The X-Files: “Tempus Fugit and Max”

Saint Max

by Sarah Stegall

copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall

“When every day’s just another day when you’re gonna get kidnapped by little gray dudes from outer space, what’s a few CIA spooks?” — Max Fenig

Written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz

Directed by Kim Manners

He was among us and we knew him not.

When Max Fenig (Scott Bellis) first appeared in all his oddly endearing glory in “Fallen Angel”, I took an instant liking to him. An X-Files groupie who followed the investigations not only of Fox Mulder but of “the enigmatic Dr. Scully”, he was at once so touchingly naive and so engagingly earnest it was impossible not to like him. Scott Bellis’ portrait of this sweet-natured hippie remains one of the best characterizations in four years of X-Files. It was not until “Tempus Fugit”, however, that I realized that Max was more than just a one-shot character–he is the very model of a modern major X-Phile. Perhaps we who watch Mulder and Scully every week, ferreting out their secrets as relentlessly as Max poring over Mulder’s travel records, are merely following in the trail blazed by this redhead from South Dakota. Obsessive, friendly, technologically savvy, with the charm of adolescence and the curiosity of a monkey, he typifies the best of the X-files fan. It was with great delight I saw him again at the beginning of “Tempus Fugit”. He is older, changed, afraid, but still the same bearded nutcase we learned to love three years ago. It was with real sorrow I watched Mulder identify his corpse half an hour later. I will miss Max; I hope Mulder will keep Max’s MUFON cap on his office coat tree forever.

“Tempus Fugit” opens with a rocking teaser set aboard a commercial flight. Passenger Larold Rebhun (named for the X-Files sound mixer) orders a scotch and soda while chatting with the obviously terrified Max Fenig (last reported dead after being abducted at the end of “Fallen Angel”). Fenig clutches a backpack, clearly afraid for his life. And with good reason–within moments we are watching a man in an airline restroom assemble a gun out of plastic parts he has smuggled aboard. But this assassination attempt is thwarted by a sudden crisis–something is attacking the plane. Amid the chaos and noise, Max watches in horror as the emergency exit door next to him is sucked right out of the wall, and a bright light blinds us. In the ensuing two hours, we learn how Max’s tragedy, far from being a personal tragedy, encompasses the lives of everyone on Flight 549.

“Max” and “Tempus Fugit” are about the ways our lives are touched by those whom we steadfastly exile from the mainstream. Weird he may be, but Max’s message is the more vital for its ability to call us out of our comfort zones. Relentlessly marginalized, he stands in for all the social refugees living on the fringes, the bearded prophets whose jeremiads cut to the bone, making us turn away with our hands over our ears. Those driven and obsessed men on street corners, those women pushing shopping carts and wearing tinfoil hats, are not as alien as we imagine. Max, looking like a degenerate, is the bearer of an unbearable truth, a messenger whose message gets him and over a hundred other people killed. Max has never been one of us, but his horrific experience, the catastrophe of his life, makes him the right spokesman for the human race in the face of the surreal.

Scott Bellis (may his beard never grow less) beautifully embodied Max’s helplessness and awe, to make emotionally real an experience that we can only imagine. My heart broke over the tragic mistake that sent him pinwheeling through the darkness to his death, falling from heaven to earth with his message undelivered. The contrast between the happy-go-lucky idiot in “Fallen Angel” and the chattering twitch later revealed on his home movie was chilling, hinting at what horrors must have happened in the intervening years to the ebullient Max Fenig. Bellis had precious few moments on screen to recreate not only the Max we loved but to show us the Max he had become, and he did a superb job. I’m only sorry that we had him back for so brief a time. Max could have been a wonderful recurring character.

Joe Spano, as Mike Millar, the leader of the NTSB team investigating the crash, anchors the storyline in the methodical, step-by-step reality of engineering studies and failure analysis. Half-convinced not only by Mulder’s tale of alien abduction but by his own sighting of a UFO hovering over the wreckage of Flight 549, Millar vacillates between his duty to seek out and expose the truth, and his reluctance to expose himself to ridicule. This is one of the few characters I have seen on the series who hid the truth and didn’t lose his integrity. Like so many engineers and scientists, he has been trained both to distrust his own convictions and to trust in “observation”–and thus finds himself deeply conflicted when his observation of the floating UFO stands all his scientific conviction on its head. In this very human portrait we have yet another character who sucks us into the “reality” of the X-Files.

Too much of this story took place offscreen. The death of Agent Pendrell (Brendan Beiser), Max’s death, the discovery of his knapsack, the incarceration of Sharon Graffia (Chilton Crane) in an asylum, all took place out of sight. What we got on camera was sometimes magnificent (can Mulder drive, or what?) but leaving out these important incidents strips the story of its emotional context. Perhaps writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz intended to give us a feeling of telescoped time, of a frenetic pace of events with Mulder and Scully scrambling to keep up. If so, I feel that this distillation of the story left out some of the warmth that it needed: we got a lot of fear but little grief. There were moments of real awe and wonder in “Tempus Fugit” and “Max”, some of the best moments in the series’ history, but they were diluted by the emotional distance imposed on us by the glossing over of Max’s death, of Sharon’s terror, of Pendrell’s death. If we must lose our lovable lab rat, we should at least have learned his name (is Scully really so oblivious to her colleagues?), and seen him die. It is not enough to devote a few seconds of screen time to Scully’s attempt to save his life (complete with New and Improved Bedside Humor’). We must also have a moment where we see what this character’s impact on Scully’s life was–not a maudlin and teary scene, but also not the coldly intellectual dissection of their non-relationship represented by her offhand, “I never knew his name.”

David Duchovny gave us a wonderful moment on board the plane at the end of “Max”, when he confronts the Mustache Man. He clues in to what’s going on immediately, and his reaction is cool and courageous. It’s not his fault he’s in a script that begs the question of why Mulder is on this plane at all. Of all men, Mulder knows best what happened to Max when he got on a plane carrying a similar bag. By reproducing the circumstances of Flight 549’s disaster, is he not endangering not just himself but everyone else aboard? I admired Mulder’s smooth response to the threat posed by the Mustache Man; I only wish he’d thought a little harder about what he was doing.

The camera work in “Max” was a revelation: Joel Ransom’s spectacular sequence where Max is abducted right out of an airliner in mid-air was spooky and surreal, one of the very few genuinely terrifying moments in the fourth season. I actually gasped as the door frame was lifted from the airliner. Director Kim Manners’ evocation of the last few horrifying moments of the doomed airline passengers was very nearly too much to bear. Editor Heather MacDougall’s cutting of the last nine minutes of Flight 549 may have grounded me for life: the panic and confusion of the passengers contrasted with the silent, stark image of the plane laid out on the hanger floor like a chalked outline of a crime victim was haunting and powerful enough to make me consider taking the train next time I leave town.

As Max says in his home video, “This is quite obviously my story.” In the end, the heart of “Tempus Fugit” and “Max” is Max himself–so vulnerable, yet so brave. This one character embodies so much that we love about The X-Files–Scully’s strength, Mulder’s faith, and our curiosity. I would normally have given this two-parter four out of five sunflower seeds. For the sake of Saint Max, patron saint of X-Philes everywhere, these episodes get five out of five sunflower seeds.