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Millennium – Anamnesis (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.

In Arcadia Ego and Anamnesis form a strange late-season duology, exploring the roles of important female Christian icons.

In Arcadia Ego was the story of a (possibly) divine conception and birth, one evoking the story of the Virgin Mary. Initially, it seems like Anamnesis is another story about the Virgin Mary, when a bunch of high-school girls claim to have seen a religious apparition in their local church. However, after a bit of investigation, it quickly becomes clear that the religious figure at the centre of Anamnesis is not the Virgin Mary, but is instead the other major female character from the Gospels; it is Mary Magdalene.

Holy Mary...

Holy Mary…

Appropriately enough for an episode built around a female character who is often ignored and overlooked, Anamnesis is an episode largely driven by two of  the series’ three most prominent female characters. Anamnesis follows an investigation into this hysteria led by Catherine Black and assisted by Lara Means. As a matter of fact, Anamnesis is the only episode of Millennium that does not feature Frank Black. According to an interview with Back to Frank Black, writers Kay Reindl and Erin Maher had considered including him via phonecall, but quickly dropped that idea.

Anamnesis is a fascinating piece of television. It is a script written by two female writers, driven by two female regulars, investigating a case built around a mostly female guest cast. It is a testament to just how far Millennium has come in its second season that it can do a show like this. The first season had no female writers and had only Catherine Black as a prominent female character. It is the great that show can something like this, but do it so casually and effortlessly. Anamnesis is an underrated and overlooked second season script.

Going around in circles...

Going around in circles…

Mary Magdalene has been treated fairly shoddily by Christianity. She plays pretty significant role in the various gospels – indeed, she is identified by name more often than most of the apostles. However, her appearances are structured rather strangely. She appears in time to witness the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but then promptly disappears from the narrative. Mary Magdalene is frequently (and infamously) described as a “fallen woman” in the context of the gospels.

However, Mary Magdalene also plays a prominent role in various other texts. The Gospel of Thomas, a very high-profile apocryphal text that has been cross-referenced with the four canon gospels, suggested that there was a conflict between Mary Magdalene and Peter over her future role in Christianity. “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life,” Peter observed at one point in the text. In the nineteenth century, archeologists recovered what they claimed to be The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Holding it in...

Holding it in…

If Mary Magdalene was consciously marginalised as part of a power play within early Christianity, it is interesting that Anamnesis suggests that little has changed. The episode adopts a decidedly cynical attitude towards Christianity, suggesting that religion is ultimately a tool of power and entitlement. When Clare claims to have seen a religious vision, it seems that most of the objections are not rooted in rational skepticism; instead, it seems that most of those offended by the idea are offended by the idea that Clare was chosen and they were not.

In her first scene with Catherine, Emma confesses, “It’s appalling, isn’t it? I just instantly thought why, why would the Virgin Mary appear to these ordinary – to my mind, unworthy – teenagers.” When Clare speaks to the class, Alex objects to the fact that she refuses to follow his directions. “Miss Shetterly, she’s supposed to read, not make stuff up!” The son of the local preacher, Alex acts as if he really should be the one to hear the voice of the divine. At the end, he breaks down. “Does Jesus love her more than me?”

No time for drama...

No time for drama…

Of course, it should be noted that Clare herself adopts a similar approach. She also seems aware of the power that her vision grants her, and stresses her own importance and authority. When Catherine interviews Clare’s friends about the event, one explains, “But Reverend Hanes didn’t see her. Clare said Mary would never appear to someone like him.” While Clare’s position is understandably more valid – it is comforting to think that Mary would not appear to a blowhard bigot – it does also draw a clear dividing line between those with authority and those without.

It is interesting how that division forms, on what terms people seem either willing or unwilling to accept religious authority. “Clare scares people,” Ben explains later in the episode. “They can’t accept that a higher power could or would speak through a child.” However, the fact that Clare is a child does not seem to be the only factor here. When Lara and Catherine visit the classroom, they find the children divided along quite clear lines. Lara observes, “It’s interesting how reactive religious hostility is following predictable gender lines.”

Apparently mary is a big fan of eighties Doctor Who effects...

Apparently Mary is a big fan of eighties Doctor Who effects…

This is nothing new. As Lara explains to Catherine, “Before Emperor Constantine even became a Christian in 337, he ordered the confiscation and destruction of all works that challenged orthodox Christianity as set forth by the council of Nicaea in 325. The so-called gnostic texts were excluded from the Bible for, among other things, promoting the idea that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s witness and the only apostle who truly understood Christ’s teachings.” This gerrymandering of religious authority has been playing out for generations.

Indeed, scholars can cite a precise date for the character assassination of Mary Magdalene, tracing a lot of the current attitudes towards her back to 14 September 591. On that date, Pope Gregory I gave a homily on The Gospel According to Luke that identified Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. He cast Mary as a sinner who had atoned and had been redeemed. This had a tremendous impact in how Mary would be perceived and portrayed in centuries of Christian discourse and literature.

Faith on the line...

Faith on the line…

In The Crucifixion of Mary Magdalene, Richard J. Hooper argues that Pope Gregory I was motivation by the need to fill a particular niche within the larger redemption myth. Mary Magdalene was a character who could easily be altered and reinterpreted so as better fit within this tailored role:

This three-fold myth concerning the Magdalene allowed the Church to use the example of Mary as a teaching took that proclaimed the very heart of the orthodox Christian message that was based on the triple doctrines of original sin, repentance and salvation. Had the Roman Catholic Church not needed to support such doctrines – as Gnostic Christianity did not – perhaps the patriarchs would have left Mary alone. As it was, the Church needed a new and penitent Eve and picked Mary to play the role.

It is perhaps telling that for all that Pope Francis is considered a “maverick” and a “progressive”, he still appears to have a blind spot concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church. Francis has argued that women could have a “greater role” in the Catholic Church, but he has also refused to consider allowing women to become clergy (“that door is closed”) and signed off on the excommunication of a strong proponent of women’s ordination.

The gospel according to Catherine Black...

The gospel according to Catherine Black…

The portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute underscores a rather unpleasant subtext to some doctrines of Catholic (and wider Christian) faith. It intrinsically connects female sexuality to sin, making the most prominent female follower of Jesus into a woman who needs to be redeemed because of her sexuality. As Frank Shapiro notes in Eve and Mary:

Gregory went one step further: by associating Mary Magdalene with depraved sexual activity he was able to establish a direct link with female qualities of natural beauty and natural sex appeal, and to claim that these qualities themselves were contaminated by sin. Of course Gregory was not the first to take this attitude, for the compilers of the nascent Christian canon, a censorious attitude to beauty was unavoidably connected to the issue of women in general and their role in the Church in particular. For fourth- and fifth-century churchmen such as St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine of Hippo it was quite clear-cut: feminine allure and sexuality were immersed in sin.

Christianity does not have a good track record when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality. Anamnesis is understandably frustrated by the way that the Church has handled the issue. When Catherine passes remark on Clare’s gender-reversed plea, Lara snaps, “How would you feel if you were baptized against your will by a religion who transformed Mary Magdalene of the gnostic texts, the apostle of the apostles, into a mere prostitute?”

Don't get him cross...

Don’t get him cross…

Then again, it is not as if Mary Magdalene is the only female character so maligned by the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Marina Warner offered perhaps the most searing feminist critique of Christian dogma in Alone of All Her Sex, reflecting:

Both female figures are perceived in sexual terms: Mary as a virgin and Mary Magdalene as a whore – until her repentance. The Magdalene, like Eve, was brought into existence by the powerful undertow of misogyny in Christianity, which associates women with the dangers and degradation of the flesh.

The doctrine of “original sin” roots the fall of mankind in womankind. During the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux argued that Eve was “the original cause of all evil, whose disgrace has come down to all other women.” While there have been efforts to redeem these theories and reverse these readings, they remain prominent beliefs.

Black subject matter...

Black subject matter…

In her final conversation with Clare, Catherine reflects upon an image of the Virgin Mary that was given to her by Ben. “He said it was a picture of the Virgin Mary, finding out she was going to be God’s mother,” Clare explains. “It’s a picture of the very second she understands.” Catherine adds, “She knows that she’s very special.” Clare corrects her, “She knows her life is ruined.” After all, the Virgin Mary is reduced to little more than a maternal figure; the immaculate conception of Mary by Anne is just a footnote to pave the way for the birth of a male saviour.

Anamnesis is very heavily influenced by various Gnostic texts. As Lara points out, Clare’s ominous dialogue in the classroom is largely taken from The Thunder, Perfect Mind. Of course, because it is not part of the canon, Alex immediately defines it as the opposite. “That is not from the Bible, that comes from Satan!” he shouts, because there is no middle ground to be found here, no possibility that anything of interest or value might coexist. That which does not conform is a threat; it is the work of the enemy.

Religious reflection...

Religious reflection…

Gnosticism enjoyed something of a revival in the nineties, perhaps related to the looming millennium. Perhaps the most high-profile examples of Gnosticism were to be found in popular films like The Matrix or Stigmata, with the latter film quoting directly from The Gospel of Thomas. Discussing this resurgent popularity in Omens of the Millennium, Harold Bloom speculated that it was an alternative to millennial apocalypticism:

In The Gospel of Thomas, the Gnostic Jesus emphasizes that we never were created, and so there is no need for an end-time. We began before the beginning, and we will be here after the supposed Apocalypse. What then can your birth really have been, if what is oldest, best, and most yourself never passed through birth?

It is an interesting and ultimately uplifting spiritual philosophy, one that rejects the idea of the world ending in hellfire and brimstone. Bloom contended, “Failed prophecy, as I have said, becomes apocalyptic, and failed apocalyptic becomes Gnosticism.” As such, it feels slightly reassuring to have Millennium propose such a (relatively) optimistic religious idea at this point in the season; just as it seems like the apocalyptic dread is closing in.



Anamnesis also builds on this exploration of Mary Magdalene to incorporate the popular conspiracy theories surrounding “the Holy Grail” that had become more and more popular in the nineties as part of a wider fascination with Christian esoteria. Over the course of the episode, it is gradually revealed that Clare is in fact the descendent of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. It turns out that “the Holy Grail” is simply the bloodline descended from that union; one protected and overseen by “the Family” – another ambiguous cult in a season full of ambiguous cults.

This theory had originally been proposed by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a book that has been described as “a masterpiece of bogus history.” That treatise was first published in 1982, but was republished in 1996. The incorporation of the theory into Anamnesis is actually an example Millennium as a relatively early adaptor. The idea of “the Holy Grail” as a bloodline really caught pop culture traction with the publication of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.

Crosses to bear...

Crosses to bear…

Predictably, Anamnesis was quite the controversial episode. In an interview with Back to Frank Black, the writers recall the difficulties getting Broadcast Standards and Practices to sign off on the script:

“They were very concerned,” Reindl remembers, “not really so much about offending people, but about being able to back up that we had a legitimate reason for telling the story. I think at one point she asked us, ‘Do you have research?’ And of course we had the same research as Dan Brown, we just didn’t steal it word for word like he did! But we sent her over this huge stack of research. Basically what they wanted to know was, ‘That you guys did not come up with the idea of Jesus and Mary Magdalene getting together and having a child, that it did not spring from your head.’ And we said, ‘No, it didn’t. Here’s centuries of people talking about this stuff.’ We sent it over and, when she looked at that, she said, ‘Okay, go ahead.’ But they didn’t even realise until the second time through the script, because they were focused on the fact that we had a kid who was going to kill somebody. It was the second time through the script, we’re on the call, and she says, ‘Wait a minute. Are you saying that Jesus and Mary Magdalene got married and had a kid?’ We said, ‘Yeah!’ And she said, ‘You guys can’t say that!’

“I remember Glen just said, ‘Why not?’ And then I think we had two more hours.”

As with In Arcadia Ego, it is a testament to the writers and producers involved that the episode managed to make it to air relatively intact. Religion is a sensitive subject; particularly for a major television network in the nineties.

Millennium Team-Up!

Millennium Team-Up!

Anamnesis is the third script from the writing team of Erin Maher and Kay Reindl. The duo had been recruited by Morgan and Wong at the start of the second season, and had been put to good use. Although nobody on staff could compete with the prolific output of Morgan and Wong, Maher and Reindl acquitted themselves well. Credited on three scripts in the year, Maher and Reindl were tied with veteran Chip Johannessen as the second most prolific writers of the second season. It is no surprise that they were asked to stay on into the third season.

Of course, Anamnesis was not the idea that Maher and Reindl had originally pitched for this slot. The duo had done great work on Midnight of the Century as a Christmas episode, and had planned to round a loose “Frank Black holiday trilogy” by writing what would amount to “an Easter episode.” That idea didn’t work out. Although Anamnesis aired very close to Easter 1998, and deals with religious and Christian themes, there is an irony in the fact that it is the only episode of Millennium not to feature Frank Black.

I hear those "2000" numbers are premium...

I hear those “2000” numbers are premium…

It is worth considering that for a moment. It is amazing to think that Millennium has developed to the point where characters other than Frank Black can support the narrative. In the first season, it often seemed like Frank was the only actual character living in this world. It often felt like the other characters were simply cyphers who defined themselves in relation to Frank. This is perhaps most notable in Gehenna, where Catherine Black and Bob Bletcher spend an entire scene talking about how tough it is to be everything Frank needs them to be.

In the first season, it often seemed like the whole show was an allegory built around Frank. The yellow house was an ideal to be protected; Catherine and Jordan were not really characters in their own right, they were important simply because they were important to Frank. In the early stretch of the first season, it often felt like even the serial killers and their victims were only important as metaphorical embodiments of evil and innocence in a chaotic universe. Millennium Group members came and went, either delivering or listening to exposition.

All (hell)fired up!

All (hell)fired up!

By this point in the second season, it does feel like characters beyond Frank have their own agency in the narrative. Terry O’Quinn was always fantastic, which is why the show kept him around; however, he is infinitely more nuanced and developed after The Beginning and the End. Lara Means was only introduced into the show’s plot in Monster, but she already feels like a fully-formed individual with her own tics and quirks and perspectives. (The show has even given her – and then phased out – a verbal tic with “here’s my thing…”)

Catherine Black is still a problem character for the show. There is no way to get around that. Catherine Black has been a problem from the start of the first season, when it became clear that the writing staff had no idea how to incorporate her into the show’s narratives. This is even true of Morgan and Wong. The script for 5-2-2-6-6-6 features one of the more egregious “shoehorn Catherine into the narrative” sequences in the first season, with Catherine calling Frank on a stakeout because she is worried about him.

Please to something... To restore my con-fid-ence..."

“Please do something…
To restore my con-fid-ence…”

It appears that the producing duo were no more confident or comfortable with the character in the second season. While the fantasy at the heart of Siren provides a pretty nice excuse to include Catherine, the surrounding procedural story has to contort to draw Catherine into the investigation. while the second season makes a lot of room for Catherine in stories like Luminary or Anamnesis, she feels like more of a recurring guest star than a series lead. She feels more tangential to the series (if not to the thematic arc) than Peter Watts or Lara Means.

Catherine Black has always felt like more of an ideal than a character. To be fair, this is a problem that is largely down to the structure of the show. While she has her own profession, Millennium primarily defines Catherine Black as the wife of Frank Black. She is not so much a lead character in her own right as a satellite of the lead. However, Millennium is not a domestic drama. Frank inevitably spends more time outside his home than inside it. His family exists to be protected from the evil outside the home, but that evil is inevitably the focus of individual episodes.

She has seen the light...

She has seen the light…

Catherine is undeniably essential to the thematic arc of the series. In the first season, she embodies the family that Frank is trying to protect; in the second season, the apocalyptic dissolution of the Black family is the central apocalypse. However, Catherine is not essential to the day-to-day plotting of the show. Frank is trying to protect his family from evil, but episodes like Kingdom Come or Loin Like a Hunting Flame have no tangible or material connection to Catherine herself, even if they touch on ideas of “family.”

In fact, it could be argued that the second season was only slightly more successful with the character of Catherine Black than the first season had been. While neither season knew what to do with Catherine, the first season would often awkwardly try to slot her into narratives where she didn’t quite fit. In contrast, the second season seemed to deal with the problem of writing for Catherine Black by simply ignoring her. There are large stretches of the second season where Catherine barely registers, or even appears.

"Peter, did you have to pick the most sinister possible place to have a meeting?"

“Peter, did you have to pick the most sinister possible place to have a meeting?”

The show tried to figure out what to do with Catherine repeatedly. Megan Gallagher is a great actress, even if the scripts frequently reduced Catherine to a talking point or exposition vehicle. Chris Carter tried to write a Catherine-centric episode in the middle of the first season with The Well-Worn Lock. While it was a well-meaning attempt, it was ultimately a rather clumsy script. For all that Catherine is at the centre of The Well-Worn Lock, the script’s big dramatic beats are largely given over to Frank Black and Bob Bletcher.

It seemed like the only writer on staff who really understood how to incorporate Catherine Black into Millennium narratives was Chip Johannessen, who wrote two of the show’s best episodes for Catherine. Blood Relatives cleverly integrated Catherine into the investigation with an ease that led Wide Open to clumsily emulate it later in the year. Luminary is perhaps the episode of the second season that is most sympathetic to Catherine as a party to the separation between herself and her husband. It is a shame that Johannessen would inherit a show without Catherine.

Gunnin' for God...

Gunnin’ for God…

Maher and Reindl also do good work with Catherine. She was a vital part of Midnight of the Century, and the pair write the only episode of the second season that could be said to centre on Catherine Black. It is great that the show decided to focus an episode on Catherine. Frank does not show up to hijack Anamnesis in the same way that he overshadowed The Well-Worn Lock. Catherine is an interesting character in her own right. She is just as righteous and certain as Frank, even if she has invested that righteous certainty in other directions.

After all, Catherine has spent most of the second season as a voice of opposition to the Millennium Group. In Monster, she compared Frank’s involvement with the Group to an affair. In Luminary, she called Peter out on the way that the Group had been treating Frank. The second season presents a fairly dubious and ambiguous vision of the Millennium Group, but it is frequently presented from the reasonably sympathetic perspective of Frank Black. Catherine is not at all sympathetic to the Group.

They haven't a prayer...

They haven’t a prayer…

As such, there is an interesting tension to Anamnesis. Catherine and Lara form a much more guarded team than Frank and Lara, because Catherine is justifiably suspicious of the way that the Millennium Group operates. Catherine is repeatedly hostile to the involvement of the group in the case, stopping just short of referring to them as a “cult.” She suspects a secret agenda, and she is entirely correct. Catherine warns her colleague, “The Millennium Group doesn’t uncover truths, Lara. It buries them.”

Given how the second season ultimately plays out, it seems that Catherine is more accurate in her assessment of the Millennium Group than any of the other major characters. In fact, it seems like Catherine manages to get through to Lara over the course of Anamnesis. At the end of the episode, Lara entrusts the information about Clare to Catherine rather than the Group. Of course, we never see what Catherine actually does with the information – suggesting that actually wielding power is more complicated and nuanced than commentating on those holding power.

Ben, we hardly knew ye...

Ben, we hardly knew ye…

Anamnesis is a very clever and powerful feminist piece of work. Millennium is not always a very feminist television show – women are often presented as potential victims, or as people to be protected. In focusing on the show’s two most promenant female characters investigating a mystery surrounding Mary Magdalene, Anamnesis gets to be an overtly feminist script. It is telling that the script subverts expectations by “fridging” a male supporting character at the climax, using the death of Ben as emotional leverage for Clare’s character arc.

There are some minor problems with Anamnesis. Most obviously, some of the side characters feel underdeveloped. Parts of Anamnesis play almost as parody or satire. Much like the authority figures in In Arcadia Ego, the villains of Anamnesis feel almost like cartoons. Both Alex and Reverend Hanes feel like caricatures of religious zealots, rather than fully-formed characters. “He’s not a cliché?” Lara mockingly asks at one point, a piece of self-aware dialogue that can only go so far to covering up an issue with the episode.

The themes of Anamnesis are very much part of the show's DNA...

The themes of Anamnesis are very much part of the show’s DNA…

On the other hand, the introductory sequence to Anamnesis is quite striking. In a way, it prefigures Lara’s breakdown in The Time is Now. It opens with an almost abstract visual montage set to the sound of Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot. This is some very effective foreshadowing. Anamnesis makes a few nods towards Lara’s rapidly-approaching fate, which is ultimately set against another Patti Smith song. Apparently, this was just happenstance; Maher and Reindl originally wanted a Sinéad O’Connor song to underscore the episode’s religious feminist themes.

Along with the use of music in Owls and Roosters, the teaser to Anamnesis helps to establish a sense that Millennium is pushing its storytelling style even further than it had before. Coming off their experiences on Space: Above and Beyond, Morgan and Wong were willing to experiment with untraditional modes of storytelling on prime-time television. As with The X-Files, Millennium‘s storytelling had always been largely visual rather than dialogue-driven. However, at this point in the season, it seems to be moving to a more abstract style.

Keeping it in The Family...

Keeping it in The Family…

Anamnesis is an underrated late second season episode, one that plays well into the larger themes of the season around it.

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

7 Responses

  1. Great review about a good movie, thanks for sharing it Darren.

  2. Great work as always (Also on your In Arcadia Ego review, on which I did not get a chance to comment). I recall at the time the show taking some criticism for sidelining a great character like Frank Black but Reindl and Meher make great use of Catherine Black who was often under-utilized and they do it in a very natural way that makes sense in the context of the season 2 storylines.
    While these stories were not new at the time, they were not mainstream until Dan Brown a few years later. “Angels and Demons” is surprisingly similar to season 1 episode “Kingdom Come” and this episode along with Hand of Saint Sebastian/Owls/Roosters form a lot of the story of “The Da Vinci Code”

    • Yep. Millennium was very much ahead of the curve on this sort of storytelling. That said, I’ve been re-reading Garth Ennis’ 1995 comic Preacher recently, and it’s an example of how the same sorts of ideas were percolating just outside the mainstream.

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt like there was an implication about Lara made at the very end of the show. The voiceover is talking about how Mary Magdalene lived on, her soul transferring from one woman’s body to another over the centuries, creating a lonely never-ending earthly existence for her. These words are spoken as we see Lara, sitting alone and apparently unhappy, in her apartment. Was there an implication here that Lara herself is perhaps a conduit for Mary’s restless soul?

  4. Wow, as a Catholic, the blasphemy of this episode is beyond disgusting!

    • I was raised Catholic, and I tend not to get too upset at things like this or The DaVinci Code or Preacher. (Or Hirst’s stunt with the crucifix.) I wouldn’t write or produce them myself, but their mere existence doesn’t upset me. If belief is strong enough, does it matter? I’d certainly feel less comfortable in a society if those sorts of provocative statements were illegal or shut down.

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