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Millennium – The Pest House (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.

Millennium is largely a show about the nature of evil.

It feels a little redundant to point that out more than halfway through the second of three seasons, but it is worth repeating. When Chris Carter created Millennium, he designed the show to explore the many faces of evil in a variety of ways. It could be argued that Millennium was largely spawned from episodes of The X-Files like Irresistible or Grotesque, stories fascinated by very human forms of evil that almost become supernatural. Carter and his writers played with that idea over the course of the first season, particularly in episodes like The Pilot and Lamentation.

A pointed commentary?

A pointed commentary?

However, Carter was not the guiding visionary for all of Millennium‘s run. He remained involved in the production of the show, but the day-to-day running of the series was handed over to Glen Morgan and James Wong, who immediately reinvented it from the ground up. One of the more interesting aspects of this transition is watching the differences in how the two creative teams approach various aspects of Millennium. In many ways, The Pest House would be read as an exploration and critique of Carter’s approach towards the concept of evil by Morgan and Wong.

Carter’s work seems to suggest that evil is an external and infectious force – a contagion or pathogen that can be passed from one person (or generation) to another. In contrast, Morgan and Wong seem to argue that evil must be rooted in a person, that it must come from inside rather than outside. The Pest House contrasts these two different visions of evil, finding Morgan and Wong playing with the recurring Ten Thirteen trope of evil as a transferable quantity that can be moved and reallocated. And The Pest House seems horrified by such a concept.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

One of the big recurring themes of The X-Files is the idea that corruption and decay are infectious and contagious. It is an idea that frequently finds expression both in the central mythology and in the stand-alone monster of the week stories. The mythology is fundamentally about Mulder paying for the crimes committed by his father, a burden of guilt passed down from father to son. The black oil represents a very literal form of corruption – darkness that infects and controls a human host.

In the fourth and fifth seasons of The X-Files, Chris Carter repeatedly returns to the idea that evil worms its way into people’s lives. The deal with the devil (or the Cigarette-Smoking Man) becomes a recurring motif. Walter Skinner takes such a deal in Memento Mori, only to become contaminated by it in Zero Sum. Mulder proves himself a hero by rejecting two such deals over the course of Redux II. In such cases, evil can be kept firmly outside, separate from the individual. You can build defenses against it, and you have to let it in.

Well, that's never going to pass a food safety inspection...

Well, that’s never going to pass a food safety inspection…

Mulder confronts the idea of infectious evil first-hand in Grotesque, in which it seems that the insanity of a brutal serial killer has become contagious. In Aubrey, a woman finds herself infected by her biological father’s evil. The theme recurs throughout the show’s nine season run. The penultimate season features Empedocles, an episode in which evil seems to hop from person to person in a horrific game of tag. Even in stand-alone episodes, such infectious evil strikes close to home; it attacks Mulder’s mentor and it may have killed Doggett’s son.

The first season of Millennium even featured a few similar ideas. It is suggested that evil is almost background noise into which Frank can tune himself so as to glimpse the visions of mad men. The late-season two-parter Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions featured demons that could change form and showed up to offer Frank bargains and deals in return for his eternal service. Paper Dove arguably went one step further, teasing the idea that the Polaroid stalker had been encouraging and enabling serial killers, stoking and spreading evil and corruption.

Killer instinct...

Killer instinct…

In contrast, things began to change with The Beginning and the End. The idea of the Polaroid stalker spreading evil was quietly brushed aside. Although deals with the devil were still allowed, Peter and Frank both internalised them. The Beginning and the End suggested that evil might have taken root inside the Millennium Group itself, and perhaps even within Frank. Beware of the Dog made it clear that the idea of an epic conflict between good and evil was perhaps too naive and simplistic. The only sides worth worrying about were “inside” and “outside.”

So The Pest House really pushes these ideas to the fore. In many respects, this is a story in the style of those “infectious evil” narratives. At a psychiatric hospital, a nurse has decided to take the insanity and violence of the patients upon himself. Edward tries to heal those sick and suffering by effectively removing their evil from them and struggling with it himself. He liberates these violent individuals from the burden of their darker natures. On the surface, this feels like a companion piece to Grotesque or Empedocles.

A killer hook...

A killer hook…

However, The Pest House is quite clear that Edward is not doing anybody any favours. The idea of “transferring” evil like that does not solve any problems. More than that, The Pest House portrays Edward’s attempts to “heal” the patients as a grotesque violation of their individuality and their autonomy. It is up to the patients to own their own darker impulses; this violence is a fundamental part of who they are, and so removing it from them denies them agency and identity. Evil is something that cannot (or should not) be separated from an individual.

In fact, the patients in The Pest House repeatedly identify the evil as their own – even when it has been carved out of them like some malignant tumour. “I didn’t do it,” Woodcock tells Frank and Peter. “But it’s mine. It’s all mine.” Later, Bear works himself into a frenzy trying to reconcile the inherent contradiction. He describes Edward’s activities in a way that frame them as abuse. “He… he touched me,” Bear gasps. “Inside me. He take it out. Take everything out.” He explains, “The boy. The girl. Were mine. Inside me. Mine, but not me.”

Cutting deep...

Cutting deep…

Even the monstrous and manipulative Purdue admits to being deeply unsettled by what is happening – haunted by the prospect that a part of his soul might be cut out and devoured by Edward. “I want you to really listen to me and pay attention,” he warns Doctor Ellen Stoller. “Because I’m scared. I don’t want to change like Woodcock and Bear and I’m afraid it’s gonna happen.” It is a haunting idea, and it is telling that The Pest House seems almost sympathetic to Purdue without shying away from the horror of what he has done or will do.

As unpleasant and uncomfortable as it might be, The Pest House suggests that “evil” is not an external force. Instead, it is a facet of human nature and human behaviour. It is an intrinsic part of who we are, and it cannot be conveniently externalised and exorcised. The Pest House quite heavily condemns Edward for what he is attempting to do. At one point, Edward recalls a brutal assault by a patient on another staff member named Rachel. “He snuffed the glow out of her that day. Rachel’s gone now.” In a way, The Pest House suggests that what Edward is doing is quite similar.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

The Pest House ultimately suggests that evil is ultimately at home inside of people. Even though Edward can manage to remove that evil from some of the residents, he cannot dispel it completely. It has to go somewhere. It cannot conveniently transform itself into a demon or some black oil – something that is clearly not human and something that can be contained or destroyed. Instead, evil seems to need a home inside somebody. “I think he figured out a way to take it out of them, but he couldn’t take it out of himself,” Frank reflects. “And that’s what I think.”

The idea of evil as a contagion is mirrored in the use of familiar urban legends. The Pest House runs through a bunch of classic modern day folklore – from a variation on “the hook” through the “scraping on the boyfriend’s car” to the “finger found in food” to the “killer lurking in the back seat.” In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to a “unit of cultural inheritance.” Urban legends are arguably a great example – ideas that spread like wildfire. The Pest House uses them as an effective mirror of the evil that seems to be spreading or moving.

Trapped inside...

Trapped inside…

The Pest House feels very much in keeping with the tone of the second year. While the episode does not feature any overt reference to the end of the world, it does reiterate the idea that the apocalypse must be a deeply personal experience. At the climax, Purdue seizes control of the hospital’s speaker system to denounce Edward, describing him in terms that seem almost demonic and suggesting that Edward embodies the end of everything that makes his victims unique. “Don’t listen to his lies. What you get isn’t life, it’s nothing.”

There is also an overtly religious subtext to the episode as well. Edward ability to literally take these evils upon himself conjures up images straight of Christian theology. In The Gospel According to John, Jesus Christ was described as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” What is Edward but a literal representation of that idea, a man willing to take the sins of others upon himself so as to deliver them from evil and grant them peace in their day? It is certainly a bold idea, one that adds to the sense of religious mysticism surrounding the season.

Shadowy figure...

Shadowy figure…

In fact, Edward’s conduct calls to mine the ancient tradition of “sin eating.” A religious practice long frowned-upon by the church, the sin eater would symbolically eat and drink at the house of the recently deceased, so as to take the sins of the departed upon his or her self. As Bertram S. Puckle notes in Funeral Customs, this was a rich and long tradition:

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

Indeed, the tradition endured in the United Kingdom for quite a while. The last recorded sin eater in the United Kingdom passed away as recently as 1906. In a way, Edward is only updating the rich tradition by eating the sins of the living. Ultimately, the effects are quite similar; the reason that there was such a social stigma associated with sin eating is because it was felt that the sin eater took the evil unto themselves.

Blood on the windshield...

Blood on the windshield…

The Pest House is an interesting script from Morgan and Wong. The duo are credited on writers on over half of the second season, but most of their scripts are quite firmly tied to the arc of the season – whether the expanding mythology of the Millennium Group or Frank Black’s hero’s journey. The Pest House exists as something of an oddity. It is very much in keeping with the broad themes of the season, tying into the ideas of personal apocalypse and using overtly religious motifs. However, it also stands quite apart from their work over the rest of the year.

There is a sense that Morgan and Wong are having a great deal of fun playing with classic horror tropes. The Pest House is packed full of ideas and images that feel like they might come from a low-budget horror film – the urban legend gimmick, the psychiatric hospital setting, the dead teenager, the slasher climax. Ignoring the clever thematic resonance with the rest of the show around it, The Pest House is a very conventional horror narrative. It would not be too hard to imagine the script adapted for the big screen as a cult horror film completely divorced from Millennium.

Hooking her in...

Hooking her in…

The Pest House was broadcast quite early in 1998. Later that year, Urban Legends was released as part of the late nineties slasher movie renaissance spurred on by the success of Scream. Undoubtedly the result of multiple discovery, Urban Legends mirrors The Pest House in a number of ways, most obviously the urban legends motif. The opening sequence of Urban Legends plays out quite like the tense killer-in-the-back-seat sequence of The Pest House. It even casts X-Files and Millennium guest star Brad Dourif in the role of the well-meaning gas station attendant.

In some ways, The Pest House might seem to point to what Glen Morgan and James Wong plan to do after Millennium. The duo have been quite candid that they were disappointed with how Fox treated their projects – whether it was the scheduling chaos of Space: Above and Beyond, the decision not to pick up The Notorious Seven, or the lack of publicity afforded to Millennium. It made sense that the two would be looking forward to moving on after their time on the show was done.

Just hanging out...

Just hanging out…

After finishing up on Millennium, the two would involve themselves with the production of a failed television pilot starring frequent collaborator James Morrison. When that did not quite work out, the two would transition to cinema. Morgan and Wong would script Final Destination together, spawning one of the millennium’s most distinctive and memorable horror franchises. Morgan himself would go on to write and direct horror films like Willard or Black Christmas after the two branched away from their partnership.

The Pest House seems to hint in that direction, as an example of what Morgan and Wong might like to do after their year on Millennium was finished. The duo had only confronted to a single season on the show, and it seemed quite unlikely they would decide to stay on at the end of it. In a way, The Pest House seems almost speculative, as if the duo are imagining what lies ahead for them. The Pest House even features a guest appearance from Brendan Fehr as one of the ill-fated teens; he would go on to play another ill-fated teen in Final Destination.

Keep him at arm's length...

Keep him at arm’s length…

The Pest House seems fascinated with the idea of ownership and authorship. It is interesting to wonder whether this was intentional self-commentary from Morgan and Wong. Edward takes on the evil of other people, and finds himself compelled to express their urges. Morgan and Wong inherited Millennium from Chris Carter, and thus find themselves somewhat confined by his world view. The second season of Millennium is very definitely a Morgan and Wong production, but it will never be exclusively theirs in the same way that Space: Above and Beyond was.

Like Edward, Morgan and Wong have essentially taken on responsibility for something created by and belonging to somebody else. There is, perhaps, some sly self-awareness to Edward’s closing line to Frank after their discussion about the nature of evil. “But you know better than me, Frank. I just work here.” Whatever Morgan and Wong choose to say on the matter is just one opinion; Carter has the final word. In a way, this feels like a faint echo over the questions of ownership that played out in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Sleepless...

Sleepless…

The Pest House is full of imitation and repetition. Edward is not only executing somebody else’s vision, but even those visions are imitative and repetitive. “In all three cases, the M.O. are composites of urban legends,” Peter tells Frank. Even if Edward weren’t realising the visions of other monsters, he still would not be created his own work. Even before they figure out the connection between Edward and the crimes, Peter and Frank muse on the possibility of “surrogate killers” who might be using other people to execute their vision.

Even the urban legend motif hints at this idea. After all, urban legends are simply stories repeated and passed on from one person to the next. Each person telling the story might change or tweak it, but the basic idea remains intact. Although the term “urban legend” had first been coined in the late sixties, and had been popularised by the work of folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand since the early eighties, they enjoyed particular popularity into the mid to late nineties. Snopes.com launched in 1995, and The Pest House and Urban Legends were both released in 1998.

What's cookin', Frank?

What’s cookin’, Frank?

The surge in popularity around such contemporary folklore might have been rooted in the spread and expansion of the internet. The web made it easier than ever for people to spread gossip and rumour across a large geographic area. However, the development of the internet also had some unintended knock-on effects. As Barbara Mikkelson – webmaster of Snopes.com – explained to Gail de Vos in What Happens Next?:

The biggest change we’ve seen wrought to the genre has been due to the Internet. Prior to the online world, with the exception of Xeroxlore, urban legends circulated primarily in oral fashion – one person would repeat an interesting story as best he or she could remember it to another, who in turn would pass it along to others by the same method. In that fashion, small details were constantly changing, as the folks who passed along these legends unconsciously added details that made sense to them and subtracted ones that didn’t. The online world, however, changed that because that which was circulated by email and through blogs, social media (eg Facebook) entries, and message board and newsgroup posts was in written form. Consequently, far less natural variation occurred, leaving many online-circulated legends almost set in stone.

So the nineties marked something of a point of transition for this sort of storytelling. The simple act of copying and pasting removed a lot of the individuality or nuance from the art. The stories could be repeated and spread, but there was less room for improvisation or development. Urban legends were not as intimate and as personal as they had once been, instead something altogether larger and more pervasive.

Yeah, this is not going to end well...

Yeah, this is not going to end well…

In some ways, then, The Pest House feels a little bit like an episode of The X-Files, and not just because of the implicitly supernatural nature of Edward’s “gift.” The Pest House feels almost like a last hurrah for these sorts of localised and malleable urban legends, legends that will have turned into something a lot more concrete and certain by the turn of the millennium. Quite a lot of Millennium is built around anxiety about the rapidly approaching future – what fresh horrors might it bring? – but The Pest House pauses to bid fairwell to something fading into history.

As such, The Pest House seems to treat these sort of quaint local legends (or – at least – local twists on classic legends) as an artifact fading into history. Even if he weren’t brutally murdered, there were only so many times that Kevin Galbraith could get away with telling Christy Morris those kinds of stories in the information age before she figured out he was just regurgitating folklore. The Pest House seems to have the same nostalgic attitude towards this sort of folklore that The X-Files frequently has.

What's up, doc?

What’s up, doc?

If there is a problem with The Pest House, it is the portrayal of Doctor Stoller. Stoller administers the psychiatric hospital in what seems like a blunt parody of new age psychiatry. The fact that Stoller doesn’t encourage a distinction between doctors and patients recalls the way that Selfosophists also avoided the label in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense.” It’s a small step from “we feel uniforms and lab coats just serve to stigmatize the patients” to “the term ‘patient’ has unhealthy associations.”

Doctor Stoller exists primarily so she can be proven wrong. The Pest House never makes her a villain, instead suggesting that Stoller is simply too sheltered and innocent to realise the horrors that she is facing. Stoller is a textbook television academic – a character with a theoretical understanding of the situation, but no material grasp of the particulars. The episode repeatedly suggests – both in the discovery of the finger nail and in her conversation with Purdue – that Stoller needs to be terrified before she will respond with anything approaching common sense.

Soul sucker...

Soul sucker…

To be entirely fair to Morgan and Wong, Stoller is allowed her own integrity and decency. The episode never questions her intentions, and she never seems to be obstructing Frank for the sake of it. The Pest House avoids killing Stoller off to prove their point; that would have made sense from a storytelling perspective, but would also have seemed mean-spirited. Still, Stoller seems to exist very much as an obstacle rather than a character – a way of preventing Frank and Peter from solving the case before the final act kicks into gear.

Still, it’s a minor problem in an otherwise compelling episode. The Pest House is perhaps the least “essential” script that Morgan and Wong would write for the second season – the script with the least plotting or character importance for a season that is plotted relatively tightly. At the same time, it is a insightful and fascinating little episode that hits on some of the broader ideas of the second season of Millennium, allowing Morgan and Wong to construct a good old-fashioned horror story that perhaps also points to what lies ahead.

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

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