Monday’s a little masterpiece. By rights, following as it does in the wake of the ever-burgeoning-in-reputation Groundhog Day, it ought to have come across as little more than a weak pretender, treading where many others have gone before – also 12:01 in that decade, along with a smattering of other eager TV shows – as a lukewarm Mulder and Scully encounter the same fateful events over and over again. But scripters Vince Gilligan and John Shiban, in tandem with never better or more attuned direction from Kim Manners, produce a forty-five-minute gem that counts as one of the very best of the series’ – or any series’ – standalones.
Pam: He never did that before.
Wiki has it that the episode was inspired by a Twilight Zone (Shadow Play), but who is Gilligan trying to kid? As in, it’s quite transparent what put an idea of that sort of story on their radar, as opposed to the means by which they play out. If there’s a weak spot in Monday, it’s a fairly minor one: that Mulder and Scully’s discussions around free will and determinism don’t feel very organic. But ‘twas ever thus with such Chris Carter-esque trappings; at least we aren’t subjected to a stodgy closing voiceover from Mulder.
Scully: You have control over everything that happens here.
The episode’s greatest impact comes in the tragedy of Pam (Carrie Hamilton who appeared in several later seasons of Fame and died only a few years after Monday was broadcast). She is, essentially, Bill Murray’s character, fated to see every day repeat over and over again but apparently powerless to alter the course of events (although, she is convinced Mulder and Scully, destined to enter the bank her boyfriend is robbing and go up with it when he triggers his bomb vest, are key). It’s particularly remarkable that this is so potent, as Pam is a largely oblique character, positioned to interact with Mulder or Scully at key moments (usually outside the bank) and only occasionally granted an additional, separate scene with boyfriend Bernard (Darren E Burrows, space head Ed in Northern Exposure, and entirely compelling as a very confused, not very bright man who cannot be reasoned with through traditional hostage techniques).
Pam: Don’t you see? We’re all in Hell. I’m the only one who knows it.
It’s difficult to be certain from the manner in which events unfold if the key to the situation is that Mulder and Scully should survive (along with the rest of those present) or that Pam dies, but one suspects the latter (or perhaps the precisely intersecting combination of the two). One might attempt to interrogate the logic that, with the multitude of times Pam has attempted to stop the bank blowing up, she never once before intervened inside, or that it didn’t occur to her that she herself, as the sole conscious party, might be the key, rather than Mulder and Scully per se (although, Mulder does appear to be a key to changing the scenario through his “spooky” openness to the idea she puts in his mind… eventually: “You’re the variable. It has to be you. I have tried everyone else”).
The key to this key is that Pam’s plight rings true on an emotional level, which means the conclusion is achingly poignant; no one can know what she had to go through, and we, like Mulder, can only imagine. The more so because she is wrong. Not about whom she goes to for help, but how she conceives of the resolution (“All I’m asking is just walk away”).
Mulder: I might just as easily not have a waterbed then I’d be on time for this meeting. You might just as easily have stayed in medicine and not gone into the FBI, and then we would never have met. Blah, blah, blah…
Mulder: Free will. With every choice, you change your fate.
Which isn’t to say the episode is entirely grim. It’s also very funny. As the slew of different shows – Buffy, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate SG-1, Community, Fringe, Supernatural, Russian Doll, Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, inevitably – and more recent movie efforts – Triangle, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Happy Death Day – have shown, the time-loop scenario is not just an evergreen for its existential crises, but also for its comedic ones. Edge of Tomorrow probably blends the two the most satisfyingly, a triumph for director Doug Liman, fond as he is of making it up as he goes along (to great success with The Bourne Identity). Although, let us not forget his Chaos Walking has spectacularly defaulted. Maybe that’s why he is currently churning out slavish pro-regime propaganda like love-under-a-lockdown Locked Down and forthcoming Cruise-in-"actual"-space nonsense (Capricorn One eat your heart out).
Gillian Anderson may be mostly stuck in a more customarily baffled/logical mode as Scully, but David Duchovny relishes the chance not just to wallow in his own food colouring but also indulge the humorous potential of Mulder’s fix. The terrible start to his day, where everything that can go wrong does, is funny not only for revolving around the episode’s premise – his clock, along with most of his apartment’s electrics, have stopped due to his waterbed springing a leak and flooding the floor – but because it’s a release following the in-situ teaser, in which we know he and Scully have/will meet an explosive end in a bank.
Mulder: If what you’re saying is true, how come I don’t remember? How come you’re the only one.
Pam: That’s got to be fifty times you’ve asked me that.
Mulder: Fifty-one. What’s the answer?
There’s also some smart and seamless continuity here. Scully asks “When did you get a waterbed, Mulder?” His bemused look is not a consequence of temporal tampering or his being obtuse, but rather that his body was inhabited by Morris Fletcher (Dreamland) at the time of its purchase. It’s a particularly dry touch that the tense and cyclic bank scenario is contrasted with one almost as unappealing and seemingly endless: a stiflingly dull division audit at the FBI offices that makes being blown up in a bank robbery almost seem like a light relief.
Pam: I’m begging you, please don’t go in there. If you walk in that bank, you’ll die.
Aside from studiously going through days where attempted digressions from the norm fail – Mulder using an ATM machine; Scully going to deposit his pay cheque instead – Gilligan and Shiban effectively walk the fine line of Mulder being inquisitive about Pam, nevertheless responding to the call of duty, and incrementally recognising he has to retain some of the information. This happens just enough to imbue tension in his own situation: his déjà vu at events (leading to the aforementioned discussion), seizing the initiative in speaking to Pam after Scully gives him her description, and his realisation that he needs to tell himself to remember “He’s got a bomb”.
Mulder: You’re saying this day repeats over and over again.
Pam: Until we get it right. Till my boyfriend doesn’t blow up that bank.
Of course, Gilligan’s in his own Groundhog Day even now, one of never-ending Breaking Bad spinoffs. While Carter, if ever he gets work, it’s for reheated X-Files that taper off when viewers realise he’s still calling the humdrum shots.
Scully: It doesn’t have to end like this.
Bernard: Yeah, it does.
Perhaps the most compelling philosophical aspect to the episode is the way in which it places our heroes on the inside looking out (Skinner doesn’t get much of a look in this time). This creates a palpable sense of a veil, a mass warping of perception, and the need to grasp blindly for what one doesn’t know but thinks may be. Rather like swimming through consensus reality itself, right? In Monday, this perception of a paradigm inevitably leads to death. Which makes it unsurprising that Groundhog Day’s affirmative vision is the one with all the longevity.