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Millennium – Closure (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.

Closure is the first time that Emma Hollis has come into focus.

The character has been featured in the opening credits since The Innocents, but has mostly existed in the background. The Innocents and Exegesis made it clear that Hollis was a young agent who could act under her own initiative, but she was very much a secondary figure in a narrative largely about Frank trying to work through the loss of his wife. She played a significant role in TEOTWAWKI simply by virtue of being able to work with both Frank Black and Agent Barry Baldwin. It was hard to get a read on her character beyond the very basic elements.

"Closure" in one word.

“Closure” in one word.

The opening scene of Closure makes it quite clear that his will be a Hollis-centric episode. While a senseless murder in a cheap hotel provides the sting leading into the credits, the teaser opens with Emma Hollis wandering through a graveyard and narrating to an unseen character. “I spend my days looking for reasons,” Hollis narrates. “The reasons people do what they do. It’s my job, it’s my way. I want to know why. Why it’s like this. Why good people die.” So it is quite clear where Closure is going from the outset.

Closure works reasonably well. It is much more modest episode than something like The Innocents, Exegesis, TEOTWAWKI, … Thirteen Years Later or Skull and Bones. It is an episode that feels like a conscious attempt to pull the show back towards the first season, hinting at an efficient serial killer procedural. Closure feels like a first season episode, and not just because of the procedural element. The decision to give Hollis a childhood trauma as motivation feels like a rather lazy way to flesh out her character. It is efficient, but it does feel a little too easy.

Smile!

Smile!

To be fair, it makes sense that Closure would feel like an early first season episode. Millennium felt like three different shows; in a way, every season was the first season for an entirely new television series. In each of the three seasons, there are new rules to learn and new characters to establish in the first run of episodes. This is only the fourth episode to feature Emma Hollis, so it makes sense that her character development would be rudimentary and generic. Closure is a rough sketch rather than a detailed portrait.

One of the stock observations about the third season of Millennium is that the show had pushed itself closer and closer to The X-Files. Much like the “serial killer of the week” complaints about the first season, there is a pretty fair basis for the criticism, even if it could easily be overstated. Closure does not help matters. Closure cannot help but evoke Conduit. Both episodes are the fourth episodes of their respective seasons, and both episodes focus on a past trauma of a lead character; a childhood trauma involving a female sibling.

A grave mood...

A grave mood…

To be fair, both Conduit and Closure are solid episodes – perfectly reasonable fourth episodes for an entirely new show. However, Closure is not really the fourth episode of an entirely new show. It is the forty-ninth episode of a series that has been on the air for over two years. There is always a learning curve when writing the early episodes of a show, that there needs to be more forward momentum. By the third season of The X-Files, David Duchovny had tired enough of the simplistic character psychology of Conduit to ad lib a firm rebuttal of it in Oubliette.

The decision to give Emma Hollis a dead little sister hews just a little bit too close to the story of Samantha Mulder. The year after Millennium ended, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz would decide to wrap up the story of Samantha Mulder in a two-part seventh-season episode of The X-Files. Perhaps acknowledging the thematic overlap between the stories of Samantha Mulder and Melissa Hollis, the second part of that story was titled Closure. Whereas the use of the title in Millennium is ironic, the use on The X-Files turns out to be earnest.

"Did somebody order a piping hot Garret Dillahunt?"

“Did somebody order a piping hot Garret Dillahunt?”

This rather obvious character echo between these two lead characters seems to support the criticism that Millennium really might be evolving into a copy of The X-Files – albeit a copy that swaps out the aliens for serial killers. Of course, The X-Files would tie the story of Samantha Mulder into serial killers on a number of occasions. Vince Gilligan had nodded towards it in Paper Hearts, while Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz would bring the element into the conclusion of Samantha’s arc in Sein und Zeit and Closure.

It is not a particularly elegant character development for Emma Hollis. It suggests that everything about the character can be reduced down to a single formative trauma. Melissa Hollis was murdered by a violent offender, so Emma Hollis has dedicated her life to finding and stopping violent offenders. Emma Hollis’ whole career has been a response to a single moment, an attempt to find meaning in what was essentially a random act. It would be a solid basis for a guest character, but it feels a little superficial for a character who is a secondary lead.

Hostage to fortune...

Hostage to fortune…

Conduit got away with that approach to Mulder because the first season of The X-Files was quite consciously framed in terms of Mulder’s adventures and pursuits. Mulder was a much more dynamic and energetic force in The Pilot and Deep Throat than Hollis was in The Innocents or Exegesis. Mulder and Scully were very much equal characters in the first season of The X-Files, with the character-centric episodes distributed roughly evenly. Millennium is a show that belongs to Frank Black, by sheer virtue of the fact that he has been around since The Pilot.

Still, Closure works reasonably well – particularly if it is approached as an early episode of what is effectively a new show. There is an elegance to the script’s simplicity. The Innocents, Exegesis and TEOTWAWKI worked very hard to throw out big ideas and wrestle with gigantic concepts; Closure is a very simple story that is told in very simple terms. It never claims to be anything more than what it is. It is necessary character development for a new regular character, and is absolutely committed to that.

"Hey! Looks like we beat Drive to broadcast, eh?"

“Hey! Looks like we beat Drive to broadcast, eh?”

It helps that Klea Scott is very good in a role that is frequently thankless; particularly at the start of the third season, when it often feels like the production team has no idea what to do with her character. In an interview with Back to Frank Black, Scott identified Closure as a particular favourite from the third season:

I liked Closure. That was the first time I got a backstory, and I thought [guest star] Garret Dillahunt was really scary. That was the first time I felt like I got to sink some acting chops into some work, and it was very subtle too.

Scott has a very understated style, one that is not particularly showy. She doesn’t quite have the same screen presence as David Duchovny or Gillian Anderson, nor the ability to anchor a frame like Lance Henriksen or Terry O’Quinn or Kristen Cloke. Instead, Scott is restrained and reliable – she allows the rest of the cast room to work.

Has a nice ring to it...

Has a nice ring to it…

The character of Emma Hollis is a relatively interesting addition to the cast of Millennium. She is decidedly more restrained and sombre than one might expect. Given the accusations of gloominess and glumness that haunted Millennium, it seems like the executives might have wanted to insert a more dynamic female lead. (After all, shows like CSINCIS and Criminal Minds tend to offset their grim subject matter with quirky primary casts.) It would be interesting to discuss the development of Emma Hollis as a character during pre-production on the third season.

There must have been some temptation to introduce a female character in the style of Monica Reyes to the show, a light-hearted and highly-energised female “kook” who could provide a clear contrast to a more stoic and serious male lead. On paper, it is a perfectly sound idea; a lighter secondary lead would be a very logical way of preventing the darkness from smothering the show. Of course, the actual introduction of Monica Reyes during the eighth and ninth seasons of The X-Files would suggest that such an approach would not necessarily be successful.

"So, he's taking advantage of the late checkout, then?"

“So, he’s taking advantage of the late checkout, then?”

The character of Emma Hollis was not conceived as African American. In the documentary End Game, Scott recalls that the pool of actresses auditioning for the role consisted of “two redheads, two blondes, and [her].” In the same documentary, executive producer Chip Johannessen conceded that Klea Scott would not have been the first choice for the network:

Klea came in and was just so – she’s great, she’s amazing and she’s also physical in a really wonderful way. She is just an amazing physical presence and we just loved her and we knew that maybe in a slow-burn, indie film kind of way, she would catch on and get word of mouth. But she wasn’t quite what network was looking for. You know, they wanted Heather Locklear or something to come. That was kind of how that went down.

The production team do deserve a great deal of credit for their work casting and defining Emma Hollis, and resisting a lot of the more obvious temptations with everything going on around the show. At the same time, there is a sense that the character was not entirely defined by the time that the series entered production – and that a lot of her character had to be improvised and redefined as the season progressed.

Wall-to-wall excitement...

Wall-to-wall excitement…

Even outside of the very basic character work for Hollis, Closure feels like a conscious throwback to the first season of Millennium. The pulpy energy of the second season seems to have been drained from the show, as the series returns to bigger pseudo-philosophical ruminations on the nature of good and evil. “Killing is a human impulse unchecked,” Frank warns Hollis as they launch an investigation into a group of spree killers. “You won’t solve this case looking for a reason, Agent Hollis.” Hollis insists, “Everyone has a reason.”

Closure brings Millennium back to Chris Carter’s view of evil as something that exists outside mankind; something that occupies space at the very edge of our comprehension. Closure harks back to scripts like Wide Open, Weeds, Loin Like a Hunting Flame and Broken World, suggesting that these sorts of killers are so evil and so inhuman as to be functionally alien. It is a view that suggests evil is incomprehensible and alien in nature; trying to find anything approaching humanity in these broken creatures is like staring into an abyss.

Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est?

Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

The script to Closure is not exactly subtle on this point. “We want to describe men like this with words that can make us feel we can know them,” Frank insists. He rather bluntly warns Hollis, “You want to make sense of this case and hoping that there is sense to be made of what happened to your sister. You’re looking for logic that isn’t here.” It is very much in keeping with Chris Carter’s tendency to portray evil as a primal force that is larger than life and inherently alien – whether the infectious evil of Grotesque or the black oil of Piper Maru.

(Then again, Closure is not an episode that ever feels particularly subtle. At one point, during an interrogation, Joni gets a big “have you ever had someone you’d do anything for?” monologue in front of Hollis. As Joni talks about love and devotion, Mark Snow’s sweet and simple melody gets louder and louder as the camera pans in on the bracelet that Hollis wears to remind her of her sister. The monologue is ultimately subverted when Joni reveals that she is manipulating Hollis. However, the moment still feels rather overplayed.)

"Continuity error!"

“Continuity error!”

This attitude towards evil seems just a little at odds with the core concept of Millennium itself. After all, this is a show about a “roving, freelance, forensic profiler.” Frank’s job is to stare at horrific violence and to understand the minds behind that violence. Profilers might not be able to find “a reason” in a satisfying spiritual or existential sense, but they do find reasons that account for abnormal psychology or behaviours. Those behaviours might not conform to anything that most people would describe as “normal”, but patterns and causes can be discerned and recognised.

It feels strange for Frank to repeatedly assure Hollis that there is no reason for this sort of violence. Frank is right that Hollis will never understand in the way that she wants (or needs) to understand, but the script feels a little clumsy in how it addresses that idea; there is an important distinction between the lack of any reason and the lack of a reason that makes sense to those left behind. There might not be an explanation that satisfies those dealing with the pain and loss, but there is generally something resembling an internal logic that can be pieced together.

"Dammit, why do I remember all these traumatic events in black-and-white?"

“Dammit, why do I remember all these traumatic events in black-and-white?”

There is something a little clumsy in how Closure chooses to frame this observation. The plot point feels a little bit like the condemnation of the culture of fear in TEOTWAWKI; the series is making a very valid and reasonable point, but in a way that seems to lack any semblance of self-awareness. Millennium is a show built around exploiting the culture of anxiety that Frank criticises at the climax of TEOTWAWKI, just as it is a show built around the idea that human monsters can be understood and apprehended.

The structure of Closure also harks back to the first season. It is an episode that could be comfortably described as a “serial killer of the week” story – even if there are multiple offenders engaging in spree (rather than serial) killings. The idea of random and brutal violence intersecting with ordinary lives was a major preoccupation of the first season, which repeatedly suggested that nobody was ever truly safe in the world. Closure is the show’s most conventional “to catch a killer” episode since The Mikado, and it is a story that works reasonably well on its own terms.

Ride on time...

Ride on time…

There are two major elements that raise Closure above a lot of the weaker “serial killer of the week” plots. The most obvious is a mesmerising guest performance from Garret Dillahunt as Rick Van Horn. Van Horn is not the most nuanced or developed character; he basically kills who he wants when he wants. The themes of the episode mean that the audience never really gets inside the head of Rick Van Horn; we never really get the “why” behind his violence. As such, it would be easy to turn Van Horn into a one-dimensional psychopath.

Dillahunt is one of the great character actors of his generation. He has been active since the mid-nineties (his guest spot in Travelers was only his third credited role), but has built up an impressive body of work in the two decades since. His face is instantly recognisable to any viewer who has watched enough film or television. Dillahunt give Van Horn a bit more complexity that the script would suggest, playing a completely compelling psychopath. It is a wonderful guest performance that elevates the episode around it.

"You've got red on you."

“You’ve got red on you.”

Closure also manages to avoid some of the more sensationalist elements of the weaker “serial killer of the week” stories from the first season. Closure never seems quite as sadistic or blood-thirsty as episodes like The Judge or Kingdom Come, never descending to crass exploitation. Although Closure is fascinated with violence and brutality, it does not fixate on it. Director Daniel Sackheim and writer Laurence Andries very cleverly and carefully conspire to keep a lot of the violence out of the frame.

The murder in the teaser happens entirely off-screen. The episode has the audience hear the gunshots through the thin hotel walls, but we are confronted with the aftermath of the attack rather than witnessing the violence itself. When Van Horn lays siege to a corner store, the episode cuts away before he sets foot inside; we then cut to Frank Black reviewing very grainy video footage of the atrocity. Even when Van Horn murders the biker in the wilderness, the shot is framed so as to keep Van Horn himself in focus.

So blind to true evil...

So blind to true evil…

This is a very shrewd approach that prevents Closure from wallowing in the grim violence. That said, the decision to use slow-motion “bullet time” at several points in the episode feels a little clumsy. Although “bullet time” is so inexorably linked with The Matrix that Warner Brothers have trademarked the term, slow-motion bullet-watching was something of a nineties pastime. Smirnoff used the technique in a 1996 advertisement. In August 1998, the special effect popped up in Blade. The slow-motion bullets really date Closure.

Closure is a very simple episode. It is not particularly nuanced or ambitious. In many respects, it is a very simple story. At the same time, this approach pays off. Closure is functional and competent in a way that none of the earlier episodes of the third season can claim to be. It is not a towering accomplishment for Millennium, but it is an episode that accomplishes a lot of what it sets out to do without embarrassing itself too badly.

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