I have a test for X-files episodes that determines their placement on my top-10 list. If a show leaves me wanting more, that's a positive. If it causes me to gasp with surprise, that's another positive. But the true indicator is the "Verbal Test." If a plot lures me in and makes me yell at the television, then the episode earns a special spot on the list. "Tithonus" made it -- at the end of the show I was yelling "Close your eyes Scully! Close 'em!" Now that's entertainment.
Anyway, here's what happened in this immortal Kodak moment:
It's dusk in New York City and a mail-room employee is scurrying through the abandoned halls of an office building, delivering stacks of mail to various rooms. The pretty red-headed woman is moving quickly, but her pace increases even more when she notices a disgruntled senior citizen following her through the hallways. The woman finishes her task and jumps on the elevator, but her pursuer enters the same elevator just before the door closes. The woman cowers in the corner, seeking safety behind the other occupants. Her fear is momentarily allayed when the senior citizen gets off at the 17th floor, but as the doors close, the man turns and looks back at the assembled group. He sees them in black and white and his expression is unusually grim (even for someone living in New York City). The doors close and the man bolts for the stairwell. As he shuffles down the stairs the lights in the elevator flicker and the supporting wires snap. The man reaches the ground level just before the elevator impacts, and as the doors crack open the grim senior citizen takes pictures of the carnage with his professional camera.
This grim mood has made its way down the Eastern seaboard because Mulder and Scully both sport sour expressions as they push through a mound of background checks at FBI Headquarters. Scully is called into A.D. Kersh's office and Mulder gets up to join her, but Kersh has asked only for her. She enters the big man's chambers and meets a young agent who comes from a long line of Dudley Dorights. The agent is named Peyton Ritter and he's been making waves in the FBI's New York office by scanning photographs of old crime scenes and making connections no one else would ever make. While updating the photo logs of the New York division, Ritter stumbled across two suspicious pictures of a crime scene. Both shots were taken by the same photographer -- Alfred Fellig (the grim senior citizen seen in the teaser) -- but the two pictures were taken over an hour apart. The first shot shows a clock that reads 45 minutes before police arrived on the scene. The second shot -- the "official" one -- shows the same clock but the time corresponds with the time marked on the police report. Ritter did some digging on Fellig and discovered a number of similar occasions where pictures he took were snapped before police arrived. The pictures are Ritter's only evidence, but he theorizes that Fellig is a sicko who offs innocent civilians so he can add their gory pictures to his "Faces of Death" photo album. Ritter is anxious to pursue the case (it appears to be his first big break) and he asks for Scully's help. With that, Kersh dismisses him from the room. The perpetually-anal AD tells Scully that she and Mulder won't be working this case together. Mulder, according to the ever-affable Kersh, is a "lost cause," but Scully can still have a future in the Bureau if she plays her cards right. If Scully were a superhero with the ability to shoot death lasers from her eyes, Kersh would be a puddle of primordial smoking goo. But alas, these powers are not in her arsenal so she exhales with a vengeance and ponders her predicament.
Scully grudgingly accompanies Ritter to New York and the two begin their investigation of Fellig. They learn that he works as a stringer for the newspaper wire services, but he also moonlights as a crime scene photographer. A permit is required to photograph crime scenes, so Scully and Ritter sift through the dusty city archives searching for Fellig's original background check. His records go back to 1964 and as Scully lines up his complete file she notices that the pictures attached to his yearly permits share something very odd -- Fellig's appearance hasn't changed since 1964. In every picture he looks like a 65-year old man. Ritter tosses this development aside but Scully knows better. Normal people age, X-file suspects don't.
While Scully and Ritter do the dirty work on Fellig's background, Fellig continues to do what he does best. He photographs a particularly gruesome sneaker theft/murder in the Bronx, but his attempt to get a better shot turns ugly when his murderous subject stabs him in the back. Fellig is bloody, but the old man shows remarkable resilience (and flexibility) when he pulls the knife from his back, rises to his feet and walks home. Apparently Ensure does wonders for stab wounds.
Scully and Ritter show up at the Bronx crime scene the next morning and learn that Fellig's fingerprints were found on the murder weapon. Fellig is brought to the 15th precinct where he's pitifully interrogated by Ritter. The young agent does his best Frank Pembleton impersonation (the great interrogating detective who used to be on "Homicide") but the rookie falls short. Fellig is a grizzled man who doesn't crack. A battle of wits between Ritter and Fellig is put on hold when Scully sees that Fellig is wincing from pain. She checks his back and finds puncture wounds, so Fellig is sent off to be patched and photographed. Ritter is annoyed and asks why Scully is looking for ways to let Fellig off the hook. In response, Scully breaks out her hardcover X-files handbook, smacks Ritter silly, then tells him she's not looking for an arrest, she's looking for the truth.
Through the years, Scully and Mulder have developed an intense mind-meld, so when Scully uses the word "truth" Mulder has a Pavlovian cellphone response. He calls his partner (or ex-partner, or whatever they are now) and the two discuss the case. Mulder has been keeping abreast of developments by intercepting Ritter's progress reports to Kersh. He offers Scully his background-checking services and Scully, knowing Mulder is bored out of gourd, let's him proceed.
While Mulder entrenches himself in the archives, Scully stakes out Fellig's apartment. It's January, but the weather must be balmy because Scully has her car window cracked and Fellig's bedroom window is also ajar. All these open windows allow Scully to hear the mechanical whir of a camera. She looks up and sees that Fellig is taking shots of her from his dark bedroom. The stakeout has obviously gone south, so Scully sucks it up and confronts Fellig. The old guy is preparing for a night of death prowling and he says he'll show Scully how he uncannily finds crime scenes if she wants to tag along.
The pair creep through the city streets, searching for Fellig's next photo opportunity. After an hour, Fellig spots a prostitute camped on a seedy street corner and declares that she's going to die very soon. Scully doesn't buy it, but Fellig doesn't care. He readies his camera while curtly describing his morbid death-tracking ability. He claims that when he spots a victim he doesn't know how they're going to die, but he knows their demise will come soon. As he says this, a steroid-abusing customer approaches the prostitute and starts getting rough with her. Scully rushes from Fellig's car, darts across the street and manhandles the large man while cuffing him to a lamppost. She finds a Saturday Night Special in his pocket, which elicits an untoward comment from the brute. Taking a page from Mulder's "How to Influence People and Pummel Suspects Rulebook," she shoots a quick smack across the guy's face. The prostitute walks off, but she ignores the motherly adage "Always look both ways before crossing the street." As a result, she's smacked into oblivion by a surprisingly stealthy 18-wheeler. Scully looks on in horror as Fellig drives off.
Ritter meets Scully at the 15th precinct the next morning. The naive young agent is angry because Scully gave up on the stakeout and went for a ride with Fellig. His anger is partially quelled by a new witness who can finger Fellig as a murderer. This highly-reliable witness is the same man who slashed Fellig in the Bronx. Scully isn't impressed -- in fact she's incensed and accuses Ritter of feeding a story to the witness just so he can arrest Fellig. Ritter responds by threating to report Scully to Kersh for interfering with his investigation. Scully's glaring expression clearly says: "I've lived through terminal cancer, multiple-abductions and horribly misguided comedy episodes -- You don't scare me." Ritter walks away before Scully can pluck his eyeballs from his skull. The tension is momentarily broken when Mulder calls. He has some very interesting news for Scully. His diligent background work has revealed that Alfred Fellig didn't exist before 1964. Fellig wasn't around, but Henry Strand was, and he had the same fingerprints as Fellig. Strand's trail runs dry in 1939, but L.H. Rice was fortunate enough to have Strand's fingerprints before that -- and Rice's birthdate is listed as April 4, 1849. This means that Fellig/Strand/Rice will reach the ripe age of 150 in April, 1999. Mulder suggests Scully find Fellig before he assumes another identity and disappears again.
Scully meets Fellig at his apartment and tells him he's going to be arrested in two hours for murder. She also says that this time he won't be able to hide by changing his identity. Fellig knows the gig is up, so he quietly let's Scully into his sad, hopeless existence. Concealed behind a heavy curtain in Fellig's apartment is his dark room. In here, he searches for the face of Death. He calmly explains that he was left behind by Death, and he believes that if he can capture Death's face on film, he'll be able to look it in the eye and finally pass away. Scully carefully looks through old pictures Fellig has taken through the years and her eyes settle on a disturbing shot taken in 1925. The photographer's name -- Louis Brady -- is written elegantly in the corner. Scully's face falls and she excuses herself. In an adjacent room she calls Mulder and asks him to check up on Louis Brady. She pockets her cellphone and walks back toward the darkroom. The room is illuminated by a faint red glow and Scully can't see Fellig. He bumps into her, excuses himself, then walks toward a far corner with her cellphone in hand. He switches the phone off and hides it on a shelf.
Mulder finds disturbing news about Louis Brady in the archives, but Fellig's pickpocketing skills prevent him from reaching Scully. With no other options, Mulder calls Ritter and explains that Alfred Fellig is indeed a murderer. Under the name Louis Brady he committed two murders, but in 1929 he walked off a work detail and disappeared. Ritter, who is on his way to arrest Fellig, is confused but he senses Mulder's urgency so he forgoes questioning.
Back in Fellig's darkroom, Scully is asking Fellig about his past, hoping to keep him occupied until Mulder calls back. At first her tone is objective and she plays devil's advocate, suggesting that most people would like to live forever. Fellig says there's no joy in immortality. After 75 years you begin to wonder why everyone gets to experience death but you. Scully is drawn in by the story and Fellig looks up from his task. His face hardens as he looks at her, and it's clear that he's seeing Scully in black and white. Fellig moves toward his camera and begins preparing it for Scully's inevitable death. Scully doesn't realize what's happening. She continues to probe, asking about the genesis of Fellig's immortality. As Fellig expertly adjusts his camera, he somberly describes how years before he was stricken with yellow fever and was lying on his deathbed in a city ward. He remembers seeing Death move around the hospital room, plucking souls. A nurse sat next to Fellig, holding his hand and lessening his pain. When Death came for him, Fellig looked away, hoping the nurse would look Death in the eye and be taken in Fellig's place. The trick worked -- he passed out and when he awoke his fever had broken and he watched as the nurse's dead body was removed from the ward. Now he tries to reverse this trick, hoping Death will return for him.
Fellig finishes his story, looks Scully in the eye and tells her she's one of the lucky ones. She suddenly realizes what he's saying and adamantly tells him she's not going to die. He averts his eyes and flicks the switch on his camera's flash. Scully panics and handcuffs Fellig to a table. The sound of a door being kicked in rings through the apartment. The curtain is drawn back and bright light fills the dark room. Fellig steps in front of Scully and lifts his camera. Agent Ritter appears, sees Fellig reach for something and fires his gun. The bullet crashes through Fellig's camera, pushes through Fellig's torso and plants itself in Scully's gut. Fellig falls away and Scully crumples to the floor. Ritter sees what he's done and rushes out for help. Blood gushes from Scully's wound and gathers around her mouth. Fellig straightens up and tells her not to look when Death appears. Scully closes her eyes and as Fellig looks down he sees the image of his colored hand turn to black and white. His head moves back, his eyes close and death finally takes him.
One week later, Mulder watches as Agent Ritter stands at the end of Scully's hospital bed. When the young agent emerges from her room, Mulder disdainfully tells him he's a lucky man. A darkness has replaced Ritter's exuberance and he quietly walks off. Mulder enters Scully's room and happily tells her the doctor expects she'll make a full recovery. The conversation turns to Fellig and Scully can't understand why she believed his claims of immortality. Mulder, of course, believes Fellig was unable to die. His face softens a bit and he utters this philosophical closing line: "Death only looks for you once you seek its opposite." It's a somewhat-cryptic final comment (especially since Duchovny mumbled the hell out of it) but the wonders of closed captioning make it a lot clearer.
So that's it. "Tithonus" was a creepy episode that artfully incorporated a loose thread from "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (Bruckman told Scully she doesn't die, and this episode might support that conclusion). After two solid shows, my enthusiasm has returned and I'm really looking forward to the second half of the season.
One final thing. In an effort to help any Emmy voters who might read this review (I know it's doubtful, but what the hell) I want to remind you that you have a responsibility to give Gillian Anderson a second award. No one does it better than her.
Note: This review originally appeared at Ontap.com. It's reprinted here for archival purposes.