Thursday, October 27, 2016

Millennium: "The Curse of Frank Black" (October 31, 1997)

On Halloween night, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) takes Jordan (dressed as Marge Simpson) trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. A fleeting glimpse of a ghost spurs Frank’s memory of a Halloween night from his own childhood.

A freak breakdown of Frank’s car and cellphone then lands him back at his yellow house. Now, it is a strangely vacant (and ominous….) place filled with ghosts too. 

One such ghost belongs to a tortured World War II veteran who knew Frank as a child, and who has returned, on this night, with a grave warning about the afterlife.

My favorite Halloween TV episode has to be Millennium’s “The Curse of Frank Black,” the second season entry by Glen Morgan and James Wong.  I admire this story for its human dimension and its importance to the larger series continuity, but mainly as an exploration of Halloween, and the idea that Frank Black has become --thanks to teenagers in the neighborhood -- the stuff of urban legends and local fears.

If we didn’t know Frank as we do, if we only had gossip and news stories to go on, what would we think of him?  This episode of Millennium allows us to adopt a dual perspective of the character.

The episode features a perfect symmetry in my opinion.  There are the flashback scenes of Frank as a child, trick-or-treating in the early 1950s and visiting the home of a troubled veteran (Dean Winters).  Frank and his buddies think that the “old man” is weird and scary, and tip-toe around his place.  They fear what they don’t understand.  And they most certainly don’t understand him.

Meanwhile, in the present, Frank finds himself in the familiar position of that long-dead veteran.  Now he is the one who is being whispered about by the young. Now he is the creepy adult; the one with secrets and mysterious.

I have always felt this is a great commentary on how quickly life seems to pass one by.  One minute, you’re the kid afraid of that strange, inscrutable grown-up who lives down the street.  Then before you know it, you’re the grown-up the kids are talking about so suspiciously. 

Life goes by in a flash.

“The Curse of Frank Black” features a lot of iconic (and quite welcome) Halloween symbolism, from Frank’s fearsome jack-o-lantern and the black cat perched outside his bungalow, to the trick-or-treating ritual with his child, Jordan (Brittany Tiplady), who is dressed-up as Marge Simpson.

But I particularly enjoy how the episode suggests that every day in Frank's life is, essentially, Halloween.  Or at least it could be, if he allows it to happen.  

After all, Frank sees monsters and demons lurking in the corner of his periphery and must, by sheer force of will, force himself not to notice them.  He must constantly avert his gaze.  At least if we are to believe he is gifted not just with insight, but with psychic abilities.

There’s something incredibly lonely and sad about this element of Black’s life, and it reminds us that Frank’s gift of insight is indeed the character’s curse.  He sees evil’s presence even when he wants to be blind to it; even at the moments we all take for granted (like trick or treating with our kids.)

I also get a kick out of the way “The Curse of Frank Black” uses legends about Halloween.  The episode remembers that this is a night in which the spirits of the dead can return to visit the living.  Accordingly, a ghost issues Frank a dire warning about how dangerously anti-social he risks becoming if he doesn't change his ways. Other series have also utilized this premise (“Hellowe’en” on Friday the 13th: The Series, for instance), but none have done so better than Millennium's holiday themed show.  Basically, in this case, a ghost tells Frank to lighten up.

I also often return to this episode of Millennium because it’s nearly a one man show, with Lance Henriksen holding the screen alone for the better part of an hour and proving absolutely riveting.  I can think of a lot worse ways to spend Halloween than with his Frank Black character, or in the care of this particular actor.  I find the character tragic, and a little sad in this hour of the drama. Frank manages to finds moment of delight and bemusement when he is alone, but overall, seems very sad and lonely.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Millennium: "The Beginning and The End" (September 9, 1997)

After Catherine (Megan Gallagher) is abducted from the airport by the Polaroid Killer (Doug Hutchison), Frank (Lance Henriksen) loses all sense of restraint and goes in search of him, with the help of Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn) and the Millennium Group.

Perhaps because his closeness to the “victim” in this case, Frank finds his gift of insight virtually useless. The Polaroid Killer escapes all attempts at profiling.  Instead, he is “so far beyond,” the usual serial killer that profiling him is useless.

Unbeknownst to Frank, the killer has timed his abduction of Catherine to the arrival of a comet in the night sky; one that possesses two tails and has not been seen by human eyes in a thousand years. He considers the comet an omen, one that will decide his fate, and that of all mankind.

Frank acts alone to save Catherine. Over the objections of the Millennium Group, he tracks down and and murders the Polaroid Killer.

But Frank’s brutal actions upset Catherine, who decides it is time for a marital separation. “I feel like you lost something,” she tells her husband, concerned that Frank has lost his moral rudder.

“The Beginning and the End” marks the start of Millennium’s (1996-1999) second season, a span which eschews the more realistic/grounded tales of season one, and explores more fantastic concepts. Similarly, the second season explores, more, fully “end of the world” or doomsday theology and philosophy.

The second season journey of Frank Black also begins with loss. Frank loses Catherine to the serial killer who stalked him throughout season one. And then, after saving her, Frank sees that his actions lose her again, this time on a more permanent basis. Catherine leaves Frank, and in the episodes ahead, we see the yellow house -- the sanctuary -- put up for sale. Frank’s season long quest might be described as one of redemption or recovery.

He must recover his lost insight, recover his wife and daughter, and redeem himself so that he is once more fit to live in the yellow house with his family.  Of course, if you’ve watched the series, you know that the quest does not end well for Frank, or for his family.

But in this episode, the yellow house goes from being a symbol of paradise, to one of paradise lost. It's haunting, and Frank is faced with difficult choices here.  He alone must choose what to do, gazing at the night sky, and wondering which destiny will be his.  Will his acts bring everything to an end? Or will they bring about a new beginning?

The sacred nature of Frank’s quest is telegraphed in the episode by a Polaroid photograph of the yellow house that is labeled “The Beginning and the End.” That yellow house is indeed Frank’s alpha and omega. It is the place, or perhaps symbol (for family), from which he draws his power and strength.  

Yet, as the Polaroid Killer discovers, it is also the source of his weakness, his vulnerability. Fearing for the loss of his family (again, represented by the yellow house), Frank acts brutally, vengefully, and outside the law.  He violates who he is, as a human being, to get the answer he desires and needs.

The yellow house is Frank’s beginning, and it brings about, in a way, the end. His need to protect his family and preserve the sanctuary is the thing that causes him to lose it. Catherine feels that Frank has sacrificed “one thing for another.” He has, she fears, sacrificed his moral compass, his goodness, to preserve it.

Uniquely, “The Beginning and the End,” by James Wong and Glen Morgan feels like a twisted mirror for their earlier tale, “Dead Letters.” 

As you will recall, I hope, from my review, “Dead Letters” is the story of a detective and father, Jim Horn, who has just recently become separated from his wife.  Filled with rage, he can no longer see the cases he investigates in a rational fashion. Instead, he keeps putting himself -- his rage, his feelings of insecurity -- onto the killers he hunts. When he profiles them, he is actually profiling himself.  

Frank recommends restraint, “stepping back,” but Jim Horn just can’t do it, and the results are quite disastrous.

In “The Beginning and the End,” it is Frank who can’t step back. 

In this case, Peter Watts comes to him -- in very much the role Frank occupied for Jim Horn -- and tells him a story about how he got too close to one case he was investigating. That case involves a cooler that was discovered with the body of a 4 month old boy inside. Peter soon came to believe that the dead boy was his own son.  He couldn’t step back. Everything became personal. He lost his perspective.

Just like Horn in “Dead Letters,” Frank is unable to step back, especially with so much of value (his family) on the line. He is not willing to trust the Group, or even Peter. The fate of his family must be in his hands, and so Frank commits violence to achieve his goal. He sacrifices too much, one could argue, to resolve the case quickly.

After this episode, Frank is cast out from the yellow house for his trespasses, and into the wilderness.  That sounds like a metaphorical term, and it is, but it is also literal. The second season sees Frank encountering a variety of stories involving wild animals (“Beware of the Dog,” “A Single Blade of Grass,”) and even reckoning with nature as an opponent, itself (“Luminary.”) 

In many of these stories, Frank is not only confronting other belief systems, but trying to find his way home.  He wanders a wild path, on the way. Again, we can see that in tales such as “Beware the Dog,” wherein a city slicker has to abandon his home in Bucksnort because he doesn’t belong there. Or in “Luminary,” in which a young man finds that his home is not in materialistic western society, but in the woods.

In terms of the series formula, “The Beginning and the End” is a new start, in some ways. The Black family is now estranged, and Frank has no support system.  Beyond that fact, the Millennium Group seems shadier than ever before, and therefore also less of a support system. Watts has some moments here in which he seems to react to the Group as if it is a cult, and he is a true believer.  

That’s why the Millennium Group is here,” he tells Frank after the abduction. “That’s why it’s always been here.”

Also, the rapidity with which the Millennium Group shows up at the airport following the abduction leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the Group is somehow connected to the Polaroid Killer. That he is acting according to some plan the Group helped to engineer, perhaps to de-stabilize Frank, or more significantly earn his loyalty.  

We will hold a special place for you at the Millennium” is a comment, in any circumstance, which is grandiose and a little alarming. There’s a messianic quality to it, for certain.

Certainly, the fact that the Millennium Group has information on the Polaroid Killer and is keeping it secret from Frank is cause enough to be concerned about the organization.  At the very least, one can establish that the Group is playing games when there are lives at stake.

On a much less serious front, this episode introduce Allan Zinyk as Brian Rodecker, the IT guy for the Millennium Group. He provides Frank his sign-in phrase to the server this week: “Soylent Green is people.” Clearly designed to lighten the mood, Rodecker re-appears in four more episodes throughout the season. I never had a problem with him, or his sense of humor, but I understand that some fans apparently saw him as a quasi-Lone Gunmen knockoff.

Doug Hutchison, who was Tooms on The X-Files (1993-2002) guest stars here as the Polaroid Killer, and he is creepily effective both in his scenes tormenting and Catherine and those discussing the comet. 

In the latter case, the comet is on a “thousand year orbit” and is returning “just in time for the year 2000.”  With its two tails, it offers two possibilities for our millennial experience.  Either we survive it, or we don’t.

The comet reflects Frank’s choice too. Either he acts and retrieves Catherine now…and ultimately loses them and the yellow house, or he could act with restraint, and follow the leadership of the Group.  

The second course has uncertain ramifications.

“The Beginning and the End” is sort of a test run for the second season format of Millennium, and as such it is very successful.  The opening sections of the episode, which involves Frank’s (failed attempts) to stop the serial killer with a road block, are immersive, and terrifying.  And the episode’ moral dilemma, while so damaging to Frank, makes for exciting and affecting drama.

Millennium 20th Anniversary: "Powers, Principalities, Throne and Dominions" (April 25, 1997)

What comes after someone survives a terrible and terrifying event? What truths or new perspectives follow in the wake of pure, blood-pumping terror?

These are the pertinent questions raised and answered at least obliquely by “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions,” the Millennium first season segment that directly follows “Lamentation,” the unforgettable introduction of Sarah Jane Redmond’s demonic villain, Lucy Butler.

The battlefield or thematic terrain of the episode is well-enunciated in the week’s opening quotation from Charles Manson, which reads: “Paranoia is just a kind of awareness, and awareness is just a form of love.”

In other words, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” concerns awareness in general, and specifically Frank’s dawning awareness of a Cosmic Order outside the ken of mankind. This awareness comes to him only after an extended and painful period of self-doubt and grief.

But ironically, awareness would also not be possible without that self-same period of self-doubt and grief.

Penned by Ted Mann and Howard Rosenthal, and superbly directed by Thomas J. Wright, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” thus finds the series’ lead protagonist, Frank Black at his lowest and most world-weary ebb and then -- surprisingly -- opens his eyes to an unseen world; the world of angels, demons and cosmic hierarchies.

The title of the episode itself indicates the nature of those cosmic schemes or hierarchies. According to some Biblical scholars, “Thrones” are living symbols of God’s justice and authority, “Dominions” are beings who regulate the lower angels, “Powers” are the bearers of conscience and keepers of history and “Principalities” are the educators and guardians of the realm of Earth.

Or contrarily, “Thrones,” “Dominions,” “Powers” and “Principalities” may be the categories of evil Minions existing on Earth; the twelve principalities of Satan, for instance (death, anti-christ, covetousness, witchcraft, idolatry, sedition, hypocrisy, disobedience, rejection, hypocrisy, etc.).

Similarly, in Ephesians 6:12 the apostle Paul wrote: “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

This was the author’s manner of suggesting that anti-God, malevolent forces existed in places of state, in places of Empire, in places of government.

Thus, in pondering this episode of Millennium, we (along with Frank) find ourselves plunged into a war involving supernatural beings on Earth. On one hand are angel-like agents of God such as Sammael, who seems a “guardian of the realm of Earth.” On the other hand is Alesteir Pepper, a man of worldly wealth and power and perhaps, actually, a demon. Even Aleister’s name suggests evil, as he jokes with Frank, making an almost-cryptic allusion to the notorious poet and Satanist mystic, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947).

In terms of Millennium history, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” plays tonally almost like the epilogue or coda of “Lamentation,” and represents one of the earliest instances in the Carter series of direct supernatural involvement in human affairs. To recap, in “Lamentation,” Frank’s family is threatened by Lucy Butler, and his best friend, Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich) is murdered in Frank’s own sanctuary, the yellow house where Frank tries in vain to “paint away” the darkness in life, per the words of series creator Chris Carter.

As “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” opens, Frank grapples heavily with the death of “Bletch” and the invasion of his yellow sanctuary. Accordingly, the episode’s dialogue continuously maps Frank’s sense of world-weariness, confusion, and diffidence. “I’m not ready to come back to work yet,” he tells Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn) with resignation during one phone conversation.

When Frank does become involved in a new case for the Millennium Group -- a seemingly-Satanic ritual-turned-homicide -- Frank admits that his “clarity is not what” he “had hoped it would be.” At home, Catherine worries what will happen to Frank if he cannot right his ship; if he cannot return to his true nature as a crusader against the darkness. “You can’t deny who you are Frank…if you let things go on this way, it’s only a matter of time…”

The unspoken ending to Catherine’s last sentence is no doubt an allusion to Frank’s nervous breakdown; the last time he lost his grip on his identity and his true, best self. Catherine clearly fears the same thing could occur again if Frank doesn’t find his emotional footing.

Interestingly, when Frank is confronted by Pepper, a man who may be a demon, he notes -- in maddeningly ambiguous tones -- that “you’ve come to me before.”

This seems an implicit suggestion that Frank’s previous mental breakdown arose as a result of the works of a demon, even, perhaps, the Devil himself. Only now – upon recognizing the demon again (although perhaps in a different form) - does Frank understand what he is really battling.

Admirably, director Thomas J. Wright’s selection of compositions during the early portions of “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominion’s” echo Frank’s crisis; his sense of uncertainty about himself, his gifts, and the nature of the world around him. Thanks in large part to these shot choices, death itself seems to oppress Frank in this episode, like an anchor pulling him down farther and farther.

To augment this perception of a man overwhelmed and oppressed by death, Wright stages shots of Lance Henriksen visually entrapped between support beams in Frank’s basements (the site of Bletch’s murder). This mise-en-scene limits Frank’s space in the frame and creates, in essence, a visual “cage” around the character.

Director Wright – a veteran of such programs as Beauty and the Beast, Otherworld, Dark Skies, and Nowhere Man -- also frequently positions Frank underneath heavy stone archways or obscured behind objects in the frame. These choices by Wright in general reinforce the lugubrious or heavy nature of the story, of Frank “denying who he is,” in the words of his wife, Catherine, and feeling defeated and overwhelmed by recent, tragic events.

At about the ten minute point of the episode, for instance, in the scene that finds Frank and Peter Watts discussing Sammael, Wright even positions Frank behind two coffins in the foreground, a visual indicator that death is foremost on his mind, and occluding, again, his space or freedom in the frame.

Another moment, early in the episode, also expresses Frank’s conflict. He gazes at his reflection in a bathroom mirror, and the idea, expressed by the director’s selection of angles, is that he is battling himself, (his reflection); battling his sense of doubt and uncertainty.

As the episode continues and Frank is drawn further into the seemingly unconnected case of a murderer named Martin, the profiler continues to flash on mental images of Bletch’s murder. But instead of denying the connection to the event that consumes his mind, Frank begins to explore it more fully. This is Frank’s perennial strength, his ability to face the darkness head on. Soon, he is listening to his visions instead of trying to dismiss them as symptoms of trauma or stress.

Again, Thomas J. Wright cannily finds exactly the right visuals to suggest Frank’s restored confidence. When, during the climax of the episode, Frank witnesses a parking lot confrontation between a diabolical attorney named Aleister and a stranger -- really the “angel of death” Sammael, for instance, Wright presents two competing visions of the conflict in fast succession.

In the consensus view of reality, Sammael is armed with a gun and fires it at Pepper at point blank range. But in Frank’s personalized, insightful view of the event, a kind of supernatural energy beam is emitted from Sammael’s palm and strikes the demonic lawyer. These rapidly alternating views of the same event make the audience aware that Frank again has confidence in his insights. He sees the event for what it is: a supernatural assassination; one of God’s agents (Sammael, who in literature is sometimes good and sometimes evil) “binding” and defeating an agent of Satan, Aleister Pepper.

Likewise, when Frank disarms Sammael after the confrontation, Wright’s camera adopts a low angle perspective, one that in cinema history traditionally represents power or strength. Frank and Sammael – again, an angel or supernatural creature of some variety – share a tight two shot, as Frank puzzles over the gun.

Both the perspective and the staging reveal Frank’s intrinsic strength. Visually, he is on equal footing with the angel in this case. The shot selection thus makes one wonder if Frank is actually a critical part of God’s hierarchy as well. Like a “Throne” is a symbol of “justice” and like a “Power” is a force of conscience, so thus is Frank himself, discerning truthfully that which other humans cannot see. The two-shot reinforces this notion, as it suggests a comparison, a kinship between the two objects or people sharing space in the shot.

When Frank declares that whatever force killed the man named Martin was “anything but natural” in “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions,” he is evidencing his sense of “awareness” (after the paranoia and doubt) as referenced in the episode’s opening quote. Frank has begun to detect that something bigger than man is involved in man’s affairs, and that he is, in fact, a crucial player in that supernatural war.

This idea represents a huge opening up of Millennium’s mythology, an embrace of religious mythology or “faith” in very literal, concrete terms. But what remains so remarkable about this episode is that Frank’s journey from awkward self-doubt to awakened awareness is charted not just in terms of dialogue or narrative details, but in the director’s artistic and meaningful selection of angles and viewpoints.

I often write on my blog that film and TV work best when form follows or reflects content, and this axiom is also true in spades of Thomas J. Wright’s work on Millennium, and this episode in particular.

Another way to put it: The teleplay for “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” makes Frank aware that there is more on Earth than is dreamed of in man’s philosophy; but Wright’s clever, crisp and expressionist visualization of the teleplay makes the audience actually feel that another world exists side-by-side our own.

More than that, Wright’s steady direction shows us Frank’s place within the larger battlefield, and allows us to take the measure of the man. The Devil wants more than anything to co-opt Frank, to turn him to darkness, but the message of “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” is that if Frank can maintain confidence in his “gift,” he will see through the Devil every single time.

Millennium: "Lamentation" (April 18, 1997)

“Every man, before he dies, shall see the Devil”

-Old English Proverb.

Dr. Ephraim Fabricant (Alex Diakun) is the most diabolical serial killer that Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) has ever encountered. Fabricant is well-known for having killed five nurses (slitting their throats…), but is abducted from his hospital room after donating a kidney to his sister.

The F.B.I. Behavioral Sciences Unit calls in Frank to investigate Dr. Fabricant’s kidnapping. The trail leads back to a mysterious woman named Lucy Butler (Sarah-Jane Redmond), who seems to be an expert manipulator…and a sadist.

While Frank tangles with Lucy Butler, and attempts to find out the truth about her, she strikes him where he lives, literally. 

She invades the Black’s yellow house -- in the form of a strange man, and a demon -- and terrorizes Catherine and Jordan.

Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich) intervenes, and learns, fatally, just how dangerous Lucy Butler can be.

“Lamentation” is one of the most significant and unforgettable episodes in Millennium’s catalog. 

The (superb) teleplay from Chris Carter is a major turning in point in the series and from here on out, nothing stays the same. 

In the first season up until this point, Millennium is a largely-grounded series, contending in few fantasy elements. Frank’s visions are not psychic powers…they are a form of insight that he cultivates, which we witness. 

And the serial killers may sometimes appear to possess alternate, monstrous forms (see: “Gehenna,”) but those forms are usually explained away in some fashion that restores the audience’s sense of reality.  We understand that the serial killers are metaphorical monsters, but not literal ones.

All that goes out the window with “Lamentation,” a balls-to-the-wall horror tale that introduces a character with clear supernatural (and sinister) overtones: Lucy Butler.  Seductive, sadistic, tricky, and taunting, Lucy appears sometimes as a long-haired man, sometimes as a woman, and sometimes as a monstrous demon.  And she is the most dangerous, powerful foe that Frank Black ever faces.

Clearly, there is more to Lucy than what we understand in a realistic setting or world. The next Millennium episode -- “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” -- goes even further in charting a kind of cosmic hierarchy, and positioning Lucy, Frank and others within it. 

The supernatural, in other words, has arrived, full-force, on the series.

“Lamentation” involves Dr. Fabricant, and I love his given name. First, it refers to a real life serial killer, apparently. But beyond that common point, Fabricant means “manufacturer.” Or, one who manufactures.

Let’s explore that idea for a moment. One who manufactures, for lack of a better word, is God. 

And Fabricant is a killer in the vein of Dr. Hannibal Lecter or Jack the Ripper. He is a fiendishly intelligent man, with surgical knowledge and a total lack of conscious.  Fabricant, in other words, is the God of serial killers.

And along comes lovely Lucy Butler in “Lamentation,” to take down that God, and totally, utterly destroy him.  Accordingly, Lucy proves that there are some horrors that go beyond the human realm, or human understanding.  She teaches a sociopath and psychopath the meaning of evil. She makes a man who traffics in pain and suffering beg her for mercy.

“Lamentation” operates by a very clever artistic conceit, then. Through Frank’s detailed dialogue and FBI meetings, Fabricant is built up as the ultimate serial killer, the ultimate monster, a real bad MF. 

But then, in a narrative u-turn, he isn’t the real threat at all.  Lucy, instead, is the real threat.  The carpet has been pulled out from under us.  We come to see the devil, and it isn't Fabricant.

Another possible reading: If the name fabricant means manufacturer, what does he (the serial killer?) manufacture? 

Is it possible that, somehow, he gave rise to Lucy? Caused her to come into this world?  Is his presence in the world the “manufacturer” of Lucy Butler in this particular iteration?  Was she sent to destroy him, and demonstrate for him the true nature of evil?

Why is “Lamentation” so perpetually terrifying?  I would say that, primarily, it is frightening because the episode establishes that there is an evil beyond Fabricant’s type in Lucy Butler.  And then, after pointing out that fact, the episode launches Lucy Butler -- like a guided missile -- straight at the yellow house, and Catherine and Jordan.  The danger feels palpable as Frank realizes that his family is danger.

And the danger isn’t given short-shrift. The series loses a major character this week. Bill Smitrovich’s Bob Bletcher, a Seattle detective, gets murdered in cold blood by Lucy in Frank’s house.  Not only is the sanctuary of the yellow house violated by evil and death, but a major character is lost.  

If you become entangled with the devil, or a demon, “Lamentation” warns, there are going to be grave consequences. 

And “Lamentation” doesn’t shy away from those consequences.

What makes the tale even creepier is that Lucy now has her eye on Frank.  Evil has seen him, and recognized him. 

What’s scarier than Dr. Fabricant? The words that Evil “knows you.”

“Lamentation” is also buttressed by a clever book-end structure set in the Cascade Mountains. As the episode opens, Frank and Bletch hike there, and discuss the unchanging nature of the mountains from one particular summit.

People are born, grow up and die, and the mountains still stand.

Then, the episode ends -- after Bletcher’s death -- with Frank and Jordan hiking the same mountains. They see the same peaks, but Frank has changed, and Bletcher is dead and gone. 

We are all mortal and impermanent, and the return to the mountains, after all the horror and death, reinforces that truth of the human condition.  

Love your family. 

Love your life.  Because it ends, and the universe continues anyway, unblinking, in your absence.

And what, finally, can be said of Sarah Jane Redmond as Lucy Butler, who steals the show? Well, this actor - in one just one hour, proves an evil opposite equal to Frank in stature. She is beautiful and slight, and yet she exudes power, and menace. 

When Lucy gives voice to a line of dialogue like “the soul expresses itself in so many amazing ways” in “Lamentation,” it takes on new life, and multiple layers of meaning. It might mean something beautiful, or something horrible. 

Or that something horrible might be considered beautiful by a monster like Lucy.

Lucy returns in two other episodes of Millennium, “A Room with No View,” and “Antipas,” and each time proves a dynamic challenge for Frank Black. But in this episode, she proves absolutely terrifying. The set-piece which involves Catherine discovering a kidney in the refrigerator, and Lucy’s invasion of the house, is one of the most terrifying sequences in cult-TV history.

The scene combines so many visceral elements. You have a powerful menace (beyond all serial killers), a sanctuary invaded, loved ones imperiled, the death of a major character, and the inescapable feeling that our protagonist, Frank Black, is absolutely helpless to stop any of it.  Worse, the universe (represented by the Cascade Mountains) -- in its permanence -- doesn’t seem to care about our suffering.

A “lamentation” is the act of expressing grief. One can see how that definition fits in with the details of this particular episode. Lucy grieves over the death of her child (whom she poisoned). Frank mourns the death of Bletch. And Frank and Catherine mourn the loss of their sanctuary and their “innocence” there, thanks to the home invasion.

But for an episode so powerful, so scary, we don’t need to lament at all. 

Instead, we can praise this installments for its shocking twists in the Millennium format, and for the path it leads us down in future episodes, and future seasons.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Millennium After the Millennium?

A new project on the horizon, from TLF Productions:

Millennium: "Walkabout" (March 28, 1997)

“I remember the very things I do not wish to; I cannot forget the things I wish to forget.”
 – Cicero

Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn) appears at the Black house out-of-the-blue to inform Catherine (Megan Gallagher) that Frank has gone missing. 

He disappeared while working under the alias “David Marx,” and while being involved with a drug trial for a new SSRI drug called Proloft. The experimental drug is meant to treat “temporal lobe anomalies” and hallucinations.

Frank (Lance Henriksen) is soon discovered in an alley, after being robbed and beaten. Unfortunately, he experiences amnesia about his whereabouts in the previous days.

As Frank attempts to recreate his missing time, he learns that he was involved with an illicit study for a substance called anti-Proloft.  This drug created violent reactions in those who inadvertently imbibed it (in water). 

It drove them to bouts of homicidal and suicidal madness.

Now Frank fears that the same person behind the illicit trial is going to attempt to poison another group of unwitting and innocent victims. 

Worse, he finds out that a sample of “Smooth Time” tea has been contaminated with the dangerous drug…

“Walkabout” commences with a total descent into (graphic) madness, and it’s a shocking note to start on. The camera moves into a building we have never seen before, and very soon lands on utter madness and chaos.

We see a man grind out his own eyeballs, for instance. But the real kicker is the teaser finale.  The prowling camera moves to a door, and we see Frank Black among the insane.  He is mad too, demented and pounding on the door glass for release.

He has lost himself.

Given Frank’s history (with nervous breakdowns), this opener is more than a little alarming.  At this stage of Millennium, we are already used to seeing Frank as a calming force in the world. He is a man of reason and rationality, who controls his impulses. Suddenly, he is someone else in these shots.  A different self has been unloosed. The id is released.

The last person we expect to see among the criminally insane is Frank Black.  Like the events of the story proper in “Walkabout,” the opening imagery makes us reconsider how we have categorized and understood our protagonist.

It is a shock to the system.

When Catherine confronts Frank about his missing days, she is understandably worried about him, and fearful of a relapse.  And once again, Frank has not minded Catherine’s explicit counsel. She asked that he not keep secrets. And what has been exposed is that Frank is still keeping secrets, against her wishes.

This is very typical of the character type that my wife (a psychologist) terms “The Chris Carter male.” Men of this type are loving in some fashion but also unavailable, emotionally, on a truly intimate level. They keep their own counsel about what to self-disclose. Although they can be funny (Mulder), paternal (Frank), or sardonic (Doggett), they keep much close to the vest.

Specifically, in this case, Frank has been investigating Proloft, a drug which might quiet his “visions.”  Frank is exploring this option because he fears that his daughter, Jordan, will offer suffer from them as well.   This is exactly the kind of fear or insecurity a husband might share with his wife.  The fear that he has transferred to their daughter something of his own suffering or pain.  But Frank doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t share.  Instead, Frank explores his fear by himself, alone, disclosing nothing.

Soon, however, Frank has an “extreme adverse reaction” to the drug he is exposed to: Anti-Proloft. Instead of suppressing temporal lobe activity, it stimulates it. It causes “primal behaviors,” including self-mutilation and extreme violence.

This is what happens when you don’t share your feelings, metaphorically-speaking, right? You don’t get better. In fact, you get worse.

As I’ve written before, Millennium is a series that looks at the culture around it, and then reflects that culture back at the audience. In this installment, the commentary is plain, but worthwhile. The fear here is of a culture in the 1990s that medicates itself with anti-depressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Celexa, rather than face psychological problems head-on. One character in “Walkabout” notes, for instance, that “half the country’s on anti-depressants already.”  Another notes “People will take anything. We’re a nation of zombies.”

What does this mean on a practical level? Simply that as a people we cannot tolerate feelings of ambiguity or sadness. We can’t accept that such feelings are part and parcel of human life, of the human condition. Instead, we choose to eradicate those feelings through drugs; via so-called “happy pills.”

The trade-off is that the drugs have different side effects, ones that may also change “who we are.”

I should make plain that I am not against medicine that helps people handle recurring depression. I am against over-prescribing medicine to people who don’t need it, to ameliorate “moods” that can be vanquished, instead, through communication, therapy, and a degree of self-awareness.

In “Walkabout” Frank learns that the killer wants to call attention to this nation of “zombies.” He wants to demonstrate that you can’t “straighten out your life” with drugs -- the motto of Proloft.  You can only delay your reckoning with your emotions.  That day will still come.

This is a powerful metaphor for what Frank goes through too. Instead of sharing with Catherine his fears about his gift, and its impact on his daughter, he seeks a route to medically eliminate his gift. 

Easier to stop thinking about the problem, and just take a pill, right?

Of course, Frank insists in this episode that he would never be part of a drug trial like this. And we learn, indeed, his drinking water was contaminated without him knowing it.  The question left unanswered by the episode is this: Why did Frank explore the Proloft trial in the first place (and under an assumed name), and with the intent of helping Jordan, if he had no desire or plan to use the drug?

Once more, one can see how Millennium’s “crime/serial killer of the week,” is really but a symbol for some struggle in the personal gestalt of its protagonist, Frank Black.

Here, Frank battles himself. He can’t accept the part of himself (his gift of insight) that one day may bring harm to his daughter. Here -- make no mistake -- he tries to kill that gift.

A “walkabout” is an aboriginal custom, a journey on foot, taken to live in a “traditional matter.”  Millennium’s “Walkabout” concerns Frank Black trying to return to a normal or traditional mode of life, by eliminating the thing that keeps him seeing the dark: his visions.

Millennium: "Dead Letters" (November 8, 1996)

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

-Job 3:25.26

While young Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) is plagued by nightmares of an evil clown, Frank (Lance Henriksen) embarks on a new case in Portland. 

Specifically, he investigates a serial killer who leaves messages for the police in strange places (including a victim’s hair follicle), so as to prove his superiority over the authorities.

While Frank attempts a profile, he also works with another detective, Jim Horn (James Morrison), whom the Millennium Group is considering for admission.  Horn is undergoing a marital separation, and is filled with rage.  

That rage, unfortunately, threatens Frank’s case.

“Dead Letters,” an early episode of Millennium (1996-1999’s) first season, is another story in which an investigation actually provides a lesson, or an insight for Frank Black.  

Usually, the serial killers and their mode of operation cause Frank to reflect on some aspect of his life, or American society. Here, Frank meets someone that, but for the Grace of God, could be him.

That person is detective Jim Horn, a man who is undergoing a  marital separation from his wife, and has a two-year old boy, T.C. Jim is a mirror for Frank. Ominously, Frank actually says in this episode “I’ve never been separated,” but that’s actually precisely what occurs in the second season.  And like Horn here, Frank has a young child whom he loves more than life itself.

James and Frank work on the case of the Portland serial killer together, but it is an uneasy partnership. This awkwardness is demonstrated in a scene that could be described basically as a profiler pissing contest. Frank explains his view of the killer, (a man who has never been married or had sex), and then Horn offers his own competing version. He sees a killer who has a terrible rage towards women.

But importantly, Horn is actually imposing his own feelings on the profile he creates.

What Frank realizes in "Dead Letters" is that where he tries to empathize with the killer, and imagine what goes on in the killer’s head. Horn merely projects his own emotional state onto the violent criminal. In other words, it is Horn who feels the rage towards women; particularly his wife.  He has unresolved feelings about her, because of their marital problems.

Frank suggests to Horn that he should take a “step back,” but Horn can’t. “As a father,” he tells Frank, “I risk adding nothing” to T.C.’s life.  Jim feels his fatherhood of the boy is like the “dead letters” of the title: a dead end.  Dead letters have no home, and no destination. They ultimately don't connect with the readers/people that they should. The killer in the episode is someone who wants to remain significant, and ironically, that’s precisely Horn’s dilemma too. However, Jim sees no way to remain significant or meaningful, and even ends up arguing with the telephone company because he feels that he undervalued. The business-like, non-personal interaction makes him feel dehumanized.

On a related note, in this episode we get a really good sense of how Frank reacts when challenged. In the profiler pissing contest I tagged above, he and Horn go at it, but Frank is never personal, and he never rises to take the bait. He doesn’t show offense. He is preternaturally calm, instead. This is a key aspect of the Frank Black persona, and one reason I find the character so appealing. Instead of being petty, instead of rolling in the mud over something like this, Frank simply says his peace -- without attitude -- and lets his expertise stand.

What others do with his expertise, he factors, is beyond him. Frank can only give others the benefit of his insight and knowledge.

This is an attitude Horn might adopt. As the episode continues, he lets his rage get the better of him, and goes off the rails. He interferes with a sting Frank has set up to catch the serial killer. He spoils the arrest and taints the evidence.  He is a basket case of inefficient emotion and directionless rage. By trying to avoid becoming meaningless, he becomes useless.

Why does he do it? Well, Horn looks at a picture on his desk, of his son, and conflates that image of innocence with the murders of a crime scene. He personalizes the crime scene to the extent that he thinks the killer is going to murder his son.  He loses perspective.

And a good investigator needs perspective.

Frank tells Horn, at the end of the episode “You put them in your head,” referring to the criminals he profiles. This is not what Frank does. 

Frank empathizes. 

Frank seeks to understand, and this is something that Horn cannot fathom. But because of “Dead Letters” the audience starts to understand how Frank approaches a profile, and how delicate that process can be.  Horn tries to achieve the same magic, but can’t do it. He can’t put aside his ego or his emotions, and the result is a faulty profile.  The result is also, for Horn, a professional failure. It is made clear at the episode’s denouement that the Millennium Group will not again show interest in him.  He lacks the temperament to do what Frank does.

In terms of series mythology, this episode is so important because in season two Frank goes astray in “The Beginning and the End” much the way that Horn does here, in "Dead Letters." He acts impulsively, on his own (to rescue his family), and his wife, Catherine, separates from him. He loses his paradise and sanctuary of the yellow house because he loses the very equilibrium that serves him so well in episodes like “Dead Letters.”

I don’t think there was necessarily a plan, when “Dead Letters” was made, to send Frank down this path over the course of the series. Gut if one watches “Dead Letters” and “The Beginning and the End,” together, it is amazing to see how the same “flaws” that destroy Horn threaten to undo Frank, and his gift of insight (which is lost, for a time, in Season Two).

“Dead Letters” also continues to develop Jordan’s story line beautifully. Throughout the series, she is shown to be a sensitive, and somewhat fragile child. She is often taken to the hospital, or sick from some inexplicable illness. She can detect things in people and places, too, which others don’t.  Here, she encounters in a nightmare a clown that terrorizes her, and sees her Father descending an endless staircase.  

What is that clown? It’s hard to say exactly, what significance it plays in Jordan’s psyche, beyond being, simply, a childhood vision of terror.

But we can speculate about what it means to see Frank on the endless staircase in perpetual unseeing descent. 

Knowing how sensitive Jordan is, I wonder if she sees her father descending, further and further, towards a destination he can’t control. She can’t get his attention as he descends.  He's locked ona path; locked in a form of tunnel vision.

Gazing across the seasons of Millennium, it is not difficult to detect the overall path as one of Frank’s descent, losing his certainty about family, friends, his gift, and the Millennium Group itself.

Pointedly, Jordan ask Frank if he knows bout bad dreams, and he responds that he does; or at least that he “knows enough to keep them away” from her.  Frank’s descent, in some way is a mirror of Horn's descent, but for Frank it’s not that he desires to be significant or meaningful to his family. It’s that he wants to protect the ones he loves, and he takes ardent, sometimes violent responsibility for that job of protection.

So many Millennium episodes concern the serial killers and what they symbolize about the nature of our society. “Dead Letters” is a twist on the formula, from early on, because it asks the same question, but of an investigator.  Jim Horn is lost, and can't "see what the killer sees."  All he can see is his own rage.

What does Horn’s dilemma tell us about our culture, and our families?

If I had to answer that question, I’d focus on some key points. 

Both Jim Horn and Frank Black are men driven to protect their families. This drive forces them to see and experience things that jeopardize, for them, the overall experience of family.  They have to lie and keep secrets about what they’ve seen. They have to pretend the darkness isn’t there.  They are absent, for long stretches, from the ones they love, making them seem, to their children and spouses, distant and uncaring. Not surprisingly, because of their choices, they begin to be disconnected from their families.

Society asks men to be strong and silent, but if that’s the rule, where can men like Horn put the rage they feel? The killer reports in "Dead Letters" that people in our society are like “animals in a caged shelter” and in a way that is true of Horn.  He has rage and anger, feels rejection and loss, and has no place to pour out all that, except into his job.  

We hope the same isn’t true of Frank. But as Millennium continues, we see, sometimes, that it is.