Thursday, December 12, 2013

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Monday" (February 28, 1999)

Mulder and Scully experience a bad day over and over again in “Monday” by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban.  The story diagrams a time-loop that repeats five times before the agents finally escape it, and carry on with their lives.

This brief description of a repeating time loop no doubt makes “Monday” sound high-concept or gimmicky (and a lot like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fifth season outing “Cause and Effect,” or the Bill Murray movie Ground Hog’s Day [1993]). 

However, as I’ve written numerous times before, The X-Files is rarely -- if ever -- content to imitate. Instead, the Chris Carter series tends to perfect or upgrade a pre-existing formula, and indeed that’s the very case here.

In “Monday,” Gilligan and Shiban don’t merely tell a puzzle box story about escaping a repeating time loop.  Instead, they innovate.  They use their premise to meaningfully explore ideas such as free will, fate, and even déjà vu, with Mulder and Scully each expressing a very specific “belief” on the subject.  These characters are our “two” lenses on life and so the meat of the episode concerns their dueling perspectives on “the unpredictable future,” as Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) describes it.

Even more commendably, however, “Monday” carries a deeper subtext.  This sixth season episode is really a metaphor for surviving victim-hood in a relationship of domestic abuse.  In situations like this -- as “Monday” brilliantly points out -- it isn’t enough to attempt to change someone else.  Other people often can’t be changed. 

So the “repeating time loop” -- the cycle of violence -- can only be altered by one’s self; by the victim adopting an affirmative stance to make things better.  If one falls into the same behavior patterns again and again -- the real life equivalent of a time loop, perhaps -- then life becomes, literally, Hell.

In short, “Monday” is an episode about empowering and changing yourself rather than looking for someone else to change it, and thus “save” you in the process. That’s the lesson that the episode’s primary guest star, Carrie Hamilton’s Pam, learns, and it is beautifully-expressed in the episode’s last act.

A regular trip to the bank turns to terror when Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) discover that they are in a repeating time loop that ends, inevitably, with them dead at the hands of a mad bomber, Bernard (Darren Burrows). 

Bernard’s timid girlfriend, Pam (Carrie Hamilton) tries again and again to steer destiny, and to send Mulder and Scully away from the bank.  But no matter Pam’s actions, the day ends with death and destruction…

“Monday” explores the concept of a single day repeated again and again, and then wonders if such a phenomenon could account for “deju-vu” or another quirk of human memory.  Scully and Mulder debate this idea in the episode, and Scully takes the rationalist, scientific view. She suggests that deja-vu is a simple memory glitch, or perhaps a repressed vision escaping from the sub-conscious.  In other words, she sees the phenomenon as brain chemistry, pure and simple. 

By contrast Mulder wonders if “deja-vu” isn’t something deeper, and something more meaningful.  Could it be the innate human desire to change fate, and to right a wrong?  Could it be knowledge not of the brain, but of the soul?  This more mystical, spiritual perspective pre-supposes that there is, in fact, an order and direction to the universe and that human beings may be able to perceive it, and thus act meaningfully to “correct” it.

Pam brings in a third crucial perspective. 

She suggests that they are all trapped “in Hell,” because “nothing ever changes.” 

This is the view-point of someone who believes that she has no control or direction over her own existence, and that her “rescue” will occur only when someone else -- namely Mulder or Scully -- saves her. 

Pam spends the whole episode trying to change their behavior, rather than her own.  She tries to get them not to go into the bank, or to use the ATM outside the bank, or to switch roles, with Scully making a deposit instead of Mulder.  She tries calling the police, and even going to Skinner.

But nothing works because Pam hasn’t changed the one thing that can make a difference in her life: herself.
Thus we have a metaphor for a person trapped in a stagnant, unhappy or even abusive relationship.  Pam tries to change the deeply unstable bomber, Bernard, and even Scully and Mulder, but the “end remains the same,” as she notes, and she remains trapped.  Pam’s escape explicitly involves taking responsibility.  She goes into the bank herself, finally.  This is something she only attempts in the episode’s last act (and the last iteration of the time loop), and which causes both her death and her release.

I don’t think she was an accomplice, I think she was just trying to get away,” Mulder notes in the episode’s denouement, but the real point here is that history need not repeat, and escape is possible (and not necessarily in death) if only one acts, instead of trying to alter someone else’s actions or behavior.
I also appreciate another implicit idea roiling in the underneath of “Monday.” 

Is it possible that every one of us goes through this bizarre experience -- of living a day over and over again -- at the time of our death?  Is it possible that Fate itself plays this game, and repeats a day again and again until we finally begin to accept, little-by-little, the idea of our own mortality? 

Here, Carrie tries everything, except going into the bank herself, and survives again and again, but always with bad results.  But the time loop is her creation.  It “breaks” when she dies, and only when she has come to face the idea of her continued existence as a kind of “Hell.”  So death is essentially made palatable to Pam through this process because she has lived every-iteration of her last twenty-four answers, and sees that there is no option for her other than to lay down her life.  In doing so, she saves two good people, Mulder and Scully, who are trapped in her pathology, so-to-speak.

This conceit comes to the forefront especially if we consider Scully’s comment about how “our character determines fate.”  Mulder disagrees and says “no, there are too many variables” to consider.  But Pam breaks the repeating cycle of violence and death by, finally, altering her character.  She breaks out of her emotional/relationship paralysis and acts affirmatively to change destiny.

So in bracing death, is it possible we could all face the same sort of “test?”  Do our characters, in the end, determine or dictate our fate?  When we die, do we relive our final moments, and make peace with the decision to shuffle off the mortal coil?

It’s all great food for thought, and evidence that The X-Files can rewrite a hackneyed premise to make it meaningful and relevant.  The Mulder and Scully interplay in this episode is exceedingly vibrant too, because the characters aren’t debating a monster or murderer, but the very nature of human existence, and their discussion is beautiful thing to witness. 

I could watch them debate almost any topic forever, though hopefully not in a time loop…

Next week: “Arcadia.”

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