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Millennium – Paper Dove (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.

Millennium is an odd show in a number of ways.

The most obvious of these oddities is the sense that each of the three seasons feels like a different television show. The first season is markedly distinct from the second, the second is clearly delineated from the third. It is a very strange structure, one explained by the fact that the three seasons were overseen by three different creative teams with three very different visions of the show. One of the results of this approach is that each season finalé becomes a de facto series finalé, an episode bidding farewell to a particular vision of the show.

This is what it feels like... when doves cry...

This is what it feels like… when doves cry…

Paper Dove bids farewell to the “serial-killer-of-the-week” mechanics of the first season. Of course, there would be later episodes that would feature serial killers. In fact, The Mikado is possibly the best serial killer the show ever did. The Beginning and the End seems explicitly about killing off the “serial-killer-of-the-week” so that the show can invest its time and energy in other pursuits. However, stripped down to its core, Paper Dove takes the show’s approach to serial killers to its logic conclusion.

Although the show has featured serial killers with motivations that might be easily understood and perhaps even pitiable, Henry Dion is the show’s first serial killer to becomes almost sympathetic; it is one of the rare times that the show manages to capture the banality of evil, as opposed to the show’s traditional approach – one that brushes up against (and occasionally crosses over into) a sensationalist or gratuitous approach to serial killer pathology.

Picture this...

Picture this…

The term “serial-killer-of-the-week” is held over from Millennium‘s sister series, The X-Files. The term is an affectionate nod towards the “monster-of-the-week” format of The X-Files, where Mulder and Scully stumble across some paranormal phenomenon to investigate of a weekly basis. It is a superficial comparison of the two shows’ storytelling formulas. However, the term also reflects something more fundamental. As far as Millennium is concerned, the serial killer may as well be a monster, something inhuman and horrifying.

This comes baked into the premise. Millennium frequently offers the audience fleeting glimpses into the minds of these killers – a flood of horrifying images and noises that are hard to process. The implication is that these killers exist beyond the realm of normal human comprehension, despite Frank Black’s claim to understand them. After all, The Pilot climaxed with Frank Black wrestling with knife-wielding maniac reference obscure scripture about rivers of blood. The show portrayed serial killers as modern-day monsters and bogeymen.

Happy families...

Happy families…

To be fair, most episodes provide some hint of motivation for their monsters. In Wide Open, Cutter is driven by a childhood trauma to perpetuate that trauma. In Weeds, Edward Petey is motivated by what he sees as the hypocrisy around him. Even when those motivations are less abstract, the show keeps us at arm’s length from the killer. We understand why Connor kills in Blood Relatives, but he is not the central character in the narrative. Ditto Jacob Tyler in The Thin White Line. Hans Ingram has a philosophy in Walkabout, but he is never the focus of the plot.

This has occasionally been a problem for Millennium. Some of the series seemed gratuitous in its use of serial killers. Loin Like a Hunting Flame takes this sort of approach to an extreme, where the killer has a host of psychobabble justifications, but feels like nothing more than a vehicle for the show to engage in some seedy sexual sequences. Broken World teased the audience with the origin story of a serial killer, but presented a character the exemplified the worst of the show’s approaches to characterising such fiends.

The woodsman...

The woodsman…

What makes Paper Dove so deeply fascinating is the way that it pushes the “serial-killer-of-the-week” format to a point further than it has ever gone before. It is the first (and only) time that the serial killer at the centre of the story feels like a fully-formed character, and the only point at which a central serial killer is almost sympathetic. Henry Dion does a series of truly terrible things over the course of Paper Dove, but the episode spends enough time with the character that he becomes more than just a menacing spectre. Instead, Henry Dion is a broken human being.

Henry Dion is a stunningly realised creation in a number of ways. Most obviously, the casting of Mike Starr in the role is a coup for the show. Starr has – understandably – spent a significant portion of his career playing mobsters and wise guys. Standing more than six foot tall, Starr is a striking and physically imposing actor. He is almost certainly the tallest actor in most of his scenes. If the characterisation of Henry Dion bears more than a passing resemblance to serial killer Ed Kemper, the choice of actor reinforces those resemblances. (Although Kemper is taller still.)

"She's dead... wrapped in plastic..."

“She’s dead… wrapped in plastic…”

However, Paper Dove very shrewdly exploits Mike Starr’s physicality, as director Thomas J. Wright works hard to squeeze Starr into his frames. It seems like Henry Dion spends most of Paper Dove being squashed or compressed, as if the character himself is being boxed in and crushed. Due to his size, Henry Dion should be terrifying. Instead, Wright manages to subvert that through clever and meticulous framing. There is a reason that Thomas J. Wright became the defining director on Millennium.

In particular, his work on Henry Dion’s family scenes is striking. The sequences featuring Marie France Dion are fascinating, as actress Linda Sorensen is obviously much less physically imposing than Starr. However, Wright frames the sequences in such a way that makes it clear that the smaller Marie France Dion exerts a powerful control over her adult son. In one particularly inspired touch, Marie France Dion is introduced through a hand-held camera shot that tracks through the house, like a horror movie stalking its monster.

Happy together...

Happy together…

What makes Wright’s work on Paper Dove particularly effective is the way that he is very consciously framing it for the classic 4:3 television aspect ratio – it is an episode that plays very well to the box-shaped televisual space. It feels tight and constrained, adding to Henry Dion’s sense of oppression. Paper Dove was the last episode filmed in that format before the show transitioned to widescreen. Although both would continue to be broadcast in 4:3 through to the end of their runs, The X-Files and Millennium would be produced in widescreen from late 1997.

One of Wright’s great strengths as a director is his chameleon-like ability to blend his work to the aesthetic of the script he is filming. Demonstrating that versatility, Wright would immediately follow the tight claustrophobia of the 4:3 aspect ratio Paper Dove with effective use the widescreen format to imbue The Beginning and the End with an impressive sense scale. Indeed, despite coming from the same director and being bridged by a cliffhanger, Paper Dove and The Beginning and the End feel like two spectacular pieces of television from two very different shows.

Momma knows best...

Momma knows best…

Even outside of the clever ways that Wright frames Henry Dion, Mike Starr does great work in the role. The script gives Dion enough space to develop as a character. He does not come to Frank’s attention until half-way through the episode, and Paper Dove only features the murder of one victim before Frank tries to flush Dion out. As such, the episode gets to spend time with Henry Dion, to understand how his mind works and why it is that he does what he does. Paper Dove never glosses over the monstrosity of what Dion does, but it does focus on his humanity.

Dion just wants to be heard. When he kills his victims, he takes them out into the woods, covers them in plastic… and talks to them. He sits alone in a quiet camp site enjoying the freedom to talk without being ignored or patronised. “It’s so good to have someone who listens,” he tells the corpse of Amy Lee Walker. The use of a human body as a prop is horrifying and unsettling, but Dion uses it in service of something understandable and pitiable. Dion just wants to be heard, and has allowed that desire to transform itself into something truly grotesque.

The darkness on the edge of frame...

The darkness on the edge of frame…

After all, it seems that having somebody to listen does Dion the world of good. On the camp site, he meets a young mother and her son. Paper Dove cleverly plays this as a deeply creepy scene – Dion sneaks up behind the mother, giving her quite a start. For a moment, it appears that Dion is seeking to raise the episode body count; an act break is approaching, after all. However, it becomes a surprisingly tender interaction that suggests Dion might have capable of existing as a functioning human being at some point in the distant past.

While it might be too much to suggest that Dion is compassionate or sincere, he does seem to love his dead bodies – in his own warped way. After a weekend away with the corpse of Amy Lee Walker, he assures her that he will preserve her body, “Don’t worry. There won’t be any flies on you. You’ve done your part. Now, I’ll do mine. Wow. You’re fine. That’s fine. Yeah, you’ll be fine.” The scene is shot in a way that doesn’t minimise or obscure the brutality of Dion’s action – the show is sure that the audience sees the wound where Dion removed the victim’s larynx.

Rolling on up...

Rolling on up…

Nevertheless, this feels like a twisted and broken form of love. Dion even informs the authorities where they can the body after he has enjoyed his release. Frank correctly deduces that Dion is the anonymous hiker who reported the last body. “He’ll phone it in. He won’t want to leave her out here alone.” In fact, Frank decides to provoke Dion by pretending not to find the body, in one of the most transparent killer-goading sequences that the show has ever produced. “Now, you go back and you find her, damn it!” he insists to the agents. “She’s in those woods alone!”

In fact, that entire sequence is beautifully put together. While Paper Dove rushes to resolve its plot points in the final ten minutes, leading to the most obviously manipulative press coverage ever, the episode redeems itself with Dion’s full-on crazy monologue. “Special Agent Kane? No emergency. A mentally-retarded homosexual would like to speak to him, if he has a minute.” It is weird to see a killer caught with a simple phone trace, but the scene itself is strong enough to justify it, and minimising the procedural element allows the story to develop Henry Dion.

Turn that frown upside down!

Turn that frown upside down!

Millennium has a tendency to treat evil as an absolute – as a foreign body invading and infecting, one that needs to be fought and resisted. The show’s treatment of serial killers tends to lean rather heavily on this, presenting them as grotesque monsters with distinctive gimmicks and horrific visions. However, Paper Dove presents an altogether more human face of evil. The episode even reflects this when Dion is out of focus. Oddly enough for a season finalé, Frank spends considerable time isolated from the primary plot.

Talking with C.R. Hunziger about the murder allegedly committed by his son, Frank has time to ruminate on the nature of evil. “The dinner she cooked for him was sitting on the stove while he butchered her,” C.R. reflects. “I mean, with all your expertise, do you think someone like that has human feelings?” Frank replies, “I’ve known men that have committed violent crimes to feel remorse.” C.R. seems to forget that he asked the question, and fires back, “So what? Who cares what those animals feel? I mean, do you?”

And officer and gentleman...

The Hunzinger Proxy…

In many ways, that short exchange seems like a reflection on how the show’s portrayal of evil has occasionally been a little too clunky or formulaic. Serial killers become plot elements to be inserted into a script, rather than characters or explorations of evil. It makes sense that Frank would acknowledge the humanity of these serial killers in an episode that devotes so much time to fleshing out its own monster. It feels like this represents something of an endpoint for this portrayal of evil in Millennium. We are past the point where serial killers are just weekly monsters.

In that respect, Paper Dove works quite well as a series finalé for this version of Millennium. In fact, the episode contains quite a number of elements that seem to exist solely because this is the end of the season. The episode even features a scene where Frank visits the FBI for information on a case purely so he and a bunch of fellow agents can lay out the big themes of the show one last time. It plays almost like a cliff notes version of Millennium, for anybody not paying attention during the rest of the season. It is a sequence only excusable because this is a finalé.

"Since this investigation is wrapping up a lot quicker than usual, let's just hit some thematic bullet points..."

“Since this investigation is wrapping up a lot quicker than usual, let’s just hit some thematic bullet points…”

“Everybody’s got a theory on the increasing violence in our society,” Devlin states. Another agent, Emmerich, cuts in, “My wife thinks it’s the artificial hormones in beef.” Chuckling playfully, Devlin continues with his original line of questioning, “Seriously, is it true that some of your people think it’s because of some greater evil out there?” It is an awkward little sequence that exists primarily so that the show can rearticulate and reiterate the core themes that have been present since The Pilot. And so that Frank Black can crack a joke. “It’s not the beef.”

That joke itself is interesting. Much like Paper Dove does a lot work to rehabilitate the occasionally problematic “serial-killer-of-the-week” format, the episode also engages with some of the other problems haunting the first season of Millennium. Frank Black is such a serious and sombre character that even a throwaway one-liner is striking; it is interesting to see the character almost playful with his old acquaintances. Frank feels as human here as he did in The Thin White Line or Walkabout, despite the fact that he gets considerably less focus and dialogue.

All alone...

All alone…

Similarly, Paper Dove does a wonderful job selling the marriage between Frank and Catherine Black, as the two take a trip to visit Catherine’s parents. Millennium has placed so much weight on the marriage that it occasionally seems more like an abstract concept than a functioning relationship, so it is nice to get a sense of Frank and Catherine Black doing normal husband-and-wife stuff, like visiting the in-laws and taking something of a vacation. Frank and Catherine seem more like real people than archetypes.

In fact, Paper Dove even allows Frank and Catherine to have sex. Up until this point, the marriage between Frank and Catherine has felt somewhat sterile; they are clearly great friends, but there have only been a few fleeting moments of physical tenderness. (Mulder and Scully have much stronger sexual tension.) Here, Frank and Catherine get to snuggle in bed together, something more human than most of their interactions. Of course, as Todd Van Der Werff would quip, “In Chris Carter shows, even the married people aren’t safe after they have sex.”

Part of me chooses to believe that this is only the second time that Frank and Catherine have had sex...

Part of me chooses to believe that this is only the second time that Frank and Catherine have had sex…

Of course, this visit to the in-laws means falling back on something of a Chris Carter stereotype. Paper Dove introduces the audience to Catherine’s family, including the character of Dawn Miller. Dawn is Catherine’s sister, and fills the same “female lead’s adversarial sibling” niche that Bill Scully will come to fill on The X-Files at around the same time. Here we even learn that Dawn and Catherine were army brats, much like Scully and her siblings. The family would not reappear at all in the second season, but would become a recurring feature of the third season.

Still, Dawn makes Bill seem downright pleasant. She interrupts Jordan at the dinner table, to make the conversation all about her. When their mother observes that Frank travels quite a bit, Dawn makes passive-aggressive snipe. “Let’s not ask him why he travels,” she suggests. “Not during dinner.” Dawn then complains about the relationship between Frank and Catherine. However, her criticisms of the relationship between Frank and Catherine are nowhere near as convincing as Bill Scully’s criticisms of the relationship between Mulder and Scully.

Frank Black, a man who can't visit his in-laws without catching a serial killer...

Frank Black, a man who can’t visit his in-laws without catching a serial killer…

This brings up a rather interesting aspect of Paper Dove. The show has a very awkward relationship to its cliffhanger. It is tempting to suggest that Paper Dove is simply a “serial-killer-of-the-week” story with a cliffhanger tacked on because this is the season finalé, but that is not entirely fair either. Although Henry Dion is very much an episodic threat, there are a host of elements of Paper Dove that seem to be building towards a two-part story. The involvement of the poloroid man is just one such element.

In particular, Paper Dove seems to involve Catherine’s family as a way of setting up their appearance in the second part. When Catherine goes missing, it makes sense for Frank to have to deal with her family; perhaps even face accusations that he put her in danger. Again, like “female lead’s adversarial sibling”, this is a trope that Chris Carter rather enjoys. In fact, Mulder has to face down Scully’s family in a similar way during Redux I and Redux II. It is not too hard to imagine Frank facing similar antagonism in the story following on from Paper Dove.

Family matters...

Family matters…

It seems like the characters are appearing here so they can have a scene in the second part like the scene they eventually have in The Innocents, the third season premiere. This helps to reinforce just how much of a break The Beginning and the End actually was, delaying that particular character beat by precisely a year. More than that, though, Paper Dove consciously and clearly sets up a resolution that The Beginning and the End completely avoids in favour of doing its own thing.

There is a rather bizarre sequence in the middle of the episode where Catherine and Dawn have a conversation about the state of the Black marriage. During that sequence, Dawn is holding a video camera and trying to record everything. “Come on,” Dawn assures Catherine, “mom insists that I tape every instant you’re here.” This seems like a rather odd plot detail to just drop in. In fact, its feels like an attempt to set up a possible resolution to Catherine’s abduction – an obvious “out.”

"The guy in Irresistible made this look easy..."

“The guy in Irresistible made this look easy…”

After all, we know that the poloroid stalker fixates on Catherine and that he was in town while Frank and Catherine were. Did Dawn unsuspectingly capture the poloroid stalker on film? Would Frank have found him in the footage, a telling irony? There would be something quite beautiful about the killer being captured by law enforcement after being captured on film. However, all of this is lost when The Beginning and the End decides to largely break with what came before and to start doing its own thing.

Indeed, the polaroid stalker in Paper Dove is a weird animal. In The Beginning and the End, he serves as a thematic link to the rest of the second season. Here, he seems like an oddity. The character has skirted around the edge of the first season, sending Frank pictures to let him know that the yellow house is not as safe as it might seem. The polaroid stalker is the embodiment of all the evil out in the world, the evil that Frank cannot keep locked out. As cliché as the “Catherine in peril” plot might be, it is a logical conclusion to this train of thought.

Time to side burn some rubber...

Time to side burn some rubber…

Even the first season episodes that do not feature the character are haunted by his presence. Edward Petey makes contact with Frank in a manner that evokes the polaroid stalker in Weeds. When Tom Black lays into his brother for trying to hide uncomfortable truths from his family in Sacrament, the audience thinks of the polaroid stalker. When Lucy Butler uses polaroid pictures to tease Frank about her next victim in Lamentation, she sends them to the yellow house as a reminder of the polaroid stalker.

However, Paper Dove tries to build the polaroid stalker into a more concrete and less symbolic part of the show’s mythology. He helps Henry Dion to pick out victims, and even tries to convince Dion to target Catherine. When Dion politely declines, the polaroid stalker replies, “Keep them. You never know.” Dion tries to be optimistic, “They’ll work for someone.” The polaroid stalker remains optimistic. “Yeah,” he observes. “There’s always someone.” The scene seems to suggest that Dion is not the only killer working with the polaroid stalker. How many are there?

"Cheese!"

“Cheese!”

More than that, if the polaroid stalker is lurking at the edge of the frame in Paper Dove, how many times has he slipped effortlessly into the background? Paper Dove suggests that the polaroid stalker has figured out a way to connect with psychopaths, manipulating and encouraging them. Does that make the polaroid stalker the anti-Frank Black? Whereas Frank Black uses his understanding of these monsters to stop and to catch these killers, has the polaroid stalker been using his own understanding to enable and empower them?

While it would make a certain amount of thematic sense and might fit with the show’s world view, this remains a rather crazy implication. Paper Dove is shrewd enough to leave all this unsaid. However, it is interesting to wonder how the version of the polaroid stalker in Paper Dove might have evolved or developed. In The Beginning and the End, the character peels off his face to reveal Doug Hutchinson – an actor most associated with Eugene Victor Tooms, perhaps the most iconic monster from The X-Files, and one created by Glen Morgan and James Wong.

Don't mess it up!

Don’t mess it up!

Still, Paper Dove is clearly building towards one big cliffhanger. It is the cliffhanger that was inevitable since Frank Black identified the yellow house as a place of safety for his family, a threat that has been circling the family since the kidnap of his sister-in-law in Sacrament and the violation of the house itself in Lamentation. Catherine Black is kidnapped. On the one hand, this is a very obvious and very logical plot development that has been meticulously foreshadowed and set up over the course of the first year.

On the other hand, it demonstrates the show’s blind spot when it comes to the character of Catherine Black. Catherine Black is more useful to Millennium as an ideal for Frank to protect; the series has had a great deal of trouble figuring out what to do with the character when she doesn’t embody everything that Frank wants to keep safe. Kidnapping Catherine Black at the end of Paper Dove turns her more explicitly into damsel in distress; she is a character who needs Frank to save her before something truly horrible happens.

Nursing old grievances...

Nursing old grievances…

The kidnapping of Catherine Black at the hands of the polaroid stalker is the most sensible way to end the first year of Millennium, but it is also the most cliché. Even as the second season of Millennium radically reinvents the show, it struggles to find a place for Catherine beyond that of “ideal to be protected at all costs.” While Paper Dove manages to resolve a lot of the issues with the “serial-killer-of-the-week” format, it ends up reinforcing another of the show’s biggest recurring issues.

Paper Dove is a rather odd show to feature as the season finalé, and it feels like Carter and his writers were working hard to differentiate Millennium from The X-Files. The Erlenmeyer Flask, the first season finalé of The X-Files, created a pattern that subsequent seasons tended to follow. The season finalé was a big story that focused on the central mythology and built inexorably towards a show-altering cliffhanger. Anasazi drove Mulder crazy and killed him. Talitha Cumi had Mulder meet alien!Jesus. Gethsemene made Mulder non-alien!Jesus.

In the woods...

In the woods…

In contrast, Paper Dove feels more like a companion piece to The Thin White Line than a follow-up to Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. Although the show is obviously gearing up to something big, Paper Dove doesn’t really foreshadow the kidnapping of Catherine Black at the end of the episode; the polaroid stalker is featured, but he still seems very much in control of what he is doing. There are no tanks full of hybrids, no top-secret files, no alien messiahs. There is just the same stuff the show does every week, delivered in a slightly different way.

While the structure of the episode – introducing Catherine’s family, pausing for a big thematic scene with Frank’s old F.B.I. buddies, the appearance of the polaroid stalker – points towards something big, the lead characters themselves appear oblivious. The show doesn’t consciously up the dramatic stakes or spend a larger budget or any of the sort of clues that The X-Files traditionally uses. Pursuing Henry Dion, there is no moment where Frank Black realises that this is something bigger than the case he investigated last week or the week before.

Dove-tailing the season...

Dove-tailing the season…

Similarly, the plotting for Paper Dove is surprisingly loose and relaxed. Did the polaroid stalker know (or suspect) that Frank would be asked to look into the Hunziger case, or was he counting on the abduction of Amy Lee Walker to catch and hold Frank’s attention? It seems a little redundant that both should happen by coincidence. Similarly, the plot rushes to wrap up the Dion investigation in a fairly generic manner, a decision which allows for more character work, but still seems a little out-of-whack with how organised and clever Dion has been to this point.

Still, Paper Dove is a stunning accomplishment. It is a fantastic conclusion to a bold and ambitious season. Like the season itself, Paper Dove is not perfect. However, it is trying to do something interesting and unique, succeeding often enough to make it all worthwhile. Paper Dove bids farewell to a particular version of Millennium. However, it is constructed with enough skill to make it a fond farewell.

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

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