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Millennium – Loin Like a Hunting Flame (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.

Loin Like a Hunting Flame represents the peak of a particular type of Millennium story.

It is an episode towards which the season seems to have been building. It is an episode that rather explicitly and candidly ties together two of the show’s favourite subjects: sex and violence, in harmony together. Loin Like a Hunting Flame is something of a stalking horse for the rest of the season; it is the first season episode that most obviously embodies the excesses of any show like Millennium. Fetishised violence has been baked into Millennium since The Pilot opened with a stripper dancing in her own blood; here, it reaches a logical end point.

Candid camera!

Candid camera!

Loin Like a Hunting Flame is an episode that is guilty of just about any criticism that might be thrown at it. It is gratuitous; it is sensationalist; it is excessive. It tries to have things both ways, titillating the viewer with glimpse of “exotic” sexual liberation while warning them that those sexually liberated individuals will be punished for their perceived transgressions. Yes, Loin Like a Hunting Flame tries to say something a bit more nuance, but it flails around for most of its forty-five minute runtime like a dying fish.

In many respects, this could be treated as a catharsis for the series. After this point, Millennium turns a corner. The rest of the first season is a lot more ambitious in tone and scope. As much as Loin Like a Hunting Flame closes off a particularly evolutionary line of Millennium, Force Majeure and The Thin White Line push forwards towards a more adventurous show. Loin Like a Hunting Flame just has to work these issues out, once and for all, to their logical (and unsatisfying) conclusion.

Wholesome family fun...

Wholesome family fun…

Horror is an interesting genre. On the one hand, it is the most trashy of genres; nothing succeeds like excess, so sex and violence combine a heady cocktail. At the same time, horror is also very conservative; it likes to punish transgressions and reinforce values. As John Kenneth Muir noted in Horror Films of the 1980s:

It was not hard to divine that these slasher movies appeared designed and executed as conservative precautionary tales. Although the Moral Majority and conservatives railed violently against popular horror films in the 1980s, the very movies they loathed actually toed the party-line with dedication.

To wit, a display of vices (drugs and sex) would invariably precede the slice-and-dice (a new kind of capital punishment!). The actual content of these films may have been quite naughty, skirting the very edge of socially accepted mores and taboos about violence and sexuality, but most of the films also carried the conservative (and contradictory) theme that if you sin, punishment shall be meted out.

It is a fascinating contrast, an intriguing paradox. Millennium is very much a piece of horror television, and it occasionally falls into those same traps. There is a point where it the show wants to have its cake and eat it when it comes to serial killers and their pathologies.

Swingin' nineties...

Swingin’ nineties…

Episodes like The Pilot, Dead Letters, Wide Open and Weeds all seem deeply fascinated by the killers at their core. To be fair, this is only reasonable. Millennium is a television show in a competitive prime-time slot. By its nature, it has to be visually intriguing and compelling. In a show dealing with different serial killers from one week to another, that means visualising the crimes in a distinctive and engaging manner. This makes a great deal of sense. Television audiences will forgive almost any sin except boredom.

After all, The X-Files makes its monsters visually and conceptually fascinating. Just look at Leonard Betts or Never Again, the episodes airing either side of Loin Like a Hunting Flame; they are episodes about monsters made of cancer and killer tattoos. However, monsters made of cancer and killer tattoos are objects that only exist in pulp fiction. They are can be sensationalised and exaggerated; there is no harm in doing so. However, serial killers trading in sex and violence are a more grounded and mundane sort of horror.

Love is the drug...

Love is the drug…

To be entirely fair, even with its paranormal set-up, The X-Files has been guilty of sensationalising sex and violence on occasion. Gender Bender shares many of the same uncertainties about sexual liberation and rave culture that haunt Loin Like a Hunting Flame. Excelsis Dei featured an ill-judged plot thread about rape. This is to say nothing of the cultural insensitivity on display in episodes like The Calusari, El Mundo Gira or Badlaa. Millennium is by no means the only show to struggle with issues of taste and restraint. This is just an especially egregious example.

The serial killer subject matter lends itself to this excess. The Pilot established that Frank Black is a profiler with a lot of experience in sexual homicides, so it is natural that the show will lean in that direction. Real-life serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy tend to attract sensationalist coverage and discussion in the media, so their fictional counterparts are perfectly suited to these sorts of portrayal. Pop culture is deeply fascinated by depravity – particularly in areas of sex or violence.

"No, I am not a serial killer. Why do you ask?"

“No, I am not a serial killer. Why do you ask?”

Mark Seltzer makes a similar argument in Serial Killers, suggesting that serial killers are attractive to a particular strand of popular culture:

The tabloid figure of the serial killer would seem to lend itself ideally to psychoanalytical accounting – and no least because “psychoanalysis is the intellectual tabloid of our culture … (‘sex and violence’ being its chief objects of concern).” The sexualised violence enacted in many cases of serial killing in fact looks like nothing but a psychotic literalisation of a body of infantile fantasies.

This is not to suggest that serial killer fiction is inherently gratuitous or excessive. That would be a crass generalisation.

Lights, camera, action!

Lights, camera, action!

There are numerous counter-examples. The Silence of the Lambs won the Best Picture Oscar, True Detective is a much-loved television show. It isn’t even that violence needs to be in service of a higher ideal beyond art itself. As Xavier Morales argues in his review of Kill Bill: Vol. I, violence can – paradoxically – be rendered beautifully:

We watch in wonder and awe, not horror. Intellectually, we should be horrified by what we see. But the violence is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have.

On television, Hannibal is often strikingly beautiful and viscerally repugnant within the same frame. Acknowledging that serial killer narratives can tend towards exploitation does not suggest that they are exploitative by default. Millennium itself – despite missteps like Loin Like a Hunting Flame – is proof of that.

I don't Adam and Eve it...

I don’t Adam and Eve it…

Loin Like a Hunting Flame is a bundled of mixed messages and crossed wires. On the one hand, it argues sexual repression is bad and sexism is terrible. However, it does not argue either point particularly well. There is a rather odd subplot about sexism where Frank Black and never-before-seen female member of the Millennium Group are paired with Detective Thomas, a sexist local beat cop. Thomas is not so much a character as a collection of stock clichés; he is the alpha male cop uncomfortable with this new world of women detectives.

Naturally, Frank puts Thomas in his place, because this is not the nineteenth century. “You never worked with a woman, did you?” Frank asks Detective Thomas. When Thomas asks how he knew, Frank sassily responds, “If you’d had, you’d have learned to value their insights more.” Burn! Mulder would be proud. However, Thomas still spends the rest of the episode acting like an insensitive ass; he reacts like a schoolboy when he finds a gag in a victim’s car, and is quick to lay the blame on two husbands attending a key party.

Kids these days, with their rave music...

Kids these days, with their rave music…

While we are not meant to sympathise with Thomas, this still feels like a weird tangent for the show. It is quite like the sexism subplot in 2shy, where Scully had to work with a local law enforcement official who held similarly outdated views. However, the plot was very much in the background of 2shy, the sexist agent very promptly got himself eaten, and we actually cared about Scully. Maureen Murphy is a one-shot character who has never appeared before and never will again; indeed, the episode is more invested in Frank as a spectator than Maureen as an active character.

Loin Like a Hunting Flame also runs into problems with the characterisation of Art and Karen Nesbitt. Art is a serial killer fascinated by sexuality. He drugs his young victims, films them performing sexual acts, and them stages their dead bodies. In Frank Black and America’s Fin de Siècle, Joseph Maddrey compares Art Nesbitt to the real-life serial killer Jerome Brudos. Known as “the Lust Killer”, Brudos killed four young women in the late sixties. The case became notable for accounts Brudos’ sexual appetites, including cross-dressing, a foot fetish and necrophilia.

Happy couple!

Happy couple!

Art Nesbitt does not share any of Brudos’ pathology, but the background of the case is familiar. Like Brudos, Nesbitt kills without the knowledge of his wife. Like Brudos, Nesbitt feels sexually rejected by his wife. As with Brudos, Nesbitt keeps his victims in the house’s garage, but has his wife conditioned in such a way as to protect his secret. While Brudos would force his wife to use an intercom before entering, Nesbitt simply informs his wife to be careful using the garage.

Loin Like a Hunting Flame suggests that Art Nesbitt is compelled by his own sexual repression. “I think he’s lost his innocence,” Frank suggests. “He’s ashamed.” The implication seems to be Art is compelled by the failure of his own sexless marriage. In their eighteen years together, it seems that they only tried to have sex once. It was a disaster for all involved. On their eighteenth anniversary, Art decides to try again. “It didn’t go so well – you know, that first time. And maybe since it’s our anniversary, I was wondering, if maybe, you wouldn’t like to try again?”

The art of Art...

The art of Art…

There is something distinctly unsettling about this set-up. It almost seems like Loin Like a Hunting Flame is blaming Karen’s sexual repression for her husband’s killing spree. While this is an absurd position and one the episode does not explicitly endorse, the decision to portray Karen Nesbitt as a deeply repressed and sexually uncomfortable housewife does not help matters. When Frank recovers Art’s eighteen-year-old pornography magazine, Karen almost recoils in horror. “Is that smut?” she asks. Won’t somebody think of the children that they don’t have?

Then again, Karen Nesbitt is a rather thinly drawn character. The relationship between Art and Karen Nesbitt is never defined enough to get a sense of their married life. Instead, it plays like a sexist cartoon brought to life – sex-starved husband with uptight sexless wife goes on a killing spree! It is very much a stock serial killer story cliché, executed with a minimal amount of nuance and depth. Art Nesbitt is hardly subtle in his creepiness; even with all her obvious anxieties, it is hard to believe that Karen could be so oblivious for so long.

Frank blends into the rave scene perfectly...

Frank blends into the rave scene perfectly…

Ted Mann’s script does not help matters. The characters feel thinly-sketched. For a show about sex and sexuality, the female characters are all woefully under-developed. Maureen is very much a stock member of the Millennium Group; it is hard to distinguish between Maureen and Cheryl or Ardis. In fact, the second half of Loin Like a Hunting Flame draws in Peter Watts for no real reason; all he does is spout exposition and find the pornography magazine. There are functions that could easily be distributed among the cast already engaged with the story.

Even beyond the characters, the writing awkwardly heavy-handed. While offering a bunch a children a tour of the botanical gardens, the tour guide informs them, “And this is what the Garden of Eden might have looked like.” Sure enough, we soon find the bodies of Nebitt’s first victims. With foliage covering the offensive parts of their anatomy, they are staged to resemble to popular image of Adam and Eve. It feels a little too clumsy, too awkward, too contrived.

Drop dead sexy...

Drop dead sexy…

However, there is also something reactionary about the sexual politics for Loin Like a Hunting Flame. For all that Detective Thomas learns that sexism is bad and Art Nesbitt demonstrates that sexual repression is bad, the episode still feels clumsily wholesome. This is an episode where a bunch of police men turn a married couple’s house upside down looking for a beat-up porno magazine stashed in the toilet tank. Even within the context of the rest of the episode, there is something very conservative about that image.

This is to say nothing about Art Nesbitt’s killing spree. The morality of the horror movie is in full effect; it is hard not to get the sense that deviance is being punished. With the exception of the sweet wholesome newly-weds who get to survive their experience, Nesbitt targets a collection of stock images of nineties sexual liberation. The parents of Boulder, Colorado will be using Art Nesbitt as a cautionary tale for years to come; it is a wonder he doesn’t pick up a bunch of high-school kids skinny-dipping in the old lake.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

As in Gender Bender from the first season of The X-Files, there is something particularly uncomfortable about the portrayal of the rave scene as a highly-charged and sexually-dangerous environment. If anything, the nineties rave scene was treated as a “safe” space:

You’re a lad out with his mates on a Saturday night. Just imagine going for the first time to a crowded noisy place where, if you bump into a bloke or chat to his girlfriend, he’s more likely to hug you than to hit you. This was the kind of space that ecstasy culture made possible in the early Nineties, and for a lot of people it was an extraordinary liberation. What was really so amazing about many dance clubs at that time was the effect ecstasy and house music had on straight men. You didn’t even have to take the drug yourself to notice the change.

It seems like the rave featured in the opening sequences of Loin Like a Hunting Flame are lifted straight from every parent’s worst nightmare. Young people having fun, doped up, sexually abused and murdered. It is like a tabloid headline come to life.

He likes to watch.

He likes to watch.

This portrayal seems very much in keeping with the sorts of sensationalised reports of raves in Chicago, as the city attempted to ban these activities in the run-up to the millennium:

A few people quoted in the press and interviewed for this study discussed the dangers of raves and Ecstasy use in ‘‘epidemic’’ terms. An emergency room doctor was quoted in the press as saying ‘‘the ecstasy epidemic has hit Chicago. It started off as a party drug, much as cocaine did. Of course, we all saw the wrath of cocaine in the 80s and 90s’.’ In 2001, an article portrayed raves as one-night-only dance parties where ‘‘people do drugs, play loud music and engage in random sex acts.’’ There were also several ‘‘undercover reports’’ from local television investigative teams that emphasized the dangers of raves and clubs in very stark terms, suggesting that normal kids were being drawn into a dangerous and drug-infested culture. The characterization of raves and club drug use as an epidemic and reference to widespread sexual deviance (e.g., random sex acts) suggests that the rave conflict in Chicago, like other moral panics, contained exaggerated claims.

There is something very old-fashioned in this portrayal of rave subculture as something alien and dangerous, a stalking ground for serial predators.

La petite mort.

La petite mort.

Nesbitt quick escalates from raves to key parties. Key parties were a pop culture phenomenon in the sixties and seventies; the type of event about which everybody had heard, even if nobody could find any credible first-hand witnesses. Key parties enjoyed something of a resurgence in the nineties, Rick Moody’s 1994 novel The Ice Storm featured a climax at a key party set in 1973. However, Moody could not verify such events:

The “key party” is a kind of legend, really. During the research for the book I could find no one who would admit to having been to one. And yet the rumor persisted, like some kind of Loch Ness monster of the swinging seventies. The film takes the legend and forces it to be dramatic. It was exciting to watch the horror of the legend made real.

Although there are undoubtedly real-life key parties, it seems unlikely that they are as frequent (or as easy to infiltrate) at the kind of party on display here. Indeed, it seems quite possible that the resurgence in interest in key parties was a direct result of the popularity of The Ice Storm. Director Ang Lee produced a film of the novel, released in late 1997.

Down the rabbit hole...

Down the rabbit hole…

It seems very much that Loin Like a Hunting Flame is trying to have the best of both worlds. It criticises sexism and sexual repression, but it also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers sexual liberation. It seems like there is a “sweet spot” when it comes to sexual relationships – an entirely sexless marriage is bad, but being sexually adventurous will get you killed. The show suggests that Frank and Catherine embody a “goldilocks” approach; Jordan exists as evidence that Frank and Catherine have successfully had sex at least once more than Art Nesbitt.

In a way, Loin Like a Hunting Flame feels like an overt expression of some of the show’s central philosophy. Sadly, these elements are just more pronounced here than they are in earlier episodes. Loin Like a Hunting Flame is the logical extrapolated endpoint of the show’s approach to female characters as objects in need of protection, and deviance as something inherently wrong and perverted. Art Nesbitt is the kind of serial killer that the show has been pushing towards since The Pilot.

The Art of the chase...

The Art of the chase…

Loin Like a Hunting Flame is a messy and deeply unpleasant episode; but not unpleasant in the way that Millennium is at its best. Instead, it feels like it exists solely as evidence for the prosecution. This is the kind of episode that critics could easily point to if they wanted to attack the show; to score points while landing valid criticisms. Loin Like a Hunting Flame embodies the worst excesses of the first season of Millennium. Still, it can only get better.

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

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