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The X-Files – Tithonus (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Tithonus

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

In many respects, Tithonus serves as a belated sequel or mirror to Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.

And not just in the sense that continuity-hungry fans would argue. Tithonus meditates on many of the same ideas and themes that preoccupied Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. Once again, Scully finds herself drawn into an investigation featuring an old man obsessed with death. While Clyde Bruckman could not control his visions of death, Alfred Fellig is actively chasing death. Bruckman could see nothing but death, while Fellig has found himself abandoned and forsaken by death.

Touching death...

Touching death…

Both Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Tithonus are meditations upon death and humanity. Both Bruckman and Fellig struggle with their complex relationships with mortality. Writer Vince Gilligan has already made a compelling case to anoint himself the spiritual successor of Darin Morgan. His scripts for Small Potatoes and Bad Blood were both Morgan-esque comedies dealing with Morgan-esque themes. Gilligan even convinced Morgan to guest star in Small Potatoes as something of a passing of the proverbial torch.

It seems quite likely that Gilligan intentionally intended Tithonus to mirror Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. Having demonstrated that he could offer a reasonably mimickry of Darin Morgan’s comedic voice, it seems that Gilligan is aspiring towards the tragic. Tithonus is just as introspective and depressing as Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, even if Gilligan has stripped out a lot of the gallows humour that ran through Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. Both stories are fundamentally tragedies, but Tithonus is more overt in its tragic overtones.

Matter of record...

Matter of record…

In light of all this, it makes sense that Tithonus should return to the themes that defined a lot of Darin Morgan’s work on the show. Tithonus is a story about empathy and isolation, a tale about how people are fundamentally alone in the universe and about how easy it is to get disconnected from the world around you. Clyde Bruckman was forced to withdraw from the world because of his constant visions of death and destruction; it is very hard to allow yourself to care about somebody when you are instantly (and viscerally) informed of the circumstances of their death.

Alfred Fellig’s relationship with death has similarly divorced the photographer from the world around him. After Scully watches Fellig ply his trade, he insists, “I showed you what I do last night. I just take the pictures.” Scully responds, “What you showed me was a contemptible lack of compassion for another human being. You showed me that you profit off of people’s deaths.” Fellig is not moved by that. “What, do you want me to cry for them?” he asks. “You want me to make like I feel sorry for them? I don’t. Lucky bastards. Every one of them.”

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

Fellig has grown quite apart from the world, his immortality serving as a firm separation between himself and anybody that he might care about. “Forty years ago I drove down to the city hall, down to the hall of records… record archives, whatever they call it,” he tells Scully. “I wanted to look up my wife. It… bothered me I couldn’t remember her name. Love lasts… seventy-five years, if you’re lucky. You don’t want to be around when it’s gone.” Fellig is a man who has outlived love and compassion… and it is horrific.

It is no surprise that Tithonus is built around this theme of empathy. Much like Clyde Bruckman’s suicide was prompted by his failure to save his neighbour, the circumstances of Fellig’s immortality and of his eventual death are tied up in tiny acts of compassion. “If this is true give me something in the way of proof,” Scully begs. “Help me find some science that I can hang this on.” Of course, it doesn’t work like that. This is not a story about pseudo-science or cutting-edge theory. “It has nothing to do with science,” Fellig states. “Someone took my place.”

"Back when I learnt how to pose, they hadn't invented smiling yet."

“Back when I learnt how to pose, they hadn’t invented smiling yet.”

Fellig gained immortality when death claimed a nurse in his stead. “I don’t know her name,” he confesses. “I don’t think I ever knew it.” However, despite the fact that she was likely entirely anonymous to him, she still helped to tend to him when he contracted yellow fever. “She did the best she could,” Fellig observes. “She sat with me, held my hand and I was on my deathbed and he came for me.” She made a profound gesture of empathy for another human being, and – in doing so – allowed herself to take the place of a total stranger in death’s embrace.

Fellig spends years trying to chase death down, hunting it with a camera. He becomes a cynical and exploitative parasite, one feeding on human suffering and death. It makes sense that Tithonus eventually allows Fellig his release just as he comes to feel some measure of empathy for another human being. Fellig puts himself in Scully’s place, claiming the death that was meant for her. It is only by allowing himself to feel compassion that he can move off the mortal coil; it is only be reconnecting with humanity that he can get to complete his journey.

Uplifting...

Uplifting…

As with Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, the script for Tithonus presents Scully as a character sympathetic and understanding towards a grumpy old man who shares an awkward relationship with death. Mulder could not see Bruckman as anything more than resource to be exploited, while Scully came to feel compassion for the man himself. Although Mulder is a bit player in Tithonus, Gilligan uses a similar set-up. Ritter desperately wants to convict Fellig as a murderer, while Scully allows herself to see him as a human being.

This is very much in keeping with Scully’s character. Mulder tends to be more overtly sympathetic to young women and children, while Scully seems to have a soft spot for older men. This is arguably in keeping with the character’s oft-cited father issues, which were in evidence as early as Beyond the Sea and Lazarus and which the show overtly acknowledged in episodes like Never Again. Of course, both Mulder and Scully have their own father issues to work through. It is interesting how the show tends to contrast them.

The cold hand of death...

The cold hand of death…

There is a remarkable consistency in how both lead characters tend to approach their father figures. After all, Tithonus comes before Two Fathers bakes Mulder’s daddy issues into the title of the (alleged) resolution to the mythology. The differences in how Mulder and Scully approach their father figures speak to both characters as a whole: Mulder tends to treat his father figures as grand mythological figures like Deep Throat or the Cigarette-Smoking Man; Scully tends to see her father figures as human beings.

That said, most discussions comparing Tithonus to Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose have little to do with the strong thematic connections between the two episodes. Most of the conversation around the overlap between Tithonus and Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose are rooted in an overt continuity element that serves to tie both scripts together. As Gilligan’s scripts for Paper Hearts and Unusual Suspects suggest, the writer was a big fan of playing with continuity. The climax of Tithonus consciously riffs on an emotional conversation at the heart of Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.

He's all cut up about it...

He’s all cut up about it…

When Fellig takes the bullet for Scully, he essentially “takes her place” in the same way that the nurse took his place originally. If the nurse’s sacrifice granted Fellig immortality, did Fellig’s sacrifice grant Scully immortality? Is that what Bruckman meant when he told Scully that she would never die? According to The End and the Beginning, that was very much the intent:

“Also,” says Spotnitz, “we came up with the idea of making Tithonus sort of a bookend to Clyde Bruckman’s Final  Repose, in which Bruckman had told Scully that she wouldn’t die. Here we could kind of answer that, and it was very satisfying.”

Spotnitz is quite fond of that easter egg. It is an interesting detail and a clever callback – rather like the way that Unusual Suspects is dated shortly before the hypnosis session upon which Mulder bases his life’s work or the way that Paper Heart carefully and meticulously references existing continuity even as it threatens to undermine it. However, it does seem like discussion of Tithonus has been somewhat overwhelmed by that sly little in-joke.

Well, to be fair, have you seen Gillian Anderson age?

Well, to be fair, have you seen Gillian Anderson age?

Indeed, even Darin Morgan has been asked about how Tithonus pays off a piece of dialogue that he wrote more than three years earlier. In an interview with Kumail Nanjiani on The X-Files Files, Morgan tried to explain the issues with trying to read Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose in light of Tithonus:

I don’t know what they did later in the series to give people the impression… to think that there’s a significance to that. Because I stopped watching at a certain point. And there are times when me and Glen are on panels or something and people start talking about things and we look at each other like, ‘what are they talking about?’

Because Glen leaves after four? He left and then he came back. Four is his last one, right? And three is your last one, right?

Right. And, you know, I continued to watch the show after I left because I was friends with all the writers. I came back and I was on season four. And then season five, I did Millennium with Glen and Jim and our offices were right next to theirs. I probably watched up through season five.

Wait, you were on season four?

Acting. I was in Small Potatoes. Like I said, I was friends with all the guys and I was curious as to what they were doing. So I kept watching up to a certain point. But this is… this is an interesting thing to me, because so many people have asked me about that line and what does it mean.

And I’ve read all these reviews which are like ‘so, I guess Scully’s an immortal…’ and I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’

And I’ve tried to help people to… being a staff writer – a television staff writer – people don’t really know what that is, in a weird sort of way. They know like screenwriters, because you’ve seen movies being made and so on. But a television staff writer has never really been portrayed what that’s like.

And this is an example. You’re writing characters you didn’t create. There’s someone above you making decisions that affect you. And then, if you leave the show, and the show continues on… they do things with the characters which you have no  say in. Nor should you. But it can affect how people go back and look at your episodes.

Because I’ve tried to… I got the question so often that I kept going, imagine this happened: they could have – Chris could have – when Duchovny wanted to leave the show, go, ‘Right, we’re going to end the character, and this is how we’re going to do it. We’re going to reveal that Mulder actually killed his sister. He killed her and he came up with the whole alien abduction thing as an alibi and all this searching for the truth is just B.S.’

You could then go back and rewatch all these episodes and there’s be all these lines where you’d go ‘ohhhh!’ Which would not be what the writer intended. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

It’s Chris’ show. It doesn’t even have to be Chris’ show; Chris could have left the show! And there’s nothing you can do about it, so you sort of did the work then and you can only really explain it… there’s nothing you can do about it!

Morgan raises a number of interesting points to do with the reality of writing in general and writing for television in particular. A television writer only really has control over their own scripts. even then, they are subject to the whims of the production team or the network or the studio. They cannot have control beyond that.

A front line agent...

A front line agent…

As the changing production teams on Millennium had twice demonstrated, the current production team is not necessarily beholden to what came before. None of the three seasons of Millennium really feed into one another, as the new production team struggles to put their own stamp on the show. The cliffhangers bridging the seasons could serve as series finalés, closing the book on particular versions of the show. Millennium overseen by Carter is different from Millennium overseen by Morgan and Wong is different from Millennium overseen by Johannessen and Horton.

There is a legitimate argument to be made as to whether honouring the intentions of an earlier writer is a good idea of itself – whether as an act of respect or courtesy, or simply from the point of view of consistency and integrity. However, the ideas and themes pushed forward by the current production team are liable to get overridden or ignored by their successors; the ideas proposed by one writer in one script can be twisted or discarded by another writer in another script.

And Scully, clearly have never actually seen a horror film, follows the creepy old man into his dark room...

And Scully, clearly have never actually seen a horror film, follows the creepy old man into his dark room…

This is very much a reality of working on The X-Files. The show had a tendency to produce truly great writers, and part of that was rooted in the freedom that the show afforded its writing staff. Chris Carter did not drown out the voices of his individual writers, he encouraged them. As a result, the show was very different from writer to writer. A John Shiban script was distinct from a Vince Gilligan script was distinct from a Darin Morgan script. Each writer seemed to be writing their own slightly unique version of the same show.

While there are themes that tie the entire nine-year run of The X-Files together, there are also themes that feel particular to individual writers. Scripts like Pusher and Unruhe and Paper Hearts play into Vince Gilligan’s fascination with little men who wish that they were big. Scripts like Beyond the Sea and Little Green Men and Never Again play into Morgan and Wong’s existentialist themes. Scripts like Humbug and Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” play into Darin Morgan’s themes of loneliness.

A smashing success...

A smashing success…

Every episode is recognisable as the same show, but the writers on The X-Files tend to examine these ideas from slightly different perspectives. To pick a single example, it could be argued that One Breath and Memento Mori cover similar thematic ground, albeit through the eyes of two very different sets of writers. Tithonus is perhaps a rather notable example of this, because it features a current writer on The X-Files reinterpreting a scene written by another writer before he officially joined the staff.

It makes sense that Gilligan’s episode would play with Morgan’s script in this way. Gilligan and Morgan are the two most postmodern writers on the show, so having Gilligan rather aggressively and blatantly reinterpret an episode originally written by Morgan draws attention to the artifice of the whole set up. Much like Gilligan’s script for Unusual Suspects plays with the idea of continuity and intertextuality connecting The X-Files to other television, Gilligan’s script for Tithonus draws attention to the nuance that is possible connecting The X-Files to itself.

Dialing up the continuity issues...

Dialing up the continuity issues…

Continuity is an interesting thing, and construct that clearly fascinates Gilligan. More than any other writer on the X-Files staff, Gilligan is clearly excited by the way that television works. The writer was quite experimental in his scripting, with Drive opening with television news footage of a car chase and X-Cops allowing Mulder and Scully to guest star on Cops. With episodes like Unusual Suspects and Tithonus, Gilligan plays with the sort of continuity issues that are only really possible on a long running television show.

After all, the whole idea of “continuity” is more volatile and fickle than most viewers would accept. In many respects, continuity is as much constructed by the viewer as by the writer; it is the viewer who perceives the events and interprets them in a way that makes sense to their reading of the show. Often, these readings are never explicitly acknowledged through the text – some are even quite contradictory to the intent of the author – but fans can construct credible arguments from continuity to bolster their interpretation.

She's got quite a following...

She’s got quite a following…

To pick an obvious example, the trail of continuity connecting Leonard Betts to Never Again to Memento Mori would suggest that Scully received her cancer diagnosis before having something resembling a breakdown before telling Mulder about her cancer. This reading makes a great deal of sense, based on the information provided to the audience and the order in which it was provided. However, Glen Morgan has been quite explicit that he never intended for Never Again to be read in that particular way and that the reading undermines the intent of the script.

There are lots of other less extreme examples from throughout the show’s run. Running through the fifth season, some fans had noticed that Mulder and Scully had been spending less time together. This was not due to any conscious decision of the writers, but down to the realities of actor availability and having to film The X-Files: Fight the Future. However, this distance between Mulder and Scully adds an interesting element to late fifth season scripts like The Pine Bluff Variant and Folie à Deux.

Death becomes him.

Death becomes him.

Just because the surrounding circumstances give these episodes a different context than the authors originally intended, it doesn’t mean that either reading is invalid. Continuity can be subjective. Authorial intent is but one interpretation. As Roland Barthes argued in The Death of the Author:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.

The author’s interpretation of their own work can be informative and interesting, but it is not exclusive or prescriptive. Arguably, the same is true of the invisible threads of continuity that tether together various aspects of The X-Files. Perhaps Tithonus is really about the death of the idea of continuity.

"We have to stop meeting like this..."

“We have to stop meeting like this…”

It is quite clear that Darin Morgan holds one particularly interpretation of that scene between Scully and Bruckman in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. However, Tithonus proposes an alternative and contradictory reading. However, why must there only be one valid reading? Why is there only a single correct interpretation of the material? The X-Files is not a documentary. It is not limited by the confines of “reality.” It is a popular television show that features contributions from dozens of writers. It is possible for multiple equally valid interpretations to exist.

Gilligan is quite fond of raising these sorts of probing questions about the way that the audience reads the text. Both Unusual Suspects and Paper Hearts were stories that rather aggressively attacked cornerstones of the show’s internal continuity. Unusual Suspects suggested that Mulder’s entire belief in aliens was rooted in his exposure to a fear toxin; Paper Hearts suggested that Samantha’s fate was ultimately much more mundane than alien abduction. Neither story wraps things up neatly by writing itself out of continuity and restoring the “default” valid reading.

Scully's neck is really on the line this time...

Scully’s neck is really on the line this time…

Of course, the fact that fans have seized on the idea that Tithonus somehow “proves” Scully is immortal is quite instructive. It says a lot about fan culture. The suggestion is that there is only a single valid interpretation of The X-Files; that interpretation must be grounded in the broadcast episodes of the show, rather than informed by a wider context. The idea of “continuity” is vital to fan identity, and so there is a reason that the issue is brought up so frequently and so strongly.

Fans look to continuity as something that grounds and stabilises a narrative – an underlying and ordering principle that governs the storytelling within that narrative. Continuity is really just a set of rules that confine the story. It could be argued that the fixation on continuity among nerd fandoms is all about control. Knowing continuity affords more control over the narrative, even as a passive observer. Knowing the rules governing the narrative allows a sense of greater influence over the story.

"Have I mentioned how great the internet age is?"

“Have I mentioned how great the internet age is?”

Power is very much at the heart of fandom dynamics. In his article on Fandom for The Critical Dictionary of Film and Television Theory, Matthew Hills cites John Tulloch’s research into Doctor Who fandom as an interesting exploration of how these fandoms tend to work:

Tulloch’s work in particular, given its sociological emphasis, has paid close attention  to the issue of fandom not merely as a community but also as a social hierarchy. This is an important point, as otherwise we might be led to believe that fandom is a social space without a pecking order, in which all fans are somehow equal. Where interpretive community approaches tend to emphasize communal agreement and fan resistance to the text-as-commodity Tulloch indicates that such agreement remains a matter of unevenly distributed (semiotic) power and fan knowledge: some fans have greater power to enforce and reinforce specific readings. These fans tend  to be at the apex of  their fandom’s social  hierarchy, and indeed  Tulloch refers to them  (fan club presidents, magazine writers and so on) as ‘executive fans.’

Of course, these forms of authority and power within fandom come from a variety of sources – running a fan website, managing a forum, publishing a fanzine… even just age and experience within the fandom community. However, knowledge is also a source of authority.

A pool of continuity references...

A pool of continuity references…

“Knowledge is power,” to quote Sir Francis Bacon.  The more esoteric the knowledge, the more power and investment that it generates. This is perhaps why arguments over narrative continuity can get so heated on the internet, as fans attempt to demonstrate that they hold more knowledge than their opponents – and, thus, more power over framing discussions and readings of the text in question. Some approaches towards fandom can seem counter-intuitive and prescriptive.

The X-Files is a show that has always been aware and engaged with its own fandom. However, it is not the only example. When Russell T. Davies was running Doctor Who, he wrote Love and Monsters as a criticism of the kind of fandom that would leverage knowledge of continuity and facts into authority. Davies suggested that fandom worked best as a diverse and open-minded collective where people were free to celebrate their own interests in their own way, free from attempts to impose structure or limitations upon them.

It's only so long before he snaps...

It’s only so long before he snaps…

In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins explored the way that fans would relate to their particular interests. He noted that mainstream fandom tended to have a very prescriptive approach to interpreting and exploring the material in question:

Fandom’s institutional structure, however, does constrain what can be said about  favourite shows and directs attention onto aspects of the original episodes with  particular pertinence within fan criticism. … An individual’s socialization into  fandom often requires learning ‘the right way’ to read as a fan, learning how to  employ and comprehend the community’s particular interpretive conventions.

Given how much of The X-Files is tied up in its central mythology and which so relies rather heavily on the idea of internal continuity, it is interesting to see Gilligan play with the ideas of continuity and intertextuality as they relate to the realities of television production.

Elevating his problems...

Elevating his problems…

Tithonus and Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose are two different episodes of television by two different writers. They are both episodes of The X-Files, and so they coexist alongside each other. However, the scene between Scully and Bruckman in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is clearly intended as a sweet moment of connection between two human beings, not as a grand piece of foreshadowing for a paranormal plot development that might arrive years later. In contrast, Tithonus requires that scene to be a piece of foreshadowing.

In setting up a conflict like that, Gilligan is very cleverly drawing attention to the confines and the limitations of having to write on a show like The X-Files, where multiple writers are all contributing to the same quilt. Even random lines of dialogue are subject to revision and reinterpretation, suggesting that perhaps “continuity” only exists as the present episode needs it. The back story of The X-Files (and, indeed, the history of The X-Files) is not set in stone. It can be revised and reinterpretted time and time again.

How could Mulder be so blind?

How could Mulder be so blind?

After all, Tithonus plays into the larger themes of the sixth season. The sixth season is fascinated by concepts like time and love; the idea that people grow and change over extended periods. In many respects, this feels like a response to the show’s own anxieties about its longevity. Chris Carter had originally envisioned five seasons and a movie franchise, but the show was already half-way through its sixth season with a seventh guaranteed. it would make sense for The X-Files to be as anxious about its own mortality as Fellig happens to be.

Much like Mulder and Crump faced the prospect of “running out of west” in Drive, or how the status quo reasserted itself in Dreamland II, or how Maurice and Lyda would spend eternity trapped in the same house in How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, Alfred Fellig finds himself facing the prospect of immortality without any change or dynamism or growth. “You know, most people want to live forever,” Scully observes. With well-practised skepticism, Alfred Fellig responds, “Most people are idiots.”

"Hey. At least he changed his tie this year."

“Hey. At least he changed his tie this year.”

Gilligan’s script takes its title for Greek mythology. Tithonus received the gift of immortality from Zeus, but not without the complementary gift of eternal youth. As a result, Tithonus faced an eternity grappling with the ravages of age. He came to wish for death. It is a fate with which Alfred Fellig can empathise. Admitting that he had “begged” death to take somebody in his place, Fellig tells Scully, “Since that time I realized you got to be careful what you wish for.” It is a grim vision of immortality.

It is quite possible to read this in light of the anxieties playing out across the sixth season of The X-Files. The show is already more than half-a-decade old. It has already reached the number of episodes required for syndication. At this moment in time, there is no real indication that The X-Files will ever be off television. Basking in the afterglow of the move to Los Angeles and the release of Fight the Future, it is entirely possible that the show could run to a dozen seasons or more.

"No, Mulder. I would not say it's an x-ceptional case. It's a terrible pun."

“No, Mulder. I would not say it’s an x-ceptional case. It’s a terrible pun.”

However, there is also a sense that the show is trapped by its own success. The profitability of The X-Files has limited in how much it can change. There is a creeping conservativism at work here, a reluctance to take any decision that could be considered a risk. As Dreamland II demonstrated, there is only so much change that the show can make to the characters before the series snaps back to its archetypal configuration. Even the experimentation of shows like Triangle or The Rain King has given way to more conventional fare.

These anxieties also play out in Scully’s arc across the episode. Tithonus provides Scully with a rare opportunity to escape the shadow of Mulder. Kersh assigns Scully to this case because he believes that she can change; that Scully can become somebody different than the token skeptic assigned to work in the basement. “I would say he has a promising career ahead of him,” Kersh reflects of Ritter. “So did you… at one time.” He continues, “Agent Mulder’s a lost cause. I’m taking the chance you’re not. It’s you and Ritter. Do not let me down.”

"The colour just drained right from her face..."

“The colour just drained right from her face…”

There is a delicious irony here, of course. Kersh is trying to get Scully to move past her work on the X-files by asking her to recapture some of the potential that she demonstrated earlier in her career. Kersh is effectively asking Scully to regress, to turn back the clock on six seasons of growth and development so that she might embrace the same potential that defined the young woman who attended the meeting with Blevins in The Pilot. Kersh’s only alternative to the status quo is a regression.

Ultimately, Tithonus plays into the recurring sense that Scully is well past the point of no return; that Scully has somehow been tainted or contaminated by exposure to Mulder and that there really is no life beyond the X-files for her. In Never Again, Scully’s attempt to have a casual sexual relationship with a random stranger turned out to be an X-file. In Christmas Carol and Emily, Scully’s family Christmas became entangled with a sinister conspiracy. In Chinga, Scully’s vacation trip quick got embroiled in an X-file.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

Tithonus reinforces the sense that the X-files exert a strange gravity on Scully. She spends an extended portion of the episode denying that she is working on an X-file. However, by the climax of the episode, she has come around and accepted the reality of the situation. In a very small way, this does suggest that Scully has grown as a character; that she has changed through her time working with Mulder. Scully might be defined as the “skeptic” of the duo, but Tithonus makes it quite clear that Scully does believe Fellig on some level.

In fact, the decision to partner Scully with Ritter underscores just how far she has grown. When Ritter desperately wants to convict Fellig of murder, Scully refuses to go along. She has inherited Mulder’s stubborn refusal to kowtow the line. “Hey, I’m confused,” Ritter protests after Scully identifies Fellig as a victim of in the stabbing. “I thought we were trying to bust this guy not look for reasons to let him go.” Scully simply replies, “I thought we were looking for the truth.” Her use of the word “truth” is telling.

"Oh don't mind me. I just like to take late night walks by accounting."

“Oh don’t mind me. I just like to take late night walks by accounting.”

To be fair, Scully’s position is generally more relaxed and more flexible than most commentators will allow. It is a stock joke among X-Files fans that Scully is a no-fun stick in the mud who was abducted by aliens and still doesn’t believe in them. While there are elements of that in the way that writers like Chris Carter and Howard Gordon approached the character, Vince Gilligan tended to acknowledge that Scully had a more complex and nuanced position. Gilligan suggested that Scully’s position was not opposed to Mulder, but parallel.

Scully is not quite frozen in amber in the same way that Fellig is. Scully is still a character who can change and evolve and grow, even if that growth is restricted in some way. Tithonus seems to suggest that Scully is pigeon-holed in her “skeptic” role by Mulder; without Mulder, Scully is more willing to consider “extreme possibilities.” In a way, this could be seen to foreshadow developments during the eighth season of the show – introducing a new lead character, the production team were able to transition Scully into the “believer” role traditionally held by Mulder.

Shining light...

Shining light…

Fellig himself is an interesting character. The character’s first name is a reference to the poet Tennyson. Tennyson wrote the epic poem Tithonus about the classic myth of Tithonus. That poem seems to have inspired at least some of Gilligan’s work on the episode. The references to the subject as “this grey shadow” who is “in ashes” cannot help but evoke the striking greyscale imagery of the episode. It is something of a reversal of the poem, with the immortal character seeing those about to be touched by death as little more than grey shadows.

However, if Fellig’s first name is a reference to Lord Tennyson, then his surname is a reference to the (in)famous New York photographer Arthur Fellig. Working in New York City during the thirties and forties, his photographs seemed to capture the essence of the city. As The New York Times noted:

Like a boy scout, he was always prepared. He prowled the streets in a car equipped with a police radio, a typewriter, developing equipment, a supply of cigars and a change of underwear. He was a one-man photo factory: he drove to a crime site; took pictures; developed the film, using the trunk as a darkroom; and delivered the prints.

He often finished a job before the cops had cleared the scene, in some cases before they even arrived. About certain things he was clairvoyant. (Weegee = Ouija, as in board. Get it?) He caught catastrophes in the making and filmed them unfolding. An opportunist? A sensationalist? A voyeur? You could call him all that. He wouldn’t mind. “Just get the name right. Weegee the Famous.”

Some of Fellig’s most iconic and memorable images were photos taken at crime scenes. As acknowledged by writer and director Dan Gilroy, Fellig was very much a distant ancestor of contemporary “nightcrawlers”, the journalists trawling cities at night in search of death and destruction.

The speed with which Fellig would arrive at crime scenes would startle people. As William McCleery noted in his introduction to Naked City, a collection of Fellig’s work, the photographer enjoyed an almost uncanny relationship with the city and death:

Persons looking on Weegee’s incredible photographs for the first time find it difficult to believe that one ordinary earth-bound human could have been present at so many climactic moments in the city’s life.

The simplest explanation of the phenomenon is that true love endows a man with superhuman qualities, and Weegee is truly in love with New York. Not the New York that you and I know, but the New York that he has known, first as a poor immigrant boy and later as a freelance newspaper photographer specialising in crime and violence.

Loving the city, Weegee has been able to live with her in the utmost intimacy. When he goes to be in his room across the street from police headquarters, the city murmurs to him from the police-approved shortwave radio beside his bed. even in slumber he is responsive to her. He will sleep through fifteen unpromising police calls and leap out of bed at the promising sixteenth. In sickness and in health he will take his camera and ride off in search of new evidence that his city, even in her most drunken and disorderly and pathetic moments, is beautiful…

Tithonus does great work making the camera scary. Fellig is a character so disconnected from the world around him that the camera serves as an effective barrier between himself and the human suffering which he witnesses on a nightly basis.

In the lat nineties, there were a whole host of on-going discussions about the relationship between photography and death. Perhaps the most famous (and most dramatic) incident was the death of Lady Diana Spencer as a result of a car crash in August 1997. She had been fleeing paparazzi eager for a photograph of her with Dodi Fayed. The press had chased the car into the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, where the driver lost control of the vehicle. The paparazzi were so associated with the death of Diana that the working title of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s biopic was “Caught in Flight.”

There were reports that the paparazzi arrived first on the scene and made no effort to help thos trapped in the vehicle – instead eagerly snapped shots that they hoped to sell. The initial public response to the involvement of the paparazzi in the death of Diana Spencer was one of outrage, particularly when it emerged that some photographers had attempted to sell the photos to American tabloids for a million dollars. Earl Spencer stated that his sister’s blood was on the hands of every tabloid editor who had paid for intrusive photos of her.

Of course, the death of Diana Spencer was not the only controversy involving the paparazzi during the nineties; it was just the highest profile. Against this backdrop, the decision to build Tithonus around a predatory (or parasitic) crime scene photographer feels quite timely and appropriate. Fellig is a man chasing the perfect picture. He hopes to capture death itself on film. The subjects of his photographs are just props that exist to help him in his quest. There is no regard for the life on the other side of the lens.

However, even outside of the timely resonance, Tithonus is decidedly unsettling. The image of Alfred Fellig snapping photos of those dead and dying is haunting. Even if he is not committing any crime, he seems like a monster exploiting human suffering. The camera flash is ominous and disturbing, recalling any number of classic voyeuristic horror films. Fellig is stalking these people, trying to use them in for his own selfish end. It recalls the use of polaroid pictures on Millennium or even Jamb Gumb’s stalking of Starling at the climax of The Silence of the Lambs.

For all that Fellig seems monstrous, the script is also somewhat sympathetic towards him. He is very much a classic X-Files monster. He is an oddity who has etched out a life in the shadows for decades. He has renewed his license for over thirty years under the same name without raising an eyebrow. Fellig doesn’t seem to have tried too hard to conceal his identity, simply slipping between the cracks. Like the conquistadors in Detour or Big Blue in Quagmire, Fellig seems like a relic from an older and more mysterious time.

However, Fellig is ultimately undermined by the rapid advances of modern culture. The need to classify and sort everything exposes him. Ritter only identifies Fellig as a mysterious figure when he begins properly digitising archive materials. “Our office is currently updating its case filing system,” he tells Scully. “While I was involved in this project– scanning old crime scene photographs into the computer– I came across this.” Once Fellig is identified as an oddity, it is not too difficult for Mulder and Scully to figure out his story.

This plays into the classic X-Files theme of retreating shadows – the idea that the eccentric spaces in American life are being slowly eroded by the forces of globalisation and modernisation. Fellig can no longer count on the anonymity that protected him for so long. Scully seems aware of this. She is almost sympathetic to the idea that the ground is slipping out from under Fellig. “You are going to be arrested, Mr. Fellig, in two hours, charged with murder, and this time you won’t be able to just change your name.”

Then again, Tithonus is a very traditional X-Files episode in a number of ways. To be fair to Gilligan, the episode does take advantage of the new status quo by assigning Scully to the case as an opportunity to demonstrate that she is not “a lost cause.” At the same time, the episode is very much in keeping with the traditional gritty aesthetic of The X-Files. It is not as playful or experimental as the episodes stretching from Triangle through to The Rain King. With a tweak or two, Tithonus would fit in the first five seasons.

The decision to set the episode in New York really helps. The X-Files moved to Los Angeles at the start of the sixth season, and it dealt with the change in a number of ways. The Beginning acknowledged the transition by opening the sixth season on a pan from the sun to the desert. Episodes like Drive and The Rain King took advantage of the rather different aesthetic offered by the new West Coast locations. Episodes like How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and S.R. 819 did a lot of shooting indoors to allow for a darker atmosphere.

Tithonus is based in New York, the type of city that Vancouver could convincingly recreate. However, because The X-Files is now based in Los Angeles, the production team have access to Fox’s extensive studio backlot. As a result, Tithonus could be filmed on the standing sets built for NYPD Blue, located on the opposite side of the lot from the sets traditionally used for The X-Files. It is a very clever way of capitalising on the show’s new home, and demonstrating that the move to Los Angeles does not prohibit traditional scary X-Files stories.

Tithonus is a season highlight, an underrated Vince Gilligan episode that is somewhat overshadowed by his script for Drive. It is a very thoughtful and moving study of mortality, one that feels quite appropriate for where The X-Files finds itself at this point in its lifecycle.

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