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Millennium – Broken World (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.

On paper, there is a lot to like about Broken World.

In theory, it is Robert Moresco building off the success of Covenant, developing another story that works within the framework of Millennium without adhering to the formulaic “serial-killer-of-the-week” approach. As in Covenant, Frank Black is wandering the country to do good, a stranger who comes to town to fight evil. In this case, the evil takes the form of a budding young serial killer – a fiend who has not yet claimed a human life, but seems to be building towards it.

"I think he's trying to tell us something..."

“I think he’s trying to tell us something…”

In reality, Broken World is a number of great ideas suffering from terrible execution. While the story is technically quite distinct from the stock “serial-killer-of-the-week” stories that haunted the series in the middle of the series, the practical difference is minimal. Broken World is another story of sadism and brutality that inevitably feels sleazy and exploitative. While the episode could be an interesting twist on a tired structure, Willi Borgsen is just another generic psychopath like Edward Petey or Art Nesbitt.

Still, the title feels somewhat appropriate. Broken World does a lot to demonstrate how far Millennium has come in this stretch of episodes. Broken World would have felt quite comfortable sandwiched between Weeds and Loin Like a Hunting Flame. Sitting between Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and Maranatha, it feels almost like a relic.

Who's gonna ride your wild horses?

Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?

To be fair, there are elements of Broken World that are interesting and compelling. It seems strange that Millennium would wait so long to do the inevitable “birth of a serial killer” episode. It is one of those great ideas that takes advantage of the show’s basic premise without feeling formulaic. It also provides a little extra nuance to the show’s grander themes concerning evil; surely Frank Black’s obligation extends beyond fighting this sort of evil, so what if he could prevent it?

After all, the idea of watching the birth of a serial killer is haunting. Millennium is one of the best and most consistently disturbing horror shows of the nineties; the premise of Broken World teases the psychological equivalent of body horror. Imagine a werewolf movie, but with a serial killer instead of a werewolf; what would it be like to watch the slow and torturous transformation of psyche? At what point does a person like that cease to be a functioning member of society? Is this sort of transformation inevitable, or can it be stopped?

"He's turning this abattoir into a slaughterhouse!"

“He’s turning this abattoir into a slaughterhouse!”

The biggest problem with Broken World is that it squanders all of these potentially interesting questions and possibilities. Willi Borgsen claims his first human victim quite early in the episode; he kills another promptly. Before the audience has a chance to catch up, Borgsen is already making outwardly taunting (and secretly desperate) phone calls to Frank Black. Frank repeatedly insists that Borgsen is a budding psychopath, but the episode decides to shift the emphasis to “psychopath” rather than “budding.”

The episode’s teaser demonstrates the problem. Beautifully directed by Winrich Kolbe, the opening scene is still a stock “serial killer stalks his victim” teaser. Willi Borgsen attacks Sally Dumont in her stable. The audience has seen this before; in fact, there is an argument to be made that this is the default mode for the first season of Millennium. However, what makes Broken World potentially interesting is completely absent from the teaser itself. Instead, the teaser makes it clear that this is to be a relatively stock serial killer episode in practice, if not in theory.

This is not a stable individual...

This is not a stable individual…

The big twist about that opening scene is that Willi Borgsen does not kill Sally Dumont. Instead, Sally Dumont wakes up to discover the word “help” written in blood on the stable door. That is a clever twist, one that subverts a lot of the expectations on Millennium. It would be a great stinger to the teaser, one that played cleverly off the show’s familiar routine. It would emphasise that Broken World was something different. Instead, the revelation is saved until after the opening credits, where it looses a lot of the impact. It feels like Broken World does not know what to emphasise.

Similarly, the script’s idea to focus on horses in North Dakota is quite compelling. It feels like writer Robert Moresco might be building off Equus, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play about a social worker counselling a young boy guilty of abusing horses. The play is reportedly based on real-life accounts of a seventeen-year-old boy who blinded six horses in a small town near Suffolk. Without doing any research into the events, Schaffer decided to construct his own narrative that might account for the shocking display of brutality.

Unbridled passion...

Unbridled passion…

The idea of telling a similar story in the context of North Dakota is fascinating; after all, horses have a very different cultural context in the United States than they do in the United Kingdom. Inexorably associated with the expansion westwards, horses occupy a very important place in the American psyche. They are the animals most firmly associated with the “wild west.” There is a lovely moment in Broken World where Frank searches the house of Willi Borgsen and finds a prominent statue of a cowboy riding a horse.

The North Dakota setting is particularly appropriate. North Dakota has its own iconic breed of wild horse. Though the Nokota breed can be found in Pennysylvania, Montana, Minnesota, and Oregon, it is primarily associated with North Dakota. Indeed, the state officially recognised the wild horse breed in 1993, naming the Nokota as “the North Dakota State Honourary Equine.” Although the breed has faced the threat of extinction in the face of human expansion, there are conservation efforts in place to help preserve them.

No horseplay...

No horseplay…

Theodore Roosevelt ranched in the Little Missouri area between 1883 and 1886, offering his own assessment of the Nokota breed:

In a great many – indeed, in most – localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some Indian or ranch outfit, or else claiming such as their sires and dams, are yet quite as wild as the antelope on whose range they have intruded.

As such, the Nokota serve as an effective metaphor for the American settlers themselves, embodying the ability to grow and thrive in a harsh environment. So an episode of Millennium dealing with horses could be fascinating.

Man of mist-ery...

Man of mist-ery…

This thematic connection is reinforced through the characterisation of Frank. Chris Carter has described Frank as very old-school hero, like a character from a western.  Like a western hero, Frank is the stranger who comes to town to stop the bad things.His conversations with Claudia Vaughn reinforce this sense. “How do you live like this?” she asks him, surveying the horror. “You have a wife, don’t you? Or do you just wear that ring to make yourself seem normal?” Frank admits that he keeps this part of himself secret, the part that he tries to keep away from home.

The script allows him a fond farewell with Claudia. “You leaving?” Claudia asks. Frank only nods. “Another monster, I suppose?” she inquires. Frank can only mutter in acknowledgement. Then Frank pulls away, moving on to the next case and the next monster. As with the ending of Covenant, Frank is presented as a force that pulls into a local community, exposes evil, and then leaves to continue his own business elsewhere. It reinforces the sense that Millennium is a modern-day existential western.

He's really matched his meat...

He’s really matched his meat…

There is the faintest sense that Broken World might want to engage with these archetypes. After all, this rural North Dakota community is portrayed as almost stereotypically macho – Sheriff Faulkner doesn’t seem too surprised to find a murdered man outside the local dive bar. “Friday night at Little Fats,” he remarks. “Three or four times a year, this parking lot turns into a killing field.” The first time we meet Willi Borgsen, he is surrounded by stereotypically jocular men mocking the “pervert” in their midst.

A smarter script might make an effort to examine the links between the “killing field” bar that Willi Borgsen visits, his job on a literal “killing floor” and his own fetish for sexual violence towards horses. After all, if you are going to do Equus in North Dakota, you may as well commit to the idea. Broken World throws a lot of potentially interesting ideas out there, but it never develops any of them. Instead, it falls into a familiar routine, a fairly rote execution of the most stock Millennium plot.

Killing time...

Killing time…

Broken World feels like it never develops its horse-and-masculity themes as well as it might. Late in the story, Frank visits a Pregnant Mare Urine farm, where mares are kept pregnant so that their urine might be harvested and sold as a health product. The foals on these farms are treated as waste material – they are quickly and ruthlessly culled. “The quickest way to make money off of the 80,000 foals is to kill them and sell the meat to Japan and Europe,” Frank sit told in a rather clunky exposition dump.

These farms were understandably controversial. It became a significant animal rights issue in the mid-nineties, as the pharmaceutical industry enjoyed incredible success with the scheme. In 1997, the drugs manufactured from Pregnant Mare Urine became Wyeth Pharmaceutical’s first one billion dollar product. The profitability of these medications peaked in 1999. So the idea of having Millennium engage with this ruthless exploitation of such a symbolic animal feels like it might make for an interesting story.

A walk on the wild side...

A walk on the wild side…

Unfortunately, Broken World does not engage with any of these points. Frank receives an exposition dump from Claudia Vaughn about these farms, but the episode never really does anything with the idea. The climax of the episode features Frank saved by herds of horses that conveniently trample Willi Borgsen to death while leaving Frank unharmed. It should be a hugely symbolic moment, one underscoring the raw power of these beasts; instead, it feels clunky and awkward.

Similarly, the idea of building to a climax in a slaughterhouse should provide some solid atmosphere. The idea of a serial killer who begins his career working at a slaughterhouse is perhaps a little trite, but the environment itself fits quite comfortably with the mood of Millennium. Again, director Winrich Kolbe does the best that he can with the material he has, but Broken World feels rather hollow. It feels like a collection of potentially interesting elements that never really gel.

Horsing about...

Horsing about…

Instead, Broken World falls back into the patterns of the mid-season serial killer episodes. Despite the novelty of being a serial-killer-in-waiting, Willi Borgsen is a very two-dimensional monster as opposed to a fully-formed character. Early on, there is a scene where Willi manages to maintain a friendly façade in front his acquaintances, but then promptly uses a public pay phone in a crowded bar to ring a helpline; when that doesn’t work, he dramatically crumples up the newspaper. Way to remain below the radar, there.

Van Quattro’s performance does not do the character any favours. Quattro eschews subtlety or nuance, instead heightening every aspect of his performance. This is an approach that might work with less grounded and more cartoonish character like Hans Ingram from Walkabout or the polaroid stalker from The Beginning and the End. It does not work for a character who is supposed to be in the midst of a truly harrowing psychological transformation. Quattro never presents a credible image of Borgsen as somebody who could pass as a regular person.

All the pretty horses...

All the pretty horses…

When the script calls for Borgsen to seem torn or conflicted, Quattro plays it in the broadest manner possible. His phone calls to Frank should seem horrific and disturbing; instead they are played as pantomime. “I KNOW I’VE GOT THE POWER!” Borgsen screams down the phone at one point. “IT FELT GOOD DOING WHAT I DID!” Quattro tears through any hint of ambiguity in the script, replacing it with excess and melodrama. It plays like a parody of a Millennium serial killer, something that sits at odds with the sombre tone of the rest of the episode.

To be fair, the script does not help matters. Broken World might offer the story of the birth of a serial killer, but it spends most of its time trying to disgust the audience with just how perverted Borgsen is. If the show is going to centre on a character “standing at an abyss” and about to fall, it might help to make the character at least marginally sympathetic. Instead, Broken World revels in Borgsen’s deviance. There is something exploitative and cynical in how the script treats Borgsen as an object of strange disgusted fascination.

Prodding him on...

Prodding him on…

Most obviously, Broken World works really hard to explain that Borgsen really likes horse. No, he really likes them. Like, more than the guy from War Horse. Yes, that much. And, yes, in that way. “You’ve taken samples here?” Frank asks Sheriff Falkner in the first scene after the teaser. When Dumont asks what king of samples, Frank replies, simply, “Blood. Semen.” As you do. At the climax, as Frank chases Borgsen through the abattoir, the serial killer stops to lick raw hanging meat; just so we’re reminded how creepy he is.

Broken World gets considerable mileage out of the fact that this is a guy who is sexually attracted to horses. “We’ve learned from past experience that an event like this – a close call – expands his sexual fantasy,” Peter explains to local law enforcement. Frank continues, “His only source of feeling alive is his urge for sexual pleasure. His paraphilia has now defined it. It intoxicates and terrifies him.” It seems like Broken World is devoting considerable energy to making the audience feel uncomfortable. It feels quite gratuitous.

"Only two episodes after this one, Frank. Hold on in there..."

“Only two episodes after this one, Frank. Hold on in there…”

To be fair, there is an argument to be made that Millennium is simply reflecting real-world criminal psychology. This is the way that some monsters see the world, so the show should embrace it and not try to shy away from it. The world can be a horrifying place, and there’s no point trying to hide from that. This is a valid argument, and one that makes a great deal of sense. For all its occasional problems, Millennium was a show that wanted to say important things. It even succeeded with considerable frequency.

However, the problem is that Broken World bungles the execution terribly, making it feel tacky and sensationalist. There is a sequence where Borgsen practically orgasms as Mary Ann caresses her horse. “You kissed her,” Borgsen mutters. “You kissed the horse.” There is something incredibly sleazy about the way that the sequence is shot. It is gratuitous and excessive, something that exists purely to mark Borgsen as a freak – a monster as unfathomable as any that might appear on The X-Files.

Cut to the chase...

Cut to the chase…

It doesn’t help that the first scene is careful to give the audience a somewhat typical “we don’t go in for that around here” sequence. On paper, it fits thematically with the denial evidenced in Covenant. In practice it seems like a stock way story element for this kind of tale. When Frank suggests that the killer planned to use the bridle on Sally Dumont, her husband is appalled. “Now, you listen to me, mister! People may get up for that kind of thing in Los Angeles or San Francisco or wherever you come from, but not around here!”

A lot of Broken World seems like it was assembled from stock Millennium tropes. Despite an interesting premise and host of clever (if half-formed) ideas, the episode falls too readily into bad habits that the show had made a conscious effort to move past. Broken World serves to illustrate how far Millennium has come by this point in the season, if only be offering an educational counter-example.

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

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