Practicing Random Acts
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1999 by Sarah Stegall
Written by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban
Directed by Kim Manners
In Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”, mathematician Ian Malcolm attempts to explain chaos theory using the “butterfly effect”: depending on whether a butterfly in Beijing flaps its wings, there is or is not rain in Central Park. Small, seemingly haphazard events add up to enormous, unpredictable consequences beyond our knowledge and control. And yet, in the midst of all these innumerable random events, there is order. The cynics among us may say that we humans, who specialize in pattern recognition, are imposing that order on the world, but most of us live our actual lives as though there were order, as though there were meaning, as though there were, therefore, hope. Order in and of itself leads us to stasis and death. Only in change can we find hope; the universe glimpsed through the eyes of a chaos theoretician is, rather than fixed and authoritarian, a vast expanse of infinite possibility, where anything may and sometimes does happen.
In “Monday”, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban collaborate to bring us the well-balanced story of a woman cursed with foreknowledge of an event. Like Bill Murray’s character in the comedy “Groundhog Day”, she is forced to live one day over and over, to relive the day her lover blows himself, a bankful of people, and two Special Agents to Kingdom Come. She knows what will happen, how it will happen, who will be involved, and she can do nothing to stop it. It would seem, therefore, that the idea of free will is false, a lie told us by our minds which accept neither our own mortality nor any limitation on our most essential power of choice. The pattern Pam (Carrie Hamilton) is living out is one of despair and futility, in which she tries over and over again to get other people to change, to do what she thinks is the right thing to do. Failing to stop others from the exercise of their free will, she concludes, erroneously, that change is impossible. In the end, she discovers that she cannot make these decisions for others, but that the only change she can make in the world is to change her choices. In one final act of self-sacrifice, she discovers true freedom, and earns release. Pam’s final look at Mulder is not one of despair or fear, the fear that has kept her trembling like a wet puppy throughout the hour. Her final look is one of peace: “This never happened before.” She has changed the universe.
We don’t know why Bernard (Darren Burrows) decides to rob a bank–poverty is hinted at but not fully fleshed out. We don’t know whether, or why, Pam loves him. We know nothing of the history of this pair. None of this matters, and that is appropriate. Our lives are changed every day by random strangers whose histories we do not know. I believe, with Fox Mulder, that we do have free will, and that very little is”fore-ordained”. But I also believe in the pressure of sheer inertia, of the weight of a thousand little decisions we and others make every day, by which all our lives are changed. By the end of “Monday”, the weight of all the myriad decisions made by Skinner, Mulder, Scully, Bernard and who knows who else drive all of them to an ending as tragic and inexorable as any play by Sophocles. It takes Mulder, thinking outside the box as usual, to try adding someone (Pam) to the mix, rather than trying to subtract himself or Scully. By adding her power of choice to the total equation, he changes the outcome for himself and everyone else.
Gilligan and Shiban leaven this Greek tragedy with a bit of real farce. This could have been made into “Fox Mulder’s Horrible, Terrible, Not Very Good Day”, undercutting the tension of the real story. But Mulder’s daily wakeup, complete with broken clock and recurring pratfall, were masterfully done. After three repetitions, we were so conditioned to that awkward stumble that it could happen offscreen and make us laugh! To see Mulder wake up in the biggest wet spot ever, over and over again, was downright wicked. Again, we see Duchovny’s unerring comic timing balance out the cool composure of the Special Agent who confronts a man with a bomb strapped to his torso. None of the slapstick took away from the maturity and poise Mulder shows in challenging Bernard to change his fate.
Scully is once again revealed as Mulder’s left brain: she segues from a discussion of missed meetings into deep philosophy (free will versus fate) as easily and naturally as her partner. Anderson’s naturalistic portrayal of a Dana Scully who has learned to treat Mulder with the bemused appreciation he deserves warmed several scenes that could have been flattened by repetition and exposition. A slow-motion, dreamlike sequence from Director Kim Manners and Editor Louise Innes economically summarized the many mornings of Mulder. Mitch Pileggi, in his brief moments, showed us at once the cool, put-upon and infinitely patient Walter Skinner presiding over droning bureaucrats, and the confused yet very physical Assistant Director who tries to reach his trapped agents. Best of all, Carrie Hamilton’s portrayal of the wretched Pam draws us immediately into her hell of frustration and failure. In the final scene, she is not even surprised to find Scully tapping on her window. We can see that she has finally given up. It is only then that she finds that her efforts have borne fruit, and that Mulder is prepared to change the world. In that moment, she rediscovers the fire that has been smoldering in her all this time. She finds hope again, and makes choices that finally end her hell.
This fine effort from Gilligan and Shiban is a true, classic X-File, full of pity, terror, pathos and charm. I am glad to award it five sunflower seeds out of five. You can take that to the bank.