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Millennium – In Arcadio Ego (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 relatively recent study of teenage pregnancies accounted for forty-five virgin births in the United States, based on data from 1995, 2008 and 2009. Extrapolating from this data, the researchers estimate that almost 1% of births in the United States could be considered virgin births.

Of course, the researchers suggest a notable correlation between these self-described virgin births and other interesting social factors – virgin mothers are statistically quite likely to have low levels of sex education and are quite likely to have taken chastity vows. The myth of a virgin birth is powerful, and it is easy to understand in the context of contemporary attitudes about sex and sexuality that almost one in every hundred pregnant teenagers would rather claim a virgin birth than admit that they had sexual intercourse.

And Frank's left holding the baby...

And Frank’s left holding the baby…

In Arcadia Ego is not a particularly subtle script. Writer Chip Johannessen is quite candid about how he feels about all of this, telling a story about a modern-day immaculate conception featuring two escaped prisoners just looking for a reprieve from all the abuse and violence that they have encountered. In Arcadia Ego is a very socially-conscious piece of work, a rather pointed episode that pokes and prods at some the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in how we talk about sex and women in contemporary society. It is never too hard to tell how Johannessen feels on the matter.

At the same time, In Arcadia Ego is also a thoughtful and moving story about love, hope and faith. After a stretch of episodes that have seen Frank becoming more and more uncertain, In Arcadia Ego casts Frank as a pillar of moral certitude. While it might be a little clumsy in places, In Arcadia Ego is never less than well-intentioned.

Bloody murder...

Bloody murder…

In Arcadia Ego is essentially a prison break thriller infused with the ambient religious subtext surrounding the second season of Millennium. The style and mood of the episode cannot help but evoke The Wild and the Innocent from the first season, as Frank and Peter are enlisted to help track down two fugitives; in fact, the road-trip is largely driven by concern surrounding the child of one of the fugitives. Janette and Sonny escape from prison when they discover that Janette is pregnant. The two hope to find a safe place to give birth, where they might raise the child.

There is, however, just one problem. Janette is child’s mother; however, the father is unlikely to be listed on the birth certificate. “You mean they think it’s theirs?” one observer asks. “No,” Peter replies, “they think it’s God’s.” Janette is convinced that the child is an immaculate conception – a divine miracle bestowed upon her by divine forces at work in the world. The episode initially suggest that there might be a more rational explanation, but eventually the script allows Janette her faith. The father certainly is not the prison guard who raped her.

He's not trained to handle this...

He’s not trained to handle this…

Virgin births are a recurring historical motif. They are incorporated into countless myths and legends. The most obvious is the story of the birth of Christ, but it is far from the only example. In Like a Virgin, Aarathi Prasad lists off a few other examples of the phenomenon:

The pantheon of gods is populated with virgin births, in heaven and on earth. The river nymph Nana was miraculously impregnated by a falling pomegranate, and her son Attis became the lover of Cybele, the mother of Greek gods (making Nana the grandmother of the gods). Hera, the wife of Zeus and thus the queen of heaven, renewed her virginity every year at the holy waters of Kanathos. She spurned the unfaithful Zeus, and all mortal men, to conceive her son Hephaestus. Zeus impregnated Leto, who bore the twin gods Apollo and Artemic, just two of the many children he sired by virgins. Artemis and her half-sister Athena were said to be virgin mothers too. Kausalaya gave birth to the king Rama, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, after drinking nectar that had been made in offering to the gods. The virtuous Sita, Rama’s wife, was the offspring of the land itself. Kunti of the epic Mahabharata was impregnated by the sun, Surya, when she recited a mantra that summoned him to her for that purpose. Queen Maya of Nepal, who hadn’t become pregnant in twenty years of marriage, claimed she was spirited away in her sleep to a mystical lake, where a white elephant, holding a lotus in its trunk, encircled her and then entered her womb, to later emerge on earth as the Buddha. The Aztec Coatlicue fell pregnant with Huitzilopochtli through the touch of a ball of feathers as she napped in a temple. In Babylonia, creation itself came about when a divine wind hovered over a female abyss called Tiamat; and Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility, has been perversely worshipped as a virgin.

Even historical figures are occasionally associated with virgin births. Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar have been the subject of such stories, to pick two examples. The virgin birth is a frequently recurring mythic motif, but one that seems far more interested in the men being born than the women giving birth.

Pregnant pause...

Pregnant pause…

After all, consider the story of the Virgin Mary. While she is undoubtedly a major character in Christian theology, there was a lot of historical debate about the precise nature of her relationship to divinity. Some theologians – including Martin Luther – argued for the perpetual virginity of Mary, insisting that Mary remained a virgin even after giving birth to Jesus Christ. Biblical scholars like Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius argued about the references to Jesus’ “brothers” in the various Gospels.

According to Christian thought, Virgin Mary was born without “original sin” so that she might bring Jesus Christ into the world. Since “original sin” was passed down through the act of sexual intercourse, this raised all sorts of questions about how Mary might have been conceived. The Bible itself is remarkably silent on the subject of Mary’s family and her lineage. A lot of the details come from The Protoevangelium of James, an early text which fell out of favour with certain early factions of the Church for suggesting that Jesus’ “brothers” were Joseph’s children from another union.

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

This question of how Mary escaped the taint of “original sin” troubled various writers and philosophers for centuries. At one point, as Virginia Nixon observes in Mary’s Mother, it was proposed that Jesus retroactively redeemed his mother so as to allow her to give birth to him without taint:

Anselm the Great, while he emphasised that all human beings were born in sin, raised the possibility that Christ’s salvific action might have cleansed Mary in advance. This idea culminated in the early fourteenth century in the concept of preventive atonement first put forth by Robert of Ware and subsequently developed by the English Franciscan John Duns Scotus. This solution reconciled the Immaculate Conception with the doctrine of original sin and the universality of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice: Mary did indeed require salvation like other humans, but Christ fittingly saved her in advance.

Eventually, it was decided that Mary herself was the product of an immaculate conception. Her mother Anne had miraculously conceived Mary. Although this became the official position of the Church under Pope Pius IX, it should be noted that the miraculous conception of Mary gets a lot a less attention than the subsequent virgin birth.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

There is still a strange fixation on virginity in modern culture, an awkwardness around the issue of sex and sexuality. As Stassa Edwards argued:

Somehow, the value of women’s virginity has hardly diminished since Mautmes was visited by an ibis-headed deity. Virginity still implies purity and innocence from sexual experiences and desire; it’s still seen as a natural and necessary state for unmarried women. Think of how we utilize the language of virginity—a major life event, where body parts are broken or popped. We frame a singular sex act as an irrevocable loss; a violent subtraction of the whole rather than as a gain or addition.

There is something rather prudish in these sorts of attitudes towards female sexuality, in the way that these myths tend to suggest that a mother might somehow be diminished or reduced were she not a virgin.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

There is, perhaps, something slightly hypocritical about all of this. Certain traditions seem to laud and celebrate virgin births, but are just as quick to condemn or attack unconventional family units. Homosexual couples or single mothers find themselves frequently under attack from the religious right. It seems a little strange that such groups are so slow to acknowledge unconventional families; while these virgin births might occur within recognisable family units, it is perhaps a bit of a stretch to describe the resulting family dynamic as “conventional.”

While In Arcadia Ego stops short of pointing out how incredibly “un-Christian” some Christians can be, Johannessen’s script draws attention to the inconsistency. Janette is a pregnant woman who has been abused and victimised; she should be protected, not persecuted. The script repeatedly suggests that the pregnancy may in fact be a miracle, despite the unconventional nature of the couple. “It’s them out there,” Janette confesses to Frank. “See, they don’t believe God would waste his time making a miracle for two people like Sonny and me. But he did.”

Frank's got his theory locked down...

Frank’s got his theory locked down…

Janette and Sonny are two women who have been victimised and abused for most of their lives. They are the victims of opportunistic predators who find themselves protected by the system. In the teaser, both of the featured guards seem to treat it as their right to abuse the female inmates. “Now, see, that’s what women want,” the first guard observes. The second one doesn’t seem surprised when Janette is brought to visit him in his booth. “Sooner or later, they all see the light.”

The script for In Arcadia Ego is not exactly subtle. It is seething with righteous anger about these sorts of attitudes and abuses. Johannessen’s dialogue is occasionally a little clumsy and heavy-handed, with most of the male characters apart from Frank or Peter seeming like out-and-proud misogynists. Kellard, the prison warden, is almost cartoonishly bigoted. When he discovers that they broke out, he reflects, “They seemed content together. Disgusting as it sounds.” He refers to a possible mixed race baby as a “mulatto”, an incredibly offensive and outdated term.

A blood-soaked institution...

A blood-soaked institution…

At the same time, Johannessen’s script is fueled by a righteous anger about a very real issue. Studies suggest that up to fifteen percent of incarcerated females have been the victims of prison sexual assault, and that the victims in such assault cases are more like to be punished than the perpetrators. This may just be the tip of the iceberg; other surveys suggest that the power dynamics in play at female prisons mean that male guards are able to leverage their authority to exploit female inmates in ways that extend beyond what would be formally categorised as “assault.”

As much as In Arcadia Ego can feel blunt or heavy-handed, its heart is in the right place. Johannessen writes Frank with a righteous anger at how the authorities are treating these two women. “Two women hunted like animals,” he reflects, bitterly. “Because of a rape.” After spending the past few episodes trapped in a sea of uncertain, Frank is once again unequivocally heroic. This is a version of Frank who is very much in tune with the character as he appeared for most of the first season; the embodiment of fundamental decency in an otherwise indecent world.

Frank will brook no obstruction...

Frank will brook no obstruction…

Frank even gets to go off in righteous anger at a man who was held hostage by the two escaped inmates. The man stopped his car to pick up the two ladies, but ended up tied up in a motel bathroom. Frank seems less than sympathetic as he watches the man fidget with his wedding ring. “It’s tough being a good Samaritan,” Frank offers. He then coldly adds, “Were you looking to get lucky?” When the authorities seem surprised that he was left alive, Frank replies, “He had nothing to fear from them. He’s mainly afraid that his wife will find out.”

It occasionally seems that Frank and Peter are the only decent men in the entire state of Idaho. When the authorities respond to the escape with what amounts to absurd overkill, Frank is the voice of reason. During the siege of the train car, Frank helps Sonny to stall that authorities – and to stop an attempted raid – while also helping Janette to deliver her baby. It is no surprise that In Arcadia Ego ends with both Janette and Sonny dead. It seems that the script thought them too good for this sinful earth.

Bullet time...

Bullet time…

At the same time, there is something undeniably sweet and affecting about the whole situation. Janette and Sonny seem to genuinely care for one another, even despite all that they have endured. They are never reduced to caricatures or stereotypes, which is remarkable for a piece of nineties prime-time television. The portrayal of a loving gay relationship in In Arcadia Ego is much less of a crude stereotype than the portrayal of a gay relationship in X-Cops two years later.

In a way, Janette and Sonny feel very much like the types of characters that Chip Johannessen writes very well. They are lost and damaged people essentially looking for meaning in their lives. That description applies to characters like James Dickerson in Blood Relatives, Dennis Hoffman in Force Majeure, Yura Surova in Maranatha and even Frank Black in Luminary. These are the kinds of wounded characters that Johannessen seems to gravitate towards. It is very hard not to empathise with Janette and Sonny, even after we see their violence in the teaser.

Baby on board...

Baby on board…

In Arcadia Ego fits quite comfortably with the broader themes of the second season. With the death of Janette, Sonny faces her own personal apocalypse – the end of her own world. Janette is all that Sonny loves, and Sonny finds herself unable to live without Janette. In a recurring motif across the second season, the apocalypse is rendered as a deeply personal catastrophe. The drama of Janette and Sonny seems unlikely to have garnered too much attention to the outside world; but they were everything to each other.

Christian iconography permeates the second season. It is particularly obvious in episodes like The Hand of St. Sebastian and 19:19. However, Christian iconography and imagery is heavily concentrated in the episodes that aired in the run-up to Easter in 1998. Owls featured the Millennium Group recovering a piece of the True Cross in Damascus. Roosters featured a eulogy that tied together birth and death and rebirth.  Siren put Frank Black through The Last Temptation of the Christ, while Anamnesis had Catherine and Lara investigate the Holy Grail.

Listen here, Sonny...

Listen here, Sonny…

Although the climax of the episode is pretty grim, In Arcadia Ego offers perhaps the most enlightened and optimistic vision of God in the entire second season. The show has repeatedly suggested that God does exist, but remains curiously unengaged with the human condition. In Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, it was suggested that heaven was fighting a war beyond mortal comprehension. In 19:19, it seemed that God sent a hurricane to kill the possible saviour of mankind. In The Curse of Frank Black, no angels appear to help keep Frank on the right path.

Even in Midnight of the Century, the divine messenger allows Frank only a chance to make things right with his father, rather than a reprieve or a boon. In Arcadia Ego suggests that God is active in the world, and that He recognises and legitimises the love between two people even when that love does not conform to society’s expectations. There is something heartwarming about the idea that the Second Coming might be rooted in a family that isn’t normative or typical. Of course, things don’t work out, but it is still a provocative idea.

Face time...

Face time…

It is interesting to wonder how difficult it was for writer Chip Johannessen and producers Glen Morgan and James Wong to get scripts like In Arcadia Ego to air. Johannessen argued that the network heavily tampered with his work on Sense and Antisense, afraid of engaging with potentially complicated issues around race in America. It seems quite likely that the same network officials would take exception to a script that is based around an immaculate conception for a lesbian couple. The fact that Millennium got the show to air in 1998 speaks highly of all involved.

In Arcadia Ego is a surprisingly moving and sweet episode, even if it feels a little overly simplistic and blunt in some parts. Still, as with Sense and Antisense, it feels like Johannessen’s frustration and righteous anger is powering the scrip through those problems. In Arcadia Ego might not be the strongest episode of the year, but its memorable and thought-provoking. It is a script that feels unique to this particular series at this particular moment. That is nothing short of impressive.

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


2 Responses

  1. You’re right that it speaks highly of all involved that this made it to air. But watching it now, much of season 2 has a feminist angle, particularly the last third.

    Here the inexplicable child described as “God’s miracle” is a girl, from an all-female union. Anamnesis is strongly feminist in its portrayal of Mary Magdalen and, contemporarily, Claire McKenna. A Room with No View is a somewhat mean spirited approach to this, taking the series’ ultimate female antagonist and have her selectively strip away the individuality of young men. But even there the focus is on the future.

    You have also said The X-Files was a show about the past and Millennium was a show about the future. Season 2 takes a very feminist view of the future. Jessica Cayce is viewed as particularly important in 19:19. Midnight of the Century portrays Franks’s mother as having a stronger gift than the ability he possesses, and that maybe she passed that on to Jordan. It isn’t all one-sided either, as Danielle Barbakow illustrates in Monster. There are probably other examples, I’m missing but it’s a theme running through the season and builds towards the climax in The Time is Now.

    • I had actually missed that suggestion that the gift was more powerful with Frank’s mother and Jordan than with Frank. That’s a really nice point, actually. And I do think that Morgan and Wong have underrated credentials as feminist writers/producers, both on their work in The X-Files and in the way that they run their shows; The X-Files had relatively few female writers during its run, while Morgan and Wong seem to make it a point to recruit women writers for their shows like Space and like Millennium.

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