“Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” S5 & 2 / E21
- A Community Grade
It would be easier if I could believe in Evil.
Maybe the worst thing I’ve ever done was in high school. I was in a play, a thoroughly mediocre musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream called A Dream On Royal Street. I played the show’s version of Puck, and I’ve had worse roles. It was my junior year, and I thought I was having a good fall semester, as such things go. There was a girl I’d been flirting with, I got a good song or two in the musical and, well, I just felt really fine all the time, the way you feel when life clicks into a certain grove. During a dress rehearsal, a trio of actresses missed a cue. It wasn’t the end of the world—dress rehearsals are made for missed cues, really—but they’d done it before, and it left me hanging alone on stage, waiting for an exit line that never came. I improvised something, exited, and walked around back through the costume room, and then the music room (which was behind the auditorium), and I found the girls hanging out together just off stage right, joking about something, none of them tied up or visibly injured and I screamed at them. I just snapped. Then I stalked off before anyone could respond to go sulk. When it came time for my next entrance, the girls were waiting, and one of them tried to talk to me—she wasn’t too happy—and I told her to fuck off. She slapped me. So I shoved her as hard as I could. But that isn’t the worst thing. The worst was that when one of the other girls came over to see what was wrong, I shoved her as well. And then another girl got in my way, so I shoved her too, and it sounds sort of comical, like they were just lining up for me to knock ’em down, but it wasn’t funny. At all. I ran. I bolted out of the building and I went across the street, thinking maybe I should try and get hit by a car. No cars around, though, so I just kept running, into the cemetery adjacent to the high school. It was November, and there was snow on the ground by then, and I was just wearing my show outfit, no gloves or coat or anything. I remember the sound the snow made under my shoes, and I remember standing there between rows of old gravestones, hands tucked into my armpits, teeth chattering, sobbing. Eventually, someone came to get me. I knew they would, and that was horrible.
People have done worse things, I’m sure, but it felt about as low as I wanted to go at the time, with a bit more besides. I carried the self-loathing and shame for a long time, and writing about it now, I still got a taste of that old feeling, the way if you swallow wrong you can sometimes get a lump of bile in your throat. I’ve never been religious, and I’ve never believed that demons were real, but in that moment, if anything could’ve taken away some of my moral horror, belief might’ve done it. If we can accept Evil—capital letter Evil, as Stephen King refers to it in ’Salem’s Lot, Evil as a separate entity unto itself, with it’s own goals and autonomy—we can accept ourselves as pawns in an eternal struggle between two opposing forces, which would give my silly (scary) little temper tantrum some reassuring context. It wouldn’t be that there was a part of myself that I didn’t understand, a part that could rise up without my consent and turn me into this spasm of petulant, insensible fury. It would be some creature who’d gotten into my brain, tempting me to sin, working against my better nature. Believing in Evil would mean I could believe in Good, and align myself with the latter. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t.
Millennium believes in Evil. It was since the beginning, although that Evil initially took the form of serial killers and violent sexual deviants. The show gives us demons like The X-Files gives us aliens—in the shadows, behind closed doors, moving at obscure purposes but definitely, undeniably there. Really, it’s one of the smartest decisions Chris Carter could’ve made; serial killers get old after a while, but monsters? Monsters are awesome. Clearly, Morgan and Wong understood this when they took over the series, because part of what makes the second season so great is their full embrace of the lunatic possibilities of mythology. We have demons, we have angels, we have ghosts, and next week, Todd will be walking us through what happens when all those things run headlong into a cabal of men and women who think they can handle all these things. This week, though, before the grand finale, we’re taking a closer look at the bad guys’ team. We’ve seen demons wandering the streets before, or shifting shapes in moments of great crisis, but we’ve never spent much time with them on their off hours. That’s where Darin Morgan comes in. A demon talking shop with his co-workers raises all kinds of possibilities, possibilities that Morgan is better equipped than maybe anyone to exploit. “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” is his second and last episode for the show. It’s his best, and, to my mind, maybe the best hour of television Millennium ever produced.
After all that doom and gloom, it must be pointed out straight off just how funny “Somehow” is. From the cold open, which has an old man delivering newspapers in the worst possible way (he destroys a cherub statue, sets off a car alarm, drops a paper in the middle of a bird bath), to the very end, this episode has more laughs in it than in maybe the entire rest of the series combined. “Jose Chung’s ‘Doomsday Defense,’” Morgan’s last Millennium writing gig, had some great gags, but the humor was often overwhelmed by the episode’s frenetic need to have six or seven ideas all at the same time; it’s harder to chuckle when you’re exhausted from trying to keep up. “Somehow,” by contrast, is very simple. Disarmingly simple, in fact, which is what gives the end such a remarkable sucker punch power. The premise sounds like the start of a bad joke: four demons walk into a coffee-and-donuts shop. Over apple fritters and a urine-laced cup of java, they exchange stories about their respective efforts to tempt mankind into damnation. That’s it, really. Frank Black is barely in the episode—he’s crucial to it, but Lance Henriksen gets roughly as much screentime here as he did in Super Mario Bros. Millennium never embraced anthologization the same way The X-Files did. It does tonal shifts, and the stories are all over the map sometimes, but individual episodes rarely had the divergence in style and content that allowed X-Files to have “The Post-Modern Prometheus” and “Home” in the same series. That may be because of this show’s story focus, or it may just be because Millennium didn’t last long enough to get experimental. But “Somehow” is different. Morgan-penned episodes are often different, but this one manages to feel both distinctive from everything that came before it, and at the same time utterly fitting.
The brilliant bit—well, one of the brilliant bits—is that while Frank and the Millennium Group face off against nightmare-inducing monsters like Lucy Butler, the four demons in “Somehow” are working stiffs to the bone. No one mentions the coming apocalypse, or any grand plans Satan might have to bring down the end of the world, and while they take strategy, it’s a very limited kind of strategy, more a debate of philosophy between professionals in the same field. Each has their own distinct approach to tempting souls. Blurk, the first demon to tell his story, likes working with serial killers. He hooks up with a young man obsessed with true crime stories, a loner with all the warning signs—tortured animals, can’t hold a job or a woman very long, owns a super creepy van—and then gives the young man the extra push needed to get him started on a life of dead prostitutes. But while Blurk is successful in toppling poor, stupid, psychotic Perry, he gets no great satisfaction from it. Humans, he tells the others, just don’t have any spark anymore. Perry isn’t interested in being the weirdest serial killer, or the most terrifying. He’s just looking to beat his idol, Johnnie Mack Potter, in a numbers game. So Blurk throws the kid to the cops, and then sends him a note suggesting he ought to take his own life. (Suicide is the end game in all four stories.) Except Perry can’t even manage that much, so Johnnie gets a chance to hold onto his record by killing the idiot in his bed.
The idea that the good old days of damnation have passed them by is shared by all four demons to varying degrees. The second demon, Abum (I don’t think even the closed captions ever gave his name; I called him Screwtape in my notes, because I’m terribly clever like that), embraces humanity’s lost spark. He argues that, temptation-wise, with the way the world is he doesn’t even have to make contact with his target. A man suffers constant, nagging torments just to get through the day: alarm clocks, exercise equipment, soul-sucking jobs, confusing traffic laws, telemarketers, television. He’ll sin for distraction, like a trip to the local strip club, but he takes no pleasure in it. (The gag here, with Abum’s target egging on a stripper in a barely audible monotone, is hilarious.) All Abum has to do is make sure the irritations and unpleasantness never stops, and sooner or later, the man will take the only way out he thinks he has left: through the window of his ten-stories-up apartment. Sure, all this lacks a certain romance, but leading people to Hell was never about the romance; besides, Abum clearly gets a lot of pleasure in being just awful enough to everyone that they can’t object. (He’s the newspaper delivery guy from the cold open; he also irritates the clerk at the coffee-and-donuts shop enough to tempt the clerk into pissing in his coffee.)
The third story is the broadest of the three, and the weakest. Greb chooses to break his target by appearing to the man as a dancing demon baby—it’s a riff on the dancing baby from Ally McBeal, and if you don’t remember that particular cultural touchstone, consider yourself lucky. The demon baby gag isn’t terrible, especially now that McBeal has fallen to the wayside, but Greb’s story is more a chance for Morgan to take some shots at network censors and TV in general. Unlike the previous two stories, there’s no real idea behind this: A censor sees Greb in his CGI form, becomes convinced he’s insane, and gets crazier and crazier about all the filth around him until he finally grabs a gun (at Greb’s urging) and shoots up a set that looks suspiciously like Chris Carter’s other then-airing television series. It’s very funny, but the only temptation-specific concept here is that Greb is able to appear to the censor because modern man isn’t prepared for demonic visions. Whereas peasants in the Middle Ages would know they were being tempted, the censor just decides he’s hallucinating, which means he thinks he’s crazy, which means he goes insane. Mostly, this just plays on what must be the frustration of all TV show producers: the hyper vigilance of the men with the red pens and the black bars. It’s far from terrible, but it’s a little too meta for its own good.
Thankfully, the final story of the episode more than makes up for it, by not being funny in the slightest. The last demon seems a little nicer than the others, somehow; he’s quieter, more thoughtful, and of the four, he’s the only one who seems like he might be capable of seeing beyond his life’s work. But of course he can’t. Toby is a little blue, and he’s afraid he’s losing his touch; his vulnerability attracts the attention of an older woman at a strip club (Gabrielle Rose, whose been all over the place—her character name here is “The Aging Stripper”), and the two form an unlikely relationship. Both convinced that they’ve passed their prime and the world has passed them by, Toby and The Aging Stripper fall in love. They cuddle together, do laundry together, live together, and one night, she gets a glimpse of him lying in bed, his true demonic self—and she gets back under the covers next to him without saying a word. She accepts him for what he truly is. So he brings her to the coffee-and-donuts shop, as though to bring her the final step in this world. He tells her they need to talk about something. He says, “Will you m—,” twice. And then he says, “Would you mind if we never saw each other again? You disgust me, you fat cow,” and she goes home and kills herself.
Throughout the episode, in each of the four stories, each demon has an encounter with Frank Black, and finds themselves briefly wondering if Frank can actually see them for what they really are. They reassure themselves that this isn’t possible (“It’s not in their nature,” i.e., humans don’t see demons as demons because of something in us, not them), but Toby isn’t so sure. As he sits in a bathroom with his girlfriend’s corpse lying in the tub, blood from slit wrists splattered on the tiles, he starts sobbing. Out of relief, of course, because he didn’t think he had it in him to tempt souls anymore, and The Aging Stripper proved him wrong. Frank is at the crime scene, and he sees Toby crying. He walks over, looks the demon straight in the eye, and says, “You must be so lonely.” Frank has only a handful of lines in the episode, and that’s the only one that really means anything.
The beauty of “Somehow” is that we’re able to recognize the truth in what Frank says even as the demons never will. Just as it’s not in our nature to recognize them for what they really are, the nature of demons prohibits them from grasping the singular isolation of their existence. Toby almost seems to get it. Demons don’t get to have a choice—they are Evil, and that’s all they can ever see in anything, but what makes this heartbreaking is that Toby gets just the barest glimpse of something more. He brushes up briefly against the other side of everything, and there’s an emptiness to him throughout the episode; he did all the right things, all the things he was designed to do, and he ends up somehow more lost than ever. The way he took was the easier way for him—destroying and damning the only creature in the universe who ever loved him was easier than accepting that love. Maybe it was the only thing he could do. But the loneliness remains. So yeah, it would be easier if I believed in Evil. It be easier if I was Evil. But, as “Somehow” reminds us, after a season full of shifting allegiances and ever expanding conspiracies, human beings are blessed with the right to not have things be easy. Given the choice—given that I have the choice—I’ll take guilty and responsible over Evil and alone. It was horrible when my friends came to drag me back to the others to pay for what I’d done; but it was so much better than the alternative.
- If you’re curious: I apologized, did some more crying, felt like shit for years and got over it. And I’ve never laid a hand on anyone in anger since high school.
- In a Morgan-esque touch, many of the stories here overlap: The strip club that Abum’s loser visits is the same one the censor freak’s out in, and it’s the same one where Toby meets his match. You get the impression that these guys are all strictly small-time, local demons.
- Funny thing about Greb’s story: One of the jokes is how needlessly uptight and pedantic the censor is, but Greb also manages to taint millions of souls when the footage of the censor’s killing spree hits the airwaves. Which seems to imply that the censor’s job isn’t completely pointless, even if he is.
- The look on Frank’s face when he sees Greb in dancing baby form is great.
- The demon makeup spends a lot of time under some very harsh lighting, and it looks consistently excellent throughout. Really nice work.
Next week: Todd takes us through the end of the second season of Millennium, with the double feature of “The Fourth Horseman” and “The Time Is Now.”