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Millennium – Goodbye Charlie (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.

Goodbye Charlie is an interesting oddity at this point in the season. It is the closest thing that the show has done to an old-fashioned “serial killer” story in quite some time, while still remaining quite unique and bizarre. It is a story about a man who may (or may not) be a serial killer, opening with shots of that (possible) killer serenading his victims with a dodgy karaoke version of the already dodgy Seasons in the Sun. It is memorable and striking, a strange hybrid of familiar trappings and completely bonkers absurdity.

There are points where Goodbye Charlie does not work. There are moments when the script seems a little too knowing or a little too heavy-handed. However, there moments are generally fleeting. When Goodbye Charlie falters, it is only a slight misstep; there is never a sense that it might implode in the same way that Sense and Antisense or A Single Blade of Grass threaten to collapse in on themselves. More than that, as with a lot of the bumps in the road during the second season, the show is generally ambitious and energetic enough that it’s hard not to get drawn in despite the flaws.

Sing with me now...

Sing with me now…

There are two elements of Goodbye Charlie that really sell it. The first is Richard Whiteley’s script. It is perhaps a little stilted in places – most notably in the way that it awkwardly plays up the ambiguity around the case by having Frank and Lara repeatedly draw attention to the ambiguity around the case – but it is clever, fast and witty. The episode also benefits from the casting of Tucker Smallwood as Steven Kiley, who turns in one of the best one-shot guest appearances of the season as a character who might be an altruistic helper or a manipulative sociopath.

Goodbye Charlie is perhaps a little too uneven to count among the very best of the season, but it is a fascinating little episode. It is also perhaps an indication of how profoundly the show has changed over this half-season that Goodbye Charlie manages to feel like one of the more conventional episodes of the year.

Nuts to that...

Nuts to that…

When Glen Morgan and James Wong assumed control of Millennium during the show’s second season, they famously printed up t-shirts promising “98% less serial killers.” While obviously an exaggeration, it did underscore the idea that the first season of Millennium had been a “serial-killer-of-the-week” show, substituting mass murderers in for the freaks and monsters who had appeared on The X-Files. While it’s probably quite difficult to have “98% less” on a show with twenty-three episodes in a season, Millennium had cut down on the number of serial offenders featured.

The show had made nods towards the first season formula, although each acknowledgement felt like a slight twist on a familiar set-up. Beware of the Dog was a classic serial killer story, with the twist that the serial killer in the story was a pack of wild dogs. Similarly, 19:19 got back to the more procedural elements of the first season, but dealt with kidnapping rather than murder, while firmly entrenching itself in the second season’s apocalyptic milieu. Steven Kiley is really the first major guest character in the second season who could be described as a serial killer, but even that is highly debatable.

Painting a pretty picture...

Painting a pretty picture…

The Mikado is perhaps the most conventional “serial killer” story of the season, airing only a few weeks after Goodbye Charlie. However, Goodbye Charlie has a great deal of fun playing with a lot of the structural elements associated with the more procedural episodes of Millennium. Using many of these markers and identifiers, Goodbye Charlie is able to create an intriguing sense of ambiguity around its guest character. Steven Kiley could just be another serial killer, but he could also be something a lot stranger and more unusual that has happened to wander into a serial killer narrative.

There are points where Richard Whiteley’s script is a little heavy-handed in reinforcing this sense of ambiguity. “Lara, should we assist to arrest this subject…?” the ominous and mysterious computer system asks at the start of the episode. “Or assist to protect?” At the end, Frank and Lara revisit that question. When Lara asks Frank what question the group might want answered about Kiley, Frank suggests, “Was he from heaven… or hell?” It is a very blunt way of outlining the central question of the episode, one that throws subtlety out the window.

A gag order...

A gag order…

To be entirely fair, this isn’t the first time that the second season has been a little clunky in summarising “the big question” of a given episode. 19:19 closes on a similar sentiment from Frank, who reflects that “the only thing that we can be sure about is that it will be the children that will save us.” The second season of Millennium is an ambitious and philosophical piece of work, but it can also labour its points a little too heavily. Morgan and Wong typically avoid the types of Chris Carter monologues that riddle scripts like Redux I, but they can be just as heavy-handed in places.

One of the more interesting aspects of Goodbye Charlie is the way that the episode invites viewers to reach their own conclusions about the nature of Steven Kiley and the work that he does. There are a number of ideas flagged as supernatural over the course of the narrative, but the episode is careful to suggest rational alternatives to the more extreme possibilities. For example, Kiley’s almost magical ability to diagnosis fatal illness is explained away by his professional history. (As Lara deduces, “Kiley could have had access to their medical history, which would explain his prophecy.”)

Everybody needs a helping hand...

Everybody needs a helping hand…

Similarly, Kiley himself manages to fit quite comfortably within some of the markers of a serial killer, but outside others. (Most obviously, he is the first non-white serial killer to feature on Millennium, reflecting real-world statistics about the racial distribution of such offenders.) Examining the evidence, Frank muses, “It is difficult to fit him into the psychological profile of a serial killer. His killings are organized yet he crosses gender lines – doesn’t fit.” There are points where it seems like Kiley is the quintessential killer, and moments where he seems like something else entirely.

Most notably, it is possible to read Kiley as a insane individual with a god complex. Some his behaviour is textbook in that regard. As Frank points out, the mass-assisted-suicide directly following his interrogation is very much the hallmark of psychopath trying to reassert some control. “This is a matter of control,” Frank speculates. “We had control over him today. In order to relieve that anxiety, that helplessness, he’ll have to help others – his way.” Kiley travels from his interrogation to an assisted suicide of multiple individuals.

Chairing the meeting, eh?

Chairing the meeting, eh?

On the other hand, it remains quite difficult to account for certain aspects of who he is or what he does. In particular, the painting at the site of the final mass suicide invites more questions than it answers. It is easy enough to concoct a perfectly rational and logical (if convoluted) explanation for how Steven ended up in that picture – there is no small amount of ego in the work that he does, after all – but it is still a spooky little detail that reinforces a sense of mystery around the suspect of the week.

It helps that Kiley is positioned as a character who blends the more overtly religious themes of the second season with the serial killer aesthetic of the first season. It is entirely possible that Kiley is just a bitter psychopath with a gift for manipulating the pain of others, but it is also entirely possible that he is a divine messenger. A large part of that is down to the show that Millennium has become, but the script and the performance do a lot to reinforce the idea that Kiley might be working for (or simply might imagine himself to be working for) a higher power.

"I did consider changing my name to Steven Kill-ey, but I thought that'd be a little on the nose..."

“I did consider changing my name to Steven Kill-ey, but I thought that’d be a little on the nose…”

He seems genuinely mournful as he assures a dead body, “If God in his infinite wisdom wouldn’t come for you, you could have gone to God.” Similarly, he tries to convince Frank and Lara that what he does cannot be described as murder. “See, I don’t even subscribe to the notion of dead. There’s only alive, or elsewhere.” The end of the episode even suggests that Kiley himself has moved “elsewhere”, albeit in a rather unconventional manner. When Frank suggests that what he is doing is illegal, Kiley appeals to higher laws. “Obeying immoral laws is the end of the world.”

None of these elements provide concrete evidence one way or the other. These are the kind of things that psychopaths say to justify what they do, after all. However, there is a beautiful earnestness to the guest performance from Tucker Smallwood. Smallwood is part of Morgan and Wong’s recurring troupe of actors, having worked with the duo on a number of different projects over the years. Along with Richard Whiteley, Smallwood worked on Space: Above and Beyond; he also appeared as Sheriff Andy Taylor in Home.

Person of note...

Person of note…

Kiley is an absolutely fascinating creation from Whiteley and Smallwood. The character is deliciously absurd, introduced serenading a victim (or client) with a wonderfully sincere version of a terrible song. For all of the absurdity of Goodbye Charlie, Kiley takes himself entirely seriously. As bizarre as his mannerisms might be, Smallwood infuses Kiley with an almost serene sense of certainty and purpose. There is no room for self-doubt here. It is easy to see how Kiley could inspire such devotion from those he encounters.

Of course, Kiley seems heavily influenced by the character of Jack Kevorkian – the so-called “Doctor Death”, who helped more than 130 people commit suicide between 1990 and 1998. Kevorkian was understandably a controversial figure, (in)famously declaring that “dying is not a crime.” Kevorkian’s methodology and approach attracted its fair share of criticism – not least because of claims that not all (or even most) of his patients were terminal and some had not reported any physical pain.

Up against the wal(nut)...

Up against the wal(nut)…

Euthanasia was a big issue when Goodbye Charlie aired in early 1998. With Vacco v. Quill in 1997, the Supreme Court had recognised the right of various federal legislatures to outlaw physician-assisted suicide. This had sparked considerable moral and philosophical debate. In March, Jack Kevorkian would oversee his one hundredth assisted suicide – although apparently some patients preferred the term “medicide.” Indeed, Kevorkian would formally be charged with murder in November 1998, following the broadcast of 60 Minutes video documenting such a procedure.

Goodbye Charlie is very clearly influenced by Kevorkian, to the point where Richard Whitely recalls being asked by Glen Morgan to “think of like a Doctor Kevorkian thing.” The fact that Kiley rarely actually presses the button recalls similar controversies about the level of Kevorkian’s involvement in the deaths of some of his clients. Even the device used to administer the lethal cocktail to patients evokes Kevorkian’s infamous “thanotron.” Even Kiley’s tendency towards the theatrical could be seen as a mirror of Kevorkian’s own “theatrical and hyberbolic” personality.

Although, for something called a "thanatron", it's pretty unimpressive...

Although, for something called a “thanotron”, it’s pretty unimpressive…

Indeed, Kevorkian would enjoy his most high-profile trial a few months after the broadcast of Goodbye Charlie, releasing a video of one particular physician-assisted suicide to 60 Minutes in November 1998, which would lead to his arrest and subsequent conviction. James W. Green offers a compelling account of events in Beyond the Good Death:

With over 130 assisted suicides to his credit, Kevorkian was at the height of his notoriety as “Dr. Death.” Flaunting that, he brought his videotape of Youk’s death to CBS, offering it to Mike Wallace for use on his program. Wallace agreed, and on November 22, Kevorkian narrated the video and explained why he wanted it shown nationally. “Either I go or they go,” he said of the prosecutors who for years tried to get homicide convictions from reluctant juries. But Kevorkian’s challenge to the courts in the Youk case was different. Previously, Kevorkian’s clients activated his “suicide machine” themselves, turning a knob or pulling a handle to start the flow of fatal chemicals. But Youk was paralysed and could not do that, so Kevorkian personally injected the lethal solution into his client’s right arm, which in medicine would be called active euthanasia. Youk died quietly in less than a minute. Weeks later, no arrest had been made, despite the video evidence of what appeared to be a homicide. Kevorkian joked with Wallace about that, asking if the police needed fingerprints. Apparently not. Soon he was arrested, tried for manslaughter, and convicted.

So Goodbye Charlie arrived at a pivotel moment in the debate around euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the United States. Discussing the episode years later, actor Tucker Smallwood would concede, “I discovered after it aired that viewers came down on the side of their pre-existing positions on assisted suicide. If in favor, Kiley was perceived as an angel; if against, as a demon.”

"I can also serenade ironically, like 'Stayin' Alive'."

“I can also serenade ironically, like ‘Stayin’ Alive’.”

Goodbye Charlie is interesting for serving as something of a reunion for crew from Space: Above and Beyond. Kristen Cloke returns as Lara Means, this time sporting a Ramones t-shirt – the Ramones serving as a recurring motif in Morgan and Wong’s work. Tucker Smallwood had the recurring role of Commodore Ross on Space: Above and Beyond, while Richard Whiteley provided two of the show’s more memorable scripts towards the end of the show’s first and only season. (His script for Dear Earth is perhaps the strongest script on that show not credited to Morgan and Wong.)

Morgan and Wong had already developed something of a production troupe – a collection of cast and crew with whom they clearly relished working. Go-to Millennium director Thomas J. Wright was another refugee from that cancelled Fox show. Interesting, Richard Whiteley was not part of the regular writers’ room on the second season of Millennium. He was drafted in as a freelance writer to provide a single script for the show. He does a pretty great job, as Goodbye Charlie fits quite comfortably in the middle of an arc-driven second season. (Although it was shuffled in the broadcast order.)

Answering the call...

Answering the call…

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Whiteley explained the origins of the episode and how he came to provide the script:

At the beginning of that year, 1997, I was working on a back-up script for Glen and Jim on a pilot they wrote, called The Notorious Seven. I’m sure you’ve talked with them about that. It was just this great… Glen and Jim wrote the pilot, and Jim was going to direct the pilot… and then they created a writing staff to do six scripts – a back up order of six scripts off of the pilot. They created the staff, and we had offices; it was Darin and Bobby Brenowitz and myself. We’d sit around and we’d just knock out stories and plan the arcs… it was just amazing, it was the best time.

While Jim was off directing the pilot, I was also working on Roseanne. I would go in once a week – I wrote two episodes, I contributed to the final episode as well. I was going back and forth. Roseanne ended; and to be part of that, after all those years, was just a real honour. The Notorious was not picked up, which was sad. And unfortunately, at that time, my dad passed away. So I was having this amazing year career-wise, and my dad passed away and I’m in Florida and Glen – I remember, I talked to him – Glen said they didn’t get picked up.

I was in a horrible place, and I came back home. Here I am in Los Angeles, and Glen calls me and he’s like, “Hey, man, I’d like you to write a freelance episode of Millennium, would you be interested?” And I said, “Absolutely!” My dad grew up in the Depression. If I turned down work, he’d haunt me like a Dickens ghost!

It makes sense that Whiteley would have such a long association with Morgan and Wong. His sensibilities seem quite in line with their own.

The issue is never Black and white...

The issue is never Black and white…

Indeed, the script for Goodbye Charlie manages to beautifully capture the serio-comic absurdity of the second season of Millennium, the sense that Millennium did not take itself as unrelentingly seriously as it had during the first season. While the script never descends into self-parody, it is just playful enough to avoid seeming too over-wrought or melodramatic. Goodbye Charlie is a wonderfully surreal experience, featuring one of the strangest teasers of the show’s entire run. It makes karaoke scary. Okay, scarier.

Goodby Charlie gives Frank a number of wonderfully wry lines, having great fun with the idea of Frank going undercover at a counselling call centre. “Russ, I’m not feeling too good,” Frank opens up. “My wife and I are separated and my daughter’s living with her. I have these nightmarish visions, that are the manifestation of pure evil.” When Lara suggests that he should have no trouble posing as somebody depressed, he replies, “I’m not depressed. I’m just quiet.” He should put that on a t-shirt.

They'll be the death of you...

They’ll be the death of you…

Goodbye Charlie reinforces Frank’s humanity by building pretty directly on the character’s fondness for the music of Bobby Darin. The title itself is a reference to a Bobby Darin song, which Whiteley confessed to Back to Frank Black was a happy coincidence:

It was funny because I got the list of the Bobby Darin songs, and I had made a list of all the phrases for dying, like ‘checking out’ – slang and all that. One of the things for dying was ‘goodbye Charlie’, and then I see that it’s a Bobby Darin song!

In fact, this is not even the first time that the tune has been featured on Millennium. Frank can be seen listening to it while travelling in the episode Monster earlier in the season.

Karaoke is a matter of life and death...

Karaoke is a matter of life and death…

In The Evil Earworm, Joe Tangari argues that the music of Bobby Darin is a perfect fit for the world of Millennium:

The match with the show’s subject matter is striking. Darin’s earliest pop hist, ‘Splish Splash’ and ‘Dream Lover’, were heavily rooted in rock-and-roll, but as he gained more creative control he pushed his music in a big band direction. His best known hit today is ‘Mack the Knife’, an English-language version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’, which was written for Weill’s 1928 stage work The Threepenny Opera. The song relates the story of a serial killer in an exceedingly boisterous big band arrangement. Black’s affection for Darin is one element of Morgan and Wong’s season-long endeavour to turn Frank Black into more of a man and less of a symbol – giving him art to appreciate points to an inner life (and past life) to which the audience is not always privy while watching. The tragedy of Darin’s life is icing on the cake. Darin had a way of swinging through the most horrific stories without betraying so much as a care.

That contrast between energetic bombast and harrowing subject matter pretty much sums up the second season.

"Well, I can check 'mass assisted suicide' off my bucket list."

“Well, I can check ‘mass assisted suicide’ off my bucket list.”

Goodbye Charlie is a little too uneven to count as a season highlight, but it is an engaging and fun episode with a sharp (if occasionally heavy-handed) script and a stellar guest performance. It is a testament to the eclectic energy of the second season that something like Goodbye Charlie doesn’t feel completely off-the-wall, and indeed represents one of the season’s most straightforward instalments. It is a fun, thought-provoking and generally quite well-balanced piece of television.

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

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