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Millennium – Blood Relatives (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.

Blood Relatives is the best episode of Millennium to air within the first half of the first season. It is an episode that seems to recognise the potential of a show like Millennium to be more than just a formulaic procedural, acknowledging that the show needs to find its own unique narratives in the same way that The X-Files did during its first season. Blood Relatives adheres rather loosely to the serial-killer-of-the-week format, but is rather more interested in the stories of the characters around the murders than in the murders themselves.

Blood Relatives is also notable as the first Millennium script written by Chip Johannessen. Johannessen would go on to become one of the defining voices of the show’s run, writing some of the best episodes of the first two seasons and steering the show through its troubled two years. Johannessen was good to Millennium, and Millennium was good to Johannessen. It transitioned the writer from shows like Married… With Children, Beverly Hills 90210 and The Monroes towards 24, Dexter and Homeland.

Not cut out for all this...

Not cut out for all this…

As with his next script, Force Majeure, Johannesson hones in quite beautifully on the potential of Millennium. Blood Relatives is an episode of television that is almost perfectly tailored for Millennium. While it retains the elements of a procedural, it is hard to image the episode working on something like Law & Order or CSI, more rigidly-structured television shows with clearer boundaries. Indeed, it seems like Johannessen recognised Millennium as a show spun out of Irresistible, and chose to play Blood Relatives on the same sort of themes about loss and dysfunction.

Blood Relatives is a superbly constructed piece of television, one that marks Johannessen as a talent to watch going forward.

Wading in...

Wading in…

Like quite a few aspiring young writers, Johannessen had originally pitched to Chris Carter to work on The X-Files. Indeed, he had his first meeting with the producer long before Millennium made its debut. It did not go well:

Some time before Millennium, my agent got me a meeting with Chris Carter to talk about working on X-Files. I went in without story ideas, and with only the vaguest understanding of the show. Not only did nothing come of it, but Chris clearly thought I was wasting his time.

Maybe a year later I saw the Millennium pilot at the directors guild and was utterly blown away. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, by far, and I really wanted to work on it. Despite the bad meeting on X-Files, Chris was willing to try again because he was already hiring a friend of mine, Ted Mann, and Ted was suggesting that he give me a second chance.

Not wanting to blow it again, I spent a lot of time thinking up stories, and when I went in to talk to Chris I had a lot of material to present. But Chris always surprises. He said he didn’t want to hear material. He just said “I like Ted and Ted likes you. Let’s do this.” And that was pretty much it.

Ted Mann would depart Millennium at the end of the first year – but not before writing the show’s first season finalé, Paper Dove. In contrast, Johannessen would stay with the show throughout its three seasons. He would even run the show during its last year on the air.

Digging up the dirt...

Digging up the dirt…

It is not hard to see why Johannessen stuck around. Blood Relatives seems to understand Millennium on a fundamental level. Indeed, not even Chris Carter’s opening two scripts seem to have so firm a grasp on the potential of the series. Blood Relatives manages to do something that Millennium has never really hinted at, but in a way that fits so comfortably it feels like it might as well be baked into the premise. It does this less than ten episodes into the first season, a remarkable accomplishment.

Indeed, the obvious point of comparison here is Beyond the Sea from the first season of The X-Files, an episode that really pushed the concept and the characters in a direction that was both novel compared to the previous episodes and also true to the heart of the show. It does not feel like an understatement to compare Johannessen’s work on the first season of Millennium to the work that Morgan and Wong did on the first season of The X-Files. While Morgan and Wong’s scripts for the first season of Millennium have worked hard to give the show a centre of gravity, Johannessen’s scripts swing for the fences.

Good grief...

Good grief…

It could be argued that Millennium‘s delightfully gonzo second season owes as much (if not more) to scripts like Blood Relatives and Force Majeure than it does to 5-2-2-6-6-6 or The Thin White Line. While Morgan and Wong’s scripts are among the first season’s highlights, Johannessen seems more willing to push Millennium to be something unlike anything else on television. Based on their first season contributions, it seems rather strange that Morgan and Wong should be the ones to push the show so far outside its comfort zone in the second season and Johannessen should be the one to try to re-centre it in the third.

Blood Relatives meets a lot of the expectations for an episode of Millennium. It has serial killer with a gimmick; in this case, the serial killer is murdering mourning family members and occasionally leaving horrific messages carved on the skin of his victims. It has a guest character with an interesting pathology; in this case, James is a young man who likes to attend funerals for people he didn’t know, inserting himself into the grief of perfect strangers. However, part of the cleverness of Blood Relatives is the way that it subverts expectations and doesn’t tie the two in together.

Trying to pin it on him...

Trying to pin it on him…

James is dysfunctional, but he’s not a serial killer. It is a rather clever twist. After all, Millennium has already established a reliable formula seven episodes into its first season. We witness horrific acts and then spend time with the serial killer, so that we might examine their pathology and psychology. It is a fairly safe bet that the episode is showing us James’ creepy behaviour as a way to explain the violence that is occurring – it is inviting the audience into the mind of the serial killer. Indeed, as Frank pursues James, the episode actively encourages us to follow this thread.

It is a very clever subversion of a formula that has only been in play for half-a-dozen episodes at this point. Johannessen’s script is deliciously clever, counting on the viewer’s televisual literacy to help him pull a fast one. After all, Millennium would not waste so much time on a guest character if they weren’t related to the murders, right? Shrewdly, Johannessen’s script for Blood Relatives allows the writer to have his cake and eat it too. It turns out that the sad story of James Dickerson is related to the murders, just not in the way that the audience expects.

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

This is a very clever, very savvy structural twist. It recalls the careful construction that Howard Gordon and Chris Carter used in Grotesque, playing against the sorts of expectations that the show has so carefully and so meticulously set up to this point. Just like Gordon and Carter counted on Nemhauser’s bite mark to confuse viewers who expected a paranormal twist from The X-Files, Johannessen uses the focus on James Dickerson to hide the real killer in the background of the episode.

Blood Relatives is a rather ingenious story; it is the rare Millennium episode that serves as an effective mystery, even if it is not a conventional mystery. Millennium is a show that traditionally puts its answers up front; the show is not so much a “whodunnit?” as a “whydidtheydoit?” or even a “canwestopit?” Because the audience is not expecting that sort of story, Johannessen is free to write a satisfying mystery that only needs one gigantic red herring, allowing himself to properly set up the revelation as to the identity and motivation of the killer in the background.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

The reveal that Connor is the killer makes for a very satisfying resolution. Most obviously, it means that the focus on James Dickerson doesn’t feel like a cheat. As well as having a very direct personal relationship to James, Connor shares James’ motives. Just like James is desperately looking for love and acceptance, Connor clearly wants the same. As such, there’s a clear thematic overlap between the James’ story and Connor’s, in a way that ensures Blood Relatives never feels like a wild goose chase.

Of course, as much fun as the mystery is, Blood Relatives works very well as an exploration of grief and emotional dysfunction. The story of James Dickerson is heartbreakingly tragic, even if he isn’t the show’s eventual serial killer. Catherine describes James as “a classic lost child. And there’s an army of them just like him.” As such, it feels like it hints on some of the core themes of Millennium – fear of the future of modern society, reflected in the suffering of a child. James Dickerson is a child who grew up never experiencing love, the product of a system where nobody wanted anything to do with him.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

James’ behavior might be unsettling and creepy, but his motivations make a great deal of sense. His mother remembers his attempt to visit with her. “I want to come home,” James told her, walking up the driveway to her nice suburban house and loving family. It’s hard not to empathise. Home is a recurring theme for the first season of Millennium, often portraying that same “home” as a fantasy that cannot meet the expectations of security and safety heaped upon it. After all, Frank spends much of the first season working to protect his own idealised yellow house from the forces of evil at work in the world.

In The Well-Worn Lock, what should be a loving family home becomes a nest of abuse and betrayal. The Wild and the Innocent is the story of a child taken from a horrifically violent home and placed in a more loving environment. Episodes like Wide Open and Weeds concern the violation of the sanctity of the home, as alarms and security systems fail to keep occupants safe from the dangers lurking in the wider world. Here, James is trying to find his own home, as distinct from the “half-way house” where he currently resides.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

Indeed, Blood Relatives has a great deal of sympathy for those lost children who have to make their own homes – those people without families to love and support them. James’ mother refuses even to recognise James as a person, rather than simply a by-product of her own youthful mistakes. “He’s not my son!” she tells Frank, trying desperately to pass on the blame. “He’s something that happened when I was a strung-out teenager. You people said you’d find him a good home – you never did! Now you deal with him!”

James becomes a problem, rather than a person. This is reflected in his living arrangements. He has to sign in and sign out, his movements noted and monitored as if he were a wild animal. His current room might have a latch on the door, but it isn’t really his; the last occupant was a drug-user, and the ins-and-outs of the room are so familiar that Connor can fairly effective guess where James has hidden his mementos. Later in the episode, he finds himself hiding in a salvage yard, the ideal place for something nobody wants.

Washed up.

Washed up.

It is no wonder that James struggles to connect with other people, reaching out to them at their most vulnerable moments, as if trying to feel some tangible connection. James is not alone. Connor clearly wants to feel the same sort of connection, he just focuses his energies towards James. Blood Relatives very carefully and very clearly sets up Connor’s motivations, articulating his clear desire to force a bond with James. When James remarks that he feels trapped in the salvage yard, Connor emphasises that he is the only friend that James has. “Eh, what’s the matter? You’ve got nowhere else to go, huh?”

When James is arrested, Connor is desperate to speak to him. “Do you think I could talk to James?” he asks Frank, clearly concerned about his friend. Frank replies, “Family only.” Quietly, Connor remarks, “That’ll be the day.” There is a horrible irony to all this. Frank and Beltcher bring in James’ biological mother, a woman who wants nothing to do with her son. However, the only person who seems to care about James is unable to express that. Connor is unable to reach out and communicate with James.

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror…

Of course, Blood Relatives hits on some of the other bigger themes of Millennium‘s first season. The idea of damaged children becoming damaged adults would be revisited in Wide Open and The Wild and the Innocent, with the sins of the parents being visited on the children in Weeds. Here, Beltcher shares a story about how the first two weeks of a cat’s life are the most important, how those formative experiences shape an individual. While Connor is undoubtedly a monster, James is just a profoundly damaged individual who ends the episode as he began it.

Indeed, James voyeurism is in keeping with the broader themes of the show. Millennium is fascinated with the idea of perspective. After all, Frank himself sees what the killer sees. Killers frequently insert themselves into the lives of others. In Gehenna, the cult leader stalks his prey using night vision goggles; in 5-2-2-6-6-6, Raymond Dees plays the hero at his own bomb sites; in Wide Open, the killer peers around open houses and hides there until after dark. Here, James attends the funerals of strangers and pretends to be an old acquaintance of the deceased so as to join the mourning process uninvited.

A long Conn(or)...

A long Conn(or)…

However, Blood Relatives suggests voyeurism and intrusion in other ways. Connor knows his way around James’ room. There is a big glass window in the door to the half-way house, inviting outsiders to look in. A common fixture of the Seattle-based episodes, Frank watches the interrogation through a two-war mirror. Connor spies on James’ mother through mirrors, both in the interrogation room and at her home. It is no coincidence that Misses Dechant first spots Connor in her bathroom mirror.

Looking is very important. “Stop Looking,” the killer writes on the torsos of the victims. “Don’t stop looking,” a poster on the wall of the half-way house urges. Yet, these concepts are ultimately abstract. As Beltcher points out examining the bodies, the authorities are not even sure who the killer is addressing. What exactly are the residents of the half-way house meant to look for? And where precisely are they meant to look? Is James looking outside himself for something that can only come from inside? Given how messed up his life as been, would James even recognise what he was looking for if he found it?

Keeping reading the signs...

Keeping reading the signs…

Mirrors are a pretty great narrative tool, inviting the audience to wonder about objective or subjective vision. After all, people tend to see what they want to see. James projects an image of himself at funerals, an image that makes him feel comfortable – and an image that apparently makes other people feel comfortable. Similarly, Misses Dechant has built up her own image of herself – she has her own narrative of her life, one that is hard to reconcile with James’ own story. James sees himself as a lost child returning home, but his mother sees him as the past haunting her.

It is telling that Misses Dechant’s response to James’ return seems to mirror the various stages of grief; anger, shock, denial. James’ arrival changes her perception of herself. On the most superficial level, Misses Dechant can no longer claim to have an idyllic family life. James’ attempts to assert his relationship to her changes the story of her life, much like James’ presence at funerals subtle warps the stories of the deceased. It also allows James to reinvent his own story. He can be a college footballer, part of the cool clique.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

As an aside, it is interesting to note that “funeral crashing” is something that actually occurs. The idea of strangers intruding on grief for their own self-esteem was suggested in The Wedding Crashers, but there have been a number of high-profile real-life cases. In particular, the “Jolley Gang” – named for leader Terrence Jolley – made a name for itself in the early years of the twenty-first century crashing and intruding upon funerals in Britain while fraudulently claiming to know the deceased.

Blood Relatives is also notable for making good use of the supporting cast. The episode actually waits a few minutes to bring in Frank Black, introducing the audience to the case through Bob Beltcher and Catherine Black. Beltcher only invites Frank in on Catherine’s suggestion. Indeed, Blood Relatives really opens the second stretch of the first season – episodes where the production team seem to have settled on the cast that they want to keep around, and make a conscious effort to integrate them into the show.

A sociable social worker...

A sociable social worker…

In particular, Catherine gets a particularly strong run of episodes here, playing crucial roles in Blood Relatives, The Well-Worn Lock and Wide Open. The series often struggled when it came to integrating Catherine into the stories. In particular, the early first season episodes feel particularly clunky. Catherine seems to exist primarily to exposit about Frank (as in Gehenna), articulate the themes of the episode to Frank (as in Kingdom Come), or even just ring Frank up randomly because he has not been home recently (as in 5-2-2-6-6-6). None of these appearances felt particularly organic.

Gehenna had featured a scene between Catherine and Beltcher that suggested the two characters only existed in relation to Frank. In contrast, Blood Relatives suggests that they each exist in their own worlds. Beltcher is a put-upon detective with an incredible case-load, while Catherine is a social worker trying to work with families that have endured horrific ordeals. Neither character exists purely to carry Frank’s water. They each fight the darkness on their own fronts, occasionally intersecting and overlapping.

It's a wash...

It’s a wash…

Blood Relatives is packed with all sorts of beautiful and effective imagery. Johannessen borrows the idea of Frank wading through water from The Pilot, focusing more keenly on it here than Carter had. Indeed, water is itself yet another reflective surface, albeit one more prone to distortion than conventional mirrors. Perhaps it mirrors Frank’s own fractured snapshots of the killer’s perspective. The image of Frank wading out into the vast body of water, plunging his hand into the cold depths, seems like an effective metaphor for his character arc. This is, in effect, what Frank does every day.

Blood Relatives is a delightful episode, one that suggests Millennium may have found its feet. It is an episode that demonstrates the raw potential of the show, telling a unique story that is both moving and distinctly uncomfortable. Blood Relatives may be the show’s first truly classic episode.

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

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2 Responses

  1. I loved some of Johannessen’s contributions to Millennium (Luminary, Force Majeure) but I had a less favorable response to this episode than you did. The best of Millennium ( and Johannessen ) often departs from the serial killer formula but this episode tried and I think failed to do that. You made some good points about the episode’s strengths. The idea of a man so lonely he goes to funerals and pretends to know the victims is a terrific one and effectively used here, but the killer’s true identity is predictable, especially given the casting of John Fleck, who always plays what was once called a ‘heavy’ . Also, the ending contained one of the oldest cop show cliches, where the potential victim is undressing for a bath. I cringed at this and nearly turned the TV off.
    In addition, I understand the dramatic need to have Frank present at the climax but as presented it would have made a lot more sense to have him call 911 when he has his revelation in his car. A patrol unit would have gotten to the target’s home much quicker and would have had the benefit of an armed policemen (Frank rarely carries his gun) arriving on the scene.

    • That’s a fair point about Fleck.

      And I can understand some frustration with Frank charging to the rescue, but I think it’s an acceptable television shorthand. (The lead characters tend to do everything, and all that.)

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