"A Roswell Christmas Carol"
Written by Jason Katims
Directed by Patrick Norris
In which Max is haunted by the decision not to save a man’s life just before Christmas, and when he seeks redemption, he finds a child in need very close to home...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
Christmas episodes, more than any holiday fare, tend to be hit or miss. For every inspired journey into the human condition, there are ten clichés dripping from the eaves like week-old slush. Classics like “A Christmas Carol” and “A Wonderful Life” have been rendered toothless by decades of endless iterations on sitcoms and poorly written dramas. Even “Buffy”, in its excellent third season, stumbled when an otherwise strong episode substituted a conclusion with a walk through completely needless Christmas snow.
This episode has the needless Christmas snow, as well as any other number of clichés and diversions into questionable characterization, but it also has strong ties to previous continuity, at least when it comes to Max and his decisions in this episode. (Other apparent references to past continuity are not so consistent.) The result is an episode with plenty of flaws, but enough heart to transcend those flaws with room to spare. Sometimes an episode strikes just the right emotional chord.
The episode begins by essentially ignoring everything that happened in “Max in the City”, which actually makes a certain amount of sense. After all, at least four weeks have passed, and one would expect that Max and the others would have discussed the fallout from the summit and realized that things haven’t changed. The Skins are gone, the enemy is effectively at arm’s length on Antar, and they still have issues to work out amongst themselves before worrying about an interstellar war.
There are a couple of other reasons for the disconnect, and they are entirely practical. The original season order of 13 episodes was an arc unto itself, and as such, the hybrids’ involvement with the situation on Antar was meant to conclude with “Max in the City”, so that the character arcs and remaining plot points could be more or less resolved in the four episodes beginning with “To Serve and Protect”. When it became clear that the series was getting a full season, the writers had to think of how to finish out the series.
This episode was added to the schedule to capitalize on the extended production schedule for the season and plant the seeds for the events that were in development. A couple of plot points are introduced in this episode that would later become very important, but the most obvious is the complete absence of Alex from the mix. This would tie into the truth about his activities since Tess’ arrival as explained in “The Departure”.
For all that, enough was still up in the air to make this episode something of a self-contained diversion from the rest of the season. Contentious relationships momentarily find themselves at peace, and there’s the typical holiday effect of forgiveness for past sins. Of course, that doesn’t last, since things continue on the previous course with the next episode. But for a little while, the teens try to mend fences and regain something of the unity that existed before the end of the first season.
Out of the blue, Isabel becomes the Christmas Nazi, a concept that would be one of the most memorable elements of the episode. It’s a term destined, once heard, to become a holiday staple. Nothing in the first season suggests that Isabel would be so gung-ho about the holidays, and she certainly doesn’t seem to have the time for it, but after everything that’s happened in the past year or so, it makes sense that she would want to connect with humanity again. And as everyone in TV Land knows, the holidays are the perfect time to seek communion with friend and neighbor.
But the real character work here is centered on Max. His psychological reaction to the past year has been largely muted, but he’s got some serious emotional baggage. He still hasn’t opened up completely about his experience in the White Room, he’s been openly struggling with the price of his past and current shortcomings as a leader, and he’s not sure whether or not he can trust anyone enough to share those emotions. If he needed therapy before, he certainly needs a lot more of it now.
Ever the reserved soul, Max tries to hold it together until a father dies in front of his young daughter just before Christmas. What’s worse is that the man died saving his daughter’s life, pushing her out of the path of an oncoming car. Max seems to want to act, but he chooses to walk away. At first, it seems like he’s following Michael’s advice and keeping a low profile. In point of fact, Max was struck by a sudden fear that another public healing could lead to another Special Unit and another visit to the White Room. This underlying psychological trauma manifests itself as the apparent ghost of the slain father, who drives the whole “Christmas Carol” concept.
The rest of the characters also have their moments of holiday cheer, more or less, and the emphasis is on family and togetherness. Despite the fact that they can’t seem to get past the “constant interest” point of their relationship, especially with Brody drooling over Maria, she still has expectations of Michael for the holidays. Equally strange is Michael’s acceptance of those expectations. Michael, after all, has still been working out the lessons learned in “Summer of ‘47”, and he hasn’t quite taken that next step yet.
More consistent and far more endearing is the situation at the Valenti home. Jim and Kyle are definitely bonding more, which is very good to see, but the inevitable odd-alien-out is Tess. For her own part, Tess seems to be having some conflicting emotions. She’s never been very concerned about fitting in with the human world, and as later episodes would attest, her long-term goals are definitely geared towards returning home with Max’s child. At this point, however, she’s torn between honoring that alliance with Kivar and finding a life on Earth, and her attraction to Kyle is a part of that. She wants to understand and feel the same sense of family that Max has.
Michael’s attempt to find the proper gift for Maria, and his subsequent run-ins with the Christmas Nazi, help to lighten up the episode now and then. Max and his inner torment drives him to seek counsel from Liz, following up on his desire for friendship at the end of the previous episode. The two of them are a little too cozy at times in this episode, but that’s mostly for the sake of the holiday theme; that wouldn’t translate into the next episode, and it would still be a while before the damage of “The End of the World” would be repaired.
Liz also takes a far more practical approach with Max and his inner demons, sounding more like a softer version of Michael than the usual Liz Parker. Perhaps this is her attempt to keep things on a level playing field. Whatever the case, Liz is usually more empathetic, and it’s surprising that she doesn’t express some feeling of guilt of her own. Liz has to feel, on some level, that everything that has happened is because of her. If Max hadn’t been in love with her from afar, he never would have risked exposure by saving her life.
The writers toss out one hell of a plot twist by revealing that Brody’s cancer is apparently genetic in origin, because his daughter has the same time that he once had. His obsession with his alien abductions now makes perfect sense. Brody lives with the guilt that he was cured of his terminal cancer, yet he can do nothing to save his daughter from that fate. His search for evidence is probably all about getting Sydney a cure as well, even if it means a life filled with abductions. (This makes the rest of the episode somewhat ironic and symmetrical, all in one fell swoop.)
Between Max and his overwhelming guilt and Maria’s stricken reaction to Sydney’s medical condition, a little humor is not unwelcome. As usual, it’s Michael and his bizarre interpretation of human tradition that provides much of that humor. Isabel, in full Christmas Nazi mode, rips into Michael for thinking that a bumper is going to cut it. Then again, he’s getting hammered for not giving Maria a present the year before (despite the fact they weren’t together at that point in continuity), so he ought to have realized that practicality was not the order of the day.
When the Valentis and Tess run into Amy at the supermarket, the reaction is suitably hilarious. Jim is like a little boy when Amy comes around, and Amy is never sure what to make of that. It doesn’t help when Jim is holding a “Meaty Man” box over his crotch, either! Watching Tess take advantage of Amy’s comment about the Christmas ornaments is comedy gold, especially when she grabs a couple of stockings full of cat toys and pretends they’re going on the Valenti family tree. Jim and Amy are so transparent that it’s not a stretch for Tess to know how much he misses her.
Maria’s reaction is extreme, especially since she’s still worried over Michael’s Christmas gift as though he’s the center of her universe. But it does speak to the fact that Maria will go to extremes when her emotions are at play, and that has a lot to do with her bizarre loyalty to Michael. She can’t stand his attitude most of the time, but she still can’t help but look after his best interests. Maria’s reaction also communicates something to Liz, and it’s that emotional drive that sends Liz in Max’s direction.
In a nice twist, Max actually consults the other hybrids about his plan. That alone probably got Isabel’s vote, and at this point, Tess is hedging her bets, since she’s trying to understand Max’s point of view. Michael, however, points out what the others don’t want to acknowledge. Whether he admits it or not, Max had already made up his mind, and the conversation was a courtesy. This does, however, set the stage for Michael’s part later in the episode.
Perhaps in response to Max and his intense desire to make things right, Tess explodes at the Valentis over their completely self-centered attitudes. This scene is a little awkward, because from time to time, Emilie de Ravin seems to slip back into her natural (and rather alluring) Australian accent. It’s a little distracting, but once the scene shifts to Jim’s panic over Amy’s arrival, it all works itself out.
The writers slip a bit when Max arrives at Brody’s house, only to find the ghost waiting for him, bearing terrible news. It would be easy to assume that there really is a ghost, but that’s not necessarily the case. Maria told Liz every little detail of Sydney’s situation, one has to think, and so it would make sense that Max would assume that Sydney was at the hospital. It also makes sense that Max would do a little digging and find out where she was sent. It still makes more sense for the “ghost” to be an expression of Max’s guilt and inner turmoil.
Maybe it’s just supposed to be her reaction to seeing Jim and Amy together, but the writers really play up Tess’ interest in Kyle during the dinner scene. She seems to enjoy the whole “domestic” thing, especially giving Kyle his favorite side dish, and if her intent gazing could speak volumes, it would probably never get past the censors. Kyle, of course, seems equally happy with the idea of something like a real family. (This is probably the beginning of his subconscious re-definition of Tess from “hot vixen” to “sister figure”.)
The highlight of the episode is the healing of the sick children, with Max and Michael finally working together for the right reasons. This is one of those critical scenes that, thankfully, was maintained with the proper music on the DVDs. One can see the desperation in Max’s eyes as he goes from child to child, all too aware that he can’t save them all. Michael comes to something of an epiphany in the same moment, recognizing why he holds resentment towards Max in many situations.
This scene is important because it reveals something about Max that was glossed over in the previous episode. Larek told Max that in his previous life, he tried to change too much, too fast, and it led to his death. So much time had been spent on the idea of Max as a terribly flawed leader that this underlying psychology was never truly given the attention it deserved. Max was flawed because he couldn’t imagine not making the sacrifices necessary for a better world, and that was interpreted by many as self-serving arrogance, because he was unable to express his reasoning. But it does explain why the original Rath and Ava would have chosen loyalty over self-interest.
It does seem hard to reconcile, however, why Max would lose his powers after expending so much energy. Perhaps it’s more a question of lacking the amount of energy necessary to use or express those powers, but the powers are really nothing more than activated genetic potentials. Powers wouldn’t be gained or lost; only the resources to use those abilities would change. It also seems odd that Diane wouldn’t put two and two together, especially with Max not being around. Everything from “The Toy House” was conveniently dropped for the rest of the series, something far more evident in the third season.
Before things get too serious, there’s the inevitable moment where Michael unveils her gift, and sure enough, Maria still looks for the real thing. Isabel’s instincts turned out to be perfect, and Michael gets to score a victory. It might have meant more if the two of them were actually together at this point, but it still made for a very cute scene.
It might have worked better for the episode to end there, but then it delves into some cliché territory with everyone begging Max to come to midnight worship. Part of this is a legitimate exploration of where this experience has taken Max psychologically. Can he accept that he can’t save every life? Liz provides a rather non-scientific explanation by pointing out that Max can’t thwart the design of God. Max points out that he doesn’t believe in God. And yet, ultimately, he accepts that he cannot save every life; he can only be thankful for the lives he can save.
Why, then, does Max go to midnight worship? Well, the cliché demands it, and one can only presume that it’s a sign that Max is more at peace with himself. It seems a bit too easy, in some respects, but it’s fairly common for people to let the holiday spirit wash away personal conflicts and quibbles over religion. Max doesn’t go to midnight worship because he suddenly believes in God. He goes because he allows himself to believe, even if just one night, that he doesn’t have to save everyone in the world. (He say he believes in Liz, but they aren’t together at this point, so why would that be the case?)
There are plenty of flaws, then, especially once the snow starts to fall, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. This is the kind of episode that speaks to every fan, because it emphasizes the good in each character. Any parent can sympathize with Brody and how strong he must be around his daughter, and every person with any measure of compassion can understand Max’s desire to heal every child that suffers. And frankly, most men have been in Michael’s shoes, even when they usually have a clue every other time of the year.
In fact, this episode is a perfect example of what made “Roswell” such a compelling series. It wasn’t the fact that it maintained the highest level of quality. In fact, beyond much of the first season, it had flaws shoved down its throat, all in the name of network mandates. But despite plot contrivances and conveniences, characterization issues, and wonky continuity, the final product always seemed to find a way to exceed the sum of its parts. This episode, on paper, has a lot of the problems that plagued the series in the second season, but taken as a whole, it is one of the best episodes of the series.
MICHAEL: “She’s been busting my ass for weeks about this present. She says it’s got to be significant.”
MAX: “Then you might want to steer clear of the hardware store…”
KYLE: “His mind and body are in deep conflict. When one’s heart and one’s mind are not in balance, one’s body is the first to fall…what?”
JIM: “I’m very concerned that you’re starting to make sense to me…”
MICHAEL: “The whole thing’s a marketing scam invented to make people buy things they don’t even need.”
ISABEL: “Well, you could write that on the card when you give her a dental product for Christmas…”
MICHAEL: “Hail the Christmas Nazi!”
ISABEL: “What was that?”
ISABEL: “You know, is it too much to ask that one day a year, I can be a normal human being with a normal life and have a Merry Christmas?”
MICHAEL: “No, Mein Fuhrer!”
LIZ: “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
MAX: “I believe in you.”
Overall, this episode is one of the best of the series, transcending all of its various minor flaws by speaking to something the entire audience can understand. There are many powerful moments, mostly related to Max and his journey for inner peace, and it’s good to see some continuity elements that actually make good sense. When it comes to demonstrating why a flawed series can sometimes make magic, this episode is a great example.
Final Rating: 9/10
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