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Millennium – Matryoshka (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 seems like every time that the third season of Millennium takes a step forward, it is simply preparing to take a tumble backwards.

After spending over a third of the season trying to rewrite the events of the second season, it seemed like the show was finally accepting the changes that had been made by Glen Morgan and James Wong over the course of the sophomore year. Omertà, Borrowed Time, Collateral Damage and The Sound of Snow had all seen the show trying to make its peace with the loss of Catherine Black and the changes to the Millennium Group stemming from the second season finalé. It looked like the show was working through its conflicted feelings, and was ready to move on.

Perhaps it must...

Perhaps it must…

However, both Antipas and Matryoshka represent a very clear step backwards. Antipas feels like an attempt to return to the mood and aesthetic of the late first season (and first season characterisation of Lucy Butler) with no regard for what came afterwards. Matryoshka attempts to reintroduce the sort of clumsy revisionist rewriting of Millennium‘s internal continuity in a manner that evokes The Innocents or Exegesis or Skull and Bones. It presents a secret history of the Millennium Group that heavily contradicts The Hand of St. Sebastian.

There is a host of potentially interesting stuff buried under all of this, but – as with a lot of the third season – it is very hard to care about a show more invested in playing ping-pong with its own history than in trying to tell a new and compelling story. It seems like the most striking thing about most third season episodes is how they engage with what came before, more than what they are actually trying to do. Watching the third season, it seems like the Millennium writing staff is just as divided as the Millennium Group was in Owls and Roosters.

Nesting dolls...

Nesting dolls…

This approach is self-defeating on a number of levels. The second season was admittedly divisive among fans, but it seems like the third season simply cannot get past The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now in any meaningful fashion. Fans who enjoyed the second season will inevitably feel frustrated by the repeated efforts to minimise or over-write it. Fans who disliked the second season will grow increasingly annoyed that the show is still fixated upon it. Any viewers without a working knowledge of the history of the show are likely to just be confused and befuddled.

Matryoshka is not the worst offender for this sort of confused self-contradiction and self-fixation, but there is a sense that Millennium‘s fascination with the continuity (or lack thereof) of the second season has already passed to point of diminishing returns. Much like the script for Matryoshka, it seems like the third season of Millennium is trapped in the past.

Eating its own tale...

Eating its own tale…

Matryoshka is notable as the first and only script written by Erin Maher and Kay Reindl during the third season of Millennium. The duo had been hired by Glen Morgan and James Wong at the start of the second season, and had been quite prolific in their work on the show. The pair wrote three scripts for the season, which put them in joint second place with Chip Johannessen for the title of “most prolific writer on the second season of Millennium.” Of course, Morgan and Wong were credited as writers on more than half the season – so it was a distant second place.

In light of that, it seems odd that Maher and Reindl should only write a single script for the final season of Millennium. Perhaps it speaks to different aesthetics. After all, Michael R. Perry had been hired by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz at the end of the first season of Millennium. He only contributed a single script (The Mikado) to the second the season of Millennium. However, Perry would seem to feel more comfortable with the show in its third season – he contributed four scripts to the final season.

"Tell them, Winters is coming."

“Tell them, Winters is coming.”

To be fair to Maher and Rendl, it was not from lack of trying. The duo had pitched a number of ideas, including a serial killer episode that quickly developed into a demonic story:

One of the things we wanted to do right at the start of season three was a Millennium version of the Paul and Karla Homolka case, but we couldn’t crack it. It wasn’t Millenniumistic enough! So we took some of the elements we liked and added the Garden of Eden and Lilith. There’s an awesome hedge maze in Vancouver (you’ve seen it dozens of times on other shows) that Chris Carter would up using in his return of Lucy Butler episode. We had our Garden of Eden idea tied up with the hedge maze, so the script ended up getting tossed out. But that happens on every show. More now than it did then, certainly, but it happens.

Given the associations between Lucy Butler and Lilith – not to mention the use of the hedge maze in Antipas – it might have been a good thing that the idea was not developed at this stage of the season.

Having a lark of a time...

Having a lark of a time…

It sounds like this serial killer pitch might have developed through the Garden of Eden story into Maher and Reindl’s “Frank Black exorcism” story that had the working title “Fallen Angel.” According to Reindl, that pitch offered “a unique take on original sin.” However, it proved too controversial for the network and the show’s producers. It seems remarkable that Maher and Reindl were able to get something as provocative and subversive as Anamnesis on the air in the first place.

It seems like Erin Maher and Kay Reindl’s experiences help to define the differences between the second and third seasons. In light of their difficulty pitching and developing ideas for the third season, it seems like the show’s production team had taken a rather less adventurous approach to storytelling. It seemed that the current production team were less able (or even less willing) to stand up for potentially controversial story pitches like Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Anamnesis.

"Hey, it's great that the Syndicate let us use their ominous medical procedure viewing booth!"

“Hey, it’s great that the Syndicate let us use their ominous medical procedure viewing booth!”

Kay Reindl was quite candid about the experience in interviews shortly after the end of the show. “It was a bad year for everyone,” Reindl conceded. She added that it was very hard to find ideas that the producers would support:

“During season three, it was very hard to get anything through and when you did, the life was bled out of it,” Reindl continues. “It was more of a negative atmosphere: ‘We don’t want serial killers, angels or secret societies.’ It’s hard to do that when you don’t replace it with anything else. In contrast, we had so many ideas during season two that it was definitely, for us, the more creative season. I also think it was monumentally terrific television and if the series hadn’t had the stigma of being dark and a failure, maybe it would have gotten more praise.”

Of course, that conservatism was clearly in outside factors. Millennium was facing cancellation. It was not a show that had found an audience in the same way that The X-Files had. Some cautiousness might have been warranted.

It looks like James Marsters and Julie Landau are not the only guest stars to pop over from Buffy...

It looks like James Marsters and Julie Landau are not the only guest stars to pop over from Buffy…

This more “direct” approach led to generic stories like Closure, Through a Glass Darkly and Human Essence. It seemed to be something of a reaction to the more adventurous storytelling of the second season. The most adventurous narrative of the entire third season remains … Thirteen Years Later, a show that is much less narratively exciting than something like The Curse of Frank Black or Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defence” or Somehow Satan Got Behind Me or The Time is Now.

While the more playful and experimental storytelling of Glen Morgan and James Wong created an exciting season of television, it had done little to stabilise the ratings. The third season of Millennium seemed to be founded on the idea that it might be able to win back the crowd by toning down its more unique and esoteric elements. Chris Carter had hired a producer from C-16: FBI and Law & Order to oversee the launch of the season, even if that did not go particularly well.

Murder on an army base! Are Commie sympathisers afoot? Don't worry. J. Edgar's got his finest G-man on the case!

Murder on an army base!
Are Commie sympathisers afoot?
Don’t worry. J. Edgar’s got his finest G-man on the case! Watch out, Stalin!

Matryoshka feels like a very early episode of the third season of Millennium. And not in a good way. It feels like a relic from the time when the writing staff were pretending that the second season had never happened – when the viral outbreak at the end of The Time is Now was re-written as a clumsy assassination attempt in The Innocents, or when Cheryl Andrews’ trip to Germany in The Hand of St. Sebastian was awkwardly re-staged in Skull and Bones. Matryoshka seems to rewrite another aspect of The Hand of St. Sebastian.

The script to Matryoshka heavily implies that J. Edgar Hoover effectively formed (or at least radically retooled) the Millennium Group as a secret organisation inside the FBI. Matryoshka suggests that Hoover recruited key and important figures into the Millennium Group as a way to solidify power. In a conversation at the end of the episode, a Group Elder describes Hoover’s policy as “recruit the best and hope for the best.” It certainly explains the association between the Millennium Group and the FBI that existed since The Pilot.

Group think.

Group think.

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Erin Maher and Kay Reindl insisted that they were not re-writing the ancient history of the Millennium Group as had been developed across the second season.

“People seize upon it and use it to their own ends,” adds Maher, emphasising the realism of their approach to the mythology, “and that was our interpretation. We loved the idea of going back for God only knows how long. [Season Three] doesn’t really rewrite [the mythology of Season Two]; it just takes it and runs in another direction.”

“It never says, ‘This didn’t happen.’ I think that maybe if you’re watching it you think that’s what it’s saying, but I don’t think that it’s saying that at all, and we never heard that at all from anybody on the show.”

“No, definitely not.”

That is a very comforting sentiment, and it seems quite accurate of scripts like Borrowed Time or Collateral Damage from earlier in the season – stories that acknowledge the second season happened while developing their own themes.

This is the worst scavenger hunt ever.

This is the worst scavenger hunt ever.

However, Matryoshka seems to actively resist such a reading. At the end of the episode, Hoover even pitches the idea of the ouroboros emblem to Clyde Tolson. “Your group idea got me thinking,” he explains. “Kekule, another mad scientist had an illuminating dream, of snakes biting their own tails. The next day he discovered the benzene ring. An ancient symbol for our ancient group.” The way that Hoover says “our ancient group” suggests that he would use air quotes if they existed in 1945.

The way that he says “your group idea” would seem to suggest that Tolson came up with the idea, rather than being recruited into the Millennium Group. It is possible to read this scene as Tolson manipulating Hoover into thinking that Hoover came up with the idea of a secret society that had conveniently already existed for almost two millennia, but that is a rather convoluted scheme. If that is the case, what if Hoover had suggested a name other than “the Millennium Group” or a symbol other than the ouroboros?

"Coffin up some new evidence..."

“Coffin up some new evidence…”

More than that, it seems like the Millennium Group itself accepts this as their true origin story. The Group Elder reflects to Peter, “A rocky beginning. Hoover and Tolson had the right idea though.” When the Group Elder asks Peter “you didn’t tell him, did you?”, he might be referring to the specifics of the Lanyard case, but he could also be alluding to the rather mundane secret history of the Millennium Group. There is a twist ending to the show where it turns out the Millennium Group is just lying about its history to get those juicy religious tax exemptions.

As with TEOTWAWKI, it feels like the show is making a statement by casting two significant guest stars who already played to significant roles in two significant episodes of the second season. While The X-Files and Millennium would reuse actors, they typically did not use those actors in unrelated prominent roles that did not require make-up in consecutive seasons of television. The fact that the character of Michael Lanyard is played by two actors who are readily recognisable from significant roles in the previous season feels like a clear statement.

Things are really really heating up...

Things are really really heating up…

Dean Winters is the central guest star in Matryoshka, and he was also the central guest star in The Curse of Frank Black. Wally Dalton plays the older version of the character who appears in the teaser, but he was the demon with the heartbreaking story in Somehow Satan Got Behind Me. The fact that Millennium is recycling these major guest actors so quickly and so prominently feels like a clear signal that the second season does not “count.” The third season does this more often than any other season of The X-Files or Millennium.

To be fair, there is an interesting story to be told here. If Maher and Reindl are serious about Hoover coopting the Millennium Group for his own ends, then that makes for a more interesting story than anything that actually happened in Matryoshka. What type of power does it take to overthrow a secret society? How bloody is an exchange of power in a group like that? Did a similar change in power and philosophy occur between the second and third season, explaining the Millennium Group’s shift in focus between the second and third seasons?

"I think he's trying to tell us something..."

“I think he’s trying to tell us something…”

There is arguably a story to be told about the ascension of Philip Baker Hall’s Group Elder at the end of Roosters, and how he single-handedly changed the methodology and philosophy of the Millennium Group as a whole between seasons. That transition of power at the end of Roosters is conveniently placed so that it could conveniently explain something like this. Maybe Philip Baker Hall’s Group Elder did not care for religious eschatology in the same way as his direct predecessor. Maybe he just really liked The X-Files.

Sadly, Matryoshka does nothing that clever or subversive or playful. There is a tiny bit of metafictional commentary, when Peter Watts goes to visit Lily Unser. Unser makes a number of criticisms of the Millennium Group that might easily be read as criticisms of the show itself – particularly given Maher and Reindl’s discomfort with the narrative conservatism that was driving third season storytelling. When Unser takes Peter to task for the sorry state of the Millennium Group, she captures a lot of the problems with the third season as a whole.

Going the whole nine (Lan)yards...

Going the whole nine (Lan)yards…

“Fifty years ago, with the future of the world in the balance, we were five steps ahead,” she reflects. “Now, the Group only looks back.” The third season has been incredibly preoccupied with the past; it seems like an incredible amount of the season has been eaten up on internal debates about how to process the events of the previous year. The show seems unable to decide how to best address these continuity issues, but simply refuses to commit an answer one way or the other.

More than half-way through the season, it is still going back and forth on how much of the second season actually matters. It is a distractingly self-important debate, one that feels a tad indulgent. It is okay for the effects of a season finalé to extend across the next season (or more) of television; an interesting idea can sustain years of storytelling. However, spending more than a half a season debating how much of the previous season should or shouldn’t “count” feels tired and boring. Tell new stories; don’t fixate on the canonicity of old ones.

This work is her baby...

This work is her baby…

More than that, Unser seems to hold Peter to account for failing to live up to his potential. “Have you forgotten what the Group could be?” Lily asks. “Peter, you of all people.” It does seem appropriate to single out Peter “of all people.” More than any other character, Peter lost a lot of development and nuance in the transition from the second season to the third season. It is hard to reconcile the devout and loyal Peter Watts of The Beginning and the End and The Fourth Horseman with menacing conspirator of Exegesis or Skull and Bones.

Matryoshka solidifies the sense that the third season of Millennium is trying harder and harder to play as a knock-off of The X-Files. In fact, Matryoshka feels very much like a companion piece to Travelers. In Travelers, Mulder found himself drawn into a mystery involving a government conspiracy dating back to the McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties. In Matryoshka, Frank Black finds himself drawn into a mystery involving a government conspiracy dating back to the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos during the forties.

"Don't make me metaphorical. You wouldn't like me when I'm metaphorical."

“Don’t make me metaphorical. You wouldn’t like me when I’m metaphorical.”

The connection between Matryoshka and Travelers is cemented with the casting of David Fredericks as J. Edgar Hoover. Fredericks had also portrayed Hoover in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. It seems like J. Edgar Hoover is just as much a crossover character between The X-Files and Millennium as Jose Chung. It suggests a firmly-shared history and continuity between the two shows. No wonder Chris Carter was allegedly considering a crossover. “This would be a good year for a crossover,” he observed early in 1999.

However, the connections between Matryoshka and The X-Files extend even deeper than a crossover character and a similar flashback premise. The third season has rather firmly tied the Millennium Group into government conspiracies like CIA remote viewing experiments and Gulf War Syndrome. Matryoshka suggests that (at the very least the current iteration of) the Millennium Group can trace its roots to the work of J. Edgar Hoover in the wake of the Second World War.

"I'd recognise that doll anywhere!"

“I’d recognise that doll anywhere!”

The conspiracy in The X-Files is rather deeply rooted in the consequences of the Second World War, and has explicitly been so since The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. The conspiracy serves as an expression of liberal guilt stemming back to the emergence of the United States as the defining global power after the end of the Second World War. The third season of The X-Files developed this theme quite well, tying the government’s aid to Axis war criminals and the development of the atomic bomb into the history of the secret cabal.

So Matryoshka feels like it is covering well-worn ground. At one point, Frank talks about the research conducted at Los Alamos in a way that evokes the Holocaust. “Los Alamos was filled with nameless people,” he explains. “You checked your name at the front gate and became a number. People lived and died and were born with no names. They gave you your name back after the war. Kroll wouldn’t have.” It is an idea that The X-Files touched on repeatedly, particularly in episodes like Anasazi or Nisei, which heavily played on that imagery.

"Fools! They said I was mad! They also said that plutonium does not work that way!"

“Fools! They said I was mad! They also said that plutonium does not work that way!”

As a general rule, The X-Files is a show rooted in guilt over past trauma. In contrast, Millennium is a show about anxiety facing an uncertain future. Matryoshka feels curiously out of place in the larger context of Millennium, spending more time in the past than episodes like The Thin White Line, The Curse of Frank Black or Midnight of the Century. It really does feel like the show is grappling with themes and ideas that might be better left to its more popular sister series.

At the same time, the use of the nuclear trial does conjure up some interesting ideas about the nature of the apocalypse. After all, it could be argued that the contemporary fixation on the idea of the end of the world derives a lot of its power from that iconic mushroom cloud. Even fifty years after its creation, the atomic bomb is a powerful image of the end of the world. Outside of Matryoshka, Millennium has used footage from atomic tests to create an apocalyptic atmosphere. Footage even appears in the opening credits.

Daddy's girl...

Daddy’s girl…

Explaining the impact of the atomic tests on the popular psyche, Lily tells Emma, “They took the apocalypse out of God’s hands and put it in their own. They created the end of the world. Here, in our minds, they even put that terrifying clock on the ‘Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’, the countdown, four minutes to midnight, two minutes to midnight, tick, tock, tick tock. The one advantage being my age is that I knew what it was like before this thing was hanging over us.”

Of course, religious eschatology long pre-dates nuclear anxieties, but the nuclear age really did introduce the concept of the apocalypse into the mainstream. Consider the ubiquity of the fallout shelter in Cold War popular culture. President Kennedy urged Americans to build their own fallout shelters in 1961. It was estimated that 200,000 fallout shelters had been built in the United States by 1965. Less than a month before the broadcast of Matryoshka, the film Blast From the Past had demonstrated that the fallout shelter was still a part of American popular consciousness.

"Yep. This is a much lamer conspiracy."

“Yep. This is a much lamer conspiracy.”

It is interesting to note that one of the recurring fears during the testing and development of the nuclear bomb was that it could end up as a very literal doomsday – that the explosion could ignite the atmosphere itself, and destroy the world. In his preface to the Los Alamos Primer, Robert Serber dismisses the possibility, suggesting that even the remote possibility was just a calculation error that haunted the program:

Edward brought up the notorious question of igniting the atmosphere. Bethe went off in his usual way, put in the numbers, and showed that it couldn’t happen. It was a question that had to be answered, but it never was anything, it was a question only for a few hours. Oppy made the big mistake of mentioning it on the telephone in a conversation with Arthur Compton. Compton didn’t have enough sense to shut up about it. It somehow got into a document that went to Washington. So every once in a while after that, someone happened to notice it, and then back down the ladder came the question, and the thing never was laid to rest.

To be fair, it’s probably a good thing that people kept checking up on that. If there is even the slightest chance that your top secret super weapon project could set the sky on fire, it is the kind of thing that everybody should be double- and triple-checking. In a way, it illustrates that there is probably a great Millennium story to be told about the development of the atomic bomb.

Matryoshka is not a great (or even a good) episode of television. It turns out that one the scientists working on the atomic bomb was also using plutonium to “split” himself into his best and his worst self – an atomic age Jekyl and Hyde tale. (So, you know, a little bit like The Incredible Hulk.) It is an idea that reinforces sense that Matroshyka is a recycled script covertly smuggled out of the writing room on The X-Files. As with Human Essence, there is a lack of subtlety to literalising the “human monsters” theme of Millennium.

“That’s some theory,” Barry Baldwin deadpans when Frank presents it to the team. It seems like Baldwin should probably suggest reassignment to another unit. Despite the insane amount of effort that the third season puts into making Barry Baldwin an insufferable ass, he has a perfectly reasonable point. He might be an absurdly insensitive jerk in the way he conducts the investigation into Lanyard’s death, but Matryoshka also positions him as the audience identification character by having him point out the obvious insanity of Frank’s theory.

Matryoshka tries to tie this weird Jekyll and Hyde theme into its atomic era paranoia. Frank explains how Alexander used the power of metaphor to turn plutonium into a magic wand. “He wanted to do with himself what he had done to the atom. Split it in half.” That is what happens when you hire scientist who work on metaphor rather than actual science. One suspects that Alexander was great fun at office parties, but wasn’t particularly useful when it came to doing all the actual science stuff.

It is an interesting metaphorical idea that makes absolutely no material sense in the context of the rest of the episode. It feels like an idea that was thrown out in desperation, with no real thought about how best to integrate it into the surrounding episode. After all, it is not like splitting the atom leaves you with one “good” atom and one “bad” atom, even if the way that mankind has harnessed the atom has arguably exposed its best and its worst natures. Matryoshka is a mess of an episode.

"Yeah, we operate this place in a time share with some other like-minded individuals who also need ominous meeting places."

“Yeah, we operate this place in a time share with some other like-minded individuals who also need ominous meeting places.”

It does not help that there is a distinctly anti-science subtext underpinning the episode. Frank Black sounds like the worst kind of paranoid luddite. “She grew up to make the same mistake her father did,” he reflects of Natalie Alexander. When Peter points out that Frank is the one labeling it a mistake, Frank replies, “It’s the same mistake he prayed she’d never make. Playing god, without divine wisdom.” It is the kind of rhetoric that is used to block medical advances and research. One reporter questioning Natalie observes, “They say you’re creating monsters.”

There are hints of something a little deeper here. Peter Watts arranges to meet Frank Black at the same race course where the First Elder watched the hearings on human cloning in Redux II – a location choice which further cements the sense that Matryoshka is a warmed over episode of The X-Files, even if it suggests a nice thematic continuity. Peter off-handedly observes, “Fathers and daughters. She has his gift.” It suggests a thematic connection between the Alexander family and the Black family, but the theme is never developed or expanded.

Matryoshka is a disappointing episode, a massive step backwards for a show that seemed to be making significant steps in working through the legacy of the second season and pressing forward. Instead, it seems like Millennium is trapped in its own past as the doomsday clock keeps ticking forward.

 

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