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Millennium – Human Essence (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.

Human Essence is the second (and final) script from Michael Duggan. It is also, notably, the first episode of the third season not to credit Duggan as an “executive producer” before the final credits.

Human Essence is a terrible episode of television. However, it is interesting to note that it is mostly terrible in ways that generic television can be terrible. The third season of Millennium is often terrible because of decisions or realities imposed by or resulting from creative decisions relating to the show itself. In the case of something like Through a Glass Darkly, the terribleness results from a perfect storm of vices associated with Millennium as a show. The Innocents and Exegesis are hobbled by choices made about the direction of the show.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Human Essence is terrible in a much more generic way. It would be a terrible episode of just about any television show. One of the problems with the episode is that it feels like it could easily be a terrible episode of just about any television show. With some light revisions, Human Essence could easily become a terrible episode of The X-Files or a terrible episode of Law & Order. Change the character names, tweak the dialogue a little. It wouldn’t take more than some light scrubbing to remove any hint of Millennium from the script.

However, it would take significantly more scrubbing to get the smell of crap off the script.

Yeah. We're hip.

Yeah. We’re hip.

According to fan resource Fourth Horseman Press, Human Essence “is almost unanimously considered by fans to be the worst the series ever produced.” Considering that Human Essence sits between Through a Glass Darkly and Omerta in the broadcast order of the third season, that is quite a boast. It gives an indication of just how terrible Human Essence must be, and just how offensive it must be to fans of Millennium. Human Essence is spectacularly terrible, but it is perhaps a stretch to describe it as the worst episode ever.

Truth be told, there are quite a few contenders for the title of “worst episode of Millennium ever”, and the fact that Human Essence might not have an easy victory over Loin Like a Hunting Flame or Through a Glass Darkly should be seen as a condemnation of those episodes rather than an endorsement of Human Essence. Certainly, it is hard to argue that there is a significant qualitative distinction to be made. They are all examples of really bad television, and really should be included on list given to prospective viewers as a gesture of goodwill.

Dutch angle!

Dutch angle! Shady alley ways are EVIL!

Loin Like a Hunting Flame and Through a Glass Darkly are terrible episodes, but they are terrible in a way the demonstrates the worst excesses of Millennium as a television show. They wallow in misery, confusing darkness for depth. They loudly declare that concepts like “GOOD” and “EVIL” exist bold capital letters. Loin Like a Hunting Flame and Through a Glass Darkly play into weaknesses that are baked into the foundation of Millennium as a television show, with monstrous offenders and an exploitative (and sensationalist) approach to brutality.

In contrast, Human Essence is a lot more generic. It is just a poorly-written piece of television. The mistakes made by the script are all fairly basic, and certainly should not be the mistakes made by a showrunner who was brought in to save a troubled series. The characters are shallow, the dialogue is cringe-inducing, the set-up is forced, the threat is hazily-defined. (And suitably foreign in nature, for extra audience discomfort.) All of this is underscored by an awkward “drugs are bad, m’kay?” message delivered in the most clumsy manner possible.

Dutch angle! Drugs are EVIL!

Dutch angle! Drugs are EVIL!

The plot of Human Essence finds a new brand of heroin hitting the streets of Vancouver. This “eighty percent pure street–grade heroin” has quite a kick. It is discovered that the drug transforms people… into monsters. It is a rather inelegant metaphor for drug addiction, but it works well enough. After all, addiction does transform a person – mentally and physically. It might be a bit much to refer to the addict as a “monster”, but there is a germ of an idea here. Unfortunately, Human Essence overplays its hand.

Just in case the audience doesn’t get the none-too-subtle metaphor, the characters re-state it time and time again. “It turns people into monsters,” Tamra tells Emma. Emma repeats, “There’s heroin on the streets that’s turning people into monsters.” Tamra confesses to Frank and Emma, “I saw my friend turn into a monster.” Even when it comes time for a pseudo-scientific explanation, Frank states, “Temporary distortion of the human form. A monster within brought on by the drug.”

The only thing worse than monsters are generically foreign monsters!

The only thing worse than monsters are racially stereotyped monsters!

There is something quite uncomfortable about the ease with which Human Essence throws around the word “monster.” It makes sense for drug dealers to use the term, and even for addicts to use it allegorically. However, it feels completely inappropriate for characters like Frank Black and Emma Hollis to take so casually to applying the term to physically disfigured (and possibly mentally altered) drug addicts. It is not an episode that seems particularly nuanced or sensitive.

In fact, the episode seems to have been written by somebody who has never really interacted with anybody with drug-related issues – or anybody involved in drug enforcement. The dialogue is terrible. “I’d just like to make sure it wasn’t a case of the yips,” Emma tells Tamra at own point. Tamra responds, “I’m whack right now.” That is not how people talk. Similarly, the script offers terrible pseudo-philosophical babble. “Every day of that girl’s life is a gamble,” Emma tells Frank. Frank replies, “And now your life is becoming part of the stakes.”

Looking in...

Looking in…

For all that Human Essence throws around the word “monster”, the episode is decidedly vague about the particulars of what the drug does or why it does them. (Something something “synthetic hormones” something something.) There is something decidedly uncomfortable in the way that Human Essence ties the weird (and vaguely mystical) drug back to an Asian gang distributing heroin in Vancouver. The idea of Asian immigrants peddling mysterious drugs feels outdated at the end of the twentieth century, inviting uncomfortable comparisons to Excelsis Dei.

Human Essence is decidedly light on character motivation. Why is Mister Ho poisoning the heroin? Why is he tainting it? Is it part of some sinister experiment? Is it intentional sabotage? Is he something more (or less) than human? Human Essence never feels too concerned with the motivations behind the mystery that drives the plot. This has a number of unfortunate implications; it reduces Mister Ho to even more of a racial stereotype, the inscrutable and vaguely mystical Asian.

Beating the audience over the head with the point...

Beating the audience over the head with the point…

The basic plot of Human Essence is so vague and ill-defined that it could easily be an episode of just about any show. Sure, you’d have to make alterations – but only slight changes. Tone done the “monster” element slightly and it could be an episode of Law & Order about tainted drugs taking a city by storm. Play up the “monster” element slightly and you would have a rather generic installment of The X-Files. There is nothing about Human Essence that really marks it as a Millennium episode.

Perhaps the best aspect of Human Essence is how incredibly casual Andy McClaren is when confronted with this vagary. When Frank talks about “sophisticated science” turning people into monsters, McClaren knows better than to fight it. “I know you’re on to something there, but there’s no need.” When Frank starts talking about synthetic hormones, McClaren just stresses how happy he is that the whole thing is resolved. “Now look, wherever you’re going with this – it’s all over now.”

"And I... ee... I... will alWAYS love yooooou!"

“And I… ee… I… will alWAYS love yooooou!”

Indeed, one gets the sense that Mulder and Scully really got a bum draw with Assistant Director Kersh. Assistant Director McClaren would make a superb supervisor for the X-files. He just goes with it. Every sixth season episode of The X-Files would end with Mulder trying to account for some strange phenomenon while McClaren simply cuts him off and points out that he really doesn’t need to worry about it. Now there is the crossover between The X-Files and Millennium that really needs to happen.

(In contrast, Human Essence features a rather silly reference where Emma Hollis interrupts a woman watching Kill Switch on her television. It is an interesting continuity touch, suggesting that there is a weird fictional recursion to the world of Millennium and The X-Files. If Frank Black coexists with Mulder and Scully, is there coincidentally a television show that happens to have scripts that resemble cases that Mulder and Scully investigated, starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson? Now there is a weird episode of Millennium and/or The X-Files waiting to happen!)

Things are heating up...

Things are heating up…

The only aspect of Human Essence that really marks it out as an episode of Millennium is the fact that it features the characters of Frank Black and Emma Hollis. In fact, Human Essence is very clearly intended as a character-driven episode for Hollis. After all, Hollis remains a relatively under-developed character one-third of the way through the third season. It makes sense to devote an episode to fleshing out her character. However, Human Essence doesn’t really flesh out her character. It just attempts to disguise a terrible plot-driven mystery as character work.

Closure, the season’s earlier Hollis-centric episode, attempted to make Hollis sympathetic by introducing a sister who was brutally murdered. Human Essence is based around her drug-addicted cousin. Darwin’s Eye will reveal that Emma has a father suffering from Alzheimer’s. Introducing a troubled relation into the life of a major character is a tried and tested (albeit particularly lazy approach) to characterisation, and it is perhaps quite telling that it takes the third season of Millennium three attempts to get it to work for Emma Hollis.

I bet Hollis family reunions are fun...

I bet Hollis family reunions are fun…

It doesn’t help matters that Tamra feels like nothing more than a cheap plot device. She is a way to draw our leads into Human Essence while explicitly making it “an Emma story.” However, her presence tells us very little about Emma as a character. The script tries to build a familial rapport between the two characters by having them identify each other as “Em” and “Tee”, but the dialogue feels forced and awkward.  Tamra uses “Em” twice in her first two lines of dialogue to Emma. Emma uses “Tee” twice in her first four lines of dialogue to Tamra.

Human Essence adds extra drama by appending a completely pointless plot in which Emma Hollis finds herself suspended from work for failing a drug test. It turns out that Tamra sent her some white powder in an envelope for analysis. “She sent me an unmarked envelope in the mail,” Emma recalls. “I opened the packet and took a taste on the end of one finger.” It is an incredibly contrived development that exists purely so we can have some drama about the possibility of Emma losing her job.

Love ain't the drug...

Love ain’t the drug…

It is a plot point that seems particularly stupid in light of the anthrax terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001, but one that is also hard to reconcile outside of that context. Even taking the tendency of television cops to put everything on their fingers and into their mouth – including Frank Black as recently as … Thirteen Years Later – is a rather transparent attempt to shoehorn some unnecessary angst into the episode. There is never any chance that Emma will either be revealed as an addict or dismissed from the Bureau, so it feels more than a little forced.

However, Emma’s plot also exists to force Frank into the role of stern father figure. Frank spends most of Human Essence acting like a disappointed father dealing with a petulant child. It isn’t the fun sort of “tough love” that Skinner occasionally doles out to Mulder and Scully, it is the intrusive and invasive possessive love that is not fun to watch. Frank seems to spend a large portion of Human Essence telling Emma what to do, never really pausing to consider what she might want or how best to help her.

"Bah. Kids these days..."

“Bah. Kids these days…”

“This looks bad,” Frank tells her on a late-night phone call. “Bad for the FBI. This makes it even look worse, Emma. I don’t want you to throw your career away.” When long-distance tough love doesn’t cut it, Frank stalks Emma to Vancouver to lay some more cynicism on her. “They say you refuse to let a doctor see that cut,” he complains. When Frank and Emma deal with Tamra, Frank has no qualms about telling Tamra what’s what. “Listen, you put her in a very difficult situation,” Frank lectures. “What she needs is the truth.”

When Tamra opts out of her forty-five-minute lesson on “the world according to Frank Black”, Frank lays some more hard truths on Emma. He stops Emma from following her cousin, sharing some of his profound personal experience. “Let her go,” Frank instructs his partner. When Emma insists that Tamra doesn’t need to be let go, Frank responds, “What she needs is attention. Maybe that’s what this whole story is about. Because none of it is making very much sense.” Frank should probably just move into family counseling.

Investigating family issues!

Investigating family issues!

It is not an approach that serves Frank or Emma particularly well. Most obviously, it suggests that Frank cannot bring himself to see Emma as an equal in the same way that he saw Peter Watts or Cheryl Andrews or Lara Means as equals. Instead, Human Essence suggests that Frank sees Emma as a child in need of parenting rather than a partner in need of support. It is a character choice that infantilises Emma in front of the audience, undermining her character. Since Frank never explicitly apologises, and since he is the senior regular, the audience is invited to agree with him.

It undercuts the dynamic between the two lead characters. The third season of Millennium frequently has trouble integrating Frank and Emma into the same plot, meaning that there is never really a chance to develop the relationship between them. The Innocents and Exegesis had Frank and Emma investigating the same case, but they spend more time working in parallel than in tandem. Emma spends most of TEOTWAWKI and Through a Glass Darkly standing around in the background. Frank is mentor-slash-father figure in Closure and Human Essence.

Injecting a little drama...

Injecting a little drama…

If Millennium wants to develop Emma Hollis as a character, it should be developing her in tandem with Frank. Instead, the show isolates her and forces Frank to take the role of an outsider intruding into his partner’s private business. To be fair, the third season does get better at doing this as it goes along, finding a story thread for Emma that works well alongside Frank’s larger character arc. The problem is that it takes the show far too long to figure out how to make these things work.

The problem raised by Closure also applies here. Closure is a much stronger episode, but it shares some of the same issues haunting Human Essence. Human Essence is a terrible episode, but it is a terrible episode that feels like it belongs in the first season of a new show. This is the kind of terrible script that a production team could get away with producing when they are still trying to get the voice of the show. Human Essence would be forgivable if it came at the same point in the run of Millennium as Fire or Space did in the run of The X-Files.

Not an impressive body of work...

Not an impressive body of work…

After all, it takes a while to figure out how to produce a new show. Given that Millennium reinvented itself in each of its three seasons, that meant that each season was functionally a first season. Each season had proportionally more clunkers towards the start of the season than the end, because the writing staff were still figuring out how to write this new version of the show. The first season had episodes like The Judge and Kingdom Come. The second season had Sense and Antisense and A Single Blade of Grass. The third season has… well, a lot.

The problem is that it gets harder and harder to be patient with these episodes as a show gets older. This is the third season. Even allowing for all the chaos behind the scenes in the wake of The Fourth Horseman and The Time in Now, there is no way that an episode as clumsy and as terrible as Human Essence should be broadcast more than a third of the way through the third season. Hindsight and binge-watching make it easier to be forgiving in retrospect, but it is not too hard to see why the third season of Millennium was racing towards its own apocalypse.

"She ain't heavy, she's my cousin."

“She ain’t heavy, she’s my cousin.”

Human Essence is a disaster, but it is all the more disastrous for the fact that it is not a freak occurrence.

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