“For the thing I greatly feared has come upon me. And what I dreaded has happened to me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet. I have no rest, for trouble comes.”
While young Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) is plagued by nightmares of an evil clown, Frank (Lance Henriksen) embarks on a new case in Portland.
Specifically, he investigates a serial killer who leaves messages for the police in strange places (including a victim’s hair follicle), so as to prove his superiority over the authorities.
While Frank attempts a profile, he also works with another detective, Jim Horn (James Morrison), whom the Millennium Group is considering for admission. Horn is undergoing a marital separation, and is filled with rage.
That rage, unfortunately, threatens Frank’s case.
“Dead Letters,” an early episode of Millennium (1996-1999’s) first season, is another story in which an investigation actually provides a lesson, or an insight for Frank Black.
Usually, the serial killers and their mode of operation cause Frank to reflect on some aspect of his life, or American society. Here, Frank meets someone that, but for the Grace of God, could be him.
That person is detective Jim Horn, a man who is undergoing a marital separation from his wife, and has a two-year old boy, T.C. Jim is a mirror for Frank. Ominously, Frank actually says in this episode “I’ve never been separated,” but that’s actually precisely what occurs in the second season. And like Horn here, Frank has a young child whom he loves more than life itself.
James and Frank work on the case of the Portland serial killer together, but it is an uneasy partnership. This awkwardness is demonstrated in a scene that could be described basically as a profiler pissing contest. Frank explains his view of the killer, (a man who has never been married or had sex), and then Horn offers his own competing version. He sees a killer who has a terrible rage towards women.
But importantly, Horn is actually imposing his own feelings on the profile he creates.
What Frank realizes in "Dead Letters" is that where he tries to empathize with the killer, and imagine what goes on in the killer’s head. Horn merely projects his own emotional state onto the violent criminal. In other words, it is Horn who feels the rage towards women; particularly his wife. He has unresolved feelings about her, because of their marital problems.
Frank suggests to Horn that he should take a “step back,” but Horn can’t. “As a father,” he tells Frank, “I risk adding nothing” to T.C.’s life. Jim feels his fatherhood of the boy is like the “dead letters” of the title: a dead end. Dead letters have no home, and no destination. They ultimately don't connect with the readers/people that they should. The killer in the episode is someone who wants to remain significant, and ironically, that’s precisely Horn’s dilemma too. However, Jim sees no way to remain significant or meaningful, and even ends up arguing with the telephone company because he feels that he undervalued. The business-like, non-personal interaction makes him feel dehumanized.
On a related note, in this episode we get a really good sense of how Frank reacts when challenged. In the profiler pissing contest I tagged above, he and Horn go at it, but Frank is never personal, and he never rises to take the bait. He doesn’t show offense. He is preternaturally calm, instead. This is a key aspect of the Frank Black persona, and one reason I find the character so appealing. Instead of being petty, instead of rolling in the mud over something like this, Frank simply says his peace -- without attitude -- and lets his expertise stand.
What others do with his expertise, he factors, is beyond him. Frank can only give others the benefit of his insight and knowledge.
This is an attitude Horn might adopt. As the episode continues, he lets his rage get the better of him, and goes off the rails. He interferes with a sting Frank has set up to catch the serial killer. He spoils the arrest and taints the evidence. He is a basket case of inefficient emotion and directionless rage. By trying to avoid becoming meaningless, he becomes useless.
Why does he do it? Well, Horn looks at a picture on his desk, of his son, and conflates that image of innocence with the murders of a crime scene. He personalizes the crime scene to the extent that he thinks the killer is going to murder his son. He loses perspective.
And a good investigator needs perspective.
Frank tells Horn, at the end of the episode “You put them in your head,” referring to the criminals he profiles. This is not what Frank does.
Frank seeks to understand, and this is something that Horn cannot fathom. But because of “Dead Letters” the audience starts to understand how Frank approaches a profile, and how delicate that process can be. Horn tries to achieve the same magic, but can’t do it. He can’t put aside his ego or his emotions, and the result is a faulty profile. The result is also, for Horn, a professional failure. It is made clear at the episode’s denouement that the Millennium Group will not again show interest in him. He lacks the temperament to do what Frank does.
In terms of series mythology, this episode is so important because in season two Frank goes astray in “The Beginning and the End” much the way that Horn does here, in "Dead Letters." He acts impulsively, on his own (to rescue his family), and his wife, Catherine, separates from him. He loses his paradise and sanctuary of the yellow house because he loses the very equilibrium that serves him so well in episodes like “Dead Letters.”
I don’t think there was necessarily a plan, when “Dead Letters” was made, to send Frank down this path over the course of the series. Gut if one watches “Dead Letters” and “The Beginning and the End,” together, it is amazing to see how the same “flaws” that destroy Horn threaten to undo Frank, and his gift of insight (which is lost, for a time, in Season Two).
“Dead Letters” also continues to develop Jordan’s story line beautifully. Throughout the series, she is shown to be a sensitive, and somewhat fragile child. She is often taken to the hospital, or sick from some inexplicable illness. She can detect things in people and places, too, which others don’t. Here, she encounters in a nightmare a clown that terrorizes her, and sees her Father descending an endless staircase.
What is that clown? It’s hard to say exactly, what significance it plays in Jordan’s psyche, beyond being, simply, a childhood vision of terror.
But we can speculate about what it means to see Frank on the endless staircase in perpetual unseeing descent.
Knowing how sensitive Jordan is, I wonder if she sees her father descending, further and further, towards a destination he can’t control. She can’t get his attention as he descends. He's locked ona path; locked in a form of tunnel vision.
Gazing across the seasons of Millennium, it is not difficult to detect the overall path as one of Frank’s descent, losing his certainty about family, friends, his gift, and the Millennium Group itself.
Pointedly, Jordan ask Frank if he knows bout bad dreams, and he responds that he does; or at least that he “knows enough to keep them away” from her. Frank’s descent, in some way is a mirror of Horn's descent, but for Frank it’s not that he desires to be significant or meaningful to his family. It’s that he wants to protect the ones he loves, and he takes ardent, sometimes violent responsibility for that job of protection.
So many Millennium episodes concern the serial killers and what they symbolize about the nature of our society. “Dead Letters” is a twist on the formula, from early on, because it asks the same question, but of an investigator. Jim Horn is lost, and can't "see what the killer sees." All he can see is his own rage.
What does Horn’s dilemma tell us about our culture, and our families?
If I had to answer that question, I’d focus on some key points.
Both Jim Horn and Frank Black are men driven to protect their families. This drive forces them to see and experience things that jeopardize, for them, the overall experience of family. They have to lie and keep secrets about what they’ve seen. They have to pretend the darkness isn’t there. They are absent, for long stretches, from the ones they love, making them seem, to their children and spouses, distant and uncaring. Not surprisingly, because of their choices, they begin to be disconnected from their families.
Society asks men to be strong and silent, but if that’s the rule, where can men like Horn put the rage they feel? The killer reports in "Dead Letters" that people in our society are like “animals in a caged shelter” and in a way that is true of Horn. He has rage and anger, feels rejection and loss, and has no place to pour out all that, except into his job.
We hope the same isn’t true of Frank. But as Millennium continues, we see, sometimes, that it is.