Millennium: An Essential Guide to One of TV’s Most Fascinating Shows

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“Who cares?”

This simple question, asked in the last title card of Millennium’s opening credits, challenges its characters as much as it does us viewers. Since its premiere, Millennium (1996-1999), a series created by Chris Carter of The X-Files fame, made it clear that it would be wrestling with the theme of evil in a way never before seen on network television. Edmund Burke’s famous line, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” is just one of many responses to darkness illustrated by the series’ fascinating exploration of serial killers, eschatology, and millennialism of all stripes, writ large against a cosmically mysterious, often profoundly unsettling universe.

But even in episodes in which the truth falls prey to courts of public opinion, ends-vs-means justifications and equivocations, or conspiratorial misdirection, the one persistent stalwart—the one person who always cares—is the show’s gravelly-voiced moral anchor and cross-seasonal protagonist, Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). The series begins after what might be the end of a regular show: Frank’s already had a full and successful career with the FBI, on a smooth upward trajectory until he suffered a mental breakdown. Now, wary but undefeated, fiercely protective of his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady), he seeks to make a difference in the world by consulting for the Millennium Group, a network of similar ex-professionals who specialize in unusual cases requiring Frank’s unique sort of insight.

Never envisioned as an X-Files spinoff, but rather as “a sister series,” Millennium readily broke new television ground, becoming a relatively short-lived mainstream network series that spawned a host of pay-TV imitators. It engages difficult questions around violence, grief, and art in startlingly stark and sophisticated ways. Millennium’s creative team, many of the same forces behind The X-Files, took advantage of the smaller-scaled, more esoterically textured series to take storytelling risks that would have been ill-suited for Millennium’s ratings-behemoth elder brother.

To say that the show is drenched in darkness is an understatement. Chris Carter was so impressed by David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) that he hired that film’s production designer, Gary Wissner, to work on the pilot. This stylistic choice, and the specificity of Carter’s overall vision (which admittedly morphed in interesting ways as creative control was delegated to other parties in the second and third seasons) is clear from the get-go. Kicking things off in the pilot episode with desaturated freeze-frames, as though we are seeing documentary photographs come to life, and featuring quotes by William Butler Yeats alongside music by Nine Inch Nails and White Zombie, Millennium announced its bold aesthetic vision and distinctive tonal approach from its inception.

Further bolstering its production were inventive and often deeply unnerving scores by Mark Snow (of X-Files fame), and a slew of phenomenal guest actors, including James Morrison (“Dead Letters”), John Hawkes (“The Judge”), Paul Dooley (“The Well-Worn Lock”), Jo Anderson (“Broken World”), Brad Dourif (“Force Majeure”),  Alex Diakun (“Lamentation” & “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me”), Melinda McGraw (“The Pest House”), Darren McGavin (“Midnight of the Century”), and, most memorably, Sarah-Jane Redmond in the recurring role of Lucy Butler.

Though it may now be a quarter of a century old, Millennium’s thoughtful social commentary and apocalyptic sensibility—the shadowy Millennium Group itself is often preoccupied by gloomy divinations, not to mention subject to differences of methodology that force a violent schism between its members and lead to a terrible virus being unleashed at the conclusion of the second season!–keep it as engaging as ever. Rewatching Millennium today, one sees the seeds of many acclaimed subsequent series: Dexter, Mindhunter, Criminal Minds, True Detective, and Hannibal, to name a few.

That said, 67 hours is a lot of viewing time. Also, though Millennium’s lofty aspirations are always to be applauded, every so often the show falls remarkably short of the mark. As a result, we thought it would be helpful to distill the entire series down to twenty of our favorite episodes that comprise an essential viewer’s guide. This subset of episodes should, if nothing else, showcase Millennium’s extraordinary range of storytelling—from the gritty procedural to the audaciously surreal, with overtly supernatural stops along the way—while providing meaningful arcs for its key characters.

Millennium may have first seen the light of day twenty-five years ago, and is likely unknown to many contemporary viewers, but as fans of the show, we definitely still care…“This is who we are.”

 

Pilot (Episode 1)

“I become capability. I become the horror—what we know we can become only in our heart of darkness.” Meet the Black family, along with Lt. Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich), and Frank’s mysterious Millennium Group mentor Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn). Frank Black has a unique gift, but will it be enough to stop the Frenchman? Welcome to a world daubed in apocalypse and grotesquerie, where even when you catch the villain, doom portends. Contains one of our favourite deadpan Henriksen lines, in response to the question, “How does [the killer] think?” His answer: “…differently.”

 

Gehenna (Episode 2)

“Is there something out there–a force or a presence–waiting until it can create another murder, another rape, another holocaust?” A powerful take on the tactics of consumerism and cult indoctrination, threaded through twin narratives of personal and global terrorism. You’ll never think of Cypress Hill’s “I Wanna Get High” in the same way again. This episode establishes Millennium’s main pattern, flipping back and forth between Frank’s partnership with local law enforcement versus his increasingly more arcane work with the Group. It also features a giant microwave oven.

 

522666 (Episode 5)

“What I do is not work, Frank. It’s art. My palette is fire, glass and blood.” When a fetishistic mass murderer ignites bombs using dead technology (the key-tones of an old-school telephone), a white-knuckle game of cat and mouse ensues, tackling themes of media stardom vis-a-vis self-perception, agency vs. impotence, and choice vs. destiny. This is pure procedural, with Frank working hard under increasing pressure, exhausted and doubting his own gift at every turn. It’s the very antithesis of Will Graham’s “magical” crime-solving in Hannibal.

 

The Thin White Line (Episode 14)

“I was afraid to come here. Not because of you, but because of me.” When a series of new killings echoes the work of an imprisoned killer Frank first faced as a young policeman, Frank is forced to visit the man and profile him in person, in search of answers but also to confront his own fears. Chilling guest star performances and a script evoking the work of four real-life serial killers, paired with a take on the classic predatory cellmate relationship that’s almost tinged with body horror, provide Henriksen with the perfect backdrop to display his own vulnerability and deep compassion.

 

Lamentation (Episode 18)

“You ask me to tell the truth, you won’t tell it yourselves.”  The less we reveal about this incredibly tense episode, the better. Really, only two words are necessary, for those who know: Lucy Butler. Noteworthy too is how this story, which travels from the heights of the North Cascades alpine landscape to the depravities of an inhuman heart, brings an unexpected fate to a key first-season character.

 

Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions (Episode 19)

“My offer remains open for as long as is necessary.” When Charles Manson provides an episode’s epigraph, you know you’re in for a wild ride. This doozy, a direct follow-up to “Lamentation,” is Millennium’s first overt gesture towards a far broader mythology…one which loops in potential demons and comfortless “angels” alike. Does Frank’s work sometimes intersect with far more profound, less human types of darkness? And what does it mean that he appears to be able to sense other sorts of powers at play, even if briefly cloaked in mortal flesh?

 

Broken World (Episode 20)

“He’s learned how to kill. He’s still working on how to enjoy his kills.” A return to the procedural model which directly anticipates the bleak pleasures of shows like True Detective, this case sees Frank investigating a series of animal mutilations which he accurately reads as a serial killer in utero attempting to work himself up to targeting more satisfying prey. This bleak pattern of escalation, a “becoming” which will inevitably climax in self-destruction, forms a tragedy foretold by Frank’s weary sin-eater’s response to it; at every point along the downward curve, he struggles to make sure it doesn’t poison the lives of those affected by it, making it impossible for them to believe in anything better.

 

The Curse of Frank Black (Episode 28)

“There’s no such thing as ghosts.” A testament to Glen Morgan and James Wong’s writing chops, this expertly paced, flashback-suffused outing adds serious depth to Frank’s character—while doubling as the perfect Halloween episode. (If you dig this one, and want additional insight into Frank’s family past, make sure to check out the Christmas-themed “Midnight of the Century”). Look for a key guest star appearance by Dean Winters (Ryan O’Reilly from HBO’s Oz) as well as support from Kristen Cloke as Lara Means, another Millennium Group consultant with a similarly difficult gift.

 

Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense (Episode 31)

“I have been in town doing research for my new book, which examines newly– arising belief systems at the end of the millennium.” Screenwriter Darrin Morgan imports his classic The X-Files gadfly character into Frank Black’s bleak world, using him to flip the script on Millennium’s usual mood of portentous horror, and slyly satirize everything from a very thinly-veiled version of Scientology to Henriksen’s own acting style.

 

Goodbye Charlie (Episode 33)

“Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die…” Now paired as partners, Lara Means and Frank investigate a series of assisted suicides that might be murders, all conducted by a weirdly affable Jack Kevorkian expy who wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. One of the series’ most mordantly hilarious yet baffling episodes… If Tucker Smallwood ever wants to visit and bring his portable karaoke setup along, decline.

 

Luminary (Episode 34)

“It was that moment when I turned my back on everything–and felt peace.” One of Henriksen’s personal favorites. Increasingly unable to countenance the Millennium Group’s more cultish aspects, Frank breaks from them momentarily, sacrificing their help on what soon turns out to be an extremely difficult case…one which requires him to travel to Alaska, identify a faceless corpse and stumble around in the literal wilderness, all in pursuit of something inexplicably numinous. Overtly evocative of the life and death of Chris McCandless (the subject of Into the Wild), the episode ends with Frank more secure in his gift than ever, even while his relationship with the Group continues to disintegrate.

 

The Mikado (Episode 35)

“What I do exists somewhere on the other side of words.” A perfect example of how dated technology doesn’t date narrative when the psychology at play remains true to form. Loosely based on the legendary Zodiac Killer case, this return to pure procedural is a genuine head-rush, as Frank and his Group team liaise with San Francisco police to hunt down a killer who’s outsourcing his sadism to the nascent Internet. As Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Lord High Executioner” blasts, Frank (much like the website he’s chasing) remains consistently just a beat behind his quarry, darkly amazed by how much genius is wasted in the service of inflicting pain on others.

 

A Room With No View (Episode 42)

“When I touch you, what color do you feel?”  The kidnapping of an intelligent but underachieving high school student at odds with his guidance counsellor marks the return of Lucy Butler, who tries to break to kid’s spirit by preaching the “beauty” of ordinariness to him as Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue” blasts on an endless loop, inundating his world with elevator music-themed despair. A sharp return to the larger mythology of Millennium, cut with commentary on the way society continues to try and cram square pegs into round holes.

 

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me (Episode 43)

“Their efforts to distance themselves from their animal natures only show what dumb beasts they truly are.” Four older character actors at the top of their game (Dick Bakalyan, Bill Macy, Alex Diakun, Wally Dalton) assemble at a late-night coffee shop to bitch about how their lives are going, quickly revealing themselves to be demons disguised as human beings whose various schemes to tempt, degrade, and destroy have all been interrupted recently when Frank Black somehow saw them for what they really were. Yet another Darrin Morgan special, hilarious and depressing in equal measures, it nevertheless showcases Frank’s deep compassion for all…creatures…when he notes to one demon: “You must be so lonely.”

 

Closure (Episode 49)

“You’re looking for logic that isn’t here.” Skipping right over Season Two’s wrenching closing episodes, we find an older, and even bleaker, relocated Frank, single-parenting Jordan and back with the FBI (sort of), while also playing dour mentor to Clarice Starling expy Emma Hollis (Klea Scott), who’s fascinated by the singular charisma that Frank’s unshakeable faith in his own abilities lends him. In their first real procedural episode together, guest star Garret Dillahunt leads a strange little found family death cult towards inevitable suicide by cop. Meanwhile, Scott and Henriksen explore Hollis’ back-story, involving a dead twin sister and the resonant mystery of why Hollis was allowed to survive.

 

Skull and Bones (Episode 51)

“They keep me safe. If they find them, they’ll know I know.” In this episode, once planned as the opener for Season Three, Hollis and her “real” boss Barry Baldwin (Peter Outerbridge) are sent to check out a mass grave underneath a highway construction site only to come face to face with Peter Watts leading a Millennium Group team. The resulting investigation shows Scott exactly what the Group has become since Frank left them… i.e., everything he ever warned her they were, and much worse. It’s a fascinating, tragic reversal of the series’ original template, once again showcasing Terry O’Quinn’s incredible range as he tries to charm Hollis into joining the Group even after showing her one of the literal murder factories through which they run their “cancelled” members.

 

Collateral Damage (Episode 56)

“I don’t disagree with you, but, there are issues with that. You know, policy.” Another Terry O’Quinn special, as Peter Watts is forced to turn to Frank and Hollis after his eldest daughter Taylor is kidnapped by someone with a grudge against the Group in general, but Peter in particular. After two seasons of admiring Frank’s respectful, adult relationship with Catherine, part of the episode’s tragedy lies in realizing exactly how much Peter’s wife has trained herself to either endure or wave aside—the price of being married to a zealot, rather than a visionary. But at least she’s still alive.

 

The Sound of Snow (Episode 57)

“I could have saved you. I had a choice.” White noise, expertly manipulated, here becomes the template for one’s worst fears (and the title doubles as a nice pun regarding the series’ composer). This episode, from its freaky opening scene involving ice cracking on a clear road (it’ll make sense when you watch it), makes brilliant use of specific settings to project the innermost psyches of its characters—including Frank. Here at last, in a poignant sequence, we receive a true follow-up to the second season finale, and with it, satisfying closure for Catherine’s arc.

 

Via Dolorosa (Episode 66) & Goodbye to All That (Episode 67)

“When they found him, he was a potential killer…” The opening shot of “Via Dolorosa,” which with the next episode forms a season- and series-ending doubleheader, shows Frank having interrupted Jordan’s class and running down a school corridor with her, while a teacher yells after him that he can’t. This alone should be enough to give you a notion of the stakes. We then flash back to the execution of a serial killer one week earlier, after which a new killer surfaces, appearing to replicate the deceased’s exact modus operandi. Just as the first title alludes to a pilgrimage, both episodes depict various characters undergoing simultaneous journeys to very different destinations. “Goodbye to All That,” which would prove to be the series finale, amply fulfills the promise of that gripping school-corridor scene, recontextualizing it in a way that renders the titular farewell with an exquisite balance of melancholy and freedom.

***

 

Since its original three-year run, Millennium has developed an impressive following, inspiring comic books, volumes of critical analysis, and even a commemorative documentary. Long after January 1, 2000 has come and gone, its resonance still continues: The recent documentary Millennium After The Millennium (2018), for example, explores how a period-piece show supposedly linked to one specific event can remain so fresh, managing to be both prescient and surprisingly contemporary decades later. Indeed, our current global state of affairs is driven by factions who seem, in many ways, far more obsessed with the idea of “forcing the End” than any of the world’s governments were when the show first aired.

Eschatology and fascination with “the End Times” aside, Millennium’s real lesson is that millennialism, as a belief system, can’t be yoked to any particular date. There will always be people who feel more comfortable believing that this world is a temporary thing, a mere way station before some great supernatural reward for those who share their values (and judgement and damnation for those who don’t). On the other hand, Millennium suggests, there will always be people like Frank and Jordan Black, too—people able to distinguish between internal and external evil, able to reassure us that if the millennium is always here, it represents a constant, continual chance to not just to burn it all down, but to begin again anew.

Gemma Files is the award-winning author of five novels, five collections of short fiction and three chapbooks of poetry, all horror. She is also a teacher, film reviewer and mother.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published some fifty stories, along with over a hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in a variety of professional magazines and anthologies.

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