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Millennium – Force Majeure (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.

Papa?

It’s begun.

Fire and ice.

Fire and ice.

A man in an iron lung breathes heavily. Rain and hail descends upon a university campus. A young woman spontaneously combusts in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm. As the flames consume her, she drops to her knees. As she burns alive, she is calm. Her palms are turned upwards in the mandala offering mudra. This is who we are. Never has the transition from the teaser into the opening sequence seemed so fluid and organic. Like much of Force Majeure, the opening scenes play like a delirious and haunting dream. Images and mood more than story.

It appears that Loin Like a Hunting Flame was a catharsis after all. Force Majeure is a masterpiece. It is a strong contender for the best episode of the first season of Millennium. Writer Chip Johannessen delivers on the promise of Blood Relatives, offering a script that demonstrates what that Millennium could be. It is strange, it is haunting, it is ethereal. It is utterly unlike anything else on television in the late nineties; it is utterly unlike anything else on television in the modern day. It is a surreal and abstract work, biblical and personal at the same time.

Eye see...

Eye see…

Force Majeure starts the countdown. The clock is ticking. It is the first time that Millennium explicitly sets a date – citing the planetary alignment of 5th May 2000 as the end of the world as we know it. A new flood; a new apocalypse. Of course, this would only be the first of many conjectural deadlines set by Millennium, the first of many possible reckonings. The end of the world could be the wrath of God, it could be a virus, it could be a great flood. Force Majeure simple says something that has been hanging in the air since The Pilot; the end is nigh.

It doesn’t matter that Force Majeure is never revisited. Instead, it matters that Force Majeure starts the clock. “This is the beginning of the Thousand Days,” Dennis advises Frank; it is a very clear precedent for the screen saver countdown that the Millennium Group would install on Frank’s computer at the start of the second season. It does not matter that Millennium never returns to this particular apocalypse, because Force Majeure establishes that Millennium is about apocalypses in general.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

It is very odd to think that Chip Johannessen had very little to do with the plotting or structuring of the second season of Millennium. Indeed, it seems like the second season begins here; with Force Majeure, the second season is born early. After the excess and gratuity of Loin Like a Hunting FlameForce Majeure posits a new version of Millennium. This is a new show that looks less like what will become Law & Order and CSI. Instead, it becomes something a lot more difficult to measure and quantify.

With Force Majeure, Millennium becomes a show about apocalypses. To be clear, it is not a show about a singular defining end of the world. Rather, Force Majeure suggests that the end of the world is ultimately a deeply personal experience. For all the massive cosmic forces at work, it is up to the individual to decide what to make of their own end of days. The apocalypse will be different for everybody, a recurring theme of the second season. Only you can know what you see when you look at it.

Walking in the rain...

Walking in the rain…

Certainly, the apocalypse was looming. In the mid-nineties, there was no shortage to choose from. For those inclined towards technology, Y2K was rapidly approaching. In 1996, Senator Daniel Moynihan described Y2K as the “year 2000 time bomb” in a letter to President Clinton. For those inclined towards geopolitical explanations, Aum Shinrikyo awaited a major war between 1997 and 2000. For those inclined towards cosmology, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide of 1997 was prompted by the belief that the Earth was about to be “recycled.”

There were so many endings; so little time. Unsurprisingly, a large strain of this millennial anxiety was rooted in Christianity. Pattern recognition and biblical scholarship were the cornerstone of this branch of millennialism; in fact, the popularity of so-called “bible codes” combined those two ingredients. In 1997, former journalist Michael Drosnin published The Bible Code, predicting the end of the world between 1998 and 2006; in 2010, he released The Bible Code III, predicting a nuclear attack against the United States in 2011.

The man in the iron lung...

The man in the iron lung…

Millennium has broached the idea of the end of the world before, albeit obliquely. The Pilot featured a serial killer ranting about a blood plague and the end of days. Gehenna invited Frank to confront a doomsday cult on American soil. The Judge suggested that there was something biblical at foot; pitting Frank against a supernatural force interesting in playing games on the mortal plane. Force Majeure is the first time that the series has committed to the the idea wholeheartedly. Writer Chip Johannessen certainly doesn’t hold back.

Force Majeure is fascinated with the idea of “earth changes” – the idea that the earth itself is in the process of rejecting mankind; that there will be a cataclysm that will essentially wipe mankind out so that things can begin anew. This obviously ties back into Christian mythology, with Force Majeure explicitly positioning this natural apocalypse as a repeat of the biblical floods. This is Genesis all over again, a clean start for some small remnants of mankind and the planet itself.

Everything lines up...

Everything lines up…

Of course, the idea of “earth changes” are nothing new. The most popular proponent of apocalyptic “earth change” is the famous psychic Edgar Cayce. Cayce was know as “the sleeping prophet” for his habit of delivering prophecy while in a trance-like state. One particularly relevant prophecy from the thirties reads:

As to the changes physical again: The Earth will be broken up in the western portion of America. The greater portion of Japan must go into the sea. The upper portion of Europe will be changed as in the twinkling of an eye. Land will appear off the east coast of America. There will be the upheavals in the Arctic and in the Antarctic that will make for the eruption of volcanoes in the torrid areas, and there will be the shifting then of the poles — so that where there has been those of a frigid or the semi-tropical will become the more tropical, and moss and fern will grow. And these will begin in those periods in ’58 to ’98, when these will be proclaimed as the periods when His light will be seen again in the clouds. As to times, as to seasons, as to places, ALONE is it given to those who have named the Name — and who bear the mark of those of His calling and His election in their bodies. To them it shall be given.

There are still those who subscribe to Cayce’s prophecies; these individuals would argue that Cayce predicted the Japan Tsunami in 2011; despite the contradictory dates and lack of other cited events evidence. These testimonies are arguably a demonstration of the sort of confirmation bias that one expects with apocalyptic prophecy.

Eggs-citing...

Eggs-citing…

Given the subject matter, it is a relief that Force Majeure never compromises or vacillates. This is an episode dedicated to something truly gonzo; the end of the world should not feel procedural. The characters repeatedly acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. “Gentlemen, welcome to the realm of the truly bizarre,” Cheryl advises Frank and Peter as she continues her autopsy. The manager at the Atrium has no idea what has been happening in his building, and seems downright confused. “None of this is supposed to be here.”

Force Majeure is utterly unlike anything that Millennium has produced to this point. Indeed, it is utterly unlike anything that The X-Files has done. However, that difference is not based on plot; it would be easy enough to re-write the episode for The X-Files. The core plot of Force Majeure has Frank Black investigating the deaths of suspiciously identical individuals across the country who are involved in a secret large-scale project. Force Majeure is pretty much Colony and End Game. However, Force Majeure has an entirely different tone.

Twin town...

Twin town…

Quite simply, Force Majeure is utterly unconcerned with making sense. It is not designed to tie together neatly. It is not a procedural show. It is not even really a murder investigation. It is more concerned with mood and atmosphere than with actual plot; Force Majeure dedicates its time and energy to throwing evocative symbolism and imagery at the screen. In plot and content, Force Majeure loosely resembles the early mythology episodes of The X-Files; however, it is less dedicated to convincing the audience that this all makes sense according to some invisible logic.

In fact, Force Majeure readily accepts the insanity of it all. “Noah was an insane man, until the rains came,” the man in the iron lung informs Frank Black at the climax of the episode. It takes a certain amount of faith to build a gigantic boat and round up lots of animals because you think a flood is coming to destroy mankind. That is a degree of faith that is almost impossible for a rational individual to fathom. The X-Files has a tendency to romanticise unquestioning faith in episodes like Revelations or Signs and Wonders. In contrast, Force Majeure is terrified by it.

Bloodwork...

Bloodwork…

The most beautiful thing about Force Majeure is the idea that it doesn’t matter whether the man in the iron lung is insane or not; it doesn’t matter if the rains never come. Force Majeure is more interesting for the fact that the rains don’t come. Force Majeure is a very odd and strange little story, one with lots of bizarre transitions and illogical elements. However, it works because Chip Johannesson grounds it in the characters. Ignoring immolation or “earth change” or prophecy or faith, it is a story about how people react to the end of the world.

It is the story about two young girls who discover that their father will not be making an important journey with them. It is the story about an eccentric longing to be heard amid the cacophony around him. It is a story about a lonely old man in a quiet little house desperately trying to remake the world in his own image. “I finally accepted that the people I wanted to see in the next world – people who would care for each other as brother and sister – did not exist,” he tells Frank. “I would have to make them.”

Reflections...

Reflections…

After all, the apocalypse is a deeply personal experience. It may involve a belief in some objective phenomenon, but the response is inevitably subjective. “I accept that on May 5th the planets will align and massive Earth changes will occur – not as a referendum on man’s wickedness but as part of the eternal order of the cosmos,” the man in the iron lung observes. “We cannot stop this. It is not about us.” And, yet, despite his strong belief in an objective reckoning from an impartial and uncaring universe, this man still plots to remake the world in his own image.

We never find out anything about the man in the iron lung. We don’t even discover his name. However, we are able to gather enough from his conversation with Frank. We know what he wants; we know what he plans to do (and what he has done) to realise that. There is something quite bizarre about the scenario; a small house in Idaho where a man dreams about the end of days from inside his iron lung. It is a compelling and intriguing visual; much more interesting than any of the sexual or violent imagery of Loin Like a Hunting Flame.

Dennis the menace...

Dennis the menace…

Of course, the man in the iron lung is not the only person facing his own personal apocalypse. Force Majeure introduces us to the character of Dennis Hoffman. Hoffman is a sad figure; he is energetic and enthusiastic, but he exudes a sort of loneliness. Rejected by the Millennium Group, he just seems to hang around. Asked how the Millennium Group found Dennis, Peter Watts observes, “Email. He’s always eager to talk.” People who want other to listen are always eager to talk.

“Once he found out about the Group it took a year to get him off our backs,” Peter recalls; there’s a mild irritation to the memory. Dennis is the kind of person you describe as “harmless”, the well-meaning sort who does not understand others and has invested far too much energy and desire into one particular train of thought. Having already dealt with a stalker, Frank presses the issues, “But he’s not dangerous?” Peter smiles, wryly, “Only if you listen to him.”

A hope and prayer...

A hope and prayer…

Dennis Hoffman is considered something of a crank. The Millennium Group considers him a nuisance, but not a severe problem. Peter is less than thrilled to find Dennis waiting outside the coroner’s office. “Dennis!” Peter yells, as if reprimanding a small child. “We had an agreement!” One wonders how far Dennis Hoffman has driven in his beaten-up old car; how long he has waited outside for just a chance to speak to Peter Watts and Frank Black about his research and his theories.

Dennis is a man looking for a purpose; looking for a reason. He wanted to join the Millennium Group, but was rejected. So he tries to convince people that his research into “earth change” has meaning or import. At one point, Frank asks Dennis where he plans to spend 5th May 2000; how Dennis Hoffman hopes to experience the apocalypse. “I really thought that when I finally found someone who believed, they’d be good,” Dennis confesses. “That the future would somehow be better.” There is a palpable desperation and longing to his admission.

He's certainly got drive...

He’s certainly got drive…

As with any great television guest character, Hoffman helps to shine a light on the regular characters. He is superbly realised and beautifully drawn, but he helps to bring a little extra out of the rest of the cast. Terry O’Quinn has been doing solid and reliable work as Peter Watts, but his little human reactions to Dennis help Peter to seem like more than just a generic exposition machine. It seems like Peter might be a real character with real feelings, rather than just a random member of the Millennium Group to help provide plot-relevant information.

Similarly, Dennis serves as a nice springboard to force Frank to confront the prospect of the end of the world. The closing scene makes better use of Catherine and Jordan than most episodes this season. Catherine is delighted that Jordan got into a nice school. “Frank, she’s set through the twelfth grade,” Catherine boasts. “We’re home free until 2010.” With the mention of the date, we get a nice reminder of why Frank is not preoccupied with doomsday or armageddon; unlikely the lonely men haunting Force Majeure, he has a future worth living for.

Into the void...

Into the void…

Appropriately enough for an episode about planetary alignment, Force Majeure is the result of a number of different factors working together perfectly. Chip Johannesson demonstrates an incredible and innate understanding of the show’s potential; this is a beautiful second script for the series. Like Blood Relatives before it, this is an episode that feels specifically suited to Millennium. To have a new writer produce two of these scripts so close together in the first season is remarkable.

Force Majeure is also lucky to have Winrich Kolbe in the director’s chair. Kolbe was one of the most dynamic and prolific television directors of the nineties. Although he did not work on The X-Files, he did direct Who Monitors the Birds? and Dear Earth for Space: Above and Beyond. He is a direct with a knack for visual storytelling. Given the loose plot of Force Majeure, it is great to have a director who can carry an episode like that. Kolbe would direct four episodes of the first season of Millennium; it is a shame that the show did not keep him around.

Book him...

Book him…

The casting for Force Majeure is also spot-on. The man in the iron lung is played by veteran character actor Morgan Woodward. Woodward has enjoyed a long career playing tough characters. He popped up in The Omega Glory on Star Trek. More recently, he played the serial killer Harold Cokely in Aubrey, a massively underrated second-season episode of The X-Files. Woodward even looks imposing in the iron lung, and does good work in his one big dialogue sequence with Frank at the climax.

However, it is Brad Dourif who steals the show. Dourif is a legendary character actor, and a frequent television guest star. He helped to provide The X-Files with an early masterpiece when he guest-starred in Beyond the Sea during the first season. Here, he perfectly embodies all the desperation and vulnerability that the script needs. Despite the fact that Dennis Hoffman rarely drives the plot, and is frequently in the background of crowded scenes, Dourif gives the episode a great deal of flavour.

Burning questions...

Burning questions…

Millennium never brings Dennis Hoffman back. It never returns to the Atrium in Idaho. However, it does not need to. Force Majeure is not about any one end of the world; it is about any end of the world. It beautifully – and undoubtedly unintentionally – sets up a lot of the themes that the second season explores. At a point where the first season of Millennium seemed a little lost, Force Majeure harks forward towards a new direction for the show. It is a direction that does not exist yet; but will soon.

Force Majeure is a masterpiece, one arriving at the best possible moment for the show. Luckily, there’s another one due shortly.

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

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