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Millennium – A Single Blade of Grass (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.

A Single Blade of Grass is one of those episodes of television that skirts a line. It is very much a companion to “subculture” episodes of The X-Files, shows that would see our white heroes wading into the world of an ethnic minority – be the Haitian refugees in Fresh Bones, Chinatown in Hell Money, African immigrants in Teliko or Mexican-Americans in El Mundo Gira. In the case of A Single Blade of Grass, Frank Black is wandering into the world of Native Americans in New York.

It goes without saying that these sorts of episodes have to be very careful. Both Millennium and The X-Files are very white television shows – they have exclusively white primary casts, and the vast majority of their supporting cast are also white. (Also, most of the writers’ rooms.) As such, telling a story about a subculture can be very tricky – it is easy to seem shallow or condescending, trite or exploitative. It is worth noting that some of the biggest misfires on The X-Files occurred when the production team got this horribly wrong – Excelsis Dei, Teso Dos Bichos, El Mundo Gira, Badlaa.

Burial mask...

Burial mask…

It is very easy to get caught up in mysticising and fetishising the Other, which can become quite problematic when “the Other” corresponds to a real-life minority that have – historically speaking – never been treated particularly well by those in authority. As such, A Single Blade of Grass feels like a very risky and very difficult story, particularly for a show that was already struggling in the ratings and trying to gain some traction with audiences. A Single Blade of Grass has the potential to go spectacularly wrong in places, and it is to the credit of all involved that it (mostly) doesn’t.

Then again, this is a large part of the appeal of the second season of Millennium – what makes even the year’s failures seem compelling in their own eccentric way. There is a sense that the second season of Millennium is completely unfazed by the possibility of failure, and so commits completely to what it wants to do. While A Single Blade of Grass might be a little muddled and unfocused in places, it retains a raw energy that makes for compelling viewing.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds...

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of worlds…

Native Americans have seldom been treated particularly well by popular culture. They are often reduced to mystical cyphers, symbolic representations of magical fantasy. In the mid-nineties, popular culture had coopted certain aspects of Native American as part of a revitalised “new age” movement, in a manner that was at best ill-advised and at worst downright crass. While the pop culture of the nineties had at least moved away from portraying the Native American people as stock villains in western adventure films, they had evolved into magical figures steeped in mysticism and secret knowledge.

There are lots of easy examples here – from the characterisation of Chakotay in the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager through to the spirit guide from Wayne’s World II. Even The X-Files would occasionally dabble in this sort imagery – Albert Hosteen’s pseudo-spiritual monologues about prophecy bookend Paper Clip, following Mulder’s resurrection-through-Native-American-ceremony in The Blessing Way. There are ways to use Native American spirituality in a thoughtful and considered fashion – Morgan and Wong’s Space: Above and Beyond did quite well with Stardust – but they were not the norm.

Throwing it all up in the air...

Throwing it all up in the air…

There are points where A Single Blade of Grass feels a little crass and tasteless in its portrayal of Native American culture – with ominous rituals and human sacrifices forming a mythology cobbled together from various different sources. There is something that feels almost exploitative in the way that Joe and his tribe are presented, something that feels like a shallow throwback to classic horror films about secret cults practicing weird magic within the confines of a more traditionally “civilised” environment – like a town or a city; in this case, New York.

There are other moments in A Single Blade of Grass that feel outdated and awkward. When Frank first meets Joe, he discovers the Native Americans who work on the construction site gambling amongst themselves. In the mid- to late-nineties, the stereotype of the “Casino Indian” began to enter the mainstream, with popular culture embracing the idea that Native Americans had begun owning and operating casinos on an almost industrial scale so as to subsidise their tribes. The stereotype of alcoholic and dependent Native Americans quickly gave way to the stereotype of “rich” or “greedy” Native Americans.

More like DE-struction site, amirite?

More like DE-struction site, amirite?

The issue quickly became a thorny one, with popular culture seldom offering a nuanced examination of the reality of these operations. Crass generalisations were the order of the day. However, gambling and Native Americans quickly became linked in the popular consciousness. To be fair, A Single Blade of Grass is not too crass in its portrayal of Native Americans gambling, but there is an unfortunate undertone to the sequence. Joe’s gambling is explicitly tied to his interpretation of apocalyptic prophecy, with the falling pieces juxtaposed against the rolling dice.

More than that, A Single Blade of Grass seems to offer a rather crass psychoanalysis of Native American culture, as if trying to explain why certain Native American communities have latched on to gambling as a hobby and (eventually) as a means to support themselves. The reality of the situation is a complex alignment of social and political factors that pushed certain Native American tribes towards the status quo. Instead, Joe offers a fairly trite generalisation. “Why does anyone gamble?” Joe asks. “Because they believe they are sure of the outcome. That they have some control over fate.”

That's the way Joe rolls...

That’s the way Joe rolls…

A Single Blade of Grass is an episode built around the idea of the historical persecution and oppression of Native American people. As such, the subtext of that remark – and, thus, the scene – seems obvious. As a member of the Native American community, Joe understands how it feels to seldom be in control of his own fate. Given the way that A Single Blade of Grass anchors Joe’s plot in the historical abuse of the Native Americans by the European settlers, it is hard not to interpret the conversation in a much larger (and more unfortunate) context.

However, A Single Blade of Grass works quite well outside of these awkward missteps. For all difficulties that the episode has with its Native American characters, it never feels as exploitative or as cynical as it might. The Native Americans are treated as an exotic Other, but the script is very careful to emphasise that these more fringe Native American beliefs are no different from the fringe Christian beliefs that run through the rest of the second season. (It just happens that most of the audience have a greater familiarity with Christian end-time imagery.)

Shining a light on murky subject matter...

Shining a light on murky subject matter…

“The prophecy,” Frank realises half-way through the episode. “This is a blueprint for another culture’s apocalypse.” Doctor Michaels is quick to add, “It… this is just symbolic. Like the Book of Revelation or any other religious apocrypha.” Frank responds by pointing out that there are certain vocal segments of Christianity who put considerable stock in Revelations. “The Book of Revelation may be portrayed allegorically but the over-arching idea of the apocalypse is real.” Similarly, Michaels mentions Nostradamus when discussing Hopi prophecy.

For all that A Single Blade of Grass sensationalises Native American culture, the episode is keen to stress that it is simply suggesting equivalency – the idea of the apocalypse is so broad that it transcends cultural boundaries. When Frank confronts Joe at the climax, he uses phrases that seem to foreshadow the rift in the Millennium Group in Owls and Roosters. “You invented this apocalypse. You created it, this ritual, out of old prophecy that never came true. These interpretations are out of your own desperation. It’s what you wish it to be. You’re seeing what you want it to be, Joe.” Joe is a “Rooster.”

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

The fractured Native American tribe is just another example of a recurring motif in the second season – it is a secret society that happens to exist as a divided family. Like the Millennium Group, the lost tribe have hidden in plain sight, coming together for a covert apocalyptic purpose. “What if the members of the lost tribe hid themselves among other tribes, and were so successful that the white man completely overlooked their existence?” Frank speculates in conversation with Michaels. Like the snake in the iconic ouroboros image, they hide in the grass – waiting to strike.

More than that, though, Joe is presented as a man desperately trying to bring a broken family back together. Examining the evidence, Frank notices that the shattering of the tribe damaged their ties to one another. “Through separation and time, the original prophecies have been lost or forgotten,” he observes, inviting the audience to wonder whether it might ever be put back together. Joe Reynard is yet another reflection of Frank Black in the second season, a man trying to pull a fractured family unit back together as the apocalypse looms.

Don't sweat it...

Don’t sweat it…

After all, A Single Blade of Grass makes it quite clear that the apocalypse Joe seeks is not some catastrophic end of the world. It is simple the end of a world – it is the destruction of the tribe, of the family. As much as the second season might build towards a gigantic and inevitable apocalypse, it seems to suggest that the end of the world is a deeply subjective and personal experience. Joe’s world comes to an end when his actions lead to the final dissolution of the tribe around him. A Single Blade of Grass is just one glimpse of a single apocalypse.

The script reinforces this sense of mirroring and reflecting. For all that the tribe are presented as an exotic “Other”, they exist in parallel to Frank and the Millennium Group. After all, the tribe ultimately return Frank’s gift of second sight – in a manner that was foretold by the Old Man back in Beware of the Dog. The dialogue is even structured so as to invite comparison, with characters using similar words and concepts to describe the prophetic visions experienced by the members of the tribe and those which haunt Frank.

Joe the Lion (of the Apocalypse)...

Joe the Lion (of the Apocalypse)…

“You’re moving to a new plane, Franklin,” the Old Man boasted in Beware of the Dog. Here, Michaels refers to the spiritual beliefs of the Native American tribe, warning Frank, “These people believed, and still do believe, in another plane of existence.” More pointedly, she wonders if Frank has access to that particular plane, “The Native American lands appear to have access to an elevated plane that no matter what I do or how much I think I understand, I just can’t get there. Do you believe in that plane? I mean, do you think that any of us could really get to it?”

Even the visual language of A Single Blade of Grass ties this case specifically back into the larger arc of the season. When Michaels begs the authorities to protect her site, Frank responds by drawing a circle in the ground around the object of interest. “There you go. You can have everything inside that line. The rest of the site stays closed until the investigation is complete. Is that a deal?” The circle is a recurring motif in Millennium, but particularly the ouroboros associated with the Millennium Group.

Night falls on Manhattan...

Night falls on Manhattan…

However, the idea of drawing that circle on the ground was articulated in Beware of the Dog, where it was suggested that the real meaning of the ouroboros had little to do with the snake itself. Instead, the circle was a simple division between those outside and those inside. Frank was able to protect himself in Beware of the Dog by standing inside a clearly marked circle. Beware of the Dog suggested that the Millennium Group see themselves as standing within a larger metaphorical circle. So Frank’s use of the circle to solve a similar purpose here feels like a nice call back.

(Indeed, the episode even provides a nice visual metaphor for the forensic process, when the investigators discover a body that has been torn apart and stitched back together. “There’s an ancient Seneca myth in which an attempt was made to revive a corpse by taking it apart and putting it back together again,” Michaels explains. “It usually followed an unsuccessful attempt by the victim to reach and return from the spirit world.” This is not too different from the work that Frank Black tries to do every day, trying to reverse-engineer evil.)

The truth never remains buried...

The truth never remains buried…

Of course, none of this clever mirroring quite dispels some of the more questionable aspects of the script, but they do provide a context. It is perfectly reasonable for Millennium to engage with a non-Christian and non-European end-times prophecy, but it is something that needs to be done carefully. The apocalyptic imagery employed by the second season of Millennium is generally Christian in nature, and that is a mode with which the audience are more familiar. So great care needs to be taken when employing imagery and iconography from other (less familiar) cultures.

And yet, despite all that, there are some sequences which really work in A Single Blade of Grass. The opening sequence is a delightfully playful riff on The Shining, with an upmarket hotel playing host to some dark occult powers. In The Shining, the Overlook Hotel was built on an honest-to-goodness Native American burial ground; in A Single Blade of Grass, the Blackburne Hotel plays host to secret Native American rituals in the basement. It is a very effective visualisation (and literalisation) of how the United States was built by European settlers on top of a preexisting culture.

"You might want to get the engineer down here. I think we need some new health and safety signs."

“You might want to get the engineer down here. I think we need some new health and safety signs.”

There is something decidedly ambitious about trying to close out an episode with a herd of buffalo stampeding through New York City. The show’s budget doesn’t quite stretch to make the sequence entirely convincing, but it does a respectable job with the tools available. The last time The X-Files attempted something like this, the show produced Fearful Symmetry; the climax to A Single Blade of Grass works a lot better, avoiding the old fall-back of “invisible animals” to help realise their four-legged apocalypse.

Reindl and Maher’s script makes an honest effort to present its Native American characters with a sense of texture and reality – the script is clear that “the apocalypse” is not just some crazy Native American mystical belief, but one common to the majority of cultures. The script does not treat its Native American characters as an amorphous body. When Frank asks Joe if he could tell whether the victim was religious, Joe replies, “He was Mohawk and I’m Hopi. How many Catholics could tell you what goes on in a Jewish temple?”

The rite stuff...

Last rites…

That said, the recognition that Native Americans are not a single unified body with a set of common beliefs and objectives is somewhat undercut by the revelation that every Native American featured in A Single Blade of Grass happens to be a member of the same secret tribe. Still, it is the thought that counts, and it is clear that Reindl and Maher have done their research on Native American traditions and beliefs even as they fashion them together into a patchwork quilt of prophetic visions and dissection. (And reassembly.)

At the same time, there is a sense that the script of A Single Blade of Grass is at least aware of its potentially problematic nature. Throughout the episode, Powell is presented as a ruthless industrialist who wants to tear down the relics of another society so he can build atop them. (“You have destroyed the memory of a people so you can build an office,” Michaels insists.) And yet, for all that, Powell makes the case that Michaels is exploiting Native American culture just much as he is. “You know something? You’re as bad as me. You’re digging them up, too.”

Let the pieces fall where they may...

Let the pieces fall where they may…

While it is absurd for Powell to claim that Michaels is “as bad as” he is, he does have a point. Michaels is arguably guilty of using the Native American culture as her own stepping stone. When she insists that she has “a responsibility” – a very entitled way of approaching another culture – Powell responds, “To a bunch of science journals.” There is a sense that any engagement of mainstream American popular culture with the culture of Native Americans needs to be very carefully interrogated. (Which feels, perhaps, like a confession that there are parts of A Single Blade of Grass that could be handled better.)

The script itself is also something of a mess. In particular, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman pops in as “Old Indian” for a single scene to offer some pseudo-mysticism before disappearing from the plot entirely. As with any plot involving covert secret societies, one is invited to wonder how Joe’s plans came to fruition – how or why the tribe reassembled in this time and place. The haziness and ambiguity adds a lot to the story, giving it an almost fuzzy dream-like logic. It might not all make sense, but it is so confident and trippy that it doesn’t really have to.

"Wait, so how scattered is the tribe if it is all localised in Manhattan? And how do they keep track of members from generation to generation? There are plot holes here you could ride a buffalo through..."

“Wait, so how scattered is the tribe if it is all localised in Manhattan? And how do they keep track of members from generation to generation? There are plot holes here you could ride a buffalo through…”

In an interview with Back to Frank Black discussing their work on the show, writers Erin Maher and Kay Reindl that explained some of the issues were rooted in production realities:

The night before they were going to shoot the big museum sequence they cut the budget, and we had to basically rewrite Act Three overnight, which is one of the problems with the episode. ‘Okay, you can’t do this whole giant sequence that we had planned, so you guys need to rewrite this by nine o’clock.’ As you work more in television, that’s something you find can happen and you just kind of have to be ready for it. We’ve done a lot of rewriting episodes in twenty-four hours. It just happens, but that was our first episode and we weren’t as prepared for it. There was a huge thing with a wolf, and things coming alive, and we couldn’t do it.

A Single Blade of Grass is the first script by Kay Reindl and Erin Maher produced for television, and it is a surprisingly confident debut from the duo.

Not a man you want to cross...

Not a man you want to cross…

Like Michael R. Perry, Kay Reindl and Erin Maher would remain on Millennium into the third season – remaining past the departure of producers Glen Morgan and James Wong. While the writing room on The X-Files had an extraordinary impact on twenty-first century television, it should be noted that Millennium also produced its fair share of future talent. Chip Johannessen is perhaps the most obvious example – after running the third season of Millennium, he moved on to Dexter. Kay Reindl and Erin Maher would work on UPN’s short-lived reboot of The Twilight Zone and then on Legend of the Seeker.

The new writers working on the second season generally fared better than the writers who worked on the first season. While Chip Johannessen was the only new addition to the Ten Thirteen writers’ stable in the first year who returned for the second, several of the best-loved episodes of the second season were credited to Ten Thirteen neophytes. It seems likely that Morgan and Wong played a huge part of this; during the first season of Millennium, Chris Carter’s attention was split between The X-Files and Millennium, meaning that the writer did not always have the time to guide and oversee the staff on both shows.

Going around in circles...

Going around in circles…

In fact, Reindl herself is quick to credit Morgan and Wong as creative collaborators and producers:

Morgan and Wong are the best people in TV, bar none. They protect the work, sometimes going out of their way to do so, and they are experienced and genuinely nice people. They also had a very clear idea of what they wanted from the outset and it was something we were very interested in. We’re all over secret societies and stuff like that and we always wanted to see that explored with the Millennium Group. Morgan and Wong were terrific in that regard. You could pitch anything to them and they were very open-minded. I think that comes out of knowing where the show is going.

Despite the periodically muddled plotting or the occasional difficulty reconciling ambition and execution, the second season is a phenomenal accomplishment.

Masking their intentions...

Masking their intentions…

While Morgan and Wong are credited as writers on more than half the season, even the entries not credited to them remain in keeping with the broad themes of the year. Even in episodes that are in keeping with the tone of a particular writer – Chip Johannessen’s contributions in Sense and Antisense and Luminary, for example – there is still a very clear sense of how those stories fit into the larger picture. There is arguably a clearer direction and purpose to the second season of Millennium than there would be for any season of The X-Files beyond the eighth.

Hiring Kay Reindl and Erin Maher was a gamble on the part of Morgan and Wong. The duo had no produced writing credits to their name when they joined the staff. Their first produced piece of television outside of Millennium, the television movie Hollyweird, would not be broadcast until 1998. However, it was a gamble that paid off. The story of how Maher and Reindl came to be working on Millennium has become an oft-told story, one of the great pieces of lore that developed around Ten Thirteen’s production history.

He really needs a nice venomous retort...

He really needs a nice venomous retort…

Glen Morgan first met Kay Reindl on the internet message boards while he was working on The Field Where I Died the previous year. As Reindl tells Back to Frank Black:

On The X-Files message boards on AOL, back in those beautiful, horrible days, they were doing The Field Where I Died, which had not aired yet, and everyone was talking about what the idea was. And I said, ‘Oh, it just sounds like they’re going to crew it up!’ Glen was posting on the message boards every now and then, and he posts a really nasty message at me, like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ I was mortified.

Through mutual friends, Reindl and Maher would meet Morgan in person at an awards event that very same evening. When Morgan and Wong were putting together a staff for the second season of Millennium, they invited Reindl and Maher aboard.

Artifact, not arti-fiction!

Artifact, not arti-fiction!

It is a nice little story that explains how much the industry had changed in the nineties – how much more accessible developments like the internet had made these sorts of interactions and engagements. Television in the nineties seemed to be more open in how it recruited writers. Future Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore infamously got his big break when he brought a spec script along with him on a studio tour of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Michael Piller made the Star Trek franchise the only television show in America that would accept unsolicited scripts.

Along with the Star Trek franchise, The X-Files had been one of the first shows to really accept and acknowledge its on-line fanbase. The writers have openly admitted to reading reviews and message boards. Although Reindl and Maher were later introduced to Morgan in the flesh, their story perhaps represents the logical end point of this approach. They became the first Ten Thirteen writers to meet and interact with the production staff through the message boards. They turned out to be very successful writers, as well.

Digging up more information...

Digging up more information…

A Single Blade of Grass is a problematic and messy episode, but it never quite collapses under its own weight in the same way that Sense and Antisense does. It decides to push through all of its issues, offering atmosphere and surreal imagery to cover over plotting ambiguities and potentially unfortunate implications. A Single Blade of Grass is a nice indication of baseline quality for the second season of Millennium – a script that might not necessary realise its ambitions in the best possible manner, but one with no shortage of bold ideas.

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

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