- Oct 5, 2020
Season 2 Review
A month ago, while attempting to watch The X-Files season 5, I found out that there was a crossover episode in season 7 between X-Files and another show Chris Carter had created, "Millennium". Being the OCD that I am, I was forced to abandon my viewing of X-Files for the moment and catch up with this intriguing series about a criminal investigator, Frank Black (played by the magnificent Lance Henriksen), who could see into criminal minds. But it was more than that that got me into watching, as I’m extremely picky about the shows I watch. I also saw the opening to Millennium’s documentary, “Millennium After the Millennium”, where they talked about how revolutionary the series was at the time, exploring violent crimes in such a graphic and depressing manner before the likes of “True Detective” and “Criminal Minds”. And I do love my dark shows.
When I finally finished season 1, I was satisfied by my experience because it wasn’t just about featuring different flavors of serial killers every week, but also the study of evil, its nature, and how it comes about in a person. I was stoked to watch season 2 and see more of the same.
It’s fair to say that I wasn’t among the few who was initially disappointed by what I saw. Even the crew and writers of season 2 were shocked to see how the new showrunners, Glen Morgan and James Wong (director/producer of the 2000 film, “Final Destination” no less), had hijacked the grounded crime thriller and turned into a supernatural thriller far more obsessed with the apocalypticism that was subtly hinted at in the first season. Henriksen himself was even livid after reading one of Darin Morgan’s scripts. “Darin, is this what you do? Take something you really like and respect and then absolutely trash it?” Tensions were high among both the crew and the viewers.
But we were wrong. Boy, were we wrong.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Morgan and Wong sought to tear apart just about everything that made season 1 of Millennium appealing, namely the unique serial killers that dotted the entire season. Likewise, it’s no exaggeration to say that season 2 was one of the most ambitious television phenomenon that was overlooked. In spite of how much I liked the first season, I gradually come to realize something: it was sensationalizing serial killers. Much like the many procedural crime drama like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”, it was setting up evil itself as this mystical force that only exists in the criminally depraved and those with abusive upbringing, when we know very well in our tumultuous times today that it’s far from the truth. As evident in season 2, evil could also come in the form of apathy, and more often than not, evil is banal and mundane.
There’s a more solemn and somber tone to the second season as it patiently examines what “good” and “evil” really mean in the context of humanity. Immediately from the first episode, “The Beginning and the End”, the protagonist Frank Black is tainted with the crime of murdering a killer while protecting his wife and daughter, Catherine and Jordan Black. In doing so, he has lost that moral certitude that made hm so inspiring in the first season. In fact, season 2 even goes further to humanize Frank with traits of anger, humor, and even selfishness by the last episode.
Then beginning from episode 2, “Beware of the Dog”, everything changed and the usual “serial killer of the week” format was beginning to be deconstructed. The killer this time wasn’t even human; it was killer dogs. And even then, there was this moral ambiguity about which side represents good and evil. A new recurring character introduced in this episode simply known as “The Old Man” (played by R. G. Armstrong) dispels in Frank the simple notions of good vs. evil, that more often than not, humanity is about protecting yourself and your loved ones from external threats. “The Curse of Frank Black” is a Halloween episode that features a spirit messenger who implies that even the heavens would like Frank to step aside from confronting the coming evils looming over the horizon. “Goodbye Charlie” portrays someone suspected of euthanizing unwilling victims facing terminal illnesses. That once comfortable notion of morality in season 1 became a lot more cynical and murkier in season 2.
In fact, after the first five episodes, just about every single episode after is worthy of an essay examining its themes and unique structure. “19:19” implies that God would’ve killed a bunch of children with a tornado if it wasn’t for the actions of a delusional criminal who kidnapped them claiming that he predicted the looming danger. “Midnight of the Century” is a Christmas episode that isn’t about any killers or antagonists (much like a number of episodes in season 2), but is instead about Jordan inheriting Frank’s ability to bear prophetic visions. It’s also about Frank reconciling with his estranged father, whom an angel prophesized would pass in the coming year. “Luminary”, one of the most unique episodes in the season, deals with the spiritual theme of abandoning the materialistic urban world to seek out the solitude of nature, referencing the fate of Chris McCandless two years after (the book) “Into the Wild” was released. Like I said, almost every episode is an ambitious narrative that’s unprecedented in primetime TV shows. Watching this season often felt like an adventure into the unknown, never knowing how Morgan and Wong would amaze me come next episode.
But arguably, the most impressive piece of writing lies with its feminist themes. In the ’90s where dated racial and gender stereotypes were abound, one of the few shows that stood out as a “feminist show” was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Much like its creator, Joss Whedon, the writers of Millennium season 2 were also often referred to as feminist writers. This is shown in a number of episodes involving Catherine Black, but the most notable example is “In Arcadia Ego”, a well-crafted episode that features a very realistic portrayal of lesbians who are not the voluptuous supermodel stereotypes often associated with lesbians on TV. Instead, one of them (Sonny) was a weighty type whom the male characters of the show often described as “might as well be a man.”
And yet, the portrayal of this couple was filled with innocence, love, and ultimately, tragedy. While it is rather heavy-handed in its portrayal of misogynistic men ready to hunt down a couple of lesbian convicts (one of whom, Janette, was even raped by a prison guard in her sleep), it remains impressive in its endeavor to showcase the kind of abuse female inmates indeed do face in real life. Furthermore, Janette was with child, and the couple believed that it was a virgin birth due to their ignorance of the horrific act inflicted upon Janette. And even after learning the fact, there was a moving scene where Janette still had faith that her pregnancy was an act of God, not man, for her to experience the miracle of birth with the woman she loves. It was hard to watch the episode without tearing up. For such a loaded script to be aired in the ’90s was an unimaginable achievement. In spite of whatever problematic connotations many episodes might bear, it’s hard to deny the courage of season 2.
And it didn’t stop there.
“Anamnesis” focuses on the gnostic texts where Mary Magdalene was depicted with far greater dignity and innocence than within the official Holy Bible. In fact, the episode itself explicitly stated that she was the wife of Jesus, and the child who is seeing angels in the episode is their child in a long-running bloodline. This was aired before Dan Brown would come to write “The Da Vinci Code” in 2003 five years later, and there would be two entire decades before a mainstream movie was made about Magdalene herself. Furthermore, a lot of the problematic and patriarchal structure of religious authorities were called into question in the episode, portraying that religion can be a tool to exert power over others. Once again, in a country where Christianity and Catholicism are the most celebrated forms of faith, this was a loaded script that was surprisingly allowed to air. Rumor has it that the board of Broadcast Standards and Practices almost didn’t approve.
Fortunately, this season’s greatest episodes aren’t usually commendable because of shocking narratives. “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” is impressive not because of any overtly controversial theme, but because it’s an anthology episode featuring four different tales told by demons bearing a striking resemblance with the Devil. Once again, anthology episodes were not a common trait in non-anthological primetime TV (as opposed to “The Twilight Zone” and “Tales from the Crypt”). You’re either anthological or you’re not, rarely both. Similarly, the use of long-form music sequences in TV drama wouldn’t become commonplace yet (with something niched like “Twin Peaks” being a crowning exception), but episodes like “Owls”, “Roosters”, “Anamnesis”, and especially the season finale, “The Time is Now”, would feature scenes with drawn-out soundtracks playing over them, with the last example almost turning the scene into a music video due to its lack of dialogue and psychedelic imagery.
But more than its unconventional practices, the second season of Millennium is about something more intimate. While the first season subtly hints at themes of apocalypticism, the second season explores it in far deeper layers to the point where it subverts the clichéd notions of apocalypse seen in ’90s movies and television shows.
As opposed to preparing the characters for some grandiose end of the world scenario full of fire and brimstones like some cheesy B-movie, Arnold’s confrontation with the embodiment of Satan in “The End of Days” for one thing (“You’re a choir boy compared to me!”), season 2 explores a lot more personal apocalypses about the end of a world, where things a person cherishes — be it a community, a loved one, or a family — are deprived from that person. Something devastating like that could very well feel like the end of the world as well, which is the underlying theme season 2 is built upon. Other times, episodes like Darin Morgan’s fantastic (and hilarious) episode, “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense”, dismiss entirely the common perceptions of apocalypse as stories we tell ourselves to attribute significance to our birth at such a momentous part of human history. A thousand years have passed our kind before without incident; why should the following thousand be any different? Instead, the fan-favorite character from The X-Files, Jose Chung the flamboyant writer, made an appearance here in Millennium to explain that the end of the world might very well come in the form of indifference and solitude, where life is snuffed out not with a bang, but a whimper of apathy towards one another. That is a far grimmer outlook than the more flashy ideas of zombies, Satan and extraterrestrial invasions.
The devils in “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me” suggest that humanity doesn’t need some malevolent supernatural force to damn their soul; they’re doing a fine job on their own through their pettiness, self-destruction and nihilistic existence. The first story of the anthology episode presents a serial killer fanatic who got talked by the devil (telling the tale) into following in the path of those celebrities he worshiped so much. Another story shows a lonely man going through the maddening routines of a 9-to-5 white collar job; the tale ends with him committing suicide. In the same vein, “The Time Is Now” reveals that the apocalyptic event present in the episode is of man’s own making, though specifically the Soviet Union.
Perhaps it’s due to my own cynicism of humanity and overall misanthropy, the fact that the end of the world is a product of humanity is probably my favorite theory on how we’re going out: by ultimately destroying ourselves. It leads to the introspection of our human nature and whether if the essence of evil and all its ugliness are existent within, not without. It’s decidedly a throughline in Millennium, the examination of the everyday evil we bear witness to around us. Such an ever-present subtext is also the reason why I feel such a kinship to the subject matter, particularly in its second season.
The clearest example of the season’s cutting criticism towards humanity is probably “The Mikado”, where a serial killer sets up a live stream online showing a woman bound to a chair. On the corner of the stream is a visitor counter, and once it reaches a certain amount of ticks (displayed on the wall), the killer murders her. This concept would eventually be used in the 2008 Diane Lane crime thriller, “Untraceable”. Both works place the blame on the voyeuristic stream viewers, suggesting that people can be inherently cruel, especially behind the vein of anonymity.
But morbid musings about the banality of evil and the scourge of humanity aside, something that’s as equally compelling is the ending itself. The way it ends leaves very little ambiguity for how the show would continue forward, such that the producers are fumed at what Morgan and Wong had done. A lot of the crew packed up their stuff and submitted their resume to other studios because they had assumed that this would be the end of the series. It’s certainly the most ambitious move by the duo, but they have claimed that they weren’t trying to sabotage the show, that there would’ve been a way to continue the story… just not a solution that would be accepted by the studio (and perhaps the audience) at that point in television history.
The solution offered involved an entire change in genre once again, from apocalyptic thriller to post-apocalyptic drama. Morgan and Wong proposed that they saw the ending as the beginning to a world like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. That’s something that’s literally unprecedented in TV history back in the ’90s and something audiences would most likely not accept yet ‘till a decade or two down the line, when something like “The Walking Dead” would exist. But god, I love that idea, and the real tragedy here is the limitation of the TV industry at the time resulting in the showrunner duo incapable of creating that dream TV show exploring the death of humanity that would become so ever-present today. Morgan and Wong, in more ways than one, were way ahead of their time.
However, the duo’s struggles against the studio’s actions (or rather, inaction) began much earlier when Fox refused to create publicity for the show, resulting in further decline of viewership ‘till its inevitable demise by its third season. Neither Fox nor its viewers would trust in the longevity of a show as dark and controversial as Millennium, and thus another gem was forgotten among the sea of dying stars.
When it comes to the faults of the season, it’s telling that its biggest sin is the writers’ overambition. More often than not, misfires like “Sense and Antisense” and “Siren” were a result of the writers trying to do too much with the limited time and script capacity they had. The former taps into African American racial themes that were ultimately rejected and had to be rewritten, while the latter also had racial themes (involving Chinese immigrants), but they were diluted by an attempt to tie the episode to Frank’s overarching character arc through the season. “The Hand of St. Sebastian” is a muddled episode that conveniently writes off the character of Cheryl Andrews (played by C. C. H. Pounder), but further develops the character of Frank’s partner this season, Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn). Even “A Single Blade of Grass”, a troubling take on clichéd native American stereotypes, had something meaningful to say about how the apocalypse might be a product of our overzealous imagination (in spite of the fact that this is proven untrue by the season finale).
Nevertheless, for all that it has accomplished in terms of innovative storytelling, such faults are easily forgiven. They are relatively minor faults anyway compared to far more tasteless gender and racial stereotypes over in The X-Files and other ’90s TV shows. Millennium season 2 has my highest praises for offering me exactly the kind of grim and fatalistic tale that I was hoping to find upon seeing its trailer back then.
Final Rating: 8.8/10
For those who haven't seen the series, I highly recommend you to check out this overlooked gem. It's hard to sum up why the series as a whole is appealing because each season has a different style and even genre to it because of the different showrunners handling the seasons (with Chris Carter taking on season 1 and 3, while Glen Morgan and James Wong season 2). Season 1 is more of a procedural serial-killer-of-the-week kind of show like a darker CSI, while season 2, as described above, is an exploration of the nature of evil while also subverting the usual apocalypse story.
Regardless, for those who love unconventional TV and such philosophical studies, "Millennium" is a must-watch.