Monday, September 30, 2019

Millennium Season 1: Episode 5: "522666"

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by David Nutter
Air Date November 22, 1996
Guest Stars: Sam Anderson, Hiro Kanagawa

Opening Quote: I am responsible for everything - except my very responsibility." Jean-Paul Sartre

"520666" examines the motivations of a mad bomber. A cat and mouse game between Frank Black and the terrorist creates enough suspense to sustain the episode.

More of a procedural entry in the series, the look and style are reminiscent of popular 90s thrillers like Se7en and In the Line of Fire. A series of bombings in the D.C. metro require Frank to create a profile. There's a crucial plot point calling back the Centennial Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. 

Working with the FBI, Frank is convinced the suspect is acting alone. A series of scenes feature Frank on the phone with the man as he tries to understand the motivations. A device used throughout is the cliche of trying to trace the phone call (these guys are always experts with the phone system). In a twist, as Frank is tipped off on the location of the next bombing, he barely escapes the building and is saved by a "good Samaritan" lauded as a hero by the media.

Recovering in the hospital with Catherine as his side (still under used at this point in the series), Frank determines the new media hero is indeed the bomber. The episodes ends with the bomber calling in a false threat, with the FBI closing in he is easily killed, but not before achieving his goal of being famous.

Mad bomber stories in the past typically involved a character with a grievance against society By the 1990s, the motivation amounted to a sick need for recognition. In a society that routinely downgrades people to losers and nobody's, the grandiose terrorist only believes they can assert themselves by hurting others and finally getting recognition. Frank's ability to understand the bomber as an unhinged existentialist speaks to mindset still very much with us. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Millennium: Season 1: Episode 4 "The Judge"

Written by Ted Man
Directed by Randall Zisk
Guest Stars: CCH Pounder, Marshall Bell
Air Date: November 15, 1996

Opening Quote: Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.

- Herman Mellville 

"The Judge" is more of a puzzle episode, challenging Frank to connect a series of murders that appear to be unrelated. Four episodes into its run, Millennium continued to live up to its reputation of staging some of the most grotesque kills on network television, inspired by the Italian giallos. A stable of raging pigs also play a prominent role. 

A series of bizarre murders that involve the parts of victims mailed to apparently random people baffles the authorities. Frank is called in to consult with the Seattle P.D. Working with pathologist Cheryl Andrews (CCH Pounder) who would become a recurring character. Frank believes in a connection between the victims and the recipients of the remains, eventually suspecting they may be witnessing vigilante justice.

"The Judge" is introduced as a sinister larger than life figure who recruits ex-cons to deliver his macabre form of justice. When brought in for questioning he even offers Frank a job, not unlike the temptation of Christ in the New Testament. A lack of evidence prevents the police from making an arrest until one of the judge's own does him in.

An odd combination of the cautionary vigilante tale with some strong horror elements, "The Judge" could be viewed as a modern Dracula figure. The convicts he recruits would be equivalent to a Renfield doing the bidding of his master. The animal imagery in the episode mirrors Renfield eating bugs and animals in the novel. Frank serves as a modern Van Helsing. Once the case gets wrapped up Frank quickly exits the scene, glad the sordid business is over.  

The episode also mirrors the themes in "Gehenna", vulnerable young men in the population being used for nefarious purposes by a charismatic figure. The Gothic undertones of the episode also foreshadowed some of the shadier aspects of "the group" that would be explored in further episodes. 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Millennium: Season 1: Episode 3: "Dead Letters"

Directed by Thomas J. Wright
Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Air Date: November 8, 1996
Guest Stars: Chris Ellis and James Morrison

Opening Passage: For the thing I greatly feared has come upon me. And what I dreaded has happened to me, I not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, for trouble comes."

Job 3:25,26

"Dead Letters" opens with a terrifying dream sequence: Jordan is being chased by a terrifying clown that's creepier than Pennywise. The dream sets the tone for an especially gruesome episode that finds Frank working with a troubled police detective to track down a serial killer in Portland. The episode allows Frank to show off his profiling skills and ability to keep his mind balanced during an investigation. More in line with the style of The Silence of the Lambs, "Dead Letters" takes the viewer inside the mind of a psychopath making the episode effective and disturbing, while at the same time allowing Frank to take on more of a Sherlock Holmes persona.

After a string of violent crimes directed towards women, the group calls in Frank to assist Detective Jim Horn (Morrison) on the investigation. Horn is preoccupied about his recent separation from his wife and is distraught about not being able to see his son. He admits to Frank the nature of his work had taken a toll on his marriage. Frank's empathetic and talks about his own struggles to keep his family life separate from his work. He also knows the group is interested in Horn as a candidate.

Literary references run through the episode, specifically Melville and Dostoevsky. Frank determined the killer feels ignored by the world and the killings are his way of acting out to get attention. Well read in Dostoevsky, Frank finds a quote etched in the victim's hair, "hair today, gone tomorrow" that's from Notes From Underground. It's also noteworthy the murder took place at a dead letter office, the setting of Bartleby the Scribner by Melville, the tale of a man reacting against his lack of status. An especially creepy scene inside the killer's house, drenched in darkness, is unsettling in that it places inside his empty world.

As the investigation proceeds Horn gets more erratic. Frank knows he's a skilled detective, but also realizes Horn gets too emotionally involved in his cases. Frank acts as a big brother welcoming Horn and his son into their home. Horn marvels at Frank's ability to keep an emotional distance, even when getting inside the minds of a killer, to which Frank replies, "You put them in your head." 

James Morrison as Detective Jim Horn

Frank and Kim discover an important lead at an eyeglasses store and are able to set a trap for the killer. Horn has grown more unhinged, seeing evil men everywhere and roughing up a suspect by mistake. Frank's ploy works in drawing the killer in, he drives one of the creepiest vans you'll ever see, but Horn almost ruins everything when he starts to beat up the suspect, putting the case and evidence they've accumulated in jeopardy, 

Frank sees in Horn something he could become if he lost his family. Catherine and Jordan mean everything to him and the episode ends with him comforting Jordan after she's had another bad dream. The visual style of "Dead Letters" was drenched in film noir and feels like a feature film. Millennium was not a typical crime show, the psychological component brought a new element to television.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Millennium: Season 1: Episode 2: "Gehenna"

Written by Chris Carter
Directed by David Nutter
Air Date: November 1, 1996
Guest Stars: Chris Ellis, Robin Gammell
Opening Quote: "I smell blood and an era of prominent mad men" W.H. Auden

"Gehenna" explores a more amorphous form of evil - that of the sinister corporation. Inspired the Tokyo Subway Attacks that occurred in March of 1995, "Gehenna" examines a death cult doing work on behalf of a weapons corporation. While the ambitious premise is slight at times, the episode does a good job of developing Frank Black as a character and introduces new members of "the group."

The cold open depicts a group of young men involved in what looks like a hazing ritual at an abandoned warehouse. The victim is under the influence of hallucinogenics in what appears to be an animal or demonic attack brought on by a hallucination. Shot in a hypnotic style, the opening suggests a supernatural mystery.

Called to San Francisco, Frank and Peter Watts (O' Quinn) discover evidence of victims being burned alive at the abandoned factory.  Another member of the group is also introduced, Mike Atkins (Gammell), a former mentor of Frank's from his FBI days. Forensic evidence leads to an immigrant family from Chechnya whose son was identified as a victim. The young man had joined a doomsday cult fronted by a company that employed him as a telemarketer. 

"I've always believed that evil is born in a cold heart and a weak mind."

The telemarketing room looks like a Fascist nightmare, all the men all dressed alike with short haircurs. In search of direction and identity they're being used to sell cosmetic products as Orwellian slogans flash on a projected screen that recalls the "brainwashing scene" from the 1974 film The Parallax View. If anyone tries to leave the cult they'll face execution inside an "industrial microwave." Foregoing the two week notice may not be a bad idea.

On the pre-google internet search Frank discovers "Gehenna Industries" are stockpiling weapons at the abandoned factory, a variety of chemical and biological devices that will purportedly launch doomsday. Atkins goes to the factory and almost dies in the microwave before authorities arrives at just the right time. Although the threat's been neutralized, Frank believes they've only scratched the surface of a much larger plot.

The episode also followed up on the Polaroids Frank received from a stalker. Atkins doesn't see an imminent threat, explaining the purpose was simply to terrorize Frank, which Frank agrees was successful. Out of fear, Frank asked "Bletch" to keep an eye on Catherine and Jordan while he's gone. Smitrovich and Gallagher have a warm scene discussing Frank's anxiety about protecting his family. 

"Gehenna" is a strong second episode that expands on the ideas introduced in the Pilot, specifically its close exploration on the layers of evil in the modern world. Themes of doomsday and death cults recruiting disaffected young men also foreshadowed the idea of the culturally lost young white men who act out with violence, ideal marks for terrorist and hate groups. 

Monday, September 16, 2019

Millennium: Episode 1: Season 1: "Pilot"

Written by Chris Carter
Directed by David Nutter
Guest Stars: Terry O'Quinn, Bill Smitrovich, Brittany Tiplady, Paul Dillon
Air Date: October 25, 1996

The premier episode of Millennium proved to be one of the most disturbing hours in prime time television up to that point in time. Millennium, the brain child of X-Files creator Chris Carter, would be a game changer for the crime show genre, introducing supernatural themes with a fin di siecle sense of dread. Headlines during the 1990s were filled with grisly details about serial killers. From apocalyptic movies and fears of Y2K, a sense of anxiety and excitement were ubiquitous in pop culture. A feeling the world was shifting into a new era with new rules, new threats, new villains within a new normal filters through each episode of Millennium.

"It is my gift, it is my curse."

Millennium's protagonist Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) has just moved to Seattle with his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and young daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady). The "yellow house" would become a symbol of Frank's attempt to find hope and refuge from his calling in life. We learn he once worked as a criminal profiler for the FBI and also possesses an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of a killer. Now a consultant working for the secretive Millennium Group, in the "Pilot" Frank finds himself on the trail of a disturbed killer terrorizing Seattle.

A provocative opening sequence at a strip club opens the show. We see an underworld of peep shows from the killer's point of view. He has visions of blood dripping everywhere as he quotes French poetry. After one of the young women turns up murdered, Frank takes an interest in the case. The odd nature of the murders indicates a psychotic mind who who Frank believes is being influenced by prophecy. We're introduced to Frank's contact in the Seattle P.D. Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich) and liaison with the Millennium Group Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn) who would both be recurring characters in the first season.

Frank's visions allow him to compile a profile of the killer even though the Seattle P.D. are skeptical of his unorthodox methods - not unlike the Netflix series Mindhunters. The killer is known as "the Frenchman" who believes the Book of Revelation and the 16th Century French astrologer Nostradamus are speaking directly to him. His sexual guilt also fuels a psychotic rage. The William Butler Yeats poem "The Second Coming" gets referenced throughout the episode with its emphasis on the world spinning towards a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Are serial killers are a symptom of the end times. 

"They believe we can't just sit back and hope for a happy ending."

After a terrifying discovery of victims being buried alive, Frank discovers a connection to the local pathology lab where the killer may work. Frank visits the lab and confronts the killer, but is shot by Bletcher, muttering "you can't stop it," suggesting the killer's part of something far more sinister. Frank returns home and gives Jordan a puppy after she's returned from the hospital after a mysterious illness. In his mailbox Frank opens an envelope with Polaroids of his wife and daughter, as usual Frank's joy is upended.

Light and darkness would be in continual conflict throughout the run of the series. The yellow house would represent Frank's dream of providing a safe and happy life for him and his family. The photos are especially disturbing because they invade his safe haven, making him question whether he can protect his family from the darkness he must face everyday.

The dramatic scenes in the episode take place either at night or in the rain. Clearly Frank is a creature of the night, knowing he must make friends with it to do his job. The shows's director talked of how David Fincher's visual style in Se7en informed the episode, but also reveals a film noir influence, even a German expressionism that recalls M directed by Fritz Lange. 

A spinoff of The X-Files, Millennium would also draw heavily upon the horror and sci-fi genres that would bring a compelling dimension to the series. Lance Henriksen would create one of television's most memorable protagonists in Frank Black: heroic, brooding, always on the edge. In time he would evolve into a new kind of spiritual hero, neither a prophet or proselytizer, but a seeker in daily conflict with the darkness. Identifiable in 1996 and and sure as hell identifiable now.  

The first episode would prove to be highly influential to crime shows not nearly as cerebral as Millennium. The mythology the show would gradually build in the first season surrounding "The Group" and the meaning of world events. The pilot plants all these seeds, portending a wild, existential ride through three seasons.