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Millennium – The Innocents (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

So, how do you write your way out of the end of the world?

To be fair, it is not an easy assignment. The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now are two spectacular pieces of television, but they arguably work better as a series finalé than a season finalé. Once Fox decided to renew Millennium for a third season, the biggest problem facing the staff was the challenge of writing around the apocalypse that had arrived at the end of the second season. It is a problem that hobbled the third season of Millennium coming out of the gate. However, it was not the only such problem.

Guess who's Black?

Guess who’s Black?

Millennium is a show that feels particularly disjointed from year-to-year. It has been argued – quite convincingly – that Millennium was really three different shows, and that no two seasons of Millennium convincingly resemble one another. The third season of Millennium would be a different beast than the second. The Innocents and Exegesis demonstrate that clearly and quite articulately. The two-part season premiere made it quite obvious that Millennium was no longer a show particularly interested in ideas of apocalypse – whether global or personal.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the show had no real idea of what it wanted to be.

"Yep, this is what Chris Carter found when he took the show back."

“Yep, this is what Chris Carter found when he took the show back.”

The conclusion to The Time is Now was fairly bleak. The world had ended and half the primary cast had been killed off. With the show’s dwindling ratings, many members of the production team had assumed that they were out of work. As cinematographer Robert McLachlan explained in the documentary End Game:

Instead of taking a couple of months off to get themselves physically recovered so that they could do another of these eight-month marathons of seventy-hour work weeks, everybody went and did a movie or a TV movie or something like that, then the show got picked up and none of us could resist going back. So we all kind of went into it dragging our asses a little bit.

That sense of fatigue and exhaustion – and desperation – can be keenly felt at the start of the third season. There is a sense that nobody was quite ready for the renewal notice when it came down from Fox, and so nobody really had any idea how to handle the mess they had inherited.

Apt pupil...

Apt pupil…

By all accounts, the production on the third season of Millennium was a bit of a mess. Glen Morgan and James Wong had not returned to the show, ending a long collaboration with Fox in the hopes of developing their own feature projects. Chris Carter had been forced to step back from Millennium at the end of the first season, due to his commitments to The X-Files and The X-Files: Fight the Future. With The X-Files at the peak of its popularity, Carter had adopted a relatively hands-off approach to Millennium in its second year to manage that property.

Millennium had always been a project close to Carter’s heart. It was a much less mainstream show than The X-Files, a series much more esoteric in its tastes and much less interested in compromising with its audience. This was arguably reflected in the show’s ratings. Inheriting the Friday night slot from The X-Files, the show never really took off in the same way. It ranked 110th in the annual Nielsen ratings; hardly a massive success. The decision to renew Millennium for a third season felt more like a temporary reprieve than a vote of confidence.

"It's a collect call from heroism. Will you accept the charge?"

“It’s a collect call from heroism. Will you accept the charge?”

Carter pitched the third season of Millennium as an opportunity to get “back to basics.” Discussing the show in the documentary End Game, Carter conceded that the big issue with trying to get “back to basics” was dealing with the fact that some of the show’s fundamental realities had changed:

Season three, for me, was a chance to come back to the show and try to remember what it is that I originally wanted to accomplish and see if I could tell stories that I was interested in telling with the show that had been handed to me after season two. It was a different show by that time. In some ways better, in some ways… I didn’t, I wasn’t quite understanding how we had gotten to where we got. But we wanted to add some new writers, we wanted to add a new character, we wanted to go back to telling some standalone stories, but using some of the things that had been incorporated into the show during, I guess, the second season. So stepping back in, I wanted to take a strong hand, but I realized that there were certain realities and things that had changed and I had to go with what I was given.

This would become one of the key struggles with the third season, trying to pull the show back to its roots while still acknowledging just how massively things had changed during Carter’s absence.

Wrecking their heads...

Wrecking their heads…

Publicity around the launch of the third season tried very hard to distinguish the show from what had come before. “I am dedicating myself to putting this project back to a place where I think it can be,” Carter insisted, implying that the show had lost its direction in his absence. “I am going to be traveling back and forth to Vancouver to prep the shows and to work on getting the crew to a place where we get everything running like a top again.” Carter also argued that the second season lost “some of what [he] felt worked about the show in the first season.”

This emphasis on the first season can be keenly felt in The Innocents and Exegesis. In fact, it feels almost as if Carter is trying to build off the cliffhanger at the end of Paper Dove as much as anything that happened in between. The Innocents marks the first appearance of Catherine’s family since Paper Dove. The first season finalé spent an inordinate amount of time with them in the lead-up to her abduction. It seemed like the show was building to a confrontation between Frank and the family that would recall Mulder’s conflict with the Scully family in Redux.

Snapping it up...

Snapping it up…

The conflict was very clearly established and set up in Paper Dove, with the script making it clear that Catherine’s family was deeply uncomfortable with the work that Frank does. However, Glen Morgan and James Wong chose to completely ignore that thread when they wrote The Beginning and the End. The scene where Catherine’s father holds Frank to account for the loss of his daughter feels like the kind of scene that Carter might have planned for the original follow-up to Paper Dove, but which was delayed by a year.

The third season seemed to find something approaching a mission statement with the hiring of Michael Duggan to oversee production. Duggan was a television veteran, with a long association with the Law & Order franchise. In interviews around the launch of the season, he stressed the value of “accessibility.” He promised, “This season, he’s moving back to Washington DC to consult for the FBI, which gives him more accessibility and makes the stories a little more accessible.” Those are reassuring words for a struggling show to use.

"You want to get bumped up to the regular cast? Keep your mouth closed and your eyes open."

“You want to get bumped up to the regular cast? Keep your mouth closed and your eyes open.”

Of course, it is quite questionable how Carter and Duggan chose to make the show “accessible.” The Innocents and Exegesis find Frank Black back working at the FBI, and partnered with a young attractive female agent as he investigates a case that eventually leads back to a conspiracy to assassinate the subjects of a secret CIA remote viewing experiment. The comparisons invite themselves. This is to say nothing of Agent Baldwin’s slideshow presentation (to Frank’s wary cynicism) at the start of Exegesis.

In fact, even the opening and closing story hooks for the two-parter seem to be drawn from particularly popular episodes of The X-Files. The Innocents finds Frank Black investigating a plane crash that is more than it initially appears, recalling Mulder and Scully’s similar inquiries in Tempus Fugit and Max. The climax of Exegesis finds Frank and Emma investigating a missile silo when they are confronted by agents of a sinister conspiracy, recalling the atmospheric conclusion to Piper Maru and Apocrypha.

Ol' blue eyes...

Ol’ blue eyes…

To be fair, Millennium had been dealing with stock comparisons to The X-Files since its inception. This made a great deal of sense. After all, it was a spooky show from Chris Carter being broadcast on Friday nights on Fox with a male and a female lead. The suggestion of supernatural elements (whether Frank’s visions or demonic forces) and hints of a larger story arc (whether the loose “Legion” arc or the looming millennium itself) made the comparison seem all the more apparent.

Glen Morgan and James Wong had faced similar accusations during the second season when they introduced a tech-genius and a recurring female character who occasionally worked with Frank. To be fair, the second season had featured the first proper crossover between Millennium and The X-Files with Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” – although the first season had featured a cameo from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s stand-ins in Lamentation and the Cigarette-Smoking Man would be implied to be a member of the Millennium Group in The Time is Now.

Frank can barely contain himself...

Frank can barely contain himself…

Carter acknowledged the similarities, but insisted that Millennium was consciously and clearly holding on to its unique identity:

“We’re all conscious of the similarities,” he says. “We are going to make them quite different. That’s something that we’re being conscious of, as I was conscious of not trying to recreate X-Files with Millennium. But they both do share an FBI franchise, if you will, and now that franchise is coming into more active use in Millennium. We’re trying to steer away from the obvious comparisons.”

It is still very difficult to avoid the comparison when the third season actually brings Frank Black into the FBI.

Frank even gets his own burnt out basement this year...

Frank even gets his own burnt out basement this year…

Of course, there is also a sense that the production team is trying to force Millennium back into a more familiar or recognisable shape. In an interview with Kevin and Bean early in the season, Carter tried to argue that he didn’t want to turn the show into a procedural:

Well, I didn’t want to do another cop show with Millennium so I wanted to do something different and I went outside of the typical T.V. franchise thing with the show and what I found was that – moving to season three – we needed that franchise again and so we brought Frank back to the FBI again and gave him a partner; a woman. We didn’t want to do the Mulder and Scully relationship,  so we gave-made it more of a teacher-student relationship and I think it’s worked out really nice. She’s a terrific actress and she’s really fun to write.

At the same time, Carter acknowledges that the production team felt a need to impose a more rigid structure upon the show – that there might be a need for the structural elements he had consciously avoided in creating the series.

Piecing it together...

Piecing it together…

Of course, it’s not as if the first season was entirely formless or structureless. The first season of Millennium might have been frequently derided for its “serial-killer-of-the-week” format, and might have evolved significantly in the final stretch of the season, but it very clearly had a basic formula and structure. The second season was a lot harder to pin down on a episode-by-episode basis, populated with experimental episodes like Jose Chung’s “Doomsday’s Defense” or The Hand of St. Sebastian.

The decision to hire Michael Duggan to run the show perhaps reflected a desire to get the series back to a more standardised and reliable format – to assure viewers that they could tune into Millennium and know exactly what to expect. It might not have been the most creatively bold decision, but it was a legitimate attempt to solidify an audience that was rapidly eroding. Coming from a background in shows like Miami Vice, Law & Order and C-16:FBI, one gets a sense of what was expected from Duggan. Putting Frank back in the FBI was a fairly logical step.

Passengers...

Passengers…

However, that approach didn’t quite work out. Duggan only wrote two episodes of Millennium, departing the series seven episodes into the third season. As Kay Reindl explained to Back to Frank Black, Duggan did not work out the way that anybody expected:

It was really tough, because Morgan and Wong weren’t there anymore. They had hired Michael Duggan, who had worked on Law & order. So the idea was – or at least our understanding was – we’re going to go back to doing more crime stuff. But it just never really came together, and then he wound up leaving and Chip [Johannessen] and Ken [Horton] ran the show. I think by the time they started to right the ship we were already several episodes down the line into production. Then all you’re really doing is playing catch-up.

The start of the third season would have been difficult no matter what. However, the chaos around the scenes caused by the arrival and departure of a new showrunner within seven episodes does not help. (No wonder Ken Horton argues the season begins with Skull and Bones.)

That's just plane asking for trouble...

That’s just plane asking for trouble…

It is worth pausing to consider the show as it had finished out its second season. The Time is Now closed with the sound of civilisation dying as Frank Black and his family sat in a cabin in the woods. Frank had been vaccinated against the Marburg Virus by the Millennium Group against his will, and Lara Means had given her vaccine to Frank so that he could protect his family. Frank and Catherine gave the vaccine to Jordan to keep her safe, with Catherine ending up infected. Not wanting her family to see her die, Catherine wandered off into the woods to die alone.

The closing moments of the season had Frank listening to the collapse of civilisation as he conjured up nothing but static. Staring into space, his hair had turned stark white with shock. The fact the world was ending was almost incidental; his world had already ended. The world was broken, and Frank Black was broken along with it. It was a bold and provocative ending, one that remains a highlight of Ten Thirteen’s output. As compelling as that image might have been, it was not one that lent itself to a reset button. Well, unless you wanted Frank to wake up and find Catherine in the shower.

A matter of (tape) record...

A matter of (tape) record…

In an interview with Back to Frank Black, writer Glen Morgan insisted that he and James Wong had conceived of “escape hatches” to get out of that apocalyptic conclusion, but that they were simply never consulted on resolving the cliffhanger:

They were so angry with us, or just didn’t like what we were doing, or were unhappy that they would be unable to return to season one, that they never came into the office and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I would’ve said, ‘ Okay, here are your escape hatches that are written into these episodes. Here’s how you can get out of it.’ But that’s cool too, I’m not saying they should have done year two [again]. Jim and I left, and they were there and they had a great passion for that series.

Watching The Innocents and Exegesis, it is quite clear that the production team have absolutely no idea how to write the show out of that corner. The result is distinctly unsatisfying.

Old news...

Old news…

The show has to acknowledge that something happened, but it consciously avoids the specifics. The Innocents opens with Frank having moved from Seattle to Quantico; he is 2,500 miles away from the yellow house. That leaves a lot of scope for the aftermath of the outbreak; the show doesn’t have to worry about firmly establishing the scale of the chaos. That said, the “business-as-usual” mood at the FBI would suggest that nothing too catastrophic occurred, as does the fact that Frank and Jordan both talk about her Seattle friends in the present tense.

Even the characters talk around specifics of the event. Here, Catherine’s father refers to it as “that thing”, while Frank references “that outbreak” or even describes a more generic “viral outbreak in the Pacific Northwest.” There is a very conscious and clear attempt to avoid the specifics of what occurred, to the point where it turns out that the Marburg Virus was an incredibly sloppy assassination attempt by the Millennium Group rather than the end of civilisation as we know it.

Plagued with uncertainty...

Plagued with uncertainty…

Perhaps the most obvious indication of this clumsy reset is the fact that Frank’s hair is no longer white. Ironically, according to an interview with Back to Frank Black, Glen Morgan claimed the white hair was written into The Time is Now specifically for Henriksen going forward:

Lance, all year long, had been less than thrilled about dying his hair – he wanted to go grey. Here’s how these creative things come about. He wanted to have his hair go grey, and I was trying to figure that out. I knew that my grandfather apparently broke his back, and that night in the hospital his hair turned gray. So there are cases of a catastrophic event that can turn a person’s hair grey.

To be fair to the third season, Frank Black’s hair is noticeably greyer around the temples than it had been in the first two seasons. In a way, it serves as a case study of how The Innocents deals with the fallout from The Time is Now. The fallout is there if you look hard enough, but not so much that it dominates.

"Well, my annual performance evaluation is all shot now..."

“Well, my annual performance evaluation is all shot now…”

Evaluating the third season in hindsight during an interview with Back to Frank Black, executive producer Chip Johannessen conceded that this weird internal discontinuity contributed to the problems with the third season:

We’d had a bad start at the beginning of season three, with some personnel changes that put us behind schedule. Also, I was mad at Glen Morgan and James Wong for burning the house down with their pandemic, but in retrospect it would have been smarter to have honoured where they left us off instead of trying to work around it. In any case, season three had been a scramble and by the end we were kind of tired. Ken Horton and I were basically partners running the show at that point.

There is a clear sense that The Innocents and Exegesis has no idea how to process the stories leading to this point, and so the third season starts by almost tripping over itself.

Getting back to Black...

Getting back to Black…

To be fair, Michael Duggan does have some good ideas. There is something quite clever in the way that The Innocents has Frank get back on the horse. Although things quickly get complicated with assassination plots and remote viewing, The Innocents is essentially the story about the apocalyptic destruction of mothers and daughters. Planes fall out of the sky, houses explode, cars tumble off bridges – however, the targets are all mothers and daughters. It is not a particularly subtle touch, but it works reasonably well.

A recurring theme in The Innocents and Exegesis is the idea of mothers making horrible sacrifices to protect their children. In the opening scene of The Innocents, two of the sisters crash a plane to help cover up the existence of a child. At the end of Exegesis, one of the mothers signs a confession and turns herself over to the authorities to protect her mother and her daughter. It is a nice (if blunt) metaphor for the trauma that tore the Black family apart, the intimate loss at the heart of apocalyptic events.

Sometimes, you gotta make the tough calls...

Sometimes, you gotta make the tough calls…

The Innocents does a passable job of working within the creative constraints imposed upon it. Those constraints may not have been particularly reasonable or logical, but that is beside the point. It is not a perfect episode of television, by any measure – it would be a stretch to describe it as “good.” However, there are moments where the show is efficient and competent. Duggan’s script builds the concept of “denial” into the very fabric of the episode, as Jordan continues to set her mother a place at dinner and everybody accuses Frank of being unable to get past what happened.

“But can we paint our new house yellow?” Jordan asks her father at one point, stressing just how desperately Jordan (and the show) want things to go back to the way they are. “We’ll see,” Frank replies, good-naturedly, inviting the audience to wonder just how much of his trauma has sunk in. The yellow house was a fantasy construct that came crashing down around Frank because he believe that evil could be firmly locked outside that house; the idea of building another yellow house speaks to a deep-seated denial about what happened.

Some people felt burnt by the clumsy transition...

Some people felt burnt by the clumsy transition…

The decision to dye Lance Henriksen’s hair again almost makes sense from that perspective. The Innocents could be the story about Frank and Jordan trying to pretend things are normal in an upside down world. After all, denial is one of the most important stages of grief, and something through which a bereaved person needs to work. The Innocents and Exegesis would be a very clever way of working through the show’s internal conflicts about the consequences of the second season.

After all, the second season was essentially an extended metaphor about loss and separation. The apocalypse was a profoundly personal experience, the destruction of an individual’s whole world. There are moments where it seems like The Innocents understands this underlying metaphor, and where it seems like Michael Duggan might be playing into it. If the apocalypse in The Time is Now was just a mirror to Frank’s loss of Catherine, perhaps the show’s denial of that apocalypse mirrors Frank and Jordan’s denial.

Smile time...

Smile time…

Unfortunately, The Innocents writes this into a stock procedural arc. Frank is repeatedly criticised by those around him for his emotional blindness. “You shouldn’t be out there,” McClaren advises him at one point. “You shouldn’t be here, either. Go home, Frank.” Catherine’s father observes, “There isn’t a picture, a memento, nothing here that remembers Catherine. If you’re so good at what you do, Frank, you’d have caught who did it. Maybe you’ve lost it. Maybe you’re just running now.” These would be interesting character beats, if they weren’t clumsy set-up.

The Innocents suggests that Frank has not really lost it. The episode makes it clear that Frank is actually entirely correct about everything, and everybody else is wrong. His emotional investment in the case is not something dangerous or damaging; it is a tool to be harnessed. The fact that the other characters question and interrogate him about his grief is not a clue that Frank is damaged or broken; it is a dramatic hurdle designed to make the odds against him seem even greater. It is just a way of raising the stakes, so Frank can overcome them.

"Turns out, the time is not now..."

“Turns out, the time is not now…”

It is very lazy, very safe storytelling. At the climax of The Innocents, Frank is forced to acknowledge the death of Catherine – but in a way that spurs the plot onwards. It is not a moment of introspection or character development. It is a way for Frank to connect with a witness so that he can advance the narrative just a little bit further. “I know that two days ago, you lost a daughter,” he tells the victim. He pulls out a picture of Catherine. “This is a picture of my wife. She died too in a viral outbreak in the Pacific Northwest.”

It is an incredibly crass and cheap bit of writing – it makes Frank seem particularly cynical and exploitative. He is leveraging his own trauma to get information on a case. The script layers it on pretty heavy. “You know about that,” Frank remarks to the recovering victim. “And I need to know what. I need to know what, Mary. For my little daughter. I need to know who killed her Mommy.” The scene sucks the humanity right out of Frank’s ordeal and suffering, rendering it an interrogation tool.

Speaking Frankly...

Speaking Frankly…

It is a moment that does not feel earned. It is a moment that should be used in service of the character, but which is clumsily integrated into a fairly bland conspiracy storyline. It is very much the polar opposite of the approach that made the second season so fascinating. The second season repeatedly suggested that the end of the world was just an echo of a more profoundly intimate and personal apocalypse; The Innocents makes it clear that Frank’s loss is really just a means to an end in telling a fairly forgettable story.

After all, The Innocents reveals that the outbreak of the Marburg Virus was a planned assassination attempt by the Millennium Group. “It wasn’t meant for her,” Mary reassures Frank. When Frank asks who was the target, Mary explains, “For me. And my sisters. And the children.” Even by the logical standards of The X-Files and Millennium, this is not an idea that makes a great deal of sense. Surely there are more reliable ways to kill specific people than randomly releasing a virus that migrates across the globe to Seattle?

There's some toilet humour here, I think...

There’s some toilet humour here, I think…

Then again, plotting is not really a priority for The Innocents. There is a sense that the script is written around big ideas and big moments, rather than a tight central narrative. After all, The Innocents and Exegesis don’t flow particularly comfortably into one another – they feel like two very distinct episodes, each with their own unique motifs and internal logic. The Innocents feels cobbled together from index cards populated with cool images. Plane crash! House explosion! Burn victim! Biohazard signs! Car chase! Car dangling off bridge!

It doesn’t help that The Innocents has to essentially introduce an entirely new supporting cast. Very cleverly, the reappearance of Peter Watts and the Millennium Group is held over into Exegesis. This is an approach that allows The Innocents to focus on Frank and to create a narrative absence around the Group. Their absence here builds a sense of suspense. What will the Millennium Group look like after the events of The Time is Now? Have they retreated to the shadows? Is Frank simply babbling? Of course, the answers in Exegesis are less than satisfying.

And Frank thought his parents-in-law were bad before his cult murdered their daughter in a botch assassination attempt using a biological weapon...

And Frank thought his parents-in-law were bad before his cult murdered their daughter in a botch assassination attempt using a biological weapon…

However, the new supporting cast in The Innocents don’t really make an impression. Agent Barry Baldwin is a fairly stock archetype – the ambitious by-the-book go-getter who doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Assistant Director Andy McClaren is an interestingly pleasant (and folksy!) contrast to the more gruff stylings of Assistant Director Alvin Kersh or Assistant Director Walter Skinner on The X-Files, but he is still more of a plot function than a character. He exists to draw Frank into the story, but also becomes an obstacle as the narrative progresses.

That leaves the biggest addition to the cast, Agent Emma Hollis. Hollis has some fairly significant boots to fill. She is replacing Catherine Black as the secondary lead and Lara Means as Frank’s partner-in-crime-fighting. To be fair, Hollis eventually works out quite well. Klea Scott does great work in the role. Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton do eventually give the character a fascinating arc across the second half of the season. However, she doesn’t really get an opportunity to make much of an impression in The Innocents and Exegesis.

Getting away Scott free...

Getting away Scott free…

Hollis is introduced as a young female character who is just out of the Academy. The Innocents doesn’t exactly introduce us to Hollis in the same way that The Pilot introduced us to Scully, but that is probably down to the fact that we already know Frank Black and so don’t need to be introduced to him through the eyes of a grounded character. The shadings of a past relationship between Barry Baldwin and Emma Hollis even harks back to Scully’s own relationships to other male FBI agents in episodes like Squeeze or Lazarus.

There is very little to distinguish Hollis in The Innocents and Exegesis. She is defined as a rookie, somebody still getting used to the ropes. It is a character arc quite common in these sorts of stories. The Innocents and Exegesis serve as something of a pilot episode for a rebooted version of Millennium, and Emma Hollis feels like the sort of viewpoint character you typically get in a pilot. However, she also feels largely redundant; we are comfortable enough with Frank Black that we really don’t need a more ordinary character like Hollis to hold our hands.

"I am a passenger..."

“I am a passenger…”

The Innocents makes it clear that the third season of Millennium is going to be a very awkward and very clumsy ride. The second season of the show is gone, but it is uncertain what is currently occupying in that space. The audience has no idea yet; but it seems like the writers don’t either.

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3 Responses

  1. Fantastic reviews for the series. I appreciate all the time, work and thoughts you put in the 3 of my all time favorite series (Millennium, The X-Files and Deep Space Nine). I was wondering what were the escape hatches from the apocalyptic finale of s2 that M&W had in mind. Did they ever say? Do you have any ideas?

    • Thanks Anna! Glad you enjoy them.

      I am not aware of any interviews where they talk about these “trapdoors”, but if you find some, please let me know. I have no real ideas, beyond doing something of a copout like suggesting Frank had a nervous breakdown.

      • Thank you for your response!

        I’m sure that if there were any interviews you’d new before I did, hopefully, in a future interview someone will ask them, I’m curious what they had in mind.

        Thanks again Darren for your insightful reviews.

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