Monday, April 19, 2021

Season One: Episode 14 "The Thin White Line"

Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong

Directed by Thomas J. Wright

Airdate: February 14, 1997

Guest Star: Jeremy Roberts (Richard Alan Hance)

Opening Quote:

A man's past is not simply a dead history . . . it is still a quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame.

- George Eliot

Another strong episode, "The Thin White Line" sheds light on a key moment in Frank Black's past and has him facing off Silence of the Lambs style with a terrifying serial killer. 

The ominous prologue opens with two murders of seemingly random people. At the hospital Frank notices a slash across one of the palms of the victims, matching an identical scar on his hand. In a flashback Frank returns to his time with the FBI 20 years before when he led the pursuit of a killer targeting random people. While pursuing the suspect Frank gets his hand slashed and nearly gets himself killed. Leading the FBI into an ambush orchestrated by the killer that left three agents dead at the hands of Richard Alan Hance has continued to haunt Frank over the years through nightmares.

Veteran actor Jeremy Roberts, a familiar presence on TV in the 80s and 90s, gave a compelling and disturbing performance as Hance. As a child he moved around from foster homes and endured abuse and then served two tours in Vietnam. Based on the nature of the new spree of murders, Frank determines a copycat is behind them, probably someone inspired by Hance. 

Now incarcerated in solitary confinement in where the lights never go off, he terrifies the guards. Knowing Hance could provide information on the murders, Frank visits him to get information. These scenes resemble The Silence of the Lambs. Frank is warned prison security cannot guarantee his safety when left alone with Hance. The psychological standoff Frank and Hance is a highlight of the season, even verging into the comic with the killer demanding Gary Busey play him in his life story. Eventually, Hance informs Frank the suspect is probably his former cellmate who he molded in his own image.

The episode ends with a replay of the flashback, Frank leading a pursuit into an abandoned building where he almost gets himself killed again. Luckily, Lt. Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich) provides backup and neutralizes the killer. 

"The Thin White Line" ends in a suspenseful but predictable matter, but the story provides some shading to the Frank Black character. "Bletch" has been reduced to Watson type character to assist Frank, not necessarily the equal relationship established in the Pilot episode, but he does provide a steadiness to counter Frank's brooding presence. The haunting note of the ending goes back to Hance in his cell with the lights going off (a gift for his assistance in the investigation) as he grunts like a bear. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Season One: Episode 13 "Force Majeure"

Written by Chip Johannessen

Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Air Date: February 7, 1997

Guest Stars: Brad Dourif (Dennis Hoffman); CCH Pounder (Cheryl Andrews) Morgan Woodward (Iron Lung Man)

"Force Majeure" marked a departure for Millennium away from the "psychopath of the week formula" and into the realm of science fiction. The plot incorporates elements from The Boys From Brazil which explored cloning done with nefarious purposes with an additional dose of modern day biblical based prophecy. 

The prologue sequence begins with a hailstorm frightening students at Washington St. University and ends with a girl self immolating herself. Unsurprisingly the bizarre nature of the event gets the Millennium Group involved. Frank speaks with a student who knew the victim who attested to her intelligence and interest in planetary astronomy, leading Frank to Dennis Hoffman (Dourif) a self-appointed expert on prophecy with a special interest in earth changes. 

Dourif is compelling as usual, one of the all time great character actors. Hoffman is obsessed with the date May 5, 2000, a day he believes that a rare planetary alignment will lead to an apocalyptic flood.* After another girl self immolates herself, the forensic work makes some strange discoveries including matching astrological symbols on the bodies and that have similar genes like identical twins. It's determined they are clones, suggesting a connection to the prophecy.

This leads the story to Pocatello, Idaho because of its high sea level and long distance from any coastline, the perfect place to be in case of a cataclysmic flood. Frank and Peter Watts discover a commune with cloned girls and the leader who lives in an iron lung. He reveals himself to be the mastermind behind the cloning and that he's creating a "pure" group of humans. Frank calls him irresponsible and holds him responsible for the suicides. With the girls about to be taken into custody the bus driver is also part of the cult who espapes with all the cloned children. 

Frank concludes they'll have to wait until May 5, 2000 to see what happens. He returns home with a gift for Jordan, a model of the solar system. Catherine is happy Jordan was accepted into a good school and her education is covered until she graduates in 2010, creating an uneasiness with Frank. 

"Force Majeure" impressively packs in quite of plot into a 45 minute episode. Of all the shows up to that point it captures millennial anxiety with fears of civilizational altering weather. A maestro of pseudoscience like Hoffman looks to prophecy and biblical texts to explain everything. Thankfully the episodes comes down on the side of science which also models extreme weather events related to global warming. Frank seems more unnerved that people believe actually prophecy and that it leads them to extreme actions. At the same time the Millennium Group appears to also believe in the idea of end times, as Watts suggests in a conversation with Frank.

It's also notable all the cloned children are blue eyed and blonde. Iron Lung Man's obsession with purity adds a white supremacist undercurrent to the story. Of course the grand old white men views such children as pure and wants to genetically engineer them! The episode never explores the connections between a messianic complexes and racism, but it's in the subtext. The teleplay also forecasted the Heaven's Gate mass suicide that left 39 dead a month after the episode aired, acts inspired by biblical prophecy (and a whole cocktail of pseudoscience).

A compelling episode, "Force Majeure" has the ambition of a two hour motion picture. 

* Link to NASA website on groundless fears that surrounded May 5, 2000: