Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Michael Watkins
One of the most darkly fascinating episodes in the entire X-Files canon, Tithonus has one of the more obscure titles in the X-Files canon. Son of the King of Troy, he was favored by the goddess Eos, who granted him eternal life – but forgot to make sure that he never aged. Eventually, he grew old and white-haired, Eos lost all interest in him, and he was cursed to watch the sun rise every morning and wish for death. One can not hear that description, and not instantly think of the character at the center of the episode, Alfred Fellig.
A New York City crime photographer is no doubt a position where one would quickly become very cynical. But not even in the darkness of all these episode could one imagine a character like Fellig emerged. Played by Geoffrey Lewis, one could easily get the idea that is one of the flattest performances in television history. However, when you consider what Fellig has been through, one sees that this is obviously Gilligan’s intention. This is a man who has survived the twentieth century and has found that life offers nothing for him, a man who has lived so long he can not even remember his late wife’s name. He discusses his own repeated suicide attempts with such equanimity, and you realize that this is a man who is desperate for death, who envies all the people who have died as being part of a journey that he has eternally been kept absent from. By responding to everything with the same flatness, by not even bothering to say a word until the stories second act, we realize this is a man who not even the civilities of modern life mean anything to anymore. It’s a throwback to the ordinary villains at the center of Gilligan’s Season 4 scripts, and its perhaps far more fitting that the character who is at the center of the episode is Scully.
Considering how much she has changed since the series began, it’s becoming increasingly shocking to see Gillian Anderson’s face in the opening titles. That woman seems light years removed from the Scully we have come to know and love over the past six years. Scully is now a character who has been dealing with her own detachment from life, who has been through so many autopsies and dead bodies that she has almost completely stopped believing in the sanctity of it, even after nearly dying of cancer last season. It says something that, in the last twenty minutes of the episode, almost an entire two-person scene between her and Fellig she argues that a person can never have to much life, that are always new things and experiences out there to be discovered. The passion and energy that she shows in this conversation is so remarkable that it is hard to imagine that this is coming from the typical Scully. It’s a bold and brilliant combination of writing and acting, and it also saves her life. It is clear the main reason that Scully is spared death is because of Fellig’s conversation with her, because he realizes that she is much closer to being a kindred spirit with her than anyone he has known in over a hundred years.
It’s also fairly daring because, after weeks of having our agents investigating X-Files without the permission of the FBI, the bastard that is Kersh finally allows her to investigate a crime with a rookie agent. It’s another slow example of showing how Scully has grown on the X-Files (and yet another preview of the role she will take in later season) , even though it’s a little frustrating that she’s more than willing to go back to the role of skeptic for much of the rest of the season. It’s also a bit irritating that it gives David Duchovny a role that he can almost literally phone in, but considering how many episodes there have been where Mulder mostly carries the episode, I’d say that turnabout is fair play.
Admittedly, the episode which Tithonus is seen as almost a bookend to is Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. While that episode was much more entertaining and wittier to watch, one could not escape the overall feeling of despair about who locked into fate everybody seemed to be. Tithonus is a lot less fun (which is odd considering the author), but there’s just the slightest bit more optimism at the end. Gilligan clearly believes that knowing how somebody is about to die is clearly unwanted knowledge, but ultimately getting there is something far more joyful. Which actually brings up another issue: in Clyde Bruckman, when Scully asked Clyde how he died, she was told: “You don’t.” Perhaps it was nothing but a joke. But now considering what happens to Scully after she escapes death, it begs the question: is she due a similar fate? (Darin Morgan certainly considered it… but we’ll get there eventually.)
Tithonus is a dark and mesmerizing episode, with few of the editing touches or musical notes to make it seem fantastic. (The black and white shots of those about the die are an exception, and are arguably among the high notes for Season 6). It has more serious questions to ask, and yet there seems to be more hope here than some episode, and it’s hard to imagine any other show doing work like it. Another Gilligan masterpiece.
My score: 5 stars.