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Millennium – Sacrament (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.

If Force Majeure and The Thin White Line seem to call forwards towards the weird and eccentric second season, Sacrament is a bit more modest. In many ways, Sacrament seems to foreshadow the last stretch of episodes in the first season. The forces of evil seem to encircle the Black family, creeping closer and closer to the big yellow house and everything it represents. For the first time, Sacrament explicitly puts Frank’s family at the heart of a case; this time focusing on the kidnapping of his sister-in-law from her child’s christening.

In many respects, this points towards the direction the show will take in its final stretch of episodes. Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions will see the forces of evil explicitly violate the Black residence, insidiously eroding the idealised life that Frank has tried to build for his family in their new Seattle home. The cliffhanger at the end of Paper Dove pushes the concept to its logical conclusion, as a secret that Frank has tried to keep from his family finally comes home to roost.

Worst. Uncle. Ever.

Worst. Uncle. Ever.

As with WeedsSacrament demonstrates that writer Frank Spotnitz has an uncanny understanding of how Chris Carter built Millennium. It is an episode that is soaked through with the core themes of the series; it is a story about good and evil, and how evil taints everything that it touches. As with a lot of Millennium, Sacrament is not subtle; the moment that Tom Black is identified as the brother of our protagonist, it is inevitable that the forces of evil will come barrelling down upon him.

Nevertheless, Sacrament demonstrates a clear understanding of what it wants to be, and is a pretty effective snapshot of Millennium at this moment in time. The first season of Millennium is often overlooked and overshadowed amid the controversies surrounding the second or third seasons, but Sacrament stands as a great example of what the first season was trying to do.

Our father...

Our father…

There is something almost hilariously on-point about Sacrament. This is not an episode that trades in ambiguity. Sacrament does not only introduce Tom Black, the hitherto-unseen brother of our lead character. It introduces Tom Black at the christening of his son. Using the priest as a relentlessly efficient exposition machine, the episode even handily explains why we have never seem Tom Black before this point. “Helen,” the priest states, “I know you’ve travelled a great distance to have your son baptised in the same church where your husband Tom was baptised.”

Not only has Tom Black wandered into Millennium as a close familial relative to our serial killer profiler, he has arrived at a moment of unity and celebration. The christening sequence is almost unbearably wholesome; adults chat about their own childhood as children run around and play in fancy clothes. Tom quite quickly works to establish that Frank Black was always the unquestionable hero that we know today. Not only did Frank buy Tom a bike for Christmas when their father refused, but Frank also covered for Tom when Tom damaged their father’s car.

Don't let him touch the baby!

Don’t let him touch the baby!

Sure enough, this beautiful scene is rather quickly undermined. It turns out that evil has infiltrated the most sacred celebrations. Wearing nothing more than a questionable wig, evil has managed to get into the christening and to kidnap Helen. The teaser for Sacrament closes after Helen has been snatched away, with Frank finding his nephew abandoned inside a parked car. There is something admirably direct about Sacrament. The episode does not mess around, jumping right in at the deep end.

Of course, the episode inherits a few of the stock weaknesses of Millennium as a television show at this point in its life. The idea to open with the kidnapping itself gives Sacrament an immediate sense of urgency and purpose. However, it also reduces Helen to nothing more than a plot object. One of the bigger recurring problems of Millennium is the tendency to treat female characters as objects to be guarded and protected. Some of the season’s more cringe-worthy moments reinforce the idea that Catherine and Jordan are princesses in a castle, to be kept safe by Frank.

Edgy...

Edgy…

Still, Sacrament also showcases a lot of the strengths of Millennium. For all that it lacks subtlety, the direct nature of the episode helps to give it more weight. It is a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable hour, as Sacrament throws in all sorts of religious imagery and horrifying implications. The symbol of Lucifer appears everywhere, inviting fans to wonder if there is a connection between this case and the character “Legion” who appeared in The Judge or the character of Lucy Butler who will appear in Lamentation.

An early scene in a DIY store is not only effective foreshadowing of the eventual resolution to the plot, but incredibly creepy in its own right. DIY stores are quite horrifying places; they are packed with sharp blades and nail guns and duct tape. It seems quite likely that Jigsaw has a pretty good loyalty scheme at his local DIY store. Sacrament is an endearingly direct episode, with a minimum of window-dressing. Unlike Weeds, it manages to keep the killer active in the story without feeling exploitative or crass.

If you go down to the woods tonight...

If you go down to the woods tonight…

As with Weeds, Spotnitz structures Sacrament as something of a mystery. This is a rather unconventional approach within the first season; we spend most episodes watching the killer commit crimes without any attempt to conceal identity. Weeds felt like something of a cheat, as Spotnitz packed the episode with red herrings only to reveal that the killer was a minor background character. Sacrament has a similar revelation; the episode intentionally and shrewdly misleads the audience about the killer, only to reveal that it was a character who has never really been in focus.

However, the reveal in Sacrament works a lot better than the reveal in Weeds for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the focus on Richard Green feels like it is worthwhile even if he is not the killer. Like the character of James Dickerson in Blood Relatives, the story of Richard Green feels interesting in its own right; it also connects back to the actual killer quite clearly and cleanly. As with James Dickerson, it feels like something of a sly subversion of the Millennium formula; instead of focusing on a killer, we are focusing on a victim.

Black heart...

Black heart…

More than that, the story involving Richard Green serves as a delightfully grotesque perversion of the world according to Frank Black. Millennium is a story fixated on the security and inviolability of the family home. The Well-Worn Lock, Wide Open and Weeds form a loose trinity exploring those themes. Here, however, the Green family provide an effective (and colour-themed) mirror to the Black family. The idea that Richard Green is exploited (rather than protected) by his father is delightfully unsettling.

After all, Sacrament suggests that Mr. Green keeps his secrets in the basement. There is a quick out-of-context shot early in the episode of Mr. Green emerging from the basement, looking a little suspicious. As such, her provides a twisted and distorted counterpart to Frank Black. Frank Black keeps his own secrets in the basement, away from his family. However, despite his best efforts, those secrets threaten to infect and corrupt his family. After all, Tom Black gets Richard Green’s name and his brother’s revolver in the basement.

Trapped...

Trapped…

However, Sacrament goes even further than that. The Green family is such an effective perversion of the Black family that even their house is contaminated. Millennium has spent a great deal of time establishing the sanctity of the big yellow house – the idea that the building itself represents an ideal that Frank strives to protect. In contrast, the Green house itself is a perversion; Mr. Green uses the DIY tools purchased by Richard to actually entomb Helen within the walls of his house. It is a perverse act, one that renders the space itself complicit in his crimes.

Still, despite this wonderful thematic resonance in the Green family, Sacrament is largely interested in the relationship between Frank and Tom. In a way, Sacrament feels like a very traditional piece of television. It effectively invents an extended family for Frank so that they can be threatened. Frank and Helen have never been mentioned before, and will never appear again. Tom will be alluded to in episodes like Midnight of the Century or Seven and One, but he serves his purpose in Sacrament.

Ringing defeat...

Ringing defeat…

The fact that Millennium feels comfortable with creating Tom Black for this purpose demonstrates just how episodic television could be in the nineties. It is hard to imagine a major drama being quite so transparent and clumsy today; Tom would be established and set-up (and might even appear) a few episodes before he was used in such a manner. Again, the use of Tom Black in such an obvious manner would feel a little cynical if Sacrament weren’t so direct about absolutely everything else.

It helps that Tom seems a little self-aware. Late in the episode, he lashes out at Frank. Although Frank is doing his best, this anger is understandable. “This never would have happened if we hadn’t come here to see you!” Tom insists. “You don’t see it, do you, Frank? You bring it upon yourself. It’s a sickness! You can’t just keep it locked away in the basement!” It is hard not feel some sense of sympathy for Tom Black. From the moment that Frank Spotnitz first imagined writing an episode around him, he was destined to suffer. He is a character related to a lead.

Heated debate...

Heated debate…

Sacrament never bothers to tell us much about Tom Black. Tom is younger than Frank. He has fond memories of their childhood together. Sacrament suggests that Tom has lived a somewhat sheltered life. Perhaps, like Catherine and Jordan, Frank tried to protect Tom from the evils of the world. He feels helpless when confronted by the sort of bleak horror that Frank confronts on a daily basis. “Let me in, okay?” he urges. “I’m an academic. I’m not a cop. I don’t know the rules.” It seems like his choice of career is meant to tell us a lot about him.

However, the relative blandness of Tom Black invites the audience to draw a number of conclusions about our protagonist. It suggests the Black household was relatively normal. It was possible for at least one child to grow up without an uncanny ability to understand evil. It suggests that Frank’s gift, whatever it may be, is not environmental in nature. There is not some dark secret of the Black household waiting to be uncovered. Frank’s childhood might have been a little more wholesome than most, but it was capable of producing a less… intense individual.

Mellow yellow...

Mellow yellow…

At the same time, Sacrament continues to develop that idea that Jordan may have inherited her father’s gift. The prospect was first broached by Dead Letters earlier in the season, but Sacrament really runs with it. Not only is Jordan the first to realise that Helen has been kidnapped, she spends a significant portion of the episode feeling sick. Sacrament never draws an explicit parallel between Jordan’s mystery illness and the plight of Aunt Helen, but it is very hard to read the episode in any other way.

This hits on the core themes of Sacrament, which are quite close to the core themes of Millennium as a whole. Frank is just one man; although he is doing the right thing, the evil that he investigates will begin to seep into his life. Frank’s efforts to protect those around him are well-meaning, but possibly misguided. It is no coincidence that Sacrament features the first mention of the polaroid stalker in quite some time. “Some truths are better left unknown,” Frank assures Tom. His brother replies, “But you can’t keep them from us, can you, Frank?”

The truth cannot stay buried...

The truth cannot stay buried…

It is debatable whether Sacrament belongs as part of the series-long arc about the forces of darkness engaging with Frank Black. Though fans like to discuss the “Legion” plot arc, the thread is so ambiguous that its mere existence is open to debate. Nevertheless, characters and themes and concepts recur. Gehenna hinted at a demonic force at work on Earth; The Judge suggested that some sinister demonic force was interested in recruiting Frank. Do the various references to Satan and Lucifer in Sacrament suggest that these forces are rallying against Frank?

Sacrament never confirms anything one way or the other. Richard Green is confirmed to be delusional; he believes that his father is “Satan.” It is entirely possible that Mr. Green is simply a normal human being, and the religious overtones of the episode are coincidental. It is also possible that some satanic forces are massing in preparation for a more sustained assault against the Black family. Millennium remains quite ambiguous on this front, inviting viewers to piece together their own internal logic or continuity.

Leaving a mark...

Leaving a mark…

It is the kind of writing that would easily veer into the ridiculous on The X-Files. Fans who dislike the muddled continuity of the central conspiracy would loathe the wilful ambiguity and contradictions inherent in Millennium‘s crazy cosmology. Then again, there is a double standard at play. Aliens are creatures of science-fiction, so we expect them to adhere to patterns and rules. In contrast, demons are much more ethereal and supernatural entities, often defined by their refusal to follow the rules.

In any case, Sacrament sets a solid tone for the rest of the year. While Chip Johannessen, James Wong and Glen Morgan seem to be writing their own versions of Millennium, Frank Spotnitz clearly understands what Chris Carter wants to do with the show. Despite the fact that he is a guest drafted over from The X-Files, Spotnitz goes to great care to demonstrate he knows Millennium. There are references to the polaroid stalker and to the Meredith family; there is late-night scene searching through the woods; there is the use of the yellow house as a metaphor.

By Jordan!

By Jordan!

At the same time, there is a sense that Spotnitz is a little behind the curve when it comes to elements of the show. Both Weeds and Sacrament contain elements and concepts from earlier episodes that seem a little outdated, as if the show has moved past them. Don MacKay appeared as Jack Meredith in Chris Carter’s first two scripts, but it seemed like the show was phasing him out by the time that he appeared in Weeds. In Sacrament, Brian Markinson reprises his role as Detective Teeple for the last time. Markinson has previously appeared in The Judge and Blood Relatives.

There is a sense that the show is stabilising at this point, that it has already worked out most of the kinks in its supporting ensemble. After Loin Like a Hunting Flame, the show largely retires the Millennium-Group-member-of-the-week format in favour of those who have already been established. With Sacrament and Covenant, it clears away the last of clutter like Jack Meredith or Detective Teeple. It is interesting that Spotnitz is among the last writers to use these characters, as if to emphasise that he is not quite part of the show’s writers’ room.

"This is why we don't visit that often, by the way..."

“This is why we don’t visit that often, by the way…”

Interviewed by Back to Frank Black, Spotnitz revealed that he was short-listed to run the second season of Millennium when Chris Carter decided to focus his own attention on The X-Files. However, Spotnitz politely declined:

“But then the history of Millennium is so unusual, because at the end of the first season Chris decided it was just unfair to Millennium and The X-Files to continue the way we had, and he wanted to get somebody else to run Millennium.” It was Spotnitz himself who was potentially in line to take up the reigns. “He approached me and asked if I wanted to leave The X-Files and just run Millennium,” he explains, “and I thought about it for a couple of days, and then I came back and I felt like I was both too attached to The X-Files to leave it and too new to television to pretend I could do that job yet, because I’d only been doing television for three years.”

The fact that Carter would even ask Spotnitz demonstrates an incredible trust in the writer. In fact, Spotnitz would be one of the writers who tried to help Carter to get Millennium focused again during its troubled third season.

Brother's keeper...

Brother’s keeper…

Indeed, it is interesting to note how influential Sacrament was in shaping the second half of the first season. It is the last real “serial killer of the week” episode until Paper Dove, the season finalé. Instead, Sacrament serves to set-up Frank Black’s adventures in Walkabout and provides a number of reference points for Lamentation. The iconic shot of Lucy in the stairway from Lamentation is presaged here, as is the revelation about where Frank keeps his gun and the dangers of keeping so much evil locked away in the basement.

Spotnitz is quite proud of Sacrament, considering it his best script for Millennium. Despite a few small problems, it is hard to disagree. Sacrament lacks the forward-looking energy of something like Force Majeure or The Thin White Line. Instead, it is a superb example of the first season’s aesthetic and thematic concerns. It is perhaps a little formulaic and familiar, but it hits all of the requisite beats with considerable skill. Sacrament continues a mid-season hot streak for the show.

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

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