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Millennium – Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me (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.

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is Darin Morgan’s last script for Millennium.

It is an interesting script. It not as straightforward (and linear) as his scripts for Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose or Jose Chung’s “Doomday Defense”, but it is not as outwardly complex (and intricate) as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” These descriptors are all relative, of course. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a Darin Morgan script through-and-through. It is clever, well-constructed, and thoughtful. It is one of the most eccentric episodes in a season full of eccentric episodes.

Little devil...

Little devil…

However, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me remains rather hard to pin down. It doesn’t feel as cohesive or as singular as Morgan’s other scripts. Morgan tends to build his episodes around big thematic tentpoles. There are ideas and themes that reverberate across and throughout Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, but the nature of the script means that the episode lacks the unity of purpose that viewers have come to expect from Darin Morgan. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a rollercoaster of an episode, which seems to hop from one idea to another.

Of course, that would seem to be the point. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a bold and experimental script in its own way. Morgan has essentially constructed a set of four interlocking (and occasionally thematically overlapping) short stories that are built around his own core themes and ideas. These are small and intimate tales, lying at the intersection between the mundane and the surreal. As such, it seems like the perfect place for Darin Morgan to take his second bow.

A demon crying on a toilet. What more could you want?

A demon crying on a toilet.
What more could you want?

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is only Darin Morgan’s second script for Millennium. Morgan is a relatively slow writer, and one of the least prolific long-term contributors to Ten Thirteen. He wrote four scripts across two seasons of The X-Files, although he did receive an additional story credit and heavily re-write Quagmire on his way out the door. He was an active part of the writing staff on the second season of Millennium, even if his name only appears on two of the twenty-three scripts for the season.

Of course, it is impossible to objectively measure the contributions of individual members of a writing staff, due to nature of the work. Darin Morgan contributed to several scripts on which he did not receive credit, with other writers often acknowledging how helpful he had been in shaping their scripts. Chip Johannessen credits Morgan with the image of Frank Black crouching by the lake in Luminary. Erin Maher and Kay Reindl thank Morgan for pointing out that they really didn’t have to shoehorn Frank Black into the script for Anamnesis.

Censored!

Censored!

Nevertheless, Morgan is a relatively slow writer, something he would readily concede. He worked as a consultant on the first season of Fringe, but never contributed a single script. Morgan has joked that his brother, Glen, advised him against working in the hectic environment of television. Glen Morgan has been candid about why his brother might not be best-suited to that style of production:

“The thing that Darin couldn’t take is that with 22 episodes [per season], so many of them are going to suck. He couldn’t bear that,” Glen said. “He does a couple of episodes a year because he demands that they be good… The ones that slip through your hands, [because] someone’s belligerent, or the script didn’t work, would kill him.”

This is a perfectly valid observation. Darin Morgan is rightly regarded as one of the finest television writers of his generation; a reputation that weighs on the quality of his work. Script-for-script, no other Millennium or X-Files writer comes close to that measure of quality – Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote Shadows and 3, Vince Gilligan wrote Emily and Millennium. But, in turn, Darin Morgan cannot compete on scale of output.

Everybody has their demons to face...

Everybody has their demons to face…

It is very hard to imagine Darin Morgan doing what Glen Morgan and James Wong did with this season of Millennium. The duo wrote more than half of the second season’s twenty-three episodes. Some of those episodes did not turn out perfectly, but they all got finished on time and they all serve a very clear role within the larger structure of the season. However, Darin Morgan is a creator who pays a lot of attention to his own work, and who meticulously and carefully crafts his finished product.

Morgan’s scripts are unique; they are utterly unlike those written by any other writer on staff. Morgan even has his own little production posse – Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me features guest appearances from Darin Morgan regulars like Alex Diakun and Dan Zukovic. The second season of Millennium afforded Morgan an even greater opportunity to put his own stamp on his work. Morgan directed both Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me.

In a glass case of emotion...

In a glass case of emotion…

In terms of style and structure, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a rather ambitious piece of work. It is a rather unusual episode of Millennium. Frank Black barely appears in the episode, having only a handful of lines. Indeed, Frank serves as the primary link between the four short stories told by a quartet of demons who meet to enjoy an early-morning coffee in Seattle’s “Donut Hole.” Instead of focusing on Frank, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is framed around four one-shot guest characters who each offer their own take on mankind and damnation.

It is an episode that is very hard to summarise. It seems like Fox’s publicity department had a great deal of trouble promoting the show. The slugline for the episode read “demons bemoan the existence of Frank Black.” Which seems like a rather strange takeaway from a story where the four demons in question never even mention the name of “Frank Black.” There is no indication that any of them even know his name. Still, it is easy to see why the publicity department might go with that description – it is an episode that does not lend itself to a snappy one-line summary.

This could be a case for Mulder and Scully...

This could be a case for Mulder and Scully…

In many respects, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me resembles a collection of short stories using a familiar framing device. This is something of an oddity in prime-time television. Animated shows like Batman: The Animated Series would occasionally do anthology episodes like Almost Got ‘im or Legends of the Dark Knight, but prime-time shows would generally only engage in this sort of structure for a flashback or clip-show episode. Devoting a prime-time television show to four individual stories barely featuring the series lead was a very brave move.

There is something quite literary in the approach and tone of Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. The second season of Millennium never gets enough credit for its willingness to experiment with storytelling on prime-time television; the show is only two episodes away from conveying the end of the world through a pseudo-music-video to Patti Smith’s Land. Darin Morgan’s script to Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me feels almost like a short story collection – a writer working through some of his favourite themes through a set of interlocking narratives.

Upstaged...

Upstaged…

It has been argued that the short story is a uniquely American art form, even if it is often overlooked or ignored. As William Peden contended in The American Short Story:

Although it is the only major literary form of essentially American origin and the only one in which American writers have from the beginning tended to excel, for decades it was considered a subliterary genre, which until relatively recent times most critics refused to consider as important as the more traditional forms of poetry, drama, and the novel.

Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe is credited with helping to cement the short story as an art form of great cultural importance in America – most notably through his own work and his commentary on Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales.

Cut!

Cut!

The short is frequently undervalued or overlooked. Short story writers like Mark Trainer and Robin Black have spoken about their own difficulty convincing publishers to sign off on collections of short stories. It has been argued that internet has helped to revive the short story as an art form, but there are still long and bitter debates about the commercial viability of short story collections. When Alice Munro won her Nobel Prize for her short stories, she noted in interviews that he hoped people would begin to respect the short story as an art form of its own.

Television is obvious a different medium, but it could be argued that television storytelling owes a great deal to short stories. After all, what were classic television anthologies like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents but collections of short stories with completely unique casts and ideas. It could even be argued that episodic television owes a lot to short stories, with certain shows feeling like short story anthologies built around a recurring primary cast.

The fritter's on the fritz!

The fritter’s on the fritz!

Some writers working in television have acknowledged this link. High Wilson, the creator of Frank’s Place, argued that his own style was one indebted to the short story. Robert J. Thompson and Gary Burns quote Wilson in Making Television:

And I had it in mind that we should try to – I mean, I would never say this to a network – but that we should try to take the great American dead art form, the short story, and think of ourselves as short story writers. Although, of course, obeying the rules of drama – climax, resolution, building action, and whatnot.

There is a valid argument to be made that many classic television shows like Star Trek or Law & Order or even The X-Files and Millennium could be read as anthology collections of short stories that just happen to feature recurring settings and characters.

Storytelling time...

Storytelling time…

Interestingly, this perspective casts a new light on the conflict between serialised and episodic storytelling on prime-time television. Given that the stock comparison for shows like The Sopranos or The Wire is to “the great American novel”, it seems like these artistic conflicts about legitimacy and integrity play out across different media. The tendency to dismiss episodic storytelling as outdated or juvenile perhaps stems from the same attitude that looks down upon short stories as opposed to full-length novels.

Nevertheless, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is consciously a collection of four short stories. Although they share characters and settings, the four stories are each markedly different in tone and style. Each is short and sweet – none could sustain an entire forty-five minute episode of television on its own. They all tie together in their own way, working very well individually while still adding up to a more satisfying whole. While any of the four sections could be watched separately, they have a far greater impact together.

Frank pieces it all together...

Frank pieces it all together…

Naturally, there is an element of indulgence to all this; but there’s nothing wrong with that. The word “indulgence” is often used in a pejorative sense when discussing art, but great art tends to feel untempered. A work’s humanity often comes from a writer’s willingness to pour themselves into it. Glen Morgan has talked quite candidly about his willingness to draw from his own personal experiences when writing, and some of his best work is the work that feels the most intimate and personal – Beyond the Sea, The Angriest Angel, Never Again, The Curse of Frank Black.

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me feels very much like Darin Morgan pouring himself into the script, trying to commit every raw idea to the page because he knows that he might not get another chance for quite a while. As a result, Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me manages to feel capture the extremes of Morgan’s themes and quirks. His grand themes about loneliness and isolation seep into the narrative, but the story also draws quite heavily from his own unique experiences working on two major television shows at Fox.

Censor yourself!

Censor yourself!

This is perhaps most obvious in the third sequence of the story, in which the demon Greb recounts the tale of how he drove a network censor completely insane. In an interview with Back to Frank Black, writers Erin Maher and Kay Reindl recalled how long phonecalls over Anamnesis inspired that sequence:

“But it was really funny,” adds Maher, “because Glen Morgan and Kay and I were on speakerphone with her for three hours! Darin kept wandering in and out, hysterical, and writing things down, and that’s where the line ‘I am Network Standards and Practices!’ in Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me came from. She actually said that.”

Of course, this was not Morgan’s only run-in with Broadcast Standards and Practices. The arbitrary rules imposed by Waylon Figgleif (“if you are going to show a pile of dung, it must be dry dung, not moist”) recall the instruction Morgan received on Clyde Bruckman’s Final Reposethat he could use “liquescence” rather than “liquidification.”

Running a red light...

Running a red light…

To be fair to Morgan, the absurdity of the segment works well on its own terms, even divorced from Morgan’s own long-standing conflicts and disagreements with Fox’s Broadcast Standards and Practices department. There are quite a few chuckles to be had at the short segment. “No, it doesn’t matter that aliens from outer space have no genitalia – they still have groins, and they shouldn’t be kicked there,” is a line that is hilariously over-the-top in just about any context.

The censorship segment also provides a nice framework for all sorts of sly self-aware gags. The idea of the censor having a nervous breakdown at a strip club is a fairly solid idea, but the execution is ingenious. The camera actually starts censoring various potentially naughty parts of the stripper. At another point, the lunatic censor directly addresses the camera, with Morgan cutting the episode so that the audience is staring at him through that same camera. When he asks a question, the camera nods in response.

Sign of the times...

Sign of the times…

That said, the third section does feel a little bit too niche and too “inside baseball.” For example, the inclusion of a dodgy CGI dancing baby is a rather dated shot at Ally McBeal, another high-profile and successful show on Fox. Morgan acknowledged this reference in contemporary interviews:

“The fact that she sees that baby and reacts to it the way she does makes her a more disturbing character than Frank Black,” he noted wryly. “It’s a terrifying thing, that baby. She dances with it, and you go, ‘There’s something really wrong with this person.'”

It does feel like something of a cheap shot – a legitimate criticism of a popular show, but one that immediately ground Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me in the pop culture context of the late nineties. Of course, a show called Millennium was always going to be specific to the late nineties, but the reference still feels a little awkward and forced.

Dancing (devil) baby...

Dancing (devil) baby…

Of course, Morgan’s script does seem to concede as much. No sooner has the baby appeared than the demons are all criticising Greb for what they see as a sloppy work. “Rinky-dink kids’ stuff!” Blurk protests. Greb insists, “I’m telling you, it’s very effective.” Toby snarkily responds, “It’s so stale and outdated.” The conversation continues as if Toby was referring to the idea of appearing in any demonic form, but it also plays as a piece of self-criticism. By April 1998, the “Dancing Baby” effect was already almost two years old.

The decision to incorporate an obvious stand-in for The X-Files into the story also feels a little bit on-the-nose, even if it does allow for the wonderful sight of actors in dodgy alien costumes waving Uzis around. Still, Morgan manages to keep things moving along. The writer and director has a clear taste for broad slapstick comedy; little incongruous details like the toilet in the middle of the soundstage speak to Morgan’s attention to detail. The piece moves quickly enough, and is over fast enough, that it never outstays its welcome.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is less than subtle – devolving into the murder of stand-ins for Mulder and Scully by a deranged network censor as Mark Snow gleefully parodies his own X-Files theme. That said, in an interview with Back to Frank Black, Glen Morgan claimed it was all in good fun:

“Well, they enjoyed their digs,” says Morgan. “There was Darin’s little sequence with the Standards and Practices guy [in Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me] and they loved it! We were really good friends with the Standards and Practices executive, Linda Shima-Tsumo, and she had taken a lot of grief for Home. We were close with her, so from that sequence that Darin did where the guys look up at the traffic signs – ‘No Testicles’, ‘No Butt Jokes’ – she has all of those.”

Still, there Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me occasionally feels just a little bit meaner and more aggressive than Morgan’s other scripts. Perhaps this is appropriate – this is a collection of stories narrated by demons, after all – but there points where Somehow, Satan Got Behind feels a little excessive and mean-spirited.

Split on the issue...

Split on the issue…

This is perhaps most obvious in the first story of the set, which plays as something of a loose parody of the show’s grim “serial-killer-of-the-week” format. Hitchhiking along a country road at night, Blurk effectively turns a dude with a creepy van into a serial killer. However, the serial killer proves to be rather mundane and boring; to the point where even Blurk himself seems to get a little tired of the rote violence. “His ‘originality’ began and ended with prostitutes. He killed another one that very night. Then, it was prostitute after prostitute.”

In many respects, the first story feels like Morgan is having an extended laugh at the sort of approach that Millennium would take towards such violence and brutality in its first season. Episodes like The Judge, Kingdom Come, Wide Open, Weeds and Loin Like a Hunting Flame quickly became exhausting. The middle-aged white male murderers all began to feel a little interchangeable, in spite of their colourful M.O.’s and the show’s attitude towards violence. All the victims meshed together.

Killer van...

Killer van…

This is a perfectly valid and reasonable criticism of the show, one that perhaps reflects Morgan’s own attitude to the troubled first year. However, some of the punchlines do feel a little too harsh. The murder of the satanist, for example, feels downright mean-spirited. (“Save me, Satan!”) It reflects Glen Morgan’s observation about the difficulty of injecting humour into the second season, “It’s a much more difficult show than the X-Files because sometimes you’re dealing with more victims.”

Still, even with its very cruel sense of humour, the first section does a nice job setting up the recurring themes of the episode. For all that Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a story about four demons at work in the world, the script makes a point to emphasise how pathetic and small-scale these demons really are. Abum is perhaps the most obvious, with his evil schemes amounting to little more than setting off car alarms and making telemarketing phone calls at obscene hours. (Perhaps itself a jab at the evil of telemarketing that Chris Carter wove into Gehenna.)

Devil may care...

Devil may care…

Even the subtle elements of Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me reinforce the sense that these demons are not really that big a threat. Notably, Blurk is the only one of the four demons who seems to operate outside a very small geographic area. The tales told by Abum, Greb and Toby all consciously overlap with one another – characters park on the same road, use the same laundromat and visit the same strip club. It is a subtle touch that works well across three of the four stories. These four demons are strictly local, it would seem.

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me seems to mock the idea of demonic influence in the world – at the idea that evil somehow exists beyond mankind itself. “You know, we were so envious when Man was given free will,” Blurk observes. “But what has it brought them? The belief that their lives are determined by everything other than their own will.” The episode makes much of how little the demons actually have to do to push their victims over the edge and damn their souls; as much as mankind might like to believe in demons, we are very good at damning ourselves.

Bobbing along...

Bobbing along…

Blurk simply suggests that his victim should become a serial killer, and he does. Greb appears to his victim as a demonic dancing baby, but he simply parrots back a line that the character uttered moments earlier. The other demons seem started at how little Abum actually does. “I don’t do squat anymore,” he boasts. “They do it all for you.” he explains, “Mankind has progressed to a point in its dim-witted history where life has been drained of all of its enchantment.”

The second segment underscores a lot of Morgan’s pessimism and cynicism about the human condition – the sense that people are really no more than herd animals. It is a stock gag, but Morgan tells it well; Abum’s account of a man driven insane by the mere act of trying to live in modern society is both hilarious and heartbreaking. His account of the concept of work is particularly astute. “They’ll spend a third of every day in a place that they can’t stand, doing stuff they don’t wanna do! All in the name of earning a living. I’ve seen places in punishments in Hell less severe.”

Around and around...

Around and around…

Abum’s segment underscores just how little he actually has to do to make a person effectively damn themselves. When he does interact with people, he interacts with them using human constructs. He doesn’t manipulate them like Blurk or freak them out like Greb. “Oh, every once in a while I interact with them, but nothing too evil – minor irritations are all you need. And I find the best irritations utilize their own man-made laws.” Blurk simply uses the the systems that mankind has built around itself, suggesting human existence is inherently masochistic.

Morgan pushes a recurring theme of the second season to the fore here, in suggesting that real evil is not rooted in serial killers or sensationalist violence; instead, mankind’s capacity for evil finds expression in more mundane acts. Abum claims that he does not like using serial killers. “Their evil is too conspicuous,” he insists. “When people hear about some psycho killer, it can lead them to thinking about the nature of evil, which leads to thoughts about right or wrong – bad or good.” He explains, “You don’t want ’em considerin’ crap like that.”

You snooze, you lose...

You snooze, you lose…

It feels appropriate that Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me aired directly following A Room With No View. Both episodes reinforce the idea that true evil is mundane and apathetic; it is ambient background noise and disengagement. The second season has suggested this idea a number of times – in scripts like The Curse of Frank Black or Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” – and it feels appropriate that Morgan gets to ram the point home one last time before the big two-part apocalyptic finalé.

Of course, Abum’s story is skilfully contrasted with that of Toby. The second and the fourth segments of the episode are structured to consciously mirror one another. The mundane tortures of everyday life from Abum’s story are lightened by the fact that Toby gets to share them with another human being. Doing laundry is not so horrible an experience if somebody is doing it with you; the fact that there’s nothing good on television doesn’t matter if you are cuddling into somebody. If Abum is too detached from humanity, than Toby is too attached.

Quiet on set!

Quiet on set!

This helps to cement the idea that the truest form of evil in the world is very human and very mundane. While the first three stories are blackly comic in tone, the final story is completely and utterly heartbreaking. Loneliness and isolation are recurring themes in Darin Morgan’s work, and the last section of Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me serves to draw a very effective line under this body of work. It is a story about a demon who falls in love with an aging stripper; two broken and lonely people who get one last chance of being happy together.

It is a variation of the story that Morgan has told repeatedly during his work on The X-Files and Millennium. It echoes through Leonard’s abandonment of Lanny in Humbug, passing through that one brief moment of understanding between Scully and Clyde in Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. It can be seen in the depiction of the Mulder and Scully relationship in War of the Coprophages, and heard in the closing monologue of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.” Nobody wants to be alone, even if they are unable to live with anybody else.

He's a devil, that one...

He’s a devil, that one…

Toby forms a rare and meaningful bond with Sally. “But what did you two do together?” Abum asks, dumbfounded. “You don’t understand,” Toby insists. “We didn’t have to do anything. Most nights we just laid in bed and watched TV.” He explains, “Her presence made the mundane seem magnificent.” That is a pretty good definition of love, and Toby suggests that love exists as an answer to the challenge posed by Abum. If the modern world is so cruel and sadistic, why endure it? Because sometimes you get to share that experience with somebody truly remarkable.

Much like his rewrite of Quagmire, the final section of Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me proves that there is some element of romance and optimism beneath all of Morgan’s well-honed cynicism. In spite of the pessimism that is woven through a lot of his work, it seems that Morgan believes that love and happiness are possible. They can happen, even among the two most unlikely people at the most unlikely time. If Toby can find somebody who can accept him for what he really is, there is hope for everybody. Of course, Toby cannot take this shot at happiness.

A demon in the sack...

A demon in the sack…

Unwilling to accept that Sally might love him for who he truly is, he falls back into typical demonic behaviour. He breaks her heart, driving her to suicide. It is the most direct involvement from any of the four demons in any of the four stories, but that seems to be the point. Toby does not do something demonic or supernatural; there are no dancing babies in this story. Instead, Toby’s cruelty is perfectly and naturally human. It is the most natural and banal form of evil; and the most cutting. It is selfish weakness, used as a weapon on somebody else.

This is perhaps the core theme of Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. The four demons have nothing on the cruelty that humans can dole out. Toby is the most human of the quartet – as evidenced by his name, and his conscience – but he is also the most devastating and most effective. It turns out that it’s not the demons you have to worry about.

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

One Response

  1. The tone is very different but this episode and Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense both seem to be Morgan approaching the show as a critique of season 1 and both arrive at the conclusion that true evil is more apathy and selfishness than you might be led to believe. Those conclusions pulse through the rest of season 2, urging characters to take the harder path and take on responsibility for more than their own or even their family’s lives.

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