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Millennium – 19:19 (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

One of the interesting aspects of the second season of Millennium is just how carefully structured all the chaos actually is.

There is an endearing and infectious randomness to the plotting of episodes like Sense and Antisense or A Single Blade of Grass, with individual episodes often struggling to fit together on an act-by-act basis. However, things become a lot clearer from a distance. Pulling back, it appears quite clear that there is a method to the madness. The episodes in the season – particularly those positioned towards the beginning and the end – each serve a clear purpose in the larger arc of the second season.

Will he die for our sins?

Will he die for our sins?

The first third of the season is very much about establishing concepts that will be of use later in the story. The Beginning and the End removes Frank from the yellow house and starts him on a new journey. Beware of the Dog introduces the Old Man and teases the mythology of the Millennium Group. Monster introduces Lara Means. The Curse of Frank Black gives Frank his long dark midnight of the soul. 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian were the last two episodes in this opening act, and they exist to affirm the show’s cosmology.

Both 19:19 and The Hand of St. Sebastian firmly establish the show’s apocalyptic worldview in a Christian theological framework. 19:19 does this by exploring biblical prophecy and eschatology, while The Hand of St. Sebastian reveals the Millennium Group to be a secret Christian sect who have existed for over a thousand years. Although the show has always taken a lot of its imagery and iconography from Christianity, 19:19 engages explicitly with the idea of biblical prophecy and millennialism.

All part of the plan...

All part of the plan…

Millennium has already demonstrate that apocalyptic prophecy is not exclusive to western theology. Maranatha looked at end-time prophecy from an eastern perspective, albeit one still grounded in Christian theology. A Single Blade of Grass made it clear that various Native American cultures have their own doomsday belief systems. At the same time, the bulk of the show’s religious imagery is rooted in western traditions – the prophecies of Nostradamus in The Pilot, portrayal of demons in Gehenna, the deal with the devil in The Judge.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most writers and audience members are most familiar with Christian iconography and imagery. It is perhaps better for the show to dabble in familiar high concepts than it would be make mistakes while handling less familiar religious beliefs. Due the ubiquitous nature of Christianity on American television as compared to portrayals of Native American theology, the religious extremists portrayed in 19:19 are less problematic than those portrayed in A Single Blade of Grass.

Something fishy is going on...

Something fishy is going on…

However, while the first season of Millennium was quite ready and willing to engage with theological constructs like angels and demons, it was a little more awkward in dealing with human religion. The show tried to explore religion in Kingdom Come, but it ultimately felt clumsy and ill-judged. Villainous characters in The Pilot and Sacrament used religious iconography, but the show painted these as delusional individuals trying to cope with their own problems by projecting them onto a more spiritual level.

With the second season of Millennium, that becomes a lot harder to accept. The second season is quite consciously pushing towards an apocalypse. Although 19:19 was produced before The Curse of Frank Black, it aired later in the run. Audiences watching 19:19 were well aware that “the time is near” referred to a looming doomsday prophecy. As such, characters rambling and ranting about demons and angels and the end of the world had to be taken a lot more seriously by members of the audience. (Indeed, the recurring phrase “the time is near” is take from the third verse of the first chapter of Revelation.)

The Group just can't com-Pete with this level of fundamentalism...

The Group just can’t com-Pete with this level of fundamentalism…

So 19:19 engages rather directly with Christian eschatology, the prediction of the looming “end-times.” Often, this is based in interpretations of Revelation, but it has also been prompted and fueled by other sources. (“Bible codes” were quite popular during the nineties.) This was a particularly popular strand within extremist Christianity in the nineties, and even crossed over into the mainstream towards the end of the decade. Sensing a gap in the market, pop culture catered to curious audiences both inside and outside the faith as the year 2000 loomed.

In 1999, secular audiences could enjoy the schlocky thrills of Gabriel Byrne movies like End of Days or Stigmata, which traded on Christian iconography as the new millennium approached. More faithful audiences would have treated those films as exploitation, but they could enjoy movies like The Omega Code – a religious-themed film starring Casper Van Dien and Michael York, and which paved the way for twenty-first century faith films like Heaven is Real or Saving Christmas.

Channelling a lot of frustration...

Channelling a lot of frustration…

Indeed, the new millennium saw a surge in popularity of apocalyptic Christian literature. Consider the story of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, authors who managed to leverage their Left Behind series into phenomenal success between the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first:

They’re an odd couple, for sure: LaHaye, the golden-ager in polyester, veteran culture warrior and cofounder of the Moral Majority; Jenkins, the bearded baby boomer in jeans, best known (until now) for channeling the autobiographies of such Christian athletes as Orel Hershiser. They’re also, arguably, the most successful literary partnership of all time. And if you define success in worldly terms, you can drop the “arguably.” Their Biblical techno-thrillers about the end of the world are currently outselling Stephen King, John Grisham and every other pop novelist in America. It’s old-time religion with a sci-fi sensibility: the Tribulation timetable comes from LaHaye; the cell phones, Land Rovers–and characters struggling with belief and unbelief–come from Jenkins. And their contrasting sensibilities suggest the complexities of the entire evangelical movement, often seen as monolithic.

Jenkins and LaHaye got in quite early on the millennial apocalyptic fad. The first in their Left Behind series had been published in 1995. The books were a phenomenal success, spawning two different movie iterations – one starring Kirk Cameron and another starring Nicholas Cage.

Into the storm...

Into the storm…

It is interesting to note that a lot of radical Christian thought about the millennium is actually relatively recent. Although it is possible to trace certain ideas far back in time, the idea of cohesive apocalyptic narrative was only really formed in the mid-nineteenth century. Historically speaking, Revelation had generally been examined a historical context. It was written in the first century, and taken largely to refer to historical or roughly contemporaneous events. (Scholars adhering to these theories are known as “Historicist” and “Preterist” respectively.)

In contrast, English theologian John Darby is widely credited with (at least) codifying the idea of “the Rapture” as a piece of Christian apocalyptic belief in 1830. Although some scholars dispute the idea that Darby was the first to come up with the concept – Tim LaHaye makes a somewhat unconvincing attempt to tie Darcy’s work back to earlier theological discussion in The Rapture – it seems hard to argue with the fact that Darby was responsible for fashioning that idea into its current form and making it an essential part of radical Christian end-time prophecy.

Hoping and praying...

Hoping and praying…

Darby’s teachings about biblical prophecy and millennial prophecy were hugely influential in the United States. As Glenn W. Shuck explains in his introduction to Christian Dispensationalism in The Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, biblical philosophers like Cyrus I. Scofield helped to make it a feature of certain strands of Christian scholarship in the United States at the start of the new century:

Preparing the biblical text for readers who tended to interpret even the most outlandish portions of Scripture as literally as possible, Scofield inserted his copious notes alongside and below the actual biblical text, using a very similar font, with otherwise no great signal that the opinions were his own. As a result, readers confronted his text, first published in 1909, as a coherent narrative from beginning to end, which organised the passages in Scripture around the ideas of Dispensationalism and the coming End – modified and embellished somewhat from Darby’s version. Scofield’s best-selling Bible made such an impact that one can still read and hear the jingle: “My hope is built on nothing less/ Than Scofield’s notes and Moody Press.”

As such, prophecy and end-time anxieties were quickly incorporated into fundamentalist and evangelical schools of thought. They would become more deeply entrenched over the course of the twentieth century, all building towards the turn of the millennium. The idea of a looming apocalypse seemed to appeal to certain strands of Christian fundamentalism, and it became almost expected.

Suffer the little children...

Suffer the little children…

The appeal of an apocalyptic prophecy to evangelical Christian preachers was quite apparent – it provided the biblical narrative with an ending, and gave the story a sense of scale. As Dwight Wilson argued in Armageddon Now!, it was a tool that could be exploited by a movement keen to grow and expand:

The premillenarians’ credibility is at a low ebb because they succumbed to the temptation to exploit every conceivably possibly prophetic fulfillment for the sake of their prime objective: evangelism. The doomsaying cry of “Armageddon Now!” was an effective evangelistic tool of terror to scare people into making decisions for Christ and to stimulate believed to “witness for Christ” to add stars to their heavenly crowns before it was everlastingly too late. Voices of moderation were less likely to find mass appeal. Times of crisis tend to produce feelings of insecurity in the general populace as a matter of course. The evangelistic message was found to be most effective when couched in terms of confident, dogmatic overstatements, rather than in a carefully reasoned, moderate theology that offered indefinite conclusions. The success of such evangelistic approaches was to the premillenarians well worth the risk of false identifications in the interpretation of prophecy.

The idea of a looming deadline could a very persuasive oratorical tool. Nothing could inspire conversion as quickly as the promise of salvation as the world itself came closer and closer to its final days.

Hunting their quarry...

Hunting their quarry…

Millennialism had taken root in American evangelical rhetoric in the early part of the twentieth century. As such, millennialism grew in popularity in along with the evangelical movement in the wake of the Second World War. In Apocalyptic Dread, Kirsten Moana Thompson argued that the increased popularity of fundamentalist Christianity was largely a response to the perceived liberalisation of American culture:

In response to rapid sociocultural changes over the last forty years, an increased cultural conservativism and (re)turn to fundamentalist religions (which could be termed another “New Awakening” in American history) has become increasingly prominent, and is a key dimension of what I call apocalyptic dread. In 1976, which Time declared to be “The Year of the Evangelical”, Jimmy Carter became the first Southern Baptist to be elected president, and three years later Jerry Falwell formed the Moral majority. Although membership in mainline churches has fallen in the last thirty years, membership in fundamentalist and evangelical churches (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of God in Christ, and Assemblies of God, among others) continued to grow exponentially through the eighties and nineties. Anxieties about the changing role of women in the wake of the feminist movement of the seventies, and about the gay-rights movement after Stonewall, led to conservative political campaigns that decried sexual promiscuity, pornography, any form of birth control, premarital sex, and public “immorality.”

There is a very strong reactionary strand to fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic thought. It is argued that God will punish the “wicked”, with “wickedness” inevitably determined by reference to socially conservative values. It is worth noting that Revelation – often used as a source text – is quite difficult to reconcile with the rest of the more socially liberal New Testament, to the point where some have argued it was largely rewritten from a non-Christian source.

Prine's theories just floored everybody...

Prine’s theories just floored everybody…

Nevertheless, evangelical Christianity has a fairly significant place in American popular consciousness. As Richard Kyle notes in Apocalyptic Fever, there are a very large number of evangelical Christians in the United States:

By the late twentieth century, premillennial eschatology had captured the interest of millions of Americans. Why? A number of factors have contributed to this development – some religious, others political and cultural. To start, premillennialism had become entrenched within the evangelical subculture before World War II. While the evangelical faith has always occupied a significant place in American religion, since World War II it has experienced a surge in growth. By the end of the twentieth century, about 25-30 percent of the American population could be categorised as evangelical.

While not all evangelic Christians adhere to apocalyptic prophecy, it does offer an example of just how prevalent the belief actually is. It is a not insignificant strand of American religious thought, and was particularly common in the lead-up to the millennium.

On the trail(er) of a kidnapper...

On the trail(er) of a kidnapper…

19:19 engages with this idea of biblical prophecy rather directly. It opens with Matthew Prine scrawling notes on the floor of his trailer, trying desperately to interpret the signs of a pending apocalypse. In a way, 19:19 can be seen as an attempt to revisit the idea at the heart of the muddled Sense and Antisense, an effort to tie conspiracy theorising into the large millennial milieu. Prine’s attempt to process world events into a singular historical narrative are quite similar to the efforts of conspiracy theories who similarly attempt to recognise patterns in impossibly vast events.

Morgan and Wong explored the idea of conspiracy theory as a way of fashioning a narrative out of history in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man on the fourth season of The X-Files. It appears that Matthew Prine is doing something similar here, trying to construct a story from scraps of information pulled from a wide variety of sources and constructs. Just like Mulder or the Lone Gunmen in E.B.E., it seems like Prine is trying to build some sort of meaning out of the randomness of the world around him. If he can figure out the story, he can manipulate it and control it.

Under the hood...

Under the hood…

There is a sense of self-importance to conspiracy theory. Recognising a conspiracy theory allows the theorist to feel vindicated and important – they are among the chosen few who can see through the lie. As Brandon G. Withrow noted, there is a romance to conspiracy theorising, something that elevates the theorist, “Fighting or exposing a big evil can help raise one above that feeling of purposelessness, provide a coping mechanism for a mundane life, or enable an over-zealous sense of self-importance.”

19:19 suggests that the same is true of biblical prophecy. Everybody imagines that they are the ones who will be saved. Everybody is the chosen person of their own particular faith. There is a very telling moment at the start of 19:19, when it seems like Matthew Prine decides to act. Drawing connecting lines between various strands of conspiratorial though, he ties them all back to a big red circle with the word “ME” written in it. After all, what is the point in constructing a conspiracy theory or a biblical prophecy in which you don’t matter, even tangentially?

It's all about ME...

It’s all about ME…

That said, Christian apocalyptic thought tends to downplay the importance of free will or humankind in dictating the end of the world. As Millard J. Erickson explains in A Basic Guide to Eschatology, the apocalypse is a demonstration of the awesome power of God:

Further, this earthly millennium will not come into reality through a gradual process of progressive growth or development. Rather, it will be dramatically or cataclysmically inaugorate by the second coming. While the millennium expected by postmillennialists may begin so gradually that its beginning will be virtually imperceptible, there will be no doubt about the beginning of the millennium as premillennialists envision it. The return of Christ will be similar to His departure – dramatic and external, readily observable by anyone and consequently unmistakable.

Nor will the millennium be merely an extension and perfection of trends already present of earth. It will not be brought into being by human engineering or social improvement. In fact it will be preceded by a deterioration, not an improvement, of spiritual, if not also social, condictions. Premillennialists apply Christ’s statement in Matthew 24:12 about men’s faith growing cold for a period of time immediately before the second coming. Conditions will be transformed supernaturally, with God using His own power rather than human means to achieve His ends.

Still, a great deal of power is placed into the hands of the individual – the individual gets to decide whether they are saved by choosing to accept the “correct” religious doctrine. They get to see their own faith rewarded, and others’ lack of faith punished.

Bus-ted...

Bus-ted…

This hints at one of the more horrifying ideas at the heart of the second season of Millennium. What if the apocalypse doesn’t have a chosen people? What if there is no salvation? What if the world is nothing but scorched earth caught in a conflict between two almost unknowable forces? The Curse of Frank Black hinted in that direction, suggesting an equivalence between both sides in this heavenly war. Even back in the first season, Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions had suggested that heaven was singularly disinterested in the affairs of people.

What if there are no chosen people? What if there is no salvation? After all, most biblical apocalyptic narratives hinge on God abandoning all but the few right-thinking individuals. Every other human being can be written off, as Frank discovers in his conversations with Prine. When Prine promises to return the children on seeing “the sign”, Frank asks, “What if you don’t see that sign?” Prine responds, coldly, “Then our savior wasn’t there. Then it doesn’t matter if these live or die.” So what happens if the theory is taken a step further? What if there is no saviour? What if nothing matters?

Change the channel...

Change the channel…

Millennium seems to suggest that if God exists, and He might just, His concerns exist on a level beyond the trivial anxieties of humanity. After all, Matthew Prine’s crazy biblical conspiracy theories hinge on God allowing a hurricane to destroy a school housing the potential saviour of mankind. “The damage from the storm was considerable,” Peter observes at the end of the episode. “Of particular interest, the schoolhouse where the children would have been in class was completely destroyed.” Lara asks, “Are you suggesting that he actually saved the children?” It seems like God wasn’t particularly interested in doing it.

19:19 also touches on other ideas reiterated throughout the second season of Millennium, with particular emphasis on the circle and the idea of history repeating. After all, there is considerable debate about whether the apocalypse depicted in Revelation had happened before the book was written, was happening as the book was written, or will happen at some point in the future. Prine suggests that history is moving on a preordained path, that humankind is a train on the tracks rather than a car on the road – that there is no way to alter the course.

Gotta have faith...

Gotta have faith…

“World War III has already started,” Prine assured Frank with all the certainty of a zealot. “People always think that wars happen in the future but they really happen in the past. The fighting is just the inevitable result of events that have already occurred.” The future can be ascertained by reference to the past. The Hand of St. Sebastian reinforces this idea by recontextualising the Millennium Group as an organisation interested in every millennium, and suggesting that this turmoil is not restricted to this particular millennium.

Like Beware of the Dog before it, 19:19 is interesting for the way that it tries to synthesis the aesthetics of the first and second seasons of Millennium. The underlying plot and the imagery are decidedly rooted in the second season, while the basic structure harks back to the more procedural elements of the first season. For all the 19:19 is a story about biblical prophecy and the end of the world, it is also a race against time that pits Frank against a narcissist who has kidnapped a bunch of children. (Just as Beware of the Dog is a serial-killer-of-the-week story where the serial killers happen to be a pack of demonic dogs.)

A "roving, freelance, forensic profiler"...

A “roving, freelance, forensic profiler”…

19:19 showcases Frank’s skills as a profiler, complete with the use of flashbacks to demonstrate how accurate his insights are. Prine is an offender who might easily have starred in a trashier first season instalment like Wide Open or Weeds. He even gets to do a small Buffalo Bill impersonation, demonstrating that Millennium has not moved completely past the point where The Silence of the Lambs is an obvious influence. “The abductor would be feigning weakness or injury so as not to present a threat to the bus driver,” Frank explains. “He would approach with difficulty, further disarming suspicion.”

The second season of Millennium is quite controversial among fans of the show – it tends to draw strong responses. Part of the controversy is the difficulty reconciling the mood and tone of the first two seasons – the first season is a lot more episodic and procedural, interested in individual examinations of evil; the second season is more serialised and apocalyptic, dabbling in less ground concepts. There are points in the second season where Morgan and Wong are very clearly trying to tie their reimagined version of the show into Chris Carter’s original vision.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

While The Mikado is perhaps the most obvious example, 19:19 feels like a conscious effort to reconcile the first and second season approaches to the show. Frank Black’s character arc over the course of the second season moves him further and further away from his first season self, but the version of Frank Black presented here could easily have anchored a first season episode. “There was an accomplice, but this was from the mind of one man. To find the children you are going to have to understand the why of it.” That sounds like a soundbyte that could have come from a first season trailer.

There are, of course, elements of 19:19 outside the general apocalyptic atmosphere that identify it as a second season episode. Most obviously, Sheriff Cayce is set up as yet another mirror to Frank – a man who has lost his family and faces some terrible possibilities and choices. As Cayce lays into Prine after apprehending him, Frank has to pull the Sheriff away from the suspect. He warns the law enforcement official, “No! No. That gets you nothing, nothing. Believe me, I’ve been there. He’s the only one that can help us.”

Law and disorder...

Law and disorder…

Equally, 19:19 reinforces the idea that the Millennium Group is more than a simply consultancy firm. Early on in the investigation, it is revealed that the Millennium Group keeps transcripts of everybody who has bought certain books in the United States (at least) – including, but not limited to, the Bible. When Frank asks why the Group would maintain such a database, Peter cryptically responds, “Exactly this reason.” Later, it is suggested that the Millennium Group has the power to just “take care” of warrants issued by local authorities, with Peter making Frank’s unpaid parking tickets just disappear.

The biggest problems with 19:19 are rooted in the attempt to blend the procedural aesthetic of the first season with looser fairytale logic of the second season. As an allegorical story, the idea of a mad man kidnapping every child in the community of Broken Bow is quite effective. However, once the show starts treating it as a serious and ground investigation, the fairy tale logic cannot quite hold. “Every child of school age in Broken Bow was in that bus,” Frank informs the audience, which seems a little absurd – there are apparently barely enough kids in that community to fill a single classroom.

The children are our future...

The children are our future…

Similarly, it feels just a little bit contrived that the meteorologists investigating the local storm front should just happen to be driving around in the same area with the same type of conspicuously unmarked van as the suspects. Similarly, it seems quite strange that they would not pull over immediately when requested to by law enforcement. Sure, they are chasing the storm, but it seems like not going to prison might be a priority. The sequence exists primarily to escalate the hour’s drama, the sort of “we have the killer… wait, we don’t have the killer” feint that the show used in Weeds with the local vigilantes.

Still, despite these issues balancing the tone of script, 19:19 continues to lay some solid foundation for the season ahead. Most of the key pieces are now in play, the board is almost set. There are just a few more minor details to align before the game can begin in earnest.

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

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