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Millennium – Siren (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.

Even when the second season of Millennium doesn’t quite work, it remains a fascinating piece of television.

Siren is the last script written by Glen Morgan and James Wong before they drafted the two-part second season finalé, The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. The duo wrote a phenomenal stretch of the second season. They wrote six of the first eight episodes to air; Siren ends another run of four episodes credited to the duo in the middle of the season. Including the two-part finalé, the pair wrote twelve of the season’s twenty-three episodes. That is a phenomenal workload, even discounting the work of producing and re-writing the other eleven teleplays.

Where's your head at?

Where’s your head at?

Given that the duo were writing what amounts to a full-season order for some modern shows, and producing similar volume of episodes, it seems inevitable that one of their episodes would have to slip. Siren is mess. The script feels like it was stitched together from two different story ideas – each of which might have sustained its own intriguing forty-five minute episode. However, cramming both of those ideas into a single script means that neither feels as developed or as explored as it might be.

At the same time, the careful structuring of the season makes it quite what Siren is trying to do. There are a wealth of interesting ideas here that very clearly and very logically serve the larger arc of the second season. However, it often feels like this weight derives not from Siren itself, but from the outline of Siren created when all the other episodes in the season click together.

Hear him out...

Hear him out…

On the one hand, Siren feels very much like a companion piece to The Pest House. It is an excuse for Morgan and Wong to tell their own classic horror story within the framework of Millennium. A ship smuggling Chinese immigrants is raided by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, who are shocked to discover that the “monster” allegedly living within the ship’s hull is just a young woman who has been chained up inside one of the ship’s cargo holds. Prompted by Jordan, Catherine convinces Frank to mount his own investigation of the incident.

As Frank investigates the mysterious woman, he discovers a number of strange inconsistencies in the crew’s accounts. The captain seems to remember rescuing the woman from a raft. “In the middle of the Pacific with nothing around for miles, I heard her,” he assures Frank. “But thinking back now, it was close. It was as if she stood next to me.” Other crew members question this version of events. “Nobody was rescued from the sea.” Another observes, “She just appeared.”

Ghost ship...

Ghost ship…

It is all very spooky. The first half of Siren plays as something of a traditional ghost story. Somehow, something found its way on board a vessel full of illegal immigrants and caused mayhem as a result. When Frank runs the woman’s fingerprints through the database, he manages to pull back an identification. The woman is apparently “Tamara Shui Fa Lee.” However, according to her record, she was “lost in the east China Sea, fifty miles south of Sakashima island. November 1988. She’s been dead for ten years.”

As with The Pest House, there is a sense that the first half of Siren might play quite well as an episode of The X-Files. One of the recurring criticism of the second season of Millennium was the argument that Morgan and Wong were trying to consciously mimic the style and tone of The X-Files. There are a lot of specific examples that might be cited in such an argument – Sense and Antisense comes to mind, as does the controversy over Brian Roedecker. However, there was also a much broader sense that Millennium was moving into the same space as The X-Files.

Posing the question...

Posing the question…

After all, Morgan and Wong had pushed the show away from its first season portrayal of serial killers and human violence into conspiracy theories and mysticism. Although the first season had featured more than its fair share of angels and demons, the second season seemed to embrace the bizarre and the surreal. It is hard to imagine the first season pulling off “Edward the sin eater” from The Pest House or “Tamara the ghost” from Siren quite so close to one another.

More obviously, the second season turned the Millennium Group into a vast conspiracy vying for the fate of mankind. While the first season had presented the Group as ambiguous and mysterious, the second season made it clear that the Millennium Group was a shadowy cabal preparing itself for the end of the world. Given that this was essentially the central narrative of the mythology from The X-Files, the decision all but invited stock comparisons between the two shows.

A spotlight episode...

A spotlight episode…

While these comparisons sound pretty damning on paper, the execution makes all the difference. There is no way that the second season of Millennium could be confused with any season of The X-Files. The Millennium Group is quite distinct from the Syndicate, and the way that Millennium portrays conspiracies is radically different from the way that The X-Files portrays conspiracies. Similarly, The Pest House and Siren are both episodes that are very specific to this particular television series.

Millennium might tread on some common ground, but it is not as if The X-Files invented the concept of telling a story about conspiracies or the paranormal. If Millennium and The X-Files were not close relatives, these similarities would not be a matter of controversy. It seems ironic that – after all the controversy that Glen Morgan and James Wong would generate for allegedly trying to mimic The X-Files – the third season of Millennium would ultimately come a lot closer to transforming Millennium into a clone of its more popular sister series.

The long walk home...

The long walk home…

Even before it takes a sharp left turn into a completely different episode, Siren is very much an episode of Millennium. It is more solemn and mournful than an episode of The X-Files might be, more sombre and reflective. Millennium is the kind of show that can pull off a story about an angel or demon (it is ambiguous) that has somehow taken the form of a long-deceased woman who has a compelling power of men. When The X-Files did a story about a person who could control other people with their voice, it became Pusher. Siren is much more meditative.

However, Siren is completely derailed around the half-way point. This is not just any ghost story; it is a ghost story explicitly about Frank Black. “Tamara” reveals that she has traveled a long way just to meet Frank Black. “How many acts by how many men did it take before our two points intersect?” the creature wonders. It certainly seems like the forces of darkness (or maybe light) took a rather convoluted route to get Frank to meet “Tamara.” Just like Morgan and Wong took a rather convoluted route to reach this point in the script.

He's still a driven man...

He’s still a driven man…

Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and The Curse of Frank Black suggested that supernatural forces never had to try too hard to reach Frank, so what makes this different? Of course, plot contrivances like that can easily be handwaved away. Supernatural entities can be written to operate by their own rules, which can often seem arbitrary or inconsistent – particularly in matters that have religious subtext. After all, what child hasn’t spent time picking plot holes in religious allegories or stories, only to be offered “mysterious ways” as an answer?

Still, this plotting decision ultimately undercuts Siren. The episode spends more than half of its run-time as a very ghost story, before becoming something very different. Siren transitions into a story about Frank imagining a world where he never joined the Millennium Group; Frank hallucinates a life where he is still a happy family with Catherine and Jordan, and where Peter has absolutely no idea who Frank Black actually is. Frank conjures up a dream world where he runs his own (successful) investigative agency, and his biggest worry is using chopsticks.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

This second story is interesting in its own right. Indeed, it represents a pretty important part of Frank Black’s character arc across the second season. Plagued with doubt, Frank seems to be experiencing what St. John described as The Dark Night of the Soul:

As a rule these storms and trials are sent by God in this night and purgation of sense to those whom afterwards He purposes to lead into the other night (though not all reach it), to the end that, when they have been chastened and buffeted, they may in this way continually exercise and prepare themselves, and continually accustom their senses and faculties to the union of wisdom which is to be bestowed upon them in that other night. For, if the soul be not tempted, exercised and proved with trials and temptations, it cannot quicken its sense of Wisdom. For this reason it is said in Ecclesiasticus: ‘He that has not been tempted, what does he know? And he that has not been proved, what are the things that he recognizes?’

Siren exists to tempt Frank with the promise of a normal and happy life. In The Curse of Frank Black, dark forces showed up to ask Frank to excuse himself from the epic conflict about to unfold; Frank was asked to sit on the sidelines, and told that he could enjoy a happy life with his family if he was just willing to stand aside.

"Oh, excuse me. I was just sitting ominously..."

“Oh, excuse me. I was just sitting ominously…”

The stock comparison for the type of “what if” alternate world story portrayed in Siren might be It’s A Wonderful Life or even Turn Back the Clock, but it seems like Morgan and Wong are aiming towards The Last Temptation of Christ. The time is near; Frank Black has already paid a high cost for his involvement with the Millennium Group, and he will pay an even higher price before the end of the season. Siren teases Frank with the possibility that his life might be happier and more fulfilling had he never joined the Millennium Group.

In fact, if Siren is an attempt to give Frank his own version of a “Gethsemane” moment or The Last Temptation of the Christ, it could be argued that the script kicks off something of a loose “Easter cycle” in the second season. The three episodes of Millennium between Roosters and Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me are all rather heavily Christian in their themes and iconography. In Arcadia Ego is a story about a virgin birth, while Anamnesis is about the Holy Grail. The fact that all three episodes aired in the run up to Easter 1998 is quite appropriate.

Getting Giebelhouse on board...

Getting Giebelhouse on board…

The problem is that Siren has difficulty reconciling these two stories. The ghost story and the dark night story do not fit entirely comfortably together, despite the best efforts by Morgan and Wong. The duo try to provide some connecting tissue by having Lara and Frank discussion “the American dream” while investigation the ship, but it feels like a fairly weak thematic bridge. Observing how these illegal immigrants find themselves trapped in what amounts to slavery, Lara reflects, “I’m sure they’d do anything to wake up from that nightmare.”

While the transition from the ghost story into the dark night story is somewhat convoluted, the episode’s climax suffers from having to resolve both stories simultaneously. As Frank freaks about the possible meaning of his vision, he races to the detention centre to confront “Tamara.” At the same time, the crew of the ship plot to kill “Tamara” in revenge for everything that she has done. It feels like a very staged climax – to pick one question, why are the people-smugglers being kept in the same holding facility as the people they were smuggling?

Everything is ship-shape, why do you ask?

Everything is ship-shape, why do you ask?

This climax provides a suitably tense finalé for the episode, with a desperate race against time, the urgency feels a little false. Frank manages to save “Tamara” from the murderous people smugglers, but she then claims to be unable to speak English. Playing back the tape recording of his interview with her, Frank discovers that she never spoke English. That is the closing point of the episode, with Frank seemingly accepting that he will never get an answer from the creature one way or the other.

“She was sent here to tempt me,” Frank confesses to Lara. “With a question about…” Lara interjects, “About the Millennium Group?” Frank corrects her, “About my life. And I didn’t know until this moment that she didn’t have the answer.” In an ending that evokes the rather blunting closing dialogue of scripts like Monster or Goodbye Charlie, Lara simply responds, “Do you?” The ambiguity is a good thing. It is nice that Siren doesn’t offer a clear answer one way or the other. However, the fact that Frank has that epiphany at that moment feels arbitrary.

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

After all, what happens to “Tamara”? Given that the audience and Frank recognise the creature as a being with a great deal of power that happens to be in custody at the moment, does Frank just give up his investigation into her? Isn’t the Millennium Group at all interested? Doesn’t the entity pose a very real and very direct threat to just about everything on the planet? It feels like Siren ends not because the story is finished, but because the episode has already hit the forty-minute mark.

Space seems to be a big issue with Siren. The episode struggles to fit in everything that is necessary. In particular, Frank’s fantasy life with his family seems rather underdeveloped. There is not enough time for the audience to get past Frank’s initial skepticism, to understand that this might actually be a life that Frank would want. the script conveys all the necessary information in the alotted space, but the fantasy never seems tangible. We never get past surprise and into temptation.

Crossing Jordan...

Crossing Jordan…

Similarly, the resolution to the fantasy also feels rushed. Is this a legitimate alternate world where Frank’s lack of involvement with the Millennium Group has led to a situation where a demon has murdered Jordan in the basement of the yellow house? (Frank really should have learned to just lock the basement by now, after Lamentation and Roosters.) Or is the vision of Jordan’s death a representation of Frank’s conscience, reminding him that abandoning the fight will have a clear cost? Is it simply Frank reminding himself that this is fantasy rather than the real world?

While a certain ambiguity is welcome, it feels like Siren rushes to that image in order to wake Frank up from his fantasy. It could mean any number of things in any number of contexts, which is grand. However, it feels like Siren has not developed the fantasy to the point where any of those possible meanings resonate as well as they might. It is a great and haunting image in its own right and in the larger context of the second season; however, it feels a little clumsy and rushed as part of this particular episode.

Coming to America...

Coming to America…

Siren also struggles with the character of Catherine Black. Despite the fact that Megan Gallagher appears in the opening credits of every episode, Catherine has been largely sidelined throughout the second season. She played an important roles in scripts like Monster, Luminary, Owls and Roosters, but has also been absent for stretches. The first season struggled with how to include Catherine in the show, often awkwardly writing her into scripts to generate exposition or anxiety. The second season dealt with the same problem by largely writing around her.

Siren feels like a hold over from the first season of the show. It is a plot that is very much tied to Frank as a character, but which tries to find a way to include Catherine and Jordan. As a result, Siren uses Catherine as a way to get Frank involved in the case. It feels like a very transparent attempt to make Catherine important to the episode’s plot, but which simply adds another unnecessary convolution to a script that is already overstuffed and stretched too thin. The show would do a much better job incorporating Catherine in Anamnesis.

Sleeping easy...

Sleeping easy…

At the same time, despite these severe structural problems, there is a lot to like here. The fantasy world is intriguing, for all that it is underdeveloped. The quick moment where Frank reacts with confusion to the fact that he is drinking lemonade is one of the most delightfully Millennium moments in the show’s run – the world is truly broken if Frank Black is allowed to stand on the porch of his yellow house drinking lemonade. Similarly, it is great that Peter compensated for the lack of Frank Black by recruiting what looks to be Lance Henriksen’s stand-in into the Group.

For all that the ambiguity feels rushed and abbreviated, it is nice that Siren avoids the obvious and clear answers to its core questions. Lance Henriksen plays a confused and desperate Frank Black very well. When Lara finds him wandering along the side of the road, Frank seems genuinely lost. “I’ve got to find out if my association with Millennium is bringing that horror to my home, my family. Or has the Group been keeping it bay. I’ve got to find out.” It feels like all the uncertainties of the season have come bubbling to the surface.

Listen up, Frank!

Listen up, Frank!

As with The Pest House, it feels like Morgan and Wong are consciously questioning the binary values of objective external “good” and “evil” that the show trumpeted in its first season. When Frank points out that he has three different versions of how “Tamara” came to be aboard the smuggling vessel, she replies, “They’re all true. Because, as you must know by now Frank, there’s no such thing as a single truth. Everything must be seen from its own point of view.” The truth, it seems, is not out there.

Frank immediately rejects this proposal. “No,” Frank assures the creature. “There is good and there is evil.” The entity seems less than convinced by this logic. “Is there, Frank?” she wonders. “So tell me, was it good for you to kill that man, to leave your family, or was it evil?” Similarly, it is nice that Siren avoids reassuring Frank that the choices that led him to this point are objectively “right” or objectively “wrong”; that the show refuses to identify whether the fantasy world is objectively “better” or “worse” than the one he inhabits.

The sound of silence...

The sound of silence…

After all, these sorts of “what if” stories often come with an implicit moral – either a validation or a condemnation of a particular choice. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey finds all of his life choices vindicated and validated by examining the alternative. However, Siren avoids such an easy answer. Given how the season plays out, it seems perfectly reasonable to argue that Frank’s fantasy was the better world, even if that would mean turning his back on “the good fight.” It seems hard to believe that anybody in the audience would blame him for choosing that world.

Like Sense and Antisense or A Single Blade of Grass before it, Siren demonstrates that the second season of Millennium has a manic and interesting energy to it, even when it doesn’t quite work; the season’s weaker moments are often due to failure in execution rather than lack of ambition. Siren is one of the weaker episodes of the season, but it still has a very clear sense of purpose and a very firm place in the larger arc of the season. It is an episode that suggests how it could worked beautifully, even as it fails to come together.

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

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