Chris Carter’s second TV series, Millennium (1996 – 1999), premiered fifteen years ago today — on October 25, 1996 — with one of the best-written, best-acted, best-directed pilot episodes I’ve seen in a journalism career that spans nearly two decades. The ensuing series ran far too briefly, for just three years on Fox in prime time. Yet for me, Millennium remains something of the gold standard; a high-point of the horror genre in the medium of television.
Why do I still find so much of value in a decade-and-a-half old TV series, one set in the second term of Bill Clinton?
Well, as bluntly as it can be put, Millennium was constructed artfully, with symbols and ideas that continue to resonate deeply. Back in 1999, I wrote a book called Terror Television, and wrote of Millennium that it was “far better, far smarter, than just about any program on any of the American networks.”
I could easily (and happily) make the same statement today.
As part of Millennium’s fifteenth anniversary, I’ll celebrate today with some posts about the series, some of which you’ve seen before, and others which you have not. But here, now, to start off, I want to break down some of the particulars of the series’ artistry as i see them.
Context and Literary Allusion
Many episodes of Millennium open with a white-lettered quotation from a literary or religious source. In short order, the episodes then depict a tale that echoes, contrasts, or mirrors that opening selection.
Yeats (“Pilot”), Dostoevsky (“Dead Letters”), Melville (“The Judge”), Jean-Paul Sartre (“522666”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“The Well Worn Lock”), Cicero (“Walkabout”), Nietzsche (“Broken World”), William Rose Benet (“The Paper Dove”) and even Shakespeare (“Monster”) represent just some of the literary giants and thinkers Millennium routinely referenced. The Bible was often mined for pertinent quotations as well.
These opening quotes were not included to be pretentious, but to provoke thought and to connect the viewer to the fact that the series concerns our history, our very nature. It’s an invigorating purpose and one that reminds authors that there is a direct link between past and present, a universality of the human condition. The situations that criminal profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) encounters are situations that Shakespeare or Cicero contemplated or thought about, and so these opening quotes — easily dismissed by some — remind us of literary and historical past. And since Millennium is, in some ways, about the passage of a thousand years, it’s entirely appropriate, and even inspired, to focus on the link to our shared past.
In other words, these opening quotations help us contextualize the stories; but also contextualize Frank’s journey in terms of human (or at least literary) history. He’s not just “a guy” trying to catch a serial killer, he’s part of the ebb and flow of human history, doing battle at a vital juncture in such history.
The Yellow House
I find it almost endlessly rewarding how Millennium was devised on artistic terms, from its opening quotations to its very unique application of symbols and imagery. The oft-mentioned yellow house on Ezekiel Drive, for instance, is perhaps the program’s most important and familiar symbol. Viewers associate yellow with brightness, and with bright, happy light, like that of the sun.
Of course, the yellow house also represents Frank Black’s only bright place away from the darkness and away from the horror that he witnesses on the job, and even within the recesses of his own mind. Rewardingly, Millennium utilizes the recurring symbol of the yellow house in a plethora of stimulating ways. It doesn’t always mean the same thing.
In the series’ first season, for instance, the house is seen as a place of safety for the Blacks, a sanctuary away from the world. In the second season, it becomes a representation of paradise lost and the object of the heroic quest, when Frank is, literally, banished from it. His purpose in life becomes reclaiming the yellow house and what it once represented (the wholeness of his family.)
In the third and final season, Frank’s yellow house is but a sad memory, but yet one which remains intact inside the recesses of his mind. He visits his former home in the episode “The Sound of Snow,” and it has been painted white. Still, the ever perceptive Frank envisions his Camelot, his yellow home in Seattle. Frank’s house is now an ideal, not a real place, one representative of a specific time and feeling.
One might suggest that the yellow house of Millennium represents an escape from evil, “the painting away of the darkness” as Chris Carter beautifully described it, and yet it is also the very reason why Frank faces the heart of human darkness every day. By facing the dark inside and out, Frank preserves the yellow, inside and out. The two are interconnected in some significant way. The house is part of Frank’s yin and yang.
The yellow house could also symbolize, on a more basic level, small town America circa 1996. Frank must rescue it from the encroaching evil. Thus the yellow home is not merely beautiful in an architectural sense, it is a brilliant symbol because it shares with viewers an insight into Frank’s personality and cause. It represents his interior architecture, if you will.
It is the reason he fights; and what he fights for, since the yellow represents the sanctuary for his family, for his wife and daughter.
And yes, I painted my first home yellow, in honor of Millennium’s yellow house. We all have a ” yellow house” in our minds; whether in our adulthood or as a remembrance childhood. It is a place of safety, nostalgia, hope and dreams. In Millennium, the yellow house is the center of gravity, the center of Frank’s universe.
The Time is Near
The specter informing so many episodes of Millennium is the end of the world itself: doomsday. This is a powerful and universal fear because many people suspect that the end will come one day…and perhaps soon. Dinosaurs preceded us here and now they are extinct. The Roman Empire came and went, a brief candle. The Native American culture which once existed on this land we now inhabit is but a memory too.
Time passes, cultures die, life is transitory and on some subconscious level, all humankind is aware of this fact, of the inevitable changing of the guard. On a personal, individual note, we all must reckon with our appointed doomsday, our appointed apocalypse. We will each die, and for us, that cessation represents, certainly, the end of the world.
Throughout Millennium’s canon, the series writers obsessed on the universal human inquietude about our impending ends. Could our demise arrive in a second great flood (“Force Majeure?”) Could it involve religion (“Forcing the End,”) and, specifically the Anti-Christ (“Marantha?”) Would our end come from deliberate, blind tinkering with our science, or our genetic make-up (“Walkabout,” “Sense and Antisense”)?
The series also looked at ethnic doomsdays (“A Single Blade of Grass), Y2K fears (“Teotwawki), and one of the best, “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense, boasted the audacity to suggest what we’ve actually seen since Millennium was canceled, with the advent of so many damned remakes: a creative apocalypse. Written by Darin
g Morgan, this installment of the series implied that all humans can look forward to for the next thousand years is “the same old crap.”
It probably seems strange to praise Millennium as an inherently optimistic series, considering how obsessively it wonders about the end of the world.
Yet, Millennium boasts another recurring and potent symbol worth mentioning. That symbol is, of course, the child. Segment after segment on Millennium explicitly involves children, and youth in general, because our offspring represent the future. In our children, in our next generation, we see hope and fear, and Millennium shares this viewpoint.
For instance, in one of the best hours written for any genre show in history, Millennium
explores a very real “evil” of modern American society: the way in which our culture encourages children to be the same, to conform to expectations, and be “ordinary.”
The episode I refer to is titled “A Room with No View,” and it concerns a demonic force, Lucy Butler (Sarah Jane Redmond) who captures promising kids. These abducted teenagers have all been voted “most likely to succeed,” and are well loved by classmates and parents. There is something almost intangibly special, something attractive, charismatic and magnetic about each of them. They all have spirit, for lack of a better term.
But in “A Room with No View,” our future leaders are captured and tortured until they succumb to the urge to become ordinary, invisible, corrupt. In this case, Millennium views an apocalypse not in some outside force, such as a flood, but in our inability to inspire and support our children; to let them be who they choose to be.
Other episodes also very much involve children. Chris Carter’s “The Well Worn Lock” gazes at the terrifying problem of child abuse and how it intersects with politics, while “Monster” gazes at a child who — for inexplicable reasons — is purely and simply evil.
The inspiring story “Luminary” involves a young man who forsakes the material “culture of desire” we’ve made here in the United States, and gives up all his belongings and money. He goes to Alaska alone to seek wisdom. When the boy disappears, Frank must find him. But the very idea of renouncing things, of renouncing wealth, is a potent idea in Millennium (inspired by the story Into the Wild), and significantly, it finds purchase in the symbol for our future; in the next generation.
Throughout the series, the writers also followed the development and growth of Frank’s daughter, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady). But importantly, we also witnessed, dynamically, Frank’s viewpoint as a parent regarding his daughter, and regarding children in general. In the aforementioned “Monster,” he delivers an impassioned, heart wrenching speech about what the arrival of Jordan meant to his life; and how it changed him.
Specifically, Jordan’s birth reminded Frank that he did not “manufacture” himself as a grown-up; that he too had been a child once. And now he strives to see the child — the potential
— in all of us, even the men he hunts. If the serial killers are dark potential realized, then Millennium
views children as exactly the opposite, as a source for hope.
The importance of the child (of our tomorrows, essentially) is signified in Millennium even in its opening credits, impressively. As you can see in the photo above, there’s an image of a young girl walking across a bridge, awkwardly, in danger of a fall. That’s the bridge to the future (the 21st century) and she will either make the journey intact…or plummet to her doom.
The Fall of Rome?
Millennium is an abundantly introspective series, and yet in some strange way it reads as a little innocent and naive today, following a decade of war, torture, economic calamity, and more.
But back before Y2K, before 9/11, before Katrina, the series set up a very specific analogy that America was like something akin to Rome…an empire on the verge of collapse. And the cause of the collapse came from within; from a perversion or “weed” growing up inside our borders, and personified by the serial killers of the 1990s. The series brilliantly and quite originally suggested “pathology is part of the grotesque master plan” (Alyssa Katz, The Nation: Millennium,” November 24, 1996, page 35), and constantly raised the specter that, as a nation, America was rotting from within; from a kind of inbred decadence.
I have written about this before, but I believe that writers such as Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz carefully used the concept of the “serial killer of the week
,” much like Star Trek
used the concept of “the civilization of the week.”
In each new encounter and each new episode, Frank would learn something valuable about himself, and something about the values of his country from case of a twisted serial killer. We saw this paradigm in “Weeds,” “Blood Relatives,” “Loin like a Hunting Flame” and “Wide Open,” among others. The idea was that madness had sprouted up in the land, a very specific madness born from “who we are.” The series suggested this madness would ultimately be America’s downfall. Unless men like Frank could stop it.
It would be impossible to write of Millennium without considering the depth that Lance Henriksen brought to the role of Frank Black. Even in a story that doesn’t necessarily work on all thrusters, Henriksen completely invested himself in the role of Black.
The scene I described above, in “Monster,” is a perfect example. The episode, as a whole, is pretty good, but boasts some pretty obvious deficiencies in the writing. For instance, Lara Means (Kristen Cloke) is introduced in this episode as a semi-regular, and in the first twenty-three minutes, she quips “here’s my thing” four times. The viewer is practically bludgeoned with the catchphrase, and it’s…well, lacking in nuance.
But then, in the third act, amidst the dross, Henriksen delivers that speech; the one about childhood, about the importance of children; about the impact of his child’s birth upon his life, and it’s absolutely riveting. Suddenly, you’re not watching a conventional tale of an evil child; you’re watching the story of a human being, of a committed father facing the loss of all that he cares for. The scene is emotional and beautifully performed (and written), and Henriksen accomplished miracles like this on a regular basis.
We’re all shepherds
For me, Millennium was always at its best when it addressed our human fears (about apocalypse, about our culture, about violence) and made us look in the mirror. In the opening credits the first year, the question “who cares?” would pop up in almost accusing fashion.
That was an important matter.
Who cared enough about the world to make it a safer place? By the third season, the series had formulated carefully it’s answer to the question “who cares.”
The answer came, not surprisingly, from Jordan, from a child. She said “we’re all shepherds,” meaning it is incumbent on each of us to care how the world turns out, apocalypse or no apocalypse.
For three years, despite format shifts, Millennium reminded us, “this is who we are,” and in the process gave television one of its legitimate artistic masterpieces.