Walkabout continues to demonstrate the flexibility of Millennium‘s format.
Millennium is often unfairly dismissed as a “serial-killer-of-the-week” show, an impression undoubtedly created by the stretch of early- to mid-season episodes that adopted an almost procedural formula in their exploration of evil. However, after Sacrament, the show takes a break from those narratives to do something a little more experimental and nuanced. Covenant had seen Frank investigating a murder that had already been solved. Here, Frank finds himself struggling to piece together a fractured memory of his own recent experiences.
Walkabout is the third of four scripts from writer Chip Johannessen in the first season of Millennium. Each is a rather strange entity; doing something strange or unconventional for the show, helping to define the boundaries for this young television series. Walkabout is perhaps most interesting for the way that it engages with an aspect of Millennium that has been bubbling away in the background since The Pilot. Although Walkabout never explores the nature or purpose of Frank’s visions, the episode is built around the visions as a concept rather than simply a tool.
Walkabout is an unsettling and effective mood piece that grows more conventional as it progresses. While the final act is a little clunky, Walkabout is a fascinating piece of television and a demonstration of how Millennium has found its own voice.
Frank’s visions are an iconic part of Millennium. They have been since The Pilot, where Frank provided Bob Bletcher with a handy two-line explanation for them; they weren’t magic, they weren’t objective. However, the wonderfully unsettling visions are among the most compelling aspects of Millennium. Those brief snippets of torment and terror look utterly unlike anything else on American television in the nineties. Stylised, abstract, rapid, aggressive. It is easy to see why those visions tended to lodge in the memory of casual viewers.
It could be argued that Frank’s visions are the most enduring legacy of Millennium. Certainly, those visions have made an impression on popular culture. Despite the fact that it only ran for one-third as long as The X-Files, Millennium still made its mark on the television landscape. There is a very clear lineage connecting the style and mood of Millennium to the trappings of contemporary prestige serial killer drama like Hannibal or True Detective. Hannibal acknowledged as much by promptly casting Lance Henriksen as a serial killer.
However, the visions have been appropriated by much more populist crime fare. First appearing a year after Millennium went off the air, CSI managed to turn similar sequences into a trademark visual tic. The crime procedural shrewdly identified the technique as a clever and quick way of conveying information to the audience. Stripping the visions of their more abstract content while retaining the fuzzy filter and quick-fire editing, CSI set a style that would become inexorably linked to the franchise.
It is interesting to look at the difficulties that Millennium faced in its short life, and to compare those difficulties with the massive successes enjoyed by the CSI franchise. In its first fifteen years of existence, CSI generated thirty-four seasons of television. That is a phenomenal success story – particularly when compared to Millennium, which struggled out of the gate and barely managed to reach three full seasons. It seems the success of CSI was in recognising the most audience-friendly aspects of Millennium and working out a successful formula.
Reflecting on the difference between CSI and Millennium, even Chris Carter has conceded that Millennium had a lot of the ingredients that might have made for a more successful show, had it been willing to be more formulaic and safe:
Because the business is a forward moving business, I think that they didn’t want to move backwards with Millennium. But yes, I think when you look at franchise shows like CSI and NCIS and people go back and watch the Millennium pilot, they’re going to see the direct connection visually and I think thematically with the serial killer stories. That’s not to take anything away from CSI. I think one of the problems may have been the religious element… the apocalyptic element… which CSI is not encumbered with. The mythology, if you will… it’s something they benefit from [not having], and something we may have suffered from.
He certainly makes a compelling argument. Since The Pilot, Millennium has been a television show completely unconcerned with what the audience will make of it.
Of course, there’s no way to know if Millennium could have been made more friendly for audiences, or if it arrived several years too early for the procedural and forensic crime show boom. Nevertheless, Carter hits on an interesting idea; would Millennium have been more successful if these elements were stripped out of it?
And it’s funny, when I look back at Millennium now, I think, in a way, the concept was actually too complex. Especially when I look at shows that have become hits, like CSI, or other procedurals. They don’t deal with ideas like the yellow house. They don’t deal with things like family, necessarily.
It is, perhaps, a little flattering to believe that Millennium was hindered by its desire to actually be about something substantive; that making Millennium successful might not have been about adding anything, but instead removing a lot of what gave the show its unique texture. Still, there is a certain logic to his argument.
So when CSI and other procedurals approached the basic model of a show like Millennium, they stripped out a host of material. They retained the quick flashes of information, although these were presented as more matter-of-fact visualisations of current theories rather than abstract representations of apocalyptic violence. To audiences watching Millennium, it was quite hard to put those visions in context. How was Frank receiving those pictures? Was his imagination producing them? If so, how were they so uncannily accurate?
The show had tried to brush off questions about those visions with a quick exchange in The Pilot. After all, these visions were a nice visual hook and an effective narrative tool; in terms of basic plotting, they allowed Frank to make leaps in logic that might otherwise require copious amounts of exposition scenes. For a show running just over forty minutes, they were a nice trick. Drawing attention to the logic or mechanics of the visions would simply draw attention away from the stories they existed to support.
Still, as Brian A. Dixon notes in Second Sight, the visions came to be a defining feature of the show’s rich visual landscape. For better or worse, they caught the attention of the audience:
For many viewers – and, in particular, reviewers – Millennijm’s filmic flourishes of violence and gore were at once associated with psychic phenomenon, the sort of extrasensory perception one might expect to see providing the plot for an episode of The X-Files. Oversimplified assessments of Millennium’s complex central conceits were abundant at the time of its debut, after the series had unearned unprecedented public attention for Fox culminating in a record-shattering premiere watched by over seventeen million television viewers. Such was the case in a particularly scornful MediaWeek review that accused the series of being founded on “supernatural hogwash” that included the hero’s “special occult power”, or in TV Guide’s assessment that the series’ protagonist was “a former cop” with a “sixth sense that lets him visualise crimes.”
It became inevitable that Millennium would have to talk about those visions. The show seemed to ease itself into the discussion over the course of the season.
Morgan and Wong’s scripts for Dead Letters and The Thin White Line used those quick flashes as a way to transition into more abstract dream imagery. In Dead Letters, the duo suggested that Frank had somehow passed the gift to his daughter. In The Thin White Line, Frank has longer visionary experiences that allow him to witness and interact with his own history. This fascination with para-psychological aspects of the visions would come into play when Morgan and Wong took over the writing of Millennium during the show’s second season.
Morgan and Wong were not the only creators playing with the idea of Frank’s horrific visions into the minds of evil men. Frank Spotnitz wrote Sacrament as an exploration about how Frank’s world inevitably affects those around him; visiting town, his brother and sister-in-law get trapped in the sort of serial-killer-of-the-week story that seems to follow Frank around by this point. However, the episode also builds on the idea that Jordan Black has inherited her father’s ability to perceive evil. Sacrament suggested it as extreme empathy; Jordan feeling the victim’s pain.
Walkabout actually builds off the events of Sacrament, although Frank only confirms that in passing in the final scene of the episode. “A few weeks ago, when Helen was abducted, something happened that made me wonder – if Jordan has this thing that I have,” Frank confesses. It is a nice piece of continuity from a show that has been reluctant to commit to a clear long-form mythology. More than that, though, it seems to mythologise Frank’s visions. Frank explicitly confirms that his visions are something beyond his comprehension.
They are not something familiar to profilers, a visual representation of an abstract process. This isn’t as simple as the “get inside the killer’s head” philosophy that profilers have to adopt, presented to the audience in a way much more interesting than long-winded expositional conversations. Instead, the visions become an unquantifiable and unfathomable “thing.” They are something that stretches even beyond the elastic concept of normality for a man who spends his days examining the inner psyche of monsters.
Walkabout is written by Chip Johannessen, the writer responsible for the most ambitious and ethereal scripts of the season. His second and fourth scripts, Force Majeure and Maranatha, play almost as a prelude to the second season. However, in an interview with Back to Frank Black, Johannessen emphasised that the visions were never intended to be more than visions:
These images of the world, which Frank Black was tuned to, were not supposed to be objective reality. They were highly subjective. In fact, in script the shots were labelled ‘His Internal P.O.V.’ or ‘His Subjective P.O.V.’
However, attempting to anchor the visions as a purely subjective and personal experience becomes quite difficult the more the show builds up a mythology around at. These visions have to be something more than business as usual; they have to be more than Jordan seeing a photo she shouldn’t have seen, or intuitively putting together various snippets of information.
Regardless of the original intent, Walkabout makes the visions explicitly part of the conversation in the show. They are transformed from plot device to plot point. It is a rather daring move, but one that pays off. One of the defining features of Johannessen’s first three scripts for Millennium is the way that the writer consciously humanises the show. Aside from Morgan and Wong, Johannessen is the only writer on the first season who really makes Frank Black and the people around him seem like characters rather than archetypes.
Walkabout humanises Frank to an incredible degree. It is the only story in the first season that focuses on Frank Black as a father. Wounded and abused children are a recurring theme in the first season, providing an abstract link. Episodes like Wide Open, Weeds, The Well-Worn Lock and Covenant feature children as victims. The Wild and the Innocent is about a mother (an abused daughter herself) and her child. However, Walkabout is notable for being the only time that the narrative is quite explicitly about Frank Black’s paternal responsibilities to Jordan Black.
Given the importance of the yellow house to the show’s back story, that seems rather strange. Walkabout is very clever about this reveal. There is a sense that Johannessen enjoys teasing the audience; Blood Relatives was designed so that the audience spent quite some time believing that James was the killer, oblivious to the fact that the story was a mystery as much as a character study. Walkabout does something similar; the audience are gradually given the information that they need to figure out why Frank as involved in the trial.
The episode carefully rations information. The first substantive clue we get as to Frank’s motivation comes from his first conversation with David Miller. Miller explains, “You said you were like me – seeing things. You told me you were looking for a cure.” This suggests any number of possible justifications. Coupled with the use of the David Marx alias, is Frank afraid of another nervous breakdown? Does Frank simply want to retire? Is Frank maybe hoping for a good night’s sleep?
The answer rather cleverly presents itself in a later conversation with Miller. Breaking down, Miller explains his own sad story. He recalls the time that his own visions placed his daughter in mortal danger. “I thank the Lord every day I didn’t drag her out there with me,” Miller confesses. “It’s okay for me, this, but, my daughter. God, I worry what she might have inherited from me.” It is, perhaps, a little heavy-handed, but it gives the astute viewers all they need to know. It is a lovely example of minimalist and allegorical storytelling.
Frank is hoping to find medication that might spare Jordan from his gift. In order to explore those possibilities, Frank is willing to take risks and play a dangerous game. “You misled us when you concocted Group business to take you to Yakima,” Peter warns him early in the episode. “You misled your wife!” For a man as honest and as upfront as Frank Black, this suggests that he is deeply worried. Even outside of the delightfully unsettling teaser, Walkabout presents us with a version of Frank Black we’ve never seen before – one emotionally vulnerable and on edge.
After all, so much of Lance Henriksen’s performance as Frank Black is rooted in stillness and restraint. Henriksen explained his process to Back to Frank Black, likening Frank Black’s life to a boxing match with evil:
I was never playing Frank Black like he was tired or any of that stuff. He was tired, his workload was heave… Like a great boxer, you know how to use your energy. You use as little energy as possible knowing it’s going to be twelve rounds, it’s going to be a lifetime.
So one of the most interesting aspects of Walkabout is the way that it effectively peels back all that control and patience, showing the audience a raw and desperate side of the character.
The teaser is absolutely striking – a lovely and atmospheric trip through a clinic, as the camera pulls deeper and deeper inside. Walkabout is directed by veteran television director Cliff Bole, and he demonstrates his technical prowess. Bole was a veteran of the Star Trek franchise – the producers had even named a race after him. Walkabout marks the director’s first work with Chris Carter. Walkabout would be the only episode of Millennium that Bole directed, but he would direct four episodes of The X-Files and one episode of Harsh Realm.
Interestingly, two of Bole’s four X-Files episodes were comedy episodes. A third – his final X-Files episode – was Jump the Shark, the farewell episode for the (broadly comedic) Lone Gunmen. It is strange that The X-Files seemed to treat Cliff Bole as a “lighter” director. Certainly, Walkabout demonstrates a knack for uncomfortable and unsettling imagery. Bole shoots Walkabout like a mysterious horror movie, the camera slowly creeping and peering into dark spaces.
The wonderful teaser culminates in scenes of chaos inside the clinic. People are lashing out, fighting, self-harming. It is horrific and intense – one patient seems to gauge his own eyes out. However, the sting of the teaser arrives a moment later, as one of the patients bangs furiously against the glass panel on the door. The glass cracks as the patient grunts and shouts. Quickly, the character comes into focus; the man beating his fists against the glass is none other than Frank Black.
It is a shocking sequence, because it robs Frank of his quiet reserve. Since The Pilot, Frank Black has always been in control of himself and his environment. Even when things got personal – in episodes like The Thin White Line or Sacrament – Frank seemed to be an island of tranquillity amid a violent storm. Walkabout immediately throws the audience off-balance. It is hard reconcile that raw emotion with the character’s trademark detachment. There is an immediate vulnerability to Frank.
This approach makes Frank seem more human than he has been before. When Catherine visits him in police custody, their embrace feels more desperate and passionate than any other interaction this season. Frank has always been motivated by the fear of losing Catherine and Jordan, but Walkabout seems to offer him a glimpse of what that might actually be like. Frank is usually the most centred and grounded part of Millennium, so Walkabout cleverly subverts this expectation. Frank spends most of the episode trying to piece together his own recent history.
There is a palpable anxiety about these sequences. Frank seems to be really confused by his experiences, as if his actions are as much a mystery to him as to the audience. Reportedly, actor Lance Henriksen insisted that the character would never take experimental drugs, but there is something panicked and fearful in the character’s insistence. “I would have never taken the drug,” he states. However, he does not have the memory to confirm that supposition; he is only extrapolating from his own character. How well does Frank know himself?
Walkabout injects conflict into the traditional Millennium dynamics. In many ways, the show’s central characters are too perfect; Frank and Catherine live an idealised life, Peter Watts has nothing to do but spout exposition. By putting Frank off-balance, Walkabout manages to upset these dynamics and to do something interesting. The idea that Frank lied to Catherine about his activities is interesting, as is the implication that Frank has done this before. The Black family is presented as idyllic and almost perfect, but there are cracks.
The Pilot and Gehenna suggested that Frank has spent large stretches of the season lying through omission about the family’s safety. He has kept secrets from them, hoping to protect Catherine and Jordan from the polaride stalker. Frank has decided unilaterally that he will keep his family safe, and so keeps these things from his wife. It is a somewhat arrogant position, but the show has only fleetingly suggested that it might be incorrect. Tom Black scored some points in Sacrament, but otherwise the show has been reluctant to discuss Frank’s tendency to keep secrets.
Walkabout makes all this a bit more overt. Frank lies to Catherine about where he is going and what he is doing. More than that, he makes Peter Watts complicit in his lie. It is an incredibly self-righteous decision, one that does feel quite in-character for Frank. Frank values his ability to protect those around him, and it seems perfectly reasonable that he considers it his responsibility to protect them from uncomfortable truths. While Frank Black is still the most overtly heroic protagonist in Chris Carter’s oeuvre, it is nice to see the show shade him ever-so-slightly.
This drama also provides an opportunity for the show to develop Peter Watts a bit. Chip Johannessen gave the audience a greater sense of Peter Watts in Force Majeure, throwing the character into conflict with Dennis Hoffman as a way to bring characterisation to the fore. Up until Force Majeure, it seemed like Peter Watts was simply an exposition machine – a character who existed to provide dialogue that would bring the audience up to speed. Terry O’Quinn has a very clever and understated way of delivering exposition, but it is nice to get a closer look at Peter.
Walkabout makes it quite clear that Peter feels betrayed by Frank. His anger is entirely justifiable. “I am the person who had to go to your house and tell your wife that you were missing!” he warns Frank. “You’re not being honest with anybody!” The show has done so much to establish Frank and Peter as a stable crime-solving duo that throwing the two off-balance makes for compelling viewing. After all, Terry O’Quinn is a fantastic actor; it would be a shame to waste him in a role where he just translates Russian or discusses splatter patterns.
There is an interesting overlap between Millennium and The X-Files here. There have been brief points of intersection before; the use of death cards in The Thin White Line came shortly before their appearance in Unrequited, for example. It is inevitable that shows airing at the same time will touch on similar ideas; the fact that Millennium and The X-Files are both drawn from the mind of Chris Carter suggests that such overlap is more likely. Both series have a common frame of reference.
That said, there is a rather clear overlap between Walkabout and Demons – the penultimate episode of the fourth season of The X-Files. In both episodes, the show’s protagonist is left with amnesia following a questionable medical event; in both cases, the lead characters were trying to find out information to help a young female relative; in both stories, the lead characters wind up investigating a crime that they can barely remember. The similarities are striking, particularly with both episodes airing so close together.
To be fair, it seems highly likely that both ideas evolved independently. Both episodes were crafted by writers unique to the show’s staff. A director and producer on The X-Files, R.W. Goodwin had spent the better part of a year developing Demons. Chip Johannessen had originally pitched for The X-Files, but eventually earned a job on Millennium. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate the clear thematic overlap between the two series – even if their continuities have yet to explicitly crossover.
Oddly enough, despite the similarities to Demons, there is another late fourth season episode of The X-Files that touches broadly on the core themes of Walkabout. The episode Elegy features a murderous nurse who seems to be trying to murder happiness – an idea that the show implicitly links to the medication of those with disabilities, and which Scully herself links to the murderer’s drug usage. Elegy trades quite casually (and almost flippantly) on the link between medication and zombification.
After all, there was an on-going debate about the use of prescription medication in America. Millennium is very much a show engaged with nineties America; particularly the fears and anxieties of the country. Walkabout offers a much broader social commentary, a story about the application (and abuse) of pharmaceutical drugs. The prescription of such drugs had become a talking point towards the turn of the millennium. Even The Simpsons would offer their own take on the issue in Brother’s Little Helper at the start of their eleventh season in October 1999.
In the mid-nineties, commentators were increasingly concerned about the methods and motivations of the large pharmaceutical companies marketing their product. During the nineties, Melody Petersen covered the pharmaceutical beat for The New York Times. In 1997, she won a Gerard Loeb award for investigative journalism. She observed of her experience with pharmaceutical companies:
I actually thought that they were a lot about science. That’s what they tell the public. They are all about science and discovering new drugs. But as I started to follow their daily activities and talk to executives, I learned that really it was marketing that drove them.
Peterson would go on to write Our Daily Meds, a book exploring the cynicism and abuses of the prescription drugs industry in America. It should be noted that – as of 1997 – the United States and New Zealand were the only countries that allowed the advertising of prescription drugs on television.
The statistics are certainly compelling. Since mid-nineties, the United States has seen a tripling of prescriptions for second-generation anti-psychotics, along with an increase in the number of patients taking antidepressants without receiving therapy in conjunction with the medication. Walkabout is quite pointed in its commentary, as Adam Chamberlain notes:
Proloft, the fictional drug that features in Walkabout, is actually named for two very common prescription drugs, Prozac and Zoloft, that are used to treat a number of conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. Between them, recent figures indicate that they have accounted for over sixty million prescriptions per year in the US alone. Whilst undoubtedly helpful to some patients, concerns have often been raised regarding the overprescription of anti-depressants, resulting in side effects being suffered unnecessarily by those experiencing milder symptoms that might have better suited other forms of treatment. Meanwhile, of course, pharmaceutical companies report huge profits.
This issue of overmedication is particularly unsettling where children are concerned. The diagnosis of ADHD in children remains a controversial and divisive topic. While the issue of overmedication is subject to much debate and discussion, there have been compelling arguments made that children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be medicated.
What is interesting about Walkabout is how deftly the episode deals with the idea of overmedication. Elegy felt just a tad reactionary, playing into stock clichés about how medication turns people into unfeeling zombies – removing what makes people human. This approach is crass and sensationalist, and completely ignores the reality that these medications do improve the quality of life for many people living with seriously debilitating medical conditions. For those people, medication helps them to function without being defined by their condition.
Walkabout acknowledges as much. It initially suggests that Dave Miller might be a quack, the stock “disqualified doctor doing unethical stuff” stereotype that you get in shows like this. However, as Walkabout continues, it points out that Dave Miller has done a lot of good for a lot of people. “He hooked people up with experimental drugs,” Peter observes. “He helped get them into the trials – people in the late stages of AIDS, psych patients who didn’t respond to approved therapies.” He summarises, “Helped a lot of people.”
Walkabout is not shy about the questionable aspects of the pharmaceutical industry. There is something unsettling about the idea of people who make a living as professional guinea pigs, chasing drug trials around the country. Chasing Hans Ingram, Detective Giebelhouse examines a room packed with marketing material for the new drug. “Half the country’s on antidepressants already,” he remarks, examining the smiling happy people on the posters. “Proloft will snare twenty million more.” Frank deadpans, “Welcome to the Age of Aquarius.”
Walkabout manages to engage with its subject without ever seeming sensationalist or excessive. It is a piece of scripted drama that can express concerns about contemporary trends, but without ignoring the obvious utility of the system. It might be exploitative and cynical, but there are people who do benefit from it. Millennium is a show that can often take its ideas to extremes; the strength of Walkabout is the episode’s willingness to acknowledge that it is dealing with a multifaceted issue.
That said, the third act does have some serious problems. As with Force Majeure and Maranatha, there is an almost apocalyptic undercurrent to Walkabout. At the end of the episode, Frank Black arrives at an office complex literally tearing itself apart under the influence of psychotic medication. People throw themselves through windows, brawl in corridors and tear each other apart. It is a sequence that seems almost cartoonish; consciously at odds with the slow-build menace of the rest of the episode.
The logic here seems to be questionable. Ingram was handing out free samples to people on the way to work. Where was he standing that he managed to affect only one building, but affect it so completely? How come so many of the staff took the free sample at exactly the same time? It is possible that Ingram laced the packaging, so people only had to touch it, but it still seems like an awkward plot point. It might have made more sense for Ingram to taint the office water supply – perhaps in keeping with Frank’s suggestion about the drug trial.
The characterisation of Hans Ingram seems to prefigure the modern blockbuster fascination with supervillains as terrorists in comic book films. Many of Millennium‘s villains are mad men trying to make their point to a world that will not listen, but Ingram is a bad guy motivated by a larger social and philosophical concern – using a very large canvas to make his point. He seems more like the Scarecrow or the Joker than any of the villains in the episodes surrounding this one.
Ingram even patiently awaits capture, his point proven. “So you made your big point?” Frank demands, angrily. “Yes!” Ingram replies. Frank is enraged at the way that Ingram’s larger scheme destroyed so many lives. “You killed the nurse, you killed Danny – what kind of point is that?” Ingram replies, “I had a plan.” Ingram is very much a larger-than-life adversary, but one that feels at odds with the more contemplative atmosphere of the rest of the episode. It might be fun to pit Frank against a super villain, but this does not feel like the right context.
Still, Walkabout is a fascinating and compelling addition to the season, one that demonstrates the relative flexibility of Millennium and the humanity of its characters. In that context, any flaws are easily forgiven.
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Unruhe
- Dead Letters
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – The Field Where We Died
- The Judge
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man
- Kingdom Come
- Blood Relatives
- The Well-Worn Lock
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Paper Hearts
- Wide Open
- The Wild and the Innocent
- Loin Like a Hunting Flame
- Force Majeure
- The Thin White Line
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Never Again
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Tempus Fugit
- Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Max
- Broken World
- Paper Dove
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Gethsemane
Filed under: Millennium | Tagged: Chip Johannessen, chris carter, csi, demons, drug trial, drugs, elegy, frank black, Lance Henriksen, medication, millennium, overmedication, pharmaceutical, visions |