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Millennium – Dead Letters (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.

Dead Letters is the first Millennium episode credited to writers James Wong and Glen Morgan, and to director Thomas J. Wright. These are three creative forces that would come to be massively influential in the development of the show.

As with Gehenna, the obvious point of comparison in this early stage of development is with The X-Files. Chris Carter wrote the first two episodes of both shows, outlining the core themes and larger direction. However, the crucial third episode was handed to the team of James Wong and Glen Morgan. They would be the first writers other than Carter to write for Fox Mulder, Dana Scully and Frank Black. They were tasked with demonstrating that these concepts could work in the hands of writers other than Chris Carter.

A hair's breadth away from insanity...

A hair’s breadth away from insanity…

The first script that Wong and Morgan wrote for The X-Files was Squeeze. It was the show’s first stand-alone monster-of-the-week episode, and effectively codified a very flexible subgenre of The X-Files, while also creating a very popular and iconic monster. Dead Letters does something vaguely similar for Millennium, even if it is not quite as effective. Free from a lot of the millennial anxieties that drove The Pilot and Gehenna, Dead Letters offers an example of a fairly pure-blooded “serial-killer-of-the-week” story.

For better or for worse, Dead Letters sets the tone for the rest of the show’s first season.

Bits and pieces...

Bits and pieces…

After the cancellation of Space: Above and Beyond, writers James Wong and Glen Morgan were brought back to work on The X-Files. Upon their return, Morgan remembers that the idea of working on Millennium was proposed:

After Space, we went back. I think Chris was putting Millennium together and we didn’t have anything to do with the pilot. I think Nutter directed the pilot. We knew everybody. And we went back to X-Files and somebody – I don’t know if it was Chris – said, “Do you want to do both?” So we said, “Okay.” And what happened was that I kinda focused a lot on those four X-Files episodes and Jim was a lot more focused on those Millennium episodes.

The division of labour is not absolute – James Wong directed Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man – but it may indicate why there’s such a divergent tone in the duo’s contemporaneous scripts for The X-Files and Millennium.

A light in the dark...

A light in the dark…

One of the biggest criticisms of the first season of Millennium is that the show is almost procedural in its approach to serial killers. It seems like Frank faces a deadly serial killer each and every week, with the fiend reduced to a grim signature or a memorable pathology. It is an approach that mirrors the “monster-of-the-week” on The X-Files, but feels decidedly less flexible. After all, monsters can take a variety of fantastical forms. Serial killers are always people who kill people. Even doing a dozen episodes like that in a season can feel exhausting and repetitive.

To be fair to Millennium, the show would try to work around that particular label. It would work to demonstrate that the premise did have some measure of flexibility. Episodes like Gehenna, Walkabout, The Well-Worn Lock and Broken World all eschewed the serial-killer-of-the-week format. Shows like Force Majeure or Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions would hint at a larger evil at work. However, while “serial-killer-of-the-week” may be a trite and dismissive summary of the first season, it does capture the mood quite well.

Happy family time!

Happy family time!

Morgan and Wong’s three episodes from the first season are variations on that theme. They each feature a murderer with some unique little twist that serves to make their brand of carnage unique within the context of the show. Dead Letters has a killer who leaves taunting messages written on hairs that he plants at the crime scene. 5-2-2-6-6-6 features a mad bomber whose psychological release is mirrored in the detonation of his home-made explosives. The Thin White Line gives us a killer who has a long history with Frank Black, inviting us into his disciple’s head.

However, despite these twists, there is a sense of relentless oppression to all of this. It feels like something of a grim routine, as if the show is wallowing in the darkness and despair of its own world. It is quite telling that when CSI attempted to construct a formulaic procedural around these sorts of elements, it worked hard to detach itself from the darkness. The emotional distance that makes CSI a much less satisfying dramatic experience is also what makes it a lot easier to watch. One suspects that this is part of the reason it succeeded where Millennium failed.

Pennywise's evil twin!

Pennywise’s evil twin!

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, writer James Wong was quite candid about his dissatisfaction with some of his work on the first season:

“I felt like we didn’t do a superb job,” he admits. “I felt Season One was flawed in some ways. We didn’t really concentrate on it that much. We had to write two episodes, I think. To me, it was really a lot of serial killing. It was pretty straightforward in that regard. We did an okay job, but I don’t think we really had a grasp of what the show could be what we would do with it. We were just following on the lead: here’s Frank Black, he can sort of flash on images.”

Wong has a point, and his criticisms of the season are reasonably well-founded. The first season has a host of brilliant episodes, but it can be grim to the point of nihilism.

Also: new idea for a serial killer, "the hang man."

Also: new idea for a serial killer, “the hang man.”

There are moments when Dead Letters and 5-2-2-6-6-6 seem almost gratuitous. During the production of Dead Letters, there was some conflict with Fox’s Broadcast Standards and Practices about references to “fecal remains”:

Scene 9 of Dead Letters has a problem. Learning that the serial killer covers his victims with his own feces, Frank Black says, “The only psychological release he could perform was defecation.” The Fox Broadcast Standards department is not happy about this dialogue, and have issued a memo declaring that “the reference to ‘fecal remains’ is unacceptable. We also will not accept references to urine, urination, or masturbation.”

“This is a very well-researched thing about defecation,” fumes writer James Wong. “Thieves burgle your home and leave behind a calling card. I find it unacceptable that they find it unacceptable.”

Wong won the argument. Perhaps emboldened by that victory, 5-2-2-6-6-6 features a serial bomb who masturbates over his bombings.

Nothing to report here...

Nothing to report here…

These details may be meticulously researched, but they can’t help but feel a little exploitative. Indeed, the tendency to feature sex workers as victims in these sorts of stories presents similar problems – there are lots of examples of serial killers targeting sex workers and avoiding detection, but there’s also a sense that the story is using those details in a cheap or sensationalist way. Millennium has to walk a very thin, very fine line. The fact that it frequently deals with evil more mundane and grounded than that featured in The X-Files probably contributes to that sense.

To be fair to Millennium, this is a criticism that can often seem puritanical or reactionary, one that can seem like a knee-jerk response to something that makes the audience feel a little uncomfortable. However, the problem is not so much any one instance of these particular tropes, but the way that they tend to repeat and recur throughout the show. The portrayal of Catherine in Gehenna is a minor flaw in the episode itself, but a larger flaw in the context of the first season, where women are frequently victims or ideals rather than fully-formed characters.

Get Horn on the horn!

Get Horn on the horn!

Indeed, Dead Letters plays into these same troubling issues of gender in the first season of Millennium. Catherine barely registers in the episode. Jim Horn’s wife appears in one scene where she verbally lambastes him for having photos of serial killings in his office where he investigates serial killer. Jordan has some effective nightmares that do hint at a direction for her character, but also serve to demonstrate why Frank does what he does. Other than that, the major female characters in Dead Letters are primarily victims or potential victims.

And yet, despite this, there is a sense that James Wong and Glen Morgan are trying to figure out the show. After all, Glen Morgan and James Wong would be tapped to take over Millennium from Chris Carter during its second season. The duo would map out a bold new direction for the show. It is very hard to watch Dead Letters without seeing how it plays into that direction. Although it is clear that they don’t quite have the bigger picture yet, there is a sense that they are already trying to make the central premise suit their own sensibilities.

Sleeping easy...

Sleeping easy…

This is reflected in a number of different ways, but the most obvious is in the way that the two writers approach Frank Black as a character. Wong and Morgan are writers who are very good with character, and who appreciate that character conflict is at the heart of good drama. if you can confront a character with something that challenges who they are – or who they think they are – you will end up with a compelling and intriguing story. It is the logic that they applied to Scully in Beyond the Sea and Never Again, Mulder in One Breath and McQueen in The Angriest Angel.

The problem is that The Pilot and Gehenna worked very hard to present Frank Black as a character who is very firm and centred in himself. He is stoic and unmovable. He might ask big philosophical questions about the nature of evil, but the first season tends to present Frank Black as solid and unwavering. He is unimpeachable, existing as a rock against which the waves of madness might break. Black is perhaps the most unquestionably heroic of Chris Carter’s major characters, and Lance Henriksen does great work. But it makes Frank tough to write.

Body bags...

Body bags…

After all, Frank has everything that he needs. He has a loving wife. He has an adorable daughter with a cute puppy. He has a big yellow house in a nice neighbourhood. He is happy with all of these things. He doesn’t want or need anything more. There is no desperation or hunger to the character. He does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. It is a delightfully unironic character motivation, but it serves to make Frank seem rather static. It is hard to imagine Millennium throwing Frank into an existential crisis like the one facing Mulder in Little Green Men.

When Morgan and Wong took over the second season, the first thing that they would do is to try to undermine Frank’s centred stoicism. They would take away a lot of what the character took for granted, giving him something to chase and something to follow. They would work very hard to put some cracks in Frank’s foundations, to set the character on edge and to make in a more dynamic leading man. It is arguably a more conventional approach than Chris Carter adopted in the first season, but it did seem to work a bit better as a weekly television series.

Grim reflection...

Grim reflection…

In the first season, Wong and Morgan don’t quite have the level of control of or familiarity with the series to make those sorts of changes. However, you can see the ideas creeping in, skirting around the edge of the frame. James Horn doesn’t really exist as a character in his own right. Instead, he is a cautionary tale. He is a warning to Frank, a reminder that everything that Frank takes for granted might be lost in a very short period of time. It’s no coincidence that James Horn finds himself facing the same sorts of problems that would confront Frank in the second season.

The episode is less than subtle about this. When Frank expresses his concerns about James Horn, Catherine assure shim, “You’re different people, Frank, at different places and times. Just because you didn’t hear me back then doesn’t mean he won’t hear you now.” Frank’s practiced detachment is not simply “psychic novocaine” that comes with experience and exposure, as hinted at in The Pilot. Instead, Frank suggests that he learned the hard way. “If you make every one of these personal, you’ll go insane and that’s from having been there, James.”

As the killer sees the world...

As the killer sees the world…

Indeed, even James’ experiences seem to serve as a way of raising tension around Frank. Frank’s visions are tight and focused. They unfold in a matter a seconds, images conveyed in quick split-second cuts that are barely perceptible to the audience. It seems that one can only handle fleeting glimpses of evil so pure. In contrast, James’ visions tend to be longer. They tend to linger. They are not cut quickly, instead lasting for longer takes. It seems like James has been staring into darkness for too long, and that has taken a toll on him.

Dead Letters seems to suggest that Frank can really only handle so much evil, and that repeated or extended exposure may have a truly detrimental effect upon him. It might skew his ability to interpret the evidence, but it might also damage the family that he has worked so hard to protect. After all, James may not be the most effective profiler in Dead Letters, but he does have a successful track record extending back before his divorce. It is implied that the job and the exposure has changed him somehow.

Follow that van!

Follow that van!

Which brings us to the subject of the visions. The visions are one of the most iconic and memorable aspects of Millennium. Indeed, they are perhaps the purest link that exists between Millennium and the diverse range of television that it inspired or influenced – from CSI to Medium to Hannibal. Fractured glimpses of madness, edited together like some grotesque music video. On a practical level, they allow the show to get away with more intensity and violence than it might otherwise be permitted. They unsettle an audience unsure how to process what they saw.

However, the visions are also somewhat controversial within the framework of Millennium itself. It seems like nobody can be entirely sure about the nature of these visions. Are they simply Frank’s deductive reasoning at work? Are they his subconscious conveying information he isn’t aware that he is processing? Or are they something more? Are they supernatural? Are they psychic? Are they glimpses of a larger and ill-defined evil in the world? The matter is frequently debated among fans and critics, but even the show seems unsure at this early stage.

Eye see...

Eye see…

In The Pilot, Bob Beltcher flat-out asks Frank if he is psychic. Frank simply replies, “No.” This seems to be Chris Carter’s authorial intent, at least early on. As he told Back to Frank Black:

“Well, I never wanted it to be a psychic ability per se,” he affirms. “I wanted it to be almost empathic, that the problem was that he could see into the darkness. It was not something that came to him paranormally or supernaturally but came to him naturally.”

From a purely pragmatic perspective, these visions provide an effective way of conveying information to the audience within the relatively tight forty-five minute runtime of an average episode.

No clowning around...

No clowning around…

In Second Sight, writer Brian A. Dixon cites these visions as an extension of standard detective fiction storytelling:

The visions of Frank Black seen on Millennium at last provide an artfully constructed means of conveying the genius and horror of the intuitive revelation so essential to the narrative of the detective story. They allow the television audience fleeting, furtive glimpses of the astonishing knowledge possessed by the hero. “I see what the killer sees,” Frank declares, and so can we in montages that are both captivating and undeniably frightening. There is a reason for Cawleti to so luridly describe the talents of a detective hero as a “terrifying ability to expose hidden secrets”, a “demonic power” to identify and project guilt, and that reason is wholly self-evident in the horror of these quick-cut sequences. That purely abstract process, the once cold and mental art of ratiocination, is suddenly inseparable from the sensation and the horror, the desperation of the crime itself.

As such, the idea that the visions are strictly rational ties into the broader themes of Millennium.

Under the magnifying glass...

Under the magnifying glass…

However, things are not as simple. Even three episodes into the show, it seems like there is more going on here than simply deduction. Carter’s decision to suggest that “evil” exists as an external force in Gehenna suggests that Millennium itself is something of a supernatural battleground. If evil exists as a form beyond mankind, then it seems almost like Frank Black is effectively “plugging into” something much larger and more mythological in nature. It makes these visions seem more like the “force ghosts” from Star Wars than the replays of CSI.

Dead Letters reinforces this idea by suggesting that Frank’s “gift” might be genetic rather than a skill honed through experience. The teaser directly connects the episode’s killer to Jordan’s bad dreams, as if to imply that Jordan herself is beginning to “tune into” something larger than herself. The imagery of the dream reinforces this, with Jordan imagining her father walking down an unending spiral staircase that seems to evoke the helix shape of DNA. It seems like something has been passed from father to daughter.

Spiralling out of control...

Spiralling out of control…

Dead Letters even positions Frank’s insights as irrational in nature. He is convinced that there is a message left at the scene, despite the fact that no message is found and nobody else seems to expect it. This includes the other two profilers who look at the case. (Although Penseyres seems to just cast his eyes over it.) Frank can’t articulate why he thinks there is a message; he cannot point to a rational reason or justification, like he does when he spots the blood splatter in the car park. Instead, Frank seems to just know that there is a message here that is waiting to be found.

During one of his heated arguments with Frank, James adopts a rigidly rational position, implying that Frank is chasing something that has no basis in reality. “We’ve got evidence here that is here, in hand!” he insists. “If you’re so focused on looking for some specific message that isn’t there, you’re going to overlook the obvious signatures.” Admittedly, James is not the most objective or reliable of investigators, but Wong and Morgan position Frank and James as believer and skeptic.

"So I guess I'm not going to be recurring, then?"

“So I guess I’m not going to be recurring, then?”

In the documentary Order in Chaos, Frank Spotnitz identifies Dead Letters as a key moment in the evolution of Frank’s gift, and one at odds with the original intention that it be rational and explicable:

I can see why people thought there is a psychic component to it, because it was certainly hinted that his daughter Jordan had the same “gift”, if you will. Early on, there was a Morgan and Wong episode – very effective – where it was hinted that Jordan had the same ability. And then it was expanded upon in an episode that I wrote later in the first season called Sacrament. At least for me and I think for Chris, we never wanted to cross the line into the supernatural with any of that. It was more about an exquisite sensitive to the way that some people – to the monstrous way that some people – think.

It seems like the show was never entirely certain about how Frank’s visions work, even before the massive shift in the second season. It seemed to change from episode to episode.

A grave memorial...

A grave memorial…

In keeping with their portrayal of Frank’s facility in Dead Letters, Morgan and Wong would make the visions explicitly supernatural during the second season. Glen Morgan has admitted frustration with how the visions worked during the show’s first year:

“I felt last year those visions were a cheat,” Morgan said. “The camera would go to a coffee cup and Frank would say, ‘The murderer used a coffee cup.’ It drove me nuts.”

To be fair, The X-Files had a number of cases where certain writers seemed to look at certain parts of the show in different ways. While the number of different creative voices with different interpretations had been a massive boone to The X-Files, it seemed like a potential problem on Millennium.

Divorced from reality?

Divorced from reality?

It is also interesting that James Wong took the lead on Dead Letters, because the script seems to build quite heavily on the themes that Glen Morgan was weaving into his work during this time period. In particular, the decision to cast James Morrison as a man coping with separation cannot help but evoke The Angriest Angel, a story that Morgan has cited as extremely personal to him. Indeed, Dead Letters even winks knowingly at the audience – casting James Morrison as a character named James with a son named “T.C.”, after his character on Space: Above and Beyond.

Morgan was going through a very painful divorce and separation at this point in his life, an experience that he has identified as an influence on a couple of contemporaneous scripts like The Angriest Angel or Never Again. The name of Morgan’s first wife – Carol – is also the name of James Horn’s wife in Dead Letters. Paula Vitaris made a similar connection in her own exploration of the duo’s scripts written between 1996 and 1996. Given how Morgan has talked about drawing from his own personal experiences in writing, it seems a fair observation.

Lensing some truth to the matter...

Lensing some truth to the matter…

However, Dead Letters also seems to caution critics and pundits who would read too much too readily into the surrounding circumstances. As noted above, the episode was primarily written by James Wong rather than Glen Morgan. One of the recurring themes of the episode is that James Horn is too eager to read his own life and his own circumstances into the killer’s actions and motivations. “Jim tells me you think there might be a triggering stressor,” James tells Frank. “I couldn’t agree more. Divorce, maybe.” When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Dead Letters is also notable for introducing Thomas J. Wright to Millennium. The director had worked with Wong and Morgan on Space: Above and Beyond, but he immediately proves a comfortable fit for the world of Millennium. The director would become one of the show’s key distinctive voices, directing many of the show’s best-loved episodes. There is a meticulous precision to Wright’s work that gels quite smoothly with Millennium. He isn’t as flashy or as dynamic as David Nutter or Rob Bowman, instead exorcising a very tight control over his work.

Nursing a potential injury...

Nursing a potential injury…

Dead Letters is perhaps a little clumsy in execution. After all, it is the first episode of Millennium not to be written by Chris Carter. It feels like Wong and Morgan are still getting to grips with the show. It includes a few examples of what would become recurring problems for the first season of the show. At the same time, it does offer tantalising hints of the problems that the duo see with the show’s format and how they might correct those problems. It seems to point forwards, not only to the first season, but beyond as well.

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

4 Responses

  1. Morgan and Wong’s vision of Millennium is certainly what moved me the most but I don’t think this episode really worked. We are supposed to see James as a warning of what could happen to Frank but the actor chosen was not up to the task. As stated, he never rises above a cautionary tale and it is partially because the performer is wooden and amateurish. I think Morgan and Wong’s other first season efforts are far stronger, in fact I think The Thin White Line is the best episode of the first season. Dead Letters and 5-2-2-6-6-6 skirt the line of being exploitative as you pointed out but to be fair the writers were still trying to figure out what the show was about. They also wisely did not dwell too much on the masturbating or other sensational elements in these stories. If they had it would have ended up feeling like trashy B-movie schlock.
    With regard to Frank’s vision, I always felt he was psychic and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with that from a storytelling point-of-view. It was very dramatically presented, the visions were well chosen and edited; Lance’s reactions to them were varied and subtle.
    Also i think it might be asking too much of every of every episode of every show to have deeply developed female characters. This may be imposing a political perspective here that feels forced and irrelevant. It is the job of good drama to be good drama not wave a sign advertising how enlightened the writers are.

    • Well, I think that drama benefits from well-rounded characters in general, whether male or female. Catherine Black is one half of the show’s regular cast, so I’d argue that the show struggling with how to handle her is a fairly fundamental problem.

      I’m actually very fond of James Morrison as Jim Horn in Dead Letters.

  2. This might just be my reading of the episode but I got a strong impression that James Horn’s view of the killers he investigates as “monsters” is a not so subtle way of suggesting that Frank’s view of evil from Gehenna may be a lingering aspect from his own breakdown.

    • That’s a very good point. And it’s actually something that fits quite well with Morgan/Wong’s later work on the show, even if I don’t think it’s quite what Carter had in mind at this stage of the season. (It’s amazing how much discussion/debate centred on the nature of Frank’s visions in the first season, with a sense that nobody really had any idea what they were.)

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