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Millennium – The Hand of St. Sebastian (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.

The Hand of St. Sebastian closes out the first third of the second season of Millennium. It also marks the half-way point in the episodes credited to Morgan and Wong as writers over the course of the season – it is the sixth of a phenomenal twelve scripts credited to the showrunners, even outside their responsibilities as executive producers. In many ways, The Hand of St. Sebastian represents the point at which the stage has been completely set. It establishes the last of the basic ideas that the team will play with across the rest of the season.

The Curse of Frank Black and 19:19 had affirmed that Christian eschatology would be a driving force for the show, as if that had ever been in doubt. After all, the first season’s big two-part epic had been Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, an epic story about demons and angels. More than that, Morgan and Wong had revised the opening credits sequence of the show so that it ended with the promise that “the time is near”, an obvious textual reference to Revelation.

Circle of trust...

Circle of trust…

The Hand of St. Sebastian confirms what was inferred in Beware of the Dog when Frank pointed out that the ouroboros was “used as a secret symbol on early Christian graves.” Here, the Millennium Group itself is identified as an ancient Christian organisation, one interested in ancient Christian relics for their spiritual and magical uses. There is a decidedly pulpy feel to the second season; one that is particularly evident in The Hand of St. Sebastian, as Frank and Peter go abroad to do a modern day Raiders of the Lost Ark on a nineties television budget. Ambition is not the worst vice.

However, The Hand of St. Sebastian is perhaps most notable for putting the focuse squarely on the character of Peter Watts. Naturally, Frank plays a pretty vital role in The Hand of St. Sebastian, but the episode does a lot to develop Peter as a character. It builds off his powerful speech in The Beginning and the End to portray a man of faith searching for validation and meaning in the world. The second season really capitalised on the presence of Terry O’Quinn, recognising the actor’s immense talent and helping to establish him as a televisual talent to watch.

This is who we were...

This is who we were…

For most of the first season, Peter Watts was presented as something of a convenient exposition machine. His name even alludes to this function – “Watts” cannot help by evoke “Watson.” To be fair, Terry O’Quinn was very good at delivering this sort of dialogue, a fact evidenced as early as his lecture on Eastern Europe in Gehenna. That is probably why the character of Peter Watts hung around longer than any of the other members of the Millennium Group, like Jim Penseyres or Mike Atkins.

Sure, Peter would occasionally get a bit more to do, but these were the exception rather than the rule. What little characterisation existed for Peter Watts over the course of the first season came from the scripts written by Chip Johannessen, whether it was his patronising dismissal of Dennis Hoffman in Force Majeure or his understandable frustration with Frank’s stubbornness in Walkabout. Mostly though, Peter seemed to exist to help Frank make the realisations that would drive the plot, and to be an expert in whatever the plot required.

The mythology really explodes here...

The mythology really explodes here…

If Terry O’Quinn came to be affectionately known as “Mister Ten Thirteen” for his work with Chris Carter, Peter Watts might as well have been “Mister Exposition” in the first season. Terry O’Quinn acknowledged this character function when he discussed the role with The AV Club, suggesting that there was a reason that Peter got all the exposition:

I remember Lance [Henriksen] hated exposition. He hated it! [Laughs.] And every time, he’d say, “Terry can say that. Let him say that!” He had trouble with his lines. But he could run the gamut from being the funniest guy you ever heard to one of the moodiest, that you’d just stay away from. But a riveting actor. I don’t remember too much else, though. See, Peter to me is, like, one of those un-character guys. You don’t know who he is. So many people I’ve played—and maybe it’s because I bring it to it—are kind of undefinable, whether they’re wearing the white hat or the black hat, whether they’re good or bad. He was just one of the first of those.

As O’Quinn suggests, the character of Peter Watts that developed over the course of the second season is very much in keeping with the roles that O’Quinn has played since. In particular, the version of Peter presented in the second season is a precursor to the role of John Locke on Lost, the character who would win O’Quinn an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series.

His faith is on the line...

His faith is on the line…

Both Peter Watts and John Locke are motivated by a desire to see their faith validated. Both men desperately want to believe in something much larger and more meaningful than themselves. Terry O’Quinn excels in these roles because he brings a very grounded sincerity to the characters. It takes quite a bit of time before the audience confronts the fanaticism of Peter Watts and John Locke – the bones of an entire season in both cases. O’Quinn plays both characters as stoic authority figures, which makes their passionate beliefs all the more surprising and intriguing.

Pop culture has conditioned audiences to expect zealots defined almost exclusively by their beliefs. Part of this is down to the law of conservation of detail, but part of that is also down to the fact that “true believer” is often a broadly-drawn stereotype. Millennium has already presented its own version of religious fanatics adhering to that template – consider the Polaroid Stalker in The Beginning and the End, Joe Reynard in A Single Blade of Grass or Matthew Prine in 19:19. Peter Watts is a very different sort of religious zealot – one who feels a lot more human and grounded.

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

A large part of this is down to O’Quinn’s performance. With his northern central accent and his skill for delivering exposition, O’Quinn tends to play characters as no-nonsense types. Peter Watts seems like a man on whom you can count, reliable and stoic. (Similarly, John Locke is notably the castaway who proves most capable of surviving on the island in the early episodes.) However, O’Quinn also has a wonderful reservoir of emotion. As good as he is playing competent and commanding, he is just as good playing vulnerable and desperate.

This is a tough transition for an actor, and O’Quinn does it brilliantly. Just like part of the joy of the second season is watching Lance Henriksen bring all of Frank Black’s emotions bubbling to the surface, it is intriguing to discover that Peter is not the rock that he originally appeared to be. For all that Peter projects certainty and stability, he has a very clear need to know that his faith will be rewarded. We expect characters like Matthew Prine or Joe Reynard to ascribe value to religious artifacts and spiritual prophecy. To see someone like Peter Watts embrace that level of belief catches us off-guard.

"Why yes, I specifically asked my secretary to light the room to make me appear as ominous as possible."

“Why yes, I specifically asked my secretary to light the room to make me appear as ominous as possible.”

While Glen Morgan was working on the script for The Curse of Frank Black, James Wong was in charge of the scripts for 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian. According to Wong, part of the appeal of The Hand of St. Sebastian was giving Terry O’Quinn more material with which to work:

“I felt that by revealing that the Millennium Group had existed for centuries and setting the episode overseas, that would give the story greater scope and weight,” Wong said. “I also thought it would be interesting to get Peter excited about something that was not sanctioned by the Group and to show that he will do something like that. Terry is such a great actor, and we thought he deserved something to do instead of just saying, ‘That’s right, Frank…’You’re right again, Frank.’ I thought, ‘What’s a great way to divide the Group?’ I thought about doing a spy kind of show. I was doing research on the Knights Templar and the Masons, and it seems like all those groups had other groups who were against them and betrayed them. There was so much intrigue. I realized that this is how groups act, and I thought, why shouldn’t the Millennium Group have the same thing?”

As well as developing the character of Peter Watts, The Hand of St. Sebastian expands greatly on the mythology of the Millennium Group as a whole – setting in motion plot threads that will play across the second the season.

He remains cagey on the matter...

He remains cagey on the matter…

The opening of the episode reveals that the Millennium Group has been around for quite some time – following a member of the Group in medieval Europe as he smuggles the eponymous artifact from what is now Italy into what is now Germany. Although the context is undeniably different, the iconography remains the same. “This is who we are,” the members of the Millennium Group introduce themselves. The ouroboros has apparently endured as a symbol the Group, appearing as a tattoo on the body of the unlucky relic smuggler.

The Hand of St. Sebastian is very much a product of the late nineties, reflecting a renewed interest in the secret history of the Catholic Church. Popular culture seemed to have a keen interest in the mythology and history of the religion as the new millennium approached – perhaps an extension of the contemporaneous fascination with doomsday prophecy and the apocalyptic spectacle. Perhaps as a result of the more liberal and secular mood of the nineties, it seemed that it was possible to suggest and explore ideas that might have been deemed heretical at earlier times.

He'll show the group Watts' Watts.

He’ll show the group Watts’ Watts.

For example, Opus Dei came into focus. In the early nineties, it was revealed that they were instrumental in organising and supporting Operation: Gladio, the “stay behind” campaign planned by NATO in case the Soviet Union mounted an invasion of Europe. Even other branches of the Church were intrigued by the secrecy cultivated by Opus Dei. In an article published in the French Catholic magazine Le sel de la terre in late 1994, Nicolas Dehan pondered their activities. In early 1995, Father James Martin to write a controversial investigative article about the sect for America Magazine.

More than that, there was a renewed fascination in stories about the alleged secret histories of Jesus Christ. Although there had been speculation dating back to the writings of Louis Martin in the late nineteenth century, the nineties saw renewed interest in the idea of a bloodline descended from Jesus Christ. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail had originally been published in 1982, but it was republished in 1996. There were other non-fiction books exploring the idea in the nineties – like Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls or The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.

Putting the "evil" in "medieval."

Putting the “evil” in “medieval.”

While the actual historical value of these works is debatable (at best), it is hard to deny that they had a massive impact on popular culture. Peter Berling wrote Die Kinder des Gral in German in 1991, but it was translated as The Children of the Grail for American markets in 1996. The idea of a bloodline descended from Jesus Christ was also a core theme of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, a comic book series which launched in March 1995. It was no wonder that Millennium would touch on the idea in Anamnesis later in the second season.

Even the trade in Christian relics – or “simony” – saw an increase in popularity during the nineties, with concerned individuals like Thomas Serafin working hard to prevent the illegal trade in Christian relics since the end of the decade. (For his work, Serafin has had 1,200 religious relics placed in his personal care.) The trade even picked in Ireland over the decade, fueled by a prosperous economy. If Frank and Peter did not manage to get ahold of the eponymous dismembered limb, they could always wait for it to show up at auction at Christies – who recently rejected the hand of a saint for being in poor condition.

Grave concerns...

Grave concerns…

In some respects, the second season of Millennium is a much closer mirror of The X-Files than the first or even third seasons. While The X-Files is a show absolutely fascinated with conspiracies built around American UFO lore, the second season of Millennium is engaged with secret societies built around the fringes of Christian mythology. It would be easy enough to re-write The Hand of St. Sebastian as an episode of The X-Files, replacing a venerated saint with an extraterrestrial.

While there are a number of obvious and significant differences between the conspiracies presented in Millennium and The X-Files – most superficially, Millennium wraps up its conspiracy with a bang, while The X-Files concludes its own with a thud – but there are clear areas of overlap. There is an international element, a secret history, with paranormal touches. There are men in suits discussing the fate of the world, mysticism and pseudo-science, Nazis. (There are always Nazis.) No wonder the second season brings The X-Files and Millennium closest to intersection, with Jose Chung and a pack of Morleys.

An artist's depiction...

An artist’s depiction…

The Hand of St. Sebastian is very much a “mythology” episode of Millennium, adopting the same sort of veiled and ambiguous approach to narrative. Philip Baker Hall makes the first of three appearances as “Group Elder” (a credit similar to the “First Elder” convention used on The X-Files), and the actor readily admits his own confusion about what precisely was going on:

Yeah, well, that… I don’t know what they were doing with that. That was an odd series. Also shot up there in Canada. All I remember is being out there in the woods somewhere, and they’d take us to some remote location, put a dead chicken on the table or something, and somebody would say — in the script, I mean — all these odd words, spirits would come in, and I was supposed to be the embodiment of the spirit… I mean, to tell you the truth, it was not a show that I watched, so I wasn’t into the mythology of it or the language of it. I guess it had its fans, but I did several episodes, and I couldn’t quite… I never quite knew where they were going with it. So I never understood the character. I was the physical embodiment of a spiritual presence, but was it a good presence or not? I don’t know. I never understood it. I get these amazing residuals from there every couple of months, though. 14 cents, 23 cents, one dollar and nine cents. And that’ll be for, like, 50 showings or something. [Laughs.] Very bizarre. Pretty weird.

No wonder Millennium looks so strange to those on the outside – interviews and commentaries make it seem like it was just as confusing to those actually working on the show at the time. The Hand of St. Sebastian is itself a decidedly confusing and ambiguous episode – an intentionally murky piece of television.

"Just hanging around up here, atop the fire escape. As you do."

“Just hanging around up here, atop the fire escape. As you do.”

It is, for example, very difficult to figure out who exactly Cheryl Andrews was working for or what her motivations might be – even in hindsight. (Skull and Bones does little to clarify the matter.) Andrews does not appear to be an Owl or a Rooster. It seems unlikely that she is a member of ODESSA. She could be working for The Trust, but they only make their appearance in The Fourth Horseman. She could be working for an anonymous and identified party. She could be working for herself.

However, this murkiness would seem to be entirely the point. The point of The Hand of St. Sebastian is not to reveal the enemies lurking in the shadows – it is simply to assure the audience that there are enemies lurking in the shadows. For all that the second season of Millennium builds a grand conspiracy mythology, it never lingers too heavily on any one attribute of it. ODESSA is dispatched in the story where it is first explicitly identified. The Trust are heaped on to the mythology in the season finalé shortly before the end of the world.

"What do you mean I don't get to carry my own episode?"

“What do you mean I don’t get to carry my own episode?”

While it is clear that Morgan and Wong have painstakingly researched their history of conspiracy theories and secret societies, the finer details of those conspiracy theories and secret societies are less interesting than the fact that they all exist. Part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that Morgan and Wong only ever planned to produce a single season. Millennium was never going to produce an episode called “Musings of a Group Elder” or anything like that. So there is a sense that the vagary and randomness is entirely intentional and logical.

After all, it perhaps offers a more accurate depiction of the conspiratorial mindset than that on offer in The X-Files. By its nature, the conspiracy in The X-Files was rather monolithic. Sure, there were episodes dedicated to Japanese (Nisei and 731) and Russia (Tunguska and Terma) conspiracies, but the show made it quite clear that there was only one game in town. As far as the overall plot of the show went, all the power in The X-Files flowed through the syndicate to the colonists. There were betrayals and resistance within that, but it was all part of a clear framework.

Well, that's gonna be a pain to get out...

Well, that’s gonna be a pain to get out…

In contrast, Millennium tends to present its conspiracies as free-form and expansive. It seems that Frank Black can’t throw a stone in the second season without hitting some group with a sinister interest in the new millennium. These organisations and agendas seem to compete – no one conspiratorial approach is entire dominant. The Millennium Group are just more thoroughly explored, because Frank Black happens to be a member. It is easy enough to imagine that The Trust or ODESSA have their own internal dramas on this scale.

In a way, this reflects the way that people tend to approach conspiracy theories in the real world. There is not one single monolithic conspiracy theory that accounts for every ominous event in human history, and there is not universal agreement on the details of conspiracy theories covering particular events. Conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana, for example, can alternatively suggest that she faked her death and is alive, or that she was actually murdered.

"Fancy running into you here..."

“Fancy running into you here…”

While common sense would suggest that these two beliefs are irreconcilable – that a conspiracy theorist must choose one over the other – there is evidence to suggest that this is not the case. Studies have suggested that conspiracy theorists are capable of harbouring many theories that would seem mutually exclusive, all tied together with a general attitude of skepticism or mistrust of authority:

In any case, the evidence we have gathered in the present study supports the idea that conspiracism constitutes a monological belief system, drawing its coherence from central beliefs such as the conviction that authorities and officials engage in massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent goals. Connectivity with this central idea lends support to any individual conspiracy theory, even to the point that mutually contradictory theories fail to show a negative correlation in belief. Believing that Osama bin Laden is still alive is apparently no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.

Conspiracy theories are contradictory and competitive. Like the various organisations in Millennium, they compete for space and attention. However, the second season of Millennium does not suggest that there is one over-arching conspiracy. Instead, it seems to suggest that all conspiracy theories might be true. The Time is Now even slyly ties the conspiracy from The X-Files into this web of paranoia.

All good in the woods...

All good in the woods…

That said, the murkiness of The Hand of St. Sebastian is a problem in other areas. The reveal that Cheryl Andrews is a traitor to the group really should be a big twist, but the audience doesn’t know enough about Cheryl Andrews to really care one way or the other. CCH Pounder is a great actress, but it has been almost a full season since the audience saw Andrews. Andrews appeared three times over the course of the first season, but she was very thinly drawn. Despite casting CCH Pounder, she was ultimately another example of Millennium-Group-member-as-exposition-device.

Andrews feels like a character brought back purely so the show can write her out. Her betrayal is a plot hook attached to a convenient character, rather than a character developed towards a reveal. There are ways that this might have worked better. Andrews could easily have been written into a supporting role in scripts like The Beginning and the End, Sense and Antisense or A Single Blade of Grass – scripts where her presence would not have interfered with the beats allocated to Peter Watts or Lara Means, but where her presence would have re-established her in the mind of the audience.

Saint or sinner...

Saint or sinner…

Of course, even if Andrews had appeared in earlier scripts, she would still be something of a cypher – a background character who was largely a waste of a great actress who deserves better material. Still, given how quickly Morgan and Wong had characterised Lara Means and recharacterised Frank Black and Peter Watts, that need not be the case. There are undoubtedly lots of valid creative and production reasons why Cheryl Andrews’ first and only second season appearance is the appearance which reveals her as a traitor, but it is perhaps the most unsatisfying element of the plot.

(That said, the plotting of The Hand of St. Sebastian is quite frustratingly in places. The idea that Schlossburg’s password is the name of his favourite porn star is cute, but it relies on that old cliché that nobody in television or film uses random characters in their passwords. Similarly, it feels a little contrived that Frank and Peter literally stumble into the eponymous relic. It feels like the logic of a point-and-click adventure game. Which is fun in a pulpy way, but no less contrived for it.)

"I knew it was you, Cheryl. And it breaks my heart."

“I knew it was you, Cheryl. And it breaks my heart.”

The Hand of St. Sebastian is interesting in other respects. For all that the second season of Millennium is a show about the apocalypse, it is also fascinated by the idea of the circle – the ouroboros in the show’s title becomes more than a cool image, but a recurring motif. The Hand of St. Sebastian confirms that this is not the Millennium Group’s first dance with the end of the world – that they were also active a thousand years earlier on another continent. It expands and deepens the mythology, in a way that just screams for a comic book miniseries.

In a way, The Hand of St. Sebastian links 19:19 and Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, suggesting that everybody wants to believe that they are living at the most crucial point in human history – and that the apocalypse is really just a fantasy that emphasises an individual’s self-importance. The year 2000 becomes a lot less important when everybody remembers that mankind got through the year 1000 okay. The second season of Millennium is still building towards the apocalypse, but it is a nice thematic thread that ties back into the recurring idea that the apocalypse is deeply personal.

Pete and Frank's European Vacation...

Pete and Frank’s European Vacation…

The Hand of St. Sebastian emphasises the idea that time might be roughly circular – that patterns may recur and repeat. “You are on a path that has no beginning, no middle and no end, because it is a matter of faith,” the Group Elder advises Peter at the start of the episode. Examining the body found in the bog, Peter reflects, “I look at this man and I wonder. He fought the same fight we waged today. Did he have the knowledge that we lack? The knowledge to overcome the evils of the millennium?”

It could all easily become a bit too heavy and bit too self-serious, and it’s to the credit of The Hand of St. Sebastian (and the second season as a whole) that the show remains aware of its pulpiness. The apocalyptic undertones of the season are not only reflected in biblical prophecy and doomsday visions, but also in the fact that Beneath the Planet of the Apes is playing on Roedecker’s television when Peter calls. The episode joins Roedecker before the point where Charleton Heston detonates an atomic warhead, killing all life on Earth.

That just blew up in his face...

That just blew up in his face…

(For extra points, even Beneath the Planet of the Apes plays into the idea of recursion and repetition. The Planet of the Apes famously ended with Heston breaking down in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, declaring, “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” For all the (many, many) flaws with Beneath the Planet of the Apes, there is something poetic in the revelation that Taylor himself eventually destroys the world. It’s a nice fun bit of mirroring, particularly in light of future developments relating to the Millennium Group.)

The inclusion of Beneath the Planet of the Apes fits quite comfortably with the larger mood of the season. Morgan and Wong are quite fond of including references to music and films in their scripts, and the second season draws quite heavily from an apocalyptic strand of popular culture – from the inclusion of Talking Heads’ Life During Wartime in The Beginning and the End to the use of In the Year 2525 over the closing credits of The Time is Now. It’s also a nice call back to Darin Morgan’s inclusion of Planet of the Apes in War of the Coprophages.

A bloody history...

A bloody history…

Indeed, this engagement with popular culture leads to one of the more subtly gonzo moments in the second season of Millennium. Josef Heim is one of the most intriguing one-shot guest characters in the history of Millennium, a German detective whose English is informed by pop culture conventions. Outlining his theory of what happened, he explains, in a thick German accent, “The doctor surprised some freakin’ dirtbag. The attacker escape in this window and from the blood trail we detect an injury. The doctor maybe kicked him in the, in the labonza.”

Not only does Heim allow Morgan and Wong to slip a little profanity under the radar (“it seems a Mongolian cluster flock has appeared”), but also as a celebration of American police officers in popular culture. Heim insists, “I learn much about good detective work from American TV police shows. Sipowicz, Kojak, Hunter, Tony Scali.” When Frank Black doesn’t recognise the last name, Heim replies, “The Commish.” Although a bit less well-known than the other examples, Morgan and Wong did work on the show shortly before joining The X-Files.

"Sorry, trying to come up with a line."

“Sorry, trying to come up with a line.”

This all pays off at the end of the story, when Heim takes Andrews into custody. “May I say it now, Mr. Black?” Heim asks, eagerly. Frank nods, bemused by it all. “Book ’em, Danno. Murder one.” It is a very silly little sequence, but one that underscores just how delightfully odd Millennium has become in its second season. It would be hard to imagine the first season allowing anything as ridiculous as that into the episode, and even The X-Files would have difficulty with it outside a comedy episode. However, Heim is nowhere near the strangest element of the season.

The plotting of The Hand of St. Sebastian might be a little muddled, but the episode demonstrates how confident and surreal Millennium has become in its second season. The show never loses sight of Frank and Peter, even as it embraces the idea of an absurdly heightened world around them. More than that, The Hand of St. Sebastian marks the end of the first act of the second season. Everything is set up. The show can now begin really playing with its big ideas.

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

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