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Millennium – Collateral Damage (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.

Collateral Damage continues the weird healing process at work in the third season.

After spending so much time pretending that the second season never actually happened, the third season has finally accepted that there were story developments flowing from that season that the show needs to deal with. In some respects, Collateral Damage can be seen as a process of healing and integration for the third season of Millennium, constructing a story that manages to tie together all three seasons of Millennium together into something resembling a cohesive whole.

"A bloody fine mess you've gotten me into!"

“A bloody fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

From the first season, Collateral Damage takes its introduction and basic premise. Collateral Damage begins in a manner similar to many early Millennium episodes. A sinister attacker stalks their victim and brutally strikes. We are then treated to a few extended suspense-filled sequences as the attacker’s designs become increasingly uncomfortable and nefarious. It is not too hard to imagine Collateral Damage as the kind of “serial killer of the week” episode that populated the early first season.

For the second season, Collateral Damage inherits its fascination with the Millennium Group and its depiction of Peter Watts. Collateral Damage marks the first point in the third season where Peter Watts feels like the character that we watched grow and evolve over the second season. This is a version of Peter who has so repressed his doubts and uncertainties that they threaten to explode if they are even acknowledged. It is a much more compelling character than the knock-off conspirator featured in episodes like Exegesis and Skull and Bones.

"Don't be afraid."

“Don’t be afraid.”

From the third season, Collateral Damage takes its fixation on the link between the Millennium Group and conspiracies involving the American government. Collateral Damage suggests that the Millennium Group is responsible for Gulf War Syndrome. It feels like a plot point from an episode of The X-Files – and arguably makes it an ideal third season element. The result is perhaps the most all-encompassing episode of the show ever produced. Collateral Damage is not the best episode of Millennium ever produced, but it is perhaps the broadest representation of the show itself.

If you were to pull back and examine Millennium from a distance, it might look a lot like Collateral Damage.

"Surgical strike."

“Surgical strike.”

After a (very) rocky start, the third season of Millennium has begun to acknowledge the consequences of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. Although it seemed like Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton wrote Skull and Bones as a metaphor for how the show cannot bury its own past, the show really began engaging with its own history in Michael R. Perry’s script for Omertà. Although not a good episode by any stretch of the imagination, Omertà was at least quite candid about the fact that the show could not conveniently wipe away the legacy of the second season.

As such, it is no surprise that Michael R. Perry should write Collateral Damage as a script that works as hard as possible to bridge the aesthetic and mood of all three seasons of Millennium. Of course, it would be impossible to include and reconcile every facet of the show’s three distinct seasons. The sense of history and religion that permeated the second season are completely absent from Collateral Damage, as are the sorts of angelic and demonic forces that seemed to manifest towards the end of the first season.

I'm not going to lie, Lance Henriksen hosting a paranoid radio show might be the best idea ever.

I’m not going to lie, Lance Henriksen hosting a paranoid radio show might be the best idea ever.

Nevertheless, Collateral Damage does an impressive job of throwing the first three seasons of Millennium into a blender and serving up a palatable result. It is an episode that is really more coherent and logical than a list of its individual elements might suggest. Collateral Damage is a rather simple episode with a rather basic premise, but this works to the advantage of the show. Collateral Damage is not cluttered up with tangents and unnecessary details, not clouded by too much pseudo-science or high concepts.

Collateral Damage finds Taylor Watts abducted by a former soldier with a grievance against the Millennium Group. Alleging that the Millennium Group was responsible for the use of biological weapons against United States soldiers during the Gulf War, Eric Swan plans to leverage Taylor Watts to force a confession from her father. Peter Watts finds himself in an untenable position, forced to weigh the life of his daughter against the organisation to which he has sworn his life. This also provides a way to bring Peter and Frank back together.

A healthy dose of continuity!

A healthy dose of continuity!

It is hard to articulate just how big a deal this is. Watching Frank interact with Peter and Lara during the second season gave the character more energy and vibrance than he would otherwise enjoy. There was a sense that Frank was working with people he considered to be experts in his field, people he could implicitly trust on a professional level. More than that, their personalities were developed to compliment one another: Peter’s stoicism to Frank’s grumpiness; Lara’s confusion to Frank’s skepticism to Peter’s faith.

At this point in the season, Emma Hollis is not a credible replacement for either Peter Watts or Lara Means. She lacks the same sort of comfortable chemistry with Frank that helped the show work so well. The third season has struggled to define Emma Hollis in episodes like Closure and Human Essence, but there are other reasons that she does not work as well with Frank. She is a young agent working with a retired (but reactivated) veteran. Their teacher-pupil dynamic has not really been exploited by the show, and so there’s a clear distance between them.

"Luckily, he agreed to pose menacingly for his file photo."

“Luckily, he agreed to pose menacingly for his file photo.”

This distance has nothing to do with Klea Scott, but is rooted in the way that the show has presented Emma and Frank. In Frank-heavy scripts like TEOTWAWKI or Omertà or Borrowed Time, Emma barely registers. In Emma-heavy scripts like Closure or Human Essence, Frank comes across as an intrusive and disappoint father. Perhaps their best and most meaningful interactions came in … Thirteen Years Later, but it is the exception rather than the rule. True to form, Emma is given little to do in Collateral Damage.

While Lara is unlikely to ever return to the show, it makes sense to bring Frank and Peter back together. While it would be impossible for the duo to fall comfortably back into their old rapport after everything that has happened, Collateral Damage allows the pair to interact in a way that feels like more than just nebulous posturing. Frank is righteous and angry; Peter is devout and conflicted. Anything that gets Lance Henriksen and Terry O’Quinn into a scene like that cannot be all bad.

"You know, given how much all this stainless steel cost, a ransom demand might not be the worst idea."

“You know, given how much all this stainless steel cost, a ransom demand might not be the worst idea.”

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, writer Michael R. Perry acknowledged that one of the most appealing aspects of Collateral Damage was the opportunity to properly tie Millennium together and to acknowledge aspects of the show’s history that had – perhaps – not been best served by the early third season. In particular, the character of Peter Watts:

“I felt that Morgan and Wong had set up the Millennium Group as having a certain darker side, and Peter Watts being part of that. So we had to play that. We had to roll with that, because it was the official narrative of the show. Nothing for me is more disappointing than watching a show that just ignores stuff that happened in the past, and so you inherit a thing like that. It’s a hand that you’re dealt and you have to plat it the best you can, and I loved Terry O’Quinn, particularly in Collateral Damage, where I think we played it most nakedly. He has a sparkly threat; he’s charismatic and threatening at the same time.”

It is a very convincing argument for the need some sort of internal continuity on a show like this; how trying to brush past creative decisions under the rug can become self-defeating, damaging the trust that the audience has in the show. Collateral Damage presents a version of Peter Watts who doesn’t feel like an alien or a robot, but who feels like the character the audience watched evolve across the second season.

Watts changed.

Watts changed.

There is a sense that Frank is incredibly frustrated with Peter, but that he does genuinely care. Peter is trying to be reassuring, but isn’t forthcoming enough. Collateral Damage feels like it captures a more extreme version of their interactions in episodes like Owls or The Time is Now, where Frank seemed ready to just walk away from the Group and Peter could only offer vague reassurances. Indeed, Peter explicitly acknowledges just how interested the Millennium Group was in Frank as a “candidate.”

There is a sense running through this stretch of the third season that the producers are trying to fashion the three distinct seasons of Millennium into a cohesive whole. Borrowed Time proposed that the third season was about watching dawn break after a long dark (apocalyptic) night, tying in themes of rebirth and reinvention to the second season’s drive towards death and the millennial abyss. Collateral Damage serves as something as an aesthetic union between the three seasons, fitting moods and tones together to create something satisfying.

Bowled over...

Bowled over…

Trying to tie the three seasons of Millennium together is always fascinating – and has sparked all manner of interesting commentary and discussion. While John Kenneth Muir proposed death as the linking element in his Bardo Thodol thesis, writer Paul Burgess has suggested that the masonic overtones of Millennium Group itself might be the key:

One thing that always struck me about Millennium is that the three seasons of the show trace Frank’s initiatic journey, from (1) not knowing what’s going on, to (2) gaining some insight into what’s going on, and finally to (3) fathoming something of how and why these things are going on. Sort of like the three degrees of Blue Lodge in the Masons: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason; or, in the case of Frank, Master Anti-Mason. This was never stated outright, but the Masonic parallels were certainly played up more and more as the series progressed.

Of course, the theory would have to gloss over that the Millennium Group was (much like the series itself) three different entities over its life-cycle. The Millennium Group as presented in the first and third season is not particularly masonic. Still, it is an interesting interpretation, and one that fits reasonably well with the themes of the various seasons.

Sitting tight...

Sitting tight…

While Collateral Damage does represent something of a return to the second season characterisation of Peter Watts, it presents a version of the Millennium Group that is very much in keeping with the third season. There is no real discussion of prophecy or destiny; no meditation on faith or religion. Eric Swan is not seeking to expose the theft of a religious artifact or the exposure of a piece of apocrypha. Instead, he wants to prove a conspiracy theory tied back into the United States government.

Collateral Damage suggests that the Millennium Group was responsible for Gulf War Syndrome, treating it as a field test of the same biological weapon that they unleashed in The Fourth Horseman. This obviously required considerable assistance from (or infiltration of) the United States government, as it typical of a lot of content concerning the Millennium Group in the third season – whether the elimination of CIA remote viewers in The Innocents and Exegesis or the exploration of their long association with the FBI in Matryoshka.

Not quite one for the family album...

Not quite one for the family album…

It is a shame that this characterisation of the Millennium Group remained in place across the entirety of the third season, as it makes the Millennium Group a much more generic and mundane sort of conspiracy. After all the development of the group in the second season, it seems like Millennium reverts to the shallow and ominous portrayal of the conspirators in the first two seasons of The X-Files. In The X-Files, this approach worked because the show had revealed nothing of the organisation; in Millennium, it feels like the show has taken two massive steps back.

There is something quite trite about blaming the Millennium Group for Gulf War Syndrome. As with a lot of third season decisions concerning the Millennium Group, it tends to refocus Millennium on a culture of North American conspiracy theories that have already been well mined by the first five seasons of The X-Files. Millennium had spent a significant stretch of its first two seasons trying to escape the shadow of its older and more popular sister series, but the third season placed it firmly back in there.

It makes me sick...

It makes me sick…

At the same time, this is not as severe a problem as it might have been. There is enough going on with Collateral Damage that a fairly simple (and familiar) conspiracy theory plot serves the episode well. It leaves room for the script to focus on the reunion of Frank and Peter, while still affording Eric Swan an understandable (and even sympathetic) motivation. A more intricate or nuanced conspiracy could easily distract from the core dynamics of the episode, and the fairly basic plot gives Michael R. Perry room to work around it.

Eric Swan is himself an interesting character. In a way, his characterisation speaks to that of both Frank and Peter. Like Peter, Swan is a man who has invested a lot of his faith in the idea of something bigger than himself. The arrangement of those folded flags on the wall of his house is a beautiful visual; it looks at once like an art installation and a site of almost religious reverence. Swan is not the most nuanced or well-developed guest character in the history of the show, but his devotion to a higher cause (and the things he has done in the name of that devotion) resonate with Peter.

Flagged as a threat...

Flagged as a threat…

At the same time, Swan is ultimately a victim of these larger intrigues in a way that Frank recognises. Both Frank and Swan interacted with the fringe reaches of a vast and complex conspiracy whose reach they can barely fathom. Appearing on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast A.M., Frank appeals to Swan in a way that acknowledges their similar sense of loss and disillusionment. “Don’t let them push you into doing something you shouldn’t do,” Frank urges. “Because if you do, they’ve got you right where they want you.”

One of the more interesting aspects of Collateral Damage is the way that the episode clearly positions Swan as a character who might have appeared in the first season. After all, even the conversation between Frank and Swan on the radio mirrors any number of exchanges with serial killers in the first season – from 5-2-2-6-6-6 through to Broken World. The difference with Collateral Damage is the sense that Frank is not as conscious of his manipulation of Swan; his understanding is more than empathy, it is sympathy.

"That said, I am a lot less middle-aged and killer-y than most serial killers of the week."

“That said, I am a lot less middle-aged and killer-y than most serial killers of the week.”

This connection back to the first season is really emphasised in the way that the episode introduces the character. The teaser is framed around the abduction of Taylor Watts, but the episode does not immediately clue the audience into her identity. Instead, the sequence where a young woman is attacked and abducted in a parking lot outside a bowling alley feels like it might have been taken from a first-season script. It is a sequence that draws on a long history of exploitative horror imagery; the predatory offender targeting the hapless teenager.

To be fair to Michael R. Perry’s script, Taylor Watts proves to be more than merely a damsel in distress. In the teaser, Taylor is able to overpower Swan and almost escapes; it is only the presence of Swan’s associate that prevents her from making it to the safety of the bowling alley. At the climax, Taylor manages to free herself from the bonds holding her in place and snaps Swan’s neck. Collateral Damage is careful to avoid painting Taylor as too much of a victim in setting up its high-stakes hostage drama.

Nineties!

Nineties!

At the same time, at least one awkward scene is rooted in these efforts to classify Swan as a spiritual successor to the archetypal season one serial killer. When Swan captures Taylor, he ties her down to a surgical table and proceeds to removes her clothes before washing her down with a power hose. The script helpfully explains that Swan is not deriving any sick sexual thrill from this – if anything, it is obsessive compulsive – but its is still framed and shot in a way that evokes the sensationalist excesses of first season episodes like Loin Like a Hunting Flame.

There is a purpose to the scene. The sterile surroundings and the fixation on cleanliness tell the audience a lot about Eric Swan. It is brutal and unsettling, which is exactly what a story about this sort of abduction should aspire to be. However, the episode seems to wallow in this sequence. On the commentary, Thomas J. Wright explains that Collateral Damage ran over the allocated run-time for an episode of Millennium. The powerhose sequence feels like something that could easily have been trimmed or tidied to make room for that material.

"It cleans the germs of its skin, or else it gets the hose again!"

“It cleans the germs off its skin, or else it gets the hose again!”

Still, while the sequence showcases some of the worst tendencies of Millennium as a television show, it seems clear that Michael R. Perry is consciously trying to tie it back into the show’s long history. There is a reach that Eric Swan taunts Peter Watts with polaroid pictures, so as to consciously evoke the polaroid stalker who lurked around the edges of the first season. Collateral Damage never comments overtly on the obvious overlap, but it is a very clever (and effective) use of the series’ iconography and imagery.

Indeed, Eric Swan’s use of the polaroid camera offers a nice bit of connective material itself. In Paper Dove, it was suggested that the polaroid stalker was somehow “recruiting” and “enabling” serial killers, like some sort of reverse Frank Black. This angle was quickly dropped in The Beginning and the End, when it was revealed that the polaroid stalker was an embittered paranoid loner with ambiguous ties to (and suspicions about) the Millennium Group. Those were two radically different interpretations of the character in the same two-part story.

Snap!

Snap!

Eric Swan arguably reconciles both interpretations, suggesting he is a monster manufactured by the Millennium Group. He is a man who has been forced to become the kind of predator that Frank Black chases. There is a recurring theme throughout the third season that society tends to make its own monsters. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz hit on the idea in TEOTWAWKI, while Ken Horton and Chip Johannessen would cement the idea in relation to the Millennium Group in Goodbye to All That.

The theme is not fully developed or explored over the course of the year, but is there. The horrible surgical facility that Emma discovers in Skull and Bones foreshadows revelations in Goodbye to All That. Eric Swan’s story is a tragedy about the man who was transformed into a monster by the actions of a secret conspiracy and a world which refused to listen to him. The X-Files has explored this fertile ground in episodes like Duane Barry, but it was a theme that the third season of Millennium might have truly owned if it developed it a little further.

"What? It's cold out!"

“What? It’s cold out!”

Collateral Damage is also notable for its guest cast. The episode features a nice little cameo from Art Bell himself. Bell has become something of a counter-cultural icon, hosting Coast to Coast AM for almost three decades. Bell began hosting the show on KDWN in 1978. Initially broadcasting around Las Vegas, it was launched as West Coast AM. Bell originally launched the series as a political talk show, tackling mainstream issues like gun control. The series was rebranded as Coast to Coast AM in 1988.

The series has enjoyed a large pool of recurring callers from all walks of life. Following the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, Bell made a conscious effort to disengage the show from topics of interest to militia groups, embracing fringe conspiracy theories like Area 51 or mind control or the occult. “Oklahoma City was a wound in the soul of America,” Bell reflected in one interview. “September 11 strengthened it.” He was, in many ways, a perfect fit for the paranoid world of The X-Files and Millennium.

The Art of radio...

The Art of radio…

However, while the mainstream media has never been quite sure what to make of Bell’s work, it should be noted that Bell’s style of radio did provide an open ear to just about anybody who had anything to say. As Josh Marsfelder contends, this is the defining feature of Coast to Coast AM:

The reason Coast to Coast AM can manage all of this effortlessly lies in the quiet, gentle patience of its hosts and its foundational, unshakable promise to its listeners. From the very beginning, Coast to Coast AM has always been an absolutely open forum: Apart from overt verbal abuse, explicit threats or hate speech, pretty much anyone can call into the show, express any opinion and be given a podium completely unchallenged. That was a central tenet of the show Art Bell introduced from the start, George Noory continues that tradition, and I think it’s even more evident under him. Coast to Coast AM is not a show about banter, debate or confrontation, it’s a show about giving a voice to people and giving them a place to be heard and treated with the respect and attention that they might not be able to get anywhere else, which, when you get right down to it, is a basic human right. And though open lines can be a total spectacle and the show frequently books guests who are provably wrong about pretty much everything, Coast to Coast AM never, ever mocks or patronizes anyone. This isn’t a talk show so much as it is a listening show.

Collateral Damage is quite astute in its use of Coast to Coast AM. Art Bell acknowledges as much in a quick exchange with Frank Black before their interview. “I let them talk,” he tells Frank. “That doesn’t mean I agree with them.” Frank is apparently more paranoid, reflecting, “Well, sometimes I agree with them.”

He answered the call...

He answered the call…

Despite hints of Bell’s cynicism, the episode presents the broadcaster as somebody who does provide a mouthpiece for people who feel disenfranchised and disillusioned. There is nobody else who will listen to Eric Swan. It provides a way for Frank to reach Swan, and offers some outlet for Swan to express his sense of confusion and anxiety. It is a rather touching use of a counter-culture institution, one that helps to solidify the impression that The X-Files and Millennium exist as part of the larger paranoid landscape of the late nineties.

Coast to Coast AM enjoyed the peak of its popularity during the nineties, being broadcast on over 500 stations nationwide and reaching over 15 million listeners. His show resonated with people, with Jackey Dickey observing, “Where others had rage, he had skepticism, and lots of it.” Bell spoke to an increasingly cynical and skeptical world. It seems like Bell connected with the same part of the national consciousness that responded to The X-Files in the nineties – a generation that simultaneously trusted no one and wanted to believe.

I like Spike.

I like Spike.

The other notable guest star to appear in Collateral Damage is James Marsters. Marsters is perhaps best known for his work as Spike on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and the spin-off Angel. Spike was something of a breakout character on Buffy, a punk rock vampire who began as a recurring menace and then got himself bumped up to a series regular before transferring over to the spin-off. Collateral Damage aired in 1999, during the “recurring fan favourite” phase of Marster’s involvement with Buffy.

Eric Swan is rather under-developed as guest characters go, with the script generally treating him as a thematic mirror for both Frank and Peter. Still, Marsters finds a surprising amount of humanity and vulnerability in the former soldier, creating the sense of a truly conflicted man feeling incredible guilt over what he was ordered to do. It is not a particularly showy part. Swan is much more restrained and less showy that Spike. Still, Marsters gives the character a quiet dignity and poise that really works.

Hey kids, it's James Marsters!

Hey kids, it’s James Marsters!

Buffy had been running since 1997. While the show was not a massive ratings success – to the point that it ultimately swapped networks in its later years – it did have a very vocal and active fanbase. Although it might never have enjoyed the same mainstream penetration as The X-Files, it was a critically-lauded show with a very eager collection of fans. As such, it makes sense for a show like Millennium to cast an actor like James Marsters, hoping that some of that very active fanbase might follow him over to check out the show.

Marsters does not get a “special guest star” credit, but it seems like Collateral Damage is acutely aware of just what a clever piece of crossover casting it has here. The episode takes quite some time to reveal Eric Swan’s face. His associate is identified (and killed off) quite early in the episode, while Swan keeps his facial featured hidden for the first act. He wears a balaclava in the teaser, and a surgical mask in his early interactions with Taylor. Collateral Damage knows that the reveal of James Marsters is a pretty big deal, structurally.

"So, this isn't going to be recurring, then?"

“So, this isn’t going to be recurring, then?”

As with a lot of guest stars who worked on Millennium, Marsters had nothing but praise for the professionalism of everybody involved in the series. He noted the care and the craft that went into putting the episode together:

“They are a very tight crew who work hard and are really an inch away from burning out. They spend half their time on location which is harder to shoot than working on a soundstage [like Buffy] and they shoot the living hell out of scenes. Television has a language of shots, a master shot, over the shoulder, close-ups, but the Millennium crew shoot so many angles they get twice the footage most shows do. It was like shooting two hours of television for a one hour show.”

Collateral Damage was directed by Thomas J. Wright, probably the show’s defining director. Having studied under Hitchcock, Wright’s work has an incredibly professional and polished feel to it. He helps to make Collateral Damage one of the stronger shows of the season.

"Oh, yes. I'm also in this episode."

“Oh, yes. I’m also in this episode.”

Collateral Damage is a bold and ambitious episode, well-constructed and beautifully composed. There are a few questionable elements, but it is clear that writer Michael J. Perry and director Thomas J. Wright are trying to find a way to reconcile all the changes that the show has been through since it launched. That seems like an impossibly ambitious task, and so it seems fair to acknowledge that Collateral Damage does not work perfectly. However, it does work better than anybody going into it might have expected.

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