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Millennium – Season 2 (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 is understandably polarising.

It is returned from its summer hiatus as what was, on the surface, a radically different television show. The Millennium Group was no longer simply a forensic consultancy firm, but had transformed into a secret society dating back millennia; it had become, as Frank would concede in The Fourth Horseman, “a cult.” More than that, the show had changed around the Millennium Group. Serial killers had been the show’s bread and butter in its first season, prompting some critics to describe it as a “serial killer of the week” procedural; now they were a rare occurrence.

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More than that, Frank Black had also changed. In interviews around the first season, Lance Henriksen had been very proud to play a hero who solved problems with his mind rather than with a gun. In contrast, the second season opened with Frank Black brutally murdering the man who kidnapped his wife. The yellow house had been a symbol of everything pure and good in the world of Frank Black, of the family he worked hard to protect. The second season had exiled Frank Black from this family and had him move deeper and deeper into the Millennium Group itself.

However, there were other changes that were less profound, but just as striking. Frank Black was suddenly a fan of the music of Bobby Darin. He suddenly had a sense of humour that led him to crack more than two jokes in a season. at the same time, he was also more short-tempered and grouchy. The first season had presented Frank Black as a rock in the middle of otherwise chaotic seas; in the second season, it was clear that Frank himself was feeling the strain and the stress. In short, Frank Black felt a lot more human.

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The entire mood of the show changed around Frank. Millennium was suddenly a lot weirder. Though the first season had largely moved away from the classic “Frank hunts a serial killer” formula by the end of the year, the second season abandoned any sense of formula altogether. Watching the second season of Millennium on a week-to-week basis, it was almost impossible to predict what the next show would be like. Although there was a very strong thematic continuity between episodes, there was less of a rigid structure to their construction.

The second season of Millennium was a radical departure from what had come before. It was also the best season of television ever produced by Ten Thirteen.

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There are understandable and logical criticisms to be made of the second season of Millennium. Even after all this time, it is perfectly reasonable that people like Lance Henriksen and Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton might have felt betrayed by the creative decisions made by Glen Morgan and James Wong in how they chose to reinvent the show. People had invested a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the first season, and nobody likes to see that work dramatically brushed aside to do something a bit more adventurous and eccentric.

It is to the credit of Glen Morgan and James Wong that they seemed to acknowledge and accept this criticism. Chip Johannessen was not a big fan of the show’s new direction, but he remained a very active and important part of the creative process. He wrote three scripts for the season; the best of those scripts arguably reads as the definitive criticism of the direction that Morgan and Wong had taken the show. Luminary is a script that asks why Frank Black is still involving himself with a radical Christian cult; very clearly stating that this will not end well.millennium-owls10

After all, the biggest character issue with the second season concerns Frank’s decision to remain involved with the Millennium Group as he peels back the layers of their insanity. There are several points where any sane person would throw up their hands and say “I’m done” long before the Millennium Group makes itself culpable in mass murder in The Time is Now. Fans of the first season are justified in asking why Frank doesn’t bail out after The Hand of St. Sebastian or Owls or Roosters.

Of course, the show answers the question quite clearly. Frank Black is a broken man. Frank Black has lost everything that matters to him. The Millennium Group has promised him answers, but it has also offered him a way to manage his gift and to make a positive difference in the world. Frank’s violence in The Beginning and the End pushed him away from Catherine and Jordan. In doing so, Frank felt isolated and powerless. Frank is a character who clearly believes that he can affect positive change in the world, and the Millennium Group offers him that opportunity.

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It might not make sense to a rational person, who is level-headed and firmly grounded. But that is the way that cults work; they have an eye for human weakness. Having almost lost Catherine in The Beginning and the End, Frank is vulnerable. Living on his own for the first time in years, Frank is isolated. In The Fourth Horseman, Jordan asks him if he feels lonely. After she leaves, he states, “I’m very lonely.” The show cuts immediately to Frank trying to talk to somebody in the Millennium Group, trying not to feel as alone and misunderstood as he must at that moment.

This is the beauty of the second season of Millennium, beneath all its ambition and its scale. The twenty-three episode season plays out as a character arc. It charts Frank Black’s attempt to make sense of the world around him, after it has been turned upside down. It is the story of a person dealing with a very deep and intimate trauma. Frank’s family is the most important thing in the world for him; losing that wounds him deeply. The second season is the story of Frank trying to heal that wound; it is a story about a man lost in a forest trying to get home.

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The first season of Millennium was a show with apocalyptic undercurrents. In The Pilot, the Frenchman ranted and raved about a plague sweeping through Philadelphia. Although he seemed to be talking about sexually-transmitted diseases, it is interesting to look at his ramblings in the context of The Time is Now. Episodes like Force Majeure, Lamentation and Maranatha suggested that Frank Black was facing more than just human evil – that the profiler would find himself face-to-face with doomsday prophets and divine forces.

While these references and suggestions were seeded through the first season, the second season actively embraced them. Almost every episode of the second season has heavy religious or apocalyptic undertones. The type of apocalypse varies from episode to episode, but there is a remarkable consistency to it all. The apocalypse can apply to an individual or to a group… or, ultimately, to civilisation as we know it. Of the entire second season slate, The Mikado is arguably the only episode that doesn’t have these strong ideas pulsing through it.

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Even when the second season returned to the classic Millennium formula, it seemed like the show had changed too much to support such storytelling. Beware of the Dog was a standard serial killer episode where the serial killer happened to be a pack of wild dogs. Goodbye Charlie was a story about a serial killer who might just be an angel. The Pest House was a tale about an institution filled with serial offenders who had themselves become the prey for something else entirely.

It seems quite difficult to describe what an average second season episode of Millennium actually looks like. The show found room to do two holiday-themed episodes in The Curse of Frank Black and Midnight of the Century. Although writers Erin Maher and Kay Reindl had planned to do an Easter episode, they ultimately settled to write an episode in which Frank Black does not appear at all. Darin Morgan wrote two scripts for the season, both packed with more humour than the show crammed into its entire first season.

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The second season has an incredibly ambitious style; there is a genuine willingness to try new things. The Curse of Frank Black is largely silent and introspective. Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me is a collection of overlapping short stories built around common existential themes. Sure, there might not be an episode as overtly adventurous or stylistically bold as Who Monitors the Birds?, but Morgan and Wong would frequently write unusual or experimental sequences into scripts that could easily have been a lot safer or more mundane.

Goodbye Charlie opens with a serial killer serenading a bound victim with his own rendition of Seasons in the Sun. Owls features a brutal murder choreographed to A Horse With No Name. The final act of Roosters is set entirely to Wagner’s Parsifal. The opening teaser to Anamnesis is an almost abstract collection of images edited to Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot. Morgan and Wong keep building and building through the season to The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, where the end of the world plays out like a music video to Patti Smith’s Horses.

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Watching the season, it is amazing that so much of the show managed to get past Broadcast Standards and Practices. There is a lot of recurring religious imagery throughout the season, and not all of it is flattering. The Millennium Group is a radical Christian cult. Some of it would be controversial if it aired on a major network today – In Arcadia Ego is about a lesbian couple who may have received a pregnancy from God; Anamnesis is about the descendent of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, and explicitly critical of how Christianity treated Magdalene.

Of course, there are times when the individual episodes don’t work as well as they might. Sense and Antisense is a muddled mess of an episode that does not articulate itself particularly well. Siren is a script that plays an important role in the structure of the second season, but which feels both over-stuffed and under-developed at the same time. Even A Single Blade of Grass skirts a line between brilliant and offensive, offering a secret tribe of Native Americans plotting to reclaim their land from the European settlers.

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However, all of these failures are mitigated by their ambition and their sense of purpose. The second season of Millennium never fails to try; the show never reigns itself in because an idea seems crazy or impossible. A Single Blade of Grass ends with a buffalo stampede through New York; it isn’t entirely convincing, but what other show would attempt something like that? Sense and Antisense has a rambling free association genius underpinning a script that never quite comes together.

Even when the episodes don’t work, the season is structured so that it is clear how they might work. Siren doesn’t get to its meaty plot until half-way through its runtime, but it is immediately clear what the episode is trying to accomplish. The structure of the season around it is clear enough that the purpose muddled by the script can be intuited by reference to everything else going on around it. Similarly, Sense and Antisense might not entirely work, but it definitely feels of a piece with the rest of the season.

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Indeed, it feels like Morgan and Wong manage to strike the perfect balance when it comes to reconciling Millennium with its more popular sister series. The comparison between Millennium and The X-Files was never going to go away; as the less successful and less popular series from Chris Carter, Millennium was never going to escape from the shadow of The X-Files. Both shows were dark and brooding dramas exploring nineties America through a cynical lens; due to their common creator, there inevitably be overlap.

Morgan and Wong suggested that The X-Files and Millennium might explore similar ground from a different angle. Under the duo, Millennium became a lot more comfortable with the idea that it might occupy a similar space. Sense and Antisense tried to incorporate conspiracy theories into Millennium‘s milieu, while Darin Morgan gave the show its first explicit crossover with Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense.” The Millennium Group felt like a twisted reflection of the Syndicate, even before Peter Watts found a Morley in the basement in The Time is Now.

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However, while The X-Files presented the Syndicate as an obviously ominous and evil organisation that must clearly be opposed, Millennium made the Millennium Group more ambiguous. Frank Black was tempted by the power of the Millennium Group in a way that Fox Mulder simply would never allow himself to be. After all, it is too simple to suggest that evil can always be identified and resisted; it is perhaps more compelling to accept that evil can be seductive and corrosive.

While Morgan and Wong largely pushed the show away from the serial killer format, Millennium did remain fascinated with the idea of human evil. The first season of the show had a tendency to treat serial killers as monsters. The way that characters like Edward Petey or Art Nesbitt or Willi Borgsen were presented often made them seem inhuman, as if they were as far removed from humanity as Eugene Victor Tooms or Flukeman. They were consciously “other”, so far outside the spectrum of human behaviour as to be a different species.

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In contrast, the human evil in the second season of Millennium tends to be much more mundane. The second season of Millennium is engaged with a more passive and common form of evil. In The Curse of Frank Black, the forces of darkness try to convince Frank to simply stand aside and let events unfold as they will. In The Mikado, Frank and Peter observe how the people clicking into Avatar’s site are complicit in his crimes. In Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, four demons observe how readily humans damn themselves and how human evils are the most monstrous.

Both The Pest House and A Room With No View are stories about how erasing what makes a person special is a particularly cruel form of evil. In Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense”, the author muses that doomsday will be rooted in apathy rather than anything more spectacular. Although the third season would retroactive amp up the Millennium Group’s complicity in the outbreak of the Marburg Virus, both The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now seems to suggest that the Group’s biggest sin is a sin of omission; standing by and watching the world die.

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With an emphasis on humanising Frank Black, the second season allows Lance Henriksen to dig deeper with the character than he did during the first season. Henriksen works superbly with the material, turning in particularly brilliant performances in episodes like The Curse of Frank Black, Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” and Luminary. It is an altogether different lead performance than that of Gillian Anderson or David Duchovny, one more rooted in old-fashioned gravitas. Despite Henriksen’s admitted discomfort with some of the material, he does great work.

The second season works hard to develop a supporting cast around Henriksen. Terry O’Quinn is finally given more to do than simply deliver exposition, developing elements of Peter Watt that were faintly hinted at in Force Majeure or Walkabout. Peter is a man of faith, as befits the name; O’Quinn turns in the wonderfully desperate performance that would eventually win him an Emmy Award when he took on the role of John Locke in Lost. Watts has his own character arc that takes the character from The Beginning and the End to The Time is Now.

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Although the second season still struggles with what to do with Catherine Black, ignoring her for stretches at a time, Morgan and Wong do a lot to define Catherine. Taking Catherine away from Frank allows her to develop into a more distinct and unique character. While she still seems to exist primarily as an ideal for Frank to protect, shows like Luminary and Anamnesis give her a sense of agency that was largely lacking in the first season. The show never quite worked out how to make Catherine work, but the second season came closer than the first.

However, Morgan and Wong did make a point to write in a major female character who could exist independent of Frank. Like Peter Watts, Lara Means has her own arc spanning the second season from Monster through to The Time is Now. Kristen Cloke is great in a role that allows the show to offer Frank a contemporary and counterpart – somebody facing the same issues and working at the same level. Henriksen and Cloke play well off one another, and it is clear that Morgan and Wong had structured Lara’s arc from the outset.

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The second season of Millennium is a bold triumph. It is often overlooked, and sadly under-seen. It is the best season of Millennium as a whole, and one of the finest (and most exciting) television seasons of the nineties. It holds up remarkably well in hindsight, serving as a career highlight for almost everybody involved. It is a twenty-three episode masterpiece, an example of unique vision and unparalleled ambition. Millennium has changed form before, and it will change form again; but it will never be quite this good again.

You might be interested in our reviews of other seasons of Millennium:

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

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4 Responses

  1. Since I’ve been trying to keep up with these reviews, I have gone back to rewatch some of season 2. The show really did reinvent itself in season 2. Morgan & Wong did not even seem interested in expanding on the “mythology” asserted in Lamentation and PPTD. At the time, “Maranatha” felt weighty and important. In retrospect, it has more in common with “A Single Blade of Grass,” the latter arguably having a greater impact on the larger arc. “Force Majeure” and “Walkabout” can probably be reconciled with season 2, but after watching season 2 it’s hard to see any of season 1 beyond the Pilot as being “essential.”

    The first half of season 1 seemed to be a constant attempt to repeat the Pilot, which is the most succinct articulation of Carter’s original mission for the series as there would ever be. That works if you are hoping to catch new audience members each week but it bludgeoned those that kept coming back for something new. The second half of season 1 experimented with what the show could do and most of those episodes can be viewed as a success. But from “The Beginning and the End” the themes and plot for the season were as well-defined as any modern serial drama. It fundamentally changed the show. I can see where gifted writers like Chip Johannessen might have struggled as they perceived their own ability to experiment being limited. But writer like Kay Reindl and Erin Maher clearly flourished. In fact, Morgan & Wong’s theme’s were so well defined that they are perhaps summed up best in a script not even their own. At the end of “Anamnesis” when Lara Means says, “But this is what I do. This is who we are,” Maher & Reindl nail it.

    • Thanks for trying to keep up. I hope it wasn’t too exhausting a pace. (It took me longer to write these reviews than it did to publish them, so I know it’s not the smoothest pace for these reviews; but I do want to finish before the revival airs.)

      That’s actually a very insightful observation about the first half of the first season. I think you might be on to something there. I also think that it’s down to the fact that The Pilot had Chris Carter and David Nutter working with a larger budget and longer amount of time. Trying to repeat that on a weekly basis with other writers and directors and less time and money was always going to be a risky proposition.

  2. I disagree with the review. I am currently watching season 2. The show is ruined and far removed season 1. I think of a million ways they could have built on this show in season 2. Frank’s wife and child kept him human. Most of season 2 is boring and makes no sense. Rambling crazy people that adds nothing with their tirades. No interest to watch new episodes as nothing entices. I have no idea on what the show is about and I feel disrespected. This had the makings of a great show and season 2 ruined it. Frank’s character devolved.

    • Well, I would strongly disagree. I think it’s quite clear what season two is about, the apocalypse as a personal event, the dissolution of family, and the breakdown of structures that we hold dear. I think it’s an organic and clever way of building on the first season, and once of the best twenty-odd episode seasons ever produced.

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