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Millennium – The Well-Worn Lock (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.

The Well-Worn Lock is trying to say something important.

As easy as it is to mock Chris Carter for being a little heavy-handed in his writing, he tends to wear his heart on his sleeve. There is an honesty and an earnestness to his writing that is quite endearing – a sense that he has some things that he wants to say, and that he will say them. The Well-Worn Lock is a tough and grueling episode, with some pretty harrowing things to say. It confronts the types of issues that are often overlooked or ignored, because they are so uncomfortable to examine head-on. There is a lot to admire here.

Happy families...

Happy families…

However, The Well-Worn Lock is also clumsy and ham-fisted. It is so committed to saying what it wants to say that it occasionally gets caught up in itself. It has been argued that Carter constructed Millennium as a vehicle to examine the nature of evil in the modern world, and there are points where the series feels more like a pulpet that a television show. The Well-Worn Lock is an episode about an insidious and oft-ignored evil, but there are points where it has the depth and complexity of a life-action cartoon.

The problem is not that the episode’s antagonist is a monster – after all, it is hard to describe anybody who commits this sort of abuse as anything but a “monster” – but that he seems a grotesquely exaggerated and one-dimensional caricature. Tackling a subject that requires considerable tact and grace, The Well-Worn Lock often has the emotional nuance of a sledgehammer.

The world according to Catherine Black...

The world according to Catherine Black…

There is something very bold and very daring about The Well-Worn Lock. To present an episode like this on prime-time network television in the mid-nineties was a bold move. Considering the media circus surrounding Home, it is surprising that Fox allowed Carter to return to the subject of incest – let alone combining it with child abuse. Coupled with the fact that this was the last episode of Millennium to air before Christmas – opening with a family watching Miracle on 34th StreetThe Well-Worn Lock makes for pretty bleak and harrowing viewing.

(Indeed, between this and Paper Hearts, it seemed like Ten Thirteen was not feeling much yuletide cheer as Christmas 1996 approached. Both late-December episodes leave viewers feeling pretty melancholy and downbeat, dwelling heavily on the suffering of young children. In particular, the use of Miracle on 34th Street makes for a wonderfully unsettling subversion of the sort of familial atmosphere one expects during the season of goodwill. That said, it is not as if A Christmas Carol/Emily and Midnight of the Century were completely cheerful seasonal treats either.)

He's certainly got drive...

He’s certainly got drive…

In many ways, The Well-Worn Lock is precisely as unsettling as it should be. The teaser creates an uncomfortable sense that something is deeply wrong beneath this otherwise traditional family scene. The quick flashes on Millennium are frequently disturbing, but those used in The Well-Worn Lock are among the most unsettling images to appear in any of Chris Carter’s productions. While the episode seems to be a bit reluctant to actually use the word “incest”, it gets its point across clearly.

After all, incest is a crime that tends to get ignored or overlooked in contemporary society. Child abuse is a crime that society tends to project on to strangers and outsiders – teaching kids about “stranger danger” or worrying about abductions in crowded spaces like theme parks or shopping centres. This approach to child safety glosses over the statistical evidence about child abuse. In fact, less than a quarter of all child abductions are committed by a stranger, even though those cases seem to get the most media coverage and provoke the most concern.

Cigarette-Smoking matriarch...

Cigarette-Smoking matriarch…

The statistics concerning child sex abuse are similar. While the media tends to focus on abuse by strangers, nine of ten children know their abusers. In fact, three of those nine children are abused by family members. Only one in ten is a stranger. That is an absolutely harrowing statistic, one that seems at odds with the popular narratives about child abuse. It is suspected that cases of incest are chronically under-reported, even by the standards of other sex crimes. In 1996, before The Well-Worn Lock was broadcast, Jeffrey Turner estimated that 20 million Americans were victims of parental incest.

These are absolutely harrowing statistics, and The Well-Worn Lock kicks off a series of rather unsettling explorations of American suburban life that suggests that middle-class American home can be quite a horrifying place; even (or perhaps particularly) if it is protected against the outside world. This loose “suburban trilogy” consists of The Well-Worn Lock, Wide Open and Weeds. With these three mid-season episodes, Carter allows Millennium to burrow under the skin of a largely white middle-class audience.

Cat posters. The root of all true evil in the world.

Cat posters. The root of all true evil in the world.

After all, as the National Centre for Victims of Crime, incest is a crime that occurs at all levels of society. It is not something that happens far away among a different class or demographic. It happens everywhere:

“Incest does not discriminate. It happens in families that are financially privileged, as well as those of low socio-economic status. It happens to those of all racial and ethnic descent, and to those of all religious traditions.”

The idea that the monster could be hiding in plain sight is a tried-and-tested horror movie trope, and Carter uses it well here. Joe Bangs is largely protected by his social status; nobody could suspect him of anything so horrible.

Father of the year...

Father of the year…

Connie Bangs refers to her father as “Mr. Chamber of Commerce.” The Assistant District Attorney is reluctant to prosecute. “This is a nice middle-class family,” she informs Catherine. “The father’s a local businessman.” There is a sense that this sort of crime couldn’t possibly happen involving such an upstanding member of the community. The system works to protect Joe Bangs, because he is the sort of person who could not possibly commit a horrendous and unspeakable offense like that.

Indeed, the episode rather subtle comments on the issue of gender, with Joe Bangs trying to downplay the accusations by suggesting his daughter is imbalanced. “It runs in the women.” The episode aligns Catherine with a female Assistant District Attorney is a system that is dominated by men. Joe Bangs isn’t just a powerful member of the community, he is a powerful man. The system bends around his gender as much as his status. It seems like even his wife has accepted that, taking sins and shame upon herself at the climax to protect her husband.

Arrested development...

Arrested development…

To be fair, Carter beats the drum pretty hard. There are points where The Well-Worn Lock feels more like a lecture or a treatise than an episode of television drama, with various characters making statements that could serve as bullet-point summaries of the show’s philosophy. “Just because it’s hard to imagine or hard to accept, people don’t want to deal with this because it’s easier to believe that it couldn’t really happen,” Catherine tells Frank, in a dialogue sequence just as heavy as the conversation in the bedroom back in The Pilot.

Frank makes a similar observation, one that seems to have been percolating in the back of Chris Carter’s mind as he developed Millennium. “We live in a world where too many people won’t go far enough, won’t do what they know is right, what they believe,” Frank urges his wife. “I don’t know how or why it got this way but the world has become so complicated that to involve yourself in someone else’s problems is to invite them needlessly on yourself.” One of the more interesting recurring ideas of Millennium is that apathy is complicity; that too many good people are willing to do nothing.

Going out with a Bangs...

Going out with a Bangs…

Carter would make similar observations in contemporary interviews outlining his vision of Millennium. In fact, one of the things that encouraged Carter to work with Lance Henriksen was a story about his willingness to involve himself in the affairs of others:

This is our dilemma: people want to do the right thing, but they can’t anymore. Frank Black is doing it. There’s a story about Lance Henriksen — who plays Frank — that I’ve never forgotten. Akira Kurosawa’s son was staying with the director Phil Kaufman; I think they were all up in St. Helena [California]. There was a rattlesnake near this kid, and Lance went over and took it, and snapped its neck — caught it and twisted something. He slayed the dragon. I’ve never forgotten it. And so I paid very close attention to his work ever since that time.

So The Well-Worn Lock is very vocal and loud about its big philosophical ideas. While this can seem a little awkward or clumsy, the episode is earnest enough to carry it off. At least for the first half of the episode.

Over the edge...

Over the edge…

The little details of The Well-Worn Lock ring uncomfortably true – the details at the edge of the story. It is clear that Connie has internalised her victimhood; she has been abused so often and so consistently that she has begun to blame herself for the horrible things her parents have done. “Sorry about all this,” she tells Catherine in the scene following the opening credits. “The bother, that it’s causing everybody.” This is an all-too-common occurrence for the victims of crimes like that, and it is one of the smaller unsettlingly accurate aspects of the episode.

Similarly, the portrayal of a family closing ranks to protect an abuser is another aspect of The Well-Worn Lock that rings true – a detail that captures the unpleasant realities of how these sorts of cases play out. Once Connie has gone to the authorities with her accusations, her mother and father immediately attempt to dismiss her allegations. Joe Bangs tries to shore up the support of Sara, his youngest daughter. “Your sister is trying to hurt Daddy,” he tells Sara. “Do you want to hurt Daddy?”

Black heart...

Black heart…

Things start coming off the rails as the episode enters its second half. The Well-Worn Lock does not do nuance well. It is not enough for Clea Bangs to passively enable her husband through denial and self-deceit, she has to be an active collaborator. Connie visits her mother during the case, and comes back shell-shocked. “Mom said that Daddy would hurt Sara if I did anything against him,” Connie cries. It seems like Clea Bangs is not just avoiding looking too hard at her husband and lying to herself, she is an active participant.

Similar, Joe Bangs escalates from an insidious monster hiding in plain sight to a cartoon supervillain. Early in the episode, it is revealed that Connie Bangs is actually the mother of her younger sister, Sara. At that point, it is hard to believe that the case is not open-and-shut. A simple DNA test would prove that Joe Bangs had impregnated Connie at a very young age; no high-priced lawyer could get around that. Instead, the episode keeps glosses over the evidential weight provided by that grotesque and unsettling revelation.

"So, this is my week off, then?"

“So, this is my week off, then?”

Similarly, much is made of the difficulty that Catherine Black and the Assistant District Attorney will have prosecuting Joe Bangs. However, he absconds with Sara half-way through the episode – leading to an action sequence in the middle of the woods where he not only tries to run down Frank Black, but he also tries to kill several police officers. It feels a little strange that this isn’t a bigger deal, and that he still has a defense case after this point. It feels like a decision that breaks the grounded and unsettling realism that had characterised The Well-Worn Lock up until that point.

Indeed, the entire second half of The Well-Worn Lock is a disjointed mess. While the idea of a five-month time skip is a clever way to underscore just how slow the system is at tackling problems like this, it leads to a rather clumsy denouement where – as always seems to be the case in televised courtroom cases – everything comes down to a single climactic moment. The whole sequence feels forced, right down to the judge calling Catherine to the stand to help coax the evidence out of Connie. For an episode that worked so hard to convey the grounded horror of this case, The Well-Worn Lock comes undone quite quickly.

Family matters...

Family matters…

Which is a shame, because there is a lot here of interest. Most notably, The Well-Worn Lock is an episode that centres on Catherine Black, the show’s second lead. The first six episodes of the first season struggled to figure out what to do with Catherine as a character, treating her as an ideal to be protected or an object to help generate exposition. Blood Relatives devoted time and energy to giving Catherine her own world and agency, and The Well-Worn Lock builds on that. It is a show told largely from the perspective of Catherine Black, looking at how she wards off evil her own way.

It is great to have that focus on Catherine as a character, and Megan Gallagher does great work with the material she is given. It never really felt like Millennium made adequate use of Catherine as a character in her own right, despite casting a great performer in the role. Too often, it seemed like Catherine was simply a motivator for Frank in his own quest to make the world a better place. Indeed, the show’s only other Catherine-centric episode is Anamnesis, the only episode of Millennium where Frank Black does not appear.

It is very worth comparing how Frank is presented in a Catherine-heavy episode to how Mulder is presented in a Scully-heavy episode...

We passed upon the stairs…

At the same time, The Well-Worn Lock seems to hint at the difficulties in building an episode around Catherine. A drama about the day-to-day life of a social worker fighting evil in the world would actually be much bleaker and more depressing than that of a forensic profiler. It is quite telling that The Well-Worn Lock awkwardly shoe-horns in an action sequence for Frank, as if afraid that The Well-Worn Lock might seem too dull or too heavy otherwise. However grim and unrelenting Millennium is at this stage of its life, it seems like regularly focusing on Catherine’s work would only make it heavier and more oppressive.

Still, it is a shame that the show didn’t try to find ways to involve Catherine more frequently and more actively. There is a lot to like here – in particular the way that Carter isn’t afraid to relegate Frank to the same role of “concerned spouse” that Catherine played in the first few episodes. Frank becomes worried when his spouse doesn’t come home, much like Catherine did in 5-2-2-6-6-6. Frank offers both moral support and a sounding board for his partner’s professional problems, as she did in The Judge. Frank reinforces the philosophical points of Catherine’s case, just as she did for him in Kingdom Come.

Walking the line...

Walking the line…

It is interesting to compare and contrast the relationship between Frank and Catherine with the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. In many respects, the relationship between Frank and Catherine seems much more balanced and stable than the relationship between Mulder and Scully. Of course, “they already have, a long time ago” is a lot less interesting than “will they or won’t they?”, but Millennium offers a very different central dynamic than the one present on The X-Files.

In particular, Frank seems a lot more comfortable and supportive here than Mulder does in the Scully-heavy episodes of The X-Files. Episodes like Beyond the Sea, Never Again and Chinga seem to suggest that Mulder is generally to self-absorbed and self-centred to offer Scully any substantial emotional support when she is doing her own thing. Here, Frank is quite ready to step into the role of full-time father and to pick up any parenting slack while Catherine does what she needs to do. It is a wonderfully understated and warm dynamic, even if it does lack drama.

Happy couple.

Happy couple.

The Well-Worn Lock is not a particularly successful episode, but it is a bold one. There is a sense of righteous anger underpinning The Well-Worn Lock that carries it quite far, as well as a willingness to tackle something that a less daring drama might avoid. While the show makes a number of missteps, its heart is in the right place. At this stage of the first season, that may be enough.

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2 Responses

  1. Yes! This was just the sort of movie review website I was looking for 🙂

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