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Millennium – Exegesis (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

It is odd to think of The Innocents and Exegesis as a two parter, despite the explicit “to be continued” that bridges the two episodes.

The Innocents is very much a straightforward procedural episode, with Frank rejoining the FBI and investigating a string of mysterious occurrences that are all connected. As Frank tries to pull himself back together after the death of his wife, various parties insist that he is more lost than ever before. There is a sense that Frank needs to work though what happened to him, regardless of the doubts expressed by his embittered father-in-law or his friendly supervisor at the FBI. Of course others doubt him, and of course he works through those doubts.

"I can see it all clearly..."

“I can see it all clearly…”

It is very much a standard “lead character gets his life back together” story, complete with obligatory sequence where Frank demonstrates he has made his peace with the loss of Catherine by using his story as emotional leverage to ply a confession (or, at least, an explanation) from a person of interest in the on-going investigation. The Innocents is a very banal and paint-by-numbers episode of television. Underneath all those biohazard warnings and eerie blue-eyed siblings, there is a strong procedural element to The Innocents. It feels trite and coy.

At the very least, Exegesis is more unique. It feels like an episode of Millennium, rather than some generic dime-a-dozen procedural. This is likely down to the fact that The Innocents was written by Michael Duggan and Exegesis was written by Chip Johannessen. Michael Duggan was a writer who had a lot of experience on procedurals (Law & Order and C-16: FBI), but who had no prior experience writing Millennium. Hired to run the show in its third year, he would only write two scripts for the show before departing seven episodes into the season.

Go fly a kite...

Go fly a kite…

In contrast, Chip Johannessen had helped to define Millennium’s identity in its first year. In fact, with a group of nearly identical female sisters working towards a mysterious goal (based on vague prophecy), Exegesis owes a great deal to Johannessen’s earlier script Force Majeure. While it does illustrate how Exegesis feels like a more traditional Millennium episode than The Innocents, it is not a comparison that does Exegesis any favours. Force Majeure was one of the best episodes the show ever produced; Exegesis is… not.

As with The Innocents, Exegesis is handicapped by a lot of the clumsy production decisions made at the start of the third season. It feels curiously disconnected from what came before; it plays a little too much like a reheated leftover from The X-Files; a lot of the nuance and development given to Peter Watts and the Millennium Group over the second season is washed away. Nevertheless, it does have a clearer sense of purpose and energy than The Innocents. It feels like Johannessen knows what he wants to say, even if the show is still tripping over itself.

Welcome back, Frank.

Welcome back, Frank.

While Exegesis is very clearly an episode of Millennium, there are points where it feels like Millennium is hewing closer and closer to The X-Files. The show seems to be pushing Frank Black into a role more equivalent to that of Fox Mulder. It is worth comparing the two male leads from The X-Files and Millennium, because it is clear that both characters conform to a broadly similar template. Frank Black might be older and more settled than Fox Mulder, but both began their careers as forensic profilers. Both are hugely sympathetic to the victims of horrific crimes.

The Innocents and Exegesis cast Frank Black as a paranoid believer in contrast to the skeptics around him. He is a mad conspiracy theorist to be dismissed by those more level-headed individuals with whom he works. “It’s just what I was telling you,” he rambles to McClaren at one point. “There’s a connection. It’s what drew me into the case.” Frank Black is suddenly an individual tuned into the weird secret truth of the universe, a man who can bring himself to stare into darkness and identify horrors that nobody else will acknowledge.

Underground conspiracies...

Underground conspiracies…

This feels very much adds with the version of Frank Black who developed over the second season – the version of Frank who would tear into Peter in episodes like Owls or The Fourth Horseman for his vagueries and ambiguities. Frank was not as rigid a skeptic as Scully, but he was not liable to bouts of apophenia and conspiratorial rambling. To be fair, this character development makes a great deal of sense – especially given the nature of Frank’s loss. At the same time, it does make him seem more like Mulder than ever before.

There are other factors as well. The show is shrewd enough to avoid defining Emma as the skeptic to Frank’s believer, but she is still a young female fresh-out-of-the-Academy partner to an unconventional FBI agent. Structurally, Exegesis is bookended with purple prose monologues about Greek mythology and the philosophy of prophecy. Agent Barry Baldwin even puts together an old-fashioned slideshow for his briefing to the team. Individually, these similarities would not be much – but they tend to add up quite quickly.

There is no kill like over kill...

There is no kill like over kill…

With all of this going on around the episode, the decision to write a two-part season premiere focusing on remote viewing feels a little ill-advised. One of the things that makes Chip Johannessen such a fascinating Millennium writer is his willingness to really grapple with big ideas and high concepts. It would not be too difficult to reimagine the core concepts of Force Majeure, Walkabout, Maranatha or Sense and Antisense as episodes of The X-Files. However, those episodes are very firmly rooted in the mood and aesthetic of Millennium itself.

However, the third season had stripped away a lot of what made Millennium a distinct television show, filling the space with elements that echoed The X-Files. In that context, a story about an assassination plot tied into secret psychic warfare undertaken by the CIA feels like just another borrowed element. After all, writer John Rozum had written an X-Files comic book story (Remote Control) dealing with similar ideas over a year earlier and X-Files writer Tim Minear had pitched Mind’s Eye as a “remote viewing” story.

"Any questions? Hurry up, because I promised I'd drop the projector back down to the basement when I was done..."

“Any questions? Hurry up, because I promised I’d drop the projector back down to the basement when I was done…”

The concept of “remote viewing” entered mainstream consciousness in the mid-nineties. In November 1995, a scathingly critical report of the CIA’s secretive “Stargate” project was released to the public. In December 1995, Douglas Waller published The Vision Thing – an exposé article for Time. He noted:

Tales of the effectiveness of psychics as spies have long been circulated. CIA credited psychics with creating accurate pictures of Soviet submarine construction hidden from U.S. spy satellites, and a 1993 Pentagon report said psychics had correctly drawn 20 tunnels being built in North Korea near the demilitarized zone. “I’d close my eyes and clear everything from my mind,” explains Joe McMoneagle, a Pentagon psychic from 1978 to 1984 who claims to have predicted that Dozier was being held in Padua. “Then I’d try to imagine where the person was and sketch it on a piece of paper.”

Sketches were not always on target. To no avail, one set of Pentagon planners consulted psychics to pinpoint where Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was staying before U.S. warplanes attacked Libya in 1986. Another intelligence unit asked psychics to picture where an agent suspected of being a double stashed the money he made spying for the other side. (They could not say.) “Sometimes it seems that these people are right on,” says Jessica Utts, a statistician at the University of California at Davis who contributed to the CIA study. “But nobody knows when those times come.”

The CIA stopped funding the project in the nineties, but it remains a rather quirky and intriguing story of American espionage. It has been repeatedly immortalised in popular culture – perhaps most thoroughly in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.

The all-seeing eye...

The all-seeing eye…

Exegesis plays up the idea of a secret government conspiracy covering up dark paranormal secrets, to the point where some of the dialogue wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Mulder and Scully. “The woman made over a hundred Freedom of Information requests five years ago,” Hollis tells Frank. “Someone’s been very free with the marker here. Seems to be a government project called Grillflame.” Frank replies, “I’m not surprise they’re not upfront about it. I think it’s a project the CIA ran through the Stanton Research Institute.”

However, there are also hints of a conspiracy stretching even deeper than the real-life inspiration. “Grillflame stopped six years before the children were conceived,” Hollis reports, after digging through the various records. Frank is not entirely convinced. “Maybe they didn’t stop. Maybe they just went underground.” The episode goes even further, implying shades of government abuse and exploitation in the experiment. It seems like Millennium and The X-Files share the same cynical perspective on the United States government.

Lifting his spirits...

Lifting his spirits…

When the subject of the children comes up, Hollis quickly realises that they are the key to what is happening here. The children might have been used as leverage to control the remote viewers, but they could also be reduced to simple resources that could be trained and controlled by those in positions of authority. Discussing the best psychic in the “Grillflame” project, Hollis asks, “Did she have children, daughters? Because that would be one way for them to get more of whatever they thought she had.”

To be entirely fair to Johannessen’s script, Exegesis does try to tie the remote viewers back into the broad themes of Millennium. It turns out that the psychics could not only view events unfolding across the world, they could also see the future. The conflict in Exegesis is one waged over the future. Frank’s narration suggests that the Millennium Group were threatened by the future that these women could see. When Frank asks the last survivor why the sisters did what they did, she replies, “This thing we did, to save the child, not for ourselves, for the future.”

Every breath she takes...

Every breath she takes…

Similarly, Exegesis reinforces the recurring eye motif that runs through the third season. In the second season, the ouroboros became a circle that divided “us” from “them”; family from strangers. In the third season, it conjures up images of the eye. The opening shot of the third season is an eye. The Innocents carefully established a connection between the old woman and the younger women through their eerie eyes. Here, an eye appears as an emblem of the “Grillflame” project and much emphasis is put on what these women (and Frank) can “see” without seeing.

(Even the decision to set the climax of Exegesis inside a Cold War missile silo could be construed as an abstract eye image. The classic eighties song 99 Luftballoons offers one of the quirkiest (and perhaps most under-appreciated) apocalyptic visions in popular culture, as ninety-nine red balloons released into the atmosphere trigger nuclear war. The song makes an over comparison between American missile silos and eyes. “The war machine springs to life, opens up one eager eye; focusing it on the sky, as ninety-nine red balloons go by.”)

A dark arc...

A dark arc…

This focus on eyes and vision recurs throughout the third season, a nice understated motif that plays through the final year of Millennium. It makes a certain amount of sense that Chip Johannessen would make eyes a vital and important part of his version of Millennium. Johannessen is a writer who has always been particularly fascinated with Frank’s gift as it relates to objective reality. He tackled the visions rather directly in his script for Walkabout. In interviews about the show, he has tended to argue that Frank’s visions are explicitly subjective in nature.

However, despite these interesting (and uniquely Millennium) elements, Exegesis still suffers from a sense that the show is trying to emulate The X-Files. This is particularly obvious in its portrayal of the Millennium Group. The Innocents had shrewdly decided to sideline the Millennium Group for an episode to focus on Frank and the new status quo. As such, it is the script for Exegesis that finds itself landed with the job of reintroducing the Millennium Group back into the larger Millennium mythos.

Giving the Millennium Group a run around...

Giving the Millennium Group a run around…

Again, it is hard to blame the production team for how this worked out. The second season built up a lot of ambiguity around the Millennium Group, but The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now turned the Millennium Group into a bunch of selfish villains who were willing to stand by and watch the world burn so that they could rule the rubble. Glen Morgan and James Wong presented them as a mirror to the conspirators on The X-Files, even suggesting some shared membership in The Time is Now. That is the hand that the third season was dealt.

At the same time, The Innocents and Exegesis remove any sense of nuance or depth from the Millennium Group. One of the big recurring themes of the second season was the idea that the Millennium Group was so internally divided as to be practically useless. The Millennium Group might talk a good game, but they are really quite powerless. In Owls and Roosters, an old Nazi hiding out in Argentina is almost able to plunge the Millennium Group into brutal civil war. The second season suggested that the Millennium Group were arrogant enough to think they ruled the world.

She didn't see that coming...

She didn’t see that coming…

The third season misses a lot of that more interesting shading and turns the Millennium Group into a cabal of moustache-twirling villains with death squads and absurdly convoluted assassination schemes. The Innocents and Exegesis retroactively re-writes The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now to reveal that the Millennium Group explicitly released the Marburg Virus (rather than simply exploiting its arrival) and that it was an attempt to eliminate these remote viewers (rather than anything tied to the end of the world).

These adjustments make the Millennium Group both more powerful and more insane than ever. The Millennium Group feels like an completely unironic S.M.E.R.S.H. or S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which might have been an interesting concept if the show were willing to run with it. It reduces them to cartoon supervillains, suggesting that there is a deleted scene from the second season where Philip Baker Hall attempts to swat a fly with a rocket-propelled grenade. Peter Watts’ moustache seems like it has been foreshadowing this development for years.

Father knows best...

Father knows best…

The second season of Millennium and the fifth season of The X-Files offered interesting parallel narratives concerning conspiracies attempting to control the world. Over the five seasons of The X-Files, the conspiracy had been deepened and broadened. Patient X and The Red and the Black revealed that these powerful men were nothing more than middle-men in the grand scheme of things, plotting and dealing to stay one step ahead of their looming extinction. There was something tragic to that, like the tragedy of Peter Watts’ misplaced trust in the Millennium Group.

The third season of Millennium turns the Millennium Group into a two-dimensional knock-off of the conspirators on The X-Files. The Millennium Group is a shadow cabal with almost limitless reach and influence driving the world for their own secret (and undoubtedly evil) ends. However, the Group remains largely faceless across the third season. There are no figures equivalent to players like Deep Throat, the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Mister X, the Well-Manicured Man, or Alex Krycek. There is not window to develop or explore the players or their game.

Lather, rinse and re-Pete...

Lather, rinse and re-Pete…

The third season does not bring back any of the recurring members of the Millennium Group from the first two seasons, barring Peter Watts and Cheryl Andrews. Skull and Bones suggests that Andrews is already dead before the third season even begins. Peter Watts has been so dramatically and radically rewritten that he doesn’t seem to be the same character. The Time is Now suggested that Watts had been murdered by the Millennium Group trying to save Lara Means. It was a bitter twist, but a fitting end for a character who had seen his faith and certainty broken.

The third season spends a great deal of time figuring out what to do with Peter Watts. Episodes like Collateral Damage and Goodbye to All That suggest an interesting arc, but the rest of the season never quite lives up to that potential. Instead, Peter Watts seems to serve as a heavy for the Millennium Group. Indeed, the climax of Exegesis even has Peter loom menacingly at the edge of the frame as Frank makes his escape from the missile silo. It feels like a waste of Terry O’Quinn.

We call this "the Scully pose."

We call this “the Scully pose.”

Although it could be argued that the characterisation of the Millennium Group in the third season was inherited from The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, it remains a controversial and divisive part of the show’s final year. In the documentary End Game, Lance Henriksen cites it as a personal disappointment in the show’s development:

When the show changed in the third year, when the Millennium Group became evil, I think it only happened because one of the scripts came in where suddenly Terry O’Quinn’s character was no longer my friend. He was, like, ‘Something’s wrong with our relationship.’ And I thought it was a big throwaway. I can’t say it was a mistake, I don’t know what the fourth year would have brought, but I think it was the beginning of the end, the beginning of the wrap-up of the show, because once you make the Millennium Group – that would be like calling the Academy Group evil all of a sudden after years of devotion. How could they be evil? I think the problem was that they didn’t – the Millennium Group was not defined enough, which is different than the Academy Group, the real Academy Group.

To be fair, the Millennium Group had been drifting away from the Academy Group since at least The Beginning and the End. But the organisation featured in the second season at least seemed nuanced and well-developed. They had clear goals and motivations, and behaved in ways that large mysterious organisations tend to behave.

"Well, at least they got matching body bags..."

“Well, at least they got matching body bags…”

Glen Morgan and James Wong did a lot of research into groups like the Freemasons and the Knights Templar to inform their characterisation of the Millennium Group. The problem with the third season is that the Millennium Group becomes moustache-twirling villains. At the climax of Exegesis, they send a bunch of assassins after Frank and Emma in the missile silo. Sure, there’s a throwaway justification for why they tried to murder two FBI agents, but it is hard to believe that there are not red flags raised.

This level of obvious villainy makes it hard to believe that nobody takes Frank seriously. “They’re ex-FBI,” McClaren angrily insists when Frank raises his suspicions. “Family men. People you and I have worked together with for years. The Millennium Group consulted here way before you ever heard of them. We have a relationship with them like I have with you.” It feels like very lazy plotting, the stock thriller trope where everybody but the protagonist is blind to the villain’s ridiculously over-the-top evil.

Heading down this road...

Heading down this road…

Discussing the portrayal of the Millennium Group in interviews, executive producer Chip Johannessen hints at a more nuanced and sophisticated characterisation than anything that made it to the screen. Discussing the third season with Back to Frank Black, he explained:

I wrote a ten-page manifesto for the Millennium Group, which I no longer have, but I remember the first point was, ‘We are rushing toward an apocalypse of our own creation.’ I don’t remember the rest exactly, but it tried to honour Chris’s original idea that the various forms of evil present on this earth are connected and coming to a boil. In this the Millennium Group saw itself as a vanguard, the only people who could see a clear path to the future. Since the Group’s goal was basically the protection of humanity that might justify practically any means.

It is an interesting hook – one perhaps quite similar to the presentation of the Group in the second season, albeit with all of the secret history trimmed out. It is a portrayal that seems decidedly less one-dimensional than the Group ultimately ends up.

Flyin' silo...

Flyin’ silo…

That said, as interesting as some of the ideas underpinning Exegesis might be, there is a clunkiness to the episode as a whole. There is a sense that the script is in need of some tidying or reworking – that the central ideas are not expressed in the best possible way. In particular, the episode’s climax feels awkwardly heavy-handed, as Frank contemplates mankind’s potential while buying a butterfly toy for Jordan. On paper, it is not a bad idea. Millennium is a show that can occasionally seem overwhelmingly grim. A little lightness is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, the script and direction really labour the point. The sight of Frank (and then Jordan) playing with butterfly toy feels trite and cheesy, as if the production team were really looking to end the season premiere on an upbeat note. Never mind the destruction of the plane in the teaser to The Innocents, just look at that cute butterfly toy. Never mind that Jordan still hasn’t properly processed the death of her mother, she just received a cute butterfly toy. The idea that Frank can just wander out of Quantico and buy a butterfly toy feels clumsy and contrived.

Giving it the all-Klea...

Giving it the all-Klea…

The sentiment behind the closing monologue is endearing and sincere. It provides a nice contrast to the apocalyptic themes of the second season. Maybe there is a future where everything is fine. It is nice to imagine the arrival of the Millennium not as the end of the world, but as a source of a conflict – a fork in the road. What if Frank isn’t trying to resist the end of the world, but fighting for the best possible future? What if the fight is about defining the twenty-first century – and beyond – rather than trying to stall the apocalypse?

Unfortunately, it all feels rather heavy-handed. The Innocents front-loaded Frank’s character development and the show’s new world-building. As a result, Exegesis was left to actually flesh out the mystery and to develop all the themes and ideas. It feels like Exegesis digs too quickly and too bluntly into ideas that would have been better spread across the two-parter. The focus on children in The Innocents arguably foreshadows this conversation about the future, but it feels superficial and under-developed.

Her sister's (and her mother's) keeper...

Her sister’s (and her mother’s) keeper…

For example, the butterfly imagery is confined almost exclusively to Exegesis – despite the fact that it would seem just as relevant to The Innocents. It seems like butterflies have magically materialised in the space between the two episodes. It is a nice thematic element, a great way to evoke the script’s underlying ideas. However, it feels wedged into the second part of a two-part premiere in an inelegant manner. It underscores the weird disconnect between The Innocents and Exegesis, which itself underscores the disconnect between the second and third seasons.

Exegesis makes a much stronger case for the third season of Millennium, even as it feels hobbled by the creative direction imposed on show. There are some interesting and bold ideas here, but they are suffocated by highly questionable choices when it comes to working through the consequences of the second season as a whole. Sadly, these problems will remain in place for quite some time.

4 Responses

  1. This would be the last episode I watched of Millennium until Goodbye to All That. I might have caught bits and pieces, maybe of Saturn Dreaming of Mercury and Seven and One, but this would pretty much be it for me. I recall watching The Innocents and theorizing (hoping) that the case would somehow explicitly connect the Millennium Group to the group in Force Majeure as at the close of that episode Peter Watts seemed particularly interested in “the ark” in Pocatello, Idaho. I’m not sure if this would have been any better though but it could have been a neat way to tie seasons 1 and 2 together.
    I’d like to know more about the “escape hatches” that Morgan & Wong left in the season 2 finale.

    • If you are curious about the third season, I’d recommend Borrowed Time, Collateral Damage, The Sound of Snow and Nostalgia. Which is not great for a twenty-two episode season. (I also loved Saturn Dreaming of Mercury, but I appreciate that’s an acquired taste.)

  2. i loved the series finale so much i made lucas barr my xbl name lol and i do like the idea of making a new killer out of ed cuffle with lucas barr thru the fake alzheimers cure surgery.same thing they did to emmas father although they never show the results of it except him saying”why did you let them do it emma?” paraphrasing there but u get it.

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