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Millennium – Covenant (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.

Apparently, the original cut of Covenant ran over an hour and twenty minutes. This is not unusual in network television. Glen Morgan and James Wong faced similar problems when producing The Field Where I Died. However, while cutting The Field Where I Died down to forty-five minutes left something of a jumble, Covenant feels much stronger for the rather ruthless editing done to fit the episode into the broadcast slot. In many ways, Covenant feels quite minimalist – an episode that says the bare minimum, but conveys everything that needs to be conveyed.

Covenant is an episode that could easily seem exploitative. After all, there are points where Millennium feels like it is wallowing in human anguish and suffering. A story concerning the brutal murder of a nuclear family (including three children and a pregnant wife) is something that needs to be approached with care and delicacy. The original script for Covenant is perhaps overwritten, trying to draw too many parallels to Frank’s own family; these associations are best left unsaid.

Bloody handiwork...

Bloody handiwork…

In many ways, Millennium could be described as a “horror” show, and Covenant hones on some of the same fears that the first season has targeted repeatedly. Millennium is a show that is keen to assure viewers that their family members are not safe in their own homes and communities. However, there is a deftness and a tactfulness on display here that elevates Covenant above many of the similar stories in this début season. Covenant is all the more unsettling for its restraint and its control.

Covenant continues a strong late-season streak for Millennium, demonstrating the versatility and the nuance possible within the framework that the show has established. Covenant is a triumph for all involved.

Solid as a rock...

Solid as a rock…

The first season of Millennium attracts a lot of criticism for its alleged “serial killer of the week” format, a riff on the “monster of the week” format that had helped to make The X-Files such a hit. It is tempting to dismiss these criticisms as short-sighted or superficial, but the first two-thirds season do contain a lot of these formulaic instalments; episodes like The Pilot, Dead Letters, Kingdom Come, Wide Open, WeedsLoin Like a Hunting Flame, The Thin White Line and Sacrament.

However, the final third of the season becomes a lot more experimental. It could be argued that there are no true “serial killer of the week” episodes to be found between Sacrament and Paper Dove. Sure, there are episodes that include serial killers – the Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions two-parter and Maranatha – but these episodes have a lot more at play. Producer Robert Moresco’s two scripts in this stretch of episodes help a great deal; both Covenant and Broken World look at the show from a different perspective.

Unhappy family...

Unhappy family…

In many respects, Moresco is one of the great success stories of the Millennium writers’ room. Moresco is a long-term collaborator with Paul Haggis. The two met on the writing staff of the short-lived television show EZ Streets in 1996. Airing on CBS, the show suffered from an irregular viewing schedule and was promptly cancelled. The episode was not aired. However, Moresco and Haggis would remain occasional collaborators. The two created and produced The Black Donnellys together, and they won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Crash.

As with Chip Johannessen, the other big success story from the Millennium writers’ room, it is immediately clear that Moresco has a unique way of looking at the show. Moresco’s two scripts are quite unlike any other scripts written for Millennium, while still fitting comfortably within the show’s central premise. Eschewing simple serial killer investigations, Moresco adopts a more holistic approach to the work that Frank Black does. In Covenant, Frank offers a psychological profile of an already-convicted killer; in Broken World, he watches the birth of a serial killer.

Tools of the trade...

Tools of the trade…

These are very clever twists on the central concept of Millennium. They help to distinguish Millennium from the slew of forensic procedural shows that would emerge in the years to follow. Episodes like Loin Like a Hunting Flame and Sacrament could easily be adapted for CSI, Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU. In contrast, episodes like Covenant and Broken World would be less comfortable fit. Along with the heavy religious themes seeded through the season, they help to suggest that Millennium is more an anthology show about evil than a simple procedural.

There is also a sense that Moresco is cleverly drawing upon a wealth of popular and classic literature around the show’s subject matter. The relationship between violence and society has produced some great art. Moresco’s scripts for Millennium seem to draw – whether explicitly or implicitly – from some of those classic works. Broken World owes a clear debt to Equus, Peter Shaffer’s classic play documenting a young offender who blinded several horses. Indeed, some of the religious themes of Equus bleed over into the portrayal of religion in Covenant.

Sleeping angel...

Sleeping angel…

However, Covenant also feels like it owes a debt to The Executioner’s Song. Norman Mailer’s account of the trail and execution of Gary Gilmore also informed some of The Thin White Line earlier in the season. Here, William Garry shares Gary Gilmore’s desire for death-by-firing squad. Both the real-life Gary Gilmore and the fictional William Garry are motivated to seek execution in accordance with their religious beliefs; both men suggest that willingly facing a firing squad will allow some measure of atonement.

Covenant really hits on the idea of Frank Black as a heroic figure. Here, he is the one advocate of the truth, in the face of an entire town that is happier believing a lie. Unlike Mulder, Black is not spurred on by personal trauma or family history; he has no interest in truth and justice beyond his appreciation of them as moral concepts. Discussing Millennium, Chris Carter has described Frank Black as the archetypal old-fashioned western hero. More than any other Chris Carter protagonist, Frank Black is a righteous man.

Deputy do-right...

Deputy do-right…

This episode emphasises the idea of Frank Black as a hero escaped from a western. Frank is very much cast in the role of “the stranger.” He arrives in Ogden alone; although he phones Catherine and Jordan, there is no Watts or Bletcher to assist him in his investigation. Frank drives in Ogden to ensure that justice is done, quickly discovering that the small town hides a dark secret. Although he is an outsider, Frank eventually becomes the catalyst for Ogden to confront its own fears and nightmares. He may as well arrive riding a horse.

Covenant hits on a pretty primal fear. Opening with the brutal murder of a loving suburban family, the teaser closes with the family patriarch confessing his crimes while covered in blood. “I did it. They’re dead – all dead.” There are quite a few descriptions of the crime on display here, all hinting at the true horror. “Familicide” is one such term; “family annihilation” is another. There are terms that have been coined to help summarise these atrocities; to make it easy to convey and to understand what has occurred, at least in a literal sense.

Mirrors within mirrors...

Mirrors within mirrors…

The idea of a parent murdering their family is deeply unsettling. It is, after all, a stock horror trope. A huge part of the terror in The Shining is rooted in the fact that Jack Torrance has turned against the very people that he is supposed to protect; ghosts and visions can be scary, but not as scary as your father chasing you with an axe. The family unit is supposed to be sacred, a safe space where members protect each other from the horrors of the outside world. Having a member of that unit inflict pain and suffering upon the others is a gross violation.

Of course, Millennium is quite fond of exploring that sort of violation. Episodes like Wide Open and Weeds feature the infiltration of the local community or family by evil forces, despite the best efforts to keep darkness at bay. Episodes like The Well-Worn Lock and Sacrament focus on patriarchs who have abandoned their vows to protect those in their care. These are deeply unsettling story elements, and Millennium has not been afraid to us them as a way to explore themes about home and security.

Ask and you shall receipt...

Ask and you shall receipt…

Nevertheless, Covenant is different. Frank Black is not brought in to investigate a murder and catch a criminal. Instead, William Garry concedes his guilt. By the time the opening credits have finished, William Garry has already been convicted of the murder of his wife and children. He is facing the death penalty, and eagerly so. Frank is not racing against time or fighting a ticking clock; this is not a high-stakes manhunt. Instead, this is a sombre meditation on a single horrific tragedy that befell a wholesome nuclear family in Ogden, Utah.

The type of crime featured in Covenant is familiar. It is the type of crime reported all too frequently in national and international news. A parent breaks down, murdering their family; a community is shocked, the world mourns. These types of crimes seem to occur more frequently as time goes on. Tapping into the core fears of Millennium, it almost feels like the viewer is watching the slow motion dissolution of the nuclear family unit and the erosion of society as a whole – playing out as part of the twenty-four hour news cycle. It is another apocalypse in an era of doomsdays.

The writing's on the window...

The writing’s on the window…

Although it is hard to talk about the increasing frequency of such crimes without seeming sensationalist – yes, I just typed “an era of doomsdays” – there is evidence to suggest these crimes are becoming more and more frequent as time goes on. As Neil Websdale points out in Familicidal Hearts, the rate of such crimes per 100,000 in the United States has climbed dramatically in the past couple of decades:

The overall increase over the last five decades seems steadier, with an apparently sharp increase in the last two decades: 1960s (0.003); 1970s (0.005); 1980s (0.004); 1990s (0.015); 2000-2007 (0.029).

The evidence suggests that the number of familicides almost quadrupled between the eighties and the nineties, and almost doubled again between the nineties and the first decade of the new millennium. There is similar evidence in the United Kingdom. Over half of the recorded 71 family annihilations committed in the UK between 1980 and 2012 were committed after 2000, with only six reported between 1980 and 1990.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

Once again, there are a host of qualifications that need to be made. These figures are based upon reported crimes; it is possible that such violent homicides were not always clearly identified as such and that they may not have generated similar attention in earlier decades. Nevertheless, these statistics help to generate a clear sense of the anxiety that these crimes generate. Since the nineties, these crimes have been reported with considerable frequency and uncertainty. The narrative is quite familiar; everybody wonders “how” or “why” a thing like this could happen.

However, while Covenant is drawing on very basic and primal fears, the episode also seems to draw from the real-life case of Susan Smith. In 1994, Susan Smith’s two children went missing. She initially claimed they had been abducted by a carjacker, garnering media sympathy during a national manhunt. Eventually, it was revealed that Smith herself had drowned her children by strapping them into the car and rolling it into John D. Long Lake in South Carolina. The case quickly became a national sensation, with Smith ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment.

Angel's delight...

Angel’s delight…

Perhaps as a result of her original courtship of the media when she had lied about the carjacking, Susan Smith became a focal point in the mid-nineties discussion about the erosion of the family unit. It seemed like the world could not fathom why a mother would murder her two young children. “How could she do it?” became a national talking point – not only was it the question on the cover of Time Magazine, it was also the title of an episode of A Current Affair focusing on the investigation.

From the way that Susan Smith was portrayed in media discussions and discourse, she seemed as alien as any creature that ever appeared on The X-Files. The murder of children is a crime that will always shock society, but the revelation that Smith had callously and calculatedly murdered her own flesh and blood made it particularly hard to fathom. Smith was meant to protect her children, to keep them safe from harm; the crime represented a shocking violation of that most fundamental trust.

Cutting revelations...

Cutting revelations…

It has been suggested that Susan Smith became such a talking point because the case fostered discussion around larger social issues. Susan Jeanne Douglas and Meredith Michaels argue in The Mummy Myth that the case suggested some deeply uncomfortable truths about wider society:

Children threatened from forces outside the family was one thing, but one reason the Smith case attracted such enormous attention – aside from the shocking nature of the crime- was that it was a disturbing metaphor for American families, even white ones, doing in their own kids, throwing them away. The Smith case raised a more general and troubling possibility: that far from harbouring children in the protective embrace of family values, Americans have come to see their children as akin to commodities – fungible, expendable, and often more trouble than those Pampers ads would have us believe.

However, these discussions were typically brushed aside, in favour of lamenting the unpredictable and unfathomable nature of the crime. This kind of idea is well-suited to Millennium; the show is utterly fascinated with the white middle-class American family as an institution, and also with broader socially conscious themes.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

One of the bigger and bolder ideas in Covenant is the sense that nobody really wants to stare too long or too hard at the tragedy that befell the Garry family. The community just wants to write it off as a freak occurrence, tidy away the loose ends, and go on about their business. Frank is brought in to help secure a death sentence against William Garry, completing the annihilation of the Garry family as a whole. With William Garry gone, it would soon be as if they never existed at all; life might be able to continue.

The county prosecutor has the suitably generic name of Smith. Smith offers Frank a rather succinct summary of the profiler’s role in this drama. “The trial’s over, Frank,” Smith warns. “What I need from you is a profile to put the son of a bitch before a firing squad.” Frank is just there to rubber-stamp it, to sign off on a piece of paper that will allow this community to put this horrific event in the past, where it belongs. Frank’s stubborn refusal to just go along with this desire to bury William Garry causes considerable friction.

All wrapped up...

All wrapped up…

Robert Moresco’s script is quite clever in its execution. The teaser gives us a glimpse of what happened, without giving the resolution away. However, the teaser is just detailed enough to disprove the version of events offered in the trial of William Garry. Within the first ten minutes of the episode, the audience knows that there is something not quite right about all this, without knowing exactly what that inconsistency means. It is a very clever set-up, one that serves the episode well.

In some respects, Covenant plays as a condemnation of small-town life. As Frank investigates the murder, there is a sense that the entire community is holding their breath; everybody is watching him, even when they are pretending not to. It doesn’t help that Deputy Kevin Reilly seems to be stalking Frank, looking like he has a dark secret to hide. There is a sense that the entire community has bought into this story, with nobody willing to question or probe. Covenant suggests some measure of passive complicity by everybody in Ogden.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Everybody makes excuses to cover the gaps in the story told by William Garry. Nobody looks too closely at the evidence, because that would mean contemplating the narrative. When Frank points out a hole in Garry’s logic, Assistant Pathologist Didi Higgens offers an excuse, “It’s an inconsistency not uncommon in a murder confession.” Frank is not content to let her hide behind a convenient justification. “You agreed with it?” he asks. Higgens offers the sort of non-committal answer that one expects in a story like this, “I didn’t agree or disagree.”

As the title suggests, religion plays a significant role in Covenant. The episode does not engage with religious imagery or iconography as overtly as something like Sacrament or Lamentation. Although angel imagery recurs throughout the episode, Covenant is quite grounded and rational in its portrayal of violence and brutality. Instead, the episode touches on the idea of religion and faith as repressive elements of small-town life. It seems that these elements can be used to justify truly horrific actions.

We'll get to the bottom of this...

We’ll get to the bottom of this…

Most obviously, Dolores Garry used her religion to justify the murder of her family. She quotes The Book of Isaiah in blood. Her psychiatrist, Alice Steele, describes Dolores Garry as “a woman who needed to talk openly about an emotional problem that was tearing at the very fabric of her soul.” It seems that her inability to do so contributed to her actions. Frank describes Dolores’ children as “her angels”, and Deputy Reilly offers a moral justification for her crimes. “She couldn’t bear the thought of living in a world of adulterers, men like him.”

Similarly, religion allows William Garry to indulge his own guilt and to cover up his wife’s horrific crimes. According to his defence attorney, Garry is using his religious beliefs and Utah’s death penalty to offer his own version of atonement. “See, according to Garry’s religious beliefs, for a murderer – shedder of blood – to be forgiven by God at the time of his death, his blood must also be shed,” Michael Slattery explains to Frank Black. “Death by firing squad, fortunately, allows for this dispensation.” Public execution as self-flagellation.

A sign of the times...

A sign of the times…

Even Smith turns to religion to justify his own position on the matter. “My conscience is clear with my God,” he assures Frank Black. “And my responsibility is to the people of this town. I beg you, don’t spend their money. Don’t burden their emotions unnecessarily. William Garry should die for what he did. This town should move past this.” Small-town religion becomes something that ties the community together, vindicating and justifying a truly horrific cover-up, allowing the town to execute an innocent man to avoid tough questions.

Covenant never labours its points. It never gets too heavy-handed. While Frank has to argue with city officials about what needs to be done, the episode avoids a scene of Frank talking down an angry mob; the closest the episode comes to having the community resort to mob violence is when a stone marked “guilty” is thrown through Frank’s car wind-shield. While a lot of the episode was trimmed and cut in order to fit neatly within the forty-five minute broadcast slot, Covenant doesn’t feel incomplete. The episode feels lean, efficient, almost minimalist.

The eyes have it...

The eyes have it…

After all, the ending leaves a lot dangling. We don’t explicitly find out about William Garry’s extra-marital affair until the final scene, although it is set up in Frank’s conversation with the psychiatrist. Similarly, we don’t get much by the way of closure. Covenant doesn’t assure us that William Garry will be exonerated; it doesn’t even allow us to see his reaction to the news. The episode just ends with Frank pulling out of Ogden, leaving the town and its residents to pick up the shattered pieces left in his wake. The stranger rides out of town.

This ambiguity works well; any attempt to tie up the story would ultimately seem trite. Ogden has a lot to deal with. William Garry has a long road ahead of him. It would be impossible to compress these arcs so that they might fit inside the final act of a television show while still delivering a satisfying resolution. Instead, Covenant dares to suggest that there is no tidy closure to a story like this. The residents of Ogden might want this case to be something easy or simple, but that does not make it so. Rejecting a tidy resolution gives weight to the closing scenes of Covenant.

The adventure continues...

The adventure continues…

The episode is also notable for its solid guest cast. Veteran character Michael O’Neill plays County Prosecutor Smith, bringing a decidedly no-nonsense attitude to the part of obstructive local bureaucrat. Smith largely works because O’Neill plays him as a character convinced of his own righteousness; for most of the episode, it seems like Smith cannot understand why Frank wouldn’t want to play along. John Finn also does stellar work as William Garry; it seems quite likely that his guest appearance here landed him his upcoming recurring role on The X-Files.

Covenant is a superb piece of work, a demonstration of just how flexible the format of Millennium can be, and how considered the show can be in its execution. It is haunting and unsettling, without ever seeming crass or gratuitous. It is all the more horrifying for its refusal to be sensationalist. It is an example of what Millennium can do that no other show could.

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

4 Responses

  1. So glad you’re doing Millennium reviews now too…can’t wait for Season Two.

    • Thanks!

      Season two will kick off at the start of May, I think. Because of the original broadcast schedule, there’ll be a big chunk o’ Millennium at the start of the month. I’ve been re-watching them recently, and they hold up brilliantly.

  2. I can’t help but make comparisons to season 2 even as I watch season 1. I was always fond of the second half of season 1 and it really has some interesting plots. Covenant plays out a bit like The Wild and the Innocent in setting Frank up as a western hero and tinkering with the show’s premise a bit. Like The Wild and the Innocent, this represents a different direction the show could have taken. It also places the family unit, a central theme to season 2, at its thematic core.
    The biggest problem I’m having with these season 1 episodes this time around is Frank is a very static and mostly uninteresting character. This may be an unpopular opinion but there really should be more to like even before his journey in season 2. Here is a guy who can see these brilliant flashes of insight into people or situations; he and his wife were apparently together a long time and very in love but always wanted a child, then had one late in life, which basically caused him to have a mental breakdown due to overwhelming fear that he could not protect his family and these flashes only compounded his fear by providing him glimpses of things most people would avoid or prefer to not believe exist. So Carter takes that detailed and tragic backstory, and then puts the guy back to work exposing him to these things that caused his breakdown all over again. It’s tough to think a “business as usual” approach, which Carter adopted for The X-Files, would work for very long here.
    Covenant is a good episode and I think you’re right that it was best to leave the overt comparisons to the Black family out of the final script. But when Frank is interviewing Garry, Garry implies that, having a family himself, Frank would understand the stress and strain it causes. Frank coldly says, “No I don’t.” Now, I don’t think Frank has fantasized about killing his family but it seems like an unfair cheat to his character that the script presents the Black family as an ideal, with all of its ducks in a row. I think season 2 is a more honest portrayal of his family as the ideal he desperately wants but is incapable of as long as he feels the need to protect them and hide them from the world. I actually have a theory on the ending of The Time is Now but want to wait until I watch it again to see if it works.

    • Yep.

      I think that season two does an excellent job of staying true to season one. In that it’s absolutely true that Frank believes his family to be ideal, but the truth is that wishing doesn’t always make it so. (And what I really like about season two is that it’s a story of family dissolution in which there is no bad guy. It’s Morgan and Wong’s best divorce story, which is saying something given how frequently the pair return to the theme.)

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