An X-Files Retrospective, Part 7

19 Jan

Millennium- Season 1

When most of you hear the word “millennium,” you probably think “term used to describe 1000 years” and not “show about serial killers by X-Files creator Chris Carter.” So let me give you a little background. In the second half of the 1990s people were freaking out about the impending dawn of a new millennium. It had been roughly 2000 years since the death of Christ, there was the whole Y2K bug thing, and in general people were just kinda losing their shit for totally arbitrary reasons. Millennium, Chris Carter’s second series, used these fears to its advantage, which is why I thought it was silly and ignored it as a kid. It never managed to gain the popularity of its sister series, and was cancelled after three seasons. The only reason I’m really watching it is because it ties into The X-Files in a season 7 crossover episode of the same name, which acted as a series finale. Plus, I’m a big fan of star Lance Henriksen and costar Terry O’Quinn. On another note, I’ve also considered branching this retrospective out to include all Carter-created shows, such as the virtual reality-centric Harsh Realm. We’ll see…

Frank Black- retired FBI agent/Google Android enthusiast.

Millennium follows Frank Black (Henriksen), a retired FBI agent who now works for the elusive “Millennium Group,” a private consulting firm made up of ex-law enforcement agents that believe there is a mysterious rise in violent behavior in American society. The show is set primarily in the gloomy, rainy city of Seattle (Carter was inspired by the rainy, nameless city feature in the film Se7en, as well as its overall style) though Frank travels all over the country, working with local PD and FBI to track down serial killers. Frank is a very interesting and complex character, and is one of the major reasons for watching this show in the first place. He’s cynical and brooding, tired by years of seemingly fruitless work as an FBI agent, but is also a family man, with a wife and daughter. The reason Frank continues to work even though it seems to really depress him is due to his supernatural ability- while at crime scenes Frank can sometimes see into the eyes of the killer, gaining more insight than a regular cop would. Where this power comes from has yet to be explained during the course of the first season, though it seems to work in a similar fashion to John Smith’s on The Dead Zone.

Millennium is often too dark. There’s no comedy episodes, no wise-cracking, sunflower seed-eating FBI agent to lighten the mood, and most episodes depict realistic, horrifying serial killers, with only a few installments devoted to anything even remotely paranormal. It’s not an easy watch, is usually a downer and sometimes is simply too bleak to be enjoyable. It took me half a year to get through the first half of the season simply because I never really wanted to watch it. People die in horrible ways all the time on The X-Files, but it’s easy to remove yourself from it all because it involves monsters and aliens and supernatural occurrences that aren’t real. Plus, Mulder is funny. Part of what makes Millennium a much more flawed show is its gritty realism. Someone is murdered by a psychopath in nearly every episode- sometimes the killer manages to claim multiple victims before he’s caught, and sometimes even his capture doesn’t bring any kind of cathartic resolution to Frank or the other characters. I was often reminded of a USA series from 2004 called Touching Evil that I am also a big fan of, which followed a task force designed specifically to track serial killers and starred Jeffrey Donovan as a man who also had a mysterious communion with the murderers he hunted. That show managed not to be a downer by focusing more on the characters and how the work effected them emotionally. It also implied their work was making a difference; on Millennium Frank is faced with the cold hard truth that his ability and all the work he’s done may be entirely fruitless- evil prevails no matter how many times he confronts it.

The opening sequence really sums up what the show is all about, like any good opener. A montage of creepy images plays over the show’s archaic, almost medieval sounding theme song: a clawed hand scrapes over chains and a padlock, a woman is stalked through bushes, a girl slumps in a trance under a bridge. Frank and his wife Catherine are shown in strangely bright shots, smiling down at what is presumably their daughter. Words appear on the screen: “Wait…” “Worry…” before the camera settles on a shot of the Black home with the overlayed phrase “Who Cares?” That to me is the heart of Millennium: the idea that even as their society rockets toward imminent doom, Americans are too preoccupied with work and television and McDonald’s to even give a shit.

Millennium’s other flaw is its almost complete lack of serialization or overarching mythology, at least for the first season’s weaker first half. All we know is Frank has a psychic ability and works for a private contractor called the Millennium Group who believe there’s a troubling rise in violent behavior- that’s it. It’s not until the thirteenth episode, “Force Majeure,” one of the better installments, that the title of the show is even addressed. That episode is one of the very few “mytharc” episodes the show gets, in which Frank discovers a secret society who believe a global cataclysm will occur on May 5, 2000 when all the planets in the solar system will align for the first time in 6000 years. Said society has been planning for the event by cloning perfect men and women to repopulate the Earth after this second great flood. The episode also features the amazing Brad Dourif, who will hopefully return in future episodes as a recurring character. “Force Majeure” reinvigorated my interest in the series, though it bothered me that after learning all this portentous information about the Earth’s destruction coinciding with the new millennium, Frank doesn’t even stop to think “Hmm… I wonder why that group I work for has ‘millennium’ in their name…” For such a brilliant man, you think he would have at least given that name a second thought.

Now THAT'S how you rock a mustache. Still has nothing on Ron Swanson, though...

In fact, part of what’s frustrating is how little we learn about the Millennium Group over the course of the season. We meet several of its members, including a forensic pathologist portrayed by C.C.H. Pounder and the awesome Peter Watts, Frank’s closest confidant in the group, who’s portrayed by the amazing Terry O’Quinn. Not only does O’Quinn look like a badass with a mustache, but it’s nice to see him portray a character that’s much stronger and less emotionally vulnerable than the iconic John Locke. Though I would have liked to learn just a little bit about him. He’s got a very definable personality and has a presence on screen, but we know practically nothing about him. It isn’t until the season finale that we’re given even an inkling of what’s up with the Millennium Group. Frank is grilled by FBI agents he’s working with about the Group, who mention that the Group’s belief in the growing pervasiveness of evil makes them seem like a religious cult. This is the only hint we get all year that the Group may be not as noble as we’ve been led to believe.

Religion also plays a large part in the mythos, specifically Christianity. Though “Force Majeure” approaches the 05.05.2000 cataclysm as if it is a scientific event, other episodes, such as the awesome two part arc- “Lamentation” and “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” see it through a much more Catholic lens. Episodes like “Lamentation” and “Walkabout” stand out from the crowd because the crimes and events depicted actually affect Frank and his loved ones directly. It’s usually hard to find any emotional connection to any of Millennium’s stories because Frank is such a consummate professional and generally observes heinous acts through a veil of cynicism. But when a friend is murdered in “Lamentation,” Frank feels it. “Lamentation” also introduces what may be the show’s principal villain, who may also be Satan. First seen as a manipulative and creepy woman, said character later appears as a man and then a terrifying demon before slaying Frank’s friend. Though Frank is certain the creature is responsible, no evidence can be found to tie her to it, and the episode ends on the usual tragic note- Frank is unable to stop evil, which is personified for the first time, and for the first time it touches his own life. In the following episode, “Powers, Principalities…” Frank is approached by a sinister lawyer named Alasteir Pepper, who offers him a job as a private consultant. Frank is convinced he’s met the man before, but can’t put his finger on it. Later, he chases Pepper into a supermarket after the man claims the life of another one of Frank’s friends. As Frank tails him through the aisles the man’s appearance changes into that of the woman from “Lamentation,” confirming that this is the same personification of evil he’s already encountered. Pepper is then killed by a mysterious teenage boy who had been tailing him the entire episode, reciting a strange Catholic chant that uses the word “Samael” before shooting him. Frank, however sees the boy firing lightning out of his palm, and by the end comes to the vague conclusion that he’s witnessed some kind of epic battle between good and evil, perhaps even between the Devil and an angel.

What’s cool is that though Catholic mythology is a big part of the show, it never takes a direct stance on whether the events of the Book of Revelations are to be believed. Is the apocalypse a natural event or a supernatural one caused by forces unseen by man? I interpret it as a combination of the two. The May 5th cataclysm is an impending natural disaster, but phantasms fighting for evil and good are taking advantage of its approach, fighting over the fate of the souls of humanity.

More biblical allusions appear in the penultimate episode, “Marantha,” whose villain is a Russian covert agent responsible for the Chernobyl disaster and is now traveling around Brighton Beach murdering people. It’s an interesting episode because at first it comes off as one of Millennium’s less supernatural installments- we assume the villain is merely killing off Russian expats who know he’s the one responsible for Chernobyl- but as it progresses we discover he’s killing those that understand his true nature- he’s the Antichrist. That’s right: the Antichrist. Again, though he’s clearly supposed to be the Antichrist, the show isn’t very direct in its depiction. The only real similarity between him and the Biblical Antichrist is his ability to influence people and bend them to his will with words alone.

If Millennium is to be commended for anything, it’s the depiction of Frank and Catherine Black’s marriage. I’ve become accustomed to overly dramatized depictions of marriage on television- to heighten the tension husbands are wives are more often than not screaming at each other, cheating on each other, getting divorced, or just being bad partners in general. The only shows that usually feature stable marriages are sitcoms, and they’re always incredibly bland and boring, the opposite of the overly dramatic fighting marriages (you know, like Everybody Loves Raymond). Frank and Catherine are the most stable couple I’ve ever seen on TV. They love each other, they care for each other, they share their feelings with one another, they have good sex, are good parents and settle their differences with intelligent conversation and not mindless, reality TV-inspired ranting. Though there is conflict- Frank’s dark and disturbing work is taking its toll on the family- the couple never let their emotions overtake their logic when discussing it. It’s very believable and very touching, the only shining light in what is often an excruciating bleak series.

(SPOILERS) Which is why Catherine’s kidnapping at the end of season finale “Paper Dove” is so shocking, an excellent cliffhanger that for once, has me dying to watch the next episode. “Paper Dove” is primarily a “killer of the week” episode, though it is drastically different from those that preceded it. We spend more time with the killer than we ever have before, a bizarre French Canadian expatriate who spends most of the episode sitting next to the woman he murdered, talking to her because she’s a “good listener.” It isn’t until the final act that we realize why he’s so obsessed with good listeners- his mother is an intolerable witch who dotes on him as if he were little and has the most horrendous high-pitched squeal of a voice I’ve ever heard. She also never shuts up, and feels like she stepped out of a David Lynch movie. In fact, “Paper Dove” seemed to have taken a note from Twin Peaks as it had a very similar stylistic feel. Throughout the episode the killer is visited by a mysterious stranger dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses. Though it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s implied that this man is the same creep who’s been stalking Frank’s family all season, sending him polaroids of his house and his wife and daughter. He comes off as a serial killer’s assistant- he direct’s the episode’s killer to his victims, and one wonders if every case Frank has investigated this year were influenced by his actions. Very little is revealed about this character, which makes him all the more intriguing- who is he? Why is he obsessed with Frank? And why did he kidnap Catherine? Hopefully Season 2 will provide some answers.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Millennium to anyone who isn’t a diehard Chris Carter fan. It’s not a bad show, but it’s difficult to watch and lacks the serialization necessary to keep the viewer involved throughout. If you’re like me and you’re fascinated by serial killers and are also a fan of shows like Touching Evil and Dexter, you may also enjoy it, but be warned: this is the darkest, most depressing series I’ve ever watched. And I’ve seen a couple episodes of The Wire. From what I’ve read, the second season delves more into the Millennium Group as well as the more supernatural elements of the mythos. Chris Carter had less involvement with this season, and felt it veered from the heart of the show: horrible serial killers. Which is what the show returned to in its third and final season. It was cancelled one year shy of the actual millennium, and required an X-Files episode to tie up all its loose ends. I doubt it will ever attain the quality of The X-Files, though I am interested to see where it’s going to go and can’t wait to see Frank Black working with Scully and Mulder in Season 7.

Score: 8.0

Best Episode: “Pilot”

A great pilot, one that introduced the various themes of the show while delivering one of its finer “killer of the week” stories. With overtones of David Lynch, the episode follows one of the series’ more frightening killers, known as “The Frenchman,” who believes he is fulfilling apocalyptic prophecies, the first hint of the show’s overarching mythology. This was the only time in the entire season that Frank opened up about his psychic ability to someone other than his wife (he later worries his daughter Jordan may have inherited the power genetically). Telling best friend and Seattle detective Bob Bletcher that he can “see what the killer sees” helps to endear them to one another, creating one of the show’s better relationships, a friendship that’s as believable as Frank and Catherine’s marriage.

Worst Episode: “Weeds”

Sometimes watching an episode of Millennium is more like a brutal ordeal than entertainment, and no where is that more apparent than in “Weeds.” For starters, the victims are teenage boys, who are being murdered by a member of their gated community for their fathers’ sins. So it’s not even remotely their fault that their getting serial-killed. Said killer ties them up in a dank basement and forces them to drink blood (gross), before chopping their hands off and letting them bleed out. Though Frank and the local P.D. manage to catch the killer and rescue his current victim, the monster has already convinced the boy’s father that the only way to save him is to commit suicide. Frank and the sheriff arrive at the father’s house to find he’s hanged himself. Frank slumps onto the bed, the dad’s feet dangling in the foreground, utterly overwrought with the awfulness of the situation. The sheriff mutters sadly, “How could this happen?” the same question the audience is asking themselves, before the episode fades to black. THE END. No real resolution, no happy ending, no point to be made, nothing. Just utter despair. I knew I was getting into something pretty bleak when I started watching Millennium, but “Weeds” pushed the envelope way too far.

Continue to Part 8

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