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Millennium – Darwin’s Eye (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.

There is a reckless abandon to the the late third season of Millennium that is oddly endearing.

The first half of the year seemed almost cautious and conservative, as if trying to smooth the rough edges off the show in the hopes of turning it into a more generic piece of television. That approach failed spectacularly, and hobbled the rest of the season. Towards the end of the third season, Millennium allowed itself to become a bit bolder and more abstract, proudly flying its freak flag high. The show found an energy and verve, throwing crazy concepts into scripts with reckless abandon and little regard for how they fit together.

Shady theories...

Shady theories…

It doesn’t entirely work. If anything, it underscores just how skilfully the second season had integrated these crazy ideas with a clear creative direction and a solid thematic foundation. The second season know roughly where it wanted to go, and so embarked on an epic journey towards that point. While the third season has its own thematic underpinnings, these feel more like recurring visual motifs and ideas than a clear purpose. As a result, the weirdness can seem detached and purposeless, abstract and surreal.

However, even when the late third season episodes don’t quite work, they remain interesting. There is a breathless energy to these stories that was sadly missing in the first stretch of the year. Darwin’s Eye is a prime example. It is not an episode that could be described as a success by any measure, but it is still ambitious and dynamic in a way that mitigates its failings. Somewhat.

That's one way to get a head in love...

That’s one way to get a head in love…

There is no denying it. There are lots of very serious problems with Darwin’s Eye as a piece of television. Most obviously, the story doesn’t quite work. This is not a surprise. Darwin’s Eye is the third script from writer Patrick Harbinson, with the other two scripts varying wildly in quality: Through a Glass, Darkly embodied the worst excesses of Millennium, a story about a recently-released pedophile which felt sensationalist and tacky; The Sound of Snow was the best script of the season, an almost lyrical stream of consciousness exploration of guilt and forgiveness.

Appropriately enough, Darwin’s Eye falls somewhere between the two extremes. It has the some sort of free-association apophenia that made The Sound of Snow so interesting, while dove-tailing rather awkwardly into yet another story about child abuse and human depravity. It is not the most elegant of hybrids, but Darwin’s Eye works better than it really should. A lot of credit belongs to guest star Tracy Middendorf as Cass Doyle, who creates a well-formed character out of what might easily have been a stock plot device.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

That said, the actual plotting of the hour feels clumsy and awkward. Darwin’s Eye isn’t entirely sure about how to get all of its necessary elements in place and how to tie them all together, so it tends to fudge the details. When Cass Doyle escapes from the institution, she promptly takes Deputy Joe Doherty hostage. However, the two bond over time and Joe quickly becomes a willing accomplice in Cass’ paranoid conspiracy theories. He protects her from law enforcement, and agrees to help her to prove her innocence.

The relationship between Cass and Joe is the cornerstone of Darwin’s Eye, the hinge upon which the episode turns. For the story to work, Cass needs to be able to convince Joe to believe in her paranoid ramblings. The problem is that Darwin’s Eye never quite manages to make that initial leap plausible. There are obviously documented cases of Stockholm Syndrome, but it seems like Joe converts to a “true believer” far too readily. The episode is barely out fot he first act before Joe makes himself a willing accomplice to Cass’ escape.

The big picture...

The big picture…

This feels like a significant plotting misstep. It doesn’t help that he is a law enforcement official and that Cass is a resident at an institution; if anything, Joe should be on guard for folie á deux. There are ways that the episode might have made a smoother transition, whether by offering a bit more exploration of Joe’s character or by developing his relationship with Cass over time rather than in a single gigantic leap. Unfortunately, Joe feels like a transparent plot device, a character who exists primarily to enable and encourage Cass.

Similarly, it feels weird that Joe would go to bed with Cass so readily. She is a woman who has just spent seven years inside an institution following the murder of her family. Even allowing for the fact that he buys into her conspiracy theories, she is still dealing with some very serious issues. “I guess I’m not used to privacy,” she observes on stripping down in front of him in the woods. Joe is obviously attracted to Cass, but it never seems entirely believable that he would so casually act in the way that the episode requires him to act.

Missing pieces...

Missing pieces…

Then again, this raises the other big problem with Darwin’s Eye. Like Collateral Damage before it, Darwin’s Eye feels like a weird synthesis of the first season’s gritty crime stories with the second season’s conspiracy theories. As with Collateral Damage, a lot of what Darwin’s Eye inherits from the first season feels somewhat exploitative and sensationalist. As with The X-Files, Millennium often feels like a show with a very weird attitude towards sex – particularly towards sex initiated by female characters.

At the climax of Darwin’s Eye, Joe has sex with Cass and is promptly punished for it. She makes love to him in the motel, and chops his head off later. It feels like a very conservative and puritanical attitude towards human sex and sexuality. It isn’t quite as cringe-inducing or tacky as Loin Like a Hunting Flame. Instead, it recalls the post-coital scene between Frank and Catherine in Paper Dove; a moment that all but ensured that something horrible is going to happen to Catherine Black by the end of the episode.

Skin deep...

Skin deep…

The cynical use of the classic horror cliché would be bad enough on its own, but there is something particularly tacky about the way that the sex scene in Darwin’s Eye is shot. It might be one of the most graphic sex scenes that Millennium ever produced, and there is a strange sense that the show is trying to have the best of both worlds; the audience is treated to a voyeuristic and fairly graphic (by network standards) sequence of Cass and Joe getting it on, but can rest assured that Joe will quickly be punished for his indiscretion.

The sex scene between Cass and Joe at the end of Darwin’s Eye invites comparisons to the stripping of Taylor Watts by Eric Swan back in Collateral Damage. It is a sequence with disturbing undertones, but which lingers just a little bit too long and seems just a little bit too comfortable with the more salacious elements of the scene. The tackiness of the scene between Joe and Cass feels particularly ill-judged when Frank and Catherine discover that this is the same room where Cass was repeatedly raped by her father.

Killer theories...

Killer theories…

It doesn’t help matters that Darwin’s Eye presents Cass as something of a monster. Despite her traumatic past, the episode paints Cass as a siren luring men to their deaths; the story never seems to question Joe’s motivations or actions over the course of the episode. During their sex sequence, Cass is very much on top and in control; Joe is rendered passive, with his eyes closed so he cannot even see her. Darwin’s Eye is primarily interested in Joe as a tool and a victim of Cass’ fantasy, a rather simplistic take on the whole situation.

Frank even identifies the decapitations as a form of castration. Wondering why Cass would cut off the heads of her father or the orderly, Frank reflects, “Why cut off his head? Because he had seen her. By cutting off the head, she blinds him. She unmans him.” Unlike In Arcadia Ego, the script for Darwin’s Eye is not interested in the circumstances or context that inform Cass’ actions. Indeed, the fact that Cass was brutally and repeatedly assaulted by her father is revealed in a single exposition-driven scene as the “simple” explanation for her crimes.

"Broadcast Standards and Practices said we could get away with 'unman'."

“Broadcast Standards and Practices said we could get away with ‘unman’.”

Instead, Darwin’s Eye casts Cass the embodiment of that most archetypal female horror villain – the sexually aggressive castrating monster. She is a woman who uses her body to manipulate hapless male characters to their doom, taking advantage of them sexually before metaphorically castrating them. Cass’ murder of Joe is meticulously and carefully planned; in contrast, the more justified and reactive murders of her father and the voyeuristic orderly which take place off-screen. As a result, Cass seems downright predatory.

This adds a rather unpleasant subtext to the whole episode, and reinforces the sense that Millennium might not have the healthiest attitude towards sex in general and sexually active women in particular. Darwin’s Eye is following quite swiftly on from Lucy Butler’s rape of Frank Black in Antipas. It does invite comparisons to the occasionally problematic handling of Scully’s sexuality on The X-Files, where it seemed like Scully was perpetually punished for taking a sexual interest in any character.

Next for the chopping block...

Next for the chopping block…

Nevertheless, Darwin’s Eye has a lot of interesting and compelling elements. In fact, Darwin’s Eye is touching upon and expanding familiar Millennium themes. In particular, it is an episode absolutely fascinated with the idea of imposing order upon chaos. In Sense and Antisense, writer Chip Johannessen had suggested that conspiracy theory was simply a way of processing seemingly contradictory stimuli into a cohesive narrative. In Closure, the show suggested that Emma Hollis was driven by a desperate desire to find reasons behind seemingly random acts.

The very mention of the words “conspiracy theory” on Millennium invite comparisons to The X-Files, but the show works best when it engages with the idea of “conspiracy theory” as a concept rather than the details behind a particular paranoid delusion. In Darwin’s Eye, Cass’ conspiracy theory serves as a grand ordering principle of the universe. It is a way of making sense of a senseless act, of explaining realities too cruel to properly process. Cass Doyle lived through a terrible trauma, and the only way to make it make sense is to fantasise about “men in suits.”

Boxed in...

Boxed in…

This is something of a minor recurring motif in the third season of Millennium. Frank Black’s suspicions about the Millennium Group are frequently dismissed as conspiracy theories by Assistant Director Andy McClaren, as if to imply that this is just Frank trying to cope with the loss of his wife. Emma Hollis believes that she can find a reason why Michael Wynter killed her sister, even though everyone else has accepted it as a random act of violence. The third season of Millennium touches on this idea that conspiracies are the way that we make sense of randomness.

From the atmospheric opening scene, Cass is a character who dedicates herself to understanding the reasons why things happen. Describing human history has nothing but a series of accidents, Cass explains, “But what I want to know, what I want to know, is what makes the accidents happen. Because something must. Or someone.” This is the logic that underpins almost every conspiracy theory, the hope of finding some hidden purpose or meaning that ties everything together. It is the hope that all of human existence is not governed by chance and coincidence.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

In a way, Cass is not too different from Frank. Early in the episode, Baldwin describes profiling as “really kind of outdated.” However, the logic underpinning it is sound. “If you want to know where, we have to find out why,” Frank explains. It is not a bad philosophy. The difference between Frank and Cass (and perhaps Hollis) is that Frank is willing to accept that the “why” can be mundane or irrational or petty. There is something almost comforting in the idea that the world is ruled by a secret cabal, that it is not spinning wildly out of control.

Of course, as with a lot of the clever ideas underpinning the third season, it is undermined by a clear lack of internal consistency. Sometimes the third season of Millennium is interested in the abstract idea of conspiracies as a way of making order from chaos, but sometimes it is earnestly interested in conspiracies for their own sake. It creates a very weird tonal mismatch where sometimes conspiracy theories work as a broad statement on the human condition and sometimes they feel like a blatant attempt to emulate The X-Files.

Reflecting on her theories...

Reflecting on her theories…

After all, Cass’ tragic story isn’t really that implausible in the world of Millennium. Watching Darwin’s Eye, it seems like the palm trees will inevitably tie back to the Millennium Group somehow. Even seemingly standalone stories like Human Essence and The Sound of Snow have implied that the Millennium Group’s hand is moving subtly in the background. Cass’ father was involved with the military in the early nineties, at the same point that Collateral Damage revealed that the Millennium Group had been experimenting on American troops.

As such, it is not impossible that the Doyle family were somehow caught up in all this intrigue. On a storytelling level, this gives Darwin’s Eye a palpable level of suspense. It is a legitimate surprise when Frank and Emma deduce that Cass was abused by her father and so concocted a conspiracy as an explanation for that trauma, in a way that it wouldn’t be if Darwin’s Eye were an episode of Law & Order or Homicide: Life on the Streets. It is a development that consciously plays with the expectations of a third season episode of Millennium.

Just a pawn in all this...

Just a pawn in all this…

At the same time, it does mean that Cass’ tragic back story feels like a twist – a sharp left-turn intended to wrong-foot the audience. It is a choice that works very well in the moment, but which does leave the whole experience feeling a little shallow. It reduces Cass from a character to a puzzle. She becomes an enigma to unravel, a riddle to solve. “Emma, don’t keep looking for conspiracies,” Frank observes. “Things are much simpler than they seem.” Of course, “simple” is a relative term when dealing with parental rape.

Still, there is a breathless energy that carries Darwin’s Eye a lot further than it might otherwise go. The fact that this is essentially a story about how the world doesn’t always make sense allows the story itself to decline to make sense. The idea that James Hollis is fixating on palm trees at the same time that his daughter is investing a case with a recurring palm tree motif is a contrived coincidence, but Darwin’s Eye can get away with it because that is the entire point of the exercise.

Looking for the full picture...

Looking for the full picture…

Patrick Harbinson describes writing Darwin’s Eye in a similar fashion to The Sound of Snow, enjoying a style almost approaching stream of consciousness or free association:

Once I’d finished an episode I would immediately start the area into odd areas of research, odd reading, to try and find the germ of the next idea – you see how far we’d come from serial killers. At the time of Darwin’s Eye, I’d just finished – entirely by chance – a biography of Darwin, and I’d come across the fact that Darwin was worried about the eye – that it didn’t quite fit with his theory of evolution, And pondering all this – without smoking anything – I found this voice saying: ‘So you start with the primal ooze… and you end up with Hitler, Mozart, me…’ Anyway, I put a face to the voice and the whole thing just snowballed into this story of a paranoid girl – victim or psycho, who knows? – and her journey towards justice, or retribution. And I married this exercise in (false?) paranoia with Klea Scott’s story of (true?) paranoia – origami, wooden boxes, her father folding her sister’s face into flowers, palms in the nuclear wind. I really wasn’t smoking anything, but it was for me one of the most exciting and surprising writing experiences I’ve ever had. Ken Fink directed brilliantly. Tracy Middendorf was great. Does it actually add up to anything? I don’t know, but it was a wonderful ride and couldn’t have happened on any other show.

It is great that Harbinson has to deny (twice!) that he was “smoking anything” while plotting and drafting Darwin’s Eye. The script commits to its big crazy ideas with such wild (and endearing) abandon that it is easy to see why Harbinson felt the need to clarify that point.

A blank slate...

A blank slate…

After all, the episode’s teaser is delightfully off-the-wall. It isn’t quite as surreal or beautiful as The Sound of Snow, but it definitely captures the wonderful randomness of the late third season of Millennium. The action cuts back and forth between multiple locations, between events that may or may not be connected to one another. Cass Doyle flees an institution as we focus on a decapitated orderly as James Hollis prepares a box of strange items to be delivered to his daughter. As Mark Snow’s score gets trippy, Cass monologues about evolution and cause.

It is a very odd piece of television, something much more abstract than the teasers on The X-Files. At this point in the third season, it feels like Millennium is beginning to recapture some of the ethereality of Millennium at its best. It is the kind of idea that could easily collapse under its own weight, and represents the kind of trippy abstraction that the first half of the third season consciously tried to pull away, but Darwin’s Eye commits wholeheartedly to its weirder elements. There is no attempt to temper the weirdness or hedge its bets.

Outlining her crimes...

Outlining her crimes…

“How does anything happen?” Cass monologues. “All of this, trees, mountains, river. All of it was just a ball. This ball of gas. Spinning in space, you know? One of billions. But somehow this one ball of gas flowered. Into earth, sea, sky. You and me. How can that have happened? Accident. One in a billion. Everything about us is an accident.” It takes a lot of self-confidence to pull off that dialogue. There is no room for irony or playfulness. The show has to really sell the pseudo-profundity, well aware of how spectacularly it could misfire.

Darwin’s Eye is also notable for the introduction of the character of James Hollis, who would become a recurring character for the rest of the season. James Hollis is interesting, because he represents the third time that the show has tried to flesh out Emma Hollis by grafting a family tragedy into her back story. Closure revealed that Emma’s younger sister had been murdered when she was a child; Human Essence introduced the audience to Emma’s drug-addicted cousin. With James Hollis suffering from dementia, it seems like the Hollis family is all but cursed.

Remaining on the fence about Cass...

Remaining on the fence about Cass…

To be fair, James Hollis is really the first time that this particular approach has worked. The third season has struggled to define and develop its secondary lead. The writers seem to be getting a firmer grip on Emma Hollis as the show races towards the end of the year, but it feels like too little too late. The fact that it took three attempts to get the generic “tragic family backstory” to work for demonstrates just how troubled the season has been. It feels like Millennium could have made better use of James Hollis back at the start of the year.

After all, the show has quite consciously and repeatedly suggested that the relationship between Frank Black and Emma Hollis is that of a father and a daughter, so it makes sense to introduce Emma’s biological father – and to have Frank interact directly with him. Darwin’s Eye rather cleverly juxtaposes Frank Black and James Hollis, offering Frank as a man exploring conspiracy theories that really exist and James as man chasing phantoms that are just echoes of past traumas. Fox Mulder is not the only Ten Thirteen lead with two metaphorical fathers.

Also: of course her name is Cassandra...

Also: of course her name is Cassandra…

It is also worth noting that the title of Darwin’s Eye comes from the oft-repeated question about how the human eye could have evolved incrementally. It is an argument favoured by critics of natural selection, who contend that the individual components of the eye offer little evolutionary advantage and so could not have evolved separately into the complex system of vision as we currently understand it. It is an argument that frequently cited by proponents of intelligent design, insisting that such a complex mechanism necessitates an intelligent designer.

“Some things just happen,” Cass reflects in the teaser. “Like the eye, even Darwin worried about the eye. The iris, lens, retina. How could any of those things evolve in isolation? How could they be useful on their own? So how did the eye happen? How? Accident, it just happened. We don’t know how, we don’t know. One minute we’re blind, next minute we see.” It is a very succinct statement of the episode’s themes, even if it does play into something of a scientific cliché. The eye is not quite as big a mystery as Cass would have the audience believe.

Wall-to-wall action...

Wall-to-wall action…

Even Darwin himself posited that the eye could make sense within his theories of evolution and that the individual elements of the eye could confer their own benefits. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin observed:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of vox populi, vox dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

Tellingly, creationists who cite Darwin’s questions about the evolution of the eye tend to avoid that particular paragraph. It is perhaps more accurate to approach the evolution of the eye as a mystery waiting to be solved, rather than a question without a clear answer.

Ringing true...

Ringing true…

Contemporary science has indeed proposed a theory for how the eye might have evolved over millennia, suggesting that – rather than evolving independently – each individual element evolved to compliment the existing ones:

Here’s how some scientists think some eyes may have evolved: The simple light-sensitive spot on the skin of some ancestral creature gave it some tiny survival advantage, perhaps allowing it to evade a predator. Random changes then created a depression in the light-sensitive patch, a deepening pit that made “vision” a little sharper. At the same time, the pit’s opening gradually narrowed, so light entered through a small aperture, like a pinhole camera.

Every change had to confer a survival advantage, no matter how slight. Eventually, the light-sensitive spot evolved into a retina, the layer of cells and pigment at the back of the human eye. Over time a lens formed at the front of the eye. It could have arisen as a double-layered transparent tissue containing increasing amounts of liquid that gave it the convex curvature of the human eye.

It is a fascinating theory, albeit one only tangentially related to the plot of Darwin’s Eye. Still, it does suggest that perhaps the biggest mysteries and riddle can provide unexpected and unanticipated answers.

Braking out...

Braking out…

Darwin’s Eye is too muddled to be counted among the strongest episodes of the third season of Millennium, but it is interesting enough that works better than it should. More of a mood piece than a story in its own right, Darwin’s Eye has an endearing confidence, complimented by a willingness to embrace the surreal and absurd. It doesn’t all come together as well as it might, and there are elements of the episode that remain problematic, but it moves with enough speed and verve that these problems are not as fatal as they might otherwise be.

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