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Millennium – Bardo Thodol (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.

As with Saturn Dreaming of Mercury and (to a lesser extent) Darwin’s Eye, Bardo Thodol continues to boldly push Millennium towards abstraction.

The plot of Bardo Thodol is actually fairly basic, in the same way that the plot to Darwin’s Eye is fairly basic. Mister Takahashi has done terrible things. Fleeing the Millennium Group assassin known only as Mabius, the mysterious scientist seeks refuge in a Buddhist Temple. As his body turns against him, Takahashi seeks to atone for his crimes. At the same time, an FBI raid on a cargo ship turns up an ice box packed with severed hands. Inevitably the two threads turn out to be intertwined.

Give the man a hand...

Give the man a hand…

However, as with a lot of Millennium scripts, the details of this fairly simple plot are delightfully askew. Bardo Thodol feels almost like a game of Millennium word association. There are cloning experiments, assassination attempts, meditations on reincarnation, actual meditation, discussions of forgiveness, ominous messages delivered by computer virus, lots of atmosphere, an oppressive sense of paranoia. Adjectives like “cluttered” and “stuffed” come to mind, to the point that it feels like a lot of Bardo Thodol ended up on the cutting room floor.

As with Darwin’s Eye, it feels like Bardo Thodol works better as a mood piece than as an example of storytelling television. It is not a hugely satisfying forty-five minutes, but it is always interesting.

Yes. Yes the show is.

Yes. Yes the show is.

Bardo Thodol is another third season episode credited to producer Chip Johannessen. As with a lot of Johannessen’s scripting for Millennium, it is a story driven as much by imagery as narrative. Johannessen’s best scripts tend to play into that style, with stories like Force Majeure or Luminary or Saturn Dreaming of Mercury taking relatively straightforward ideas and building up lyrical imagery and metaphors around them. At his finest, Johannessen’s scripts have a poetry to them.

Joining the show in its first season, Johannessen contributed to the mood and tone of Millennium even before he stepped into the position of producer at the start of the show’s third and final year. Although the arrival (and swift departure) of Michael Duggan at the start of the year somewhat undermined the third season, the final stretch of the season feels very much in keeping with Chip Johannessen’s sensibilities on the show. There are a lot of striking and beautiful images that underscore the themes of the year, even if the plotting is a little hazy.

Viral ideas...

Viral ideas…

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Johannessen explained that the plot for Bardo Thodol evolved from his writing partner – and wife – Virginia Stock. The idea began with one of the episode’s most striking images:

“Virginia Stock is my wife of twenty-plus years,” Johannessen explains. “We have a daughter named Martine. One of her first words was ouroboros! Bardo Thodol started with an image Virginia had: the tiny hands discovered in a cargo hold. She contributed to many other episodes, but I think that’s the only one with her name on it.”

It is a revelation that explains a lot, both about Bardo Thodol as an episode and about the second half of third season of Millennium as a whole. The second half of the third season is filled with memorable and distinctive imagery, even if that imagery does not always feel entirely organic to the plot.

A new disc-overy...

A new disc-overy…

It might be fair to describe Bardo Thodol as light on plot and heavy on theme. It touches on quite a few of the big ideas underpinning the third season, offering a number of images and phrases that recur across the third season as a whole. Most overtly, Frank finds himself haunted by the warning that “we are racing toward an apocalypse of our own creation.” It fits quite comfortably with the idea that Johannessen suggested back in Exegesis, that the millennium represented a choice of futures for mankind. Peter will repeat the warning in Goodbye to All That.

More than that, the fact that the warning appears labeled “1.)” recalls Johannessen’s suggestion in interviews that he had drafted a “ten-point manifesto” for the Millennium Group that is now lost to history. There are other smaller suggestions of larger thematic concerns to be found in Bardo Thodol. The third season of Millennium repeatedly hinted at some sort of abstract mythology tying everything together, but never seemed to focus on a single element long enough to properly develop the necessary connections.

"Have you seen this man?"

“Have you seen this man?”

At another point, item “5.)” on the manifesto is revealed to be “don’t change the ideals, change the people” – an idea that is building to the revelations about the Millennium Group in Goodbye to All ThatSkull and Bones had suggested that the Millennium Group was experimenting with head surgery, which plays into this idea. Even in Bardo Thodol, the head monk connects the head to the essence of self. As Takahashi bleeds through the back of his skull, the monk observes, “The consciousness is liberated through the head. It is a good sign.”

Bardo Thodol builds on the idea suggested by Exegesis that the apocalypse is only one possible outcome of the existential struggle for mankind’s soul. “You are dying,” the head monk advises Takahashi. “Afraid. You hope for peace. But hope is the enemy of peace of mind. Just as much as fear.” The second season often made it seem like the only forces at work in the world were those pushing it towards doomsday; in contrast, the third season suggests that there might be equal and opposite forces.

Cut the cord...

Cut the cord…

Bardo Thodol also plays into the third season’s fascination with rebirth and reincarnation – of the union and interaction between and death and life. The third season seems to reject the idea that death as an absolute end. Even the title of the episode alludes to the existence beyond the mortal coil. The script takes its title from the Tibetan “book of the dead.” In Immortality and Reincarnation, Alexandra David-Neel explains the purpose of the book:

A certain number of versions of this work exists that are identical in regard to their objective, even though different in their details. Bardo Thodal signifies “a text that when heard provides delivery from the Bardo.” The Bardo is the intermediary state that the disincarnated soul remains in from the moment of death until reincarnation.

From around half-way through the year, the third season of Millennium has been quite conscious of the need to properly reconcile and integrate the various incarnations of the show. The monks featured in Bardo Thodol might be helping Takahashi prepare for his own transition, but Millennium is working through a similar process.

A Frank discussion before death...

A Frank discussion before death…

Millennium is not the show that it was in its first season. Millennium is not the show that it was in its second season. Millennium is not even the show that it was at the start of its third season. The series is constantly and dramatically evolving and changing. The late third season makes a conscious effort to accept and embrace this cycle of death and rebirth. “You know what I think you need to do?” Frank asks Emma at one point. “The same thing I’ve been trying to do. Is set aside my preconceptions. Start over.”

This idea of revolution and reinvention plays throughout the episode. Discussing an old ceremonial bowl, Peter Watts accepts that its time has passed and that change is necessary. “Things come and go,” he tells Emma. “The old makes way for the new. Nothing sinister about it, Hollis.” He could be addressing on-line fans. Similarly, a computer technician struggles with Frank’s virus. “It’s impossible to say what it’s up to because it keeps rewriting itself,” he explains. Frank suggests, “A snake eating its own tail?” The imagery makes the connection to the show itself explicit.

A piece of the whole...

A piece of the whole…

Bardo Thodol seems to suggest that a process of renewal and reinvention is only natural – that people and things evolve and transform over time. Transformation becomes a key theme of the third season, whether through the colour of Frank’s hair or the plotting by the Millennium Group. Even Takahashi gets in on the act, with Emma Hollis discovering that his last paper was titled, “Transubstantiation of the Human Species: Biology as the New Alchemy.” Even people can be transformed, as Takahashi himself seems to be.

As interesting as Bardo Thodol might be on a thematic level, the plotting itself seems somewhat clumsy and haphazard. In particular, it seems like the script treats certain elements of the third season as frozen in amber. The script approaches the Millennium Group and Peter Watts as if nothing has changed since Exegesis or Skull and Bones at the start of the season. They are presented as nothing more than two-dimensional villains, ignoring hints of more complex characterisation that had begun to creep into later scripts of the season.

Gunning for answers...

Gunning for answers…

The Millennium Group is presented as a fiercely well-organised and well-resourced organisation who enjoy interests that overlap with cheesy Bond villains, conducting research into dangerous biological theories and dispatching assassins to clean up loose ends. The Millennium group is no longer the cult that featured in the second season; instead, they largely feel like a knock-off of the conspirators on The X-Files. In particular, Mabius feels like he might have been hired through the same ominous henchmen agency that suggested Quiet Willy to the conspirators.

The third season of Millennium never quite develops or expands the Millennium Group beyond that template, but there had been hints and suggestions that there might be more going on. For all that it represented a clear attempt to wipe away the continuity of the second season, Matryoshka suggested a secret origin for the organisation within the FBI. At the end of The Sound of Snow, it was suggested that the Millennium Group was trying to help Frank work through his trauma and grief over the loss of Catherine. Bardo Thodol just resets those hints of development.

A chilling discovery...

A chilling discovery…

The Millennium Group is not the only element of Bardo Thodol that feels like it has been “reset” by the script. The characterisation of Peter Watts is reverted back to that of stock villain, recalling the version of the character who appeared in early third season episodes like Exegesis or Skull and Bones. Episodes in the middle of the season had made a conscious effort to humanise and develop Peter, with Collateral Damage and Matryoshka reaffirming his humanity and decency. It feels like Bardo Thodol just rolls back the clock on that.

This last-minute reversion really harms the larger character and plot arcs of the third season. Peter Watts appeared in episodes like Matryoshka and Forcing the End as potential recruiter for the Millennium Group; he spent a considerable amount of time with Emma Hollis, hinting at insights and developments that might entice her to join the Millennium Group. Given where the season decides to go with Emma as a character, that approach to Peter Watts makes a lot of a sense. Even if Emma does not trust Peter, it makes sense for her to respect him.

"Hey! Bald man!"

“Hey! Bald man!”

The portrayal of Peter in Bardo Thodol washes away all of that development and growth. Peter steals evidence from Emma, an action that could have incredibly serious repercussions for Emma’s career. Any trust that existed between the two is lost; it feels like the characterisation in Bardo Thodol undermines a lot of the potential character drama between Emma and Peter in Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That. Peter Watts and the Millennium Group are villains who struggle to be two-dimensional.

“Peter Watts really is evil, isn’t he?” Emma asks at the end of the episode. Frank tries to remain philosophical. “Maybe no–one’s beyond redemption,” he speculates. “I have to believe that.” While episodes like Collateral Damage and Matryoshka had suggested that Frank might be correct, the script for Bardo Thodol makes those episodes feel like freak aberrations rather than anything meaningful or indicative. It is clumsy plotting, particularly at a point where it seemed like the third season might be beginning to get its act together.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Bardo Thodol is an episode rich in imagery and deep in theme, but it suffers from a sense that it undermines what little hard-earned character development Peter Watts and the Millennium Group have experienced in the second half of the season. It is an embodiment of the best and worst aspects of the third season. It suggests that there is some sort of plan behind it all, even if the show never seems quite sure about how to put that plan into action. There is an indecisiveness to all this, a lack of focus and a reluctance to commit to fixing some of the show’s underlying problems.

With time desperately running out, it seems like the show is racing towards an apocalypse of its own making.

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