at the monster head-on, we only see a blurry motion in front of the camera. (Fittingly, the best look we get at the creature comes through Scully’s point-of-view.) Even better, the episode doesn’t even bother to explain what the monster is, beyond the idea that it can somehow mask itself by making us see just a normal middle-manager in a major corporation. The episode shows us the effects and lets us draw our own conclusions, based on what we already know of the show and its monstrous world, as well as what we know of American corporate culture.
In fact, one of the things that works best about the monster is that it works on a metaphorical level as well. (Episode author Vince Gilligan was particularly good at creating monsters that worked like this.) Gilligan and episode director Kim Manners particularly play up the hive-like aspects of working in a giant call center, the camera drifting over the throngs of workers buzzing on the phones, stuck at their little work stations, the managers roaming the aisles like soldiers, dedicated to keeping the worker bees hard at work. And then there’s the king, off in his office, rarely emerging, the workers readily sacrificing themselves to him when he asks. And who hasn’t felt like a zombie at work sometimes? Who hasn’t felt like their employer is taking advantage of them and they’re just meekly going along? Gilligan’s set-up for VinylRite is perfect on almost every level, right down to just how mundane Gary Lambert’s job is.
Gilligan also builds a tale that is unpredictable. We assume that this is going to be a “hostage situation” episode, one where the protagonist stumbles into a hostage crisis and then has to talk the hostage taker out of killing anyone, with a sad moment at the end where we realize that the hostage taker was just a desperate person in unusual circumstances, and now they’re dead/going to jail. Instead, Gilligan immediately starts breaking the rules. Gary kills a man who tries to disarm him. He discovers that Mulder’s an FBI agent much sooner than he usually would. And, in the episode’s greatest trick, he passes his madness along to Mulder right before the SWAT team bursts through the wall and shoots him. Ostensibly, the problem is over. But now Mulder, quite literally, has been infected by the bug.
The next-to-last episode of an X-Files season was very often one where Mulder found himself questioning reality or cursed with some sort of disease or drug that heightened his already considerable paranoia. It was a device that the show turned to so often because it grew so naturally out of the premise: What if Mulder’s just crazy? is a pretty obvious place to go when you start from the fundamental idea of the show, and some of the show’s very best episodes wrestled with this question. What I think makes this episode the best version of that type is that Mulder subsequently passes on the bug to Scully, who’s resistant to it but ultimately infected herself. It’s a potent, metaphorical comment on Scully’s place within the series at this point in time. She doesn’t believe, but she also doesn’t not believe.
It’s a tricky balancing act, no doubt, and in that magnificent final act, I love the moment when the camera pushes in on Scully’s face ever so subtly as she looks down at the nurse at the hospital and sees that… she’s a zombie. Gillian Anderson’s face perfectly flashes between incredulity and acceptance, as she realizes just how screwed the person she cares about most in the world is. And she takes matters into her own hands to go unload a couple of bullets into Greg Pincus, bug man, before he can turn Mulder into one of the unquestioning zombies who will follow Pincus to an unfulfilling job somewhere in the great American heartland. (Another great moment of workplace satire is when Scully says Pincus has disappeared, along with everyone we know that he’s turned.)
I could quibble with elements of this episode. To be sure, some of the plot developments happen awfully suddenly, simply to get everything into the hour. I’m not sure that Mulder’s abrupt turn to intense, insane paranoia is all that justified, and I do think that having him end up in a mental institution feels a bit cheap, as though the writers had the whole idea in their back pocket all this time and couldn’t wait to shoehorn it into an episode. (It also happens so abruptly that the writers feel compelled to hang a bunch of lanterns on it to call attention to how unusual it all is.) And the opening act, which contrives a little too heavily to keep Scully in D.C., so Mulder can end up on one end of the hostage crisis and she on the other, has its problems as well.
But for the most part, this is crackerjack entertainment, filled with unpredictable moments and twists, and it’s got at its core a single great idea: Madness is always better when shared by two. The second you find out someone else shares that crazy opinion with you, the second you can get someone on the same wavelength, well, it’s like coming out of the darkness just a little bit. It’s telling that Mulder only gets out of the mental institution once Scully comes to also believe. Maybe she doesn’t believe in the entirety of the Pincus mythos, but she certainly believes in something. And just having her come that far is enough to get him get better, start to come out of the darkness and back into the light, even as they both know Pincus is still buzzing around the American heartland. I’m not a big ‘shipper in regards to this show, but “Folie a Deux” argues that Mulder and Scully are something more important than lovers: They’re soulmates.
- I know I’ve talked about how great that scene where Mulder’s strapped to the bed is, but the best part is when the nurse comes in and both Mulder and the audience realize she’s been turned at the same instant, even as Scully’s shaving a man’s neck to see that, yes, there are three strange puncture wounds there.
- OK, it’s not like there’s no explanation for how the zombies are created. Scully mentions a weird toxin in the spine of the man she autopsied. But the episode is pretty darn vague on most of these points. There’s not really a scene where Mulder ties it all together. There’s just a bug man.
- The “the villain lives to kill another day!” epilogues were being used less and less by this point in the show, but I think the one here is pretty ghoulishly effective.
- I like how the actor playing Pincus doesn’t ever break, outside of sharing a smile at a point where it seems he’s bested Mulder. And even then, we could argue that’s just Mulder’s p.o.v. It’s remarkably easy to retrofit this episode for everything to be a hallucination, if you want to do that.
- Scully’s final attempt to rationalize what she saw with “It was dark” is one of her better weak rationalizations. She needs to cling to her skepticism, but sometimes…
“Anamnesis” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 4/17/1998)
In which Catherine finds san greal
If there’s a reason Millennium doesn’t reach the heights of its sister series, it’s a fairly simple one: When it comes to heroines, Catherine Black is no Dana Scully. She’s not a terrible character, and in a larger ensemble—of the sort Glen Morgan and James Wong tried to start building in season two—she might not have stood out as much as she did. But as the other focus of a series about religious apocalypses and strange symbols riding through the night, she leaves just a bit to be desired. “Anamnesis” is the season’s sole Catherine-centric episode, and it’s the only episode in the series’ whole run that doesn’t feature Frank Black. It’s not that bad, but there’s also always a sense that it’s not as good as it could have been. A lot of that stems from the fact that Catherine is a weak enough character to become a passenger in her own story.
The episode opens with one of those great, disconnected teasers that Millennium got so good at over this season, as a bunch of girls dance around a pile of rocks in the woods, surrounded by religious symbols (including an upside-down cross). The action transitions to a high school, where someone picks up a wad of paper and reveals a warning to skip prayer group that afternoon. The same girls are in the prayer group, offering up a prayer to, seemingly, the Virgin Mary, even as Catherine pulls up outside the school. She rushes inside, but she’s too late, not able to stop the gunman taking aim at the girls from firing. All throughout, Patti Smith (an artist the show would use to terrific effect in just a few weeks) sings “Dancing Barefoot.” It’s a scene that doesn’t have any direct connection to what immediately follows, and we soon come to realize it’s a flash-forward, designed to juice up the beginning of a slow-to-start story. But it’s a haunting flash-forward all the same. This type of storytelling is often a device I don’t like, but on Millennium, the flash-forwards often become strange, interpretive scenes, more like music videos than actual storytelling units.
The main problem with “Anamnesis,” then, is that it tells a pretty batshit crazy story: One of the girls who’s praying has been having visions of Mary Magdalene (not the Virgin Mary, as we’re first led to believe), and at episode’s end, we’re led to believe that she’s having these visions because she’s the Holy Grail, the literal descendent of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. (The Holy Blood, Holy Grail theory, which, it’s worth pointing out, has been thoroughly discredited, didn’t surge to prominence in pop culture until the release of The Da Vinci Code, but it popped up here and there throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, including in this episode and the computer game Gabriel Knight: Blood Of The Sacred, Blood Of The Damned.) Along the way, we’re going to have Lara staring into a lighter and seeing a vision of some sort of all-consuming demon, Catherine taking the opportunity to freak out again about the Group’s hold over Frank’s life, and the introduction of another secret order in The Family, a group that swears to protect the sole descendent of Christ (who is apparently almost always female) with their lives if need be. (They seem to be loosely modeled on the Priory de Sion in the Holy Blood, Holy Grail theory and can trace their lineage to the Merovingians.) And yet none of this achieves the kind of crazy liftoff the show requires, and the episode ends up feeling just a tad uninvolving, despite some good ideas here and there.
Why is this? Well, I think the central reason is that Catherine doesn’t really have a natural role within the story, philosophically or narratively. Where Scully on The X-Files is the necessary scientific balance to Mulder’s flights of fancy, Catherine is… nothing, really. In season one, she was supposed to represent the viewpoint of moral relativism, I guess, but the series quickly dropped that idea because when you start dropping in angels and demons, there’s really no way to say, “Well, sometimes it might be OK for a starving man to steal a loaf of bread.” That sort of answer is for a show with shades of grey, and Millennium paints only in black and white (to its credit, usually). Throughout season two, Catherine has mostly been a symbol of what Frank has lost and what he wants to regain. But characters rarely work if they’re just symbols, and there have been whole stretches of the season where Morgan, Wong, and their writers have mostly sidelined Catherine, choosing to have her occasionally call up Frank and nag him about something.
“Anamnesis” tries to change this pattern, but it does so with only fitful success. Instead of making Catherine the voice of moral relativism within the show, this episode tries to situate her as the ultimate free agent, the person who can stand outside of the squabbles within the Group and without the Group and finally decide when enough is enough. But this idea falls apart the more you think about it. Wouldn’t she be killed very quickly wielding that power? And wouldn’t involving her in the Group’s business, even if she didn’t want to be involved, ultimately make her something of a member? Lara and the writers mean well when she gives Catherine Clare’s DNA charts, but the episode never suggests just what Catherine might do with those DNA charts, choosing instead to leave her as a wild card that it can return to if it really wants to.
It certainly doesn’t help that Clare herself is played by an actress, Genele Templeton, who’s depressingly flat. The scenes where she’s supposed to weep over the death of her teacher or express religious rapture come off as a girl being kind of bratty, and even the scenes where she tells Catherine she knows about the Polaroid Man or about Jordan aren’t nearly as creepy as they should be. There’s so much a show like this could do with the literal descendent of Jesus, and instead, the episode mostly turns her into a monster of the week, revolving around Catherine and Lara puzzling out the mystery while Clare gets picked on in saintly fashion. (Peter also turns up, but he mostly seems to be driving around and answering his cell phone gruffly, though I love the idea of us getting a sense of how Catherine sees someone like him.)
Still, there’s enough weird here to work, and I do like the team that Kristen Cloke and Megan Gallagher form here. There’s still no good role for Catherine on the show, but just seeing her deal with Clare is a good reminder of how the show could have used her. Millennium, being a show about people caught up in millennia old struggles between good and evil, doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance, no, but it’s also not a show with a lot of room for genuine emotion and caring. The few moments we do get—usually involving Frank and his daughter—don’t resonate as much as they might. But there are glimpses in “Anamnesis” of a version of the character that could have worked, a woman who gets so drawn up in the lives of her patients that she doesn’t care about the eternal battle. It doesn’t matter to her, ultimately, if Clare is the descendent of Christ, so long as someone is making sure Clare is happy and healthy. Millennium is a show full of warriors, but here it could have found its guardian.
- I have no idea what’s going on in the scene where Lara stares into the cigarette flame and sees the demon-y type dude, but I like it.
- Some nice writing in this episode. I particularly like the discussion of the Gnostic writings and Lara’s anger that those texts became non-standard ones. Really, without that flat guest star and with a stronger role for Catherine, this easily could have been an A episode.
- That said, the pastor and his son are pretty weak caricatures, instead of good characters. I particularly don’t like the son, who just keeps making stuff up because Jesus loves His great-great-great-great (etc.) granddaughter more than He loves this random kid.
- If we ever rebooted Millennium (and we totally should), I think it would be interesting to return to Clare decades later (maybe with a different actress). What’s it like to become a part of a giant, apocalyptic battle that just… fizzles out? (Fanfic time!)
- One of the things I do really like about season two is that every episode feels like the characters are caught up in a whirlwind they can only catch brief glimpses of. Even Peter and Lara seem to be playing by ear, though they have more of an idea than Catherine does.
Next week: Zack brings this X-Files season to a close with “The End,” then checks into “A Room With No View.”
Aug. 20: "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me," covered by Zack
Aug. 27: The two-part Millennium season finale, covered by me
Sept. 3: X-Files movie live-chat