Monday, October 25, 2021

25 Years Ago Today: Millennium (1996 - 1999)

Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), his wife, Catherine (Meghan Gallagher) and their daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) move into a beautiful yellow house in Seattle.  

Frank, a former FBI agent who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, is now consulting with an organization of like-minded law-enforcement officials, the Millennium Group.  He helps the Group solve cases of an especially difficult nature utilizing his gift of “insight.”  Specifically, Frank becomes “capability,” seeing what the “killer sees.”

This ability, Frank notes, is both his gift and his curse.

Frank’s unusual brand of insight is put to the test almost at once, when a peep-show stripper is murdered by a deviant, poetry-reciting killer, “The Frenchman” (Paul Dillon). Frank tracks the killer, hoping to catch him before he strikes again.

But the Frenchman -- who is punishing sins against God in what he considers a Godless time and place -- commits another sexual homicide before he can be stopped.

As the case grows more difficult, Frank is distracted when Jordan contracts an unknown malady and is rushed to a Seattle hospital…

The pilot for Millennium (1996-1999), aired 25 years ago today, on October 25, 1996, represents, perhaps, Chris Carter’s finest writing contribution to television in the 1990s. With seemingly effortless grace and literacy, this hour-long drama sets up the three central dramatic pillars of the cult-TV series.  

These pillars are: Frank Black’s family and home life, his investigations into the most savage and monstrous of criminals, and, finally, the series’ social role as commentator on 1990's America.  All these pillars are interconnected, as you might guess.

The writing is unquestionably sharp in this pilot episode, but its edge is enhanced immeasurably by director David Nutter’s brilliant visualizations. 

Many times throughout the pilot, a central clue or connection is captured merely in terms of canny imagery, with no dialogue to support it. This visual story-telling represents one reason why Millennium endures and is so incredibly smart. Nothing is spoon-fed to us. But the clues are there for us to see, and the connections are there for us to make, just as Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) makes them.

There are two examples to consider, immediately, of this visual storytelling approach. One involves the clue, PESTE, which is written both on a casket and underneath a bridge. Frank connects the graffiti and the epitaph, but the dialogue does not. We are asked, ultimately, to make the connection alongside the investigator.

Secondly, the key climactic event of the episode involves nothing but a look -- and a momentary hesitation -- between protagonist and antagonist. Frank stumbles upon the Frenchman in police headquarters. He takes one look at him, and knows that he has found his man. Creepily, the Frenchman stares back and knows precisely whom he is facing as well.

A look passes between the two men, and then the conflict becomes physical, but again, there’s never a moment in which a character explains his thought process, or how, specifically, he knows or recognizes the identity of his opposite.  This is a powerful approach for two reasons.

First, it validates Frank’s brand of insight. 

He has been in the “head” of the Frenchman, so it makes sense that he would recognize him on sight, after a fashion. But much more frightening is the opposite recognition.  The Frenchman seems to recognize Frank not merely as an investigator, but as a kindred force or person.  He seems to understand, or believe – instinctively – that Frank sees the same things he does.  That means that Frank’s insight is right, but also that the killer possesses some level of insight as well. 

A simpler way to put this is, simply, that Frank has looked into the abyss (the Frenchman), and the abyss has peered back into him (Frank). 

Beyond these terrific visual moments, the episode is also punctuated by gruesome and shocking sights. We see the gay men cruising a park by night, and in the Frenchman’s view their eyes and mouths are sewed up. There’s a psychic jolt when these individuals loom from the darkness, their faces a mockery of what we consider a normal human visage.

Then there is the bracing moment, in the pilot’s prologue, wherein beautiful women strip and dance, only to be drenched in blood and fire.  The Frenchman says “I want to see you dance on the blood-dimmed tide,” and the episode makes that wish a reality, by adopting his (twisted and perverse) perspective. 

Much of Millennium involves what we understand to be reality (based on Frank’s view of the world), and an alternate, corrupted view of reality. That second perspective is how the killer sees the world, and Frank’s key to unlocking each mystery is to tap that horrible (but also imaginatively realized) viewpoint.  In many ways, this episode of Millennium is about the differences between realities, and the way that we all navigate them.

Consider the doomed exotic dancer, Calamity, in the teaser sequence. Before she strips for the killer, becoming his fantasy (or becoming trapped in his fantasy, perhaps), we get a harsh dose of reality. She is not the object of sexuality that customers believe she is. Instead, we see her calling her child on the telephone before starting her shift at the sex shop.  She’s a single mom trying to make a living.  Selling sex is what she does for a living, but sexual arousal is probably the furthest thing from her mind as she goes about her “work.”

The idea of image vs. reality in terms of the stripper’s world, and the killer’s world, also has one more corollary in the episode, in Frank Black himself. He has bought his family the “perfect” yellow-house, and wants to carve out a place in the world for his wife and daughter that is safe and happy.  He wants them to see only the sunshine, not the blackest night.

But Catherine -- a clinical psychologist -- knows all too well that Frank’s reality is constructed, and therefore fragile.  She tells him that he can’t protect them from the darkness.  His answer is that he wants her to pretend that he can.  In other words, he prefers, in this case, not to “see” the truth.  He constructs his reality of the yellow house and asks Catherine and Jordan to share that illusion with him, without acknowledging that it is an illusion.

Frank paints away the darkness with the yellow house, as Chris Carter told me in an interview in 2009, but he too -- like the Frenchman -- erects a world that isn’t quite real.

In terms of Frank’s family and the relationships between members, this pilot is the starting point for several story-arcs.  The first involves Catherine. She tells Frank, explicitly, that she can handle his job. What she can’t handle is him keeping secrets from her.  “I can handle imposition, Frank,” she says directly. “What I can’t handle is secrecy.”

Frank, however, is unable to be completely truthful and open with Catherine, despite her admonition that he should be.  Why?  I believe the answer is encoded in the reality he creates.  He will not be the one to shatter the sanctuary of the yellow house. If he tells Catherine everything he sees, everything he knows, she -- like him -- won’t be able to live in the world he has created.

The pilot also gives us the first instance of Jordan mysteriously falling ill or having unexplained wounds This plot device recurs on at least two other occasions in the series (“Monster” and “Borrowed Time.”) 

These dangerous events always remind Frank where his priorities should be, but also suggest that Jordan is incredibly fragile and not a “normal” child. As stories such as “Walkabout” suggest, she may possess Frank’s gift of insight…and something beyond it too.

In terms of the second dramatic pillar, Millennium’s pilot introduces to a killer who views others as sinners, and yet has sinned himself. He judges others, and condemns them to (horrible) deaths, without addressing his behavior.

The first time we see the killer in the pilot is in a rain-soaked, gray world, as he stalks it in near silhouette. 

The Frenchman is depicted under an arch, and the visual suggestion is that he is being crushed by the world; being crushed by his vision of the world, which he believes requires him to act. The world around him is dead, is slate gray, and the trees are devoid of life and color. 

He does act, to murder sinners, and Frank connects his crimes, in particular to “The Second Coming,” a 1920 poem by W.B. Yeats about, not surprisingly, apocalypse, and historical cycles. Specifically, Yeats apparently envisioned a doomsday coming roughly two thousand years after the death of Jesus Christ.

That would be right about 1996 -- the epoch of this story -- give or take a couple of years. So in some twisted way, the Frenchman is working on the assumption that he is living through Yeats’ apocalypse, which he sees as one of moral depravity. 

He talks about the “great plague in the maritime city,” and this reference may carry two meanings. The episode links the line from Yeats to AIDS, and the Frenchman’s victims. But given what we know of Millennium as a series, the “maritime” city of Seattle does suffer an outbreak in 1998, or a plague, in the two-part second season story “The Fourth Horseman”/”The Time is Now.’

Taken by itself, the pilot is the story of a sick serial killer who dwells in his own reality of judgment and wrath. But if we look at the series as a whole, we might even view him as one more person who seems “gifted” or “cursed” by an insight the rest of us don’t possess.  In this case, The Frenchman adopts the telltale “anticipatory anxiety” of Chris Carter’s 1990s programs, fearing that he knows what God’s judgment will be, come the turn of the century. Or, perhaps he knows what the Millennium Group is actually up to…

The third dramatic pillar I mentioned above is social commentary, and for me this is a key artistic aspect of Millennium. This episode points out the hypocrisy of those who judge others, and we certainly saw much of that in the 1990's.  But more than that, I think the episode gazes at people who walk among us and yet dwell in  their own separate realities.  Today, we are more divided, even, then we were in the 1990s.  

Frank’s answer to the anxiety he feels when reckoning with the real world is to create a sanctuary for his family. And that in a way is part of the problem. A sanctuary is a place to hide after all, not to engage the darkness.  A key aspect of Yeat’s The Second Coming is “turning inward,” and I think the episode demonstrates that in regards to both Frank and the Frenchman.  The episode encourages us to compare and contrast the two characters in terms of their world view, and their insight.

I’ve written this before, and I continue to stand by this assessment: Millennium opens with one of the five best pilots in TV history.  

One would be hard-pressed to pinpoint another premiere episode that achieves so much, so well. It is smart and literate, engrossing, and terrifying.

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