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Millennium – The Fourth Horseman (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.

The second season of Millennium has been consciously building towards an apocalypse.

Actually, that is not entirely true. The second season of Millennium has been building to an almost infinite number of apocalypses. The collapse of Michael Beebe’s home in Beware of the Dog, the destruction of an entire community in Monster, the dissolution of the tribe in A Single Blade of Grass, the potential loss of a child in 19:19, an author’s acceptance of his fading skills and relevance in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, the stealing of a soul in The Pest House, the breaking of a spirit in A Room With No View. The second season is populated with apocalypses.

Everything dies...

Everything dies…

Ever since The Beginning and the End opened with Frank Black staring into space as he contemplated cosmic forces of entropy and decay, it has been clear that the second season of Millennium is about more than just the end of the world. It is about the end of worlds. Over the course of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, Peter Watts loses his faith (and maybe his life) as Lara Means loses her sanity. Frank Black loses his father and his friends – and, ultimately, his wife. The Marburg Virus is just a blip on the radar compared to all of this.

The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now combine to form one of the most interesting and compelling finalés ever produced. The two-parter is the perfect conclusion to the second season of Millennium. Indeed, it would be the perfect conclusion to the entire series. Perhaps the biggest problem with The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now is the fact that The Innocents is lurking only a few months away.

Cracking up...

Cracking up…

The end of the world is a curious thing. It is a popular subject in fiction. “Apocalyptic” and “post-apocalyptic” stories have their own genres in popular culture. It seems like there is a story about the end of the world to suit every taste, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road through to George Miller’s Mad Max or Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man. When Stephen King “wanted to write a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings, only with an American setting”, he set The Stand in a plague-ravaged post-apocalyptic America.

There is a very strong fascination with the end of all things, one that stretches across all tones and styles. Films like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow trade in sheer scale and spectacle, while Red Dwarf and The Last Man on Earth can pitch the setting as darkly comic. Movie studios can spend millions upon millions to depict the fall of civilisation using CGI and special effects, but the apocalypse has also been displayed on a fraction of such budgets in movies like 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead.

Breakin' some eggs...

Breakin’ some eggs…

It is interesting to note that – despite the hold that the apocalypse has on popular culture – the notion of the end of the world has been largely ignored by policy makers:

Although civilisation has ended many times in popular fiction, the issue has been almost entirely ignored by governments. “We were surprised to find that no one else had compiled a list of global risks with impacts that, for all practical purposes, can be called infinite,” says co-author Dennis Pamlin of the Global Challenges Foundation. “We don’t want to be accused of scaremongering but we want to get policy makers talking.”

Then again, surveys suggest that nearly one in four people believe that the world will end within their own lifetime, despite statistical evidence to the contrary.

He was so young... His moustache was so full...

He was so young…
His moustache was so full…

It is easy to see the allure of such a fantasy. Lara touches upon it in one of her rambling voice mail messages to Frank. “Why now?” she asks Frank. “Why now, Frank? Why were we born now? Do you realize the probability – the probability of even being born at all? The chances of any life being here – let alone you and me? If it ends – when it will end – we’ll be amongst the 10% of all humans who ever lived. Do you understand the odds of being born at the time it ends?” There is something quite intoxicating about believing that you will be among the last humans ever.

As Jose Chung argued in Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, there is something exciting about believing that you are living through “a very significant time in mankind’s history.” It allows an individual to feel significant and important without having to actually do anything with their lives; it can tough to measure up to the expectations and ambitions of modern culture, but it becomes a lot easier if the simple fact of being alive at the right moment makes you special. Living through (or even dying in) the apocalypse has a way of bestowing meaning upon even the most wayward life.

Chicken little...

Chicken little…

Apocalyptic fiction is nothing new. It arguably dates back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which might have inspired sections of The Book of Genesis. However, the second half of the twentieth century saw the genre explode in popularity in America. Part of that was undoubtedly due to the looming milllennial milestone of the year 2000. However, Paul A. Cantor has argued that there is an element of wish-fulfilment to the apocalyptic fantasy:

In general, all these end-of-the-world shows are re-creations of that most basic of American genres, the Western. A character in Falling Skies says of the post-apocalyptic environment: “it’s the Wild West out there.” The 2011 film Cowboys and Aliens explicitly unites the Western and the alien invasion narrative. Once we realize that contemporary end-of-the-world scenarios share with Westerns the goal of imaginatively returning their characters to the state of nature, we can see how the American nightmare can turn into the American dream when rampaging aliens or zombies descend upon a quiet American suburb. The dream of material prosperity and security is shattered, but a different ideal comes back to life—the all-American ideal of rugged individualism, the spirit of freedom, independence, and self-reliance.

Cantor argues that this fascination with the apocalypse reflects American uncertainties about the institution of government in the second half of the twentieth century. The federal government is inevitably among the first casualties of such an apocalypse, and stories tend to focus attention on isolated groups of individuals trying to survive. These stories often play as a fantasy (however grim) of individuals reclaiming the power of government.

Lost in the forest...

Lost in the forest…

Some of these themes do reverberate through The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. Chris Carter’s television shows were undeniably rooted in a firmly nineties perspective – they explored the existential crisis of living in a rapidly globalised world where America had won the Cold War. It could be argued that The X-Files was a story concerned with the legacy of the choices that had been made to ensure that victory; the voices of conscience calling out from history like disembodied ghosts. In contrast, Millennium seemed to wonder what lay ahead.

Millennium never engaged with the end of the Cold War as directly as The X-Files did. Although stories like Gehenna and Maranatha touched on the collapse of Communism, they were very firmly interested in what this meant for modern-day America. However, The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now explicitly tie their version of the apocalypse into the end of the Cold War. The horrible events happening over the course of the two-parter are all part of a legacy of abuse and control that stretches back decades.

All alone...

All alone…

In The Time is Now, Peter reveals the origins of the Marburg Virus to Frank. He explains that it was discovered in East Africa. “The Soviets’ Biopreperat sent men into the jungle to find it,” Peter recalls. “The object was to create a devastating biological weapon. The virus is genetically labile – it could exchange genes with plague, anthrax, smallpox, flu strains – which creates variant viruses, against which a human population has no immunological defense.” It was a biological man-made weapon developed in the second half of the twentieth-century.

The apocalypse facing the world at the end of the second season is as much a legacy of the Cold War as an part of the mythology of The X-Files. Indeed, The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now make it quite explicit that the concerns of Millennium are the same as the concerns of The X-Files. For any functional purpose, the Millennium Group in Millennium is no different from the Syndicate in The X-Files. In The Time is Now, a close-up on a cigarette stub all but confirms some overlap of membership.

Dialing the blood line...

Dialing the blood line…

Over the course of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, the show drops any pretense about the Millennium Group. The Millennium Group remained ambiguous and questionable over the course of the second season, but the finalé makes them explicitly monstrous. In an emotional conversation with Catherine, Frank finally admits (as much to himself as to her) that the Millennium Group is “a cult.” Even Peter Watts comes to see it, realising how skilfully they manipulated and guided him. (He also refers to himself as a “made member”, a somewhat loaded term.)

To be fair, Millennium has played entirely fair with the viewer when it comes to the Millennium Group. Although nobody uses the term “cult” until The Fourth Horseman, episodes like The Hand of St. Sebastian and Luminary made it very clear that the relationship between Frank and the Millennium Group was not entirely healthy. The organisation very clearly had its own agenda and purpose. Episodes like Midnight of the Century and Anamnesis allowed Catherine Black the opportunity to explicitly challenge the Group’s goals and objective.

Brains of the operation...

Brains of the operation…

The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now stops just short of revealing that the Millennium Group released the Marburg Virus into the wild. Much like the Syndicate in The X-Files, it seems that the Millennium Group is dealing with forces beyond even their control. However, much like the Syndicate, the Millennium Group seeks to expand its influence and to leverage this potential catastrophe as a means to build and solidify their power. Just as the Syndicate cooperate with colonisation to survive, the Millennium Group makes its own plans to live through doomsday.

Indeed, The Fourth Horseman makes a point to have Frank explicitly state that the Group is culpable by proxy. “They know the sickness that killed Molgilny, but if they won’t inform anybody outside the Group, they are not seeing prophecy fulfilled; they are fulfilling their own, for the purpose of control.” As Frank points out, there is little moral difference between releasing a plague and refusing to take even the most basic steps to help control or prevent it. All those deaths are on the conscience of the Group.

Damn fine cup of coffee...

Damn fine cup of coffee…

(In a way, this would become one of the problems with the portrayal of the Millennium Group into the third season of the show. The Fourth Horseman makes it clear that exploiting a plague for their own ends is an act of monumental evil. As such, the reveal in The Innocents that the Millennium Group was actually responsible for releasing the Marburg Virus feels like an unnecessary over-simplification. By the end of The Time is Now, the Millennium Group is undeniably evil; the efforts in the third season to make them more evil feel like overkill.)

At the start of The Time is Now, Frank confronts the mysterious Mister Lott. Lott offers all sorts of compelling rationalisations for the horrors committed by the Group. “How is it decided who lives and who dies?” he ponders. “Maybe, individually, we are allotted only so many days of life. Maybe, as a whole, mankind is only allotted so many days of life. So you see, in what appears to be the plan for mankind the death of one individual is absolutely inconsequential.”

It makes you sick...

It makes you sick…

It is horrific logic, logic that reduces human suffering to little more than mental arithmetic. “The Millennium Group is not concerned with any single individual life,” Mister Lott advises Frank. “Do you see where I am going with this? Our responsibility – and remember that word it will come up again – our responsibility is to the life of the whole of mankind. And so we must proceed in a manner that increases the odds of that survival.” Any ambiguity around the Millennium Group vanishes in a moment. It is immediately clear that this is who they are.

The Fourth Horseman is populate with images of chickens. The episode opens with a farmer preparing breakfast – two fried eggs – before inspecting his battery farm of chickens. The family dinner in California consists primarily of chicken legs. The first victims of the plague are chickens and birds. Peter tells us that “birds were especially susceptible” to the virus. While this immediately conjures up associations with the “roosters” within the group and the story that bookends Monster, it also has more cynical and disturbing connotations.

Family time!

Family time!

However, the farmer’s horrified reaction to all the dead chickens underscores an uncomfortable idea at the heart of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. After all, the mass-slaughter of chickens is just standard practice; the harvesting of unfertised eggs is just part of the business. What if the Millennium Group simply sees the rest of mankind as little more than chickens? What if mankind is ultimately just livestock to a few individuals who would position themselves as arbitrators over who lives and who dies?

It is the same logic that the Syndicate uses to justify their own horrific actions, quite similar to the speech that Garrett gives Mulder about all those little lights in Max. It is the logic that allows people to justify terrible things. For all that Glen Morgan and James Wong reinvented Millennium, the core themes of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now make it clear that the show remains a companion piece to The X-Files. Morgan and Wong might disagree with Carter on some specific thematic points, but the heart of the show remains internally consistent.

I think we've all had one of those days...

I think we’ve all had one of those days…

Frank Spotnitz has argued that Chris Carter created Millennium as a meditation on the nature of evil in the world. The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now ties it all back together, firmly reiterating a theme that recurs throughout the second season and mirroring the core mythology of The X-Files. This is what evil looks like. The evil in The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now is not the Marburg Virus. “It’s not even alive,” Schroeder explains of the infectious agent. Instead, evil is something that exists in the heart (and conduct) of men.

The Fourth Horseman suggests that Peter is so easily exploited because he believes in an evil greater than that perpetrated by man upon man. “They came to me at a time in my life when evil – there’s no other word for it – had lost all proportion with the rest of the world around me. I was witness to crimes that had no basis in human motivation. There has to be more to it than just us! There has to be! It all has to lead in some inevitable direction, Frank – I believe that. Their answers touched on all my questions. I believed it then, I believe it now!”

Injecting a little mystery into their lives...

Injecting a little mystery into their lives…

In some respects, Peter could be said to embody the world view of the first season of Millennium. In its first season, the show tended to treat serial killers as monstrous and alien embodiments of evil that intrude into the realm of wholesome families and ordinary lives. The second season has largely pulled away from that more sensationalist view of evil, to focus on more mundane and human horrors. The idea that the demons in Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me are strictly small-time compared to what people can do to each other (or themselves) is terrifying.

“The Millennium Group’s an illusion,” Frank assures Peter over the phone. “Ceremonies and secrets that only certain members can understand? Collecting the Cross of the Crucifixion? Ancient text for future prophecies? It’s all a diversion – sleight of hand. Distraction from the problems they’re trying to control. This is not about the end of the world, it’s about controlling the world, and that’s not who I am, and that’s – I believe – not who you are, Peter.” Myths and lies exist to draw attention from real evil.

A higher calling...

A higher calling…

It turns out that all the mythical and mystical elements of the season are really just a smokescreen and distraction for a more mundane truth than the one that Fox Mulder seeks over on The X-Files. In a way, this is a continuation of the ideas that Morgan and Wong suggested in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the sense that it is easier to believe in grand impossible fantasies about spectacular conspiracies than it is to deal with more mundane and grounded horrors. (It is somehow better to believe that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy than a random act of violence.)

As with The X-Files, it turns out that the second season of Millennium is inherently suspicious of those who claim to hold moral authority. Mister Lott is quite correct – the word “responsibility” does come up quite a bit over the course of the two-parter. However, it is always in the context of abuse or control or justification. The Group uses its “responsibility” to justify horrible actions. Frank tells Catherine that the Group represents a responsibility that he “can’t walk away from.” Lara’s sense of “responsibility” pushes her to a mental breakdown.

A bloody mess of it all...

A bloody mess of it all…

The Millennium Group is no different from the Syndicate, but Morgan and Wong made a point to present it somewhat differently. On The X-Files, the Syndicate was always an external evil far removed from the characters. When Mulder was offered the opportunity to join the Syndicate in Redux II, he declined – because the Syndicate is obviously evil and the Cigarette-Smoking Man is obviously the devil. However, Frank and Peter and Lara are all tempted by the Millennium Group.

Part of that temptation is because the Millennium Group is very manipulative, part of that is because evil is inherently insidious. The idea of power is appealing and tempting. Having seen everything that Frank and Peter and Lara have seen, it is understandable that they would want a chance to hold the power necessary to fix the world. In a nice bit of symmetry, we discover that the baby in the cooler from The Beginning and the End is what brought Peter to the Millennium Group in the first place.

Watt have I become?

Watt have I become?

Ultimately, the Group tempted Peter in the same way that they tempted Frank. They found a moment of weakness and they pressed on it. For all that Peter seems more authoritative or more powerful than Frank, he is just as much a victim of the Group’s machinations. “I’m alone in a cell,” Frank advises Peter. “I’m away from my family. I’m in a danger, and I don’t know what it is. But you do. This really sums up my involvement with the Group. And as far as I can see it does for you too, Peter.” Peter simply admits, “I know.”

When Frank asks Peter why Peter has allowed the Group to treat him like this, Frank glosses over the fact the he has been just as willing to subject himself to the same byzantine logic and wheels-within-wheels. “I don’t know why, Frank!” Peter yeels. “Maybe I just have to have faith in something!” In a moment that seems almost like an epiphany, Frank responds, “Faith fills in the holes of uncertainty. Elements that are never meant to be known: God. Death. The Group creates uncertainties with their secrets: that’s not faith – that’s control.”

Bad eggs...

Bad eggs…

The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now are notable for essentially concluding the second season of Millennium by destroying the world. It is a boldly ambitious piece of television, not least because shows that feature these sorts of threats generally allow out heroes the opportunity to save the world. Instead, Frank is just as helpless as anybody else in the face of a global pandemic that reaches from China to South America to California to Seattle. It is an unstoppable natural force, and there is nothing that Frank can do when confronted with it.

This would obviously create problems when Millennium was renewed for a third season. The Innocents would be less-than-graceful when it tried to write itself out of the global apocalypse featured in The Time is Now. Over the course of the third season, it would be suggested that the Marburg Virus only claimed seventy victims in North America and eighty worldwide; it is not the most elegant retcon in the history of television, even if the viewer does appreciate the conundrum that Glen Morgan and James Wong left for their successors.

Dial back the grimness, will you?

Dial back the grimness, will you?

Many members of the crew had deduced from the declining ratings and the plans for The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now that the show would not be returning. The fairly definitive ending to The Time is Now caused some internal confusion among the staff. In the documentary End Game, Michael Perry recalls:

The final episode of season two of Millennium, Jim and Glen destroyed eighty percent of the world with a virus. So I read that script in March or February, and I said: I’m out of a job come May, because this show’s not getting renewed. You can’t wipe out the Earth. And so I’d go on job interviews for other shows, because I thought: We’re not going to have another season after they’ve done this. And they killed a major character as well. And it’s all on paper and nobody said, ‘You can’t do that.’ So, I was interviewing for all these others shows and they’d go, ‘Michael, aren’t you under contract to Millennium?’ And I’d say: ‘No, they’re going to kill everybody. It can’t possibly come back.’

This might have contributed to the disorganisation towards the start of the third season, as a significant portion of the production team had discounted the possibility of another year on staff. Time that would have been spent planning and organising was spent job-hunting.

Scraping by...

Scraping by…

Apparently it was quite clear early on that Morgan and Wong would not be staying on Millennium past the end of the second season. They were asked about the possibility in January 1998, and answered with a lot of candour:

No.

I think Millennium has a very good chance of being renewed. The numbers for the originals, when they’re promoted, are quite good.

We really enjoy doing Millennium, we are really good friends with many people involved. It’s just Fox shows no interest in us.

Morgan and Wong had enjoyed a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Fox since Space: Above and Beyond. They had also taken issue with how the network had treated and publicised Millennium in its second year.

Cutting deep...

Cutting deep…

That said, Morgan and Wong have both denied the suggestion that they were trying to damage or destroy the show with the ending to The Time is Now. According to an interview with Back to Frank Black, Morgan admits that he was never approached by Chip Johannessen or Ken Horton about how to get out of that apocalypse, but that he and Wong had considered various ways out of the bleak final scene:

But it wasn’t like we tied this huge knot that we didn’t know how to get out of. We never really talked about it, so it was weird to watch some of Season Three where there was this plague, and then we just forget about it. There were a couple of ways you could go. I just watched The Road, and that was kind of one of the ideas that we had – the show would just kind of become that.

It is fun to imagine Frank and Jordan Black wandering a post-apocalyptic United States with nothing but a shopping trolley and their visions to guide them. It would have been a very different television show, and it seems quite unlikely that either Chris Carter or Fox would have allowed them to retool (even a failing) high-profile television series so profoundly.

Bleeding out...

Bleeding out…

Nevertheless, the idea of viral apocalypse is interesting. In interviews, Morgan has explained that he was inspired by his research into the spread of B.S.E. in the United Kingdom:

“When I looked at the current research, I found the thing that was most likely to get us was some sort of plague or virus,” Morgan said. “I didn’t really pay much attention during the mad cow scare in England, but in reading about it I found it horrifying.”

Schroeder even finds “evidence of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy”, and the show is careful that Frank and Peter both include the term “prions” with their search for the Marburg Virus.

Circle of trust...

Circle of trust…

The idea of a viral apocalypse was quite popular in the mid-nineties. The second season of The X-Files had touched on the threats posed by both ebola and mad cow disease in stories like F. Emasculata and Red Museum. Of course, the possibility of a viral apocalypse remains the topic of much discussion. Franklin Graham – the son of Billy Graham – was among those claiming the 2014 ebola outbreak was the harbinger of the apocalypse. Although only three recurrences of the Marberg Virus have been reported since its initial discovery, there was a recent case in Uganda.

Very few television shows would have the willingness to close out their second season with the end of the world. After all, television is a medium that lends itself towards perpetual continuing storytelling. Particularly on network television in the nineties, there was generally a reluctance to close out a series with a real and genuine sense of closure. After all, there might also be a spin-off or a movie to consider. Giving a definitive ending could sabotage a last minute renewal from the network or the possibility of a later revival for these characters.

Remaining sterile...

Remaining sterile…

It is quite telling, for example, that one of the biggest questions bothering hardcore fans about the planned revival of The X-Files is the question of what happened in 2012. The series finalé, The Truth, set an end date ten years after initial broadcast – an ending that should have left enough room for any revival or renewal. However, because the show has been resurrected by Fox three years after that self-imposed deadline, certain segments of fandom are fixated on the issue of how Carter is going to write around his own belated apocalypse.

Closing out the second season of Millennium with the end of the world was a bold decision, but one that speaks highly of Morgan and Wong. It was the obvious place to leave this particular story, and one that made sense with everything else that had happened over the course of the year. It is damn fine television, and a testament to the skill of all of those involved.

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

2 Responses

  1. The comment about making season 3 like McCarthy’s The Road is very interesting. Clearly that would be an even bigger change to the show’s premise than what they implemented in season 2. But you could see a show pulling something like that off in 2015 on AMC or HBO for example. I also like the comparison to The Road because it very much keeps the original theme of the Pilot central. The Road is an exploration of the nature of evil and asks the question essential to Millennium: Is evil something born out of humanity or more deeply rooted and inherent? One could easily replace the characters of the man and the boy with Frank and Jordan and find a satisfying resolution to the series.

    • Yep. I think that Fox would never have allowed so serious a retool, even if Carter wanted it. (Which, I think, his attitude in interviews makes quite clear that he didn’t.)

      At the same time, The Road is a beautiful allegory that hits on the themes of that core Frank/Jordan relationship – the fear about the world we leave behind for our children. In many respects, Millennium is a mirror to The X-Files. The X-Files is about Fox Mulder living in the world that his father made, and discovering the compromises that made that world possible. Millennium is about Frank Black trying to protect his daughter from the horrors of that same world.

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