Note: For the time being, our plan is to continue doing one episode of X-Files and one episode of Millennium per week. This will last 20 weeks. Then, we'll tackle the final three of Millennium's second season in one fell swoop. After that, we're hoping to host a live chat to discuss the first X-Files movie. Whee!
“Redux” (season 5, episode 1)
In which Mulder learns it’s all a lie and Chris Carter abuses the (V.O.) option in his Final Draft software.
The fifth season of The X-Files was the height of that show’s popularity, the culmination of a lengthy journey from first-season oddity (“have you heard of this show with the aliens in it?”) to second-season cult hit to third-season respectability to fourth-season mainstream hit. Season five was when the show was everywhere, on the tip of everybody’s tongue, when even your middle-aged parents could be counted on to have seen an episode or two and more or less know what it was about. The questions of the mythology had become a mainstream questions as pressing as “Who killed Laura Palmer?” or “What is the Island?” and the show’s actors—and even writers—were becoming superstars. It was also the season immediately after the show had completed production on its first feature film, which led to everybody involved in the show seeming kind of tired of it and a strangely rigid structure, that HAD to lead to a destination everybody already knew about.
In particular, the fact that the movie was coming undercut season four’s big cliffhanger: that Mulder was dead by his own hand, thanks to learning everything he’d believed over the years was based on a lie. Now, granted, even without the movie, I don’t think anyone would have believed Mulder was really dead, and without showing us the corpse (and, instead, having Scully tell us about it), the show was indulging in one of the oldest TV tricks in the book. If you say someone’s dead but don’t show us the body, well, they’re not really dead, as turns out to be the case here. But the producers were automatically out there in the press, assuring us that Mulder wasn’t dead, that he was off filming the movie, so there was no reason to worry. At least when another prominent genre show of the era killed off its main character, it had the courtesy of showing us a corpse AND a headstone.
At the time, though, I really thought Mulder was dead. Well, I knew he was going to come back to life somehow, and I knew the show wasn’t going to go ahead without its main character (even if I was always more of a Scully fan), but I didn’t think the show would LIE to us so blatantly. My X-Files watching cousin and I worked over all of the angles—he was convinced it would end up being a dream, and I thought that he would be rejuvenated via some sort of alien DNA (which, actually, ended up happening on the series in its eighth season, if memory serves)—but the anticipation leading into “Redux,” which started up on an uncharacteristically late November date, reflecting both Fox’s baseball scheduling and the show’s reduced episode order (to cope with the movie’s production), was intense. The show was suddenly everywhere, on magazine covers, on official merchandizing, even on surprisingly popular syndicated reruns. So even though this was one of the show’s weaker cliffhangers, it had the benefit of the most public scrutiny, even attracting major articles about how it would all resolve in mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly (which had always loved the show) and Rolling Stone.
Here’s the thing, though: “Redux” was a pretty good episode back in 1997. It’s not a very good episode now. I remember being blown away by this particular piece of television—and even more blown away by its sequel, which we’ll get to next week—stunned that the show had gone this far and pushed itself this much. And even though I was 16 at the time it first aired, I also remember that the many fans online and in real life that I discussed the show with (a number that kept growing and growing, even encompassing many of my teachers at this point) thought “Redux” was both a clever solution to the “what happened to Mulder?” puzzle and a nifty way to push the master story about the aliens coming to take over the world forward. We all knew that when push came to shove, the show wasn’t going to go ahead with having the aliens be an elaborate fake in some sort of Oliver Stone homage, but at the time, we thought it was very crafty of the show to do this, very smart to pull the rug out from underneath the audience. (And this isn’t just faulty memory; I just went searching for the reviews I remember reading and found that, yeah, people loved “Redux” back in 1997.)
The problem with watching “Redux” now is that the show so thoroughly repudiated everything it does that it feels like it’s simply marking time between the exciting “Gethsemane” and the even more exciting “Redux, Part II.” Even for people watching the show for the first time, “Redux” feels like a boring middle chapter, another step on the road of the show utterly messing up its own mythology by making it simultaneously too complicated and too simplistic. If it wasn’t obvious to 16-year-old me at the time, it was obvious to most fans that the show’s producers, realizing that they were going to have to abandon their five-year plan for the mythology, were just marking time, trying to figure out ways to stretch out the alien conspiracy storyline without utterly damaging the show. Season four took a shot at showing the international side of the conspiracy and turning the mythology episodes into something like an alien abduction-based procedural, and it also increased the characters’ connection to uncovering the truth, since Scully now had cancer. Outside of the “Tunguska”/”Terma” two-parter, the season four mythology episodes aren’t as disappointing as their reputation would suggest. But the writers were clearly trying to find a way to pull off some sort of bait-and-switch.
Zack expressed most of the problems with this little trilogy last week with “Gethsemane,” in that the show tries to get us to believe that maybe, just maybe, everything that Mulder has believed in so long is an elaborate con game, carried out by a conspiracy that wants to keep funding an endless war, the better to make the U.S. economy hum along. In “Redux,” Chris Carter weds Kritschgau’s endless speech about the true reason for the government’s interest in UFOs with tons of stock footage of nuclear bombs and historical moments and so on and so forth, and the implications couldn’t be more clear: Carter wants to take this mini-arc where Mulder loses his faith and has to regain it into something like Oliver Stone’s JFK. Now, Carter’s not half the writer Stone is, and he doesn’t really have his heart in it, since he tends to enjoy the alien stuff, but it’s impressive all the same. The collage of sounds and images becomes something almost powerful, and it almost makes the viewer want to believe that all of the alien shenanigans we’ve seen over the years were meant to mislead both Mulder and us. (This wouldn’t explain, say, the shape-shifters, whom we often see from outside of Mulder’s perspective, but the show makes a good attempt, at least.)
The thing is, making all of this a game far beyond the idea of aliens, who, if they existed, are so incidental to the game the Syndicate would be playing in this scenario, would have certainly rejuvenated the mythology. The least interesting thing about the show is that the aliens are simply coming along to invade the planet. It’s not horribly unpredictable, which goes against the way the show often works, where Mulder and Scully are often proved wrong and confronted with something even more ridiculous, even weirder than they’d initially thought. It’s the equivalent of the way other case-of-the-week shows will have multiple suspects, with many of them not being anything close to the killer (or how Dr. House goes through a variety of diseases before arriving at the right answer). But if the government is perpetrating an awful shell game designed to test out new bioweapons and destroy more and more lives via the vacuum at the conspiracy’s center, well, that’s something more interesting. It could rattle Mulder and test Scully. It could be something soul-shaking and great.
Instead, the show doesn’t really commit to it. It does its damnedest, but it just can’t figure out a way to abandon the central idea of the show, which has to feature aliens, or else the hero becomes too much of a chump. This new version of the conspiracy is a lonelier one, but it’s also, potentially, a better one. That the show doesn’t pursue it for long is mostly due to the movie coming up, but it’s also a fault of the season as a whole. The “Mulder loses his faith, even as Scully gains her” arc feels less deeply felt and more mechanical, as though the writers came up with it as another stall but couldn’t get really excited about it. And this is too bad. Kritschgau isn’t a bad character, and the alternate version of events he lays out is… vaguely plausible, I guess. If the show had put more effort into making us believe all of this was really going on, “Redux” would instantly gain a tremendous amount of power, power that is gradually sapped from it, no matter how many ghoulish experiment floors we see in passing (and there are some ghoulish ones in this).
I’ve talked around the plot of “Redux” for a while now, but that’s mostly because not a lot actually HAPPENS in it. Just as this storyline is an elaborate stall, the episode itself is an elaborate stall. Sure, we get the big answer: Mulder faked his own death after killing Ostelhoff, a man positioned in an apartment above his, listening in on him and watching what he does. (The shot of Ostelhoff’s monitoring equipment showing Mulder leave his apartment, then transitioning to the sounds of Mulder rushing upstairs, followed by the camera panning over to reveal Mulder kicking open the door, is one of the episode’s few thrillingly cinematic moments.) Mulder kills Ostelhoff, then decides to have Scully help him fake his own death, so he can infiltrate the Department of Defense and discover just what’s up and find a cure for Scully’s cancer. So far, so good. But that’s literally ALL that happens in the episode. Scully distracts from where Mulder is, there’s a lot of talk about lying, then Mulder gets into the DOD and sees some weird shit. Finally, he finds the cure he’s looking for—even as Scully collapses at the inquiry we saw last week, just as she’s about to introduce the TRUTH—but the Lone Gunmen tell him something awful: It’s just de-ionized water.
As a half hour of television? That could have been pretty kick-ass. But as a full hour (since “Redux, Part II” has so many moments that it kind of needs to stand on its own), it’s a problem. So that means Carter turns to a trick that got him and some of the other writers an Emmy nomination for the script of “Memento Mori”: endless, endless monologues. And not just Kritschgau. Mulder and Scully both get lengthy voice-overs about using lies to uncover the truth or Mulder losing his faith or Scully confronting cancer or… it’s just monotonous, really. And the worst thing is that without these voiceovers, the episode would leap up a whole letter grade or so. The voiceovers are constantly explaining EXACTLY what we’re seeing on screen, when it would be a lot cooler to piece together the whole “Mulder fakes his death” plot on our own. It would still be a little monotonous, but it would have a cooler feel of putting together a mystery from the inside. The voiceover is utterly a mess, and it’s one of those things that irretrievably marks the show as of its time, a piece of the late ‘90s and perhaps not as timeless as it could have been.
But there are moments in “Redux” that work perfectly well, moments that point the way to how the show could have truly made this “Mulder is a skeptic; Scully is a believer” arc—which is so transparently a TV writer cheat—really WORK. That moment where Scully discovers the material in the ice cores that contains the “chimera,” the new lifeform, is filled with the kind of scientific wonder that marked the show’s best episodes in the early days. There’s a sense here of something new, of a real discovery that could prove significant. It’s not little green men (though we get that here, too, in an oddly mournful image of dozens upon dozens of them lying on cold slabs in an endless DOD room), but it IS something new and wonderful, and even Scully seems taken aback by it. And that’s what’s most frustrating about “Redux.” It has all of the elements of a good episode. They’re just put together in the wrong way.
- I do like Kritschgau quite a bit, and I wish the show had used him more often than it did. He’s got a nice, no-nonsense appeal, and John Finn portrays him well.
- Scully’s collapse is truly horrifying. Gillian Anderson, in general, does some of her best work here, as she tries to keep this impossible lie spinning long enough to get some real evidence, then finds herself overwhelmed by her disease just as she’s about to really lay the hurt on the Syndicate.
- As I write this, I’m rewatching “Redux, Part II.” It’s not as powerful as I remembered it being, but it might be the last truly great mythology episode until MAYBE season seven (where the season finale is pretty good). There are tons of great moments in it, even if the show eventually undid most of them. It was also the show’s 100th episode, which marked the show’s unlikely crossover into syndicated success. In particular, Mulder’s closing monologue feels like the show’s TRUE JFK moment, when he ties it all together and makes it stick. But Zack will deal with all of that next week.
- The most ridiculous thing in this is not just how often it replays “Gethsemane” but how often it replays THE WHOLE SERIES. Scully’s closing monologue to the men on the inquiry ties together all of the first four seasons. Now, granted, the show’s mainstream status meant it was gaining new viewers all the time, but it still feels like Carter checking his watch to make sure he’s got the time to do everything he needs to.
- Still, as said, those giant experiment fields within the DOD building are oddly haunting. Every time the show did this—portraying the mindless horrors of unchecked power—it did it very well.
- If there’s something this episode really lacks, it’s humor. The show’s best episodes all figured out ways to lighten the darkness Scully and Mulder peered into, but this episode is so, so self-serious.
- This marks the first episode worked on by TV super-producer Tim Minear, who got his big break on The X-Files. In retrospect, it’s amazing the show wasn’t immediately canceled as soon as he began working on it.
- Still, as cliffhangers go, “It’s de-ionized water. Nothing more,” is fucking BLEAK.
“The Beginning And The End” (season 2, episode 1)
In which Frank Black kills both the Polaroid Stalker and season one.
It’s very rare that a creator leaves a show, and it gets better. For the most part, creators carry the voice of the show around with them, and when they leave, the show might get more consistent or solve certain problems or something, but it won’t get BETTER. Here’s a good example: When Greg Daniels left King Of The Hill, it didn’t instantly get terrible, but it began a long, slow decline, where it felt as though the series had lost its voice. Here’s another: When the creators of How I Met Your Mother left halfway through the fifth season to work on another pilot, it was so obvious that they had, as the show quickly descended into episodes that felt voice-less, without purpose. Then they came back at the top of season six, and the show quickly began to regain what it had lost. Even on shows where the creator isn’t the strongest writer, it’s often imperative that said creator be around to at least steer the ship.
Chris Carter was never the strongest writer on any of the shows he created. He wasn’t BAD, per se, but he had a tendency to get a little too self-serious, a little too in love with his own supposed profundity. And yet when he ramped down his day-to-day involvement in Millennium, the show somehow got much, much better. All it had to do was change almost everything about the show, from its premise to its characters to its mysteries. Granted, he turned the series over to Glen Morgan and James Wong, who’d been among the best writers ever to pass through the doors of The X-Files, but it wasn’t like the two would be expected to immediately turn out some sort of genius television. Space: Above And Beyond had its moments, but it was also clearly a series run by people who were figuring out how to be TV showrunners. And the duo’s scripts for The X-Files and Millennium in those shows’ fourth and first seasons respectively often felt like two people chafing at having to work on someone ELSE’s show again, after being given some amount of freedom.
But the second season of Millennium is some sort of work of weird genius. Not all of it WORKS, and some of the episodes are downright terrible. But the show now moves like a series with a new purpose, with a new sense of meaning. Morgan and Wong start tossing ideas at the wall with a thrilling abandon, almost as if they were pretty sure they’d never work in Hollywood again. (They ended up getting to create a few more series, then mostly shepherded the Final Destination series through its many iterations for some reason.) Season two of Millennium is just a ridiculously fun season of television, even when it’s bad, and it’s too bad that more people haven’t seen it. Believe me. You don’t have to watch season one to make sense of it (though there’s plenty of good in season one, too).
Before Morgan and Wong can figure out a way to make the show really their own, however, they have to deal with the business of the season one cliffhanger. As you might recall, in “Paper Dove,” Catherine was abducted by the Polaroid Stalker in the middle of the airport, and it mostly seemed like this happened because the show needed to have a cliffhanger. (The episode preceding her abduction had only a small amount to do with the Polaroid Stalker, and he was mostly there as a symbol of some sort of ultimate evil, one of those things the show often enjoyed playing around with without really committing to in season one.) Obviously, the first episode of season two is going to have to deal with Frank getting Catherine back and chasing down the Polaroid Stalker. What wasn’t immediately clear from “Paper Dove” or even the first few minutes of “The Beginning And The End” was the fact that Frank was going to murder both the antagonist and the show as it was in the process.
I actually take that back. From the opening of this episode, it’s clear that we’re dealing with something much more bugnuts than before. The episode opens with a bloody Frank staring up into the sky at a comet, as we watch random footage of the comet passing through the solar system. It could be a portent of doom, or it could just be a comet. Frank’s narration, discussing what the comet COULD mean, is ridiculously portentious, but in a vaguely marvelous way. This is Morgan and Wong setting the stage this season will take place on. The whole of the cosmos is at stake here, not just a few lives on planet Earth. Frank really is staring deep into the heart of evil this time out, and he’s not going to be the same when he’s done doing so.
From there, the episode transitions to a marvelously suspenseful sequence, in which Morgan and Wong play out the end of “Paper Dove” again, but insert what’s happening to Catherine at the same time. The Polaroid Stalker is now played by Doug Hutchison, who was Eugene Tooms way back in season one of The X-Files, and Hutchison plays the man with a sort of stoner verve. He clearly knows what he’s doing, but he seems completely tripped out on the cosmic significance of it all, on the fact that Frank will have such a hard time finding him if, indeed, he even can. It’s a very fun performance, broad and goofy in all the right ways, but still strangely sinister. (A scene where a police officer comes upon Hutchison in the middle of nowhere, watching the two-tailed comet, is both strangely funny and wonderfully spooky.) This whole sequence, with Frank trying to get to his wife before the stalker can abscond with her, is wonderfully tense, in a way the show rarely was in season one. In particular, the utilization of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” to keep us oriented as to the stalker’s location, is very well done. (It’s also a great soundtrack for the whole scene.) Another nice touch: The stalker tosses aside his facial hair, which proves to be a fake beard. It’s just like the show tossing aside its season one trappings and going a little nuts.
The rest of the episode is fairly typical in a lot of ways, simply getting us from point A—Catherine is missing—to point B—Frank saves her. But along the way, there are some lovely little touches. Frank meets a couple of geeky tech dudes who grant him greater access to the Millennium Group’s files on his computer, via the password, “Soylent Green Is People.” The characters are weirdly amusing, and the episode’s portrayal of the Group as something more than just a mundane consulting firm is well-done. (In particular, I like the strange scene where Peter reports to a strange old man we don’t see from the front, something that will become important as the episode goes along.) I also like the indication that the Group knew more about the stalker than it told Frank, for whatever reason.
And above all, there’s a lovely scene where Peter tells Frank why he’s never had a son, even though he’s desperately wanted one. It’s the kind of scene that could be kind of silly, but in Terry O’Quinn’s hands, the monologue becomes something almost despairing, a last cry from a man who desperately believes in God but isn’t sure how to reconcile that with a world filled with such darkness and evil. O’Quinn nails the delivery, and the content of the monologue—about Peter cutting a deal with God after discovering the dismembered body of a baby—is some of the best stuff Morgan and Wong had written to this point. Season two of Millennium hinges on questions of what humans can do when faced with the numinous, with that which we simply cannot understand without losing our minds, and it’s here that we see the first of these approaches: You can simply try to make it a mundane part of your own life, no matter how impossible that might be.
In the end, Frank tracks down the stalker, along with Catherine, and the final sequence, where he manages to kill the stalker by brutally gutting him (not something you’d expect to see), is exciting in all of the right ways, a near masterpiece of horrific montage editing. This is a portrayal of a man who’s nearly lost everything and now has a chance to get it back, even if he has to destroy another to get to it. Frank’s attack on the stalker is brutal and savage, and even though it’s largely bullshit that his wife kicks him out for doing this to save her own life, it’s vaguely believable, simply because Frank’s such a terrifying badass in this moment. For a moment, he becomes the darkness he’s tried so hard to pin down, and that gets him kicked out of his house of light. In this moment, Millennium turns a corner, from a serial killer show with stained-glass window overtones, to a show that revels in those overtones, a show that plays in age-old symbols with a decided taste of the weird.
- Man, Jordan’s kind of a whiny little irritant in this episode, isn’t she? I get Catherine’s horror when she thinks the stalker has killed her only child, but this is not the kid’s finest hour. And if Frank's opening monologue is the good kind of religious mysticism, then her, "LOOK, DADDY, ANGELS!" line is the bad kind. It feels like she's temporarily been possessed by Zuzu from It's A Wonderful Life.
- Morgan and Wong trademark: Lots and lots of exposition, clumsily inserted. That moment when the stalker talks to the cop and tries to tell him all about what the comet means, man, is kind of terrible in places.
- Another small problem: The way that Frank eventually tracks down the stalker makes him a bit too much of a magic man. It’s a frequent problem in the second season, and it feels like the show trying to figure out just how supernatural it can make the guy.
Next week: Zack takes on “Redux, Part II,” then finds an episode that goes to the dogs (ha!) with “Beware Of The Dog.”