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Millennium – Gehenna (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Written by Chris Carter and directed by David Nutter, Gehenna feels very much like a continuation of The Pilot.

More to the point, it feels like a restatement of many of the key themes of The Pilot, an attempt to reinforce many of the core ideas in that first episode, and hint at something larger. In many ways, it is about ensuring that Millennium retains its identity as it transitions from a pilot that had a relatively relaxed schedule and high budget into a weekly (well, eight-day) production schedule. Gehenna is about Carter and Nutter proving that Millennium can do what it wants and needs to do week-in and week-out, while also indicating towards larger threads.

Touching (or, at least, seeing) evil...

Touching (or, at least, seeing) evil…

This isn’t a bad way to approach the first regular episode of a television series. Indeed, Carter had done something similar with The Pilot and Deep Throat on The X-Files, structuring the episodes as a one-two punch of reinforced themes and world-building. Gehenna is very much about convincing the audience that The Pilot was not just a flash in the pan, and that the series has a long clear arc ahead of it. Much like Deep Throat really sketched the outline of the alien conspiracy only hinted at in The Pilot, Gehenna features more than a few nods towards a larger evil at work in Frank’s world.

There are points where Gehenna feels a little bit too forced, and a little bit too eager to restate and repeat the themes and ideas of The Pilot. However, it is an interesting episode that does hint towards the show’s future in a number of interesting ways.

Ear today...

Ear today…

Although Gehenna aired only a week after The Pilot, there had been a longer gap in production. After all, The Pilot had to be greenlit by Fox and it had a bit more comfort when it came to post-production and scheduling. As such, Gehenna really marks the point where the show is moving into a tightly-scheduled production routine, where the staff just have to keep things churning in order to get ideas in front of the camera and to develop the story in the way that it needs to go.

The gap between The Pilot and Gehenna can be observed in a number of different ways. Most obviously, Benny has grown up quite significantly. Benny was only a puppy when he was present to Jordan at the end of The Pilot. He was small enough that Jordan could comfortably hold the dog in her hands. Now, he’s significantly larger. Whether this is because the dog had to be replaced between The Pilot and Gehenna, or enough time had passed that the pup had grown, it is a clear indicator that the production of Gehenna did not flow entirely smoothly from The Pilot.

Someone left a light on...

Someone left a light on…

Even the big yellow house has changed. As Carter explained on the commentary for The Pilot, it was not feasible to use the original house on a weekly basis:

This yellow house, we spent a lot of time making into the perfect house. We re-shingled the house. We painted it a particular colour of yellow. When we went to start the series after the pilot was picked up, we were no longer able to shoot at that house. It was a very expensive set to lose. I think the biggest beneficiary was the family who lived there, who basically had a remodelled house!

Appropriately enough, the house was replaced with the house that had been used for the teaser of Deep Throat, a wonderful meta-textual tie to The X-Files.

"What's in the box?"

“What’s in the box?”

Given all these shifts and changes behind the scenes, it makes sense that Carter would feel the need to restate many of the themes of The Pilot. After all, this was a young show, so it makes sense to ensure that any new viewers who had tuned in could get up to speed; and to ensure that returning viewers were all on the same page. (Of course, the ratings for the show suggest that this may not have been the biggest worry for Carter and the rest of the staff.) The problem is how the episode chooses to restate and reiterate these themes.

There is an awkward scene in the middle of the episode featuring Catherine Black and Bob Beltcher which sees the two characters essentially offering a bullet-point synopsis of the show’s themes and ideas. Beltcher brings up the polaroids, to make sure the audience has not forgotten. Catherine offers character exposition. “Frank went back to work because he had to. It’s who he is. Sometimes I think of Frank as the catcher in the rye – standing at the edge of the cliff trying to save the world – but he can’t change anything. All he can do is catch these horrible men before they kill again.”

Love is not the drug...

Love is not the drug…

That is an effective summary of who Frank is and what he does, but it feels like a blurb from the back of the box set rather than the honest observations of a woman who loves him deeply. It is a cliché to suggest that Millennium needs to “show” instead of “telling”; after all, it is possible to make exposition (particularly relating to character) fun and informative under the right set of circumstances. Here, it just feels rather lame, as if Carter is copying and pasting from press releases about the show.

The scene is also a problem because it takes two fairly major characters in the world of the show – including the female lead! – and reduces their interaction to worrying about Frank Black. Sure, it makes sense for Catherine and Beltcher to be worried about Frank. Beltcher is his oldest friend, and Catherine is his wife. Frank is their common ground, so it makes sense for the two of them to talk about Frank. However, Gehenna suggests that this is all that Beltcher and Catherine do. There is no sense of who these characters are outside of Frank Black.

We need to talk about Frank.

We need to talk about Frank.

This raises a fairly big issue with Millennium, and one that will become more pronounced as the show progresses. Who is Catherine Black as a character? Millennium is fairly clear on how she works as a plot function: she is an ideal that Frank works to protect, like Jordan and the big red house. She is a character motivation for Frank; he does what he does to protect her, and his struggles to keep her safe are an effective means of generating character drama for him. The show capitalises on this side of Catherine quite effectively across the first two seasons.

Gehenna makes this aspect of Catherine Black quite clear, defining her role relative to Frank. “That’s why I can never let him think that Jordan and I aren’t perfectly safe in this perfect house and perfect world that he’s tried to give us,” Catherine tells Beltcher. “Because I know, if he ever thought differently – next time he’d never be able to leave.” So any tension that exists for Catherine as a character exists solely in her emotional value to Frank. Catherine is defined as an object that can leveraged against Frank, something that can be used to manipulate him.

A cult following...

A cult following…

The problem is that, while Millennium has a solid understanding of what Catherine is and how she works relative to Frank, it doesn’t seem to be sure who Catherine is. What does Catherine do when Frank is not around? Frank tells his neighbour that Catherine is “a clinical social worker”, but the episode suggests that Catherine just sits around worrying about Frank. More than that, Catherine sits there worrying about Frank worrying about her. It is a problem that will come to haunt the show, and frequently burdens the show whenever episodes have to cut away to Catherine.

To be fair, the show will work hard to remedy this problem. Chris Carter will write the show’s first Catherine-centric episode in The Well-Worn Lock, a clear attempt to give the character a stronger role and a clearer purpose. The second season acknowledges the problems with characterising Catherine in a number of different ways: it creates an alternative female lead with a more clearly-defined arc and agency in the narrative; it gives Catherine another focus episode to try to repair the character; it pushes Catherine towards the periphery of the show as if to mitigate the issue.

Dead man's letter...

Dead (man’s) letter…

None of these approaches quite work, but it does feel like the show is trying to remedy what it recognises as a difficulty. Unfortunately, Gehenna really bakes these problems firmly into the character. Her biggest scene her defines her solely in relation to how Frank sees her, a decision that unfortunately sets up audience expectations for the rest of the show’s run. This ground zero for the show’s issues with Catherine, and the fact that Catherine is the most prominent female character for the entire first season does not do the show any favours. (Particularly given a significant number of other female characters are victims.)

Although it is less of a problem for the character of Bob Beltcher, there is still a sense that Gehenna could use the character better. Beltcher is not a lead; he is a guest star. As such, it is less of a big deal if he seems like a one- or two-dimensional plot object. However, Millennium is setting Beltcher up as a recurring character, so it would help if he seemed a bit more interesting or multifaceted in his second appearance. Bill Smitrovich is a great actor, and it feels like the show is not using him as well as it might.

"You know, somehow this is sexier when Mulder and Scully do it."

“You know, somehow this is sexier when Mulder and Scully do it.”

After all, compare Beltcher to the supporting characters from The X-Files. Those who tended to stick around – Deep Throat, Skinner, Mr. X, the Lone Gunmen – all had clear personalities even beyond their utility as plot functions. Beltcher doesn’t have that, with his big scene in the second episode consisting of largely regurgitating information that the audience already knows. Of course, there would be other issues with the Beltcher character, but it is shame to see that the world of Millennium seems to exist of characters who have nothing beyond Frank Black.

(This problem runs through Gehenna, where it seems like none of the guest cast really seem like characters. As played by Terry O’Quinn, Peter Watts would become one of the most compelling members of the ensemble. Here, he is just a generic law enforcement (or quasi law enforcement) guy. Penseyres is just sort of there. Atkins little hints of character development – that he was Frank’s sponsor in the group, that he came in from a fishing trip – seem to exist purely to give the climax of the episode the faintest amount of heft. All the members of the Millennium Group feel interchangeable here.)

"Gee, I'll just voluntarily walk inside this giant microwave..."

“Gee, I’ll just voluntarily walk inside this giant microwave…”

This is a bit fo a problem for Gehenna, particularly given the fact that the show was trying to extend and expand Frank’s world. As David Nutter notes on the episode commentary:

And now of course, with Lance, you get into the sensibility of what the series was going to be. Because our attitude was that, with respect to the show, we  didn’t want it to be serial killer of the week sensibility, we wanted the show to create its own sense of mythology, as well as the same situation as X-Files did. This was the opportunity for us to create the beginning sensibilities of the Millennium Group, extending that and expanding that base with respect to the kinds of people that Lance would be able to connect us with.

However, while Peter Watts develops into a multifaceted character, Penseyres and Atkins just hang around for a few episodes in the first season. They are just there, with no real reason to be.

The good book...

The good book…

These are sizeable problems with Gehenna, which actually has a lot of interesting things to say. Perhaps the most immediate is how the show works to establish a central mythology for Millennium, inviting Frank to wonder whether evil exists as a solely human construct. Carter’s dialogue can be a little heavy-handed in places, but it isn’t afraid to tackle big ideas. “It seems that the old biblical concept of the devil’s influence has lost any currency,” Frank reflects at one point, which Frank Spotnitz had identified as a core theme of the series in the documentary Order in Chaos.

“I’ve seen the face of evil, Frank,” Atkins advises his colleague at one point. “I’ve looked into its eyes, seen it staring back at me. The face has always been a man’s face, a human face. I’ve always believed that evil is born in a cold heart and a weak mind.” Frank responds, simply, “I have too.” Given how Atkins is so easily overwhelmed by evil, Gehenna invites viewers to question his certainty. Indeed, the episode suggests that Frank himself has begun to question his belief in evil as a secular concept.

A night stalker...

A night stalker…

When Atkins points out that “someone” is controlling these cultists, Frank adds, “Or some thing.” Locked in the interrogation room with the cult leader at the end of the episode, Peter Watts demands, “What the hell are you?” He gets no answer. “So the true source of evil is us?” Frank asks his wife at one point. “Or is there something out there – a force or a presence – waiting until it can create another murder, another rape, another holocaust?” Catherine philosophically responds, “I think it’s something that everyone who looks deeply at life wonders.”

Indeed, much of what we see of the cult leader is decidedly demonic. Although this is filtered through Frank’s visions or the victim’s acid trip, it is still an evocative image. Indeed, the demon appears quite similar to both the vision that Mulder had seen in similar circumstances in Grotesque, but also to the evil that Frank would confront in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. Even before we get to Lucy Butler and Somehow Satan Got Behind Me, it seems reasonable to wonder if demonic forces are at work in the world of Millennium.

The matter is not so black-and-white...

The matter is not so black-and-white…

This implication gives the show a distinct identity, but it is also potentially problematic. After all, much was made of how Millennium was more grounded that The X-Files as a television viewing experience, more in tune with modern anxieties and fears. As Frank Spotnitz explained in Order in Chaos:

Chris loved The Silence of the Lambs and se7en. I think that – as scary as The X-Files was – the scariest things to him were things that do happen. While some people could argue about whether monsters are real or extraterrestrials are real, it’s sort of undeniable that there are human monsters who prey upon innocents. He wanted to do a show that was that scary on television every week. And that’s what Millennium set out to be.

The problem is that building up the idea of evil as a force that exists outside of mankind undermines that sense of realism and terror. It is no longer simply bad people doing bad things, by some larger mythological force at play in the background.

"Na-na-na-na-na... leader!"

“Na-na-na-na-na… leader!”

Despite the fact that Millennium was grounded in serial killers instead of stretching monsters and fat-sucking vampires, the larger mythology skews away from evil as a human construct. The mythology at the centre of The X-Files might feature aliens and colonisation, but it is very much rooted in the evil that men do for their own ends. The decisions that the conspirators made are all rooted in something approximating real history, as shows like Paper Clip and Nisei demonstrated to the audience. The conspiracy is the legacy of the Second World War and the Cold War.

It feels a little ironic, then, that the central mythology of Millennium would lean further away from any human cause or effect. The show would go back and forth as to just how influential these supernatural forces were on Earth, but their existence serves to diminish the evil committed by the human characters. They provide a convenient boogeyman that serves to make the serial killers seem a little bit less grounded and a little bit less anchored in the mundane world. Characters like the Cigarette-Smoking Man seem more real than Lucy Butler.

Together, they fight crime.

Together, they fight crime.

Still, the idea of evil as a larger force in the world does give Millennium a very clear central arc and conflict. It’s not a premise that lends itself to serialisation as smoothly as “… and they’ve been here for a long, long time”, but it does serve to create a bigger picture. Millennium cannot simply become “serial killer of the week” if it is to succeed as a television series, and Gehenna works very hard to demonstrate that the show has potential and has direction. It is not a concept confined to episodic slasher horror stories.

Even the decision to focus Gehenna on a cult serves to demonstrate the relative flexibility of the premise. Millennium would be quite dull if it were just Frank Black hunting down ranting and raving psychopaths week-in and week-out. The idea of a sinister cult taps into the sort of millennial anxiety at the root of the show. After all, the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate came only four months after the broadcast of Gehenna. Public attention was focused on these quasi-religious organisations trying to recruit devotees for sinister purposes.

This was runnign through Bono's head during the recording of Rattle and Hum. Less so during Songs of Innocence.

This was running through Bono’s head during the recording of Rattle and Hum. Less so during Songs of Innocence.

Indeed, the decision to set Gehenna in San Francisco is a nice touch. California had developed a reputation as a haven for these sorts of cults, dating back to the sixties. Artist Al Ridenour offered some theories as to why that might be:

Historically, ever since the railroads connected the West Coast to the East, it was always the land of opportunity and utopia. A big part of it was the weather and the escapism that weather represented. It’s a natural place where oranges grew—a sort of Eden, basically. It was like that and then with entertainment and Hollywood, that fuelled the whole escapist mentality. Everything worked together to make California and Southern California a haven for cults and movements like that.

San Francisco is indelible associated with the counter-culture movement of the sixties, and many cults can be see as the dark mirror to that movement.

Hiddly ho, neighbourino!

Hiddly ho, neighbourino!

Jim Jones infamously based his Peoples Temple around San Francisco in the seventies before moving to Georgestown. Charles Manson famously lived in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, with his apartment well-documented. Manson himself would become something of a minor figure in the run up to the millennium. In June 1997, the Concerned Christians cult in Jerusalem would draw heavily from Manson’s personal history in a taped message left for reporters. Although Gehenna is filmed in Vancouver, the San Francisco setting adds a lot.

However, Gehenna also draws rather heavily from the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Shoko Asahara had created the cult in the mid-eighties, but had pushed it more and more toward militantism in the nineties. Fuelled by fears of a looming apocalyptic war, Aum Shinrikyo had launched an unsuccessful (and unnoticed) biological attack on the Diet, two U.S. airbases and the Imperial Palace in 1990. They garnered more attention in 1995, when they launched an attack on the Tokyo subway system using sarin. The attack killed twelve people and injured over a thousand more.

"I swore I passed the Cigarette-Smoking Man a few minutes ago..."

“I swore I passed the Cigarette-Smoking Man a few minutes ago…”

Interestingly, the clamp-down in the wake of those attacks did not fully disband the cult. In fact, Aum Shinrikyo enjoyed a resurgence as early as 1999, just in time for the millennium:

Aum’s revival is astonishing. Not only has it survived its years in the wilderness, but it is expanding again at an alarming rate. It now has about 2,000 followers, including 500 hard-core devotees living in cult-owned facilities. It earned a staggering £30m last year from its shops, which sell cut-price computers assembled by unsalaried followers. It is distributing millions of booklets in which new recruits explain how Aum teachings have given them supernatural powers. It even has its own pop band, called Perfect Salvation, which performs songs written by the guru himself.

Atkins explicitly compares this cult to Aum Shinrikyo in Gehenna, heavy-handedly pondering, “Could it happen here, Frank?”

Whatcha got cookin'?

Whatcha got cookin’?

As with Aum Shinrikyo, the cult featured in Gehenna is very much a capitalist enterprise. Like Aum Shinrikyo, the cult is able to sustain itself using revenue from its entrepreneurial endeavours. As Nigel Cawthorne noted in Doomsday:

Asashara advanced the schedule for the Apocaylpse. Aum scientists built a chemical plant to mass-produce the deadly nerve gas sarin in the Mount Fuji compound. They also started an arms factory making assault rifles and began laser, microwave and nuclear weapon programmes. These were funded through Asahara’s growing chain of computer shops, fast food restaurants, beauty saloons, coffee shops, dating agencies, construction companies and on-line service – all staffed by Aum members who received no wages. Cut-price financing hooked the unwary: once a customer was deeply in debt, to pay off what they owed, all the debtor had to do was join the sect and hand over all their worldly goods. Exempt from tax, the business could not fail. When Aum was listed on the Tokyo stock exchange, it was worth over a billion dollars.

Gehenna presents a vision of capitalism gone mad. An example of the doctrine pushed to the point of religious apocalyptic fanaticism.

Teenage wasteland...

Teenage wasteland…

As far as the cult is concerned, people are just numbers to be exploited and filed. “You don’t understand,” one young cult member tries to convince Frank. “It knows. It knows everything. It knows the numbers.” He clarifies, “That’s all there is: phone numbers, serial numbers, card numbers. You and everybody else. That numbers are all we are. It knows your numbers and it knows you.” The idea of reducing a person to a number is very much an image of totalitarian oppression; serial numbers on uniforms. Here, Carter puts a capitalist spin on things.

Indeed, Gehenna is very much a post-Cold War story. It is set in a world where totalitarian communism has collapsed as a credible threat to the United States. Instead, the cult weds totalitarian iconography with hyper-aggressive nineties telemarketing. The rows and rows of cult members dialing telephones looks like something from an eighties film set in dictatorship somewhere. The screen at the top of the room reinforces the message, but it is not one of unquestioning obedience or unwavering loyalty. It is materialism. “Everybody wants beautiful hair.”

True.

True.

In an interview on the VHS release of Gehenna, Carter revealed that the episode was rooted in his own interest in telemarketing and telecommunication in the nineties:

The idea that evil could be carried out over the telephone is also a very scary idea and one that I think is all too real and common these days. People can reach right into your homes in so many ways now, by fax, over the telephone, through your computer, and I think this is one of the ways that we’re scared these days. This is something I was trying to communicate.

Gehenna proposes a grim world where capitalism has incorporated the imagery and the philosophy of fascism, parasitically feeding off mankind’s weakness and hunger.

"I thought the show could use a bit more lighting..."

“I thought the show could use a bit more lighting…”

It is telling that so much of Gehenna focuses on migration and globalisation. Everything is in service to the cult, which has coopted the American Dream for its own sinister purpose. “They told me we were going to be rich!” one cultist yells, with all the resentment of an entitled millennial. “That we were the chosen ones! That discipline was the way to our own salvation. That prosperity was power.” The cult is predatory, exploiting those dreams that were encouraged through popular culture and the bright promise of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.”

However, the American Dream has gone global. After all, the Cold War has been won. The father of one victim, an immigrant from Chechnya, reflects how the cult reeled in his son with the promise “driving those German cars – all he could talk about. Then one day Eedo comes home driving one too. Selling products nobody wants over the phone.” It is an existence that is defined by needless consumption; selling people things they don’t want, so you can buy things that you don’t need. It is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.

Gotta get to Gehenna...

Gotta get to Gehenna…

It is no coincidence that the victim comes from Chechnya. Early on, Peter Watts examines one of the victim’s teeth. “You’ll find this kind of work coming out of Eastern European countries, out of Russia. I think the poor general condition of the teeth would suggest the latter.” It is interesting that Peter seems to associate decay more specifically with Russia than with the generic Eastern Europe. Ultimately, it turns out that the victim came from Chechnya, a region desperately asserting its own independence; perhaps a reflection of Russia’s larger decay.

In 1980, there were one hundred and seventy thousand Russian-speakers in the United States. That number had climbed significantly by 1990, when there were nearly a quarter of a million. However, the nineties saw a much greater increase, with nearly to almost three quarters of a million Russian-speakers living in the United States in 2000. The world truly was a global village, where the United States would make itself home to half-a-million immigrants from what had been its greatest adversary.

The tooth is out there...

The tooth is out there…

In fact, this seems to be a recurring theme in Chris Carter’s work between 1996 and 1997. Over on The X-Files, the first big two-parter of the season (Tunguska and Terma) would take Mulder to Russia. Later in the season, Scully would tangle briefly with the Russian mob in Never Again. The issue of immigration from Russia would become a story point towards the end of the first season of Millennium in Maranatha. Much like the end of the Second World War seems to echo through the third season of The X-Files, the fall of the Soviet Union seems to recur this year.

The idea of decay and collapse recurs throughout Gehenna. In a nice shout out to David Lynch – a creator that Carter has explicitly acknowledged as an influence – the episode features a human ear beneath a rose bush. It’s an image that worked very well in Blue Velvet, and fits quite comfortably here. The idea of human ash used to fertilise soil feels like a nice illustration of the show’s oroboros motif – life springs from death, beauty is indistinguishable from horror. The atmospheric sequences set in the abandoned industrial areas are similarly effective.

Ear to the ground...

Ear to the ground…

These empty open spaces stand as monuments to failed capitalism, a city that is struggling to renew and reinvent itself as the new millennium approaches. “They’ve been for sale for years,” Peter tells Frank. “No buyers.” However, in the real world, it seems that renewal and reinvention win out. As David Nutter notes on the commentary:

This is a great world. This was a set you just walked on to. You didn’t have to do anything with the set, except spray it down get it a little wet with rain and it worked great. … Locations such as this are so much more difficult to find any more, because of the intense real estate market and tearing things down and rebuilds and so forth. Places such as this, money can’t buy.

It makes for a delightfully ironic twist on the episode, with even the episode’s atmospheric locations subject to the oroboros effect.

Somebody probably left their heart in San Francisco... and possibly some other organs, too...

Somebody probably left their heart in San Francisco… and possibly some other organs, too…

Gehenna gets Millennium off to a solid start, marking out a lot of potential narrative and thematic territory for the show to explore in the months ahead. It fares less well when it comes to defining the characters and relationships that populate this world. Still, there is time enough for that.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Millennium:

2 Responses

  1. Just now getting to rewatch Millennium. I was surprised to find some seeds for Morgan & Wong’s season 2 in both the Pilot and Gehenna. I’m not alleging that Carter had any of that in mind of course, but their ideas for season 2 were not that far from what was there originally. In the Pilot the only scene with Peter Watts is deliberately secretive to the point that Catherine makes note of it right away. Then in Gehenna, the Millennium Group is apparently investigating a cult in San Francisco but it doesn’t seem to be there to assist any law enforcement. The police don’t get involved until Frank calls them at the end when he becomes concerned about Mike. My wife, who has never see the series before, actually noticed this and the fact that Mike Atkins and Peter Watts seemed to have a lot of arcane knowledge. Interesting, isn’t it, that the “cult” it is secretly investigating is gathering weapons of mass destruction and believes the world will end in 1998?
    I also appreciate that even though Carter gives his protagonist the philosophy that he seems to share (evil alive in the world), Mike and Catherine both present pretty sound counter arguments, leaving room for other writers to explore that debate.

    • The Pilot and (to a lesser extent) Gehenna are great. It’s just a shame that Carter didn’t have a much stronger writers’ room from the outset.

      That’s an interesting note about Peter and Catherine, actually. I hadn’t twigged that.

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