Wednesday, September 15, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #119: Millennium: "Seven and One" (1999)

The future in full flower.
"Evil dwells where fear lives.  In a heart without fear, Evil can find no purchase. 

God, love, goodness...these things reside in our connections with other people... is those who feel the strongest that Evil wants the most."

- from "Seven and One," by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz.

There are a few programs and films I absolutely refuse to watch when I'm at home alone.  The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978)...and select episodes of Millennium. 

Or to paraphrase Lance Henriksen's android Bishop in Aliens, I may be an atheist...but I'm not stupid.

Why do I find Millennium (1996-1999) so disturbing?  Well, occasionally Chris Carter's second series achieves a level of deep, unrelenting spiritual terror.  That terror is not necessarily due to the egregious presence of a drooling demon or an insane serial killer.  Instead that sense of evil -- of wrongness-- is somehow amorphous, yet suffusing.  It casts this doom-laden shadow over the entire enterprise.  It's a cerebral, existential terror...and it has an inescapable feel.

In my interview with Chris Carter last December, I termed this unsettling brand of horror (which was also featured in The X-Files...) as something like anticipatory anxiety.  It was a mood of looming paranoia; it was a feeling of intense uncertainty about our shared future.

Frank Black senses the presence of Evil close to home.
This unsettled vibe was partially a result of events in the narrative on any given week, but with Millennium, sometimes you can't necessarily point to any clear or comprehensible source of the feeling -- of the fear -- if that makes sense. 

In other words, evil things are clearly occurring, but you don't always understand exactly what, who is doing it, or precisely why. Clarity eludes you...and your imagination starts to fill in the black spots.

This paradigm was especially evident in Millennium's final season, 1998-1999 on Fox.   As Millennium moved towards its inconclusive last hour -- and crept up towards Y2K -- the storytelling grew creepier and yet -- at the same time -- more deliciously opaque. 

Stories such as "Bardo Thodol," "Saturn Dreaming of Mercury" and this week's cult-tv flashback, "Seven and One" were utterly bizarre, ambiguous...and unnerving.  All these episodes are laden with potent symbolism and require some amount of deciphering; of interpretation.  They are mysteries wrapped in enigmas...just the way an active, engaged viewer might prefer.

Birthday cakes and butcher knives.
"Seven and One" -- written by the team of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz -- opens immediately with that sense of amorphous anxiety, and with a surfeit of symbols. 

It is young Jordan Black's (Brittany Tiplady) eighth birthday, which should be a joyous occasion.   

But, as is so often the case in Millennium, peaceful domesticity is violated by an unexpected invasion, a home invasion often.

Here, director Peter Markle shoots the little girl's birthday party in a manner roughly akin to Benjamin Braddock's graduation party in The Graduate (1967) -- it's almost a first-person point-of-view assault on the senses.  We're down on kid's eye level, surrounded by dancing children, and it's a little weird; a little off. 

Very shortly, another disturbing image occurs: Jordan's grandfather gleefully cuts the birthday cake with a very large butcher knife.  This is a foreshadowing that something is amiss, a hint of dangers to come. 

Finally, Frank Black -- the incomparable Henriksen -- senses something is wrong in paradise, and the clock on the wall literally stops ticking (in an expressive shot highly reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2). 

The doorbell rings, and the heretofore unseen (but already felt) Evil finally arrives.  Someone has sent Frank creepy polaroid photographs; photographs that reveal Frank drowned in his own bath tub.

Polaroid prophecy.

The F.B.I. investigates the polaroids, led by Frank's partner, Emma Hollis (Klea Scott). 

A profiler, Boxer (Dean Norris) begins to live up to his name, subsequently "boxing in" Frank, and arriving at the conclusion that Frank himself is the culprit behind the photographs;  that he is experiencing "the beginnings of a breakdown." 

Though he can't prove it, Frank understands something else is occurring.  Someone is attempting to terrify him using personal fears only he knows about.  Specifically, Frank has long held a fear of drowning, following a childhood incident at a swimming hole (recounted in  glorious silver-and-black, night-time flashbacks.)  It is a terror that Frank simply can't get past, as he unhappily acknowledges to Emma.

Meanwhile, the shadowy, violent figure behind the polaroids escalates his criminal activities.  He murders Frank's psychiatrist, further framing Frank by utilizing the same butcher knife we saw deployed at Jordan's party.  And the killer also buries Emma alive (her worst fear, we are led to understand...), though Frank rescues her.

Finally -- alone in his house -- Frank confronts his fear of drowing as his locked bathroom floods and escape proves impossible.  Sinking deep beneath the surface of the roiling water, Frank finally "comes out the other side" of his fear, so-to-speak, and accepts his own mortality.  He experiences a vision in which his life (with Catherine and Jordan flashes )before his eyes.  He sees flickering candles in the dream too -- a symbolic lamp-post; a light in the darkness.

In extreme high angle, Frank faces his fear of drowning.

At this point, the bathroom door suddenly opens, and Frank escapes, the flood gates literally having been opened (another canny symbol; the dam of Frank's emotions and fears finally shattering...).  

The tidal wave of water also represents the flood gates of understanding opening up. 

Having moved past his own personal sense of fear, Frank insightfully ties his experience here  -- confronting his terror at drowning -- with a Millennial Prophecy about seven  plus one equaling not just 8, but the year 1999 (and also Jordan's age in 1999; at her birthday party)...the so-called last year of peace before the onset of millennial catastrophe.

The episode concludes with a voiceover from Frank, as he holds a terrorized Emma Hollis (who has seen her own doppelganger apparently commit suicide...).   In that voice-over, Frank concludes that if he does see into the darkness, it is because there is also light there; and that the light can guide him. 

Furthermore, Black notes that the world seems to be in for a spell of trials and tribulations the likes of which it has not encountered before.  He doesn't know how right he is, at least if we go by real life.  The peace and prosperity of the 1990s was coming to an end indeed as the millennium changed, and since 2000 (and the U.S.S. Cole bombing, perhaps), the world has seen a decade of war, torture, and natural disasters (tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes of terrible proportions).

Of course, writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz could not have known this would be the path of the decade, but they adroitly plug into this communal fear of the future.  And in retrospect, it's surprising (and a little bit freaky...) how this and other millennial-type prophecies featured on the series often ring true, at least after a fashion.

But on the surface,  "Seven and One" is a baffling, mysterious and opaque installment of Millennium.  An unknown, possibly demonic, shape-shifting villain frames Frank for murder, attempts to drive him from the F.B.I, shape-shifts into Boxer and Hollis, threatens Frank and Jordan, and then, after apparently committing suicide in the form of Hollis, disappears into thin air. 

Very briefly, the episode reveals this Loki-type character as Mabius (Bob Wilde), the assassin we have seen before, in the employ of the shadowy Millennium Group.

The flood gates of water -- and understanding -- are opened.

But Mabius is never seen by the dramatis personae for who he really is (or if they do...they die, as in the case of the psychiatrist).  Furthermore, the Millennium Group is never even mentioned by name at all. 

The episode thus expects intelligence and puzzle-solving capability from the audience, and we are left to ponder a big question. 

Is the Millennium Group trying to drive Frank Black insane -- separating him from the F.B.I. -- so as to prepare him for his role in their diabolical turn-of-the-century plot? (As seen in the X-Files episode Millennium, Frank was being groomed for suicide...and zombie resurrection, right?)

Or contrarily, is the Millennium Group helping Frank -- albeit in extremely bloody fashion -- to move past his personal fear so that he can see the terror of the millennium without such fear when it finally  arrives?  This seems to fit the pattern.  In the past, the Millennium Group has also attempted to "innoculate" Frank from a contagion; though in that case it was viral, not one based in the emotion of fear.

Again, this is all speculative material that must be sussed out from the action that occurs on screen.  Carter and Spotnitz spoon-feed the audience almost nothing.  They expect us to keep up.

Thus, the best way to understand what occurs in "Seven in One" is to understand and track the highly-cinematic visuals.

First, we have the butcher knife -- the murder weapon -- cutting into the future (as represented by a child's birthday cake).  In horror films and programs, children always represent tomorrow/the future, and that's what is being explicitly imperiled here. 

Then we have the idea that Frank is "drowning," literally, without Catherine....without human connection.  He has lost his wife and his yellow house, and is teetering on the breaking point.  As he tells his psychiatrist in a session (seen on video in "Seven and One,") he isn't sure he wants to get better "this time."  Life for Frank Black has turned fearful and frightening because he feels alone.

Frank confronts his fear, and experiences the happy vision of his life -- of the good things (as initiated by the imagery of a red flower in boom; see top of post).   He sees the light (the flickering candles...) too. 

Ending on Connectedness.
Frank recognizes Catherine, Jordan and his yellow house, and comes through the fear at last.  

Then the floodgates of understanding (the flood in the bathroom) are opened, literally, and understanding comes to Frank. 

He knows he will be a warrior in the darkness against the grave and gathering threats of the rapidly-approaching 21st century.

Finally, Frank understands that to be that warrior, he must follow the advice of the Catholic priest at Catherine's parish at St. Timothy's...he must not run away from his fears and separate himself from humanity (which is what Boxer recommends), he must seek humanity out; gain strength from those bonds. 

The episode ends on the explicit visual of Frank doing just that with his young apprentice of sorts, Emma Hollis.

I might add, this "connectedness" to the world seems to be the great challenge of the archetypal Chris Carter male, so far as The X-Files and Millennium are concerned.  Both Mulder and Frank Black are extremely intelligent men who go to great lengths to help others; but always seem to refuse help themselves, even from their loved ones.  They demand emotional clarity from others, but themselves are emotionally remote; distant.

"Seven and One" is an authentically creepy episode of Millennium, an installment about the (changing) shape of fears yet to come; yet known.  Since anticipatory anxiety is hard if not to impossible to feature or embody as a character, I submit that "Seven and One" captures the vibe of the upcoming Millennial "doomsday" with all effective symbolism, a cerebral, cinematic intimation of indescribable Evil.  I don't know that Millennium could always operate on this highly visual, highly symbolic level, but I appreciate this episode for dwelling at that apex with so much audacity, confidence and mystery.

What's even more terrifying than "Seven and One," perhaps, is the downward spiral of the series' last few episodes.  Emma Hollis -- Frank's apprentice and true friend -- allies herself to the Millennium Group, leaving him very much alone in his battle against the darkness. 

And, finally, betrayed, Frank does have to run away.  Staying connected to the dangerous world is not a viable option when he learns of the Millennium Group's plans for his daughter.  He takes Jordan out of school, grabs her hand...and flees.

The darkness has won, at least for the moment.  But we have not yet seen the last stand of Frank Black.


  1. I loved Millennium. I know what you're saying about the unsettling feeling too. I had that same feeling watching Carnivàle.

  2. Wow, what an in depth look at this very underrated episode. In fact, I will say that Season 3 is completely underrated. I remember I had to watch Seven and One a couple of times to kind of get the idea of what the episode was about. Even today, when I watch it, there are still things I find that I missed before. Such a deep and intricate episode. Great review John!

  3. Interesting analysis. Been a while since I've watched this episode, so some of my next points might be rather erroneous. From my point of view, and just as subjective, I always saw Mabius as an infiltrator of the Group; that what we saw here was Evil's attempt to either embrace or destroy Frank.

    In my head, I always wondered if the Group's attempt to create prophecy in The Time Is Now had left themselves open to Evil and that Evil was now among them, working for them and against them and on its own, as Evil in Millennium does.

    For me, The Time Is Now, neatly explains why the Group changes so radically in season 3, as a new "Order" rises from the ideological terror it committed.. and I've always wondered if Evil within the Group could have equally caused it to implode between Season 3 and "Millennium" (or whether Frank had a part in that - he seemed to know the Group pretty intimately in "Millennium").

    Interesting stuff - particularly how I've always been inclined to see Mabius as acting on his own, and you see him as perhaps part of a more orchestrated effort. Two very different angles. I wonder how Season 4 would have taken the Mabius arc..

  4. Great stuff John. I'm sorry I don't have much to offer here as I haven't seen the series.

    I'm awfully excited to do so and after reading this I truly look forward to a Lance immersion.

    I'm currently watching Star TRek: TNG Season One straight through and not overly impressed. I know it gets better.

    Can't wait for Millennium though and you offer yet another reason why. Re: first comment- Carnivale is also on my list.

  5. Wow, now I really do understand this episode much better but the silly error of having Frank's brother dying, rather than a childhood friend (which would have worked as well if not better). Now, Frank only had one brother. And his father never got himself another wife, that's how I see it when I watch Midnight of the Century. This continuity snafu does hurt the episode a little.

    But when talking about the X-Files episode Millennium, I never really saw it as the Millennium Group doing all that. I took it more of a small group of men who just snapped, not unlike Lara Means, and by a freak accident those Millennium Group members did rose from the dead. The Millennium Group was in hiding, there were no signs of them, so why should we think this was their last hand?

    Thanks for the blog, been enjoying many posts since I discovered this blog.

    Cheers from Iceland!
    - Jósef

  6. Hey JKM (plug phrase full of praise here)

    Great review. Unlike TL, I have issues with Season 3 BUT I'm always down for looking at things from different points of view so I will gives this episode another view with your analysis in mind.

    You captured the Chris Carter mythology perfectly: the 'idea' of terror is so much more powerful then terror itself. Jump scares make you flinch but the effect wears off after a few seconds whereas the ANTICIPATION of the jump scare (or the lack there of) is what causes the fear. Same with atmosphere. . .sometimes it's what's BEHIND the corner rather then what's in front of you. Perfect example: Signs. Great movie UNTIL the retarded alien shows up and kills the entire atmosphere of the picture.

    My favorite issue in Millennium, and you mentioned it here, is the testing of Frank's psyche. The second and third seasons really put him in a psychological inferno.

    Great article (as always).

  7. Hi everyone, some really great comments here! Thank you all so much for writing in to share your thoughts on Millennium.

    TS Hendrik: I loved Carnivale too; and you're right about it having a similar dark vibe -- a feeling of palpable but amorphous evil. I really need to watch that show again.

    TL: I totally agree with you that the third season is underrated. I never understood the seemingly wide-spread hostility towards it, frankly. I wanted to write about the third season because I have written on the subject of the first two seasons before, and felt that "The time is now," to coin a phrase.

    James: You know, your comment gets my imagination fired up. I never guessed that Mabius may have infiltrated the group; or was working against the group to subvert it. But this is a fascinating, valid idea; and another facet of the show's deep ambiguity to consider. Excellent!
    That would make sense...that after "The Time Is Now" evil has found purchase in the Millennium Group. Very, very cool.

    I also agree with you that "Seven and One" is about Evil's attempt to get to Frank; to either co-opt him or destroy him.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: I think you'll love Millennium; great show, filled with wonderfully ambiguous and imaginative tales. TNG Season One is tough going, so I don't envy you that marathon. Did you finish Farscape? I have all four seasons of Farscape coming down the pike soon...

    Josef: Thank you for the kind words about the blog...I'm glad you're enjoying it; and it's a pleasure to have you here. I think you also make valid points...the Group could have been co-opted by a small faction in the X-Files episode. I agree with you that we have not seen the last stand of the Millennium Group (isn't the 2060s the time of the cosmic even that's supposed to shatter the Earth, or something?)

    I thought it was the bully, the guy who attempted to drown Frank, who died in "Seven and One," not Frank's brother. I may be wrong, but that's how interpreted it. Need to check it out!

    Will, I loved your comment, particularly your razor-sharp analysis of the Chris Carter mystique:

    "...the 'idea' of terror is so much more powerful then terror itself. Jump scares make you flinch but the effect wears off after a few seconds whereas the ANTICIPATION of the jump scare (or the lack there of) is what causes the fear. Same with atmosphere. . .sometimes it's what's BEHIND the corner rather then what's in front of you..."

    I love that; and I love how Chris Carter gets it (and Frank Spotnitz too -- that guy can really, really write a horror show; that's for sure...).

    And you must be a mind-reader today too. Later this week, I'm offering up what I hope will be a rehabilitation for Signs, I film I like, and which -- yep -- has a weak ending (but which I would argue doesn't destroy all the rest of the film's good work...).

    Thank you all so much for so many great comments!


  8. Also, Frank is older than his brother. And here is his brother helping Frank.

  9. I want to share with you a little something.

    What would happen if you took MacGyver and Millennium?

    Check this link and find out:

    Cheers from Iceland!
    - Jósef