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Millennium – Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions (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.

High matter thou injoinst me, O prime of men,

Sad task and hard, for how shall I relate

To human sense th’ invisible exploits

Of warring Spirits; how without remorse

The ruin of so many glorious once

And perfet while they stood; how last unfould

The secrets of another World, perhaps

Not lawful to reveal? yet for thy good

This is dispenc’t, and what surmounts the reach

Of human sense, I shall delineate so,

By lik’ning spiritual to corporal forms,

As may express them best, though what if Earth

Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein

Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

– Raphael, Paradise Lost, Book V

This is about to get biblical...

This is about to get biblical…

What if there was a war in heaven?

What would it look like? Conventional images of angels and clouds have soaked into the popular consciousness, but that seems a little conventional – a little too straightforward. If heaven existed, it would almost certainly be beyond our capacity to comprehend. As Chris Carter has suggested quite frequently on The X-Files, the alien is divine and the divine is alien. Millennium seems to take this idea to its logical conclusion, positioning Frank Black and humanity in the midst of some strange conflict beyond mankind’s ability to understand.

Lawyer up...

Lawyer up…

In Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael attempts to explain the Lucifer’s rebellion and the war in heaven to Adam. He finds this task rather difficult; he has been asked to describe concepts so large as to be outside Adam’s frame of reference. He eventually settles on the idea of metaphor and allegory, but not before wondering whether the mortal realm exists as some twisted reflection of a higher plane; the two-dimensional shadow cast by a three-dimensional object.

It is an intriguing and haunting idea. Millennium is a show about big concepts like the nature of evil. Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions both grab that central idea and run with it. Lamentation taught Frank the danger of hubris, of presuming he could lock evil out of his home. Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions asks him to recognise evil as a blind man might try to recognise an elephant. There is something large and unpleasant lumbering in the background; a monster living just in the corner of his eye, but always out of focus.

Alone with his demons...

Alone with his demons…

Theology has always held a fascination for Chris Carter, and Millennium allows the creator to play with these big religious ideas. One suspects he might have been casually familiar with the work of Frank and Harriette Curtiss, who helped to found the Order of Christian Mystics in 1908. During the First World War, they published The Philosophy of War. In that work, they speculated that every conflict is but the echo of a more basic conflict:

From the very dawn of creation when God said: “Let there be light” and there was light, the great war of darkness against responding to the Light; of matter resisting Spirit; man resisting the call of the Divine, has been going on. And all war on the physical plane is but the outer manifestation of this mystical inner warfare which is forever being waged in the invisible side of life.

This seems quite similar to the conflict portrayed in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, as Frank glimpses something much larger than a simple murder or assassination. Instead, Frank seems to be seeing the echo of something from a higher plane; the effect of an action occurring will beyond this plane of existence. Frank seems to be witnessing the ripples in the pond.

It's a cut-throat industry...

It’s a cut-throat industry…

“Who is he?” Peter Watts asks after Frank’s brief interview with Sammael. Frank can only answer honestly, “I don’t know. Maybe he’s part of something all of us are otherwise unaware of.” Maybe Pepper and Sammael are puppets in some grand cosmic opera playing out just beyond the realm of human perception. For one brief moment, Frank Black seems to peer beyond the curtain; Frank catches glimpse of something that his mind cannot comfortably process.

To bystanders, Sammael appears to murder Alistair Pepper with a standard firearm. However, Frank sees something altogether different. Frank sees a discharge of energy more akin to a lightning bolt than a bullet. When Frank meets Sammael at the end of the episode, he asks, “You didn’t shoot Pepper, did you? I didn’t see it that way.” Sammael simply responds, “You have a unique perspective.” He neither confirms nor denies Frank’s suggestion, instead suggesting that Frank is simply seeing the same action in a different manner.

Fountain of blood...

Fountain of blood…

As Brian A. Dixon argues in Second Sight, this is an example of the show pushing Frank’s ability towards the mystical and the supernatural:

Carter and Henriksen may be justified in arguing that our heroic profiler was not a psychic but in the wake of this story it became impossible to suggest that the hero’s visionary abilities were merely intuitive, the imaginings of a particularly skilled detective. Frank sees what the killer sees and, as the episode so dazzlingly demonstrates, he sees far more than most mortal men.

Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions feels like a conscious attempt to add some weight to the show, to imbue it with a sense of mystery and purpose simultaneously.

Putting the "fun" in "funeral home"...

Putting the “fun” in “funeral home”…

It is possible to construct a (mostly) rational account of what happened. Maybe Sammael is just insane; maybe Frank was just hallucinating. Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions has enough confidence in itself that it can leave those ambiguities floating in the air. It does not feel the need to confirm anything one way or another. There are no halos or wings, no harps or trumpets. There is just something very strange going on, something that seems to be occurring on a level beyond Frank or any of the other characters.

It is repeatedly suggested that Frank is dealing with something more alien than even the little green men running around on The X-Files. When he talks with Sammael, Sammael seems like he doesn’t belong on this planet. “Don’t worry about me,” he urges Frank. “What happens here can only pain me, not harm me.” When Frank suggests that they might meet again, Sammael responds, “You have no idea how painful it is for me to be here.” One imagines it is akin to a human being trying to reduce themselves to two dimensions.

Grabbing the devil by the horns...

Grabbing the devil by the horns…

In fact, Sammael seems to have a great deal of difficulty with concepts like time. When Frank asks why Sammael murdered Pepper, the mysterious figure replies, “His own actions made it possible.” Frank asks whether those actions were the murders featured in the episode. “No,” Sammael clarifies. “His future actions.” It seems like Frank is dealing with an entity that does not perceive or understand time (or that laws of cause and effect) in the same way that mankind does.

Certainly, the episode makes it clear that Sammael operates beyond the conventional boundaries of morality. He is not a force for “good”, at least not as Frank might understand it. He is part of something larger. “You must understand – you were not saved,” Sammael informs Frank. “He was not prevented from doing harm to anyone. He suffered the consequence of his own error. Any benefit to you, to your family, was incidental.” Frank summarises, “What you did, had nothing to do with me.” Sammael confirms, “No. There’s not that kind of action.”

Angels in America...

Angels in America…

This seems quite close to the idea of the war in heaven as proposed by Milton in Paradise Lost, a conflict that exists in a realm beyond mortal comprehension. Chris Carter seems quite fond of the idea; he even incorporates it into the mythology of The X-Files – albeit in a much more literal way. Episodes like Colony, End Game, Patient X and The Red and the Black are all centred around the idea that Mulder and Scully are caught up in some larger and more mysterious conflict, with mankind witnessing one facet of something so much grander in scale.

Intriguingly, Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions echoes a theme running concurrently through the mythology of The X-Files. Here, Frank finds himself confronted by Alistair Pepper. Pepper offers him a deal. “I am offering you a partnership,” Pepper urges. “Name your salary. Name your hours. Design your own benefits package.” Frank alludes to the similar offer made in The Judge. However, the cast of The X-Files are facing a similar Faustian dilemma at this point in their run.

Razor-sharp...

Razor-sharp…

In Memento Mori, Walter Skinner made a deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man to save Scully’s life. In Zero Sum, the audience gets to see the toll that this compromise takes on Skinner as he begins to question whether the deal is worth it. Ultimately, Skinner seems to learn from his mistake. Mulder will be confronted with a number of similar offers in Redux II, as various characters promise to make his problems disappear if he will compromise himself. Much like Frank does here, Mulder refuses outright.

This is a very effective example of how Millennium can be more direct and more pointed than The X-Files. In The X-Files, the Cigarette-Smoking Man serves as a metaphorical devil; he is a bitter old man who loves power for the sake of power, and enjoys the leverage it grants him over people. Millennium does not need metaphors; when it wants demons and devils, it simply uses demons and devils. The show is a lot more literal with its morality. Alistair Pepper might as well arrive with horns and a pitchfork.

The devil's in the details...

The devil’s in the details…

In fact, Alistair Pepper is even self-aware enough to acknowledge his rather heavy-handed first name. “The name carries some notoriety in certain circles,” Pepper tells Frank. “Please. I find the association distasteful.” It seems like a rather odd thing to say unless you are actually trying to draw attention to the fact that you work for Lucifer himself. Or Pepper is making a rather prescient (and passive aggressive) jab at Alistair Campbell, who would not assume office until a month after Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions actually aired. Nah; probably that first one.

Appropriately enough, Lamentation and Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions seem to invite comparisons to The X-Files. After all, there are a host of superficial similarities; Lamentation includes a brief shot of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny’s stand-ins walking down some stairs and the late-season two-parter is a tried-and-tested storytelling technique on The X-Files. It could be even be argued that these two episodes represent an attempt to jump-start a central mythology for Millennium.

"I can call you Betty..."

“I can call you Betty…”

It is worth reflecting on exactly what that means – “a central mythology for Millennium.” As fun as it is to compare The X-Files and Millennium, the two shows have a very different approach to long-form plotting. The mythology on The X-Files was largely driven by plot; the mythology on Millennium was largely connected by theme. The X-Files typical dealt with recurring plot elements and characters across years; Millennium tended to trade in recurring religious and apocalyptic imagery.

The Truth would argue that the central mythology of The X-Files told a single story over the space of nine years; while that is certainly up for debate, the claim is broadly defensible. In contrast, each individual season of Millennium feels radically distinct from the other two; John Kenneth Muir’s “new unified theory of Millennium” represented a radical approach to the show’s continuity when he proposed it as part of Back to Frank Black, well over a decade after the show ended.

Lucy's loose!

Lucy’s loose!

Instead, certain ideas and images recur, without demanding that they fit into a linear continuity. Episodes like The Judge, Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and The Curse of Frank Black all feature the forces of darkness trying to bargain with Frank; albeit in different forms and different contexts. Millennium is not so much driven by a central plot as by a bunch of central ideas, and it goes about exploring those ideas in a number of different and divergent ways.

Perhaps reflecting the difficulties plotting of the mythology on the fourth season of The X-Files, it seems that Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions sets up a central mythology for Millennium that thrives on ambiguity and seems to firmly reject any promise of clear answers. Frank Black is confronting a nebulous and irrational form of evil, so the show does not have to worry about the same long game of set-up and pay-off that plagues The X-Files. There are no promises of concrete answers, only existential questions.

Shorting him on this one...

Shorting him on this one…

After all, the episode rejects any interest in the mechanics of this strange conflict. Reporting on an investigation that has mysterious gone sour, Peter informs Frank and Atkins, “Every piece of evidence that links him directly with either killing is lost, tainted or otherwise compromised – including Martin’s fingerprints on the knife which was wiped clean after it was admitted to the property room.” Frank replies, “Why?” Atkins observes, “Most people’d be asking how.” However, it seems that Frank is not too preoccupied with “how.”

In conversation with Sammael, Frank confesses, “All along my question has never been ‘how?’ or ‘who?’ but ‘why?'” This fits quite comfortably with both what we know about Frank as a character and Millennium as a show. Frank is a profiler, not a forensics expert. In Lamentation, it was revealed that Frank advocated to keep Ephriam Fabricant alive so that mankind might be able to come to a better understanding of evil. It seems that Frank is more concerned with the existential or philosophical questions than he is with the logistical or practical concerns.

His home is his fortress...

His home is his fortress…

In his meeting with Pepper, the lawyer promises, “I know you’ll have many questions. I will be happy to answer all of them, any time.” Frank only has one. “Why?” Tellingly, Pepper immediately responds, “Except that one.” Pepper’s unwillingness to answer that particular question marks it as much more important than any question about the rules governing demons or the logic of evil’s influence upon the world. Of course, it is debatable whether or not a show that treats evil as an absolute force independent of mankind can ever really hope to address the “why” of it.

Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions is a beautifully put together piece of television, one that beautifully conveys Millennium‘s world view. Evil is presented as a pervading force, one that is almost inescapable. When conversing with his client, Pepper seems to treat it as a runaway freight train – a primal and unstoppable force. Oh, “Martin! You’ll be a free man. Gonna take the midnight special out of this wicked place soon. See that big light coming? Hear the steel wheels on the rails?”

"Yep, the second one is definitely the most menacing. Definitely."

“Yep, the second one is definitely the most menacing. Definitely.”

Perhaps it is a runaway freight train; perhaps nothing can stop it. Martin’s confession to the murder of Bob Bletcher effectively means that Lucy Butler has gotten away with crime. When Martin fails to slit his own throat properly, he suddenly has “a massive hemorrhage” that serves to kill him off anyway. It is only through the intervention of Sammael that Pepper is defeated, and Sammael was motivated by something beyond Frank Black’s mortal concerns. Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions offers a vision of a pretty grim world.

At the same time, it is a world where Frank Black will always fight the good fight, where he will not let something like Lamentation completely undermine him, where he will not bargain or barter with Alistair Pepper out of fear or uncertainty. Perhaps the world is not as grim as it would first appear. Perhaps.

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

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4 Responses

  1. Amazing reviews of the Millennium episodes.

    I would like to praise here the great work of the director Thomas J. Wright on this episode.

    When Pepper first makes his offer, we can watch Frank in the right side of the screen, the ‘strong’ side. Pepper is watched always on the left side in this scene. We know Pepper cannot get Frank’s commitment on this.

    Later, Pepper goes to Frank’s house. They talk again. But now it is different, we watch Frank on the left side of the screen. Frank can let Pepper outside his house, but he cannot do the same to evil. Frank cannot defeat evil.

    Same situation later in the Pepper office.

  2. As much as fans like to think of this as a part 2 to Lamentation, it was much more of an abrupt shift than I had recalled. Lamentation ends with Catherine saying she does not want to go back to the yellow house and urging Frank to reconsider what he’s doing because of things that happen to them that don’t happen to other people. This was an excellent follow up to the “make believe” conversation in the pilot. But here Catherine does a 180. They are already back in the house and she is urging Frank to go back to work “because it’s who you are.”
    To its credit, it does try to make use of Catherine’s social worker background in helping Frank cope through his emotions and the episode does some solid work following up on his mental state which actually sets the stage for the changes made to Frank’s ability in early season 2.
    The plot to this episode is actually similar to Owls/Roosters in that there seems to be a faction attempting to draw the Millennium Group into the open. As you have pointed out, several late season 1 episodes like this one and Force Majeure would fit comfortably in season 2 plot-wise. The key difference being season 2 does a much better job with the characters.

    • I think that’s a fair observation.

      It’s worth noting that the two-parter is credited to two different writers. I think Carter wrote Lamentation and Mann wrote Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. However, I suspect Carter heavily rewrote the latter.

      The second half of season one is an interesting point of transition, because it feels half-way between the first and second seasons, even though it was obviously not intended as such. I wonder if Morgan and Wong watched the first season and simply figured that the weirder episodes worked better and let that inform their direction for the show.

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