“What are these people dying for? Is it for the truth or for the lies?” — Dana Scully
“It’s got to be for the truth. If we owe them anything, it’s to make sure of that.” — Fox Mulder
The mystery surrounding Max Fenig’s abduction and death deepens, as the hunt for an alien artifact carries on.
Radhika: Generally speaking, “Tempus Fugit” and “Max” are well-remembered episodes of The X-Files’ mythology, with plenty of iconic abduction imagery and heightening intrigue surrounding the conspiracies that Mulder and Scully always find themselves investigating. But in retrospect, I wonder if the storyline could have been wrapped up in one tight episode because in all honesty, while I enjoyed “Tempus Fugit,” I could feel my eyes glazing over during a couple of scenes here. The mythology felt pretty logical up through “Memento Mori,” but I feel there’s a bit of a shakiness in this episode that may indicate the beginning of the convolutions found in later seasons.
The episode picks up where the last left off: Mulder is apprehended by a group of commandos after diving to the bottom of a lake to find an alien spacecraft. And Scully is trying to save the injured Agent Pendrell after he was accidentally shot — poor Pendrell goes on to die off camera, so no happy ending there. Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force air traffic controller Louis Frish is being arrested for false testimony. The official explanation for the crash is that a military fighter craft was mistakenly put on a collision course with Flight 549. But Mulder is more convinced that the crashed UFO he found underwater was involved.
Mulder goes on to tell the NTSB’s investigator about his theory: Max boarded the plane with proof of extraterrestrial life and a UFO stopped the craft, abducting him. But a military aircraft intercepted both crafts under orders to attack the UFO, resulting in the UFO and plane’s crash.
Meanwhile, upon revisiting Max’s trailer, Mulder manages to find a luggage claim ticket. And Scully visits Sharon — who it turns out is not actually Max’s sister, but an unemployed aeronautical engineer who has been in and out of mental institutions — at a mental institution. Apparently, Sharon had stolen technology that Max believed to be alien. Part of the device ends up at a New York airport, where Mulder goes with the intention of bringing it back to DC. But the Man in Black who shot Pendrell amongst other things is on the flight. As the two confront each other in a showdown, bright lights — a la those seen during Max’s abduction — appear. And by the time Mulder lands in DC, the device and Man in Black are gone, with Mulder suffering from a bit of memory loss and realizing he has lost nine minutes of time.
As usual, the closer the agents get to the “truth,” the further away they end up. But despite the actual series of events seeming a bit hopeless, both agents, including our dear skeptic Scully, remain determined to get to the bottom of things eventually. The final scene is actually a bit of a sweet one, where Scully reflects on the Apollo 11 keychain that Mulder gave her for her birthday.
She waxes poetically about Mulder’s appreciation of extraordinary men and women, about perseverance and teamwork — and while it’s another one of those rambling X-Files monologues we have all come to know so well at this point, there does seem to be a bit of truth to this interpretation of an otherwise bizarre birthday present. Mulder’s response of “I just thought it was a pretty cool keychain,” however, saves the scene from becoming too serious and we’re left with a sense of lighthearted hope after the intensity that has transpired. This almost makes up for the fact that Mulder could have very easily gotten an entire planeful of people killed at the end, which is a bit strange because his rash behavior usually just involves putting himself — not others — at risk.
That said, I like that we got to revisit the character of Max Fenig, both in life and death, as he could have easily never returned after his early introduction in season one. He is a true representative of someone who has persevered and lost a lot in this fight to prove the existence of extraterrestrials, and it is people like him and even the now departed Agent Pendrell — an innocent bystander in it all — that Mulder and Scully must remember as they power on. Their search for the truth is not one that lacks consequences and while they have always been grimly aware of this, seeing the harmful effect their work has had on themselves and their families, they now also have a true sense of obligation to give back to those who have lost so much.
Max: I think there has always been a kind of lurching quality to the mythology, attacking the big picture from different angles as we the viewers, as well as our heroes, have begun to discover the pieces, and then as time goes on, to piece them together. These two episodes though are indeed an outlier with no real lasting impact aside from several terrific abduction scenes and close encounters. Yes, alien UFO technology will factor into a later pair of episodes, but that is pretty much it for all the trouble poor Max Fenig went through to attempt shedding light on the existence of extraterrestrials and validate his multiple abduction experiences.
Another touching moment in this two-parter comes when Mulder and Scully are watching a tape of Max that he recorded himself explaining his life story and his quest. Back in “Fallen Angel,” Max found a kindred spirit in Mulder’s single-minded pursuit of extraterrestrials and the government’s cover-up of same. Max in his video says “the worst part is, no one believes you,” and this sentiment was echoed in “Tempus Fugit” when NTSB employees laughed at Mulder’s suggestion that the crash was the result of the activities of a UFO, and mirrored in the derisive epithet of “Spooky” Mulder.
And of course you have Scully’s observation from “Piper Maru” that Mulder is “in the basement because they’re afraid of you, of your relentlessness and because they know that they could drop you in the middle of the desert, and tell you the truth is out there, and you would ask them for a shovel!” It is this drive for the truth against all odds that loops us back around to Scully’s musings about the Apollo 11 keychain, which links our agents together and to Max’s quixotic pursuit as well. It’s also worth it to note that many in the sixties (and prior to that) thought the effort/an effort to go to the Moon was a foolhardy endeavor, better left to the pages of science fiction and the pulps. Even when Kennedy in 1961 laid down the challenge to NASA to get men there by end of the decade, many thought that timeline an impossibility, given that America’s entire experience in space was a single 15-minute sub-orbital flight. Yet through perseverance and teamwork, NASA did it with months to spare.
In a way, that is the point of these episodes, to rededicate and demonstrate the unflappable and unflagging partnership of Mulder and Scully going into the final stretch of episodes this season and into the next stage of the series that will come with the debut of season five and the prep work of the cast and crew for an X-Files feature film. By the end of this episode, we are back to where we began, with no hard evidence to show except for hundreds of dead passengers, destroyed families, and a fallen FBI scientist with a thing for redheads. But that sliver of hope Radhika wrote about above is still there, that one day Mulder and Scully can put names to faces and with solid evidence make the events of these episodes not be in vain. Season four is winding down, Scully still has potentially fatal cancer, and Mulder is still stymied at every turn by forces out of his control. But if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin can step on the surface of the moon, there is hope for a pair of basement dwelling FBI agents.
AN EPITAPH FOR AGENT PENDRELL
“I realized I didn’t even know his first name…” — Dana Scully
Agent Pendrell’s appearance in this episode is brief, carrying over from the shooting in “Tempus Fugit.” Here, poor Pendrell is seen sputtering and struggling after getting shot during his well-meaning attempt to buy Scully some birthday drinks. Scully later goes on to tell Mulder that Pendrell is dead, and so ends the life of a minor character who remained in the hearts of minds of many X-Philes.
For Pendrell, whose first name we indeed did not know, represented us — the geeky masses, crushing on those larger-than-life FBI agents we watched every week on the idiot box. And he also represented a chance of normalcy perhaps, for our skeptic Scully, a non-psychotic (we hope) guy who could have maybe taken her out on a couple of dates once she was less oblivious to his desire, and shown her a much-needed good time. Alas, Pendrell merely was a flame that had to be put out, proving that just about every tertiary character on The X-Files simply has to die.
There was no hope for ye, Pendrell, but we loved ye well.