X-Files Flashback: ‘Tithonus’

Tithonus

Season 6, Episode 10
Director: Michael W. Watkins
Writer: Vince Gilligan

The X-Files “Tithonus,” the latest entry in the Vince Gilligan canon, obtains its name from Greek myth. Tithonus was beloved by the Titan goddess Eos who kidnapped him and asked Zeus to make him immortal. Overcome with love for Tithonus, Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth in addition to immortality. As a result, Tithonus continued to age but would not die despite praying for it constantly. Thy myth clearly featured heavily in the writing of “Tithonus” as its main character, Alfred Fellig (the great character actor Geoffrey Lewis), has the ability to foresee the death of those around him but cannot die himself. This internal conflict drives the central story of the episode, and it’s even more compelling that Scully, who was nearly dead multiple times and has escaped death so often as to be rumored to be immortal, shepherds Fellig into the great beyond.

“Tithonus” begins with Fellig stalking a young mail clerk. He is apparently waiting for something to happen to her, but his persistent presence creeps her out. When they see each other again in an elevator, Fellig sees the inhabitants of the elevator car in greyscale reflection. After Fellig exits the elevator, its cables snap, and it plummets to the ground below, killing all aboard. Fellig is there, however, to capture their final moments. Flash forward to D.C. where Scully is assigned by A.D. Kersh to assist another FBI agent in investigating oddities with crime scene photos taken by Fellig. The new agent is convinced that Fellig is a murderer as many of the photos have incorrect times captured within the print, indicating that perhaps Fellig had murdered his subjects and snapped pictures of them before calling the police. Fellig continues his exploration of potential deaths, capturing the final moments of multiple individuals but never intervening. He’s even stabbed at one point when he captures a murder, and the murder returns to obtain the evidence.

Scully and the agent stake out Fellig’s apartment, but, when Scully tires of Fellig taking pictures of her, she approaches him directly. He asks her to join him on a ride, and he shows her what he can do, predicting the death of a prostitute that Scully attempts to help. Later, Fellig explains his condition to Scully – he’s nearly 150 years old – with the simple explanation that death took someone else by mistake. As such, he can neither be hurt nor can he die even though those he loves have long passed. When he realizes that Scully will soon die, Fellig warns her to make peace with her life just as the FBI agent enter Fellig’s darkroom where they were talking and shoots Scully through Fellig. Fellig appears unharmed, but Scully is at death’s door. Fellig asks her to close her eyes and look away from death, and, as she does, Fellig passes away – death finally taking him after his long struggle.

Gilligan’s creation of Tithonus is widely praised for its allusion to Greek mythology, its digging into New York history (Fellig fell ill from a massive yellow fever outbreak), and additional allusions to the real-life Arthur Fellig who was famous for his stark black and white crime scene photography. The character of Alfred Fellig is one of the more memorable and sympathetic “villains” within The X-Files.  Scully accuses him of letting people die when he knows their fate, and, to an extent, she’s right. But Fellig claims fate will win in the end, setting up the interesting question of fate versus free will. Gilligan, through his settling of the episode, comes down on the side of fate with two notable exceptions – the two instances in which Death did not take its intended victim, first Fellig then Scully. Additionally, Fellig is a wonderfully drawn tragic figure who is long numb to the sight and presence of death. He actively pities those who have died around him because he can’t experience the same eternal sleep. His closing scene with Scully is some of the best work Gilligan has done for the series, and it foreshadows the complex writing he would later accomplish on Breaking Bad.

“Tithonus” isn’t a perfect episode as it never achieves the right balance between villain and additional characters. The episode is largely a 2-person show between Scully and Fellig, which is fine. Mulder appears in a handful of scenes as comic foil, reduced to performing the menial task of background checks. Yet, he phones in a few vital clues as if Scully wasn’t able, blocked by her stubborn scientific-minded persona, to work the case on her own. Call it “phoned-in mansplaining.” Still, the elegance and quiet dignity of the final scene is well handled and is enough for me to call “Tithonus” a minor X-Files gem.

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