“The Fourth Horseman”/“The Time Is Now” (season 2, episodes 22 and 23; originally aired 5/8/1998 and 5/15/1998)
In which the world ends
I’ve always been fascinated by the end of the world. Post-apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorite subgenres, and I used to spend long sermons in church digging through the book of Revelations. One of the chief appeals of The X-Files when I first started watching it was the sense that the alien conspiracy was covering up something even more horrible, an invasion or widespread death and destruction or something. And when I worked at that bad office job I’ve talked about before, I once spent long amounts of time reading sites like Exit Mundi or the blog of James Howard Kunstler, to the point where I started to become fairly worried that the end of all things was just around the corner, that I would wake up one morning, and the world would start slowly but steadily sliding downhill.
The two-part second season finale of Millennium captures perfectly how I imagined the world would end or at least how I imagined the start of that process would be like. Throughout both episodes, there’s a sense of things taking that turn, rounding that corner, then sliding inexorably toward the cliff. It’s worth pointing out that the people making Millennium thought there was a good chance the show would be canceled after season two, which was one of the reasons they felt confident in essentially ending the world in the closing moments of “The Time Is Now.” It’s there, as Catherine Black heads into the woods to die alone, as Jordan curls up next to her father as his mind slowly short circuits, as we hear the noises of a civilization utterly falling apart, that the full weight of these two episodes becomes apparent. Glen Morgan and James Wong very likely knew that even if the show came back, they wouldn’t be coming back, but I would love to know what their plans for a third season would have been, had they been the team working on that third season.
This finale, honestly, may be one of the four or five best cinematic depictions of the end of the world ever filmed. Too often, post-apocalyptic stories dwell on the aftermath, on the part where pretty much everybody’s dead and Will Smith strolls through all the ruin porn. What makes these episodes unbearable is that they’re a slow-motion train wreck where you get the sense that things can’t be stopped but you watch the characters try to stop them anyway. Someone in comments last week compared the events of these episodes to books like Earth Abides, and I think they’re more or less right about that. These are two hours of TV about how people’s ordinary lives are turned inside out by something that’s coming and the men who either bring that terrible day into the world or try to stop the others from unleashing it.
Indeed, my favorite sequence might be the one at the very beginning. The first hour begins with Terry O’Quinn reading a passage from Revelations over the sound of thundering hoofbeats and ghostly wind, setting the mood perfectly. (All Biblical quotations should be read by Terry O’Quinn from now on.) In Wisconsin in 1986, a farmer for something called Regent Farms prepares himself eggs for breakfast. He reads his paper and munches on his food, and the whole scene feels impossibly idyllic, like he lives in a storybook farm. This being Millennium, we know nothing good can befall him, and, indeed, within moments we’re seeing him head outside, where he notices something odd: splotches of blood on the green grass outside his home. He rushes to one of the outbuildings and discovers, to his horror, that all of the chickens are dead. Every single one in every single cage is lying on its side, a bloody mess. And then blood begins to soak his hands, and he collapses.
Like the other sequences of mass death and destruction in these episodes, this one works because it keeps things relatively low-key and mundane. And that makes it all the more horrifying. Compare it to the similarly horrifying sequence in “Horseman” where the California family joins together for a Mother’s Day dinner and collapses, blood seeping through their skin, that comes around the episode’s midpoint. Morgan and Wong use an old trick of apocalyptic fiction—the normal occurrence brutally interrupted—but they use it so effectively that it feels freshly horrific every time. Indeed, both sequences—which are centered on meals gone awry—are fairly similar in construction and shot setups, yet both suggest an escalation in the virus, going from a rural outpost to the outskirts of San Diego, the natural world striking back as best it can.
If we’re being honest, not everything in these two episodes works. Jordan’s dreams about screaming monkeys are rather puzzling, all things considered, even when dream logic is applied to them, and the dialogue between Frank and Catherine about searching for the yellow house is disappointingly on the nose and ham-handed, as always. But Millennium has always played in the world of symbols, and there’s something right about some of the show’s least subtle ones coming back into play as everything slides down the drain. And the overall effect of the two hours is at once haunting and terrifying. These are likely the two scariest episodes the show ever did, and there are very few X-Files episodes that can compete with them, for that matter. Not all of the pieces work together in these two hours, but when you add them up to a totality, the tiny things that are off don’t seem to matter nearly as much as the idea that this show is going somewhere few shows ever have.
What’s also fascinating is the way that Morgan and Wong (and, for that matter, episode directors Dwight Little and Thomas J. Wright, respectively) suggest the apocalypse on an enormously limited budget. The two sequences where we see people dying are both very small-scale, and the part where society actually crumbles is seen through the eyes of three people sitting in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the end to come. When Catherine dies, she doesn’t get a big, showy scene. She simply leaves her daughter—whom she chose to save over herself—behind, secure in the knowledge that she’ll be safe with her father. (And her death is marked through pure image—blood on a pillow.) Some of the scariest scenes just involve people talking, as when Peter tells Frank how the virus came to be and explains that, yes, he believes the Group is somehow involved, using it as a way to keep people controlled. (The one big action sequence, really, just involves a guy driving in a car he’s lost control of.)
The biggest sequence, of course, the one that everybody talks about to this day, is the scene where Lara Means, holed up in a hotel room far off from everybody else, hallucinates the end of the world in almost purely symbolic terms. It’s a sequence that shouldn’t work, a free-floating, non-narrative look at the apocalypse, set to a Patti Smith song, consisting of odd camera tricks and stock footage. But there’s something instantly and immediately visceral about the sequence that just works. Lara, who’s been calculating out the future using dice after realizing that the Group and the Bible were both right, slowly watches as her sanity slips away, drifting from her as surely as the coffee cup she’s got her eye on slides across the table. (Somehow, the eeriest effect in an episode about the end of the world is one probably pulled off using fishing line.) And then, as the song continues, it all crumbles around her, her visions giving way to terrifying images of horses before a blood-red sun, of demons and angels glimpsed only briefly, of a terrible beast at the door who turns out to be Frank. It’s at once the end of the world and the end of this woman, finally driven crazy by the visions she sees and the things those around her believe. (One of the frequent themes of this show and The X-Files is that if all of this stuff was really going on, you’d be insane not to go insane.)
And it’s here that I think “Horseman” and “Time” mark what really makes them work. For as much as these are episodes about a virus getting loose and ravaging the world, they’re also episodes about people who are made to endure their own personal apocalypses. Lara faces down the idea that there are some things that can’t be prevented. Peter learns that the group he placed his faith in didn’t have anything close to the best motives in mind when it came to the future of humanity. Catherine wanders into the woods to die. And Frank is left alone with his dream of a small haven away from everything else taken from him utterly and completely. He doesn’t just lose his wife in these episodes; he loses any hope of a life without the Millennium Group, a life where he can just be a normal guy (albeit one with a psychic gift) with a kid and a mortgage and a job with a security consulting firm called The Trust. (I have to assume this organization would have returned in a Morgan and Wong led third season, since they come up far too often to not have some bearing on the story at large.)
We tell stories about the end of the world for a lot of reasons. In some cases, we want to preach about how if people don’t adopt our religion or start using less fossil fuels or stop antagonizing countries with nuclear weapons, then they very well could end up dead. In other cases, we just want a cool, wish-fulfillment kind of story where there are fewer people, and society gets a chance to start all over. And in still other cases, we just want a grim examination of the inevitability of the end of all things. (If you think we’ll somehow escape the end of the universe, I’ve got news for you, pal.) But I think that one of the other appeals of the genre is that we all know what it’s like to wake up and have life turned to ashes. We all know what it’s like to end up distraught and destroyed by events beyond our control. Every single one of us faces the end of all things on an emotional level multiple times throughout our lives, and we have to somehow find the way to keep going forward, to stop letting the static eat our brains alive and get up and face the next day. The hope at the end of these episodes is that having Jordan there will rouse Frank, finally, but who really knows, right? He could be out of commission for a while.
Because that’s the thing about the end of the world: We all assume we’re going to survive it, if it comes. We all think we’ll make it through the nuclear bombs or be one of the 0.1 percent of people who are resistant to the virus or prove ourselves useful to the post-oil crash agrarian society that springs up. But the truth of it is that when you strip away modern conveniences, we’re all probably going to die. Those that do will only survive because of luck and maybe a little bit of skill. We turn to these stories for sustenance because our lives can be struck by sudden bursts of horror that seem just as random and inexplicable as those flashes of death that strike out of the blue. Being laid off or suffering a bad break-up or losing a child are just small-scale apocalypses, confined to one. In stories like this, we relish the slide, but we wait for Frank to get up, hoping the static clears and the morning breaks and things look just a little better.
Even if we know they’ll never be the same.
- I didn’t talk a lot about the Group’s role in things because it’s kind of a McGuffin in this episode. This is particularly true, since Chris Carter veered completely away from the season-two portrayal of the organization in season three, and there was no real attempt to explain just what the Group hoped to attain by releasing the Marburg Virus.
- So long to Megan Gallagher, who actually gets a pretty great character send-off in these two episodes, finally becoming integrated with the story in a way that doesn’t feel forced, as it often has in this second season.
- More terrifying images: Men in hazmat suits walk through an eerie, darkened landscape, the corpses of birds littering the ground around them.
- I love the recurring glimpses of Peter opening the cooler in the first hour. I also love the way that this show apparently understands that the way to make having someone quote Biblical passages seem non-hokey is to get Terry O’Quinn to do it.
- I love the Group’s initiation ceremony. That, incidentally, is how you get to write for The A.V. Club, so thanks for asking.
- The earthquake is just big enough to be scary, but not so big that it wouldn’t be possible to fake on a TV budget. Still, I love the way Lance Henriksen plays the moment that Frank realizes what’s going on.
- All that said, bringing in the parakeet just to die 30 minutes later was pretty weak.
Next week: Zack and I will gather with all of you for a live-chat as we watch the first X-Files movie. Bring drinks and snacks and ample amounts of snark. We’ll post more details as the week goes on, so keep checking Newswire.