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Millennium – Skull and Bones (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.

Skull and Bones brings a lot of the problems with the third season of Millennium to the fore.

Most obviously, the third season of Millennium is making a conscious effort to return to the aesthetic and style of the first season, with an emphasis on horrific crimes and abhorrent psychologies. In interviews around the launch of the third season, Chris Carter repeatedly suggested that something had been lost in the second season. TEOTWAWKI was an issue-driven episode about school shootings and Y2K. Closure was a story about how spree killers can engage in random patterns of violence and there is no way to reliably discern a pattern of logic in truly evil behaviour.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

At the same time, the third season is struggling to deal with the legacy and impact of the second season. The Innocents and Exegesis rather clumsily attempted to write their way out of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now by downplaying the impact of the end of the world at the end of the second season. However, the third cannot completely erase what happened. The absence of Catherine Black and the presence of Peter Watts are constant reminders. The Millennium Group itself cannot revert back to its first season self.

Skull and Bones plays out this conflict, creating an impression of a show trapped at a crossroads with a problem it cannot resolve. Skull and Bones is an episode that attempts to both minimise the impact of the second season of Millennium while still acknowledging and building upon it. It is not an approach that lends itself to satisfactory or fulfilling storytelling. However, it does articulate just how confused the show must be at this point in its life cycle.

There are going to be a lot of Yorrick captions this time...

There are going to be a lot of Yorrick captions this time…

The title of Skull and Bones obviously alludes to the massive grave uncovered during road construction in the teaser of the episode. However, the title also nods towards the infamous secret society that was founded in Yale in 1832. The organisation has attracted no shortage of fascination, with a tendency to seek out induct individuals who would go on to have a massive impact on world affairs. In 2004, the organisation came to national prominence when it was revealed that both George W. Bush and John Kerry had been members, despite their jocular responses to questions.

The institution has a long and storied history. It is often difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. In his autobiography, A Charge to Keep, George W. Buch wrote, “My senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society, so secret I can’t say anything more.” There were rumours that Prescott Bush had led a party of Bonesmen to steal the skull of Geronimo, which is allegedly still in the custody of the Skull and Bones. There have been several attempts to negotiate the return of the bones, including a failed legal action by Geronimo’s descendents.

Yep, a LOT of Yorrick captions...

Yep, a LOT of Yorrick captions…

Of course, there is a long history of conspiracy theories about the group. This is inevitable, considering how much influence its members tend to accrue – even if the logic beyond such accusations tends to gloss over that the society explicitly recruits from wealthy and powerful families at one of the top universities in the world. Nevertheless, there is healthy (and unhealthy) speculation about what exactly the members of the Skull and Bones get up to. Some theories suggest that the group is “part of a clandestine cabal attempting to rule the world.”

Such groups are fascinating. It is easy to see why pop culture tends to fixate on them. As George W. Bush was standing for election in the year 2000, The Skulls was released in cinemas. Starring Topher Grace and Paul Walker, the film was centred around a barely-fictionalised version of the group, an organisation with sinister ties that extended in just about every direction. It was pure low-rent hokum, but it did tap into a deep-set fascination with the workings of these secretive organisations.

"Thank goodness I brought my reading glasses...."

“Thank goodness I brought my reading glasses…”

In 1977, journalist Ron Rosenbaum was allegedly warned by a source inside the Skull and Bones not to dig too deeply into the group. “Don’t laugh. They don’t like people tampering and prying. The power of Bones is incredible. They’ve got their hands on every lever of power in the country. You’ll see—it’s like trying to look into the Mafia.” However, contemporary accounts of the organisation suggest that its “biggest secret may be that its secrets are essentially trivial.”

The Skull and Bones provides a pretty nice template for the Millennium Group. Both are organisations that are highly secretive, and accused of conspiratorial agendas. The second season had cited Freemasonry as an inspiration in its portrayal of the Millennium Group. The decision to apply the title “Skull and Bones” to an episode focusing on the Millennium Group suggests connection, even if the episode itself never explicitly (or even implicitly) acknowledges it. It suggests a major divide between the second and third season portrayals of the Millennium Group.

"Pay no attention to the dissection room behind the curtain..."

“Pay no attention to the dissection room behind the curtain…”

The second season suggested that the Millennium Group was an organisation that was more than simply American. The teaser to The Hand of St. Sebastian focused on the Group’s activities in Europe at the turn of the last millennium. The show repeatedly suggested that the Millennium Group was a radical Christian cult, one that had arisen to confront evil at every millennium. It was a bold reimagining of an organisation that had been introduced in The Pilot as a fictional counterpart to the Academy Group.

The third season retains the idea of the Millennium Group as a secret society with an interest in the millennium. However, the third season shifts the focus on the Group away from those international and religious elements. Exegesis tied the Millennium Group into remote viewing experiments conducted by the CIA. Collateral Damage ties them into experiments conducted upon American soldiers during the Gulf War. Matryoshka would connect the Millennium Group explicitly to the work of J. Edgar Hoover.

Talking around in circles...

Talking around in circles…

The result was to create a mood that felt a little too similar to that featured on The X-Files. Discussing the season with Back to Frank Black, Chip Johannessen conceded as much:

Probably we were all feeling the pull of The X-Files. I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure we got away from Chris’ original concept for the show, which was to stay based in reality, unlike The X-Files, while imagining and depicting the different ways the world might be experienced by certain evil people.

The third season felt like Millennium was struggling to define its own identity; that the show could not figure out what it wanted to be and how it wanted to be. The lure of The X-Files was understandably strong.

A van parked in an alleyway in a show about serial killers... This'll end well.

A van parked in an alleyway in a show about serial killers…
This’ll end well.

The development of the Millennium Group over the third season felt too much like the development of the conspiracy on The X-Files, suggesting a cabal of (mostly) American power brokers who had worked hard to solidify America’s ascendency in the wake of the Second World War and whose sins were quickly coming back to haunt the current generation. The Millennium Group in the third season feels largely generic and bland. It lacks even the personality that the conspirators had developed over the first five seasons of The X-Files.

Ultimately, the climax of Skull and Bones seems to acknowledge the overlap and similarity. After Emma Hollis witnesses the successful cover-up of mass murder by the Millennium Group, she joins Frank in the hallway. “The truth doesn’t really matter, does it?” Emma wonders aloud. “Only what you can prove.” Frank responds, “Oh, the truth does matter, Agent Hollis. It does.” It seems like Frank and Emma might find some sympathetic individuals working at the Washington headquarters of the Bureau. Just not in the basement at the moment.

Matters come to a head...

Matters come to a head…

Skull and Bones is less than subtle in its imagery and themes. Peter and Hollis discuss the Millennium Group’s desire to protect mankind as they watch a creepy old house get torn down right in front of them. Just in case the viewer doesn’t understand the subtext, Skull and Bones features a shot of a human skull being crushed beneath the tire track of a mechanical digger. Millennium was never particularly subtle when it came to big themes and bold commentary, but the third season is particularly clumsy.

To be fair, the third season does have some interesting ideas about the Millennium Group. At the end of Skull and Bones, Peter Watts tries to justify mass murder. “We live in a free and stable society,” he reminds her. “While all around us countries are collapsing in poverty, chaos, tyranny. That’s no accident. It’s not a matter of luck.” He explains, “There are forces at work today that could easily tear this country apart. Terrible weapons being developed, with us as their target. Who, Agent Hollis, is prepared to do what is necessary to assure our future?”

It looks like Cheryl Andrews is about to be double-tapped as a member of this secret society...

It looks like Cheryl Andrews is about to be double-tapped as a member of this secret society…

It is an approach that fits thematically with Frank Black’s closing monologue in Exegesis and the recurring idea that millennium is really about fighting to define mankind’s future. The Millennium Group is simply fighting to realise its own vision of the future. More than that, Peter Watts’ rhetoric seems eerily prescient. It is the type of dialogue that villains would spout in allegories about the War on Terror, suggesting that Alexander Pierce might have been a member of the Millennium Group during the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The idea of balancing the demands of liberty with the necessity of security would become a fixture of popular culture in the wake of 9/11, as terrorist threats came to justify increasingly draconian measures. The third season of Millennium seems oddly prescient, with Peter Watts and the Millennium Group arguably foreshadowing the nightmares of the twenty-first century. Chip Johannessen’s vision of the Millennium Group was very much ahead of the curve.

Unearthing secrets...

Unearthing secrets…

The problem is that these ideas don’t quite coalesce as well as they might. This vision of the Millennium Group as an organisation cultivating and shaping global (or even just American) society never quite emerges across the season. There are shades of it, to be sure. The surgical marks on the skulls and strange operating table that Emma Hollis encounters at the climax of Skull and Bones do hint at revelations about the behaviour of the Millennium Group in Goodbye to All That. However, the third season never quite develops or fleshes out these big ideas.

Skull and Bones marks the beginning of this new stage of development for the Millennium Group. The secretive Christian cult introduced in The Beginning and the End is gone, replaced by a secretive political cabal. However, it lacks the sort of urgency and confidence that such a strong reboot needs. Skull and Bones was written by the creative team of Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton, who would steer the show to the end of its three-year run. It makes sense that it would have a strong sense of purpose, even if it does not quite commit to it.

Careful now... we don't want to cause a mass (grave) panic...

Careful now… we don’t want to cause a mass (grave) panic…

In the documentary End Game, Chip Johannessen argues that Skull and Bones was a show that finally managed to strike the right tone for the third season:

Episode six was called Skull and Bones, that Ken and I did together, that in a way I think for the first time in season three got back to what was so cool about the pilot in a way. It had this really kick-ass, grisly story where they unearth a whole bunch of bodies under a freeway that’s under construction, and it leads to kind of a cool place.

It is a perfectly understandable argument to make. Skull and Bones is a much stronger episode than the two “mythology” episodes that opened the season, even from a purely functional perspective.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

Skull and Bones is the second episode of the third season credited to Chip Johannessen. He would become a guiding creative force across the third season. He began the season as a partner to Michael Duggan; Duggan would leave the show quite quickly, to be replaced by Ken Horton. As such, Chip Johannessen would be the creative voice bridging both ends of the season. It is a rather daunting responsibility, particularly in light of all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes. However, Johannessen does make his mark on the show.

Skull and Bones contains a nice connection back to Johannessen’s earlier script for the season, Exegesis. The logo used in the “remote viewing” experiments appears as graffiti on a wall at a demolished crime scene. Johannessen would make eyes a recurring motif in the third season. The “remote viewers” in Exegesis were targeted for what they had seen. Here, Ed was driven insane by the fact that he witnessed a murder. Perception is a vital and recurring theme in Johannessen’s work, and one of the threads that comes up repeatedly over the third season.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

In the same documentary, Ken Horton goes a little further in explaining the impact of Skull and Bones. He cites the episode as effectively the first episode of the third season:

Skull and Bones in year three was defined by people except for myself, like the network, as really being the start of season three. We’d gotten past plagues and things like that and now we had got into how and why. It was the first out-and-out statement that the Millennium Group was bad.

Giving the birthing pains facing the third season of Millennium, it is easy to see why the efficiency of Skull and Bones would be appealing.

Letters of note...

Letters of note…

However, the episode makes it clear that the third season of Millennium is still far from comfortable in its own skin. Skull and Bones is deliberately (and distractingly) ambiguous about how the show feels towards the divisive second season. The outbreak from The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now is never actually mentioned. The show brings back the character of Cheryl Andrews from the first and second seasons, only to kill her off in a way that makes no sense in light of her last appearance in The Hand of St. Sebastian.

It is hard to reconcile the story of Cheryl Andrews from The Hand of St. Sebastian with the story of Cheryl Andrews from Skull and Bones. In The Hand of St. Sebastian, Cheryl Andrews traveled to Germany to spy on Frank Black and Peter Watts; she was exposed as a double agent and arrested. In Skull and Bones, Cheryl Andrews traveled to Germany to present a suspicious autopsy findings to a conference; on attempting to enter the country, she was taken aside and promptly killed in a stairwell.

The writing is on the wall...

The writing is on the wall…

“She went to a conference in Germany to report what she found,” Frank is told. “She never made it. They had her arrested and deported.” As the flashback footage reveals, the word “deported” is just a euphemism for “shot in the head.” Cheryl Andrews’ last known location is given as Frankfurt Airport. “Arrested, deported – and then the record stops.” The details are designed to evoke Cheryl Andrews’ appearance in The Hand of St. Sebastian, even as they are hard to reconcile.

There is something quite passive aggressive about all this, as if Skull and Bones exists to suggest that The hand of St. Sebastian is being pushed out of continuity. Cheryl Andrews went to Germany, acted against the Millennium Group, was arrested and then deported. The broad strokes hold true. However, the precise details of the incident are completely and utterly altered. It is quite similar to the revisions that The Innocents and Exegesis made to The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now; just a little more bold and confident.

How could he be so blind?

How could he be so blind?

Then again, there is more than a hint of irony to Skull and Bones. For all that it seems to rewrite the events of the second season, it is a story itself about rewriting history. Skull and Bones is a story about the manipulation of the official narrative, and attempts to bury past misdeeds. There is more than a hint of self-awareness to the episode. Much like The Innocents mirrored Frank’s denial about the loss of Catherine with the show’s denial about the second season, Skull and Bones juxtaposes the show’s attempts to rewrite history with those of the Millennium Group.

“People can be erased,” Ed warns Frank. “If a school test administrator finds thousands of I.Q. tests tampered with – gone. If witnesses in Oklahoma City report a halo effect five seconds before the explosion – gone. If five satellites explode on their launch pads and somebody asked why – gone.” There is a sense that the Millennium Group is editing history in the same way that Millennium is editing its own continuity. It is struggling to fill the gap between the first season and the third season, figuring what it can take from the second season and what it needs to pave over.

"You know, you'd look a lot less crazy if you kept your conspiracy theories on DVD."

“You know, you’d look a lot less crazy if you kept your conspiracy theories on DVD.”

As such, there is something almost hopeful in the repeated suggestion that the past cannot remain buried forever. Skull and Bones is intrigued with the idea of conspiracy and free association. “Frank has had a lot of good years, but paranoid delusions reinforce themselves,” Peter assures Hollis during one conversation. “Every new fact tends to confirm the fiction. I don’t care if you’re talking about space aliens or J.F.K. or the Millennium Group.” It is an idea that the second season actually explored quite well – the tendency of conspiracies to multiply and divide.

Indeed, Chip Johannessen has already touched on this idea in his script for Sense and Antisense. That episode tried to tie the nineties obsession with conspiracy theory into the show’s millennial milieu. It was not one of the stronger episodes of the second season, but it had an endearing and engaging premise. When the second season didn’t work, it still had a dynamism and energy; the third season seems more fatigued and exhausted. The third season finds Johannessen returning to a lot of old ideas; Exegesis felt like an extended homage to his script for Force Majeure.

Muddying the water...

Muddying the water…

However, Ed suggests that perhaps not all is lost. Despite all this death and destruction, the truth can be pieced back together from the scraps left behind. “There are records of everything,” Ed assures Frank. “It’s all there. It’s all there in plain sight. That’s how I know.” When Frank asks if Ed “knows” secrets, Ed is dismissive. “No, no, no! No. There are no secrets!” One of the more interesting aspects of the third season mythology is the optimism that exists in contrast to all the grimness. The show seems to suggest that good can triumph against all odds.

Ed is able to stitch history back together. “You’re telling me that he linked forty-three disappearances by reading the newspaper?” McClaren asks Frank at one point. Frank clarifies, “A lot of newspapers and magazines. Scientific periodicals, Internet newsgroups. He witnessed the murder and it shook him, changed his life. Since then, he’s been obsessively recording everything about everyone he’s come across.” Ed is an interesting character, one of the wonderfully sympathetic “broken” people who frequently feature in Johannessen’s Millennium scripts.

Don't worry, the matter is well in hand...

Don’t worry, the matter is well in hand…

However, the show’s conflicted relationship with the second season bleeds through in other ways. As much as the plot of Skull and Bones seems to question whether The Hand of St. Sebastian ever actually occurred, the episode itself features a number of stylistic cues lifted directly from the second season. The apocalyptic visions that haunt Ed in the teaser to the episode – set to trippy electro music – and the sequence of Hollis stalking a dilapidated torture house to Nazareth’s Love Hurts feel like they might have been inspired by Owls or Anamnesis or The Time is Now.

There are other echoes of the second season reverberating through Skull and Bones. Skull and Bones sets up an arc for Peter and Hollis that will run through the third season, suggesting that Hollis might be recruited into the Millennium Group. However, given Frank Black’s character arc in the second season, the storyline feels largely redundant. It feels like a miscalculation to introduce a new character and set them on a trajectory already explored by the lead character in the preceding season.

"Don't worry. It's just a perfectly wholesome paper weight."

“Don’t worry. It’s just a perfectly wholesome paper weight.”

There is a very weird conflict at the heart of the third season, pushed to the fore with Skull and Bones. It seems like the show cannot decide whether it would rather completely forget about what just happened, or whether it might be able to build on what came before. It is a conflict that really hinders the flow and development of the third season, creating a sense that the show is arguing in circles. It feels like the third season of Millennium really needs to decide what it wants to be before it can go about actually being anything.

The teaser of Skull and Bones opens with the discovery of a mass grave. However, it also serves to unearth the difficulties that Millennium is having reconciling its second season.

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