Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Millennium – Monster (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Monster continues the process of laying the groundwork for the second season of Millennium. Glen Morgan and James Wong had very consciously shaken things up with The Beginning and the End, and the first third of the second season is clearly intended to construct a solid foundation for the rest of the year. Looking at the plot points and character beats from the various episodes, they read almost like a checklist of things to address or introduce before the series can really start moving under its own power again.

Even outside of the dramatic changes wrought by The Beginning and the End, the other episodes in this stretch of the season each have their own purpose. Beware of the Dog introduces us to the Old Man, affectionately riffs on the first season format, and outlines the refactored Millennium Group. In turn, Sense and Antisense riffs on The X-Files and helps to identify areas of overlap with Millennium. A Single Blade of Grass gives Frank back his psychic powers, albeit in a more powerful and abstract form. The Curse of Frank Black is a character-driven vehicle. 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian get well and truly biblical.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

The most dramatic aspect of Monster is the introduction of the character of Lara Means. Means becomes a pretty vital part of the second season of Millennium, and is introduced in Monster with an eye to her inevitable role in The Time is Now. Means is a vital cog in the workings of the second season, perhaps the most important part of the mythology explicitly created by Morgan and Wong, instead of simply repurposed and reinvented. Means is a fantastic creation, wonderfully brought to life by actor Kristen Cloke and well-realised by Morgan and Wong’s scripting.

However, even outside of the important introduction of Lara Means to Millennium, Monster feels like an episode that exists to set up and outline the larger themes and ideas of the season in a way that foreshadows the larger arc. Like A Single Blade of Grass, it reiterates themes that will become a lot more important as the year goes on. Like Beware of the Dog, it uses the familiar template of a first-season Millennium episode to do this.

I believe in angels...

I believe in angels…

Monster is book-ended by voice-over narration from Penny Plott, the owner of the daycare centre at the heart of Monster. In the teaser, she is narrating the story of “Henny Penny” (perhaps better known as “Chicken Little”) as the camera creepily weaves around the daycare centre and out into the creepy playground as lightning flashes in the background and thunder booms. The teaser closes on the image of a broken doll, a wonderfully effective (and abstract) suggestion that there is something fundamentally horrific about this particular daycare centre. (Littering is just the start of it!)

The episode then closes with a montage demonstrating the harm that Danielle Barbakow has caused to the local community, as Penny Plott narrates the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” The decision to open and close the story with two rather apocalyptic children’s stories is quite effective; it gives the episode an almost fairytale quality. As does affording the daycare owner in question the alliterative – and affectionately dopey – name of “Penny Plott.” More than that, though, the stories themselves have an ethereal and haunting quality.

All tangled up...

All tangled up…

Indeed, the use of the stories as a framing device for Monster ties them into the second season’s theme of apocalypse. Of course, this is not a radical idea. “If there is a central theme to the wide variety of fairy tales, it is that of a rebirth to a higher plane,” Bruno Bettelheim noted in The Uses of Enchantment. He also contended that the traditional ending of the hero returning home at the end of the journey served a vital thematic purpose:

It does indicate that which alone can take the sting out of the narrow limited of our time on this earth: forming a truly satisfying bond to another. The tales teach that when one has done this, one has reached the ultimate in emotional security of existence and permanence of relation available to man; and this alone can dissipate the fear of death. If one has found true adult love, the fairy story also tells, one doesn’t need to wish for eternal life.

It seems that the entire second season of Millennium loosely fits that pattern – an apocalyptic fairy tale about a man loses his way in the forest and tries desperately to find his way back to his family. The ending of The Time is Now literalises this fairytale structure in a number of ways; it is no coincidence that the final act features a grim reminder of mortality in a very literal forest.

He's really pushing it, isn't he?

He’s really pushing it, isn’t he?

The second season of Millennium is very consciously structured as an archetypal story. Morgan and Wong gave Frank a very literal hero’s journey as he tries to find his way back to Catherine and Jordan. “It’s really like a hero’s journey,” actor Lance Henriksen noted of his character arc in the second season. “I think that’s what Jim and Glen were trying to do, follow Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. You go through all of the metaphors of life and you find out more about what the journey was, what it’s meant to be, and what it is.”

There is a very clear throughline for Frank Black, and the second season rather clearly lays out his arc. The Old Man was introduced in Beware of the Dog as something like a trickster mentor to Frank, filling a role not too dissimilar for Yoda in the classic Star Wars trilogy – talking in vagaries and providing comic relief that is intensely frustrating to the character. Monster introduces Lara Means as very clear mirror of Frank Black, a character on a parallel course whose experiences serve to inform and develop the audience’s perception of Frank.

You've got to be kidding...

You’ve got to be kidding…

Understandably, the second season of Millennium is fascinated with narrative and storytelling. Monster is book-ended by two apocalyptic children’s stories that reiterate the broader themes of the season – after all, what is “Henny Penny” but what the show will come to define as a “Rooster”? The teaser for The Beginning and the End features Frank narrating the history of a comet as a way of articulating his own internal uncertainties. A Single Blade of Grass positions end time prophecies as stories that we tell ourselves.

Indeed, Frank’s story is repeatedly mirrored and echoed through the stories of other guest characters throughout the season. Here, the dissolution of the Black family finds itself mirrored in the tragedies of the Barbakow and Sherman families. Mister Barbakow takes great pride in his family unit, only to see it destroyed by evil that has crept in unnoticed. Like Michael Beebe in Beware of the Dog, Deputy Bill Sherman finds himself forced to abandon his idyllic home when the evils of the world intrude. Facing the same choices haunting Frank, both Beebe and Sherman run.

He's got some Frank concerns...

He’s got some Frank concerns…

There is a consciously mythic quality to the storytelling in the second season, a sense that the literal apocalypse looming over the season is just an extension and extrapolation of more deeply personal and intimate apocalypses occurring within the season itself. Maybe the apocalypse is just a story we tell ourselves so as to articulate our own fears and anxieties. Maybe, as Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” suggests, the apocalypse is really just a collection of stories that we tell ourselves. (Ultimately, the Millennium Group’s prophecy just one voice in the crowd; it winds up squeezed out amid all the other stories.)

Appropriately enough, then, Monster is a story about conflicting narratives – about stories constructed around events. Danielle Barbakow is able to construct her own unchallenged version of events, telling a story that whips the local small town into a frenzy. Based on little more than the accusations of a five-year-old, the entire community seems to turn upon itself. The kindly widow who runs the local daycare is placed in an orange jumpsuit and thrown in irons as the residents run riot.

Means to an end...

Means to an end…

On the surface, Monster seems to draw from the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandal of the late eighties and early nineties – the highly documented reports of system abuse of young children by parents and caretakers. The entire country got swept up in the resulting hysteria, which resulted in the thirty-month trial of Virginia McMartin. When the trial eventually wrapped up in 1990, it was the longest-running trial in the history of the United States. The total investigation and prosecution took seven years and cost $15m.

However, this was not the first time that Morgan and Wong had drawn from that particular strand of public paranoia. In fact, it had been the subject of their last episode of The X-Files, the blackly comic Die Hand Die Verletzt. In a way, the links between Monster and Die Hand Die Verletzt build on Sense and Antisense to establish Millennium as very much a companion piece to The X-Files. The first season of Millennium had been reluctant to acknowledge those obvious ties, but the second season is a lot more comfortable.

Angels in America...

Angels in America…

This is not to suggest that Monster is in any way a rip off of Die Hand Die Verletzt. The two episodes may tackle a similar subject, but they approach that subject from very different angles. Die Hand Die Verletzt is very much a story about an external threat to the community – it is a story about how satanic forces avenge themselves upon a satanic coven that has lost their way. In contrast, the evil within Monster is very much internal. The threat to the preschool does not even come from the teacher – it comes from one of the children.

Much like Beware of the Dog before it, it feels like Monster is playing with some of the ideas that were close to the heart of the first season of Millennium, but turning the volume up to an absurd degree. Tackling the concept of “evil in the world” is part of a prime time drama (or horror) show is certainly audacious, and Monster really embraces the lofty absurdity. Danielle Barbakow is not just an evil child; she is not just a five-year-old kid who commits murder. She commits murder, and she frames Polly Plott, and she breaks her own jaw to frame Frank Black.

They've got absolute conviction...

They’ve got absolute conviction…

That is hardcore. There is no half-assing here, no compromising. Danielle Barbakow is practically oozing evil. She is so evil that Frank’s confession to Lara doesn’t feel at all overblown. “Recently I’ve seen… I’ve experienced evil,” he tells her in the motel. “It feels like a force, like gravity, like the wind. It has blown across Cambodia, been a cyclone in Nazi Germany, it gusts throughout Los Angeles. Danielle Barbakow is a pre-storm, a breeze, of an approaching hurricane.” That is a tough idea to sell – evil so large it’s almost cartoonish – and Monster goes all-in on it.

It should be noted just how brilliantly Lance Henriksen sells that sentiment. That line is something that could easily wander into self-parody, and Henriksen grounds it perfectly. The audience believes that Frank Black believes that, and so are willing to invest in that. Henriksen might have had his problems with the direction the show took in its second season, but he never phoned it in. Henriksen never really gets enough credit for just how much credibility his performances gave the show, his no-nonsense understated solidity tying the absurdity together.

Deputy do-right...

Deputy do-right…

Sure, there are points in episodes like Beware of the Dog or Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” when it seems like Henriksen is not entirely convinced by what is happening around him, but there is always an endearing honesty to his performance. Henriksen is a different sort of actor than Duchovny or Anderson, one much less stylised and formal. Henriksen seems to be sitting atop a reservoir of emotion even when delivering deadpan exposition. For all that the second season is delightfully off the rails, Henriksen keeps it tethered.

As with a lot of these second season scripts, it is clear that Morgan and Wong have a very different conception of evil than Chris Carter. Carter tends to see evil as a corrupting outside force – literalised in the black oil or the infectious evil of Empedocles and Grotesque. In contrast, Morgan and Wong tend to treat evil as something very clearly and very consciously rooted in mankind and people. It isn’t something that needs to contaminate anybody, it is something that lives inside everybody.

Fly away...

Fly away…

Discussing the case, Frank suggests that the true evil of Monster is the exaggerated and cartoonish evil of Danielle Barbakow; it is the banality of the evil she inspires in the town folk. “You’re seeing what you want to see,” Frank advises Mister Barbakow. “What you can see. I’ve seen monsters. They exist. Just like when you look in a mirror, there are monsters behind it. But even more destructive is the everyday man, the functionaries, that believe and act without questioning.” That is true evil, Monster seems to suggest.

For all the heightened horror of the situation, Monster does touch on a very basic and primal fear. It is a story about a very literal enfant terrible who is so thoroughly and fundamentally evil that the adults around her are rendered almost powerless to her scheming. It is a classic horror trope – one that fans will recognise in movies like The Village of the Damned or The Omen. While these films (and Monster) play up the level of evil involved, they hit on a fairly universal anxiety: what if our children were monsters?

Plane sailing...

Plane sailing…

There is a sense in modern society that we are terrified by our children. The development of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in the United Kingdom offers perhaps the most obvious example. In Memoirs of a Playground Cop, Rene Ortega described the mentality of certain children who believe themselves to exist beyond adult authority:

These students are overwhelmingly encouraged to think they are untouchable and that they can do whatever they want. Hell, even the parents are afraid of their own children; they’re afraid of being beaten up or having Child Protective Services called. Some of these students have become real sh!t birds. They show no remorse for their actions and do not care for the world.

Newspapers are keen to report exceptional and sensationalist crime, particularly those involving young children. In modern society, in a culture increasingly built upon fear, it seems inevitable that people should become afraid of their own children.

Bedtime stories...

Bedtime stories…

However, as tempting as it might be to believe that this is a millennial anxiety, people have always harboured uncertainties about their kids. “Big City Officials Say Parents Must Hold Reins” reported a headline over an article written by Howard Whitman in October 1953. It reads almost like it could be taken from a modern “think piece”:

I thought perhaps the juvenile authorities were over-stating it when they told me, in city after city, that a lot of parents these days are afraid of their own children – not only buffaloed by them, but actually physically afraid of them.

This is not even the earliest example of a newspaper exposé about the trend. “After much observation, I have reached the conclusion that modern parents are afraid of their children,” novelist Virginia Terhune van de Water wrote in The Milwaukee Sentinel in Man 1927.

A chill pill...

A chill pill…

As with the use of the wild dogs in Beware of the Dog, there is a sense that Morgan and Wong are making a conscious attempt to root Millennium in classic horror movie tropes. While the sex abuse angle of Monster is ripped from the headlines of the late eighties and early nineties, Danielle Barbakow feels like she has escaped from a far older horror story. It is interesting to note that she is watching the classic version of The Fly when Frank and Lara visit the Barbakow home – a literal way of suggesting a connection.

Of course – ultimately – Danielle Barbakow is just another iteration of the wolf from “Three Little Pigs” or the fox from “Henny Penny.” The fox from “Henny Penny” is perhaps the better of the two examples – a predator who infiltrates a party of confused fools and exploits their confusion for her own devious ends. Danielle is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a monster dressed up as a victim. Although Monster does not explicitly tie Danielle into the idea of “Legion” or “Lucy Butler” or any of that, she is presented as a rather primal evil.

Clouding her judgement...

Clouding her judgement…

Still, all of this aside, Monster is perhaps most notable for the introduction of the character of Lara Means. Lara becomes a fairly important player over the course of the second season. According to Glen Morgan, Lara was introduced with a very clear sense of where the duo wanted to take the character:

“We didn’t want it to seem like Mulder and Scully when we were doing that. We brought Cloke in knowing that in the last episode she was going to go so insane that she would be locked up forever. When we first did that angel thing in the 3rd episode, Monster, where she’s seeing visions of angels, I think the reaction was, ‘Oh brother, someone’s seeing angels.’ But the more you’ve gone with her, the more the vision has changed, and she’s getting more whacked out.”

Indeed, the use of angel imagery in Monster seems to consciously foreshadow the Christian end-time vibe that runs through the rest of the season – firmly established with double-bill of 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian. Morgan and Wong quite cleverly and quite clearly set up their arc ahead of time.

Sleep easy...

Sleep easy…

However, even ignoring the direction of Lara’s character, she feels like a welcome addition to the series. Millennium is a show that is very white and very male. Sure, Megan Gallagher is half of the regular cast, and Brittany Tiplady is a major recurring guest star, but Catherine and Jordan are treated primarily as extensions of Frank Black. The first season made a conscious effort to expand and develop Catherine’s role in episodes like Blood Relatives, The Well-Worn Lock and Wide Open, but the final stretch of the season pushed her firmly into the background.

With Morgan and Wong taking Frank out of the big yellow house, Catherine and Jordan would be sidelined even further. After all, they are more of an aspiration to Frank now that he can’t come home to them on a nightly basis. The first season had introduced a couple of female members of the Millennium Group, but only Cheryl Andrews had appeared more than once. The recurring members of the Millennium Group were predominantly white men – Mike Atkins, Jim Penseyres and Peter Watts.

Orange is the new Black...

Orange is the new Black…

While it might have been nice to see more of Cheryl Andrews before her return in The Hand of St. Sebastian, it is great that Morgan and Wong decided to introduce a major female character who serves as an equal – and a counterpoint – to Frank. There is no romantic tension between Frank and Lara, with Lara presented as a character who is just as competent as Frank, and who is just as vital to the future of the Millennium Group. Kristen Cloke does fantastic work as Lara, establishing her as a memorable presence even after one appearance.

Monster is much more interested in Lara as a character than any of the first season episodes were interested in their members of the Millennium Group. Even Lara’s verbal tic (“here’s my thing”) feels like more definite characterisation that Peter Watts received over the course of the entire first season. It is interesting that Lara is introduced as a fellow initiate into the Millennium Group, a person on the same journey as Frank. They are introduced on the opposite side of the case in Monster, foreshadowing the different directions their journeys will take.

Family law...

Family law…

Still, the spectre of The X-Files looms over Millennium. It is telling that Glen Morgan tends to open any discussion of Lara Means by stressing that the show was not trying to consciously replicate the Mulder and Scully dynamic:

“My biggest worry was that people would think we were trying to make them like Mulder and Scully,” Morgan said. “We wanted somebody with an incredible gift to counter Frank. Right from the beginning, the idea was to have Lara see these visions and know what the Millennium Group was saying was true. Knowing that would drive her crazy because if the world is ending, what’s the point of going on? Coupled with that, we had the Millennium Group saying, ‘We not only have the responsibility of knowing; we have the responsibility of doing something about it.’ The knowledge overloads her, and she goes insane. By seeing that, Frank Black will have a person to compare and contrast himself to: ‘This is my potential fate.’ And that took him back to the yellow house. Lara is a possibility of what Frank could be. If you’re going through the forest, you could be eaten by a troll, or you could get out. Lara did not get out of her dark forest. When the Millennium Group says to Frank, ‘Do you want to become an initiated member? You’re ready to move up a rank,’ he can look at Lara and say, ‘I don’t know.’ And yet, he believes in what she sees and that what the Group is after is right. It’s such an extraordinary responsibility.”

Lara is a rich and compelling character in her own right – but she also serves to mirror Frank Black. She is another example of how the show has broadened its characterisation of its protagonist in the second season.

"There's something on the wing!"

“There’s something on the wing!”

Monster also develops the Millennium Group itself. The idea that it was consciously pitting Frank and Lara against one another adds a layer of mystery and ambiguity to the organisation. “What’s the Group’s interest?” Frank asks Peter in the first act. “Why is Millennium sending me to a small town where something might happen?” He presses, “How is this about the end of the world?” Peter replies, enigmatically, “Just go there, Frank. Find the evil. This is who we are.” The Millennium Group is unrecognisable compared to the first season.

Teaming Frank up with a fellow initiate is a great storytelling device – it provides a character who can further discussions about the ambiguity of the Group. Frank can talk to Lara in a way that he cannot talk to Peter or to Catherine – to people firmly inside or outside the structure of the Millennium Group. “I have no reason yet to doubt Millennium’s beliefs,” Frank tells Lara, which seems a little optimistic. Lara finishes his thought, “But I’m suspicious about the way that they go about it. Are we being prepared or used?”

A family affair.

A family affair.

One of the big recurring ideas of the second season is the idea that Frank treats the Millennium Group as a surrogate family; that the Millennium Group itself provides a larger-scale mirror for the traumas and schisms within the Black family unit. As Frank drifts away from Catherine and Jordan, he wades deeper into the Group. Beware of the Dog hinted at the idea, but Monster comes quite close to making it explicit as Catherine has a rare direct encounter with the Group when Peter comes looking for assistance on Frank’s behalf.

“I feel like I’m meeting with the other woman,” Catherine reflects. “In my mind, Frank had an affair. He hid the truth, he had a life other than his family, and he was changed in ways that broke up that family.” The next time that Catherine works closely with the Group – in Anamnesis – she finds herself teamed up with Lara Means. Although there is no romantic tension between Frank and Lara, she is still a woman who serves as a partner and confidante to Frank. Even in Monster, the two work together in a motel room, enjoying a mishap with a vibrating bed.

Undercover Profiler! (I would watch that show.)

Undercover Profiler!
(I would watch that show.)

The vibrating bed bit underscores just how dramatically Millennium has changed in just four episodes. Despite the incredibly bleak subject matter – child abuse, child murder, a murderer who is a child – there is an engaging lightness to certain aspects of Monster. The second season of Millennium is just as dark and contemplative as the first year, but it never gets completely lost in melancholy. The series never feels like it will suffocate under its own weight. The show is only four episodes away from its first out-and-out comedy episode.

There are a number of really nice and clever touches to Monster. There is something quite brilliant about the way that Frank uses the children’s finger drawings to identify Danielle Barbakow as the killer. It is a rather wonderful everyday object that winds up entangled in this incredibly bleak case, and a nice example of how even the most innocent of items can be implicated in something harrowing and horrific. It is a wonderful intersection of mundane reality and abstract horror – a little detail that is as ingenious as it is disturbing.

Looking out...

Looking out…

Monster continues the strong start to the season, laying the foundations for the season ahead.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of Millennium:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: