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Millennium – Borrowed Time (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 third season of Millennium is all over the map.

Due to a variety of factors, the show veers wildly in just about every direction. The transition from the second season to the third season was tough on everybody involved, but even the third season itself went through considerable issues. Michael Duggan was brought in to steady the ship, but his approach didn’t really work out. He departed the show a third of the way through the season. As a result of all of this, the third season can often seem disjointed and uneven. It is hard to tie it all together.

Angel of mercy?

Angel of mercy?

At the same time, there are certain recurring motifs and ideas that recur through the twenty-two episode season. A lot of these can be traced back to writer Chip Johannessen (with a great deal of help from Ken Horton). Johannessen was the consistent voice across all three seasons of Millennium, and an executive producer for the entirety of the third season. Although given a seemingly impossible task, Johannessen did work really hard to impose something resembling order upon the chaotic third season.

Borrowed Time hits on a lot of the ideas running through the third season. It is a story that suggests Millennium is about the fragile balance between life and death, and that death is not as much of an absolute as earlier seasons might have suggested. Borrowed Time is a little uneven and messy in places, but it is underscored by a host of bold and interesting ideas. It finds Johannessen engaging with the religious and mystical themes that informed early scripts like Force Majeure and Maranatha.

Countdown...

Countdown…

Millennium can be a pretty grim show. After all, Chris Carter conceived it as a way to explore evil in the modern world. In its first season, it was derided for its “serial killer of the week” format, accused of swapping out the distinctive monsters from The X-Files with a bunch of balding middle-aged men. While that might not be entirely fair, it does capture the perception of the show. The second season was a lot lighter in tone, but was similarly obsessed with the idea of death and destruction. The second season was a show about the end of the world.

It could be argued that Millennium was trying to tap into contemporary anxieties. At the end of the twentieth century, people might have been forgiven for believing that the world was racing towards doomsday. Even if people didn’t expect a nuclear holocaust, news channels were populated by stories of serial killers and gang violence. Fear was (and remains) a very lucrative currency. In a way, Millennium was trying to cash in on that. Much like The X-Files captured a sense of existential angst in the nineties, Millennium traded in existential dread.

Eyes without a face...

Eyes without a face…

It should also be conceded that the third season of Millennium can be pretty grim in places. Scripts like Closure, Through a Glass Darkly and Human Essence are as dark as the show ever got – they are as bleak and as brutal as The Judge or Kingdom Come or Wide Open or Weeds or Loin Like a Hunting Flame. There are certainly points where it seems like all that Millennium wants to do is just wallow in darkness. This is not necessarily a flaw; it is possible to tell a dark and heavy story in a way that works. Sacrament and Covenant come to mind.

However, writer Chip Johannessen repeatedly suggests that Millennium need not be obsessed with death and apocalypse. In Exegesis, Johannessen suggested that the end of the world is just one possible outcome of the new millennium. The twenty-first century might also bring positive change, if mankind will take the opportunity. Michael R. Perry’s Omertà was an episode about mob hit man given a second chance at life, suggesting that even a brutal killer might be saved and redeemed if given the chance.

A guiding light...

A guiding light…

Borrowed Time suggests that there is a balance between life and death, that death is not absolute. In a way, it feels like this is a big theme of the third season. The second season repeatedly suggested that everybody is heading towards their own personal apocalypse. The Time is Now closed with the end of the world, the largest and most definitive death. The entire season built up to the death of Catherine, and the death of the Black family as a complete unit. In following that, the third season represent a literal and figurative resurrection for Millennium.

The script for Borrowed Time makes this somewhat explicit. Samiel appears to travel around, balancing the cosmic scales. Everybody settles their debt, eventually – even if it does seem like Samiel is constantly running to catch up. “Why are you stalking my daughter?” Frank demands of the mysterious figure. Samiel responds, “She received a gift.” He explains, “Of additional time on earth – just like the others. Now that time is finished. And there are those who need now what she needed then, to continue living.”

Jordan's crossing...

Jordan’s crossing…

Throughout Borrowed Time, characters refer to the eponymous extra allocation of days as “a gift.” Samiel describes it to Frank in such terms, but Frank had overheard a similar description earlier in the episode. “I mean, even now, just thinking about it, I’m amazed,” one of the survivors observes at the meeting. “My return to this world was a pure gift.” The use of the word “gift” suggests something received completely free of charge and with no obligations or responsibilities accruing. Borrowed Time suggests that there is no such thing as a free gift.

It is an interesting idea. In the teaser – and again at the climax – the conductor on the train can be seen to be reading The Gift by French sociologist Marcel Mauss. Mauss explored the history and anthropology of the concept of the gift. Mauss suggested that there was no such thing as a “free” gift, and that the concept was tied up in a complex ideas of reciprocal exchange. In short, what appears to be a gift does not arrive free of any obligations or without any responsibilities; it is part of a larger interconnected exchange system.

Everything is coming off the rails...

Everything is coming off the rails…

The final exchange between Jordan and Frank in Borrowed Time suggests that perhaps Jordan was meant to die in The Time is Now, and catherine’s sacrifice bought her some more time. “Mommy said she’s fine,” Jordan tells Frank. “And she said to tell you she chose. She made the right choice. I don’t know what that means.” Frank does know what it means, recalling both Catherine’s decision to give Jordan the antidote and to wander off alone. “It means she loved you. Very, very, very much.”

The idea that Jordan managed to cheat death very cleverly builds upon The Time is Now. It is a much more elegant development than any of the clumsy retcons of The Innocents or Exegesis. It suggests that the big idea driving the second season was the inevitability of death, while the third season is more interested in the idea that death is not an absolute. If the time and circumstances of one’s death can be commuted by some higher power, if there is a balance to be struck, then perhaps the universe is not so grim after all.

Bless this mess...

Bless this mess…

Borrowed Time initially seems quite cold and cynical. Even if Jordan did cheat death in The Time is Now, it seems that she only received a little extra time and that the scales have to be balanced. Acting as a divine force in the world, Samiel seems to distribute a finite number of days. If Jordan gets more than her allocation, the short fall has to be made up somewhere. Early on in the episode, it seems like the most that anybody can hope for is a temporary stay of execution. Catherine’s sacrifice may have only bought Jordan months, which is a terrifying idea.

Still, there are early indications that Borrowed Time is not as brutal as it may claim. Rather tellingly, Samiel seems to pay those extra days forward. It seems that the days that he harvests from the survivors are then allocated to other survivors. For example, Jordan’s death would have been used to justify saving the girl on the train. Inevitably, Samiel would have returned to claim the life of that girl, but he would likely have then extended somebody else’s. While neither would have had a long and fulfilling life, both would have received more time than they would have otherwise.

"He left a card..."

“He left a card…”

In short, Samiel is not subtracting days. There is no sense that any of the people he kills ever died early. Those who survive get a little extra time, before they are killed so that others might get a temporary reprieve. It almost seems like Samiel has a set allocation of “extra days” that he can choose to distribute as he sees fit. As such, Borrowed Time is never really about balancing some imaginary scales so much as it is about resource allocation and management. It seems almost like Samiel is some divine accountant, trying to stretch his numbers as far as they will go.

Samiel harks back to the conversation between Frank and Mister Lott in The Time is Now. Samiel’s divine duty does not seem so radically different from the infernal calculus proposed by Mister Lott and the Millennium Group. “Maybe, individually, we are allotted only so many days of life,” Mister Lott speculated, in a not-at-all-disconcerting manner. “Maybe, as a whole, mankind is only allotted so many days of life.” That would seem to be the theory under which Samiel operates – another strong connection between Borrowed Time and The Time is Now.

A frank conversation with his daughter...

A frank conversation with his daughter…

Following Michael Duggan’s departure, the third season of Millennium feels a lot more comfortable dealing with and engaging with the legacy of the second season. Almost halfway through the season, Millennium starts processing the events of the last season finalé. Even the title of Borrowed Time suggests a connection back to The Time is Now. The very idea of the episode and the use of the title invites the viewer to speculate as to whether the apocalypse that was quashed by The Innocents has been deferred completely or simply postponed temporarily.

In that respect, Borrowed Time positions as a reasoned and meticulous follow-up to The Time is Now. Just as The Time is Now summed up a whole season of the show, Borrowed Time seems to juxtapose the themes of its own season against the rhetoric and philosophy of that last season finalé. While Samiel originally appears to subscribe to the grotesque rhetoric of Mister Lott, he ultimate renounces it. It seems that the divine powers in the third season of Millennium have turned a corner; they are no longer the harsh authorities seen in the first and second seasons.

"Nothing weird about this. Nothing weird at all."

“Nothing weird about this. Nothing weird at all.”

Samiel chooses to sacrifice himself so that both Jordan and the girl on the train might live. It seems that Samiel chooses to completely reject the idea of life as something to be paid for with death. He seems to renounce his function and his job, deciding to offer an ending that is happy for everybody else involved. Sure, Borrowed Time features a massive train crash and several near-drownings, along with a whole spate of mysterious deaths, but it is still relatively upbeat by the standards of Millennium.

Much has been made of idea that Samiel is essentially the same angelic character who appeared as an agent of divine authority in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions. He might even be the same mysterious and anonymous figure who appeared to Frank in the graveyard in Midnight of the Century. All three characters are played by different actors, though they dress in similar clothes. The two named angels in Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and Borrowed Time have similar-sounding names, even if they are spelt differently.

"I'm all washed up at this stage..."

“I’m all washed up at this stage…”

Fans have latched on to the idea that these characters might be different manifestations of the same basic essence. As Alexander Zelenyj speculates in Seeing Evil:

The chosen name strongly suggests that Sammael and Samiel are in fact the same character, whose differing physical appearances can be explained in the same way as Butler’s numerous incarnations are interpreted: Millennium’s angels of moral goodness have the selfsame shape-shifting abilities as Butler, and they manifest themselves in different individuals in different personas. Here, the angel Samiel does not battle manefestations of Legion as in his Sammael incarnation – rather, he murders seemingly innocent individuals in an effort to postpone the deaths of others, his own way of fulfilling God’s plan. Biblically, the angel Samael is the angel of death, a role in accordance with the death-dealing actions of both Sammael and Samiel. Sammael is seen as the angel of death in Talmudic lore, a figure regarded as both good and evil, a representation that satisfies the dual representation of the character seen here, whose motivations appear nefarious to those not privy to or accepting of his divine mission.

It should also be noted that the mysterious angel in Midnight of the Century also appears in a graveyard and seems very aware of people who are about to die and of customs relating to the soon-to-be-deceased.

Beaten, but not out...

Beaten, but not out…

The comparison between Sammael/Samiel and Lucy Butler is interesting. Millennium repeatedly suggests a connection between Lucy Butler and the demon Lilith. The angel Samael has been linked to the demon Lilith in a mirroring of Adam and Eve. According to A Treatise on the Left Emanation from the thirteenth century:

In this tradition it is made clear that Samael and Lilith were born as one, similar to the form of Adam and Eve who were also born as one, reflecting what is above. This is the account of Lilith which was received by the Sages in the Secret Knowledge of the Palaces. The Matron Lilith is the mate of Samael. Both of them were born at the same hour in the image of Adam and Eve, intertwined in each other.

It suggests an equivalence between the two characters. No wonder Frank keeps encountering the different forms of Lucy Butler and Sammael, they move so as to mirror one another. It is a very interesting and poetic contrast, one that invites all manner of speculation and consideration.

Mapping all the connections...

Mapping all the connections…

One of the more intriguing facets of Lucy Butler is the way that she seems to change and evolve with the show around her, reconfiguring herself to be what the show needs her to be at any given moment. In Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, Lucy was associated with the demonic forces seeking to get Frank Black on side. In A Room With No View, she was revealed to be farming mediocrity. She will reappear in Antipas and Saturn Dreaming of Mercury in roles related to children.

If Lucy Butler can change in appearance and motivations between seasons (and even between episodes), then perhaps the same is true of the forces aligned in opposition. The first two seasons seem to suggest that angels and divine forces are not entirely invested in mankind’s best interests. In Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions, Sammael makes it clear that he did not interfere to help Frank. In The Curse of Frank Black, there is no enlightened counterpart to Mister Crocell. In 19:19, God sends a tornado that almost kills mankind’s saviour.

Angels in leather jackets? What next? Sparkly vampires?

Angels in leather jackets? What next? Sparkly vampires?

In contrast, Chip Johannessen’s scripts in the second and third season do hint a more sympathetic and understanding divine authority. In In Arcadia Ego, two lesbian prisoners are granted a miraculous pregnancy. In Borrowed Time, it seems like Samiel is moved by the plight of Frank Black. It is debatable whether or not God was similarly moved by Frank’s plea. “Oh God,” Frank begs. “I tried to do everything You asked me to do… without knowing why… no expectations. Don’t do this, I’m begging You, please, don’t take her away from me.”

While Borrowed Time leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to whether Samiel is acting on his own authority or in accordance with the will of a higher authority, it seems like Frank and Jordan do get to experience some form of divine mercy. It suggests a slightly more engaged and sympathetic heavenly host than was present during the first and second season, where Lara Means was terrified of what her visions of angels meant while the best Frank ever got out of a divine messenger was the fact that his father was about to die.

"Well, she had a near-death experience... then she had a death experience."

“Well, she had a near-death experience… then she had a death experience.”

So Borrowed Time is a fascinating little episode, a welcome return to the mysticism and mystery of the late first season and the whole of the second. At the same time, Chip Johannessen’s script is a little rough around the edges in a number of places. These sorts of stories are always unclear and ambiguous. Part of the charm for Johannessen’s script for Force Majeure is the sense of confusion around the episode; the sense that the particulars remain blurry and uncertain even as the larger ideas come into focus. However, Borrowed Time is a little too messy.

Part of this is down to the decision to frame Samiel as something approaching a serial killer. In the teaser, we see Samiel locking a young girl in a train cabin as the train plunges into the water. When the first victim drowns in the park, Frank embarks upon what appears to be a serial killer investigation. “I need to enhance the faces on this videotape,” he tells Emma. “The killer may be there. Watching.” This builds up a nice sense of suspense around Samiel and around the episode, but it sacrifices clarity to do so.

"Looks like he finally got his white robes..."

“Looks like he finally got his white robes…”

The case seems both too contrived and too disjointed. Borrowed Time seems to suggest that Samiel is harvesting the previous survivors so that he can reallocate their extra days. After all, there are two women, a man and girl in the cabin; Samiel harvests Gertrude Epstein, Lisa Maher, the shut-in… and he tries to harvest Jordan as well. However, the first three deaths seem rather disconnected from the people on the train carriage. While Jordan almost dies at the exact moment that the girl is saved, there is a considerable gap between the other three deaths and the disaster.

This is an obvious narrative convenience. After all, if Samiel does not kill Epstein and Maher two days before the train accident, then there is no case for Frank and Emma to investigate; there is no easy way to bring Samiel into the story. If there is no gap between the lives he takes and the lives he spares, the episode cannot build up suspense about whether Samiel is simply another serial killer with a grim sense of humour. Borrowed Time needs the audience to make a number of considerable leaps in order for the episode to work.

Touchéd by an angel...

Touchéd by an angel…

To be fair, the constant cuts to the little girl on the train feel like an effort to make an explicit connection between the lives taken and the lives saved. However, they occasionally feel a little bit too much like a distraction. Sequences like discovering the “leak” in the cabin should serve as grim irony and foreshadowing, but instead they play as an attempt to give these characters something to do when the show cuts back to them. It is quite clear what the script is trying to accomplish, even if it doesn’t quite work.

Similarly, there is a sense that Borrowed Time is a little too ambitious for its own good. The special effects employed during the “crash” sequence are terrible. The use of animation as the bridge collapses under the weight of the train is very dodgy, but the shot of the train plunging into the water is some of the worst nineties prime-time special effects work. It seems like the plane crash in The Innocents really ate into the show’s special effects budget, as the train crash is represented by a dutch angle of a train carriage moving while blue fuzz appears at the bottom of the screen.

Clocking out...

Clocking out…

Borrowed Time makes the third season of Millennium look rather cheap. The scene of a train crash really should be a horrific and grim spectacle. The practical work is great – the train cabin set doesn’t look like a real train cabin, but it is a very impressive space used for a very impressive practical effect. However, the sequence of the train driving into the water is shockingly terrible. It is a moment that really knocks the viewer out of the story, looking like something that might have been employed on eighties Doctor Who.

Still, despite these problems, Borrowed Time is the best episode of the third season to this point. It has a surplus of ambition and ideas, which is never a bad thing. It captures a lot of the intriguing mystery of the first two seasons of the show, and demonstrates that the third season might finally be willing to begin talking about the events of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. It is a shame that the season is almost half-way over by the time that we reach Borrowed Time, suggesting that the show itself might not have a lot of time left over.

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