Millennium: The Complete Second Season Review
Roughly half way through this second season of Millennium, it is revealed that the shady Millennium Group is split into two factions. Although both factions have broadly the same aim, their beliefs about how to get there and what it is they actually think they want to achieve differs widely, resulting in a schism and a disparity of function. This split results in an almost schizoid approach to their work and what they do practically day-to-day, and it’s one that is reflected in the series itself amongst the writers. Most of the writers still believe they are making a show about a detective who hunts down killers who have some kind of apocalyptic connection, but two of them think it’s about something slightly but crucially different. This has a marked effect on the series, and makes the tone less coherent than in its first year.
The two writers in question are Glen Morgan and James Wong, who came aboard this season as effective show runners. They had begun their writing partnership on The X Files before leaving to launch their own series, the short-lived but critically acclaimed Space: Above and Beyond. Once that finished they were invited to return to the Chris Carter fold to become the show runners on Millennium as Carter himself had other things on his plate that year, most notably the X Files movie, and didn't have time (or interest?) to devote to the series. This new blood marked an extremely noticeable change in the series’ direction. While the first season had been almost exclusively concerned with serial killers and their motivations (which were usually connected in some way to religious iconography), this year was much more open to explore all aspects of the idea of the Apocalypse, an expansion in subject matter extremely welcome given the increased variety of episodes we got this year.
That changes were in store is made clear from the very first episode. Picking up from the season one cliffhanger, Frank Black (Lance Henrikson) is tracking down the kidnapper of his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher) only to knife him to death when he does so in a fit of rage. Catherine, shocked at seeing this new, violent side of her husband, moves out of the house with their daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady), concerned at the effect Frank’s work with the Millennium Group is having on his already-scarred psyche. Over the course of the season, they slowly try and work through their difficulties, while Frank simultaneously becomes ever-more entangled in the Group’s workings, discovering, to his cost, that even they have more than one agenda.
This switch in focus, from the sometimes CSI-like deconstruction of a serial killer’s motives and psyche, to concentrating more fully on the coming Apocalypse and the Millennium Group’s real role in it all, is rather jarring at first, and feels at times like a completely different series. In the first ten episodes there are only three “regular” episodes featuring a killer, and even one of those turns out to be a little girl. The others begin building on the idea that, this year, themes of religion and the mysticism pertaining to the up-coming millennium would take centre stage, and that the strange phenomena that we only saw occasionally in Season One would take a much more prominent role this time. This is made explicit by the introduction of recurring character Lara Means (Kristen Cloke) in the fourth episode, Monster, a character who has visions of an angel of death as a premonition of things that are about to happen. Having two things in common with Frank (the visions and the fact that they are both criminal profilers who the Millennium Group is trying to enlist), over the season she virtually becomes Frank’s partner in his exploratory journey as she, too, is trying to make sense of what is happening around her. In Season One, Frank had no one who could really understand what he was going through – now he does, and finds in her someone he can confide in, someone he comes to feel he can trust. This year, this partnership learns, serial killings will take a back seat to their journey towards what some in the Group would probably call Enlightenment.
Not only does Frank learn a lot this season but we learn a lot more about him and his background too. We meet his estranged father, (played by Darren McGaven, whose 1970s character Kolchak was the principal inspiration for The X Files), and see flashbacks to both his childhood and the work he did with the FBI (he even runs into a killer he'd let get away previously) - we even learn he likes Bobby Darin, whose music pops up all over the place (although I'm not sure the use of it in Goodbye Charlie is the best endorsement for him). During the first season Frank’s character was a bit of a closed book, and it’s good that he is opened up more now – we even get a backstory regarding his gift and a reason it might have been passed on to Jordan (although Jordan’s gift itself is ignored in all but one episode this year). As well as the narrative leading us down Frank’s family past, the man himself is more willing to open up to people – as well as Lara, his relationship develops with Peter Watts, his main liaison with the Group, this year to such a degree that he is able to shout at him and accuse him of things near the end. His relationship with Catherine is more complex too and it is a pleasing dramatic irony the writers construct that Frank finally manages to open up to Catherine and lay his situation on the line in front of her, something she has been begging him to do for the entire length of the series thus far, just before a new crisis threatens to engulf them all. This last is a particularly important breakthrough for the character, and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of the consequences of this. His gift for seeing through the eyes of a killer changes too and becomes far less-important, reflecting the change in focus. (As an interesting aside to this, in The Mikado it's shown that Frank has to be actually at a scene to be able to use his skills - seeing through a video screen is not enough).
Lance Henrikson rises to the challenge once again of playing the increasingly-multifaceted Black. He has to convey everything from his usual quiet introspection through to genuine anger when his family is threatened and, unlike in the first year when I felt he was a little too reserved, he manages to do this with great conviction this time around. It’s especially notable in The Curse of Frank Black, a virtual single-hander for him which he holds together with ease (no mean feat for a forty-five minute episode of television). He gives a warmer portrayal too, surprising given he spends a lot less time with his family this year than last, and one can only assume that this is down to his increasing comfort with both the character he is playing and also coping the gruelling television schedule (something he found hard in the first season) much better. Megan Gallagher, as wife Catherine, is given even less to do this year than last and only gets odd moments here and then to shine, most notably in the superb Anamnesis late on in the season, about which more in a moment. The fact that she is absent for entire episodes is unsurprising, given the domestic arrangements the events of the premiere result in, but the fact that she continues to appear in the opening credits when two other actors have an arguably equal claim to do, namely Terry O’Quinn and Kristen Cloke, as Watts and Means respectively, don't is a little odd.
Terry O’Quinn, appearing in nineteen of the twenty-three episodes of the season, is the closest Frank has to a regular partner, the man who most often brings Frank into a case, as well as sponsoring his admission to the Group. In the first season, Watts was as often as not a plot device, a useful exposition figure who could get Frank involved and mutter things about the Millennium Group. This year he becomes a real character, one who is caught up in the Group’s internal fighting and who is himself seeking the answers to what is going on, a man whose faith both deeply troubles him and also impels him to do what he believes is right for the greater cause, no matter what side-effects he might have. In The Hand of Saint Sebastian he even temporarily goes against the Group’s wishes in pursuing his own cause, although he is right back in their camp in the Owls/Roosters two-parter. This characterisation is a welcome addition to the Millennium world even if, at times, his internal struggles are similar in tone to Frank’s own, but the problem is that O’Quinn gives a consistently bland performance. He doesn’t do anything bad – he’s never anything less than convincing and doesn’t hit any bad notes – but he doesn’t have that spark that is really needed. Watts is fundamentally the face of the Group, as far as Frank is concerned, and as the season goes on and Frank’s doubts about the organisation deepen, the relationship between them becomes more and more distrustful. “I don’t know who the man standing in the shadows is,” Frank tells him at one point. This building tension should be electric, but it isn't, and it can only be put down to the fact both that there isn’t that much chemistry between the two actors. Not having seen his current performance in Lost I can’t say whether he’s improved at all since (although he was similarly blank as the villain in Carter’s Harsh Realm) but for such an important character in the show he is completely unremarkable.
Cloke is about the same. It’s years since I saw Space: Above and Beyond in which she starred (and met future husband Glen Morgan) but I remember her being decent in it. She’s okay in Millennium but again, given what the character is going through, I can’t say she gives the impression of being over-awed by anything. Mostly she looks like she’s a bit pissed off about something (fine in the first episode when she actually is, not so much in the next nine she appears in). There's a bit of fun when she and Catherine pair up, in that there seems to be a bit of rivalry simmering between them, but other than that she's not the presence she could have been. (It is good to note, however, that the writers are restrained and don't go down the obvious route and make her a potential romantic interest for Frank, which is what I feared would happen early on).
Indeed, even if the performances of these two aren’t as great as they could be, the writing that surrounds them is enough to compensate. The shift in emphasis between the two seasons is definitely off-putting at first, but once one gets used to it I don’t think there’s any denying that these are a stronger group of episodes, and not just because of their increased diversity (as welcome as that is though). The willingness is explore, in detail, aspects of Judeo-Christian beliefs and legends is one that you rarely see coming from a network television series, especially one in America given the sensitivity people have to these things, and this season’s readiness to do so is to be applauded. Whether one believes or not, the culture and symbolism surrounding so much of religion is fascinating, and these episodes deal with many different facets of it. Amongst other things this season we see a hunt for the Cross of Christ, an Immaculate Conception and, in an episode that predates The Da Vinci Code by about six years, an apparent descendant of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene in the afore-mentioned Anamnesis. Add into this the regular visions of Angels that Lara has and the multiple demons that pop up in our physical world and we see that the series really has moved on, the subtle hints of Season One replaced by the almost blunt admission in Season Two that yes, these things are facts. It’s also pleasing that the subject is dealt with in an intelligent, thought-provoking way. Anamnesis, one of the two best episodes of the season, just doesn’t deal with the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a group of school girls, it explores both the background of such appearances as well as looking at how people react to such happenings. It’s an extremely good piece of television, one of the best looks at this kind of phenomena I’ve seen, and, unlike The Da Vinci Code, is unexploitative. Writing as someone brought up as a Catholic there is indeed very little the series covers in this regard that might be seen as overtly blasphemous (descendants of Jesus aside). The fact that all of these traditions are treated with respect and reverence, while simultaneously choosing to investigate them and use them as a basis for the show, makes up one of the main reasons to want to watch the show.
There’s also an increase in humour (something I lamented the lack of in the first season) with Darin Morgan in particular having two extremely welcome Writer/Director credits this year (his presence no doubt helped by the fact his brother is Glen). Although it’s Jose Chung’s ‘Doomsday Device’ that most fans claim to be his best (a quasi-sequel to his X-Files episode Jose Chung’s From Outer Space), for me the best episode of the season, and indeed one of the best episodes of TV I’ve seen for many a year, has to be Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. This marvellous tale, the last in the season before the climactic two-parter, tells the story of four demons who gather in a doughnut shop to compare notes on the last soul they condemned to eternal torment. Each of the four demons relates their story, all of which feature Black in a peripheral role, and all of which are at times gut-burstingly funny. I have no intention to ruin any of the jokes here for those who haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, you really should make an effort to, even if you don’t like Millennium - practically, it has very little connection with the rest of the season) even though I really want to list the many delights to be found within. So instead I will just say the words Censor, Cameo, Dancing Baby and Satanist and leave it at that. (Also look out for a scene which is very similar to the opening scene in Happiness, which was filming around the same time).
It’s ironic that the best two episodes of the season – Anamnesis and Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me - are the two that feature Frank the least. This doesn’t cast aspersions on his character at all – Anamnesis could easily have featured him – but the notable fact is that the least interesting episodes this year are those that directly revolve around the Millennium Group themselves. During the course of the season it is revealed that the Group is splitting into two factions, one which believes the coming Apocalypse will be spiritual in nature and one which believes it will be secular, ie natural or manmade. The two-parter in the middle of the year devotes a great deal of time to this schism and gets absolutely nowhere, a meandering story which has the feeling of The X Files about it, only less interesting. Slightly better is The Hand of Saint Sebastian (although it wastes CCH Pounder, of whom I’m a big fan) but again, it feels a bit like an X-Files episode transplanted over (something that, mostly, the series manages do avoid). The season finale, written by Morgan and Wong, is the best Group-centric tale and is impressive in that it actually does portray a mini-Apocalypse very well and convincingly, one which ties in with both sides of the Group’s beliefs in a pleasingly thematic way. However, to counter that there is a lengthy period of time spent with Frank and Peter Watts locked up that could have been cut down, and, much worse, a dire Act Three in the last episode that is devoted entirely to Lara Means. It’s loud, blunt and is obviously trying very hard but for me it just doesn’t work, an intrusion in an otherwise decent finale. The impression they are trying to get across could just as easily have been done in half, nay a quarter of the time, and the character isn’t interesting enough to have that indulgent a send-off. Sorry, but it would have been much more moving to have done something similar (but much more low-key) with Catherine, a character in whom the audience has a lot more emotional investment. That said, the ending itself is moving and nicely done.
The second season of Millennium is a very different beast to its first and, when it comes down to it, is probably the stronger of the two. Although there was something to be said for the relentlessly grim tone of the first (something which I’ve eventually warmed to) the increase of different kind of stories this time around is a welcome change. The intellectual factor is still there too, and is braver now, although the one area in which I feel it is weaker is the bluntness of some of what this season says – there was something commendable in the subtlety of the first year’s insinuation of the coming Apocalypse, making it more of an Unknown that somehow made it more frightening than this year’s calm acceptance of demons and ghosts and other such things. The most worrying ghost stories are those in which you don’t know exactly what the threat you face is and have no idea what form the trauma coming up will take, the tack Season One took, whereas this season more spells it out, throwing all caution to the wind. We’re stuffed, it tells us at every opportunity, the end of the world is coming and you only have two and a bit years to come to terms with it. This approach, which Morgan and Wong introduced, is occasionally not reflected in the other writer's scripts, leading to a disparity in the episodes which is not a strength of the season, making the tone oddly uneven – one week the show can feel completely different to the next, which is unsettling, and not in a good way – but luckily the strength of the individual episodes ensures that the parts are in this case much more than the whole, and make it all worthwhile. Production values are, as ever, superb, wisely holding back on over-ambitious special-effects (although even the hurricane in 19:19 isn't bad) while Mark Snow's incidental music does exactly what television music should do, support the story in the background while remaining fairly anonymous. Overall, it’s not quite as good as The X Files was at its peak, but it probably is at times more intelligent, something always to be welcomed. An odd watching experience then, but not an unwelcome one.
The season is presented on six single-sided dual-layered disks, all but the last disk having four episodes. The set comes in an attractive box which houses the six slim-line cases which hold each disk, and all the cases have individual designs on the front and synopses and airdates on the reverse.
The opening montage of the menus, made up of the title sequence and short clips, goes on for far too long, and is an annoyance when putting a new disk in. Once it gets to the actual menu, however, all is well, the designs being the same as for season one, with each episode having its own submenu. None of the extras are subtitled, which instantly loses them a point.
The episodes are presented in their correct 16:9 ratio, and have an excellent transfer. Any show that mixes light and dark as much as this can be a challenge for DVD but there’s no problem here, with little trace of digital artefacting, and the contrasting blacks are delineated perfectly. If there was a criticism to be made (besides the odd bit of grain) it’s that the colour is at times a little too muted, as though the life has been drained out of it. The style of the show probably has a lot to do with this, but at times it is a very dull picture to look at.
Exactly what you would expect from a TV transfer, this is your standard two speaker track with no bells or whistles on it at all. It does what it’s meant to do – the dialogue is clear, the music not overbearing – but nothing more.
There are commentaries on two episodes in the set. The first, by Thomas J Wright on The Hand of Saint Sebastian which he directed, is the weakest of the two. Wright makes random comments and never follows through on what he's saying - he hints at the controversies surrounding the running of the season but doesn't make anything explicit, and overall this isn't an enlightening track.
The second, by writer Michael R Perry on his episode The Mikado is better. Perry discusses where the inspiration for the episode came from, and while there are a few lengthy pauses when he does talk what he says is relevant and interesting about the themes of the story and why he wrote it as he did.
The Turn of the Tide: Making of Season Two
An oddly sour note pervades this half hour look at the season, mainly directed at Morgan and Wong. The other writers in their interviews don’t seem especially happy with the direction the two producers took the series in (“I didn’t even know they wanted to run it,” one says) while several of the cast members express concern that the fact the show took such a radical new direction might have alienated viewers. This suggestion that all was not well behind the scenes is emphasised by the fact a caption at the end reveals that Morgan and Wong declined to be interviewed for this piece, but even if there was creative tension their absence is sorely missed. Without them, the explanation of what they were trying to do this season goes unsaid, the others seeming to almost be guessing at what their intentions were. Chris Carter suddenly doesn’t seem that interested – he even makes the curious admission that to this day he hasn’t seen all the episodes of Season Two, which seems to suggest he really gave up on the show. Despite this, the documentary is a good one, again a little unfocused in that it jumps from topic to topic (as well as spending far too much time reflecting on one episode, The Mikado) but full of interesting comments about the season, the most insightful of which comes from Henrikson when he says the show’s direction changed to take on a fairytale like quality.
Academy Group: Victimology
This is a follow-up to the talking-heads documentary from the first season set about the real-life group that inspired the Millennium Group. A collection of ex-FBI, CIA and other law-enforcement agencies members go around solving cases the regular police force need help on. This has an identical format to the first documentary but concentrates on several specific cases they investigated, going into at times graphic detail and showing that some of the cases on Millennium are not as far-fetched as you'd think. Rather upsetting in the insight of what horrible things happen out there, this is a good collection of interviews.
Another enjoyable bunch of episodes with only a couple stinkers (The Pest House especially isn't that great) with a particularly strong closing six or seven instalments, this only suffers from being sometimes haphazard in its focus. As the tone is so different from the first, it's not a simple case of "If you liked the first season you'll like this", so for those who enjoyed The X Files but didn't like the first this might surprise. The extras are par for the course for the first season - okay but not making any special efforts. Overall, a nice set of the best of the three seasons.