Welcome back to the official VS5 blog. This time we’re rehashing episode 15, “Atonement”, which was written by myself. It’s basically a standalone episode but one that isn’t about an isolated killer. Instead, it attempts to strike a balance between more global issues and the individual plot of the spree killings.
That’s something that sparked off the first ideas for the episode, that of spree killings. In that sense, it can be considered a deliberate attempt to get away from the serial killer narrative that people sometimes accuse Millennium of relying to heavily on. I’ve often said that I don’t think that’s ever truly been the case, and I think we’ve done well for it not to be the case in VS5 so far, but nonetheless I thought this would be a good opportunity to do an episode that is quite clearly a spree killer and not a serial killer. At this point I ought to mention that this is not in any way associated with the recent Virginia Tech massacre. I imagine it has a natural resonance given recent events and the similar location, but “Atonement” was conceived a long time ago and was neither changed nor influenced as a result.
In actuality, if there is any kind of real-world inspiration for the plot, it’s more the Washington Sniper case of 2002. This led to the first real image that formed the basis of the ideas behind the story was, and that was the gatling gun. I thought that kind of amped up the scale of the threat somewhat from the marauding sniper to a much larger weapon that sprayed out bullets at an even greater rate.
That led on to the military angle that picks up right from the teaser, and allows us to feed in some contemporary social and political issues about war in Iraq and so forth. However, none of this is designed to come down to a specific “message” or “moral”. It’s not a polemic. It’s not serving or preaching a political agenda. I don’t want to get into too many issues of personal politics, but I guess you could say that I would come down more on the liberal side of things (which is a trend that seems to run through a lot of writers’ rooms for some reason), but even so the episode is not necessarily meant to reflect that.
The teaser itself begins in Iraq during the second Gulf War in the 90s, which I thought was a good way to kick off with a bit of heavy action that has a nice symmetry with the later, present day shootings. That’s emphasised by the recurring visual motif of the shell casings falling to the ground in slow-motion. I think that was one of the more effective elements of the episode, in a visual sense, and I think the teaser in general, with its voice-over and parallels between the stuff in 90s Iraq and present day Washington, is quite a success. One small little reference too - the principal antagonists here of Mitchell and Walsh have their first names chosen after Biblical prophets, namely Joel and Daniel.
Act One opens up at the FBI Academy, just to touch base with that as Frank’s occupation, though I chose to set it at a slightly different area that the usual lecture theatre. It’s then that we’re introduced to Special Agent Julian Beresford who is designed as another profiler character to contrast with Frank in perhaps a similar way that the character of Jim Horn did way back in “Dead Letters”. Beresford, of course, is an entirely different character with his own unique flaws. He’s a bit of a hot-shot, but he’s also a media hound. I thought it was important that he still be portrayed to know his stuff and be an effective profiler, but he’s not the best of leaders and he’s a little overly-concerned with appearances and portraying the Bureau in a positive light.
When he comes to Frank here, he switches on the TV and we get the first of several snippets of news reports which becomes a background point of thematic focus. I thought it would be interesting here to present that as something to think about without knocking it over the head, how the media represent these things and how their attention switches from domestic events to stuff going on in Iraq. Again, there’s not a message being hammered home here, just something to think about. At the end of this news report there’s also a little reference in the scrolling text banner that identifies the location as the Craddock Marine Bank. This is taken from the X-Files episode “Monday” which had its events take place at a bank called Craddock Marine. You either got that or you didn’t.
When Beresford and Frank arrive on the scene, I tried to make sure to divide up the profiler dialogue between the evenly to show that this guy isn’t just completely useless. That’s not the idea here. He’s not meant to be inept, just that he has a few issues which mean he’s not Frank Black either. Locke on the other hand is shoved to the outside somewhat by this, and from here the conflict between the FBI and the police naturally evolved out of the script. That kind of divide and competition between local and Federal authorities is a long-standing undercurrent of pretty much all police procedural shows, and while Millennium doesn’t exactly fit into that category, it’s true of the show as well. This time around though, I chose to make more of it and make it a more significant part of the story than it usually is.
We then go to a scene between Mitchell and Walsh which was really just designed to flesh out their relationship a little more. This is perhaps an area of weakness in the episode, that the relationship between the two antagonists is never quite given the attention and development it deserves.
The scene at the situation room where Beresford gives his briefing was designed to partially evoke the set design in the first season episode “Lamentation”. That’s in the description of the two stairways and the windowless area which basically comes from me having that room from “Lamentation “in mind when I wrote it. We never come out and say that it’s meant to be the same room, but it just gives you a frame of reference to picture it.
This is then intercut with a similar briefing over at the police department, and this is deliberately structure to draw on points of comparison and points of contrast with the concurrent FBI and PD investigations. The FBI have their huge conference tables while the cops just pull up their chairs, the FBI have their big projection screen, while Danner holds up a few photos, that kind of thing. This then takes us into the act out where Mitchell and Walsh deliver their manifesto in a video message broadcast on the news. This will naturally feel evocative of such tapes we’ve seen of extremists and terrorists, and that’s a parallel that is just bubbling under the surface throughout the episode given the military connection and service in Iraq and so forth.
Act Two then brings us back up on the investigation and Frank bringing Peter in on it to help them out given the religious and Biblical overtones of the video message. This then allows us to touch on some of the idea we set up way back in “Chrysalis”, that the turn of the millennium could be seen by some to represent the beginning of the end. I also thought it would be interesting to point out here that such a notion is not without precedent, which is vocalised by Peter in stating that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the final days began with the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
The basic viewpoint of Mitchell and Walsh stems from that idea. We’re always asking ourselves what kinds of things in the modern world could be interpreted in these millennial ways, and the whole Biblical prophecy of armies marching into the Middle East and so forth seemed like a particularly striking one given the situation in the region today. It didn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine how some people could see this as a portend of the apocalypse, and thus something that could be reversed by withdrawing troops. That was essentially the basic idea from which the episode stemmed, with the antagonists being former military men themselves evolving naturally from those issues.
Locke’s investigation leads him to track down some of the ammunition and such and the store it came from. I chose to make the owner of this store a bit of a jerk, and thought it would be interesting to play him as a guy who is just excited by the idea of getting his face on TV. That feeds in to the constant undercurrent here of crime, war and the media, and how people can be obsessed with a spotlight and how what we know of war is only really what we are told through the media. Again, I thought that was something interesting to put out there, not as the central theme of the episode, but just as something to be thinking about in the background.
The part where we have Frank, Peter and Beresford in a trace van is perhaps a bit of a lift from “5-2-2-6-6-6”. This is an element that is arguably a bit more cumbersome, but essentially I just needed a way of getting them on the road and coming face to face with Mitchell and Walsh sooner rather than later. I think you could argue that this part is a bit rushed, and that they get to them a bit too quickly and easily, but it was really just a case of not wanting to labour the point and let the episode get dragged down and boring as a result. So you have to take a small leap of faith, but it’s for the greater good.
Act Three continues this, and the conversation over the phone again requires a bit of a stretch. The basic idea here was that the trace van was linked in to any calls they were expecting to come in to TV or radio stations, and that they were then transferred into the van where the agents could talk to the shooters while tracing the call. I’m not sure they ever really came across clearly enough. When you’ve got a big technical situation like that to deal with, sometimes it’s best not to spend too much time over-explaining it, because that just becomes boring and laborious, and instead just to hope people follows and get on with it. That’s the case here, and I just hope people got enough of the idea to follow it and embrace the entertainment over the technical details.
Meanwhile, Locke gets the details on the shooters through more old-fashioned detective work. Again, you could question that this all comes together a bit quickly and easily, but again it’s in the interests of moving the story forward. Even so, I think you could make a legitimate criticism that it becomes a little too convenient when Locke and Danner end up on the same street tracking Mitchell and Walsh just as the trace vehicle catches up with their van.
However, I’m more pleased with the chase scene here. I think the idea of having one van in motion firing back a gatling gun at another on a busy highway is pretty high in scope and would be a big budget sequence. I like the concept of scale and action, and it seems at least a reasonably original take on the car chase by having the gatling gun in there and the effect of the recoil.
They then of course storm into the mall, which is a point I wanted to get to in order to play out something of a more traditional hostage drama. I thought it was perhaps time to tackle that kind of staple and make the most of it, having done the supernatural stuff in “Gotterdammerung”, the mythology angle in “Forty Days and Forty Nights”, and the serial killer narrative in “Golgotha”. This was a chance to play out another different note and combine the spree killer with the hostage drama. I hope that variety comes out instead of people falling back on the standard moans about glorification of gun culture and so forth.
The act-out here is designed to set up that hostage drama to come, but I do think it has a bit of a problem logistically. The problem is that I needed to set up the location of the shopping mall with its multiple layers at the top of the escalator, but I also needed to get the message out to the cops on the ground that they had hostages. In the end, that just resulted in them shouting out of the windows which isn’t the most elegant or cool way of doing it. Ultimately it was just a means to an end, so not quite the most effective of act-outs in that sense.
Act Four uses the TV news device just to set the scene again, then we’re right back in on the police forces, both local and Federal, which are starting to cooperate but still debating how to manage the situation. Frank then makes the decision the he has to be one of the ones to go inside are start talking to these guys, which is just classic Frank Black really. He’s always the sort to do that and just leap in without concern for himself as we’ve seen in such episodes as “Kingdom Come” and “Wide Open”, so it just made sense that he’d do that again in this situation.
When he confronts them face to face for the first time, he is able to get into their heads like never before and come to the truth. This is where he’s able to figure out that this is actually about the guilt they feel for the crime’s they committed as soldiers in Iraq, and I like the way this shows their original profile to be flawed. This adds a bit of a twist to the tale, that it’s not actually the customary Biblical prophecy obsession that’s truly driving them but a desire to atone for their mistakes which they’re channelling into this belief. Frank is able to talk them ‘round to an extent because of his skill in psychology and empathy, and this allows the situation to be resolved in a slightly unexpected way. Instead of having the police storm in and take down the shooters, we see Mitchell and Walsh turn their guns on each other and fire simultaneously in front of all the hostages. I don’t really recall something like that being done before, at least not exactly, so hopefully that adds a degree of originality. We then return to the image of shell casings falling to the ground in slow motion to have that thematic sense of full-circle.
While Frank is just content to walk away and leave it behind, Beresford shows how different he is by immediately approaching the media and courting the cameras. That allows us to conclude with the news reporters for one final time as they soon lose interest with the domestic mall siege and move on to report on counter-insurgency operations in Iraq. That shows that the situation goes on in spite of these events which will ultimately be forgotten more quickly.
That about wraps up “Atonement”. I think it’s a reasonably successful entry that could have crafted some of its elements a little more skilfully, but ultimately does its job as a slightly different episode that provides a bit of variety and strikes a balance between global themes and a self-contained story. It’s perhaps reminiscent of such episode as “19:19” or “T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.”, which is no bad thing for the season as a whole.
Next we enter the final five episodes which aim to wrap up the season, starting with “Critical Mass”. Thank you, and goodnight.