Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Enemies Within: Chris Carter's Millennium and America's Suburban Apocalypse

In the first season episode of Millennium entitled "Wide Open," violent crime consultant and dedicated family man Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) sits pensively on the front porch of his idyllic yellow house on Ezekial Drive (a symbol first of paradise; then of paradise lost). There, he laments the American culture of the 1990s, one "besieged by our own fear."

His wife, a therapist named Catherine (Megan Gallagher), counters "if you're not afraid...you're in denial."

As Chris Carter and the writers of Millennium might succinctly state the matter: "This is Who We Are."

Or at least, this is who we were during the Age of Millennium (1996-1999), pre-Y2K. The question then becomes, why is this who we were? And do we today remain this way? Have we changed at all, and can we ever change? Why is America perpetually a hotbed of fear and terror...even in times of peace and prosperity?

As always, we found answers in context. In 1996, as Millennium commenced its freshman season on Fox, our nation prepared to send President Bill Clinton back to the White House for four more years. His first term had witnessed a Federal siege gone tragically awry in Waco, Texas, the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh, societal unrest following the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the gathering of intolerant forces on The Right, forces that were now unified for the first time in American history by one factor: an irrational, overwhelming hatred for Clinton, whom many considered morally corrupt: a philanderer and perhaps even a murderer.

Culturally, popular films including Silence of The Lambs (1991), Seven (1995) and Copycat (1995) focused squarely on the presence of serial killers -- insane, malevolent bogeymen - prowling America in virtual anonymity and freedom. On television, The X-Files sometimes cast its investigative gaze on society's monsters too, in episodes such as "Beyond the Sea" and "Unruhe," among others. Mainstream television "news" magazines, especially the sensational Dateline and 48 Hours seemed to feed America a never ending diet of serial killer "true" horror stories.

The ascent of the serial killer to a position of prominence in the American Imagination (in the American Reptilian Brain, really...) was the result of several important factors. First, there were high profile serial killers actually making news as the 1990s began. Jeffrey Dahmer (1968-1994) of Milwaukee murdered seventeen people and practiced, among other things, necrophilia and cannibalism. His heinous crimes captured the imagination of a fearful nation. As did those of Ted Bundy (1946-1989), a sociopath and serial killer executed by Florida state officials in 1989.

Almost as important as the crimes themselves, however, was the coverage given these terrible crimes by the expanding, ratings-seeking, mainstream media. The just-born 24-hours new cycle (a courtesy of Cable News Nets), made Dahmer's horror show in Milwaukee a nightmare for all Americans, no matter the region of the country (or even the considerable distance from the real life crimes). From Florida to Rhode Island, from Texas to Seattle, people were afraid of other monsters like Dahmer....ones bred in secret, just waiting to pounce. It wasn't merely cable news that fed this burgeoning fear, either. The Internet -- booming into the mainstream of 1990s life - provided predators a new "in" to the private lives of innocent Americans at the same time that they could remain secretive (and dishonest) about their true identities and perverse agendas.

But there were other factors too, that made the serial killer America's trademark ghoul during the 1990s. In particular, the ability of Americans to travel cheaply and easily cross-country after the 1970s resulted in a nation whose traditional roots became... scrambled. Due to the affordability of air flight and easy access to interstate highways, the communal hearth of old America -- the small town where everyone knew you, your parents and your grandparents -- was shattered, perhaps permanently. In its stead arose the suburbs, new, young communities in which neighbors had no shared history with other neighbors; in which virtual strangers lived across the street.

As it is so in all great horror (and indeed, all great art), Millennium reflected the culture in which it was built. The series selected as its central setting the new hunting fields of the serial killer: suburban America. And though it was (and remains...) tempting for blinkered critics to dismiss Millennium as simply "the serial killer of the week," it became evident on a close viewing of the series that there was something deeper -- something philosophical --happening in Chris Carter's new creation.

In particular, Frank's experiences with serial killers of various stripe served a distinctly didactic purpose: to tell us not so much about the monsters hiding beyond the white picket fences; but to share with audiences something about ourselves, about the world we've built. In the final analysis, Millennium is not about the monsters; it's about our response to the monsters.

This is who we are.

In "Wide Open," for instance, our protagonist Frank Black investigates the case of a serial killer who attacks families that have installed high-tech alarm systems in their fancy suburban homes. The alarm key-pad notes comfortingly (in telling close-ups) that the house is "All Secure," though that's plainly not the truth. While the homeowners are away, the killer enters the house lawfully (at a real estate open house). Then, he waits until the family returns home -- and alarmed-up -- to strike with brute force. The family never sees what's coming...the enemy within.

This killer, Frank informs us, is "teaching us a lesson about our pretensions to safety...about how vulnerable we are." Similarly, it is Millennium teaching the audience that very lesson: an alarm system keypad does not guarantee safety when you drop your guard, when you don't know who has been inside your home, when visitors or strangers enter and leave. Accordingly, by episode climax, an imperiled family is rescued by a more traditional style, old-fashioned "security system:" the family dog. The canine does away with the home invader, pitching him over a second story ledge and onto (and through...) a glass table in the foyer below.

The serial killer in "Wide Open" gives himself the name "John Allworth," a name that provides him a sense of value and importance in a society that does not value him. And, desiring his fifteen minutes of fame (like Dahmer achieved fame), Allworth utilizes other convenient technologies -- not just the alarm -- to get attention and make his point. He leaves messages for the police on their voice mails, and sends a videotape of the murders to the real estate agent showing the house/crime scene. At the same time he is teaching us a lesson, Allworth is becoming "famous." In no other previous decade could the killer utilize this m.o. (outsmarting the alarm systems) or connect with his victims (videotape) in this fashion. He is a creature of the technological nineties; of the suburban lifestyle.

Notably, one victimized family in "Wide Open" is named "Highsmith." Highest of all Smiths, In other words. The typical American family. The name Highsmith simultaneously indicates "importance" (high) and the quality of being "average" (Smith is a common name). This is Millennium's tactic, perhaps of telling us that any one of its viewers (even the Smiths; even us) could be the next victim of this particular criminal. The episode also features some subtle imagery that suggests the suburbs themselves bred this particular monster. There are messages of violence everywhere. One real estate company is advertised with the motto "Killer Views. Killer Prices." The camera lingers on this catchy motto a little too long to be a coincidence.

The serial killer's profession in "Wide Open" is another important factor in understanding the didactic purpose of Millennium. Allworth is a school crossing guard, one who is "helping children to safety" by his own definition. This line of dialogue serves as a direct contrast to the episode's opening quotation ("The children are far from safety. They shall be crushed at the gate without a rescuer.") Easy translation: the children are the future, and if they are killed or corrupted...all our tomorrows die with them. Allworth believes he is teaching the children a lesson when in fact he is perpetuating a cycle of violence (he was an abused child; and his crime spree has left a shattered orphan behind...one who may pick up his tricks in the years to come...). Or, as Frank notes, "tragedy begets itself."

Speaking of "gates," Frank Spotnitz's "Weeds" is another first season episode of Millennium that focuses squarely on a 1990s development and/or trend: the rise of the affluent gated community. Here, a deranged serial killer prowls a rich suburban development despite the presence of 24-hour private security; despite perimeter walls, despite a community watch group. We see images of the entrance gates closing, but what use are gates when the enemy is already within?

In "Weeds," a homegrown madman kidnaps the children of immoral homeowners and makes the children (again!) suffer for the sins of the father. Ghoulishly, the perpetrator makes the youngsters drink his blood because he considers himself a holy "purifier." Though acting far outside the bounds of the law, this killer successfully exposes to Frank (and to the audience...) the sick underside of affluent America. In every home dwells an adulterer, a fraud, a hit-and-run driver, or some other corrupted personality. Expensive homes and a private police force don't make up for or excuse sin.

One scene in "Weeds" is set inside a fancy home. Playing on the TV in the background is a clip from Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants (1968). This particular clips reveals a diverse group of people (of different color and sex) being physically trapped inside an oversized cage by a giant. It isn't hard to discern that the "cage" in "Weeds" is the affluent gated community itself, and the malevolent Giant the secret "sins" that keep residents in a state of perpetual fear, alienation, estrangement and self-loathing.

Another sequence, set at the community's conference center, makes the point about "strange" neighbors explicit. The episode cuts to close-ups of various residents as if to ask: who are you? What secret do you cloak? Just as these people don't know their neighbors, we don't recognize them as either friend or foe. Any one of them could be the killer....

The title "Weeds" explicitly suggests that something undesirable has sprouted up in suburbia, and the killer this time is a man driven by deep feelings of disillusionment. He hates the hypocrisy he sees all around him, and wants to root out sin. The view of the suburbs proffered by "Weeds" is absolutely merciless, then. Accordingly, when we see through the killer's eyes, we view all the residents of the community as old, decaying hags; their souls filthy and contaminated. Not to make too huge a leap, but this is also how many people saw Bill Clinton: as a sinner in the highest office of the land, contaminated by moral corruption. Never mind that those who led the charge against him were also adulterers and hypocrites (Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and Bob Livingston -- Republicans all -- had engaged in extra-marital affairs and held high office too).

In other episodes of Millennium's first season, Frank returned to the suburbs of America agin and again and found only more horror and immorality. He uncovered it in Ogden, Utah in "Covenant" while attempting to determine if a man -- a police officer -- had actually murdered his wife and children in cold blood. The man had lived by the motto (hung on a sign in his workshop) "If a man fails at home, he fails in life." And yet, as Frank learned...the man did fail at home. His wife was actually the murderer...driven to such horrible crimes by her husband's infidelity with another woman. Again, the sins of the father were passed to the children: who were killed for his trespasses.

Child molestation ("The Well Worn Lock") and domestic violence ("The Wild and the Innocent") also came home to the suburbs in various installments of Millennium's first, sterling season. It wasn't just the crime of the week as some asserted; it was the immorality of the week, and Millennium -- in strongly didactic terms -- provided suburban America a look in the mirror. Sometimes our new technologies bedeviled us (in the form of home alarm systems, or the Internet), sometimes new cultural trends (gated communities...) achieved the same end. But always it came down not merely to the predator in our midst; but the failures of our society that gave rise to the predator in the first place.

In Millennium, the enemy within was both the predator and his prey. "Blood Relatives" in sin, perhaps, to choose the title from another Millennium episode.

11 comments:

  1. Wow! You're making me want to rewatch Millenium. I haven't seen it since it first aired and it's been airing on Chiller.

    These episodes sound interesting.

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  2. Congratulations for such an amazing article John!

    You really managed to open my eyes to some qualities of episodes I considered average. (I guess that's why you're the critic and analyst and I'm just the fan).

    What I especially like about this aspect of Millennium is that it was always clear that even the hero can't stop it. No one man can save us alone, and it's as a society that we have to overcome our fear; isolation only makes it worst (as you brilliantly made explicit in your analysis of Weeds).

    One of my favorite moments from the pilot episode (how often does a television hero admits his powerlessness in the first episode):

    Frank: "Everyone pretends. We all make believe. These men I help catch... make us."

    Catherine: "We're raising a daughter, Frank. The real world starts to seep in. You can't stop it."

    Frank: "I want you to make believe that I can."

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  3. Sorry for the double comment, but I thought I'd ask since you seem to be going through Millennium again:

    Can we expect more article on this series?

    Thanks again,
    Laurent.

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  4. Thanks for the comments! Stay tuned for more Millennium-related pieces. This look at the "suburban" episodes is just the beginning.

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  5. Absolutely fantastic. A joy, as ever, to read your thoughts.

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  6. Thank you very much for your fantastic article!

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  7. One doesn't always like what they see in the mirror. Excellent article!

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  8. Fascinating John - excellent article. Look forward to your next one!

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  9. Dear John,
    I do hope you don't mind me commenting again but I wanted to inform you that there has been a wonderful response to your article from within the Millennium Fan Community. It has created some engaging discussion and elicited many words of praise. Thank you so much for giving we poor obsessed Millennium fans something enjoy after all these years in the abyss.

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  10. R S Wehman2:01 PM

    I watch "Millennium" over and over again. I see something differnt in each episode. Thank you for this article. It is very fascinating and enlightening. Kudos for a wonderful job. Keep the articles coming.
    One Millennium Fan
    RSWehman

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  11. Absolutely amazing article, I came to this after searching the web for all things 'Millennium' and was amazed to find that it is still deconstructed with such insight and profundity. Much of what you have written has caused me to 'double take' one of the finest shows ever envisioned. Whilst no one would seek to downplay the success of the X-Files Millennium is a body of work that Chris Carter, Glen Morgan and James Wong should be rightly proud of. Gnosticism, Alchemy, Psychology, Chaos Theory, Refraction, Social Commentary - has ever a show brought such a rich tapestry to its viewers? Bring us more of this, it is truly who we are!
    Bob

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