Season 4, Episodes 16 and 17: “Tempus Fugit”/“Max”
Original Airdates: March 16 and March 23, 1997
As we become more aware of the scale and complexity of the conspiracy, it becomes more important to remember the individuals who are affected by it. “The government” “the people” “the aliens,” these are all large groups, faceless groups, overwhelming to imagine. The show is at its strongest when it is able to put a face on something, to show the effect on a person whose name that we know. The smaller the better, sometimes, the more intimate, the more affecting. The closer the conspiracy seems to home.
“Tempus Fugit” and “Max” couldn’t ever be called intimate episodes, except that they are. They’re blockbusters, really, featuring one of the show’s most harrowing special effects sequences—a plane crash, terrifyingly rendered. On board the plane is Max Fenig, Mulder’s Other from Season 1. The mystery of the crash takes two episodes to fully unravel: Flight 549 was taken over by an alien craft that was looking for Max; the alien craft was intercepted by a military plane; when the military shot down the alien craft, Flight 549 crashed as well.
It’s a big story that’s kept small first by its smart and simple structure. As Mulder and Scully work out these details—Mulder determined, Scully cautious—men in black work alongside them, destroying evidence. Mulder notices that the wristwatches worn by the passengers are all nine minutes off; next thing we know the wristwatches have been stolen. The agents question an Air Force officer named Frish; Frish has already been instructed to lie about his role in the crash. Mulder figures out where the alien craft fell and scuba-dives after it; the military is on him within minutes. So often, our agents are digging up old evidence, piecing together the past, but here they’re on a live site, piecing together the truth while the truth might still make the news.
In another smart stroke, the episodes feature two characters who mirror Scully and Mulder in the roles of skeptic and believer. Mirroring Scully is Mike Millar, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator who goes from scoffing at Mulder to almost believing him. Millar, like Scully, prefers evidence to theory, but that doesn’t mean he can’t take a second look, can’t admit that there are things about the crash that are otherwise unexplainable. Millar is a great character, a clever twist on the scowling local officials who usually dog our agents’ investigations. His existence is a hopeful one—although he may not admit that he’s been completely swayed, you can see there’s powerful doubt working in him, now. A few more Mike Millars and the conspiracy wouldn’t ever have a chance.
Mirroring Mulder is Sharon Graffia, a woman who claims first to be Max’s sister and who alerts our agents to the crash. Sharon is entirely focused on Max, with a single-mindedness reminiscent of Mulder’s focus on Samantha. She wants him safe, she wants him home, she wants him alive. She is not Max’s sister, either, but an unemployed aeronautics engineer with a history of mental illness. She befriended or was befriended by Max and for him she stole something from her old job, a piece of alien technology. The two divided the tech into three pieces. She kept one, Max kept the other, and the third they hid in an airport.
A device in three pieces! That old tune, but it’s a good one, and it provides a second engine to the episodes. Max, it turns out, was carrying his piece to Mulder. A man in black knew it and was tracking him for it. The aliens knew it too, which is why they took over Flight 549 in the first place. Which is how the first piece disappeared. The aliens know about Sharon’s piece, too, and so abduct her straight from her motel room. Later they drop her off near the crash site, and none other than Mike Millar finds her screaming and crying in the forest. Mulder finds the third piece in the airport after locating a claim ticket in Max’s trailer. He’s pursued onto a plane by a man in black, and they’re totally going to fight about it except then something catches up to them, shakes the plane, shines bright lights. They lose the device, nine minutes, and their memories of what happened.
So Max Fenig is dead and the alien tech disappears, and that should be enough darkness for a couple of episodes, but it isn’t, there is more. There is Agent Pendrell, do you remember Agent Pendrell? Do you even know his first name? Because you’ve seen him before, many times, helping Scully with this or that lab test while looking at her with his big, moony eyes. Pendrell makes the mistake of being in a bar where Scully is trying to lie low with Frish, the man from the Air Force who lied, and then decided not to lie anymore. A man in black comes for Frish shoots at him and hits Pendrell instead. And the kid dies, just dies, just dies for no good reason. We’ve watched the conspiracy kill witnesses, and participants, but in these episodes it kills bystanders—a plane full of people, a lovesick FBI agent in a bar. And for what? For the love of Mike Millar, for the vindication of Max Fenig?
There is life, though. Fortunate life that seems more fortunate with every passing episode. We didn’t die in that crash, we didn’t die yet of cancer. Scully gets another nosebleed, gets sternly reprimanded by Skinner for—being there, I suppose. For working under stress, for not sleeping, for staying in motion so she doesn’t have to think about things like her nosebleeds, and her birthday. It’s her birthday, by the way. Mulder has made a point of remembering. He makes a restaurant sing to her, puts a sparkler in some pastry, gives her a keychain commemorating Apollo 11. By the end of these episodes she has decided the keychain means something about perseverance and teamwork. Mulder makes a joke of it but what is true, what is undeniably true, is how the conspiracy keeps them both alive. Even as it chips away at their lives, as it puts them in harm’s way. They could be bystanders or they could be moving, but neither could survive staying still.