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Millennium – TEOTWAWKI (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.

The best thing that can be said about TEOTWAWKI is that it knocks quite a few items off Chris Carter’s “millennial anxieties” checklist – touching on issues of school shootings, gun control, Y2K, anarchy, survivalism, and a few more.

There are some good and interesting ideas in TEOTWAWKI. It is written by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, the first script credited to either writer since the first season of the show. It seems like both writers were clearly thinking about Millennium while working on the fifth season of The X-Files, storing up ideas for late use. TEOTWAWKI is not a script suffering from a lack of ideas. In fact, it has too many ideas packed too tightly. The script isn’t particular graceful; none of the threads dovetail as neatly into one another as they really need to.

Blood money...

Blood money…

This is a recurring theme across the third season of Millennium. There are shows with interesting and compelling ideas, but they are mixed together in a way that doesn’t work – often mingling with some of the more unfortunate creative decisions driving the show. Episodes in the third season frequently feel like curate’s eggs – scrambled messes with good bits and bad bits that are ultimately impossible to separate. TEOTWAWKI might be an interesting mess, but it is still a mess.

TEOTWAWKI makes it clear that The Innocents and Exegesis were not a rough spell as Millennium tried to find its sea legs. This is the way that things will be going forward, at least for a while.

"Doomsday Defense" was a better read...

“Doomsday Defense” was a better read…

In interviews around the launch of the third season, Chris Carter was keen to stress how important Millennium was to him. While Carter was working on The X-Files in Los Angeles, he also stressed that he was frequently visiting Vancouver to check in on the production of Millennium and to make sure that everything was unfolding according to some sort of plan. Although Carter was more engaged with the show than he had been during the second season, he was not as involved as he had been during the first season.

This is arguably reflected in the fact that TEOTWAWKI is the first of three scripts for the third season to be credited to Carter. Each of those three scripts was co-written by Frank Spotnitz, and none of those three were scripts designed to firmly establish a status quo running through the season. Carter would typically write the big mythology episodes of The X-Files, including premieres and finalés. On the third season of Millennium, he largely delegated that to showrunners like Michael Duggan, Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton.

"How the hell is it this shady next to a window in the middle of the day?"

“How the hell is it this shady next to a window in the middle of the day? Oh, right. We’re still in Vancouver.”

All of this makes a certain amount of sense. Carter was a human being who only had so much time and so much energy. Running two different production teams in two different countries is next to impossible. In an interview with Back to Frank Black, actress Klea Scott recalled how difficult to was to get ahold of Carter during the third season:

I was never invited, really, into the arc; I was handed scripts. It was difficult too, because at the time The X-Files had just moved to Los Angeles and we were still in Vancouver. The X-Files was at the height of its popularity and we felt Millennium was sort of the bastard child of Chris Carter. We were always wondering where our father was and making long distance calls to see what things meant and not really getting [answers]. I think I saw Chris Carter at Christmas and at the end of the show, after I go the part.

TEOTWAWKI is not a vitally important episode of the third season. It is not part of the season premiere, it isn’t about defining Emma Hollis as a character, it isn’t about moving Frank along. It is a weird choice of episode for Carter to write.

Forcing the end...

Forcing the end…

That said, Carter had a very particular vision of what he wanted Millennium to be. Even at its most accessible, Millennium was a much more esoteric and quirky television show than The X-Files. The first season often felt like it was making very solemn statements about the nature of evil at work in the world. Those grim first season episodes often felt more like statements than stories, cautionary tales for a society sitting on the cusp of the twenty-first century. There was an earnestness to the show, that could seem both impressive and suffocating.

The show very much drifted away from that in the second season. Under the creative control of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Millennium became a much pulpier series. The second season of Millennium was adventurous and bold, a show revelling in its dynamism. The second season of Millennium seemed to smile and wink at the audience. After all, the second season proved that Millennium could lend itself to less glum storytelling. Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” was a clever comedy, while Midnight of the Century was a heartwarming Christmas story.

"Okay. So I guess we're filming this, then."

“Okay. So I guess we’re filming this, then.”

The third season would occasionally try to emulate those more adventurous storytelling choices, but it often felt uncomfortable with the changes made over the course of the second season. The Innocents and Exegesis consciously downplayed the effects of the biblical apocalypse unleashed in The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. TEOTWAWKI takes that disregard even further, sending Frank back to Seattle as if absolutely nothing had happened. Neither Giebelhouse nor the survivalists even allude to the viral outbreak that happened nearby recently.

TEOTWAWKI is very clearly the show brushing off what happened by ignoring any and all implications. Returning to Seattle should be a big deal for Frank; this is where Frank lost his beloved wife. Giebelhouse should probably acknowledge what has happened and that Frank has moved with his daughter to the other side of the country. Instead, everything is perfectly casual. The viewer tuning into TEOTWAWKI would be completely unaware of any baggage associated with Frank’s return to Washington State.

A big man in charge...

A big man in charge…

This clear attempt to gloss over the second season is reflected in the casting of TEOTWAWKI. The episode offers a major guest role to actor Robert Wisden. Wisden had appeared twice on The X-Files as Robert Patrick Modell in Pusher and Kitsunegari. However, he had also played a major role in Monster during the second season of Millennium. The decision to feature Wisden so prominently less than a year after he played another major guest role feels rather pointed.

As a rule, Ten Thirteen tended to space out these guest appearances across shows. To be fair, Chris Owen played three different roles (two of them recurring) in The X-Files between the fourth and fifth seasons. However, the two recurring roles were father and son; the other was buried under a whole host of make-up. Terry O’Quinn appeared three times in The X-Files, but with more than two years between each appearance. The decision to cast Robert Wisden in Millennium again so soon suggests that the audience shouldn’t really worry about the second season.

Teaching them a lesson...

Teaching them a lesson…

In interviews around the launch of the third season, Carter stressed his feeling that Millennium had perhaps drifted away from the mood and aesthetic he established in the first season:

“I really loved the original concept of Millennium. It has strayed a little bit from that now. In some ways, that has been good and in some ways, bad. For season three, I have really exciting ideas that I’m looking forward to incorporating into the series. I’ve had long meetings with Lance, and we’re all very excited about season three. I hope people will come to the show again and see what we’re doing. Frank will ultimately end up affiliated in some way with the FBI, which is where he began his career.”

The impression is that the third season is winding back the clock on Millennium, a conscious attempt at reversion. Joining the FBI, Frank has reverted even further than the first season, back to a point before we met him.

Survival of the most tech savvy...

Survival of the most tech savvy…

TEOTWAWKI has that feeling of a show trying to reconnect with is roots. The basic premise of TEOTWAWKI seems like it would make a middling first season episode, as Frank finds himself drafted in to investigate a mass shooting at a high school. It hits on the same primal fears about allegedly safe spaces and child protection that inform episodes like Wide Open and Weeds. It is surprising that Millennium waited so long to produce an episode like this, the climax of Anamnesis notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, this comes with a lot of baggage. TEOTWAWKI starts with a premise that feels very much like an early first-season episode. That might have been what Carter was aspiring towards, but that is not necessarily good television. The first season of Millennium could occasionally feel crass or exploitative, trading in sensationalism rather than compelling storytelling. The teaser to TEOTWAWKI feels particularly cynical. The show treats the audience to slow motion, and silence – save for the sound of the gun shots, and of teenagers crying out in angst.

Cheers and jeers...

Cheers and jeers…

To be fair to Carter and Spotnitz, this is a clear attempt to confront a national anxiety. School shootings were a major cause of concern and debate in the nineties. The Columbine Massacre occurred in April 1999 – six months following the broadcast of TEOTWAWKI – and became the definitive school massacre of the decade. However, school shooting had been happening throughout the decade. Seven months before TEOTWAWKI was broadcast, five people were killed and ten were seriously injured in a high-profile shooting at Westside Middle School in March 1998.

Like the family annihilation in Covenant, it is a very powerful event to confront. “What’s the Chief want to call it?” Detective Giebelhouse wonders aloud. “What do you call it? A massacre, a shooting spree? What did they call it down in Oregon? That school down south? That I can even ask the question.” Giebelhouse is alluded to the Thurston High school shooting in May 1998 that left two people dead and another twenty-five injured. The idea of children being targeted is terrifying, particularly when children are the ones doing the targeting.

Alone with everybody...

Alone with everybody…

The horror of these events is hard to fathom and process. There is an immediate visceral reaction to these events that fits comfortably with the apocalyptic dread that Carter wants to weave through Millennium. However, as awful as these events are, it is interesting to note that they are not new. In 1874, The Los Angeles Herald reported:

Yesterday at noon a boy sixteen years of age shot himself, or was shot by his brother. It matters not who fired the fatal shot. No criminal act was intended or committed, and the boy is dead. He was a member of the High School of this city and was, we are told, something over the average good boy of Los Angeles. This boy lost his life through the too common habit among boys of carrying deadly weapons. We do not know that this habit can be broken up. We do not know that school teachers have the right, or would exercise it if they had, of searching the pockets of their pupils, but it seems almost a necessity that some such rule be enforced. The hills west of town are not safe for pedestrians after school hours. Nearly every school-boy carries a pistol, and the power of these pistols range from the harmless six-bit auction concern to the deadly Colt’s six-shooter.

There is a very long history of school shootings in North America, dating back centuries. Children have always managed to get access to their parents’ guns, and have always used those weapons in a reckless or malicious manner. As tempting as it is to believe that this is a recent phenomenon, it is not.

Band together...

Band together…

In reality, the archetypal school shooting dates back to the mid-sixties, an era that defines a lot of contemporary America. In August 1966, student Charles Whitman opened fire from the University of Texas Tower on the civilians gathered below:

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower with three rifles, two pistols, and a sawed-off shotgun. The 25-year-old architectural engineering major and ex-Marine—who had previously complained of searing headaches and depression—had already murdered his mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathy, earlier that morning. He fired his first shots just before noon, aiming with chilling precision at pedestrians below. “The crime scene spanned the length of five city blocks … and covered the nerve center of what was then a relatively small, quiet college town,” noted executive editor Pamela Colloff in her 2006 oral history of the shootings. “Hundreds of students, professors, tourists, and store clerks witnessed the 96-minute killing spree as they crouched behind trees, hid under desks, took cover in stairwells, or, if they had been hit, played dead.”

At the time, there was no precedent for such a tragedy. Whitman “introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space,” wrote Colloff. By the time he was gunned down by an Austin police officer early that afternoon, he had shot 43 people, thirteen of whom died.

That incident still informs popular portrayals of such shootings. It was adapted into The Deadly Tower in 1975, and informed sequences in The Simpsons (Homer Loves Flanders), The X-Files (Blood) and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (Earshot) among others.

"Be honest: I look as cool as Duchovny when I do this, right?"

“Be honest: I look as cool as Duchovny when I do this, right?”

There was a bump in these school shootings during the nineties, but it appeared to average out over time. As Christopher J. Ferguson and James D. Ivory noted in A Futile Game, this trend correlated with other youth violence trends:

These caveats notwithstanding, the numbers provided in the Secret Service report (2002) do suggest a rise in school shootings in the 1990s which leveled off or fell slightly in the 2000s. This rise in the frequency of mass school homicides during the 1990s mirrored or slightly trailed patterns in youth violence statistics in general, the incidence of which peaked in 1993. Youth violence statistics then began a precipitous decline, returning to 1960s’ levels by the time of this writing.

Obviously, it is impossible to get that sense of perspective when caught up in the moment. The immediate tragedy is almost impossible to process and to work through. The horrors of the school shootings in the nineties were in no way diminished by the fact that they aligned with other larger trends.

Black thoughts...

Black thoughts…

At the same time, there is some element of bias in how we react to these events. These horrific catastrophes are frequently cited as evidence of the decline of civilisation – incorporated into an apocalyptic worldview that would not seem out of place on Millennium. This tendency to portray these events as grotesque aberrations glosses over a more uncomfortable truth:

“There is one not-so-tiny flaw in all of these theories for the increase in mass shootings,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, wrote for Boston.com in August. “And that is that mass shootings have not increased in number or in overall body count, at least not over the past several decades.”

Fox cited a particularly broad set of FBI and police data that counted shootings between 1980 and 2010 in which four or more people were killed: The average pace was about 20 mass murders per year, with a death toll of about 100. Casualty counts fluctuated wildly — some years would have almost 125 dead, but then be followed by a year with fewer than 50 mass shooting fatalities. Far steadier was the number of attacks, which usually stayed at fewer than 25 per year.

It is tempting to believe that these spikes in violence are a result of some modern environmental factor, rather than existing as a part of the culture itself. Treating each atrocity as a horrific fluke occurence makes it easier to avoid the sort of soul-searching and introspection that these violent incidents would otherwise require. If this violence can be blamed on millennial anxiety or current economic uncertainty, it can be presented as transient or temporary.

Frank shoots from the hip...

Frank shoots from the hip…

It has been argued the higher casualties recorded during such shootings in the twentieth and twenty-first century are purely down to technological advances. The development (and accessibility) of semi-automatic weapons makes it easier to kill more people more efficiently. Recent studies suggest that legally-purchased semi-automatic handguns are the weapon most frequently used in these types of atrocities. It has also been suggested that rampages involving assault rifles are less common, but have much higher death tolls.

These conclusions seem logical, but are frequently highly politicised. TEOTWAWKI touches repeatedly on the issue of gun control and the culture of fear and violence around guns. That said, the episode is far from subtle. TEOTWAWKI introduces Frank on the firing range. When McClaren offers to take him hunting, Frank simply replies, “Well, you know me, Andy. I’m only going to do this because it’s mandatory.” Discussing the shooting, McClaren concedes, “As sad as it is, it’s just kids and guns.”

"Find out what happens when a forensic profiler stops being polite and starts getting real..."

“Find out what happens when a forensic profiler stops being polite and starts getting real…”

Chris Carter is not a writer who does subtlety particularly well. So TEOTWAWKI makes a big deal out of Frank deciding to pack his gun when he travels to Seattle, and makes a big deal out of the fact that he doesn’t need to use it. “I’ve got to fill out all this paperwork and I’ve never done it before,” Hollis confesses at the end of the episode. “For the discharge of my weapon they make you account for every shell. I was hoping I could look at your report.” Frank replies, “I didn’t fire my weapon, Agent Hollis. I wasn’t even carrying it.”

It is a nice sentiment, but it feels more than a little heavy-handed. As with Exegesis, there is a sense that the script might have done with another polish to help smooth out the rough edges. It is a very good idea – explicitly tying school shootings into issues of gun control and responsibility is a fairly brave stand for a prime-time drama to make. At the same time, TEOTWAWKI occasionally feels like something of an after-school special, indulging in the sort of self-righteous self-importance that Carter can channel when he is trying to make a point.

"Hey! Illustrations!"

“Hey! Illustrations!”

After all, Frank’s opening and closing monologues hit on some of the interesting themes of Exegesis – suggesting that the millennium itself is not the end of the world, but the start of a new one; that the struggle facing mankind is to define that new world. Unfortunately, it gets a bit lost in all the purple prose. Frank reflects, “The unbelievers slept untroubled but the fateful toiled against the inevitable, weighed by a terrible burden, deciding who would be spared and who would be left behind.”

There are hints that mankind must choose how it will respond to the turn of the millennium. Exegesis suggested that mankind had to decide between hope and fear. TEOTWAWKI makes repeated and extended reference to the culture of fear, even within the home of Frank Black. “What did I tell you about answering the door without finding out who’s there?” Frank asks Jordan. Jordan replies, “Not to answer the door because people aren’t always who they say they are.” It is very much a sentiment familiar to every parent, teaching a child to protect themselves.

"So, yep. I'm still here."

“So, yep. I’m still here.”

The climax of TEOTWAWKI hinges on Frank convincing Gary King to embrace hope rather than fear. During a tense stand-off, Frank urges, “Put the gun down, Gary. This is not a war. There’s no enemies here. Put the gun down – show your son that he’s got nothing to be afraid of.” It is a very nice sentiment, and one that feels like Carter and Spotnitz are trying to make a very profound statement about violence and anxiety in contemporary culture. It is a surprisingly upbeat climax.

Unfortunately, it feels just a little bit hypocritical in the context of Millennium as a whole. Carter designed Millennium to showcase a very real set of fears. After all, Carter argued that Millennium was “scarier than X-Files in a way because the monsters are all too real.” Episodes like Wide Open and Weeds were perfectly calibrated to prey on the fears and anxieties of middle-class viewers, stoking the very anxieties that Carter and Spotnitz condemn in TETWAWKI. It seems a little trite and insincere to denounce such fear so casually.

"Told you we should have sprang for the stain-proofing."

“Told you we should have sprung for lamentated flooring.”

TEOTWAWKI also marks a return to Chris Carter’s original vision of Frank Black as a very conventional and righteous hero. A lot of the nuance and conflict that defined Frank during the second season is lost, replaced by an unwavering certainty. This is very much a classical version of Frank Black, the man who outwits evil through wisdom and compassion. Lance Henriksen had taken great pride in the fact that Frank Black tended to use words rather than bullets, and the emphasis on that aspect of the character in TEOTWAWKI feels like an attempt to get back to basics.

Frank tells it how it is, even when that’s not what people want to hear. After embarrassing Baldwin during a briefing, Frank makes no apologies. “I wasn’t trying to humiliate him, Andy. It’s that lax kind of police work we see all too often.” When McClaren refuses to send Frank into the field, Frank is having none of it. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. I’m going to go out there. And if you say no, I understand. I’ll just turn in my credentials and I’ll go home for good. Because I’m not used to seeing you or myself sitting on our hands in any kind of meeting.”

Y2K? Y?2K? Y?2K!


While all of this is interesting (if flawed) in itself, the biggest problem with TEOTWAWKI is that the episode is not content to process and unpack any of its big central ideas. The school shooting that opens the episode is ultimately reduced to a red herring, a gateway to another millennial anxiety. As Spotnitz confessed:

Fears about the Y2K bug seem quaint now, but at the time this was broadcast – 14 months before 1/1/00 – it was still an exotic concept to most people. The challenge was how to turn an abstract fear of a computer glitch into something scary and dramatic for Frank and Emma to investigate.

As such, the teaser to the episode feels like a cynical bait-and-switch. Rather than actually dealing with the trauma of something like a school shooting, the school shooting presents a visually-arresting opening sequence for an episode that quickly transitions into other millennial concerns like survivalism and Y2K.

"It was nice of you to turn down the lighting. Conversation's much more atmospheric this way."

“It was nice of you to turn down the lighting. Conversation’s much more atmospheric this way.”

The whole “Y2K” panic seems quite ridiculous in hindsight. No planes fell out the sky, no hospitals stopped working, no ATMs started spewing cash. Civilisation continued. The few errors that occurred became jokes and gags – references to upcoming events that would be occurring in 1900 or calendars referencing the year “19100.” There were a few minor bumps along the way, but the transition from one millennium to the next actually went remarkably well. Looking back, it does seem like there was a lot of fuss over nothing.

Still, the looming threat of “Y2K” was a pretty massive deal at the time. It has been estimated that the entire industry around Y2K prep was worth over $300,000,000. Many pundits suggest that the deadline helped to stress the importance of IT to global industry. As Michael Israel, chief operating officer at AMC Computer Corp, noted, “I don’t think we’ll ever again get that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we need a blank check to get everything up to date.’ We put a lot of fear into the CEOs back then.”

"Damn it, the message boards are eating us alive!"

“Damn it, the message boards are eating us alive!”

It has been suggested that the reason that the transition went so smoothly was down to the skill and care involved in the transition. Benny Lasiter, a senior data management analyst at Texaco Natural Gas, explained just how much work went into preparing for the event. “We dedicated the last three quarters of 1999 to preparing for Y2K, and reserved the first quarter of 2000 for fixing any issues that came up. Every nonessential project was put aside.” Still, “Y2K” remains a rather controversial topic – with many divided on just how useful the panic actually was.

TEOTWAWKI seems to adopt a rather cynical approach to all the computer work going into the change-over. There is something quite scathing in the idea of a secretive cabal of IT workers desperately trying to prevent anybody from figuring out what exactly they are doing. In the wake of the school shooting, Gary King advises his staff, “I don’t think any one of us wants to explain to our stockholders or to corporate America what the hell we’re up to.” Accountability on “Y2K” work? That’s crazy talk!

Reading between the lines...

Reading between the lines…

It eventually surfaces that the company is creating (or – at the very least – enabling and encouraging) the problem that it claims to be trying to prevent. Gary King is trying to make the “Y2K” problem a reality. This fits with a rather cynical view of the industry that sprang up around “Y2K.” Robert X. Cringely, author of Accidental Empires, conceded, “I believe a terrific amount of Y2K fraud took place. There was a lot of money that was spent and it wasn’t visible.” Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission settled its first case of Y2K fraud before the millennium itself.

However, the idea of “Y2K” can only sustain so much abstract horror. TEOTWAWKI is forced to quickly shift its focus elsewhere. It quickly becomes clear that Gary King and his “Fortune 500” software company is actually a front for a bunch of crazy millennial survivalists waiting eagerly for doomsday to arrive so that they can pull out their machine guns and live out a crazy post-apocalyptic fantasy. The idea of a climate of fear is a linking thread through TEOTWAWKI, but the episode just makes too many crazy leaps and transitions through interesting subject matter.

Moving at a decent clip...

Moving at a decent clip…

The idea that there are people eagerly anticipating the end of the world is not a radical idea. After all, it had become something of a recurring theme during the second season. It was explicitly suggested in A Single Blade of Grass, and became a recurring concern for the Millennium Group as the show built towards The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. However, TEOTWAWKI uses the idea of a computer company deliberately engineering the “Y2K” problem as a window to explore the resurgent survivalist community of the nineties.

Survivalism has a long and complex history in the United States, but the looming deadline really pushed those groups to the front of the national consciousness. In the nineties, author James Wesley Rawles found great success with his Patriots novels series – a collection of survivalist fiction about a group of people enduring the end of the world. Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse was distributed online in 1995 and published in 1998. In March 1998, a bunch of survivalists murdered Officer Dale Claxton while stealing a water truck.

Cheque it out!

Cheque it out!

In The Metanarrative of Suspicion in Late Twentieth Century America, Sandra Baringer ties the survivalist community into the contemporary militia movement, while acknowledging the distinctions between them:

The rise, or rather reinvigoration, of the American militia movement in the nineties is a heterogeneous phenomenon resistant to definition. To a larger extent than has been acknowledged, it has roots in feats of nuclear holocaust and the associated survivalist movement dating back to the seventies. Not all “survivalists” are militia members nor are they all racists. Nor can all individuals involved in these groups be accurately characterised as the “far right”: Michael Kelly coined the term “fusion paranoia” in his 1995 New Yorker essay to describe the crossover appeal of the survivalist, conspiratorial thinking to leftists left behind by the Reagan era.

It seems like TEOTWAWKI equates these survivalists with the sort of militia members that interested Carter in scripts like Tunguska, Terma and Unrequited. It feels like a survivalist IT company should be less generic.

"Case closed." "But, Agent Baldwin, don't you think it's a little early in the episo..." "I said: case closed."

“Case closed.”
“But, Agent Baldwin, don’t you think it’s a little early in the episo…”
“I said: case closed.”

Then again, there simply is not room for any nuance of depth in TEOTWAWKI. The episode is running through concepts and ideas so fast that it never really has a chance to unpack or explore any of them. The result is that the various elements feel shallow and superficial, crammed into too tight a space. There are probably three half-decent episodes buried somewhere in TEOTWAWKI, but they feel suffocated by all the other concepts and plot elements struggling for room to breath.

TEOTWAWKI really needs to be better. It is the first episode of Millennium to be broadcast after the season-opening two-parter. It is the first script credited to Chris Carter since Lamentation towards the end of the first season. This should be a triumphant return to form. Instead, it is a dishevelled mess.

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