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Millennium – Through a Glass Darkly (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.

Through a Glass Darkly is a terrible piece of television.

There is no nice way to say it. There is no excusing it. Through a Glass Darkly is an absolutely wretched script directed in a cloying manner. It is cliché, it is clumsy, it is trite. It is manipulative and cynical. There are no redeeming features to Through a Glass Darkly beyond the fact that it makes Human Essence and Omerta look significantly better than they actually are. This is an abysmal production, and one of the worst forty-five minutes of television that Ten Thirteen has broadcast to this point. It is up there with Excelsis Dei.

"You are a paedophile, you are a nonce, you're a perv, you're a slot badger, you're a two pin din plug, you're a bush dodger, you're a small bean regarder, you're an unabummer, you're a nut administrator, you're a bent ref, you're the crazy world of Arthur Brown, you're a fence foal, you're a free willy, you're a chimney bottler, you're a bunty man, you're a shrub rocketeer..."

“You are a paedophile, you are a nonce, you’re a perv, you’re a slot badger, you’re a two pin din plug, you’re a bush dodger, you’re a small bean regarder, you’re a unabummer, you’re a nut administrator, you’re a bent ref, you’re the crazy world of Arthur Brown, you’re a fence foal, you’re a free willy, you’re a chimney bottler, you’re a bunty man, you’re a shrub rocketeer…”

Child sex abuse is an absolutely horrific reality. The world is not always a nice place, and the world is not always a safe place. In the late nineties, film and television were growing more comfortable with exploring and addressing issues of child abuse. However, it was something that needed to be handled with a great deal of care and skill. Millennium had already learned how difficult it could be to tell a story about child abuse, with Chris Carter’s well-intentioned but clumsy The Well-Worn Lock.

Through a Glass Darkly manages to retroactively make The Well-Worn Lock seem like a work of genius.

 "...this paedophile has disguised himself as a school in Sheffield."

“…this paedophile has disguised himself as a school in Sheffield.”

Through a Glass Darkly was the first third season script to be written by Patrick Harbinson, who had worked with Bobby Moresco on the script for Broken World during the tail end of the first season. Harbinson recalls the difficulties finding his feet on the staff, owing to the departure of Michael Duggan and his lack of familiarity with Chip Johannessen:

Not entirely seamless for me personally in that Michael had brought me onto the show, and by the time he left I hadn’t really developed a relationship, personal or creative, with Chip. So once Michael had gone – he’d only wanted to be a transitional figure anyway – there was, for me, an uneasy couple of months as I tried to establish myself, and work out Chip’s story-telling style. As it turned out my sensibilities were much closer to Chip’s than anyone else I have ever worked with, but that was not immediately apparent – to either of us. In fact, Through a Glass, Darkly, my first script, was sliding alarmingly down the filming order, and it was only when Chris Carter – rather arbitrarily – threw out another script and asked what else was ready, that my script got onto the schedule. But after that it was all fine and dandy.

To be fair to Harbinson, he would provide the script for The Sound of Snow. The Sound of Snow would serve as one of the stronger episodes of the troubled third season, suggesting that Harbinson was a much stronger writer than his first two assignments on Millennium would imply. It is possible that Through a Glass Darkly might have worked with a bit more love and attention, but it is quite frankly astonishing that it got made at all.

Letter of note...

Letter of note…

Through a Glass Darkly concerns a convicted child abuser who is released into a world that fears and hates him. Frank Black is not convinced that Max Brunelli has reformed; Frank does not seem convinced that Max can be reformed. “The man who committed these crimes has an overpowering sexual need. Recidivism in child sex crimes is among the highest in all criminal categories. If you let this man back into the world, he will find himself under unbearable pressure. If you have sons and daughters, ask yourself: would you risk that to this man’s remorse.”

It is an interesting (and provocative) idea. There is a story to be told about a paedophile trying to reintegrate into society. It might not be an upbeat story; it might not be a comfortable story. However, it would provide an interesting avenue to explore big ideas like justice and forgiveness. Can somebody ever be forgiven for a crime like that? Should they ever be released? Can a community ever feel safe knowing that it houses such a predator? These are questions that are unsettling, and which should be unsettling.

Looking in...

Looking in…

In the late nineties and into the twenty-first century, it seemed like film and television were growing more comfortable in exploring these tough questions. In October 1998, almost a month before Through a Glass Darkly was broadcast, writer and director Todd Solondz released the film Happiness. At the centre of the film was Bill Maplewood, a paedophile psychiatrist played by Dylan Baker. Happiness was a deeply uncomfortable watch, but it was generally well-received.

Roger Ebert described it as a challenging film, one suggesting that perhaps “the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision.” It is certainly a controversial idea, and Happiness repeatedly underscores that Bill Maplewood is a very human monster. He is not a cartoon in the same way that The Well-Worn Lock portrayed Joe Bangs. Bill Maplewood is all the more horrific for the fact that he can be understood; that the audience can recognise him as human.

Symbolism!

Symbolism!

In interviews, Solondz argues that he was not necessarily drawn to paedophilia as subject matter. Instead, he suggests that paedophilia is interesting as the ultimate marker of human depravity:

The great irony is that I have no real interest in pedophilia, so to speak. But as a metaphor, that is most demonized, ostracized, feared and loathed… I mean, I don’t know how to top that. I think most Americans would rather have Osama bin Laden at their table than a pedophile. Even though they may have had pedophiles at their table and not known it.

Solondz would return to the character of Bill Maplewood with Life During Wartime. He would also return to the theme of paedophilia in Palindromes.

Reverse symbolism!

Reverse symbolism!

However, Solondz was not the only writer exploring issues related to child sexual abuse at the edge of the twenty-first century. Stephen Fechter’s The Woodsman opened in New York in March 2000 to rave reviews. It was adapted into a motion picture in 2004. Actor Kevin Bacon remains frustrated by the response the film generated:

“The issue is so prevalent and so widespread, and it gets swept under the rug by a society that says, ‘He’s a monster’.” It’s clearly an issue of great importance to Bacon. “But it isn’t like that – they are not monsters; they are in schools, they are at the BBC.” The Woodsman was certainly ambiguous in its treatment of Bacon’s character, Walter, seen struggling to cope with his own compulsions and his ostracism. It caused controversy, as some of Bacon’s friends in the industry said they would prefer not to see a film that offered even a remotely sympathetic portrait of paedophilia. “The cycle of denial continues because so many people refused to see the movie,” sighs Bacon.

The recurring theme in these portrayals is one of flawed humanity. These horrific crimes are committed by human beings, not by monsters. As tempting as it might be to turn this into a story featuring the big bad wolf, human beings are capable of truly monstrous acts.

"Keeping our eyes paedo'ed... er, I mean peeled."

“Keeping our eyes paedo’ed… er, I mean peeled.”

A lot of the third season of Millennium suffers from poor creative decisions about the direction of the show. In a way, Through a Glass Darkly is just as much a victim of these choices. The third season has made a conscious effort to get back to the mood and aesthetic of the first season. This has meant a return to the much-maligned “serial killer of the week” format, but it also affects the portrayal of these serial offenders. Millennium is a show that is absolutely fascinated with the idea that evil is at work in the world, and it tends to turn is serial killers into monsters.

Many of the criminals featured in the first and third seasons of Millennium are as alien or monstrous as any creature to appear on The X-Files. Most of these killers are not supernatural in nature or origin. Frank Black rarely has to worry about local folklore or urban legends to help him catch the criminals. However, there is a very clear connection between the way that The X-Files portrays its monsters and the way that Millennium treats its serial killers. If anything, The X-Files is more likely to humanise its monsters.

Dud couldn't even shave for a family photo...

Dud couldn’t even shave for a family photo…

The killer lurking in closets in Wide Open might not be able to squeeze and stretch in the same manner as Victor Eugene Tooms, but he is just as primal an expression of evil. Edward Petey from Weeds might not be a demon invoked by the local community, but he is just as much an expression of suburban anxieties as the creature featured in Arcadia. Art Nesbitt from Loin Like a Hunting Flame might not be able to change gender, but he is just as much a sex monster as the creature from Gender Bender.

This is not an approach that lends itself to the grace or tact necessary to tell a story about a convicted child sex offender. At one point, Max Brunnelli picks up the limp body of Shannon McNulty in a manner that looks like it might have been poached from a classic Universal horror film. Looking up at the heavens, Max Brunnelli curses, “Noooo!” If he was not holding an almost-dead child in his arms, the viewer gets the sense that he would be shaking his fist in impotent rage.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

Part of the problem with Through a Glass Darkly is the fact that the third season desperately wants to get back to a more procedural format. As a result, the show is simply not interested in a compelling forty-five-minute character study exploring a convicted child offender’s reintegration into society. So the episode ends up being a murder mystery. Given the subject matter, this ends up feeling highly exploitative and cynical. There is no easier way to manipulate an audience than by making a child (or possibly an animal) suffer.

This is a problem that is not unique to Through a Glass Darkly. Stories that victimise young children can often seem crass and cheap, particularly if the show is very transparently using the trauma as emotional leverage. The X-Files has crossed that line on a couple of occasions – The Calusari opened with the murder of a toddler who was quickly forgotten as the narrative moved on; The Walk killed off a young child to keep the audience interested. However, it was also possible to use trauma like that in an interesting and powerful way; Vince Gilligan did in Paper Hearts.

Have mercy...

Have mercy…

The procedural format also hinders the resolution of Through a Glass Darkly. It turns out that Max Brunelli did not murder those girls. Instead, Randie Jarret did. Jarret happened to – whether by coincidence or design – get himself appointed as Max Brunnelli’s defense attorney. Through manipulation, Jarret was able to frame Brunnelli for the murders. It turns out that Jarret simply waited twenty years until Brunnelli was released so that he could frame his client once again.

It is a terrible resolution to the story, even from a simple procedural standpoint. It makes no real logical sense. Would Jarret have kept waiting if the board declined Brunnelli’s parole? This approach to the story means that the script invents horrific crimes simply to cover over narrative plot holes. When Frank points out that sex offenders don’t voluntarily go dormant for decades at a time, the script clumsily reveals that Jarret had been abusing his daughter to help pass the time. Ugh. Through a Glass Darkly is a script that never should have made it through development.

"Property comes with a spacious torture dungeon."

“Property comes with a spacious torture dungeon.”

It is terrible storytelling, made all the worse by the decision to have Jarret resemble a paedophilic Alan Dershowitz. The guy is never clean-shaven, wearing a grubby five-o-clock shadow under his moustache. He doesn’t seem to own a decent suit. Jarret is presented as the stock image of a paedophile. The script even signposts that there is something not quite right about Jarret by having him treat Brunnelli as something other than a monster. Through a Glass Darkly reveals that Jarret’s efforts to protect Brunnelli could not possibly be a lawyer actually doing his job.

Jarret is not the only character presented as a two-dimensional cartoon. At its worst, Millennium seems to reject the idea that there is any middle-ground between “saint” and “sinner.” As it becomes clear that Brunnelli is not a child abuser, the story quickly turns him into a martyr. All the creepy interactions between Brunnelli and the young girls that were used to establish tension are quickly forgotten. Apparently there is no way Brunnelli could have unhealthy interactions with children if he were not a paedophile.

Smell of sulphur...

Smell of sulphur…

More than that, Brunnelli is portrayed as a man who has suffered for the horrific signs of another. There is a creepy religious undercurrent to the scene where Brunnelli convinces Frank of his innocence by showcasing his scars. “The Lord punished me. Child killer – January 14th, 1980. Child abuser – June 6th, 1983. They tried to kill me. But the Lord kept me alive so I could be abused in turn by four men, eight men, twelve. Until I trusted in the Lord and no man’s hand could hurt me!” It is a grotesque sequence, cloying and tasteless.

It all culminates in a conclusion where Max Brunnelli is hit be a car driven by his father. His father has appeared in a couple of episodes to this point in the episode, but the development comes out of nowhere. It is just another example of the script rather clumsily trying to portray Max Brunnelli as a martyr. However, Through a Glass Darkly lacks even the courage of that conviction. The collision sequence turns out to be completely pointless, as a vindicated Max Brunnelli subsequently moves back in with his father. There is absolutely no need whatsoever for that impact.

Illustrating the point...

Illustrating the point…

Even without these scripting problems, Through a Glass Darkly is just a terrible piece of television. Thomas J. Wright is probably the most consistent director to work on Millennium, but Through a Glass Darkly is put together horribly. The teaser offers a nice taste of what is to come, feeling particularly sensationalist and exploitative. There are lots of tense shots of feet as a young girl slowly recites “Three Blind Mice” while on a swing. It is clearly an attempt to be abstract and emotive, but it feels like a parody of Millennium‘s atmospheric style.

(There is another sequence almost immediately after the credits where Through a Glass Darkly wanders into grim self-parody. The parole sequence is shot in an absurdly stylised manner. The dialogue is moved out of synch with the footage; there are lots of quick cuts; there is a weird focus on just how creepy Max Brunnelli is. There is the faint sound of a young girl singing “Three Blind Mice” in the background again, just in case the audience doesn’t get that child abuse and murder is a horrific crime.)

Lawyer up!

Lawyer up!

Through a Glass Darkly is a disaster. It is probably the weakest episode of the third season. The fact that the qualifier “probably” is added is not a defense of the episode, but a condemnation of the season.

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