“Max” (season 4, episode 18)
In which we see the last moments of Max Fenig.
It must be exhausting to believe in the grand conspiracy behind everything. Doing so means pretty much never accepting the official truth and always looking to see just where you’re being lied to, poking around the corners of the stories you’re told to find what you believe to be the true facts. I’ve run into enough people online who are always responding to offhand mentions of Sept. 11 with elaborately prepared screeds about how it was a government setup (complete with links to Loose Change, preferably followed by the linkers own theorizing on just why the corporate interests/government felt the need to bring the towers down and a host of other nefarious things). I have enough fans of obscure, right-wing, anti-Obama propaganda in my life who also try to turn every political conversation into one about liberal re-education camps or something to know that the lack of trust can become self-fulfilling. When you can’t believe anything anyone says, well, why should you believe anything at all? Couldn’t it all be a massive charade put on by David Icke’s lizard people? Well, couldn’t it?
And yet in most Hollywood stories about paranoid people, people who believe the conspiracy is coming for them, the paranoid people are right. Mulder and Max Fenig certainly are. The aliens are out there, and they’re working with the government (and select military contractors, it would seem) to abduct several individuals, play havoc with their lives, and just generally reduce people like Max to tatters. Why? Well, we still don’t know this. One of the most resonant themes of The X-Files in its first five seasons (right up through the movie) was the idea that the conspiracy and the aliens didn’t terribly give a shit about the people caught in the middle of this struggle. They were just so much cannon fodder, and if a plane full of people dove to the ground in the midst of an operation, well, it was for the greater good, right?
Obviously, it’s good to be skeptical. It’s good to question what your government tells you. It’s good to be informed and get engaged. But there’s a line, and sometimes, it’s impossible to know when that line has been crossed, when you go from arguing that the U.S. government has no real vested interest in rolling back civil liberties abuses and will probably continue to perpetuate them to living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, listening to Soul Coughing’s “Unmarked Helicopters” (off the generally solid X-Files soundtrack) and trying to pin down the phantoms in your nightmares on paper, sure that if you can get the proof you need, the dominoes will start to fall. Too much of anything is never a good thing, but what separates the healthy skeptics from the people who push right on through to believe the truly nutty things, the Max Fenigs and the Fox Mulders?
And, of course, this is all complicated, as mentioned, by the fact that Mulder and Max are RIGHT. The government IS working with aliens, and we even see an alien body. That military contractor DOES want the alien technology in Max’s bag. And the aliens ARE stopping planes in mid-flight to abduct the people with their tech. What makes all of this work, somehow, is the fact that “Max” is somehow a simultaneous paean to the many, many lives lost in this fictional war and a very real story about someone who could very well live on the edges of our society, driven mad by visions that are only real to himself, visions the rest of us would immediately disregard as unbelievable and surreal. Reality and fiction intertwine, and it’s difficult to discern where Max the real—the social outcast who could live in a trailer park in any city in the world—and Max the X-Files chesspiece—the guy who’s just another pawn in the aliens’ game—begin and end.
But let’s take a step back for a moment: This storyline didn’t really need to be split over two parts. This second hour takes its time futzing around, and outside of the truly impressive abduction sequence around the hour’s midpoint and the wonderfully chilling scene where Mulder realizes time has stopped for him, too, there’s lots of stuff here that could have been condensed fairly handily. (There was plenty of stuff last week, too.) But where other alien conspiracy episodes might have filled this time with scenes of the conspiracy members acting conspiratorial, “Tempus Fugit” and “Max” fill the time with a mournful grief, a sense that the people on that plane didn’t have to die, Max among them. There’s a shot, shortly after Mulder’s gotten done telling his story to the person investigating the crash, where we pull back and see the entirety of the recreated plane in that empty hangar, a once real and tangible thing resketched via connect-the-dots, and it’s one of the best shots the series came up with at expressing something as intangible as the idea of lives lost in a struggle that’s completely incomprehensible to anyone who’s not in it.
The episode also humanizes this particular side of things by making Max even more of an intriguing person. His video monologues mark him as either crazy or one of the ones who really gets it, man, and the scene where he awaits what he knows is coming during the abduction is chilling for his nonchalant terror. He doesn’t want to go, but he knows he will go, and then his eyes roll back in his head, and he’s drifting out across the inky black sky, into the bright light that draws the eye of the other passengers. And where Mulder’s quest has felt slightly ill-motivated this season, he seems to be back on track here, even if he gets less to do than he normally might. He’s more put together than Max, but he feels a sort of kinship between the two of them, something intense enough that even Scully mentions it during that visit to Max’s abandoned trailer. I sometimes hate how Mulder’s always allowed to be right on this show, and he’s being particularly dickish when he tells the crash inspector that there’s only ONE explanation that accounts for all the FACTS and it involves an unprovable UFO. But I’ll allow it because there’s a sense that in The X-Files universe, at least, things like this can come true if you just want to believe hard enough. Mulder and Max need the aliens to be real, so they’re real.
It’s curious that while there feels like there’s a lot of filler in “Max” as I think about things from a story perspective, it doesn’t feel that way while you’re watching it. The episode immediately dives back in to Mulder’s escape from the fellow divers (and reminds me that the idea of a “previously on” segment wasn’t around back when The X-Files was on—you either knew what was going on, or you didn’t), and it’s racing from place to place from then on. Scully tries to help Pendrell, but he’s gone. Skinner worries about Scully’s health. The alien storyline tries to make another lateral move by dipping into how corporations might try to benefit from alien tech, as it did when trying to examine other countries’ research programs in “Tunguska” and “Terma.” Only this lateral move sort of works because the plotting here is tighter, and the corporate representative who shoots Pendrell and sits next to Mulder on the plane is a legitimately fascinating guy. (I think this is the only time we see him, and that’s too bad.) It makes sense that corporations in this world would be all over whatever alien stuff they could salvage, and they’d be just as pissed at Mulder for getting in the way as the Syndicate.
Perhaps predictably, the fan response to “Tempus Fugit” and “Max” at the time was somewhat muted. The episodes weren’t outright HATED by the majority of the fanbase, but after the big development of Scully’s cancer and after the confusing plotting of “Tunguska” and “Terma,” fans had hoped for more than the show doing more tap-dancing, trying to avoid the crumbling tower of mythology it had built for itself by diving into a story that might have worked in season one, had the show had the budget to pull it off. But like Zack, I find “Tempus Fugit” and “Max” to be terrific little episodes, probably quite underrated as a whole. The image of Max being taken from the plane is hard to shake, and the plotting is largely comprehensible because it doesn’t try to do too much. The new villains are interesting, if not quite the Cigarette Smoking Man, and the episode is filled with smart, small touches, like Scully’s visit to Max’s friend in the mental institution or that sick moment where Mulder realizes he’s possibly about to be abducted, his watch hands stopped and a man pointing a gun at him.
This is the kind of dread The X-Files specialized in, that sense that you were powerless in the face of something so much larger than yourself, something that could devour you whole if it really wanted to but instead wanted to toy with you like a cat toys with a mouse. The aliens don’t really want Max. They want the experiments they can perform on him. They want the… whatever it is he took from them. They want to see how far they can make him bend until he breaks. And because that’s all the aliens see him as useful for, that’s all the Syndicate sees him as useful for as well. But he’s come up against something so much greater than himself, so much more powerful and awe-inspiring, and he can’t find his way through the maze back to the person he was before he first encountered that white light like a sheet. Even though Max is barely in “Max” (and is dead when the hour begins), his ghost and legacy haunt the rest of the hour and the hour that precedes it, while the spirit of who he was haunts the series as a whole. Because even if you don’t buy the alien thing, there’s something recognizably human at the core of these episodes, the idea of a man who gets lost in the dark and never comes back out.
- Seriously, it’s amazing to me that these episodes ran without the “previously on” segment. I had briefly forgotten where “Tempus Fugit” left off and couldn’t figure out why the hell we were underwater, hanging out with some metal husk of… something.
- I love the world-weary resignation on Mulder’s face at the end. He knows someone off his plane was abducted. He knows he lost time. He knows he was tantalizingly close to the truth. And yet he can remember none of it.
- I sometimes rank mythology episodes based on how much Scully gets to do, and while she’s not as prominent here as she’s been in the show’s very best mythology episodes, she’s very much the heart of this piece. Without Scully, would Mulder have gotten as isolated as Max? Would his theories have chased him off to the edges of the map? She even deigns to imbue his gift to her last episode with more meaning than it probably deserves, sticking him in a long line of questers and seekers.
- That plane crash sequence, with the bodies flying out the hole in the plane’s side, might be the most terrifying televised plane crash before the Lost pilot.
- I’m not as big a fan of Agent Pendrell as some folks, but it is sad to see him die here. I remember thinking his death was pretty lame back when this aired, though, because he wasn’t a MAJOR CHARACTER. Man, I was a dumb kid.
- I like Mulder’s nonchalant way of just abusing airport security to get where he needs to go. He’s a federal officer. You’d better do what he says and let him use your X-ray doo-hickey. (Also, does he use his cell phone on the plane? Ah, the ‘90s.)
- Hey, it’s 1997 reference: Mulder references Tickle Me Elmo. Oh, to laugh!
- Something tells me Mulder would be all over this.
- "Well, that's a Hollywood term. But yes."
“Lamentation” (season 1, episode 18)
In which some stuff happens, and things are pretty strange, and HOLY SHIT IS THAT THE DEVIL?!
For the first half of “Lamentation,” I was kind of enjoying myself, but I thought Millennium had finally broken its rather abrupt string of very good to terrific episodes, started shortly after the bottom feeding antics of “Loin Like A Hunting Flame.” The series, finally realizing that “evil” wasn’t a terribly compelling theme to build a series around, just turned into something like a dark, seedy crime anthology show, with occasional supernatural overtones, and it was all the better for it. Frank wandering the country, trying to solve the murders no one else wants to touch, perpetually bedeviled by serial killers from his past, occasionally checking in with the wife he left at home was the stuff that solid TV crime fiction is made of (even if I kind of want someone to remake it and tone down the family aspects). Chris Carter and his writers had ruthlessly pared down the story to its essence, cheating the excellent Megan Gallagher in the process, but whaddaya gonna do?
Sadly, the first half of “Lamentation” played out like a fairly staid take on the old switcheroo, and Carter (who scripted) seemed to be hitting the “Evil is terrible and dark and it infects everything” bottle hard again. None of it was awful, but none of it was up to some of the stuff this show has done in recent weeks. I knew that Lucy Butler was important because I’ve heard her name bandied about by fans of the show and she pops up in a season two episode. Here, though, she mostly just seemed to be reenacting Misery, as Carter rocketed through some of his favorite horror movie tropes at breathtaking speed, pulling something from a slasher movie here and something from a body horror tale there. The problem with the first half, I think, is that Carter lets us know almost immediately that recently escaped, serial killing doctor Ephraim Fabricant (and lord, look at that name) isn’t the baddie here, as he’s instead at the behest of Miss Butler. But it takes Frank and Peter so long to catch up that the first half is logy and slow, bafflingly devoid of tension for an episode I’d always heard mentioned as a fan favorite.
But then, oh then, the episode abruptly shifts into some combination of Psycho, Halloween, and a haunted house story, and it becomes one of the best episodes of horror TV I’ve ever seen. (Seriously.) A fairly major character is killed off. Carter finally just lets loose with the idea that Satan is alive and well on planet Earth and doesn’t hold back. Things here don’t really make LOGICAL sense, but they make a twisted, nightmare kind of sense, and that’s all that matters. The second Lucy cuts the power in Frank’s home, trapping Jordan and Catherine in there with her, the plot veers off the rails in a way that’s thrilling and unpredictable, something Carter rarely allows himself to do. Catherine finds a serial killer’s kidney in her refrigerator, for God’s sake.
For all of the strengths of Millennium, its most glaring weakness has been a lack of a real, tangible villain. The X-Files, from early on, had the alien conspiracy, but it also had a host of fun, unpredictable monsters. Millennium, even in its better episodes, is basically a weekly gloss on Silence Of The Lambs. Can that be fun? Most assuredly. But it doesn’t allow for much variety, and it makes Carter’s attempts to toss heavy themes on top of all of the gruesome carnage that much harder to swallow. When he spends an X-Files script talking about the conflict between science and faith, I sort of buy it because, well, the underpinnings of that show are wildly varied. But when he’s trying to spin tales of whether evil is a constant force or the result of social issues in this, it’s all too easy to tune out.
So Carter does himself a favor here by largely abandoning this debate, just as he abandoned the skeptic/believer debate on X-Files in favor of aliens zipping around. Here, Carter just decides to say that evil stems from fucking Satan, who apparently has emissaries out there in the world, just waiting to smack you around and do harm to you. Some of them will stand at the top of a staircase and look like a man in a wig. (The first time you see the Lucy Butler with what I think is Ephraim’s face, it’s deeply unsettling, leaving you to wonder if you missed some part where Lucy wasn’t holding Ephraim hostage and some other terrifying dude who wants to be her was.) Some of them will be able to distort reality to reveal their true demonic natures. Some of them will kill Bob Bletcher.
I’m not going to say the killing of Bob is some seismic moment in the history of this series. It certainly feels like the first time when the gloves come off here. While I like Bill Smitrovich, his role here was pretty much just to be a good friend and partner to Frank, and Frank’s already got one of those in Peter. It just doesn’t make sense to have two people fulfilling that function on the show, and when it comes to investigations, it’s far more fun to hang out with the Millennium Group than the Seattle Police Department. So it’s fairly predictable that Bob has to go, from a character standpoint. It doesn’t make what happens to him any less effective or any less horrifying. This is Carter taking off the kid gloves, saying he’s ready to do this, in a way he never really was on X-Files. If you wanna get into the root of all evil on Earth, well, Carter’s prepared to go there with you.
Even better, Carter completely eliminates his hero from the storyline. While Jordan and Catherine are in mortal danger, Frank’s sitting in a hospital across the country, waiting on word from them. He’s there because he spent most of the episode trying to track down Ephraim, a serial killer he helped put away but kept alive so he could study him for whatever reason. (Seriously, sometimes Frank seems like some sort of entomologist of evil, pinning down serial killers on a great piece of white posterboard and carefully labeling them with Scotch tape.) Now that Ephraim’s out and now that one man has been injured and another killed, seemingly by him, Frank feels responsible and feels he must track down the man at the behest of his former FBI colleagues. But WE know he’s being held captive by Lucy Butler, his wife, who will eventually remove his other kidney for some reason. (The events in this episode rarely try to make logical sense, and I mean that as a high compliment. If you’re going to get demons and beasts of pure terror involved, make them as nonsensical as possible.) So Ephraim sprawls out on the floor at the hospital, kidneys removed, just as Frank’s trying to get in touch with his family in Seattle, and… it’s all very tense, remarkably so for how lackadaisical everything before that was.
Anyway, of course there’s a happy resolution, one that doesn’t really make sense. For whatever reason, Lucy didn’t do anything to Jordan and Catherine, even when she very well could have, saving her wrath for Bob. Ephraim describes her as the liege of the devil, which isn’t helpful in terms of understanding just who she is and what she can do but more or less works as a way to explain how she can seemingly shapeshift in the mind’s eye of people trying to catch her. And when Frank takes Jordan up to see the same mountain view Bob took him to see at episode’s end, it strains for a profundity it doesn’t really attain because, well, Bob wasn’t that compelling of a character and the Bob and Frank friendship wasn’t anything I was all that invested in. But the episode needs that happy resolution to keep the series from going off the rails. If Lucy had killed Catherine and Jordan, leaving Frank to become a freelance demon-hunter, with the help of a young John Locke by his side, that could have been awesome, but it also would have been very DIFFERENT. Carter’s not known for his huge steps forward in plotting. That he did this much is sort of shocking.
Still, this feels like some kind of giant step forward for Millennium, an episode where the show crystallizes and clarifies its central mission. It’s the kind of episode I should downgrade for that bland first half, but I just can’t, because everything else was so damn effective. Carter’s shows all take place in hermetically sealed universes, places where the boards are small enough for everybody to be effectively manipulated by a very few. For the first time in “Lamentation,” it feels like Carter understands that the effect of seeing true monsters, of knowing that a real darkness, a real evil, pervaded all of human existence would be an unblinking existential despair, followed by madness, followed by death. Farewell, Bob. Now we know there’s at least one place for you to go after you die.
- I’m trying to pinpoint the exact moment when this episode turned awesome. I think it was when Catherine was on the phone with Frank, and there was thunder and lightning outside. That was some good stuff right there, even if cliché.
- As mentioned, Lucy turns up in season two, the one season of Millennium I’ve seen all the way through (and the reason I convinced Zack to take on this project), though I didn’t grasp much of her significance at that time.
- One detriment: The performance of Alex Diakun as Ephraim is so damn hammy that it takes me out of nearly every scene he’s in.
Next week: Zack checks out “Synchrony,” an X-Files episode I remember absolutely nothing about, and gets his own encounter with Lucy Butler, in “Powers, Principalities, Thrones, And Dominions.”