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Millennium – Omertà (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 might not feel like it – particularly while actually watching the episode – but Omertà does represent something of a shift in the third season of the show.

Although it was the ninth episode of the third season to be broadcast, it was the eighth produced. It was held back so that it could be broadcast closer to Christmas, in keeping with the themes of the show. As a result, it was the first episode of the third season not to be produced by Michael Duggan. Chip Johannessen is the only “executive producer” listed before Chris Carter at the end of the episode. In a way, shuffling Michael Duggan’s script for Human Essence back earlier in the broadcast order might have been a good thing; it makes for a cleaner break.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Black."

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Black.”

Omertà is not a great piece of television, by any measure. It is not even a good piece of television, by most measures. However, it does mark a point of transition for the third season of Millennium. Omertà begins a run of episodes that deal substantively with the legacy of the show’s second season, and which engage with grand themes of death and spiritual rebirth. The third season of Millennium is a thematic mess, but Omertà represents a point where it seems like the creative team might finally be getting a grip on things, almost half-way through the year.

None of this makes Omertà any easier to watch, but it does provide an intriguing prism through which the episode might be viewed.

"Tonight, we're gonna party like it's 1989!"

“Tonight, we’re gonna party like it’s 1989!”

The third season of Millennium has struggled with how best to handle its inheritance. The second season of Millennium was a boldly provocative piece of television, utterly unlike anything on prime-time during the late nineties. The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now really threw down a gauntlet for the show, pushing any possible third season in a direction that a lot of the staff did not wish to go. As a result, a lot of the third season plays as a rejection of the dramatic beats from the second season.

The end of the second season closed with what amounted to the death of the entire world and the series as fans and creators knew it. The third season occasionally feels like a grieving process; denial became the first stage of engagement with what came before. So The Innocents and Exegesis revised a biblical apocalypse to a botch assassination attempt, and adjusted the Millennium Group from an ancient Christian sect to secret American society that seemed rooted in the military-industrial complex.

"Ha, let's see The X-Files shoot this, this year!"

“Ha, let’s see The X-Files shoot this, this year!”

However, the past cannot be denied. Even as the third season tried to bury what came before, cracks began to show. Writers Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton might have tried to radically re-write The Hand of St. Sebastian with their flashbacks to the fate of Sheryl Andrews in Skull and Bones, but that same episode drew heavily from the imagery and atmosphere of the second season. Skull and Bones opened with a psychedelic freak-out set to hip and trendy music, and closed with a delightfully incongruous use of Nazareth’s Love Hurts.

More than that, Skull and Bones was essentially a story about how the past refuses to remain buried. Attempts to pave over what came before cannot succeed. Skull and Bones seemed to suggest that the third season would have to face and work through what came before. It could not simply ignore the second season entirely; it was impossible for the show to revert completely and fully to what it had been before Glen Morgan and James Wong took over. As the show approaches its half-way point, that seems more and more obvious.

Mobbed up...

Mobbed up…

As with Michael Perry’s script for … Thirteen Years Later, the basic idea of Omertà makes it clear that the spirit of the second season lives on. Not only are … Thirteen Years Later and Omertà comedy episodes in the style (if not to the caliber) of Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and Somehow Satan Got Behind Me, but they are also holiday-themed episodes built around Halloween and Christmas, like The Curse of Frank Black or Midnight of the Century. The structure and mood of … Thirteen Years Later and Omertà demonstrate the legacy of the second season.

More than that, it is worth noting that Omertà is the first episode of the third season since The Innocents to acknowledge the death of Catherine Black in a substantive way. Throughout Omertà, Frank and Jordan have an extended conversation about the loss of Catherine. It seems like Frank and Jordan are working through that loss and loneliness, as Jordan wonders whether Rose and Lhasa might be able to resurrect her beloved mother. Given that the third season has tried to minimise the impact caused by the death of Catherine Black, it represents a significant shift.

Man cave!

Man cave!

In fact, Omertà even consciously mirrors Frank Black to Eddie Giannini. The Time is Now had Frank taking Jordan and Catherine out into a cabin in the wilderness so as to protect his family from a world about to be plunged into chaos. The ending of Omertà reveals that Eddie has manages to take  Rose and Lhasa out into a cabin in the wilderness so as to protect them from mobsters and law enforcement. There is a faint sense that Frank sees something of himself in Eddie. Omertà allows Eddie to have the happy ending that so eluded Frank.

Omertà begins a string of episodes that explore the legacy of the second season. Borrowed Time forces Frank to confront the possibility that he might lose Jordan only a few months after losing Catherine. Collateral Damage allows Frank to interact with Peter in a manner that is shaped and informed by their friendship during the second season. All of this builds towards The Sound of Snow, which is an episode that is consciously designed to offer Frank some measure of closure with what happened at the end of the second season.

Yay! Frank's crazy Christmas tie!

Yay! Frank’s crazy Christmas tie!

As much as these episodes represent a loose character arc for Frank Black running through the third season, they also allow the show to work through some long-standing issues. These episodes help the third season of Millennium to work through some of its issues concerning the lasting legacy of the second season. If The Innocents and Exegesis began the third season with a firm denial about the end of the previous season, then Omertà begins a process that will push the show closer and closer to acceptance of those big dramatic beats.

One of the more interesting aspects of the third season of Millennium is the strange sense of hopefulness that runs through the year. Millennium was always a grim show fixated on death, but the third season proposes that the eponymous event need not herald destruction and apocalypse; episodes like Exegesis and Skull and Bones suggest that the coming of the millennium could be a moment of spiritual rebirth. While the second season seemed to build towards an inevitable death, the third season counter by repeatedly linking the ideas of death and rebirth.

"You know, you'd think this extravogant coat would be constrictive, but..."

“You know, you’d think this extravagant coat would be constrictive, but…”

Omertà makes this connection fairly explicit. Eddie Giannini is “a top assassin for the Santo crime organization.” He admits to having killed twenty-seven people. He dies a poetic death, gunned down by fellow mobsters in the woods following an affair with his boss’ wife. Life comes a full circle. Similarly, Al Ryan is a hunter stalking deer through the woods. His ironic death comes through an attack by a local wolf. Both Eddie and Al find themselves reborn, spiritually and literally. Al renounces hunting, just as Eddie renounces murder.

Michael Perry’s script attempts something interesting here, even if it doesn’t quite work. Describing his resurrection, Al Ryan talks about “feminine energy” holding him down and healing him – resurrecting him. Though the characters of Rose and Lhasa, Omertà seems to tie its female characters to the idea of life and rebirth. This is contrast to the episode’s (and the show’s) tendency to associate male characters with death, in keeping with real-life statistics about serial killers. (Lucy Butler obviously serves as the exception that proves the rule in the context for the show.)

Hair today...

Hair today…

In proposing his “new unified theory of Millennium” in Bardo Thodol, writer and critic John Kenneth Muir suggested that the three seasons of Millennium could be read in light of the Bardo Thodol, the eighth century Tibetan text. Muir pondered:

In very broad terms, the Bardo Thodol stresses our human ways of knowing things. In particular, the passages concern what Carl Jung once termed “a spiritual way of knowing” and a focus on human consciousness in three important stages: before death, during death, and in the process of rebirth. Those three stages of human consciousness suddenly struck me as vital in a total understanding of Millennium. I wondered: is it possible to gaze at the three very different seasons of Millennium as Consciousness Before Death (First), Consciousness At Death (Second) and Consciousness in the Process of Rebirth (Third)?

Muir makes some interesting arguments about how best to read the three radically different seasons of Millennium. As one might expect, this reading puts a lot of emphasis on the third season and its connections between death and rebirth.

Born again...

Born again…

Of course, despite these interesting ideas, Omertà is a mess. It is a completely disjointed and uneven episode of television. Like … Thirteen Years Later before it, it is a comedy that is not as funny as needs to be. More than that, it is packed with superfluous distracting elements. … Thirteen Years Later might have been stronger without the narrative framing device cluttering it up. Omertà would probably flow a little easier without the use of “Littlefoot” as a crutch to get into the actually story that the script wants to tell.

Whatever criticisms might be levelled at … Thirteen Years Later, at least that felt like an episode of Millennium. In contrast, Omertà plays like it could easily have been written for The X-Files. Rose and Lhasa are explicitly supernatural in nature, and the script never quite explains what they are. Eddie describes them as his “angels” and speaks about “a biblical miracle”, but Rose and Lhasa seem quite distinct from the angels featured in episodes like Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions or Midnight of the Century.

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

Omertà would probably work a little better as an episode of The X-Files, with Mulder and Scully investigating Littlefoot only to discover a resurrected mobster and two mysterious (and magical) young ladies. In fact, the plot of Omertà is superficially similar to John Rozum and Alex Saviuk’s script for N.D.E., a two-issue story published in The X-Files comic book a year earlier. N.D.E. was about a mobster who had a near-death experience, inspiring him to come clean about all of his past misdeeds.

Omertà is the second episode of Millennium this season that feels like it might have come from the pages of John Rozum’s X-Files comics. Remote Control was a story about the assassination of CIA remote viewers to protect a secret agenda, the same basic plot of The Innocents and Exegesis. This is not to suggest that the writers on Millennium were consciously referencing or homaging stories from an X-Files comic book. It just serves to illustrate how easily the line blurs between “X-Files premise” and “third season Millennium episode.”

Yay! Frank's crazy Christmas cardigan!

Yay! Frank’s crazy Christmas cardigan!

There is also a sense that Michael Perry’s script muddles its message a little bit. Omertà finds Jordan facing Christmas without her mother, and so serves as a vehicle to explore how the youngest member of the Black family is coping. The Innocents had suggested that Jordan was deep in denial, still setting a place at dinner for Catherine. In Omertà, we discover that Jordan has bought a present for her mother for under the tree. When Frank encounters a couple of strange young women with the power to resurrect people, questions get asked.

It is an interesting storytelling quandary. In the real world, death is death. Nobody returns to the land of the living after spending several months as a corpse. It is an absolute boundary that can only be crossed in one direction. Advances in medical science might be able to pull people back when they put a foot across the threshold, but there is no way to reunite a young girl with the mother that she lost. However, Millennium does not unfold in the real world. It is a world of angels and demons and ghosts and monsters. So the rules are a little different.

Sleeping angels...

Sleeping angels…

“That man, Eddie,” Jordan observes. “They fixed him, too. He was dead and then they fixed him.” It is not too difficult to figure out what Jordan is thinking. This is a world where miracles can and do happen. In The Curse of Frank Black, Frank found himself haunted by a recurring message that pointed him to a specific passage of the Bible. “Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” the episode asked Frank, making it clear that the world of Millennium was not governed by rules that we take for granted.

As such, Jordan has more a valid point within the world of Millennium than she would in the real world. Maybe Catherine Black isn’t really gone; maybe she can come back. In a world populated with paranormal mysteries and divine power, how come Frank hasn’t tried harder to find a way to exploit that mysticism and magic to resurrect his beloved. When Jordan draws attention to how Rose and Lhasa might be able to help a mourning family, she is pointing a legitimate plotting issue – there is no reason within Millennium itself to assume Catherine is lost forever.

A Black family Christmas...

A Black family Christmas…

This is a frequent issue with works of fiction that dabble in these elements, one that raises all sorts of questions about internal consistency. Comic books are particularly susceptible to these sorts of potential problems, as lots of individual stories are integrated into a much larger whole. In The Killing Joke, the Joker paralysed Barbara Gordon by shooting her through the spine. She remained in a wheelchair for a decade and half, which seems a little absurd in a universe where one of Batman’s foes has a mystical “Lazarus Pit” that can heal any injury and even raise him from the dead.

It raises questions about storytelling and world-building, and which serves the other. Naturally, it is a frequent source of controversy and debate in certain types of fandom, as fans try to process the internal inconsistencies that are created when attempting to reconcile any suitably large body of work. Sometimes these issues lead to perceived plot holes, sometimes they just provide nice fuel for speculation. What would it look like if The X-Files ever attempted to reconcile its larger conspiracy with the monster-of-the-week stories?

"Let's not focus too much on the logistics of the happy ending..."

“Let’s not focus too much on the logistics of the happy ending…”

There is no real in-universe reason why Barbara Gordon should have remained in a wheelchair between the publication of The Killing Joke and the “new 52” relaunch of September 2011. Instead, the story was governed by external concerns, as Marc DiPaolo notes in War, Politics and Superheroes:

As much as they wanted to see her recover completely, and resume the career as Batgirl that the Joker cut short, DC writers and editors decided not to cure Barbara yet. Instead, they let her remain the wheelchair-bound, Oracle, personal researcher and advisor to Superman, the Birds of Prey, and the Justice League. The decision was made because there were not enough handicapped superheroes in the DC universe to justify “curing” one, and because it would have been odd to see Barbara Gordon escape from her wheelchair in the world of fiction when Reeve never had that opportunity.

Barbara Gordon’s career as Oracle allowed the writers to tell new and interesting stories, stories that would resonate with fans who did live with disabilities and who had experienced those difficulties first-hand. Applying rigorous internal consistency to that fictional universe would have undercut the emotional power of the story being told.

"Oh, why couldn't you execute me somewhere sunny?"

“Oh, why couldn’t you execute me somewhere sunny?”

The same logic applies here. There are any number of ways that Millennium could justify winding back the clock and pretending that the death of Catherine Black never happened. To a certain extent, the show has done something similar in its revision of the apocalypse that occurred in The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. There are ways that it could be done that would fit with what we know of the world where Millennium unfolds. While such a development might fit within the established “rules” of the fictional universe, it would be poor storytelling.

It would damage the story being told, because it would betray the audience. If Frank and Jordan cannot react to the death of Catherine in a way that is organic and human, then it becomes harder for the audience to invest in them as characters. If Frank and Jordan inhabit a world where the storytellers are willing to use the show’s paranormal trappings to avoid dealing with the implications of an earlier creative decision, then any trust established and built with the audience is lost.

"I knew it was you, Boney. And it breaks my heart. Not as much as eighteen bullet holes will, but it breaks my heart."

“I knew it was you, Boney. And it breaks my heart. Not as much as eighteen bullet holes will, but it breaks my heart.”

It might not be a “cheat” in terms of the established rules of this fictional world, but it is a “cheat” in terms of the story being told. Millennium seems to be realising this, as it gains a bit more distance and perspective on the second season. The creative decision to downplay the impact of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now really hobbled the show, leaving both the writers and the audience completely unsure about where things stood as Millennium charged into its third season.

Omertà seems to acknowledge this, by drawing attention to another potential “reset button.” As Jordan points out, Rose and Lhasa probably could resurrect Catherine Black. Like the rewriting of the Marburg Virus and the Millennium Group in The Innocents and The Time is Now, it would undercut the impact of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now on the rest of the show. The potential resurrection of Catherine Black would allow the show to nudge itself closer to its first season configuration, and pretend that the second season never happened at all.

"It turns out he could ever afford one coat... but it was a nice coat."

“It turns out he could ever afford one coat… but it was a nice coat.”

However, Omertà simply refuses to press that button. It is a big moment for the third season. The production team seem quite frustrated with the decisions that Glen Morgan and James Wong made with regards to the plotting of the second season, but Omertà seems to suggest that at least some of those decisions will be honoured and respected. It is not the most elegant writing, and it feels quite late for the decision to have any meaningful impact on the season, but it is a nice touch.

The problem is that Omertà never quite figures out how to have Jordan reach this conclusion herself. Ideally, Omertà should illustrate that Frank and Jordan are working through their loss. Jordan’s character arc in Omertà would seem to be a child learning to accept that her mother is gone and is not coming back. That is the heart of the story, which resonates with the decision to feature two mysterious women who can resurrect the dead. The episode does nod in that direction, but gets a little muddled.

"Yeah, I decided to get out of the organised crime game a few weeks before The Sopranos started. No, I don't regret it."

“Yeah, I decided to get out of the organised crime game a few weeks before The Sopranos started. No, I don’t regret it.”

At one point, Jordan wants to visit Rose and Lhasa in hospital. “Sweetie,” Frank tells her, “what you were telling me about Lhasa bringing Mommy back… as much as you and I both want it, it’s not going to happen.” It’s a sweet moment that underscores how Frank and Jordan just need to deal with the horrible thing that happened to their family. Jordan seems to understand this, reassuring her father, “That’s not why I want to see them.” The idea is reinforced when Jordan gives them the gift that she had bought for her mother, a small token of her understanding.

However, things get a little confused in the final scene between Jordan and the two women. As Lhasa lies unconscious, Jordan talks to her. “And all that stuff I told you about my Mom?” she asks. “Well, I thought you could bring her back.” It feels like the episode is building to a big emotional moment where Jordan acknowledges that Catherine is gone. Instead, she continues, “And I know you would have if this didn’t happen.” That is the note on which the subplot concludes.

Getting the swing of things...

Getting the swing of things…

That is a very unsatisfactory resolution. It suggests that the only reason Catherine isn’t back in time for Borrowed Time is because Lhasa got shot. It suggests that the only think keeping Jordan away from her mother is mere plot contrivance, rather than anything approaching a genuine understanding of death and loss. It feels like Omertà simply has no idea how to properly articulate what it wants to say. It mutes what really should be a beautiful character moment for Frank and Jordan.

Omertà is all over the place. It is interesting that this is the show’s first real story about organised crime, but the fact that all of the mobsters in Omertà look like they wandered out of Miller’s Crossing would suggest that this might be a good thing. Boney, Paulo and Donny arrive in Coker Creek in the most conspicuous manner possible. Boney wears a giant fur coat while attempting to assassinate Eddie with a sniper rifle, which seems like a somewhat unlikely mob hit.

A hairy situation...

A hairy situation…

More than that, the plot hinges on the contrivance that the only shot that Boney can take on Eddie is a sniper shot while he plays on a swing with Rose and Lhasa. It is obvious a way to generate more drama, but it feels very clumsy and shallow. Omertà is a story that feels assembled from cut up newspapers thrown into the air. Angels living in the woods! Mobsters! Sniper rifle! Christmas! Fur coat! Jon Polito! As hard as it might be to believe, Omertà combines all these elements in a way that feels even clumsier than … Thirteen Years Later.

At the same time, Omertà commits to its crazily mismatched ideas. Jon Polito is always great fun, and it is weird to see such a larger-than-life guest character chomping on the scenery. The act-break drumbeat is replaced by more seasonal festive bells; the polaroid fade-in is replaced by a makeshift advent calendar. There are no compromises and  no half-measures here, even if it is clear that most of the elements really don’t work well together. Omertà is a spectacular mess, but it never apologises for itself.

Steady, Eddie...

Steady, Eddie…

For his part, Mark Snow is having a great time. Snow is a composer who never hedges his bets. His music is always committed to the show. As he explained in contemporary interviews, he went all-out on the soundtrack to Omertà:

In Omertà, the Millennium Xmas show, I really push the envelope by incorporating elements of Opera and classical Choral elements, soloists and groups. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done on this episode, and hope you all enjoy it!

The result is a soundtrack that sounds completely unlike anything else Mark Snow has ever produced. As with the rest of Omertà there is a sense that it doesn’t really work at all; but there’s something endearing in how it commits.

Lhasa chance saloon...

Lhasa chance saloon…

Omertà is not a good episode of television, even if it is more interesting that Millennium has been in a while. Still, it suggests that things might be getting a little better. Perhaps, like Eddie himself, the audience can sense the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

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