“Triangle” (season 6, episode 3; originally aired 11/22/1998)
In which Mulder and alt-Scully fight Nazis. No, really.
In a lot of circles, “Triangle” is seen as the last “great” X-Files episode. It’s not really that, I don’t think. It wouldn’t make my top 20 list of the best episodes the show ever did, and it’s more fun than it is thoughtful. That said, it’s a terrific episode of television, and it’s the sort of episode only this show could have done at this point in its run. This was a series still alive with all of the possibilities of being a big, hit television show. It was, in other words, a show playing offense, not a show trying to hang onto its audience for dear life. The series would make that shift—from offense to defense—at some point in the rest of the sixth season, and it would never quite regain the level of experimentation it had hit in its best seasons again. The X-Files would have to sink much further to become outright bad, but this marks the end of a certain era of the program.
It also marks the end of when the show was the subject of intense media fascination. Really, this could have been easily predicted. It’s rare for a show to land at the center of the media zeitgeist, and it’s much rarer for that show to stay there as long as X-Files did, particularly a network show. The Sopranos was about to debut and steal much of the series’ “intelligent drama” thunder, and it was also going to begin a long process of making sure the public associated “good drama” with “cable,” which would be a change from how television had operated up until that point. (There had been acclaimed cable dramas, but they were few and far between.) Timing was running against The X-Files in that it had been a media darling for a long, long time, but it was also running against the series in that the production of original series—at least for 10-13 episodes at a time—had finally gotten cheap enough that cable networks (which had increasing amounts of money) could pursue production, without the strictures the network model placed on shows like X-Files.
“Triangle” landed with a lot of hype. Pre-release screeners were sent out to major critics, who reviewed the episode glowingly in newspapers. The episode got big write-ups in a number of magazines and was held up in Entertainment Weekly as Chris Carter’s best shot at winning an Emmy, for either his direction or script. The use of “real-time” takes—shots that seemed to last the 11 minutes that take up an act of running time—was held up as the latest innovation on a show that had undertaken a number of them, and the episode’s time-bending conceit was well-promoted as well. In addition, the episode was billed as one of the “fun” ones, one of the episodes that gave in to the sheer, geeky joy at the show’s heart, rather than the dour conspiracy thriller elements. Yet it was going to be fun in a different way from the humorous episodes. This one was going to be filled with over-the-top adventure elements, with the suggestion that this series was only a few steps removed from a pulp adventure tale anyway, so why not go whole hog? That was the environment “Triangle” aired in, and that was the reason it was viewed so immediately as both triumph and disappointment.
The episode is a triumph of production values and sheer technical craft. Nothing else had ever been this skillfully done on television before. Nothing like it has been as skillfully done since. This is an episode that commits to its conceit thoroughly, and after the first few minutes (when Mulder is dragged below decks on the Queen Anne), you simply stop waiting for the camera to cut away and go with the flow. Partially, this is because the Twilight Zone/Wizard Of Oz-aping story is such a goofy joy. But partially it’s because Carter and his crew keep coming up with good reasons for the camera to wander off in different directions, keep coming up with ways to keep Mulder or Scully at the center of the frame. The episode’s disappointment stems from the fact that it’s “just” a fun episode. There’s no dark or melancholy heart here. This is pure candy, and pure candy can rot your teeth.
Yet the show was coming off so much darkness and so much angst that it’s not hard to allow for 44 minutes of sheer, technically impressive propulsion. What also helps is that this doesn’t feel in the slightest like an episode of The X-Files, while recognizably remaining apparent as a part of the show’s world. There’s some silliness about Mulder attempting to find a ship that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1939—a ship that Scully and the Lone Gunmen later find while looking for Mulder—but for the most part, this is an excuse to abandon the show’s usual formula and take it into another genre altogether. The villains of the episode are “movie Nazis,” the comical goons who are always ready to meet the business end of an American or British fist. The “Scully” of the past is a sharp-talking dame who packs a mean punch. The soundtrack features swing music prominently, and the big set-piece involves a bunch of British and Jamaican sailors getting into a brawl with those Nazis (and includes an older woman bashing a Nazi over the head with a bottle). Alt-Scully and Mulder meet again while crawling around in the midst of that brawl. It’s all super-pulpy and super-entertaining. It’s pretty glorious when it works.
That it works at all speaks to just how firmly aware the series was of what it was capable of at this point in its run. The use of long takes—most famously used in Alfred Hitchcock’s “real-time” film, Rope—gives the whole thing a sense of urgency that propels scenes that shouldn’t work. For instance, my favorite act here is probably the one where Scully attempts to figure out just where Mulder’s gotten off to this time, as she’s at work at the FBI. The camera follows her all around the building, just a few paces behind, as she goes up and down in the elevator, ducks out of the way of the Cigarette Smoking Man, and threatens Spender with death. Yet there’s nothing inherently dramatic going on here. She’s just trying to get a small piece of information. In a normal episode, we’d hear the Lone Gunmen tell Scully that she needed to get this information to save Mulder, and then we’d cut to her having it. Because the episode can’t do that, the process has to be more entertaining than the result. This is a tough challenge the show has set for itself, but we’re so familiar with its rhythms that it works. (It also helps that Gillian Anderson is so delightful, racing all over the building and kissing Skinner when he gets what she needs.)
Everything comes together in the episode’s fantastically entertaining final act. Mulder and alt-Scully unleash the fight on the dance floor, then escape down the hallway, even as Scully and the Lone Gunmen infiltrate the ghost ship to find their friend. The use of split-screen here is darn near perfect, and when the two Scullys pass each other—separated by decades—and then turn and frown, as if trying to figure out what just happened, it’s one of my favorite moments in the whole show (and it suggests that even though this all seems to be a dream, it may not be as much of a dream as we’d like to think). The episode was also heavily promoted as one in which Mulder and Scully would kiss, and it’s actually the Scully of the past that he smooches, but it feels like a significant moment in the slow burn of this relationship, a moment where he’s finally admitting what he really wants, even if this isn’t the version of the woman he really wants to be with. The final moment at his hospital bedside—in which he tells Scully he loves her—isn’t as well-handled, but it’s surprisingly moving all the same. This woman is all he has, and she’s often the only thing standing between him and death. Don’t think he doesn’t know it.
Some hold the “it was all a dream” ending against the episode, and it does seem as though the bulk of this is something Mulder conjures up in his head while he’s drifting in the Atlantic. (Certainly we’re meant to think some of it happened, since he rubs his eye where alt-Scully slugged him, but it’s also entirely possible that’s just an injury sustained from his boat breaking up.) I can see that point of view, definitely, but it also seems churlish to hold that against an episode that’s this much fun, with this much visual invention in every corner of every frame. This is pointedly an episode that feels as if it’s not meant to be taken too seriously, and wishing that Mulder and a past version of Scully had actually saved the world by getting a physicist to the U.S. at the dawn of World War II feels like something that would have been too ridiculous, even for this show. The “dream” suggestion lets the show have its cake and eat it, too—and works in a great number of Wizard Of Oz references.
If “Triangle” feels like the last gasp of the show’s cultural relevance looking at it now, at least it went out with a bang. The sheer level of crazy stuff that goes on in this episode makes it fun to watch, even when the gimmick has worn off, and the fun inversion of the show’s usual mythology tropes in service of a story about fightin’ Nazis is goofy goodness too. Despite all of that, the episode would receive only one Emmy nomination—for its sound editing. Carter wouldn’t be nominated for his writing or direction, and the show would miss out on the Drama Series race for the first time since its second season. To watch “Triangle” now is to remember a time when this was my favorite show on television, and know that the stuff that would make it less than my favorite show on TV is just around the corner. It’s not a deep episode—or a dark or melancholic one—but it carries a sense of that shadow with it all the same. Once, there was a show that attempted big, bold things like this. And after “Triangle,” all of that slowly leaked away.
- I mostly enjoy the double-casting of the show’s many guest stars in the present and past, but the fact that Kersh turns up in the past as a Jamaican engine-room worker is very odd. Still, he seems to be having a lot of fun.
- Living in Long Beach, California, as I do, it is a weird kick to see the Queen Mary, particularly in that not-at-all-convincing-now-that-I-know-it-was-filmed-in-a-harbor shot of Scully and the Lone Gunmen looking up at the ship.
- I’m always surprised to find that the swing music that accompanies the fourth act adventures is a Mark Snow original. I’m also surprised he didn’t win an Emmy for it. It seems like something those awards would have eaten up.
- “Triangle” marks the beginning of the end in another way as well: After this episode, there are a long string of episodes that are more clearly comedic and meant to be “fun.” This caused a bit of a fan revolt, but that was yet to be present when “Triangle” aired. Really, this episode got some blame well after the fact for what followed.
- Carter’s always had more trouble writing Scully than some of his underlings, but I like how he writes her here, as if she’s the hero of a girl reporter radio serial.
- Favorite Gillian Anderson acting moment: when she is forced to convey Scully's frustration entirely via her back.
- The moment when alt-Skinner says “God bless America” feels like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I mean this as a compliment.
“TEOTWAWKI” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 10/16/1998)
In which I question my life choices
I first heard about the acronym TEOTWAWKI—“the end of the world as we know it”—when I was in the midst of my vaguely apocalyptic teenage years. I spent lots of time reading about end of the world scenarios at that time. (I still do, actually.) When I came across the acronym, with its pronunciation that makes it sound like a word from Navajo or some other Native American language, I instantly felt as if I’d found my life’s calling. I spent a lot of time writing terrible spec pilots longhand in notebooks in those days. All of them were weird attempts to mesh My So-Called Life with The X-Files, only instead of monsters or aliens, I substituted the latter show’s mood of existential dread for MSCL’s mood of intense curiosity about the point of growing up. My stories were “dark” in the way only something a teenager writes can be dark, and when I stumble across them now when I’m visiting home, I always laugh at how they’re filled with horrific portent for no apparent reason. And I always, always worked in a reference to “TEOTWAWKI.”
I will admit this is about the least connected personal anecdote I’ve ever broken out in this space—and that’s saying something—but the actual “TEOTWAWKI” bears such a weird resemblance to those scripts I used to write that I felt mentioning it might help me avoid talking about the episode for a while, because this one’s a mess. It has bright spots here and there, but it spends far too much of its running time asking us to buy into some fairly preposterous notions. It’s scripted by series creator Carter and Frank Spotnitz, and the two give making the Y2K bug terrifying the old college try, and they don’t even come close to succeeding.
The thing about the first two seasons of this show is that it split fairly evenly into two different series—grim serial killer thriller with an end-of-the-world fetish and religious mumbo-jumbo apocalyptic fever dream—but in such a way that it felt like a natural evolution. The problem of season three seems to be that the show’s producers tried like hell to go back to season one, but integrate enough of season two to keep those fans happy. Oh, and if they could work in some X-Files in the midst of everything, that would be cool too. The problem, as you can probably imagine, is that those first two seasons don’t really mesh all that well, and they certainly don’t mesh with the X-Files-lite story that was meant to bring the show bigger ratings numbers. This means that the episodes are dull and listless, floating all over the place without finding a landing point. When even the creator of the series seems lost at sea, you know something’s gone very, very wrong in the process of retooling.
Since you’ll probably never watch this episode—nor should you—let me try a very basic plot synopsis. In an opening sequence that’s so hallucinatory and terrifying that it sets up an expectation of something powerful that the episode could never hope to live up to, a lone gunman opens fire on a high school pep rally, killing a bunch of people, including a cheerleader beloved by a kinda nerdy guy who slipped a book under her pom poms before walking out of the room just before the shooting. The FBI swarms in to help out our old friend Giebelhouse (since this episode takes place in the series’ old stomping grounds of Seattle), but he’ll only work with Frank. Anyway, through a convoluted series of reveals, we learn that the shooter was a kid named Brant, not book-donation guy (who’s named Carlton). Brant appears to kill himself, but Frank becomes convinced he was murdered because otherwise, there wouldn’t be an episode. Frank, of course, is proved right, and it turns out that Brant’s father killed him because he was worried that if Brant was locked up in jail, his wife and daughters would be in Seattle when the Y2K bug made modern life obsolete. And that wouldn’t be safe at all.
It’s the incorporation of Y2K crazies that makes this episode feel even worse than it probably should. Now, I have no trouble with a good Y2K storyline from a series being produced in the late ‘90s. It was a thing people were worried about, and in my head, there’s this alternate 2012, where we’re all wandering the wastelands, wishing somebody had figured out a way to tell computers it wasn’t 1900. So I’m amenable to this basic idea. But, no. The episode tries to smash together a Y2K episode with a school-shooting episode, and the result is largely horrifying. That teaser is so dark and serious that it’s hard to transition from that to a bunch of computer executives building a compound in remote Washington, a place where they do target practice and the like. The two things feel like they don’t belong anywhere near each other, yet here they are, sharing space in the same episode. In a way, this speaks to the passage of time, since both items were roughly similar in terms of imminent threats when this episode aired, but Y2K has become such a non-entity that the school shooting stands out even more.
It’s also preposterous that the fear of Y2K would cause Brant to kill his classmates, and it’s just as ridiculous that Brant’s dad would kill his only son because he’s so worried about his wife and daughter’s staying behind to be trapped in the post-Y2K chaos. He couldn’t convince them to move to the compound for one night, just in case? He can’t think of a solution that doesn’t involve shooting his son in the head, then nearly getting away with it, before Frank has a series of random psychic visions? It’s all so dumb and unbelievable that it’s hard to go with any of it, much less suspend disbelief for all of it. The fact that Emma remains not so much a character as somebody else who can be on the show to bounce things off of Frank is still a problem as well.
All of this self-conscious grimness that seems to lapse into parody—for God’s sake, the gift Carlton gives the cheerleader is a book full of prayers from the Dark Ages, intended to be a preview of the end of the world or something—just reminds me of those old scripts I wrote long ago. This is a show that has no real idea what it wants to be, and as it veers wildly from tone to tone—sometimes within the same scene—it feels like a series that was renewed without a real plan for how to go forward. I keep hoping that Millennium will pull out of this spiral and come up with a good episode or two before its cancellation, but these first three mostly have me thinking that suggesting to Zack we finish the series out was a terrible idea.
- Giebelhouse’s shouting about how he wants FRANK BLACK is pretty fantastic, actually.
- Another problem with this episode: The guest cast is uniformly awful! The big standoff between Mr. King and his son is marred by the fact that neither of the actors can handle the big moment, and the FBI agent Frank butts heads with is similarly bad.
- I guess the reason I never dated any cheerleaders in high school is because I never left them any poems from the Dark Ages signed SKYLARK. Silly me.
Next week: Zack switches places with Michael McKean on a trip to “Dreamland” and helps Emma Hollis get her “Closure.”