Thursday, October 04, 2012

Underrated but Great #3: Millennium Season Three (1998 - 1999)


While generally acknowledged as a brilliant and forward-thinking TV series, Chris Carter’s Millennium (1996 – 1999) suffers from the same malady as the original Star Trek.  There is a wide disagreement among fans about the quality and direction of the series’ third and final season.

The first season and second season of Millennium are each widely (and rightly) championed, though they feature vastly different visions of Frank Black’s world.

But the third season fails to win much love, even though it attempts a fusion of the two earlier formats.  I have never fully understood this lack of appreciation for the final batch of episodes, especially since the producers were faced with the difficult task of bringing the series back from the precipice of apocalypse after the second season cliffhanger. 

Essentially, they had to re-boot the world of criminal profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) to accommodate for the  many world-shattering changes of “The Fourth Horseman,”/”The Time is Now.” 

These changes included the death of Frank’s wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher), and the knowledge that the Millennium Group had unloosed a plague upon America, or more specifically, the Pacific-Northwest.

In crafting the third season, producers and writers returned Frank Black to the FBI in Virginia, thus moving away from the series’ familiar Seattle setting and yellow house (now Paradise Lost). 

There, on the East Coast, the producers and writers gave Frank a young partner whom Frank could mentor, agent Emma Hollis (Klea Scott).  I have always believed that Emma worked remarkably well as a central character because she clarified and reinforced the “Frank Black as Father figure” aspect of the series.  

Emma was someone Frank could teach and care for, and that paradigm worked well, since it gave Frank room and space to explain his beliefs and philosophies without his monologues seeming like dull exposition. 

When Emma’s biological father came into the mix, and she had to choose which “father” to honor, the series reached an emotional apotheosis of sorts.  That moral crucible -- in which Emma had to make an unenviable selection -- also demonstrated beautifully the cunning of The Millennium Group.  It would always attack where a prospective member or enemy was weakest. 

The season-long idea of Frank as Father Figure also tied into the final episode’s discussion that “we are all shepherds.”  A father of course, is very much a shepherd, and in Millennium we see that Frank actually has two daughters to shepherd to the light.  One -- Jordan -- looks like she’ll make it.  Emma, however is, in the end, consumed by darkness.  (Though I always believed and hoped that once Frank got Jordan safe, he would return for Emma and help her…)

The other big shift in approach during Millennium’s third season involved the shadowy Millennium Group.  I have seen how some fans quibble with the idea that the Group is out-and-out villainous.  But as I often point out, there was plainly no other way to play the third season, given the specifics of the second season finale. 

Furthermore, the decision to feature the Group as the villain makes sense in terms of a series story arc.

The overall arc of the series sees Frank learning more and more about the Group, from first season to third.  The first season is about a romance of sort between the Group and Frank, as he considers membership.  He thus sees only the “good things” the Group wishes him to see.

In the second season, as Frank’s orbit brings him closer to membership, he starts questioning motives and means, and begins to feel that the Group is manipulative and hiding important information. By the end of the second season, Frank sees the Group as a dark force trying to “force the end” for its own agenda.

So let’s face facts: if an organization engineers and releases a plague on American citizens, it’s tough to walk that action back. 

The third season follows that arc or through-line, with Frank acting accordingly on the information he possesses about the Group.

Some aficionados have viewed this shift to villainy as an insult to the Millennium Group’s real life inspiration: the Academy Group. But again, it is pretty clear that by the second season, the fictional Millennium Group of the TV series had taken off on its own path, and no longer owed its identity to any real life group or agency.  
I mean, are we to assume the Academy Group was run by an “Old Man” and populated by doomsday scholars – “Roosters” and “Owls” – who differed on the exact date of “The End?”

Again, it is crucially important to note that the shift in the portrayal of the Millennium Group started some time in Season Two.  So to curse Season three for legitimately following up on that storyline seems silly and downright inaccurate.

And since Frank’s wife, Catherine (Meghan Gallagher) died because of the Millennium Group’s release of the deadly plague I can’t honestly see how the series would have worked in any other way but to feature the Millennium Group as the primary villain.

How else could Frank have reacted, but to launch a crusade against the Group?  Any other response, especially forgiveness, would have certainly been untrue to Frank’s character at that juncture, and dishonored his relationship with Catherine.  The Millennium Group cost him his family, and cost his child her mother.  There was no way he was going to make nice with it, or return to the fold.

In terms of specific stories, the third season catalog blends season one and season two style stories, with a mix of naturalistic real-life-style serial killer/crime stories (“Closure,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Darwin’s Eye,” and  “Nostalgia,”) and the more horror/fantasy-oriented fare like “Borrowed Time,” “Antipas” and the creepy-as-hell “Saturn Dreaming of Mercury.”  Those latter titles feel more like second season offerings to me, on the order of something like “Beware of Dog” or “Monster.”

In considering the catalog, it seems plain that Season Three of Millennium attempts to assimilate what was best about both Season One and Season Two, and fit those approaches together.  In my estimation, more often than not, the alchemy worked.

Some folks have also complained about Millennium Season Three that it ages Frank Black, side-lines him, and at times even makes him look insane.  On the surface, this argument is no doubt true, but if the new dynamic was to be Frank Black vs. The Millennium Group, then the villain had be strong, and represent a serious threat to Frank, his family, and his professional standing.  The Group was trying to knock Frank further from his stride, and sometimes it succeeded.

Again, it’s difficult to argue what Millennium Season Three could have done much differently here, besides sending Frank on a sometimes frustrating, sometimes maddening crusade to bring his wife’s killers to justice.  The problem, structurally speaking, was that the series would end once he got the Group so that meant there could never be any definitive “wins” for Frank. 

And yet, that idea of an ongoing, multi-faceted fight reflects reality and shades of gray.  Victories are few and far between, and life has a way of undercutting them with new problems and conflicts.

When I judge Millennium’s third season positively, I think first and foremost of the following five episodes:

1.“Teotwawki” by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz and directed by Thomas J. Wright. 

Millennium was always at its very best when tapping into the roiling Zeitgeist of the 1990s.  The (then) upcoming Y2K or “Millennium Bug” problem provided the series with a perfect, real-life doomsday scenario to explore. 

“Teotwawki” (or The End of the World as We Know It) seemed to tie the 1990s school shooting epidemic (pre-Columbine) with the Y2K Bug, and then postulate a youth generation that had lost hope for a better future. 

Today, we know that the Millennium Bug was a dud, but in October of 1998 when the episode initially aired “Teotwawki” benefited from a sense of creepy inevitability and realism.  In other words, we were on a countdown already to this “Doomsday Scenario” -- and knew when it would occur -- but we didn’t know how it would turn out.  “Teotwawki” asks what might happen to kids living in that scenario of “advanced knowledge of the end,” when disaster is speeding at them -- and our modern technological society too -- like a runaway freight train. It’s a powerful hour.

2. “Skull and Bones” by Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton, and directed by Paul Shapiro.  

This third season episode offers two absolutely irresistible mysteries.  The first involves a Millennium Group “killing fields,” in case you ever wondered where all the bodies are buried.  The second involves a seer named Ed (played by Arye Gross) who has, over the years, accumulated notebooks filled with detailed notes about the Millennium Group’s every move. 

I fully realize the world of Millennium is fictional, and yet this episode adds much to the series mythology, and makes it all feel frighteningly real. When I first watched this episode, I wanted more than anything to pour through Ed’s journals.   The promise of discovering “secret history” is alluring. But beyond that notion, this episode is powerful because it makes us wonder if Frank is destined, like Ed, to lose his mind and spend his days alone, isolated, and broken…while the Millennium Group continues to bury its enemies in unmarked mass graves.

I admire “Skull and Bones” because it suggests that the Group has had an unofficial chronicler, one who has seen and understood everything.  And in many ways, the third season of the series very much concerns this notion (and curse) of seers, from the remote visionaries of “The Innocents”/”Exegesis” to the creepy (supernatural) severed eyes of “Saturn Dreaming of Mercury,” to the insanity of the percipient in “Darwin’s Eye.”  Do we put Frank in this category of “seer?”  And if we do, what does that mean for his future?

3. “Seven in One” by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, and directed by Peter Markle. 

This episode came near the end of the series and we finally get some clues about the Millennium Group’s end game: its effort to drive Frank irretrievably to the brink of sanity.  This episode is rife with symbolic imagery but offers no clear answers in the text itself. The episode is electric with anticipatory anxiety and a mood of looming paranoia.  If the episode is to be understood successfully, one must literally dissect the assort images, from birthday cakes, butcher knives and a flower in bloom, to the climactic flood which “washes over” Frank and bring him new knowledge.  You can read my full review of the episode here.

2. “Bardo Thodol.”  Written by Virginia Stock and Chip Johannessen, and directed by Thomas J. Wright. 

This multi-layered tale, I believe, visually and thematically encodes an important way of interpreting or “seeing” Millennium.  You can read more about my specific theory regarding this episode and its importance to the overall canon by purchasing the just released Back to Frank Black book.  

I spell it all out there, but suffice it to say that this episode -- for all its delicious opacity -- is a critical one in analyzing the series’ big picture.  On the surface, the episode concerns strange science, but beneath that narrative there is a thematic obsession with the Tibetan Book of the Dead that reveals something critical about Frank’s journey and how, as viewers, can experience it.

1.”The Sound of Snow” by Patrick Harbinson and directed by Paul Shapiro. 

This installment is another opaque, hard-to-interpret installment, but one that proves highly-rewarding.  A mysterious sender is delivering static-filled audio tapes to victims.  These unusual tapes induce hallucinations in listeners and ultimately lead to death.  Frank receives one such tape and finds himself reliving the outbreak near Seattle, and having a last encounter with his wife Catherine.

Again, this is a pivotal episode of Millennium because it represents the point in season three wherein Frank can purge his feelings of guilt, and finally put the past behind him.  It’s a haunting, deeply-affecting hour, and my personal favorite from the third year.

Other episodes in the catalog deserve an “honorable mention too, from the post-modern “Thirteen Years Later” to “Matryoshka.” 

If the former episode is a meta-analysis of slasher films and celebration of all-things horror, then the latter is certainly an expression of deep fear and anxiety over the Human Genome Project, which the episode specifically compares to atom bomb testing in 1945.  Nuclear science and genetic science are both parsed as Pandora’s Box, here, and both involve the idea of playing God.

So far as I can see, the only genuinely sub-par episode of Millennium’s final season, is “Human Essence,” a story about drugs and human/animal chimeras that fails to gel, and which places Millennium and The X-Files in separate worlds, since The X-Files is seen playing on television during one scene.

When I re-watch Millennium’s third season, I  reflect that the final batch of episodes, from “The Sound of Snow” to “Goodbye to All That…” descends into a creepy ambiguity that, while confounding for lack of answers, significantly deepens the story-line, and rewards multiple viewings.  There is so much imagination and artistry in these shows it’s a shame that more fans don’t try to engage with them on their own terms. 

Some viewers may dismiss these episodes as falling into baffling, David Lynchian, Twin Peaks territory, but, I would assert that Millennium in its final chapter lives up to its potential as described perfectly by X-Pose Magazine in June of 1999:

Millennium has at least become a clear artistic success, making sense out of an often chaotic, disturbing world with consummate intelligence and powerful emotions.”

Yep. That about says it all.

Don’t forget to order the new Back to Frank Black book from Fourth Horseman Press, which celebrates the wonderful world of Chris Carter’s Millennium.


5 comments:

  1. John,

    I couldn't agree with you more. Season 3 happens to be my favorite season of Millennium, very underrated as you point out. I too enjoyed the relationship between Frank and Emma. Some fans complained that it reminded them too much of Mulder and Scully, but there dynamic was completely different than the one between Emma and Frank.

    Also, the Millennium Group had no course to take in the third season but become the evil group. That was long planted in middle part of season 2 and at the end. Where else would they have gone with the group?

    I agree as well that the writers were backed into a corner when they came back for season 3 after the ending of season 2. I think once the season hit its stride, it was fantastic television.

    Thanks for pointing out that Season 3 is fantastic television and will always be my favorite season.

    Oh and thanks for the book plug!!

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  2. Great, great spotlight on a season I, too, love. Especially for Klea Scott teaming with our Frank Black (Lance). I think each of the seasons went in directions you, as a viewer, couldn't anticipate (whether there was a plan or scheme that ultimately painted the producers into a corner or not). It's the results that came across on the screen which mattered. It's too bad this was the final set of episodes for these two actors in MILLENNIUM -- one for Lance's stellar work he accomplished and the potential Klea could have brought to the series. Thanks, John.

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  3. Another great inclusion in this enjoyable series, John—naturally!—and a very worthy addition it is, too. I agree with pretty much everything you have written here, including citing "The Sound of Snow" as a high point in Millennium's third year.

    That's a tantalising teaser to your third essay in "Back to Frank Black", and I will go further by saying that another thread to this article—that of the narrative direction taken with the Millennium Group—is explored in great depth in the volume, including some insights from the very creative minds that were shaping Millennium's third year. I will say no more—everyone will have to read the book!—but it's a fascinating subject, and "Back to Frank Black" contains some content that complements and expounds further upon some of what you have said here.

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  4. Great stuff! Though definitely having a preference for season one (see Lamentation and Maranatha for how to play the idea of supernatural evil) I too am a fan of the third season. My only big quibbles, Human Essence aside yeccch, are how they wrote their way out of the plague and the incredibly atmospheric Skull and Bones with such heavy handedness. Side o' the road machine gun slaughter and a medieval torture chamber? At least in season two the Group had a smug air, though I guess if you think the end time's around the corner, a few marbles are bound to roll out. But what do I know, I actually like Omerta, heh.

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  5. John,

    Well structured and notated assessment of the approach to Season Three. I agree with you:

    A. The Millennium Group as villain was the right way to go as much as we hated seeing Peter become an enemy. I have no quibbles with the approach to Season Three as far as substance.

    B. The alchemy worked more often than not and I think that is entirely fair to say. It was simply that the fusion made for something different from those first two seasons. I think it's noticable but I also think any good series needs to change.

    You make a great point about context regarding the time this series aired and the power of it during that period. So true. Fortunately, the material is still quite striking and surprisingly, the writers did a nice job of presenting the material in such a way as to avoid becoming dated. No small trick for a series called and happening at the dawen of the new Millennium.

    And boy so many terrific visual moments awash in beautiful cinematography throughout the series. That flood was something in Seven In One.

    Finally, I'm a big fan of the "haunting" The Sound Of Snow. What a powerful piece of television. As I reflected in my post recently, those final episodes are amongh the best to be sure.

    Season Three ultimately is as good as Season Three's come! Ultimately, as you note, these episodes are left to considerable interpretation, analysis or reflection and they do remain rewarding when tiem is taken for additional viewing. Perhaps that is why all three seasons work so beautifully in their own right. The rewards are plenty in each. Together, they really do present new viewers with an opportunity to really immerse themselves in a splendid series with a fantastically imaginative story and mythology. This is terrific art.

    All the best
    gordon

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