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Millennium – The Wild and the Innocent (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 Wild and the Innocent is an ambitious piece of television.

It is not a piece of television that works as well as it might, the execution of the central ideas leaving a little to be desired, but it is an episode that commits whole heartedly to something unique. In I Want to Believe, Robert Shearman refers to The Wild and the Innocent as “a plot more suited to Cormac McCarthy than Chris Carter.” He’s not wrong. The Wild and the Innocent is a story about cycles of violence and abuse in the American south, a grim road movie with some very harsh conclusions about the way that the world works.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

It still fits within the milieu of Millennium. After all the classic “serial killer road movie” is still a serial killer story, and Millennium has already carved out that niche for itself. However, the image of Frank Black and Peter Watts following a trail of bodies from Missouri down through Arkansas suggests a different show than the one that has been airing since The Pilot. In many respects – with its heavy philosophical voice-over, its country-tinged soundtrack, its fixation on the outlaw couple – The Wild and the Innocent feels almost like some old American folk tale.

There’s something decidedly old-fashioned here, with the episode playing more like a western than a police procedural. In the documentary Order in Chaos, Carter described Frank Black as character from a story “like Shane, like any cowboy, any good movie, Western movie.” As such, he fits in quite comfortably with this new type of story.

Road warrior...

Road warrior…

The Wild and the Innocent commits to what it wants to be. There is no compromise here, no hedging. This is not an unconventional story masquerading as a conventional serial-killer-of-the-week, its mysteries revealed upon deeper scrutiny. There is no way that any viewer could confuse The Wild and the Innocent with a regular episode of Millennium, or a regular episode of any television show. Even if the episode doesn’t work as well as it might, it is hard not to admire the sheer commitment and ambition on display here.

Consider the Maddie’s narration – framed alternatively as letters to the mysterious “Angel” and possibly as a confession to Frank. It is pure purple prose, in the style that The X-Files might use to close out an episode – albeit with a Southern tinge. However, this voice-over is no half-measure. It plays over the entire episode. This is by turns endearing and infuriating. While this lends the show a folksy feel – to the point where Frank himself describes Maddie’s letters as an “oral history” – the actual dialogue alternates between strangely heartwarming and awkwardly stilted.

"I read the new today, oh boy!"

“I read the new today, oh boy!”

Similarly, Mark Snow amps up the guitar on the soundtrack, lending the story a nice regional feeling. This doesn’t work as well as it might. While there are some nice guitar hooks on the soundtrack, much of The Wild and the Innocent sounds like it is filtered through Snow’s synthesiser. While Snow is one of the best (and most prolific) composers working in nineties television, there is a sense that The Wild and the Innocent is pushing him a little outside his comfort zone. However, there is no compromise here. The Wild and the Innocent keeps right on pushing for its entire runtime.

The result is something that is bound to be polarising. The Wild and the Innocent does not play anything safe. It avoids the middle of the road. It is an episode that seems designed to provoke strong visceral reactions – Maddie’s Southern-fired episode-long monologue and the guitar-by-way-of-synth score are elements that are bound to alienate a significant number of viewers. Even if neither works as well as it might, it is hard not to admire the show’s courage of its convictions here.

Born to run... (Oh, wait, wrong album.)

Born to run…
(Oh, wait, wrong album.)

The Wild and the Innocent is an interesting beast. It feels like Millennium has discovered a new genre. Like Blood Relatives before it, this is an episode that roughly fits within the series’ established framework, but feels different to what has come before. While still dealing with human monsters, The Wild and the Innocent is rather different from the oft-derided “serial-killer-of-the-week” template that defines episodes like Wide Open or Weeds. The Wild and the Innocent is more of an outlaw road movie, the story of a vicious young couple murdering their way across America.

Millennium owes a great deal to cinematic depictions of serial killers. As with The X-Files, The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter both seem to have left their mark on the series. Carter has admitted that the movie se7en was a massive influence on the look and feel of The Pilot. There are a number of clear cinematic influences on The Wild and the Innocent, although these tend to hew closer to what might be termed “the serial killer road movie.” Although initially a subset of the road movie genre, “the serial killer road movie” developed to a point where it was significant enough to merit its own classification.

Family fun(eral)!

Family fun(eral)!

As Bernice Matthews reflected in The Highway Horror Film, the genre seems to share a common ancestry with the western and other outlaw adventure stories:

It is usually noted that the American road movie tradition first of all relates to a much more long-standing ‘fascination with the road’ connected to the process of colonisation and Westward expansion. That this relationship was further transformed by the invention of the automobile is a given. Sargeant and Watson even argue that, ‘Ultimately, in America, the freedom espoused by the constitution found its realisation within car culture.’ Within critical discussions of the road movie, several key films tend to recur again and again as milestones in its evolution. Noir movies such as Detour and Gun Crazy, which ‘transplanted the fatalism of pulp noir to the open highway’ are seen as key influences: Gun Crazy even helped establish the ever popular ‘Killer Couple’ plot which would later be furthered in the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers.

As film historian Tim Dirks has pointed out, the road movie seemed to evolve in the wake of the Western. Indeed, the rise in the popularity of the road movie occurred at the same time as the decline in the popularity of the Western, as if to identify the genre as a logical and organic successor.

Don't beat yourself up. There are plenty of other people to do it for you.

Don’t beat yourself up. There are plenty of other people to do it for you.

However, while there are any number of wholesome law-abiding road movie adventures, the genre quickly found itself associated with rebels and outlaws – perhaps mirroring the cowboys and mercenaries that populated the classic Western film. These included classic “outlaw couples” like those featured in movies such as Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, but also more sympathetic fugitives like those who appeared in features like Wild at Heart or Thelma and Louise.

Given how important the “Wild West” and the frontier are in American culture, it makes sense that road movies should serve as spiritual successors to those stories – endless road, often with an aspirational (or even unclear) final destination. There was a sense that America’s roads offered an escape to people who could not fit into contemporary society, an avenue of escape – even if that avenue didn’t particularly go any way. The road movie literalises a character’s journey; the 164,000 miles of national highway provide a lot of ground to cover – whether characters are running away from or heading towards something.

Picture this...

Picture this…

Then again, road movies tend to be even more cynical about the idea of the American Dream than Westerns. After all, the frontier has now been mapped and charted. There are now more new worlds to be discovered, people are simply driving down well-worn paths. As Shari Roberts reflects in Western Meets Eastwood:

In the Eastwood films, and, by extension, the road film in general, the frontier, the wide open spaces of the Ford/Wayne films, transforms into the road, a more current icon. American geography and history play much the same role here as in the Western, so that the image of the white dotted line becomes a visual shorthand indicating a new start, endless possibility, and equal opportunity – the American Dream. Western imagery was already nostalgic when the genre was established, and now the Western seems dated. The road stands in for the frontier, but, instead of symbolising a romanticised America in which the American Dream will come true, it simply asks over and over, as each mile marker is passed, what does America mean today? Are dreams even possible? While the traditional Western often works to resolve and contain disturbances, as in Stagecoach, the road tends to reveal the illusory nature of these terms.

The result is occasionally something of a nightmare, recalling Jack Kerouac’s “mad road, driving men ahead.” A system of curves and bends that inspire characters to push forwards with no clear destination in sight. Just driving.

The Tighs that bind...

The Tighs that bind…

After all, the journey in The Wild and the Innocent is ultimately fruitless. Maddie travels from Missouri to Arkansas to rescue her son, only to decide that her son is best left where he is. The journey changes nothing; Maddie does not achieve what she set out to do, and instead confronts the reality that it was all for nothing. Even her letters are an empty gesture; talking with Frank, she admits, “I spend my time thinking of Angel. Praying he ain’t thinking of me.” All her confessing is for nothing; in the end, if things work out for the best, her son will never know that Maddie even existed.

In a way, this seems to typify Maddie’s existence. Her life seems to have been a repeated cycle of abuse and violence. She recalls how her mother left one domestic abuser to end up with another. “I found out my real dad had hit my mom a couple times,” she recalls. “Then she took up with Jim and he just hit her more often.” Maddie grew up in a household with a rapist sociopath; it’s no wonder that she ended up involved with another. Even Waterson himself is a repeat offender, much as the women in his life seem to be repeat victims.

Just scratching the surface...

Just scratching the surface…

Of course, The Wild and the Innocent is more than just a generic road movie. It is a story about an outlaw couple on the road together, responsible for multiple murders. As a genre that offers a cynical twist on the Western, the road movie intersects organically with the horror genre. These links have been established since the seventies at the latest, as Mark Bould observes in Apocalypse Here and Now:

The relationship of Chain Saw Massacre to the road movie is clear. It is not a tale of embourgeoisification. The “road and the country may be known” to Sally and Franklin, but the social, cultural and psychological impact of the economic recession and the changes in the ownership and practices of local industry have “made it foreign.”

Once again, there is a sense that the road movie subverts the American Dream. What were once journeys of exploration and adventure now become trips down haunted roads wandered by outlaws and killers. What was once the ultimate expression of freedom and opportunity becomes a grim reminder of the world as it actually exists.

Off the beaten track...

Off the beaten track…

Indeed, the road in The Wild and the Innocent is not so much the last vestige of a romantic frontier, but a dark space where horror lurks. Maddie and Bobbie go on the road following the death of Maddie’s mother, when Waterson attempts to rape her after the funeral. To Maddie and Bobbie, the road is not an ideal so much as the only option open. In fact, the road serves to bring terror into the lives of settled folk. Maddie and Bobbie carve their way across the nation, killing a highway patrol man on his beat and a family in their own home; they force a stand-off outside the house of Angel’s new family.

It is an interesting and clever juxtaposition, building off some of the core themes of the first season. The idea of “home” is important to Millennium. In Blood Relatives, James Dickerson desperately tries to find his way home. In The Well-Worn Lock, the home becomes a place of abuse and violence. In Wide Open, a killer violates the sanctity of the family home. Millennium implies time and time again that “home” is not necessarily a safe place, the invasion or perversion of the home serving as a recurring motif in the first season.

Shards and symbols...

Shards and symbols…

Here, Maddie’s home is revealed to be something horrific. Examining the house, Frank observes a shattered mirror. “An inordinate amount of violence and suffering has occurred in this house,” Frank explains when asked about Maddie. “She might know something that could help us.” As with Blood Relatives, Wide Open and Weeds, there is a clear sense that children need to be protected; that the broader social decline and erosion featured in Millennium is related to society’s own failure to guard and protect its most vulnerable members.

There is a depressing fatalism to the stories of Maddie and Bobbie. Both seem to have accepted their place in the world. Maddie blames herself for the horrors inflicted upon herself and her mother, a common sentiment upon victims of abuse and violence. “I can’t stop blaming myself for what happened to my mom,” she confesses. “When, when she found out what Jim had done to me, she just, she couldn’t live with it. I know I’m guilty for letting what happened happen. If I didn’t stay in that car I knew I’d never see Angel again.” This is absurd, but it reflects the way that such abuse can be internalised.

A Black day...

A Black day…

“You saved me that day,” Maddie tells Frank towards the end of the episode. “Only man in my life that ever did something nice for me.” Although she has only ever interacted with Frank for a few minutes, it seems likely that she is being completely honest. Maddie is so desensitised to the violence and abuse surrounding her that she doesn’t even seem to recognise Bobbie’s sexual assault as rape – she doesn’t seem to realise that it is anything outside the norm.. “I’ve never been clear on why they call it ‘making love’. Every time I let Bobby have me, it felt more like ‘making peace’.”

Bobbie himself is less developed than Maddie; this is not his story, after all. However, Frank catches a glimpse of his entry in the high school year book. While other students have provides whole paragraphs of thoughts and aspirations, Bobby places only five ironic words next to his photo. “Being all I can be.” It is, in many ways, a wry reflection of “this is who we are”, the grim catchphrase that appears in the opening credits. In many ways, Maddie and Bobbie touch on one of the central ideas of Millennium – the idea that the cruelty of the world has conditioned people to accept evil and violence, embracing apathy.

He Rose to the challenge...

He Rose to the challenge…

Maddie and Bobbie are very much spiritual successors to famous (or infamous) ‘outlaw couples’ like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow or Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. As John Orr notes in The Art and Politics of Film, the road movie lends itself to serial killer narratives:

If there is a genre appropriate to the serial killer it is clearly the one foreshadowed by Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands, the road movie where the outlaw seeks to escape the constricting boundaries of place through a wide-open country which will hide him until he strikes again.

In particular, the serial killer road movie saw something of a resurgence in the nineties, perhaps as part of pop culture’s increased interest in serial killers in general. There were a number of high-profile releases which seem to have influenced the portrayal of Maddie and Bobbie.

A man of few words...

A man of few words…

Indeed, Natural Born Killers and Kalifornia both loom rather larger over The Wild and the Innocent. Kalifornia starred David Duchovny as a writer touring murder scenes across America. Natural Born Killers explored the glamour and romance that seems to have attached itself to the serial killer in contemporary culture. In both cases, a serial killer couple embarked on a journey across America. In fact, in both movies, Juliette Lewis played the female serial killer – establishing something of a casting niche in the early nineties.

As with Maddie and Bobbie, the female members of the couple were portrayed as victims in their own right. In Kalifornia, Adele is a rape victim who has found some measure of protection with an abusive psychopath – the film is relatively unambiguous about her innocence, as she refuses to take a life and is ultimately murdered by her lover. In Natural Born Killers, the opening scene establishes that Mallory is a willing (and eager) accomplice in her husband’s crimes. However, while Mickey’s origin doesn’t get too much focus, Mallory’s back story as the victim of years of abuse is the subject of an extended sequence.

Unhappy families...

Unhappy families…

Another example of the serial killer road movie from the mid-nineties is Freeway, a 1996 film starring Keifer Sutherland and Reese Witherspoon. A loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, featuring a runaway teenager picked up by a predator on the side of the road, Freeway hits on the rich tradition of folklore that has built up around the highways and byways in America. Millennium is fond of using the serial killer as an almost mythical creature, treating human monsters as tools for social commentary or wry observations about human nature.

With the road as the backdrop here, The Wild and the Innocent only amps up this sense of mythmaking or story-telling. The story of a young woman crossing the country in search of her lost son while facing challenge and adversity along the way, The Wild and the Innocent almost plays as a perverse parable about nature and nurture. The script touches on this in a number of ways. Most obviously, the journey is framed in multiple ways – both Maddie’s letters to her lost son and her confession to Frank. Her observations are loose and metaphorical, rarely anchored literally to the events on-screen.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

At one point, she contemplates the nature of spiritual belief – one of the recurring themes on The X-Files and Millennium. Recalling a sermon given by a minister on Easter Sunday, she muses, “He said that we can’t be weak, that we can’t dismiss the miracle, that we have to be strong enough to make mysteries real.” Stories and folk tales hold a country (and a community) together as much as much as roads and railways. Examining the hand-written letters to Angel, Frank observes that they are not traditional letters. “Yeah, but the language was present tense – almost a confession, or an oral history to him.”

The Wild and the Innocent is an episode utterly unlike any previous episode of Millennium. However, despite that, it feels like an episode that suits Frank Black as a character. The stoic and silent hero, Frank Black is arguably a much more of a traditional figure than Mulder or Scully. Despite all the horror he has seen, Frank does not hide behind cynicism or snark. As played by Lance Henriksen, there is a weariness to the character, a sense that this good man has seen so much in his life, but still refuses to look away.

Locked down...

Locked down…

In the documentary Order in Chaos, Chris Carter compares Frank to a classic Western hero, the sheriff staring down a threat to the local community. In spite (or, given the show’s attitudes about authority, because) of the fact that Frank Black is not a member of any official law enforcement body, he holds an absolute moral authority. It is the same relentless no-nonsense approach that Tommy Lee Jones brought to his Oscar-winning performance in The Fugitive. As such, he eases comfortably into the road movie framework of The Wild and the Innocent, tracking fugitives across state lines.

Indeed, it seems like the production team recognised this portrayal of Frank as the one unequivocal success in The Wild and the Innocent. Echoes of this portrayal can be seen later in the first season, particularly in episodes like Covenant and Broken World; stories featuring Frank wandering through the American landscape as a force for good – trying to make sense of tragedies in smaller isolated communities. These episodes have a very different feeling from Frank’s urban and suburban adventures, feeling more classical. It’s not too hard to imagine a version of Kung-Fu starring a wandering Frank Black.

Watts the matter you?

Watts the matter you?

The Wild and the Innocent is a flawed episode of television. It is deeply flawed. The execution is more than a little corny, with a lot of the episode’s more stylistic touches veering back and forth across the thin line between the absurd and the profound. Jeffrey Donovan looks quite uncomfortable in his leather jacket and with a punk persona. And yet, despite this, there is a very real ambition here – a desire to do something unexpected and bizarre. There’s an energy and enthusiasm that carries the episode quite far.

The Wild and the Innocent may not be a runaway success, but that doesn’t make a failure.

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2 Responses

  1. The Wild and the Innocent begins essentially with the same setup for Frank as Lamentation. He is chasing a killer from his past – Gilroy or Fabricant. Of course they turn into very different episodes. As you point out, this episode fits very neatly with the serial killer of the week format of the early first season. Then again, it seems very different. The reason Lamentation is so different is it goes all in on Carter’s absolute evil philosophy. The Wild and the Innocent barely touches on the role evil has in all this. Bobby scarcely developed and that is one of the flaws of the episode. But it also lends itself to the innocent portrayal of Maddie. Gilroy is perhaps the closest the episode comes to a “typical” evil killer as has been established so far on the series. Yet Gilroy is caught up in these cycles of violence just like everyone around him.
    The killers in the first half of season 1 are thinly sketched creepy evil murderers. Blood Relatives played with this idea but The Wild and the Innocent dismisses it entirely almost as if it exists in a different reality. It demonstrates an alternative path the show could have taken – embracing some aspects of the series’ premise, and leaving others behind. It is a western with Frank as the prototypical hero. He is a combination of Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Here, his flashes are most obviously based in empathy than any other episode. There is no apocalyptic undertone or philosophy on true evil. It’s really not very “millenniumistic” but an interesting take on the series’ premise.

    • Yep. The Wild and the Innocent is very different from what the show ended up being, but it works reasonably well in context of Millennium as “The X-Files, but with serial killers”, which is itself different from the meditation on the nature of evil that Carter was getting at, as you point out. Still, I have a soft spot for “Badlands by way of Cormac McCarthy”, which is the tone that the episode strikes.

      You’re right to describe as a very “western” episode of the show. I’m not sure I would have liked to see that as the defining course of the first year (although there are definite flashes of it in later episodes like Broken World), but it’s interesting from a tonal perspective.

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