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Millennium – Weeds (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Weeds concludes the loose “suburban trilogy” running through the first season of Millennium. In fact, Weeds was filmed directly after Wide Open, but was pushed back in the broadcast schedule so as to air after The Wild and the Innocent. While this change in broadcast and production order is nowhere near as confusing as the scheduling hijinx happening with The X-Files at the same time, it does give an indication that the production team recognised the potential similarities between Weeds and Wide Open.

Both episodes are about the violation of a supposedly “safe” space, bypassing and subverting all the potential security put in place to keep the home secure. In Wide Open, the killer visits open houses and hides in wardrobes until the family go to sleep that night; in doing so, he avoids setting off any alarms. In Weeds, a secure and gated community discovers that they cannot keep their children safe; someone within the community is preying on the residents’ children. As with The Well-Worn Lock, there is a sense that families are not safe, even when they think that they are.

Community watch...

Community watch…

As with Wide Open, Weeds feels just a little bit sensationalist. It is the kind of episode that attracts criticisms about gratuitous violence or exploitation. Millennium was never quite as excessive or as sadomasochistic as its critics would suggest, but there are definite tendencies towards those extremes on display at certain points in the run. While Millennium is very clearly driven by a core moral philosophy, it can occasionally seem a little too comfortable with its brutality or depravity.

Indeed, Weeds hits on quite a few of the stock fears that run through the first season of Millennium: children are victimised by a person in a position of trust and authority; there is biblical quotation; there is sadistic (and disturbing) torture filmed in a heavily stylised manner. There is something almost cynical and calculated about how Weeds hits these familiar buttons; these impulses towards excess haunt the first season of Millennium, and are building to something of a catharsis in Loin Like a Hunting Flame.

There will be blood...

There will be blood…

Weeds is Frank Spotnitz’s first script for Millennium. The writer had joined The X-Files late in its second season, and proved a reliable pair of hands. He quickly became one of the writers that Chris Carter trusted with the show’s complex mythology. Indeed, around the same time that he was working on Weeds, Frank Spotnitz was establishing one of the most productive creative partnerships on The X-Files with fellow writers John Shiban and Vince Gilligan; the trio would begin their collaboration with Leonard Betts and Memento Mori.

Spotnitz had already begun work on the script for The X-Files: Fight the Future with Carter, and would be trusted by Carter to run The Lone Gunmen along with partners Vince Gilligan and John Shiban. So it makes sense that Spotnitz would be one of the few writers to work on both The X-Files and Millennium, along with Carter himself, and the creative duo of James Wong and Glen Morgan. Indeed, Spotnitz would also be one the writers to contribute to the third season of Millennium when Carter tried to get the series back on track after an eccentric second year.

Killer instinct...

Killer instinct…

In writing Weeds while balancing his commitment to The X-Files, Spotnitz was working primarily from Chris Carter’s script for The Pilot. Spotnitz has talked at great length about how much he appreciated that script, and how he considers it some of Carter’s best writing ever:

I was very flattered that Chris asked me to work on Millennium as well as The X-Files – flattered and, in short order, exhausted!  It was very tough doing double  duty on the first season of Millennium and the fourth season of The X-Files. I remember that I only vaguely understood what Millennium was going to be about before Chris let me read the pilot script.  I read it on the laptop computer in his office right after he finished it. I was, quite simply, blown away. I still think that pilot is among the very best things he’s ever written.

Watching Weeds, it seems quite clear that Spotnitz was drawing on that original script and allowing it to inform his own take on the show. Weeds seems quite regressive. It does not seem like an episode carried one place forward in the broadcast schedule; it feels like a holdover from the earliest production block.

Jack attack!

Jack attack!

Indeed, it is telling that Frank’s neighbour – Jack Meredith – only appear in four scripts in the entire first season; Chris Carter’s first two scripts for the show and Frank Spotnitz’s first two scripts for the show. Similarly, the killer in Weeds quotes bible verses to his victims, recalling the Frenchman’s use of prophecy in The Pilot. While there is no explicit reference to the polaroid killer, the idea of Frank receiving a letter at his home from an offender harks back to the inclusion of the polaroid killer in earlier episodes of the season.

Weeds even provides some handy exposition explaining who Frank Black is and what he does. While travelling with Gerlach, Frank provides a handy two-line synopsis of the show for any new viewers who might be tuning in for the first time. “I took the call from Seattle PD,” Gerlach tells Frank. “I’m happy to accommodate you, Mr. Black, but, uh, I can’t honestly say I know exactly how you can help us.” Frank explains, “I work with a group of ex-law enforcement people called the Millennium Group. We bring our experience to difficult cases like this one.”

Lighten up!

Lighten up!

There is something very simple, very basic about Weeds – it feels like a script from an outside source, rather than from the staff themselves. It is notable for being one of the few episodes to treat the identity of the killer as a mystery. Throughout Weeds, the killer is shot in silhouette, his face hidden from the audience. In fact, Weeds even provides a number of plausible red herrings as Frank investigates the case; it seems like Weeds is trying to convince the audience to help solve the case along with them.

Most notably, Tom Comstock is set up as a very obvious suspect for the first act. We watch the killer freaking out as he drives through the estate, taking a moment to compose himself as he arrives at the Comstock household. We then cut to the party inside, as Tom Comstock arrives late to his son’s birthday party. On the morning that his son disappears, Tom Comstock lies in bed and looks very guilty. When Frank points out that the killer’s wife has no idea of his identity, we cut to an argument in the car as Tom’s wife remarks that he has been distant for some time now.

Left hanging...

Left hanging…

Once it becomes clear that Tom Comstock is a target, the episode shifts its focus on to the local swim coach – perhaps playing on anxieties surrounding high-profile stories about sexual abuse by swimming instructors in the nineties. It is ultimately revealed that the children are being abused and tortured underneath the swimming pool. However, Coach Burke has all the motivation he needs to justify a serial killing rampage; his son was killed by a member of the community who never owned up to their crime.

Inevitably, both Comstock and Burke are both red herrings. It turns out that the killer is Edward Petey, the head of the local neighbourhood community. Unlike the clever mystery at the centre of Blood Relatives, this revelation comes out of nowhere; we don’t know enough about Petey to consider him a credible suspect. While there are a number of circumstantial clues that point to him as a potential suspect – mainly he’s the only adult male who is never suspected by the authorities and never targeted by the killer – it feels like a fairly bland pay-off.

Sleepless...

Sleepless…

Still, there is a sense that Frank Spotnitz understands Millennium as a television show. Despite these structural quirks, Weeds is very definitely tied into the broader themes of the season. As Spotnitz explained to Back to Frank Black, the episode originated with the central theme, and worked backwards from there:

“I think the idea of sons being punished for the sins of their fathers was what came to me first in that instance, and it all developed from there. I’ve had ideas come to me from reading cookbooks! Seriously, they come from the strangest places. It’s like your subconscious mind makes connections and does the work for you.”

Whatever the origins of the story, Weeds does connect with some of the other episodes of the season. As with The Well-Worn Lock and Wide Open, this is a story about the abuse of children in an environment that should be safe and secure for them. It hits on some pretty primal fears, albeit in a way that can feel exploitative or sensationalist.

Prodding along...

Prodding along…

The Well-Worn Lock and Wide Open are both stories set within suburbia; communities that are supposed to be protected from the crime and chaos associated with inner-city living. The idea is that people move their families to those communities to help keep them protected from the evils in the world; much like Frank tries to keep Catherine and Jordan safe in the big yellow house. Nevertheless, the repeated theme of the first season is that families cannot be protected in such a manner; walling out evil is not a long-term strategy.

Weeds takes things a little further. Although the episode never hammers the point as heavily as it might, it unfolds within a gated community. Like the door lock in The Well-Worn Lock or the alarm system in Wide Open, the walls serve to keep people out; but do not account for the evil within. “Well, I’ve got to tell you, this thing’s got everybody here pretty rattled,” Gerlach explains to Frank. “We’ve got walls around all three square miles. 24-hour private security. Everything you can do to keep your kids safe, these folks have done it.”

Clean sheets...

Clean sheets…

As noted in The Suburb Reader, edited by Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese, these sorts of communities really took off in the middle of the nineties:

Finally, as urban crime rates peaked in the early 1990s and media coverage of crime reached new heights, real estate developers began marketing enhanced safety and security through the construction of private gated communities. Sustained by continuing economic and social uncertainties, the trend accelerated even as actual crime rates fell after the mid-1990s. Gating became the latest tool in a long tradition of marketing suburbia as a private refuge from a hostile world, and in that same tradition, it contributed to continuing suburban exclusivity at the end of the twentieth century. By 2001, an estimated 16 million Americans (6% of the population) lived in private gated communities, a trend particularly strong in Sunbelt states like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California.

It is a powerful image, one in twenty people locking themselves away from the outside world. In many respects, this was a clear response to the viewpoint explored by Millennium; the idea that the world is a terrifying place.

In a blue moon...

In a blue moon…

By the time that Weeds was broadcast, gated communities had become a standard facet of American life. As Edward James Blakely and ‎Mary Gail Snyder outline in Fortress America, the trend was not promising:

We estimate in 1997 that there are as many as 20,000 gated communities, with more than 3 million units. They are increasing rapidly in number, in all regions and price classes. A leading national real estate developer estimates that eight out of every ten new urban projects are gated. Suburban fortified developments are also proliferating. In 1988 one-third of the 140 projects in development in Orange County, California, were gated, double the proportion just five years earlier. In 1989 a construction company in the area reported three times the demand for gated communities as for nongated communities. In the nearby San Fernando Valley, there were approximately a hundred gated communities in existence by the end of the 1980s, nearly all built since 1979. A 1990 survey of southern California home shoppers found that 54 percent wanted a home in a gated, walled development; the question had not even been asked a handful of years earlier. On Long Island, gated communities were rare in the mid-1980s, but by the mid-1990s they had become common, with a gatehouse included in almost every condominium development of more than fifty units. Chicago, suburban Atlanta, and nearly all other large U.S. cities report similar trends.

The focus on these little isolated and protected communities helps to foster the sense of Millennium as a socially-conscious horror show. The series takes something that the viewers consider to be safe, making it distinctly unsafe.

The ball's in their court...

The ball’s in their court…

Weeds is sure to have characters insist that these sorts of horrors could not possible happen in this secure little community. Beginning their enquiries, Gerlach states, “I assume we’re looking for someone with a rap sheet? I’m running a background check on the support staff – private security, gardeners, delivery people – anyone who had access.” The unspoken assumption is that the killer has to be an outsider who has managed to slip into the community through some weakness in their security; some chink in their armour.

Although he does not explicitly correct Gerlach, Frank makes it clear that there is an alternative possibility. “People are not going to want to hear this,” Frank warns the local law enforcement official. “They think they’ve created a safe haven. A community free of all the dangers of the outside world. No one’s going to want to believe that the killer comes from within.” It is a little blunt and heavy-handed, as commentaries go, but it makes its point. With his first script, Spotnitz seems to understand how Chris Carter wants Millennium to work.

Something fishy...

Something fishy…

After all, one of the core themes of the first season of Millennium is the idea that you cannot simply ignore evil and hope that it goes away; evil must be confronted and defeated. Trying to lock your loved ones away behind a wall or a fence or a yellow house is a stalling tactic; eventually evil will infest and infect and take root. The is why Frank Black is a hero, in the classic Chris Carter sense; Frank Black ventures out into the world to vanquish evil in all its forms. It is a very heavy-handed central theme, but it is something about which Carter clearly feels strongly.

That said, Weeds does feel a little clumsy and clunky. Millennium often has to walk a pretty thin line in how it treats the killers and their signatures. While the show can be tactful and tasteful in handling the horrific, it can occasionally feel indulgent or excessive. There are points where the show seems both compelled and disgusted by its horrific content, both thrilled and horrified in equal measure. As such, it can feel a little cynical and exploitative in places, a show desperately trying to push the audience’s buttons with little restraint.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

Although Weeds never reaches the schlocky excesses of Loin Like a Hunting Flame, it comes close. Once again, children are placed in a danger; a sure-fire way to get the audience’s attention. As always tends to be the way, the killer has a memorable and visceral “gimmick” to help unsettle the audience; it is never explained quite why the killer has this particular fetish. Franks suggests that “he makes the impure ingest his blood so that they can be cleansed”, which does not explain much. Still, it does tie back to a very literal interpretation of the opening quotation.

Weeds is a messy episode, and one that veers towards many of the stock criticisms of the first season of Millennium. Although Spotnitz correctly identifies many of the core themes of the show, there is also a sense that he is following the formula a little too closely; that Weeds is very much a stock instalment. Still, the first season is approaching the half-way point. There needs to be something more than mere formula.

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