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The X-Files – Max (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Reportedly, Tempus Fugit and Max took twenty-eight days to shoot. Assistant director Tom Braidwood described the two-parter as a “pretty challenging” effort for the show. The series built an air plane cabin specifically so that it could film those fantastic abduction sequences. There are fields and hangars strewn with dead bodies and the wreckage of a passenger air plane. By just about any definition, Tempus Fugit and Max comprise the most ambitious and large-scale two-part episode that the show has produced to date.

Paradoxically, this is also the smallest two-part episode that the show has produced to date. It brings back a minor guest star from a first season episode, only to kill him off casually in the teaser for the first episode. None of the big players show up for the drama. The most significant consequence of Tempus Fugit and Max is the death of Agent Pendrell. In many ways, Tempus Fugit and Max is the post-mortem story of a little guy who was crushed by the weight of something much larger than himself – caught between forces of immeasurable power.

In-flight serve will now resume...

In-flight service will now resume…

Tempus Fugit and Max do very little to advance the central mythology arc, which has stalled somewhat in the fourth season. However, they manage to encapsulate so many of the core themes of that central storyline. This is a story about the victimisation of the weak by the powerful; this is a tale about the sacrifices that are made in pursuit of the truth; this is a reflection on the appeal of conspiracy theory; this is a morality play about balancing lives against “the greater good.”

In many ways, Tempus Fugit and Max are the quintessential mythology episodes, despite not being that closely related at all.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

The title of Max gives the game away. This is not a story about Mulder and Scully fighting some nebulous scheme or “colonisation” or “purity control.” This is not a story about corruption at the highest levels of government, or the fate of the world – or even the fate of “the project.” Instead, Max is focused on the human cost of the conspiracy. It is a story about the collateral damage that tends to accrue in the pursuit of “the truth.” Max Fenig and Agent Pendrell are just the two latest examples of those killed as part of something they do not understand.

“This is… well, quite obviously, my story… since I’m telling it,” Max narrates at the start of his video recording. In a way, that is true. Tempus Fugit and Max is the rare mythology episode that has room to breathe. It is not overcrowded with shape-shifting bounty hunters or wheels-within-wheels or twists and turns. Max may well be dead by the time that Mulder and Scully arrive on the scene, by Max affords its eponymous character no small measure of respect. This is allowed to be Max Fenig’s story, even after he is dead.

Unclaimed baggage...

Unclaimed baggage…

Max Fenig is a very sad person. We knew that when we first met him in Fallen Angel, but it appears that the years have done little to help Max heal. Max is still being abducted and victimised; he is still subject to the whims of a higher power. He has no real autonomy over his own life. When he does try to tell people about what has been done to him, they tend to laugh. Although he dies in the plane crash that spurs the plot of Tempus Fugit and Max, the character lives on in video recordings made before his passing.

The X-Files has done a lot to emphasise Mulder’s sense of empathy. Mulder has a sense of compassion and understanding for victims of powerful forces. Years after Fallen Angel, it is quite clear that Mulder retains a great deal of sympathy for Max. Mulder quite clearly hopes that Max survived the plane crash, right up until Scully confirms that they have recovered Max’s body. After Max’s death, Mulder is still worried about how Max will be perceived. “I mean, Max’ll be remembered as a… disappointing rummage sale or some kook on a home video.”

Trouble, plane and simple...

Trouble, plane and simple…

Max emphasises the connection between Mulder and Max. “Remember this place?” Mulder asks as he and Scully explore Max’s caravan. “Only Max Fenig and you would appreciate living like this,” Scully quips as she examines its newspaper clippings and radio equipment. She acknowledges the similarities. “I think you were actually kindred spirits in some deep, strange way,” Scully observes. “Men with Spartan lives, simple in their creature comforts if only to allow for the complexity of their passions.” Mulder’s face is reflected in Fenig’s video confession.

Mulder’s sympathy is not reserved exclusively for Max. As he examines the wreckage with Scully, Mulder suggests that the recovery team are two disconnected from the horror; they are too interested in mechanics and technology. “These men are trained to identify moving parts,” he tells Scully. “Hydraulics, electronics.” The implication is that Mulder is more aware of the human element of the tragedy. Even at the climax, it seems like Mulder is trying to save Garrett from the aliens outside the plane. “Let it go!” he urges as the light increases. Garrett does not let it go.

Buckle up!

Buckle up!

Still, Garrett accepts his fate. He is a small player in the grand scheme of things. It is his fate to end up crushed in the grand machinations of governments and conspiracies. “A man, if he’s any man at all, knows he must be ready to sacrifice himself to that which is greater than he,” Garrett suggests to Mulder, explicitly stating one of the themes of the episode. Sacrifice is one of the big themes of Tempus Fugit and Max, as numerous individuals wind up dying to serve some perceived “greater good.”

Max Fenig and the other passengers are all sent to their deaths in an effort to prevent the aliens from recovering their technology. Agent Pendrell is killed for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frish and Gonzales are offered up by the military as sacrificial lambs in order to better cover up the atrocity committed; Gonzales is even murdered so as to better “sell” the lie. Garrett is willing to die to complete his mission. Anonymous members of the team attempting to recover the alien technology suffer radiation poisoning for their sins.

Somebody didn't care for the in-flight movie...

Somebody didn’t care for the in-flight movie…

Tempus Fugit and Max are fascinated by one of the central themes of the show’s mythology. Can any worthy greater good be attained through exploitation and murder? The show’s central conspiracy is dedicated to ensuring the survival of mankind as a species; however, it is willing to justify incredible sacrifices to that end. Tempus Fugit and Max over a microcosm of that dilemma. Speculating on a possible motive for crashing the plane, Mulder suggests, “I don’t know… but maybe that one man’s life was worth sacrificing a hundred-and-thirty-three others.”

Sitting with Mulder on the plane towards the end of Max, Garrett returns to that core dilemma. “Look out your window, Agent Mulder,” he teases. “You see the lights? Now, imagine if one of those lights flickered off. You’d hardly notice, would you? A dozen… two dozen lights extinguished. Is it worth sacrificing the future, the lives of millions, to keep a few lights on?” It is a pretty good rationalisation for truly horrific conduct. After all, you can turn something utterly unconscionable into a mere numbers game.

Caravan of love...

Caravan of love…

Garrett’s dialogue is an homage to The Third Man, but it alludes to a classic moral and philosophical query. Diderot observed in his Lettre sur les Aveugles à L’usage de Ceux Qui Voient, distance can have a strange effect on morality:

Since the blind are affected by none of the external demonstrations that awaken pity and ideas of grief in ourselves, with the sole exception of vocal complaints, I suspect them of being, in general, unfeeling toward their fellow men. What difference is there to a blind person between a man urinating and a man bleeding to death without speaking? Do we ourselves not cease to feel compassion when distance or the smallness of the object produces the same effect on us as lack of sight does on the blind? Thus do all our virtues depend on our way of apprehending things and on the degree to which external objects affect us! I feel quite sure that were it not for fear of punishment, many people would have fewer qualms at killing a man who was far enough away to appear no larger than a swallow than in butchering a steer with their own hands. And if we feel compassion for a horse in pain though we can crush an ant without a second thought, are these actions not governed by the same principle?

At the climax of Max, Garrett and Mulder sit on a plane flying high above the world. They cannot even distinguish individual people from that height.

"Strangely, the radiation only casually affected parts of me that are generally off camera! What a convenient development!"

“Strangely, the radiation only casually affected parts of me that are generally off camera! What a convenient development!”

In that context, imagine how literally detached the aliens in space must feel from the people on the planet below. Less literally, those at the top of the conspiracy must seem completely divorced from the concerns of their victims. Treating the “greater good” as a numbers game, Garrett is proposing a moral dilemma along the lines of the famous “trolley problem.” Most people would agree with him, at least in theory; ninety percent of people would sacrifice one life to save five. However, that number goes down the closer the person is physically and emotionally to the dilemma.

Naturally, the number of people willing to sacrifice a lover or a relative to save five strangers decreases to approximately thirty percent – revealing something of a glaring flaw in Garrett’s logic. The X-Files itself ultimately makes a similar observation about the central conspiracy.  Despite grand claims about working to save as much of mankind as possible, it is revealed that those in charge of the international consortium are simply trying to save their own lives and the lives of their families. It doesn’t matter if all the lights outside the cabin are switched off.

The volume is turned to the Max...

The volume is turned to the Max…

Tempus Fugit and Max consciously and cleverly play up this contrast in scale. Max is just one person, but he is ultimately the cause of a massive plane crash that claims over a hundred lives. At one point, Max very cleverly juxtaposes the eponymous character’s awkward and personal (and ad libbed) account of his own awkward circumstances against the ruthless and mechanical efficiency of the sinister forces working to recover the lost alien technology.

Much is made of how powerless and weak these victims are in the face of such power. “Actually, all I ever wanted in life was to be left alone,” Max observes in his video confession. “Don’t we all?” Instead, Max has been subjected to horrific and inhuman tests. More than that, this abuse continues because he is disenfranchised. “And the worst part is, no one believes you.” Tempus Fugit and Max introduce Mulder and Scully to Sharon Graffia, a friend of Max. She is, we’re told “an unemployed aeronautical engineer who spent time in-and-out of mental institutions.”

Beached...

Beached…

These are people who are ostracised and alienated; eccentrics who have nobody to protect them. In fact, Tempus Fugit and Max very subtly connect these ideas back to Mulder and Scully. Tempus Fugit features Mulder and Scully in a bar together, celebrating Scully’s birthday. They are the only people there. Despite the fact that Scully was once an up-and-coming young hot-shot, she has been isolated and alienated from many of her friends and co-workers. In the first season, she had a vibrant social circle; now, after all she has endured, there is only Mulder.

Oddly enough, it seems that Tempus Fugit and Max have reached the same conclusion about Mulder and Scully as Never Again did; Scully has reached a point where she has nothing in her life by Mulder. However, being written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, Tempus Fugit and Max are decidedly more romantic about that state of affairs. Tempus Fugit opens with a private two-person birthday party, and features Mulder presenting Scully with a little gift-wrapped box. The shippers must have gone wild.

It is a pretty great visual metaphor...

It is a pretty great visual metaphor…

Of course, this gets at the other big sacrifice-related theme of the episode. Mulder’s quest for the truth comes at a pretty horrific cost. The show has acknowledged this a couple of times in the past, as Mulder’s dogged refusal to surrender has led to the abduction of Dana Scully, the murder of Melissa Scully, the assassination of Deep Throat and the death of Mr. X. Over the past four seasons, Mulder has stacked up some pretty impressive collateral damage. The blood-stained business card that he finds on the body of Max Fenig is a pretty potent visual metaphor.

Being part of the show’s central mythology, Tempus Fugit and Max can actually engage with the fallout from Memento Mori. Scully’s cancer casts a shadow over the rest of the show. It is fairly heavily implied that Mulder’s interest in celebrating Scully’s birthday is prompted by her looming mortality. “Mulder,” Scully observes, “you have never remembered my birthday in the four years I’ve known you.” Mulder tries to deflect. “That’s the way I like to celebrate them,” he teases. However, it does not seem entirely convincing.

If it bleeds...

If it bleeds…

It is no coincidence that Scully suffers a nosebleed as Pendrell lays dying. The nosebleed is a visual reminder of the cancer given to Scully as a result of her abduction, so it makes sense that it should reappear as another person sacrifices themselves to Mulder’s quest by mere proximity. We never even discover Agent Pendrell’s first name; he dies for the sin of trying to by Scully a birthday drink. The X-Files is packed full of characters who die as part of Mulder’s quest for the truth.

There are moments in Max that seem to question the morality of what Mulder does. After all, if Mulder’s pursuit of the conspiracy generates collateral damage on such a scale, who is to say it is worthwhile? At what point does it become too much to justify? When does Mulder become just as responsible as the men that he hunts? “What are these people dying for?” Scully asks at one point, frustrated. “Is it for the truth or for the lies?” Mulder replies, “It’s got to be for the truth. If we owe them anything, it’s to make sure of that.”

Private contractor, contractor for money...

Private contractor, contractor for money…

After all, Max goes out of its way to mirror Fox Mulder to Max Fenig. It is made clear that Max Fenig knew that he was carrying a highly dangerous object when he got on a crowded plane. “There was one man who knew what brought this plane down,” Mulder explains to Millar, “and he knew it even before he got on the plane, but he got on anyway.” In essence, Max Fenig knew that his decision to bring the device on to a plane full of people could have serious consequences; at the very least, it would expose those near him to radiation involuntarily.

However, at the climax of Max, Mulder repeats the mistake made by Max. Knowing full well that the alien device was likely a major factor in the plane crash, Mulder decides to get on a plane full of people to help ferry it back to the FBI. There are a host of alternatives; Tempus Fugit has Sharon fly out to meet Mulder and Scully on a private plane, for example. However, Mulder seems so excited about the prospect of actually holding “proof” that he takes a radioactive trouble-magnet on to a crowded plane with him.

The light at the end of the cabin...

The light at the end of the cabin…

It is interesting to wonder whether Mulder uses the same rationale as Garrett to justify all the people who have died over the years. Does Mulder think that the deaths of Pendrell and Max can be justified as part of the “greater good”? Unlike Garrett, Mulder doesn’t murder those characters himself – but he is reckless and over-eager in his pursuit of the truth. It doesn’t seem unfair to suggest that some of the blood is on his hands. In its own way, Mulder’s quest for the truth makes him something of a monster himself.

Although Tempus Fugit and Max allude to these issues, they take great care to avoid implicating Mulder. The final scene of Max is decidedly romantic as Scully contemplates the “Apollo 11” key chain that Mulder gave her at the start of Tempus Fugit. As Space suggests, Chris Carter seems to be quite fond of using the space race as a metaphor for boundless human potential. While comparing Mulder’s pursuit of the truth with the space programme might seem a little grandiose, Max commits to the metaphor.

Reflection...

Reflection…

After all the space programme was hardly clean and easy. Many people lost their lives trying to get to the moon. The crew of Apollo 1 all died in a horrific accident. In 1971, astronauts David Scott and Jim Irwin offered a makeshift memorial at Hadley Rille on the moon. As Claire L. Evans noted in Moon Arts, this was unofficial in nature:

Like the Moon Museum, Fallen Astronaut was an unofficial venture; the statuette was smuggled aboard the Apollo 15 lunar module by the astronauts themselves – Scott and Jim Irwin – without the knowledge of NASA officials. Its ‘installation’ was unorthodox: in laying down the sculpture and its accompanying plaque, Irwin and Scott performed a private ceremony on the lunar surface. “We just thought we’d recognise the guys that made the ultimate contribution,” Scott later said. Notably, “the guys” included eight American and six Soviet astronauts, so it was a surprisingly apolitical act of solidarity in the midst of the Cold War.

The “fallen astronaut” memorial consisted of a little statue and a plaque listing the names of fourteen people who died in the early history of space exploration. David Scott himself would later admit the plaque was incomplete; due to the secrecy around the Soviet space programme, Valentin Bondarenko and Grigori Nelyubov were not listed.

Shapes and symbols...

Shapes and symbols…

Staring up at the sky in wonder, Scully reflects, “No one gets there alone.” Trying to make sense of the birthday gift that Mulder has given her, she offers, “We cannot forget the sacrifice of those who make these achievements and leaps possible.” Mulder quips that he just likes the key chain. If Mulder did intend that subtext, it seems like a fairly callous gift. After all, Scully is facing her mortality as a direct result of Mulder’s pursuit of the truth. It seems a bit cynical for Mulder to suggest that those dying as a result of his quest are dying for a greater good.

The final scene of Max seems to let Mulder off the hook a bit. It seems to suggest that there are “good sacrifices” and “bad sacrifices” made of the course of the show. The “bad sacrifices” are those made by the conspiracy; those killed to protect the secrets of powerful men. In contrast, the “good sacrifices” are those who die as part of Mulder’s quest to uncover those same secrets. It is unconscionable for Garrett to sacrifice a few lights for “the greater good”, but there is a strange romance around those who die so that Mulder might know the truth.

Cabin pressure...

Cabin pressure…

Of course, there is a world of difference between those murdered by the conspiracy and those who die as a result of Mulder’s quest. Mulder did not give Scully cancer himself; he did not murder Deep Throat; he did not leave Mr. X to bleed out on the floor of his apartment building. It would be churlish to suggest that Mulder can be directly compared to Garrett, a man who opens fire in a crowded restaurant. However, there is a clear causal link there. Tempus Fugit and Max make it clear that Mulder knows the price of his quest.

It seems glib for Max to write these deaths off as romantic sacrifices for a greater good. Victims like Agent Pendrell or Melissa Scully were barely aware of the conspiracy, let alone the chain of events leading to their deaths. Dana Scully was abducted and experimented upon because she had the bad luck to be assigned as Mulder’s partner only a year earlier. Mulder did not murder these people himself, so he cannot be blames for their deaths; however, it also seems a little unreasonable (and self-centred) for Mulder to characterise them as martyrs to his cause.

This recovery is going swimmingly...

This recovery is going swimmingly…

Tempus Fugit and Max raise this issue of the human cost of the conspiracy, and gently broach the idea that Mulder is perhaps as dangerous as that mysterious piece of alien technology that Max tries to smuggle on board the flight. However, the final scene backs away from that implication; instead, the sequence builds up the romance around Mulder’s quixotic quest to expose the lies and uncover the truth. It feels a little uncomfortable, particularly given the fact Mulder is not the one suffering from brain cancer as a result of his mission.

Tempus Fugit and Max are also interesting for the revelation that Garrett is not a government operative. Instead, he is “a military contractor.” This is one of the few times over the course of The X-Files that the private sector is brought into the central conspiracy plot line. Although Piper Maru and Apocrypha confirm that Luis Cardinal is a private contractor, this is just a background detail. Redux I and Redux II allude to the awkward relationship between the government and certain private companies, but The X-Files is primarily focused on state abuses of power.

First class villain?

First class villain?

For all of Garrett’s suggestions about “greater” causes, it is heavily suggested that Cummins Aerospace are exploiting alien technology for material gain. Max suggests that this alien technology has been used to reverse-engineer “technology that is supposedly twenty or thirty years down the road.” One imagines that there is an astonishing amount of money in these advances – Scully suggests that this may be “a case of high-tech industrial espionage.” Perhaps it is; the fact that the aliens are trying to recover the technology suggests this is not part of their plans.

In the scheme of the larger conspiracy, it appears that Tempus Fugit and Max represent a dead-end. This is a story that exists on the fringe of the larger conspiracy storyline. This is a little footnote detail, rather than an earth-shattering revelation. Some military contractors where trying to exploit alien technology for their own gain, Max Fenig and Sharon Graffia managed to get ahold of it, the aliens themselves decided that they wanted to take that technology back. There are no big twists or shocking shifts. This changes nothing in the larger scheme of things.

Putting everything back the way that they found it...

Putting everything back the way that they found it…

Instead, it feels like an unfortunate collection of otherwise insignificant details that combined to create a disaster. It is worth noting that the aliens were not ultimately responsible for the plane crash; they manage to abduct Garrett in mid-air without causing a similar incident. Instead, it is the combination of military involvement with the alien abduction of Max Fenig that leads to the loss of so many lives. It is a tragedy that might easily have been avoided, made all the worse by the fact that it means so little in the grand scheme of things.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man does not appear here. The character has been a fixture of these mythology episodes since the start of the third season; he even appeared in the coda of 731. As the show’s embodiment of evil and corruption, he tends to haunt these conspiracy tales. His absence from Tempus Fugit and Max is notable. One gets the sense that this particular story is beneath his interest. It is something that appears in a morning memo, not something that requires his immediate involvement.

Into the great white void...

Into the great white void…

Tempus Fugit and Max are epic in their scope, but decidedly intimate in their tone. Despite their disengagement from the plot points of the larger mythology, the two episodes tend to zero in quite effectively on the themes that underscore the central narrative of The X-Files. Often overlooked and underrated in assessments of the show, they serve to demonstrate some of the core strengths of The X-Files.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fourth season of The X-Files:

4 Responses

  1. I remember being frustrated by these episodes when they first aired, because of how clear it suddenly was that the show was just treading water with regards to the mythology. This was where exactly it began: that sinking “man behind the curtain” feeling that the writers really were just making it up as they went along, and that they were maybe starting to run out of steam. I think you’re right that these eps narrow in really succinctly on the show’s central themes, but absolutely nobody back in 1997 wanted to take time out for a contemplative pause when the mytharc narrative had been charging full steam ahead, making a whole lot of really juicy promises along the way. And the deaths of Fennig and Pendrell felt like narrative crutches: when in doubt, kill people off! That’s dramatic!

    • It’d be interesting, I think, to look at the contemporary reactions. Were Tunguska and Terma better received than Tempus Fugit and Max because they had the appearance of advancing the over-arching plot? Is that what fans wanted from the show at this point – the sense of movement more than character-driven stories?

  2. They definitely were better received, even with the ridiculousness of Mulder escaping from a Russian gulag (my guess is he’s the only person Scully’s ever known who’s successfully escaped from a Russian gulag). People thought his speech in the courtroom was corny, but other than that they really liked those episodes much better.

    • Not only does Mulder escape, but he somehow gets to the airport with the family whose truck he totalled!

      That is really weird, particularly with the benefit of hindsight.

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