Friday, April 03, 2009

Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open: Animal Symbolism in Millennium's Second Season

During Millennium's (1996-1999) first season, haunted behavioral psychologist and criminal profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) faced a slew of bizarre, perverted and deadly serial killers.

In many important ways, these anti-social antagonists reflected aspects of this American life in the 1990s, whether it was the rise of affluent (and essentially segregated...) wealthy "gated" communities ("Weeds"), sexual dysfunction in the New Age of Viagra ("Loin Like a Hunting Flame"), or even a reckoning with new, widely-available technologies. "Wide Open, for instance," involved a serial killer evading high-tech home security systems. Many episodes of the Chris Carter series thus served as dramatic, controversial and valuable social commentary, with the serial killers serving as the very tool which enabled us to gaze in the mirror at the world we had created. I wrote an essay on this topic (Enemies Within) you can review here.

During the second season, Millennium shifted perspective, narrative focus, and tone in many dramatic ways. Some critics had complained that the show in its freshman incarnation was essentially "Serial Killer of the Week," though often these naysayers didn't stop to consider how the serial killers were being used to drive the program's sense of social awareness. Regardless, the resulting change of focus shepherded by producers James Wong and Glen Morgan led to a rather dramatic "opening up" of Frank's world; one that would change the very nature of both the Millennium Group (now rather definitively a cult, right down to secret code words...), and the bizarre threats/crimes Frank would be called upon to investigate.

Gazing back across the second season today, one can see how the series regularly deployed animals -- or animal symbolism -- to fill the didactic role previously held by the human serial killers, though serial killers did appear in some episodes such as "The Beginning and the End," and "Mikado."

Why animals? Perhaps because animals have been vital in the development of mythological systems throughout history, and across virtually every culture that ever existed. In Western societies of the Middle Ages, in particular, animals represented specific traits and could therefore be utilized as symbols to convey moral and religious lessons in works of art. Some examples: animals can represent victims of technology, industrialization or wars. Also, animals sometimes equate with the concept of "purity," existing in a wild, natural state and therefore utterly free of man's sins and vices. Some passion plays and other didactic forms of theater utilized animals to represent specific modes of behavior (human vices, again, for example.)

Considering Millennium's didactic qualities, it was only "natural" then that the drama would marshal animals and symbols of animals to help us understand in the 1990s "who we are."
This shift from serial killers to animal symbols was apparent almost immediately during Millennium's sophomore season, commencing with the second episode in the queue, "Beware of the Dog."

In this tale, Frank Black is ordered by the Millennium Group to visit the remote town of Bucksnort, an isolated burg where a couple of elderly vacationers have been murdered in a vicious animal attack. Upon arrival, Frank uncovers an entire town dreading sundown: the span in which a pack of wild dogs consistently emerge to terrorize the citizens.

What Frank soon discovers is that these dogs, in fact, "represent evil" and are overrunning the town of Bucksnort because the world -- leading up to the Millennium -- is losing its sense favor of Encroaching Evil. In the New Testament, the apostle Saint Andrew was once called upon to expel demons in the form of dogs from an imperiled city, and that's the role Frank explicitly takes on in this second season installment. Another obvious reference: hell hounds. In Celtic myth, hell hounds are believed to be the Devil's dogs, and similar canine beasts called "cadejo" also turn up in Central American and South American myth.

Also in "Beware the Dog," Frank first meets "The Old Man" (R.G. Armstrong), the Elder leader of the Millennium Group, a figure who warns him "you have no idea about Evil." Though that may be a bit of an exaggeration since Frank's been around the block with Evil quite a few times (he did battle Lucy Butler in "Lamentation"), it is nonetheless a line of dialogue that resonates throughout the remainder of the season. Indeed, Frank frequently finds himself countenancing different mythologies that concern the apocalypse or End of the World...implicitly about Evil. Already, "Beware of the Dog" harks back to The New Testament and Saint Andrew, and to those aforementioned devil dog legends.

Just two episodes later, in "A Single Blade of Grass," Frank again faces a myth of "End Times" and one explicitly connected to animals, or involving animal symbolism. Here, Frank travels to New York City to discover the identity of a corpse found on a construction site. Before long, he is enmeshed in a Native American ritual, one which is meant to forge a contact with the spirit world and spur an Indian version of the Apocalypse.

A sign that this apocalypse has begun in earnest is the return of an...animal; the buffalo, in particular. What the buffalo represents, in terms of abstract symbolism, is that which was "taken" by the white man's colonization of America: both the land and the wildlife. In the final scene of the episode, Frank escapes a ritual involving human sacrifice and -- on the streets of Manhattan -- sees several Buffalo miraculously running by just feet from him. The prophecy was true...the buffalo did return to their home, as the cult believed, but the sign did not mean what they hoped it would mean (an end to white man's dominion). Instead, the buffalo are quickly followed by clowns in a circus...a sign that belief in this legend is foolish, silly, or misplaced. Frank notes the irony, and wonders if the things we wish to come true will do so in the way we would like.

What else did the return of the buffalo represent? One might make the argument that the presence of buffalo in the technological jungle of the Big Apple is a sign -- like the dogs of Bucksnort -- of a word disordered, unbalanced. Of wild-life shattering or violating man's carefully-organized world. If we began to add up these bizarre animal occurrences, a pattern emerges, and we see it in the last episode of the year. But more on that below.

Later during the season, an episode entitled "The Hand of St. Sebastian" also explicitly trades in animal symbolism. The episode begins in 998 AD with a fledgling Millennium Group in Eastern Europe battling evil, divisive forces. One Millennium Group member is shot and killed in a bog.

A thousand years later, Peter Watts and Frank Black exhume his preserved corpse, and emblazoned on his back is a tattoo of the Millennium Group's symbol: the dragon or snake forever devouring its own tail. The Ouroboros. This Gnostic Symbol represents the ephemeral, self-devouring nature of our terrestrial, material existence...a direct contrast to a spiritual life.

More than that even, the Ouroboros represents a cycle, and going back to "Beware of The Dog," the Old Man tells Frank of the "divine life" (a spiritual existence), and about "cyclical systems" of "birth and death." Even before Ron Moore utilized the concept in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, we have an example in science-fiction television of the idea that "this has all happened before and it will all happen again."

This idea of the cycle, captured so beautifully by the snake-image of the Ouroboros is reinforced thematically in an important manner. How so? Well, "The Hand of St. Sebastian" make us privy to two Fin de siècle moments of identical nature, even though they are separated by centuries.

In 998 AD, Millennium Group members face betrayal from enemies within ("the snake in the grass" one says) and enemies outside ("the snake in the open"...the term utilized to describe the Catholic Church). This is the cycle that Peter and Frank unconsciously repeat -- down to identical dialogue -- in 1998 AD. Again, let me make the point: Peter Watts specifically makes note of the snake in the grass and the snake in the open. History repeats. The Millennium Group Members of 998 AD prevented the End of the World; and that's what Peter Watts claims to be doing a millennium later. The two men in the past are balanced with the two men in the present, and the Ouroboros ties them together, explaining that this is a cycle which will repeat forever and forever. Perhaps next in 2998.

One of the most important episodes in Millennium's second season is the two-part epic "Owls" and "Roosters," which depicts a growing schism inside The Millennium Group. Both of the warring factions -- as you can plainly see -- are named after...animals.

The "Owls" are a secular group; a faction of atheists/non-believers who are certain that a scientific, cosmic (meaning astronomical) apocalypse is coming in sixty years. The moniker "owls" is important because, traditionally, Owls represent Evil/Satan in Christian myth. They are associated with a lack of faith. Outside of Christian tradition, by contrast, Owls --- in Greek myth, for example -- represent something else entirely: wisdom, knowledge and scholarship (thus science, secularism). Also, as the episode points out, "Owls" are a symbol of night-time and sleep, which is critical since the "Owls" in the Millennium Group believe it is not yet the dawn of the apocalypse; that we are in a sixty year "night" until that dawn.

By contrast, the "Roosters" in the Millennium Group believe in a Christian, religious apocalypse that will arrive in 2000-2001. They believe it is already the Dawn of the End, and thus -- like "roosters" -- are crowing rather loudly about it. In Christian myth, roosters tend to represent prescience (advance knowledge), reliability, watchfulness and faith. They are also, in some circles, a sign of "spiritual resurrection," and that's an end that this group of devout believers want to "force," in some sense. In China, a red rooster is reputed to ward off flames or fire; while white roosters are known for chasing ghosts. Both of these ideas find resonance in Millennium. The Roosters inside the Millennium cult do indeed want to ward off the fires of the End Times; and, in some sense, we know they are chasing ghosts, since the world did not end at the turn of the century.

Finally, it is impossible to ignore that it is an animal that brings forth the apocalypse in Millennium's season ending two-parter "The Fourth Horseman"/"The Time is Near." The man-made plague called "The Marburg Variant" begins its reign of chickens. Again, not coincidentally, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are often linked with animals, at least according to visions in Ezekial. Given that the "End Times" begins with animal-bred disease on Millennium (a forecast of avian flu?) one can gaze across the breadth of Season Two -- from "Beware The Dog" to "A Single Blade of Grass," to "Hand of St. Sebastian" to "Owls" and "Roosters" -- as ominous forecasts, with the animal allusions as token indicators -- warning signs -- of the impending apocalypse.

I would be remiss, and not entirely truthful, if I failed to note that animal symbolism is merely one (important) facet of Millennium's complex second season narrative structure. Many episodes deal with other important issues of the day, ones highly relevant in the context of the 1990s. "Sense and Anti-Sense" looks fearfully at the Human Genome Project, which began in 1990 and issued a complete genome profile in 2003. "Monster" studies the troubling issue of false accusations of child-molestation, an idea going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was a bit of national hysteria around such accusations. One case in Washington State, circa 1994 had a child pointing the finger of abuse at forty three people -- including a pastor - all of whom were later proved innocent. Not that abuse doesn't occur and shouldn't be punished, only that in such cases one has to tread carefully. That point was made cleverly in "Monster" when Frank himself was accused of being a child abuser by a diabolical child sociopath.

I might note, too that "Monster" did include some rather specific animal imagery/myth: the day care teacher's recitation of a fable called "Henny Penny" (also known as "Chicken Little"), a story that involves hysterical cries that the "sky is falling."

The episode "Goodbye Charlie" involved the hot-button issue of Euthanasia, which Dr. Kevorkian had brought into prime-time with his assisted suicide; performed on an episode of 60 Minutes (November 22, 1998). "The Mikado" involved the new technology of the Internet becoming haven to a Zodiac-type serial killer called "Avatar." Even the incredible, deeply-affecting "Luminary" appeared based on a 1996 best-selling work of non-fiction called "Into the Wild" about a boy who gives up his material wealth for a simpler life in wild Alaska.

Yet, I would argue it is the animal symbols that are truly crucial to a deeper understanding of this season of Millennium in one important respect: the defining and explanation of the Group's nature. The "conspiracy" episodes of Millennium -- the ones involving the Group -- almost all involve animals of some variety. From the introduction of "The Old Man" in "Beware of Dog" to the Group's Civil War in "Owls"/"Roosters" to the fruition of the Group's secret agenda to force the end in "The Fourth Horseman"/"The Time is Now," animal mythology and symbols pervade the narrative.

Whether the animals are meant to reveal nature disordered, reveal human vice, or represent spiritual evil and eternal cycles, "when animals attack" on Millennium, they are -- like the serial killers that preceded them -- showing us who we are.


  1. Brilliant article once again John! Love reading your thoughts on Millennium. I was excited to learn that you were also a fan and it's great that you keep posting about the series!

    My favorite use of animal symbolism in the second season is Lara Means' link to horses. Their presence becoming ever stronger in the season (in episodes like Anamnesis) as she approaches mental breakdown; like the impending and inevitable arrival of the Fourth Horseman. Eventually, it is not a coincidence that she "totally flips out" in the Fourth Horseman episode (during a montage to Patti Smith's Horses).

    Anyway, I'm hoping that you'll also post your thoughts on Millennium's final season!

    Thanks again,

  2. A superb article as always John, an undoubted pleasure to read. It is no secret amongst followers of Millennium of my profound love of the symbolism and mysticism of the second season. The animal symbolism in particular holds so much fascination for myself. The pig motif first seen in The Judge (as a nod to the biblical Legion) is resurrected in The Beginning And The End, the references to Foxes found in A Single Blade of Grass, Owls and Roosters and many more are constant sources of enjoyment for me. It is a pleasure to see such a thorough examination of the use of animals throughout the season. As always, I look forward to what you bring us in the future and thank you, so much, for continuing to do so.

  3. An insightful and fascinating read! Thank you veyr much for sharing your thoughts on this aspect of the series. I look forward to reading more!

  4. I've been reading a lot of your reviews and studies on your page here since you were featured on

    A lovely read and full of insight, as well many of the TV/film reviews.

    It would be very cool to see a review of Tru Calling (even Quantum Leap for that matter), the complete series (plus those 6 episodes that were never broadcast on TV). Such a shame that show was canceled, it was getting really good and they really turned it upside down. Sort of like Quantum Leap, man I was furious when I saw that last title.

    Anyway, I have an idea for a BA essay about heroes, comparing and contrasting some of the really good guys like MacGyver of the early 90's and into the very gray area of Jack Bauer that we have today in 24.

    Could you guide me to the direction of some books that might help me getting some topics or some analytic books? I know of Joseph Cambell's A Hero with a Thousand Faces. I don't know, I'm just afraid of the page count of the essay and where to start and do I have enough material. I've been stalling with this essay for far too long now.

    Any help would be appreciated. If you can't help or have time, I understand.

    I'll keep on reading your stuff.

    Cheers from Iceland!
    - Jósef