Why is Frank Black still involving himself with the Millennium Group?
The second season of Millennium is a fantastically constructed piece of television, but there are a number of fundamental criticisms that can be leveled at this particular incarnation of the show. To some viewers, it is too much to watch the Millennium Group transformed from a consultancy firm in the style of the Academy Group into an ancient Christian cult obsessed with doomsday. Other fans may not be particularly fond of the surreal eschatology of the second season, finding it a bit more “out there” than stories about serial killers and more mundane evil.
However, there are fans who have difficulty reconciling the version of Frank Black presented in the second season with the iteration who appeared throughout the first season of the show. The second season gave Frank a fondness for Bobby Darin and a sense of humour, but the change is more fundamental than that. The moral and righteous Frank was a pillar of certainty in an uncertain world. To some fans, it seems strange that Frank would remain involved in the Millennium Group as their paranoia and cultish behaviour became more and more apparent.
In many respects, Luminary seeks to answer that question. The second of Chip Johannessen’s three scripts for the second season ranks among his very best work for the show and the very best of the show in general. Johannessen has admitted that he was a little frustrated with the direction that Glen Morgan and James Wong took the show in its second year, and that scepticism bleeds through into Luminary. It is also what makes Luminary so compelling. It is a story about how Frank Black has lost himself over the last half-season, and needs to find his way back.
Robert Shearman is perhaps one of the most insightful and convincing critics of the direction of the second season of Millennium. While he tends to admire the ambition, he is often frustrated with the execution. In his review of The Hand of St. Sebastian for Wanting to Believe, he notes:
It’s silly, but potentially quite exciting too. What it damages is the character of Frank Black. Season three will show how Chris Carter drives as firm a wedge as possible between the character he created and a man who’ll aimlessly accept this mumbo jumbo. This is Frank’s first opportunity to walk away from the pretentious gobbledegook, and you can see the despair on Lance Henriksen’s face that the character he has worked so hard to give real credibility doesn’t do so; it cheapens the man that that he not only listens to this nonsense patiently, but that he doesn’t even think to question it.
It is a perfectly reasonable objection to the second season. The version of Frank Black presented from The Beginning and the End onward is pointedly not the same character who so solemnly and so steadfastly confronted evil in the first season. In some ways, the second season could be read as a betrayal of that unambiguously heroic figure.
After all, the version of Frank Black presented in the first season was perhaps the purest hero ever written by Chris Carter. In contemporary interviews, Carter likened Frank Black to an archetypal western hero. He was a character who set out to make the world a better place because he could, because he felt an obligation. He was not motivated by past trauma. He was retired, and so was doing this work voluntarily. Episodes like Sacrament suggested that Frank was always a saint, even dating back to his childhood.
If Frank had a flaw in the first season, it was his sense of self-righteousness. Frank had a certain arrogance in the way that he approached problems, a need to take things on his own shoulder so as to presumptively protect the people around him. Johannessen touched on that in his script for Walkabout, and it was a recurring idea throughout the first season. Frank opted not to warn Catherine about the polaroid stalker, a decision which ultimately put his family in jeopardy. Nevertheless, the version of Frank presented in the first season was a very different creature.
The second season introduces audiences to a new version of Frank. This second season Frank listens to big band music and even sings along. He carves pumpkins and makes funny faces. He jokes with his co-workers more. He scares the kids he finds hiding out in the basement. However, the changes are more fundamental than that. Frank Black seems angry; he seems frustrated at the world. There is a sense that Frank is not as stable as he once was. After all, why would he be?
That was the entire point of The Beginning and the End. It is no wonder that the teaser to Luminary points rather explicitly to the events of that episode. Killing the polaroid stalker in a fit of rage, Frank let a little bit of darkness inside himself. As per his conversation with Peter Watts in that episode, Frank sacrificed something. He gave up a little piece of himself to keep his family safe. However, as Peter suggested, trades don’t always work like that. Catherine was safe, but the Black family was fractured.
In the first season, Frank knew that he could return home to the yellow house at the end of a tough case. Frank always had a sanctuary into which he could retreat, a family that would welcome him home so that he could pretend there was a firm delineation between the world outside and life inside. The second season has taken that away from Frank. Frank might rent a little house for himself, but he has no home to which he can return. He has no magnetic north to steer his conscience.
In other words, Frank is lost. Luminary makes it rather explicit in both paralleling Frank’s experience with that of Alex Glaser, but also in juxtaposing it with Catherine’s brief flirtation with astrology. Frank, Alex and Catherine are all people looking to find their own meaning in the world. They are looking for something to guide them on their way. The second season of Millennium has been quite careful to position the Millennium Group as a second surrogate family for Frank – to the point where Catherine compares his involvement with the Group to an illicit affair.
Luminary suggests that Frank Black would much rather be at home with his family than working with the Millennium Group. The second season seems to be consciously building towards that choice. However, Frank does not have that choice at the moment. All he has is the Group. “Do you still consider yourself a viable candidate?” one member of the Group asks during the initiation sequence in the teaser. Frank replies, without hesitation, “I don’t consider myself a candidate. I consider myself a father and a husband.”
Of course, what Frank considers himself to be is arguably quite different from what he really is. “How?” one of the inquisitors asks. “Your family left you.” There is a sense that the Group is trying to reinforce the idea that they are all that Frank has left. Even Peter’s conversations with Frank seem designed to play on that. When Frank gets understandably upset at how the Group has treated him, Peter puts the emphasis on Frank’s response. “So how does this work – you get uncomfortable, you walk?” Peter doesn’t mention Catherine and Jordan, but it hangs over the episode.
The Millennium Group is effectively a cult. The second season might be a little ambiguous as to their motives at this stage of the game, but that much is at least clear by this point. As Jean-Marie Abgrall argues in Soul Snatchers, Frank is really the perfect person to be coopted into a cult:
Family or social conflicts often contribute to a person’s decision to join a cult. The group is a shelter from the aggression that has been felt and it provides a model of conflict resolution that intellectually satisfies the follower. He refuses any self-analysis and transfers all responsibility onto the external world, and more particularly onto the social or family unit. Entry into a cult is often a way of responding to the social pressures to establish one’s autonomy from the family, especially during adolescence. Sometimes this move is taken in response to crisis situations – divorce, job loss, mourning – or to a disturbance of what used to be “normal”, either personally, or within the family.
More than that, the teaser suggests that Frank was lured into the Group with the promise that it would help him to “understand the nature of [his] gift.” This recalls the way that Scientology infamously recruits converts by offering free personality tests and promising to help the subject improve their weaknesses.
The Millennium Group is a cult. Luminary reinforces this idea, subjecting Frank to a humiliating “trick bag” as a right of initiation. More than that, it is made entirely clear that the Group is engage in illegal and intrusive behaviour. When Frank tries to use a Group database to help him in his current investigation, Peter arrives at his home to disconnect the computer. “Are you monitoring my life?” Frank demands. “Bugging my phone?” The Millennium Group is not a healthy place to be; an idea that is reinforced time and time again over the course of the season.
Later, when Peter describes Frank as gone “AWOL”, Catherine is livid. “AWOL? Who do you people think you are? You know you’re supposed to be looking out for him. What did you do – cut him off?” The language is quite pointed – evoking the sorts of tactics used by cults to maintain control over members. The second season is quite consciously building towards a final decision from Frank about whether he wants to be a part of the Millennium Group, and the second season quite clearly explains both why that would be a terrible idea and why that terrible idea is so tempting.
Luminary is essentially a story about lost people trying to find their way in the world. This is even reflected in the subplot featuring Catherine Black. Megan Gallagher has been somewhat under-served by the second season. Catherine was already pretty peripheral during the first season, but moving Frank out of the yellow house has had the effect of marginalising Catherine even further. Despite appearing in the opening credits, Megan Gallagher appears in fewer episodes of the second season than Terry O’Quinn.
In the first season, Chip Johannessen was one of the few writers to figure out how to organically integrate Catherine into his scripts. Blood Relatives is notable for being the first time that Catherine appeared outside the role of doting wife and loving spouse. While Catherine’s plot is hardly integral to Luminary, it does help to create a sense that this separation is just as stressful on her as it is on Frank. Given Millennium‘s focus on Frank, it would be easy for the show to take sides in the separation, but Luminary makes it clear that Catherine is struggling in her own way.
Indeed, the show is even careful to call Peter out for even insinuating that this whole situation might be Catherine’s fault in some way – that somehow she might be to blame for what has happened by refusing to play the role of dutiful wife. “What do you do?” she asks Peter at one point, in desperation. “How do you make it work?” Peter replies, “Barbara, my wife.” Catherine reads the implied criticism quite clearly, and calls Peter out on it. “So it’s my fault?” she asks. Peter is quick to back away from the suggestion, but the point is clear. After all, Peter is not completely sympathetic here.
People facing these sorts of problems inevitably look for answers anywhere they can, even if those answers don’t always make rational sense. Psychics and tea leafs and astrology may be questionable methods of insight, but they are often understandable sources of comfort. When the world around you does not make sense, there is even more motivation to force it to make sense; even if that means thinking outside the box. Frank throws himself into the Millennium Group, with its epic stories about good and evil; in Luminary, Catherine buys a bunch of astrology books.
She admits quite candidly that this is rooted in here own sense of powerlessness. “You know what I spent the past two days doing?” she asks Peter. “Reading astrology books. Digging into Pluto and Neptune, because that’s what it’s come to for me. I don’t even know where to look for answers any more.” It makes sense to look for whatever coping method might exist. In a nutshell, that also explains why Frank has allowed himself to become so invested in the Millennium Group. That is all that he has left to him.
Confronting Peter, the show finally allows Catherine to voice her own anxieties and concerns about everything that has happened over the past season-and-a-half. “What happened this past year?” she demands. “I felt I just stood by watching while Frank and Jordan and I got run over by a train.” It feels like an entirely justifiable position, as the Black family found themselves caught up in forces outside their control. With everything that has happened, no wonder Catherine considers finding answers in the planets; there are none to be found down here.
Luminary explicitly ties the season’s big eschatological themes back to the dissolution of the Black family. One of the big recurring ideas in the second season is the idea that the apocalypse is a personal experience projected on a cataclysmic scale – that everybody faces their own end of the world, in one way or another. The astrologer working at the planetarium very shrewdly suggests that Frank and Catherine’s separation is the “great conflict” of the modern era. Not only is that great salesmanship, it hits on ideas reverberating through the season.
“Every five hundred years a great clash, a spiritual force with earthly power, out of which comes a new era – in the past the birth of Christ, King Arthur’s court, the Renaissance,” the astrologer explains. “This time the great conflict is also your conflict. The two of you.” The second season is arguably the story of a family break-up projected on a truly epic scale. The destruction of the ideal of family life is the end of the world to Frank, and everything else around that is just a reflection of that anxiety.
Of course, all of this mirrors the story of lost youth Alex Glaser, a young man who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and never came home. The story plays almost as a parable, with Lance Henriksen acknowledging the appeal of the basic story in an interview with Back to Frank Black:
“I understand that,” Henriksen says of the journey of discovery undertaken by teenager Alex Glaser. “If you’ve ever been married, there’s a moment after every divorce where you feel like, ‘I’m just going to take everything and leave it and walk off into the woods.’ So I understand it, basically. You just want to curl up into a ball and heal yourself. We need to hear that inner voice, we really do.”
There is something almost mythological about that story – something primal, something archetypal. The idea of wandering off into the wilderness is a romantic ideal. There is a rich vein of precedent in American popular culture, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.
Indeed, the idea of wandering in the wilderness recurs throughout all sorts of cultures and settings. Writing in his letters in 1921, linguist and anthropologist Jaime de Angulo reflected on a tradition on Californian Native Americans:
I want to speak now of a certain curious phenomenon found among the Pit River Indians. The Indians refer to it in English as “wandering.” They say of a certain man, “He is wandering”, or “He has started to wander.” It would seem that under certain conditions of mental stress an individual finds life in his accustomed surroundings impossible to bear. Such a man starts to wander. He goes about the country, traveling aimlessly. He will stop here and there at the camps of friends or relations, moving on, never stopping at any place longer than a few days. He will not make any outward show of grief, sorrow or worry. In fact he will speak of what is on his mind to no one, but anyone can see that he is not all right. He is morose, uncommunicative. Without any warning he will get up and go. People will probably say of such a man: “He has lost his shadow. He ought to get to a doctor to get it back for him before it is too late.”
It seems like the same kind of experience that Alex Glaser and Frank Black encounter here. Frank has endured a period of great stress, so it makes sense that this would appeal to him. No wonder he is reluctant to return to civilisation at the end of the story.
However, this idea of “wandering” is not unique to North America. Discussing the disappearance of Everett Ruess in Utah during the thirties, biographer Philip L. Fradkin reflects on similar customs from around the world:
Wandering is a form of separation from the tribe and parents and a rite of passage for youths, though perhaps not always in such extreme forms. In northern Europe there is the tradition of the Wanderjahr, the hiatus between the end of formal education and the start of a career. In Australia aborigine youths practice the walkabout. This is the time when the boy separates from his mother. “There is also a practical connection between initiation and wandering,” wrote a Freudian psychologist. “Initiation begins with the separation of the boys from the mothers and ends with the readmittance of the boy, as a man, to the society of the mothers and other women. Between these two there is the transition period, the bush-wandering of the newly circumcised young man.”
Wandering is a beautiful (and simple) metaphor for any period of reflection or transition. There is almost a sense that getting lost allows a person to find what is truly important.
That said, the portrayal of Alex Glaser clearly owes a debt to Into the Wild, the story of Christopher McCandless. In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from North Dakota to Alaska. He then wandered into the wilderness, navigating the Stampede Trail. Seeking to break away from civilisation, McCandless set himself up in the remains of Fairbanks City Transit System Bus 142 – which he labelled in his writings as the “Magic Bus” – and tried to sustain himself. In September 1992, his body was found by Butch Killian, a local hunter. The official cause of death was starvation.
However, McCandless quickly became an iconic figure. In January 1993, writer Jon Krakauer published a featured article on McCandless in Outside magazine. The feature proved quite popular, and Krakauer expanded it out to a full-length novel. Into the Wild was published in 1996. It would still have been in The New York Times bestseller list when Luminary aired near the end of January 1998. Into the Wild was something of a cultural phenomenon, with Sean Penn even adapting the story to film in 2007.
It is easy to see why Into the Wild resonated so profoundly in the mid-nineties. One of the recurring motifs of The X-Files and Millennium is a sense of existential ennui running through the last decade of the twentieth century – a sense that the material prosperity of the nineties has left people feeling somewhat empty. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, there was time for introspection and reflection. There was a certain romance to the wilderness as a place where man could reconnect with himself.
This romance is most obvious in the way that The X-Files approaches its monsters. The show often seems sad that there is no longer room in the world for such odd and unique creatures – often presenting the destruction of such bizarre entities as the price of encroaching globalisation and development. Into the Wild is the story of a young man who tried to reject the structures of such a society, who tried to find a place of his own in the world. McCandless infamously declined to take any maps with him, arguing that he would at least be exploring terrain previously undiscovered to him.
As such, it is very easy to romanticise McCandless, to present him as something of an ideal. After all, the closing lines of Krakauer’s original article present the image of a man who had found what he was looking for, regardless of the cost:
One of his last acts was to take a photograph of himself, standing near the bus under the high Alaskan sky, one hand holding his final note towards the camera lens, the other raised in a brave, beatific farewell. He is smiling in the photo, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God.
It makes sense that McCandless has become something of an icon. In fact, it has been reported that quite a few individuals have been inspired to follow in his footsteps; occasionally with fatal results.
In contrast to the romance of Jon Krakauer’s portrayal, Alaska Park Ranger Peter Christian has been openly critical of the way that McCandless approached the wilderness, and the way that the media has approached McCandless:
In fact, Alaska is populated with people who are either running away from something or seeking themselves in America’s last frontier. It is a place very much like the frontier of the Old West where you can come to and reinvent yourself. In reality, most people who make it as far as Alaska never get past the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage because access is so difficult and expensive (usually by airplane), travel is so hard, the terrain is challenging, the bears are real, and so on.
A very few competent and skillful people make a successful go at living a free life in the wild, build a home in the mountains, raise their children there and eventually come back with good stories and happy endings. A greater number give it a try, realize it is neither easy nor romantic, just damn hard work, and quickly give up and return to town with their tails between their legs, but alive and the wiser for it.
Some like McCandless, show up in Alaska, unprepared, unskilled and unwilling to take the time to learn the skills they need to be successful. These quickly get in trouble and either die by bears, by drowning, by freezing or they are rescued by park rangers or other rescue personnel – but often, not before risking their lives and/or spending a lot of government money on helicopters and overtime.
He makes a compelling argument, one that makes a great deal of sense. McCandless’ death was a tragedy, and one that might have been easily avoided had he taken even a few precautions.
Into the Wild is a book that tends to elicit polarising responses. There is even some debate about just how much of Into the Wild can be considered a “non-fiction” account of McCandless’ journey, with some commentators accusing Krakauer of taking excessive liberties with McCandless’ original journal entries. It goes without say that McCandless was (and remains) a controversial figure. There are those who would portray McCandless as a counter-culture hero; there are others who identify him as a troubled (possibly mentally ill) young man.
For all that Millennium is considered a rather cynical television show, it offers a rather romantic and idealistic twist on the tale of Christopher McCandless. Alex Glaser is presented as foolhardy and reckless, but there is also something noble about his pursuits. Frank is able to find Glaser in the wilderness and help him recover. Glaser opts not to return home, but to continue his journey. While that is heartbreaking to his family, Luminary seems almost hopeful. There is a sense that the script understands and empathises with that urge to break away and explore.
Indeed, Luminary seems to suggest that this is the best story that could be told about a wanderer like this. Like McCandless, Glaser narrates his adventures through journal entries. At one point, he implores his parents not to dismiss or diminish him. “Some day some kid will tell Ian: you’re an idiot just like your brother who threw his life away, walked into the woods, and died. I’m asking you as a last favour to put a better spin on it for him.” It seems almost as if Luminary is trying to afford McCandless one last kindness by allowing him the romantic fantasy he sought.
Of course, it is entirely debatable whether this justification is entirely fair. After all, romanticising McCandless is not something that happens in a vacuum; it is not strictly an issue of how a young man is remembered, and how his family are affected. Perpetuating the story of a lost idealist who found peace in communion with nature is a very dangerous and risky thing to do. After all, McCandless has inspired an entire generation of imitators and emulators; some are prepared for the wilderness, others are not. It is not a clean-cut issue.
Still, there is an engaging warmth and humanity to Chip Johannessen’s script. Millennium was frequently a grim and violent show, one packed with cynicism and brutality. A little bit of human empathy is heartwarming. It is hard not to feel some measure of sympathy with Alex Glaser for trying to break away from society, and to admire his efforts to do some genuine good in the world. Those efforts might be ill-judged and naive, but Luminary never feels like it treats the character in a manner that is unreasonably harsh.
There is a tranquil beauty to Luminary. It is a very thoughtful and quiet piece of television – one that helps to stress the experimental nature of the second season. It is remarkable how the show has evolved. The first season developed a reputation as a “serial-killer-of-the-week” series, a show with a fairly familiar structure and formula. In contrast, the second season is a lot more free-form and random. It is hard to find a formula that might link The Curse of Frank Black, Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and Luminary, beyond the basic set-up of “stuff happens to Frank Black.”
Johannessen demonstrates once again that he is quite the asset to the Millennium writing staff. Johannessen has demonstrated that he is one of the strongest voices in the writers’ room. Even when his scripts don’t quite work – as with Sense and Antisense – they are bristling with ideas and concepts. To be fair, Johannessen is generous in sharing credit for the episode, citing multiple influences in an interview with Back to Frank Black:
I had dinner with Megan Gallagher, who turned me on to the whole astrology convergence theme. She asked if I could possibly fit it in somewhere and, as it turned out, it was just what I was looking for. Other elements are taken from an organisation I belonged to in college, the Harvard Lampoon. Also, Darin Morgan gave me the younger brother with the telescope, and for some reason insisted that when the plane flies off with the injured boy at the end, that Frank had to squat at lake’s edge. Finally, I was reading some book at the time whose title I’ve forgotten, but I’m pretty sure that the idea of the stars matching to houselights on earth came from that.
However, even drawing from that wealth of influences, it is Johannessen who fashions all of these elements into a cohesive story. Luminary is a story where all of the elements seem to converge perfectly, effortlessly capturing the fairytale tone of the second season. Lance Henriksen, Megan Gallagher and Peter O’Quinn all do great work with their roles, and director Thomas J. Wright does his usual sterling job.
Watching Luminary, it feels as if Johannessen’s objections to the direction of the second season almost make the script stronger; there is a willingness to engage with and acknowledge some underlying questions and criticisms. Frank’s continued involvement with the Millennium Group is a point of controversy for some fans. Some viewers would argue that Frank should have cut and run long before this point – and perhaps the version of Frank presented in the first season would have. However, Johannessen builds a pretty convincing case, mostly through a willingness to ask the tough questions.
There is also an uplifting sense of optimism that course through the episode. There is a wonderful conversation between Catherine and Jordan where they wonder what Frank actually is. Catherine seems to think that Jordan is suggesting that Frank is a man who wanders into the world to slay monsters; instead, Jordan suggests that Frank is instead a man in search of insight and knowledge. This is arguably reflective of how Johannessen sees Frank, as demonstrated by his scripts for Blood Relatives, Force Majeure, Walkabout and Sense and Antisense. Frank is more than the man who stops bad men.
Luminary marks the half-way point of the second season, and so serves as the perfect place to stop and take stock. “As they say, what a long strange trip this has been.”
- The Beginning and the End
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Redux I
- Beware of the Dog
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Redux II
- Sense and Antisense
- A Single Blade of Grass
- The Curse of Frank Black
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – The Post-Modern Prometheus
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – The Post-Modern Prometheus
- The Hand of St. Sebastian
- Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Kitsunegari
- Midnight of the Century
- Goodbye Charlie
- The Mikado
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Kill Switch
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Kill Switch
- Pest House
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Patient X
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – Patient X
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – The Red and the Black
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – The Red and the Black
- In Arcadia Ego
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – All Souls
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – All Souls
- A Room With No View
- Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me
- The Fourth Horseman
- The Time is Now
- This Is Who We Are: The X-Files – The End
Filed under: Millennium | Tagged: Alaska, astrology, Chip Johannessen, chris mccandless, christopher mccandless, cult, enlightment, group, into the wild, luminary, millennium, millennium group, reason |