Tithonus 6×9: You’re a lucky man.


The gift that keeps on giving.

Oh, Vince Gilligan. Why you make me love you so???

I watched an interview not long ago where Gilligan (humbly) admitted that when it came to writing X-Files episodes, he edited other people’s stories – no one edited his. Watch “Tithonus” and understand why.

It’s been so long since the days of “Paper Hearts” (4×8) and “Unruhe” (4×2) that I’d almost forgotten Gilligan writes serious tales too, and writes them well. Similarly to “Elegy” (4×22), this is one of the few episodes in a show populated week after week by gruesome deaths that is actually about death. Or, more accurately, about life and at what point death could be preferable.

Like “Unruhe” and another previous episode, “Oubliette” (3×8), the action in “Tithonus” revolves around that unnerving staple of modernity, that casual bit of creepiness that hides in plain sight: Photography. There’s something so much more… invasive about an old-fashioned camera like the one Alfred Felig uses, something that’s been lost with the advent of the pocket digital camera, something that is fundamental to the success of stories like this where the camera is a villain in its own right – an uninvited violation, a soulless enemy. We say the lens “captures” an image and it’s a subtle way of acknowledging an unspoken discomfort. Between the blinding flash and the disorienting sound, the subject of the photograph is momentarily vulnerable. A part of them has been “possessed” by the camera whether they were willing participants in the event or not.

And who is more vulnerable than those who are already half dead? That’s where Alfred Felig comes in. The man that time forgot. In echoes Clyde Bruckman before him, this is a man saddled with a curse that anyone on the outside looking in would think is a gift, and it’s taken all the joy out of living.

Unlike the mythological Tithonus, the eponymous source of this episode’s title, who lives forever but shrivels up with age until he turns into a cricket, Felig doesn’t physically grow old and withered. But he is cursed to live forever without the heart of youth, the heart that desires, as Scully says, to learn and experience and love. Tithonus’ immortality becomes a curse because his goddess lover forgot to add eternal youth to the gift of eternal life and, abandoned by his love, he longs for death. Felig has the opposite problem in that he has a form of eternal youth without the substance of it; he’s been dead a long time, he just can’t convince his body to follow. As Agent Ritter says, “He’s always been a geezer.” He scoffs at Scully’s suggestion that love is worth living for. What use is love to him?

But what if Felig hadn’t forgotten the name of his long deceased wife? If Mrs. Felig could have lived eternally with her husband in wedded bliss, would he still have hunted death so relentlessly? Would invincibility still feel so cold a curse?

I submit that someone who merely possessed immortality would be cursed, but someone imbued with eternal youth may feel differently. Either way, who would want to live forever in this world? Perhaps one of the greatest acts of mercy God ever bestowed on mankind was to curse them with death in the Garden of Eden; they wouldn’t spend eternity in a world corrupted by evil. Even if, like Felig, death refused to touch you, you’d live to watch generations of others suffer. No, only the disturbed are in a hurry to leave but no one in their right mind wants to stay indefinitely either. Well, except for me. But then, no one said I was in my right mind.

For her part, Scully doesn’t understand Felig because she’s still so full of energy and curiosity. You can tell from her reaction that she finds his, shall we say, unappreciative view of life a little depressing.  She hasn’t grown tired yet the way the aged do. I remember how my 90-odd-years-old grandmother used to tell me that being old was exhausting, not because she wasn’t happy to live a long life, but because at some point, living takes effort. Felig is just tired. And when he’s eventually allowed to stop, to be at peace, you can see the relief on his face. Felig’s dying moments, when he’s reunited with death, are like a master class in acting from guest star Geoffrey Lewis.

But I know what many long time fans are wondering, will Scully ever even know what that feels like? Way back when, X-Files legend Darin Morgan penned this oft discussed exchange between Scully and psychic Clyde Bruckman for “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (3×4):

Scully: All right. So how do I die?
Clyde Bruckman: You don’t.

Does this mean that “Tithonus” confirmation of the long held speculation that Scully is immortal? By looking at death in Scully’s place, does Felig cause Scully to take his place in the land of the perpetually living?

While Vince Gilligan is famous for throwing clever references to earlier episodes in his scripts and so it wouldn’t be beyond him to do something like this, the clear message of this episode is that too much life is no life at all and I suspect Gilligan loves Scully too much to make her immortal. And I can’t find the interview, but I know he’s said that wasn’t what he was implying. Besides, he would have already known that Darin Morgan never intended to hint that she was either:

“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” contained several lines of dialogue that sent fans into a frenzy pondering their meaning. The first came when Bruckman told Scully she wouldn’t die. “Some people took it to mean that Scully was immortal, but the meaning was that Clyde knows how Scully’s going to die, but he likes her so much he’s not going to tell her, because telling her would ruin her life, whether she believed it or not. Telling someone they’re not going to die is one of the nicest things you can say. That’s why he says it to her. It had nothing to do with whether she was immortal or was going to be hurt in the show.”

http://web.archive.org/web/20020220130917/http://www.morganandwongonline.com/darin2.html

Though I admit that if it were true it’d be some kind of poetic justice considering everything Scully’s been through in recent years. And that’s why it makes emotional sense that this X-File was handed to Scully and not to Mulder. Scully and Felig’s interaction is all the more poignant because Scully is very aware of her own mortality, because she’s someone who wants to live and not too long ago fought desperately against the violating evil of her own cancer. Only someone who has fought so hard for life would be a fitting foil for someone fighting just as hard for death.

Verdict:

I won’t lie to you. For all that philosophizing, my favorite part of this episode is watching Mulder pout with envy. But it’s his own fault – he created a monster.

Scully, while she will ever be Scully, is far more open than she used to be. No, she’s not the instant believer that Mulder is, but after considering all the evidence she’s surprisingly willing to admit that something supernatural is at work here.  She already proved she could handle an X-File on her own back in “Chinga” (5×10), but she’s less unsure of herself in “Tithonus”. She’s so sure of herself that it’s a joy, I repeat, a joy to watch her stand up to Agent Ritter, the Anti-Mulder.

Mulder needn’t have worried. If anything, pairing Scully with Ritter only highlights the weaknesses of any other partnership but Scully and Mulder. When Scully trades places in the car with a by-the-book Ritter, I can’t help but take my mind back to “Tooms” (1×20) when her less orthodox stakeout with Mulder was far more entertaining. I also can’t help but think back to “Squeeze” (1×2) when Mulder and Scully first discover a man who has lived way beyond his years and how they similarly trace his history through low-tech means. Ritter is smart enough to realize there’s a case here, but not as brilliant… or as accepting… as Mulder and so can’t get past the surface of Felig’s situation to the real truth. Even his haircut is square. He’s like vanilla ice cream to Mulder’s Rocky Road. I mean, good grief, his name is Payton.

This is one of the rare Scully-centric episodes that I actually love. In fact, it might be the only one. Yeah, I’ll say it – This is a more well-rounded episode than “Never Again” (4×13).

A

P.S. I can’t leave without mentioning Mulder’s not so veiled threat to Ritter, ‘cause y’all know Mulder would’ve literally killed him if Scully had died, right? He says it so calmly, he’s like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. That’s how you know he means it. Ritter knows it too.

P.P.S. Mulder and Scully and the thumb war. That is all.

Background Checks:

From Cherish the Past: Undoubtedly, the biggest line item for visual effects producer Bill Millar was the postproduction transformation into black-and-white instead of color of the individuals, including Scully, whom Felig sees as doomed. “We used a technique very similar to the one used to wreck all those old movies by colorizing them,” said Millar. “In fact, it’s basically the same, only in reverse.” …Millar, who first used this method on an episode of the short-lived NBC series, Nightmare Cafe in 1992, noted that the hit movie Pleasantville, released within a week or two of the night “Tithonus” first aired, was much praised for its innovative use of decolorization, while its employment on “Tithonus” passed virtually without notice. “Interesting, don’t you think?” Millar said wryly.

If you have the DVDs, this is one of those rare episodes with deleted scenes to watch to help you extend the magic. Go ahead. Live a little.

Did you see that scene where Scully saves the hooker? Did you see it? I’m going to start thinking of her as “Slap-a-Pimp Scully” from now on.

The way the room is lit during the interrogation of Alfred Felig is absolutely stunning. It’s like something out of a Film Noir handbook.

What does Agent Ritter shoot an unarmed Felig for anyway? It’s not like you could mistake that bulky camera for a gun when the light is behind you.

Scully has a rather sentimental look in her eye when she asks Felig about love and her disappointment at his answer is obvious – don’t make me say it.

Between this and “Unruhe”, methinks Vince Gilligan has a not so secret fascination with photography.

Best Quotes:

Scully: [Answers cell] Scully.
Mulder: [In affected voice] Hi, my name is Fox Mulder. We used to sit next to each other at the F.B.I.

——————–

Agent Ritter: You know, Kersh warned me about you.
Scully: Uh, he did?
Agent Ritter: Yeah, you and your partner. God knows his reputation precedes him so I guess I should have seen this coming. You muck up my case, and Kersh’ll hear about it. Are we clear, Dana?
Scully: Scully. And we’re done with this conversation. {Editor’s Note: Bam! My girl.}

——————–

Mulder: Now we’re talking about a guy for whom the phrase “life in prison” carries some seriously weighty connotations.

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33 responses to “Tithonus 6×9: You’re a lucky man.

  1. Very fitting that you watched this episode just as Kodak is going under. The convenience of digital photography is fantastic but I do miss a good ol’ point n’ click. I loved having to wait for film to be developed to know what was on a roll of film.
    I forgot about this episode. It was a good one. But out of the set I prefer ‘Unruhe.’

    • If I had to choose, I’d say I’m more of an Unruhe kinda girl myself. More energy, less introspection. But I can’t fault Vince Gilligan on either one. However, I thought I was the only person left on the planet who missed the surprise of film! Remember back in the day when we walked 10 miles to school and looked forward to when the weed obsessed 17-year-old at the drug store counter finally handed us the pictures we’d nervously been waiting for? Yeah. I miss that.

  2. I love this one, I really, really do, I think Geoffrey Lewis may be the great underrated guest star to ever appear on the show, Gilligan’s script is wonderful too, and best of all, what I love is the climax of the episode, which is basically one long act which is taken up nearly entirely by Gillian and Lewis, Brilliant. Definitely in my top five this one I have to say.

    • My nomination for greatest underrated guest star won’t be here till Theef. Well, wait. It might actually be Bryan Cranston. I need to give this more thought. Anywho, much kudos to Geoffrey, another deserving nominee.

  3. So this was the review I was waiting for. Why? Because Tithonus has been my favorite episode ever since.
    I love it because it’s Scully-centric, and what’s even better, we can see different sides of her character: “Slap-a-pimp-Scully” :D, bad ass talking to Ritter, accepting the paranormal and then being skeptic and doubting about it at the end again (hello “Beyond the Sea” *waves*) and don’t even get me started about the whole scene with Fellig in the darkroom. I also like the whole X-File with a man who can’t die and all the philosophical themes behind it which you pointed out so well in your review. I guess I might probably the only Phile out there whose favorite episode Tithonus is but I have never wavered in my opinion although Milagro is very, very close behind in 2nd place.
    I really cherish digital cameras and I don’t want to be without but experimenting with analogue cameras and all that you can do with film is also still alive: it’s called lomography. Well, that’s the most popular analogue photography sector there is right now and one of my favorite pastimes. 🙂
    P.S.:
    Vince. Gilligan. Enough said.

    • I can’t tell you how I love hearing that. Sure, episodes like Bad Blood are regularly at the top of fans’ list, but I wish other deserving X-Files like this received more recognition. And I never knew old-fashioned photography had a name…

  4. Does anyone else LOL at the fact that when Kersh is reviewing Scully’s file at the beginning, the staff personnel photo he’s got of her is clearly a season 3 promotional shot.

  5. Beautiful analysis and review of one of my favourite episodes. When I returned to the series in 2010 after ~6-7 years of having virtually forgotten about it (horrible thought, isn’t it?), this was one of the first episodes that popped in my mind as one of the most memorable – while I’m generally a sucker for the introspection/non-religious Scully-centric episodes, hardly anything can compare to the dialogues in Fellig’s apartment, from the timeless “How can you have too much life?”, to the vanity of love, to Scully’s vehement reaction towards Fellig’s statement that she’s about to die. All of it is beautiful and it hurts, in a good way. c:

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I went a few years myself (not quite that long or I’d die) between rewatches so I know what you mean. I like to “forget” a little so that the details become blurred and I can enjoy them afresh.

      I think it’s brave that Gilligan allowed the climax of the episode be little more than an introspective talk between two characters. And Scully’s urgency is great. You can feel her growing panic.

  6. I must confess I watch an epi every night. Tithonus is one of my faves also.
    I love the scene when Scully and Felig are in the flat and Felig rants about how many times he tried to kill himself ” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown myself off of bridges, all I get is wet!” lol I noticed to promo shot in the file Kersh looked over too.

  7. Although I miss the classic Mulder-Scully pairing, I do love this episode. Slap-a-pimp Scully is beyond amazing, and I love pouty Mulder. Also, thumb wrestling. What’s not to love there?

  8. Tithonus is one of my most favorite X-Files episodes of all time. Agent Ritter is such an asshole. I loved seeing Scully put him in his place, and I loved the “slap-a-pimp” Scully. I die. Felig is such a curious character. I think I am continually amazed by the writers on this show.

    I think the ending showed actually how far Scully has evolved. The old Scully in seasons 1 and 2 would have dismissed this man knowing when people would die, blaming it on coincidence or whatever. But you see her panic/urgency, and you can tell she believes him.

    This is a beautiful episode. A small part of me wants to go run and write a post-ep MSR fic, because that ending got my creative wheels turning. 😀

    • Okay, apparently Tithonus is a lot more loved than I thought! I may have to upgrade it from “underappreciated.”

      Scully definitely, definitely grew. True, she kinda takes it all back in the hospital, but I can’t really blame her since Felig did die after all. But she actually called it an X-File? And on her own?? This is not the Scully of Season 2.

      Go ahead. Post the fic. Give Tithonus some love.

  9. I love this episode- Scully owns in it from start to finish and when she smacks that pimp in the face….well, that’s just one of her finest moments if you ask me- I think I stood up and cheered. I felt bad for poor Mulder in this one- it was Chinga all over again. I think this was brilliant juxtaposing Scully, who is afraid of death (or at least WAS) with a character who longs for it- clever and revealing

  10. “Slap-a-Pimp Scully” LMAO.

  11. “Even his haircut is square.”

    That’s genius !

  12. Oh my great aunt Milly, the episode scared the hell out of me. The climactic scene where Felig just keeps saying “he’s coming” was terrifying. I kept expecting to see Death’s ghoulish open-eyed doll face staring back at me through my computer screen, but I think the part of this episode that really killed me was Scully’s complete ownership of a complicated investigation.

    I feel sometimes that Scully’s scientific approach is discredited in ways that undermine her talent as an investigator. Here, she takes on a crummy agent and solves the case, filling every role from action hero to life coach. I love Scully, and I love Vince Gilligan for loving Scully. This is a good one.

    P.S. Ritter is a lucky, lucky man. Can you imagine how badly Mulder would have torn him up after he went all the way to Antarctica to save Scully. Hoo boy.

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  18. In the beginning of this episode, Mulder is doing a “routine background check” on a “Ms. Ehrmantraut.” Mike Ehrmantraut, anyone??? *dies*

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  20. Great, great episode.

    The scene in the darkroom with Felig and Scully was intense.
    The death theme reminds me of a quote I read.

    “people want to live forever but don’t know what to do on rainy Sunday afternoon.”

  21. I love this episode!! I wonder when/ how/ who told Mulder Ritter shot Scully! And his reaction! Imagine that missing scene! Or maybe its best left to our own imagination!!

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