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Millennium – The Sound of Snow (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.

“Our pasts are what we are,” Alice Severin explains to Emma Hollis and Bob Giebelhouse towards the climax of The Sound of Snow. It seems as if she might be talking for Millennium itself.

The Sound of Snow is a literal homecoming for Frank Black and Millennium as a television show. It is the last time that a number of crucial elements of Millennium appear in the show. It is the last appearance of Detective Bob Giebelhouse, the Seattle police officer who has been around since The Pilot. It is the last appearance of the yellow house, although it has since been painted a less striking white. It is also the last appearance of Catherine Black, who was a regular character for the show’s first two seasons.

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The Sound of Snow features Frank Black returning to Seattle. This is not a big deal of itself. After all, Frank visited Seattle during TEOTWAWKI. However, The Sound of Snow sees Frank wading through memories. He flashes back to the events of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, and visits the yellow house. He even takes a trip out to visit the cabin where he tried to wait out the end of the world with his wife and daughter. The Sound of Snow is about reconciliation, allowing Frank one last conversation with his beloved.

The Sound of Snow is also about reconciliation for the show itself. Since Omertà, the show has been trying to deal with the legacy of a second season that the first eight episodes of the year had tried minimise or ignore. The Sound of Snow is the culmination of that approach, with the third season finally picking up from where the second season let off.

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Millennium never knew quite what to do with the character of Catherine Black. The first and second season had attempted to construct Catherine-centric episodes like The Well-Worn Lock and Anamnesis, but it was never entirely clear where Catherine belonged in the grand scheme of Millennium outside her relationship to Frank. She was a symbol of innocence and virtue that Frank swore to protect from the evils of the outside world. That is a nice character arc for Frank, but it hardly gives Catherine a lot of depth or agency.

The end of the first season and the start of the second season tended to minimise Catherine’s involvement with the show. The character disappeared for episodes at a time; when she did appear, she was often relegated to a concerned phone call or expository conversation. Once she was separated from Frank in The Beginning and the End, it began to seem strange that Megan Gallagher was in the opening credits and Terry O’Quinn was not. As the show moved towards its second season finalé, Chris Carter suggested to Glen Morgan and James Wong that they kill off Catherine.

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Ever since The Pilot, Carter had made the idea of Frank’s family and Frank’s home vitally important to the core values of Millennium. However, in an interview with Back to Frank Black, Carter conceded that those elements tended to clutter up the narrative and make it difficult to tell compelling stories:

It felt right to me, but I think that especially if you look at procedurals on TV now – CSI, for example – they dispense with all of that. It’s a caper, pure and simply. In the end it became something of an impediment to the storytelling, because you had to service the family stories, and it was really the capers that everyone wanted. I think that – unfairly and unfortunately for Megan Gallagher – foretold [Catherine’s] death.

It was telling that part of the retool at the start of the third season put more of an emphasis on the “caper” story elements. Millennium reverted back to fairly formulaic stories like Closure and Human Essence, stories that might easily have been adapted for shows like CSI and Law & Order.

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At the start of the season, it seemed like producer Michael Duggan was brought in to impose a clear sense of order and structure on the show. Certainly, Duggan resumé seems decidedly more conventional than that of his two direct predecessors. While Morgan and Wong had really developed their style on shows like The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond, Duggan had worked on shows like Law & Order and C-16: FBI. This probably accounts for the rather bland and generic episodes of the early third season, which feel like they want to be an FBI procedural.

However, by this point in the third season, it was clear that this approach was no longer sustainable. Michael Duggan had departed the show relatively early in the season. Ken Horton had stepped into the breach, working with Chip Johannessen to help stablish a show caught in chaos. It took a bit of work, but it did seem like the third season was correcting its course somewhat. While the first eight episodes of the season almost seemed to be in denial about the end of the second season, Millennium suddenly felt comfortably talking about the wackiness of the previous season.

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Omertà allowed Frank and Jordan to talk about the loss of Catherine, while providing Frank with a happy story about another troubled man who was able to protect his family by taking them to a cabin in a remote location. Borrowed Time suggested that Catherine’s sacrifice in The Time is Now had only bought Jordan a few more months. Collateral Damage forced Frank to work with Peter Watts, and to explore the damage done to their relationship while explicitly referencing the virus unleashed upon the world in The Fourth Horseman.

The Sound of Snow is really the culmination of this approach. One of the recurring themes of the third season is the idea of dealing with loss and death; in some ways, it feels like an extended grieving process. If the rewriting of continuity in The Innocents and Exegesis is simply an example of denial, then The Sound of Snow sees both Frank and the show taking significant steps towards acceptance. There is a sense that the third season of Millennium is finally accepting that it can’t pretend that the second season of Millennium never happened.

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The Sound of Snow is quite explicit in acknowledging the events of The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now. There is precious little ambiguous dialogue, and the episode actually provides more information that the audience needs to make the story work. The Sound of Snow incorporates actual footage and soundbytes from The Fourth Horseman and The Time is Now, even making it clear that the Marburg Virus was harvested from monkeys in Africa and even reproducing Peter Watts’ big speech about how deadly the disease actually is.

There is a sense that The Sound of Snow is effectively confirming the place of  The Time is Now in continuity. The Innocents and Exegesis sought to heavily re-write the context and consequences of that viral outbreak, much like Skull and Bones seemed to try to re-write a lot of The Hand of St. Sebastian. Instead, The Sound of Snow is remarkably candid; the events of the second season did happen, exactly as we saw them happen. Considerable effort is devoted to trying to tie all this together.

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“The way the media took it up you would have thought it was the black plague,” Giebelhouse explains to Hollis during a car journey. “The whole of the north–west dropping dead like flies. And the fuss was self–fulfilling. Roads jammed. People shooting at each other in stores, at junctions. National Guard protecting the hospitals. And then it just went away. It vectored out, they said. At most it took about eighty people. Bad enough, but not the end of the world like some people thought.”

In effect, it seems like Giebelhouse is trying to explain how both the events of The Time is Now and the events leading into The Innocents could have been the same event – how the viral outbreak could simultaneously have been the end of the world and a freak blip on the radar. It is not the perfect reconciliation, but it seems like the most elegant explanation possible under the circumstances. As with Collateral Damage, it feels like the writing staff is trying to prove that Millennium is a single show with three seasons, rather than three radically different shows.

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In fact, The Sound of Snow takes the audience and the characters back to the climax of The Time is Now. Giebelhouse has a flashback that recounts how the search and rescue teams found Jordan in the woods. There is a sense that The Sound of Snow is trying to offer closure to a cliffhanger that was largely downplayed or ignored in the first half of the season, to the point where the audience is finally being allowed to see the outcome of that cliffhanger. This is really where the third season should have begun.

That said, The Sound of Snow does make one alteration to the show’s internal continuity and history. Given how radically The Innocents and Skull and Bones tried to re-write the show’s second season, the alteration made by The Sound of Snow is relatively minor. Indeed, the episode is quite candid about the change that it is making to the events depicted in The Sound of Snow – and is also quite explicit about why it is making that change. There is a sense that this is the way that current production teams should tweak past events; subtly and honestly.

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The change concerns the nature of Catherine’s death. “I let you die,” Frank confesses, acknowledging events as they were depicted in The Time is Now. “You walked away alone to die.” However, Catherine corrects him, “You don’t remember very well. You were with me. When everything had fallen apart, you stayed with me. We were together.” It is a change to the show’s continuity, but in an ambiguous way. It allows the audience to preserve the bleakness of The Time is Now, but also room for the (relative) optimism of The Sound of Snow.

The Sound of Snow allows Frank Black to hold his wife, as she dies. It doesn’t matter that he chose to stay with Jordan in The Time is Now. This is what the character needs at this point in the story, and it is a minor change that allows for a more emotionally satisfying resolution to the narrative. Catherine appears to endorse the change. It is an alteration to the show’s history, but one done carefully and respectfully. There is none of the clumsiness that marked the transition from The Time is Now to The Innocents.

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Interestingly, writer Patrick Harbinson had not really intended for The Sound of Snow to be such an important or crucial episode when he started writing it. He acknowledged that it evolved as he was plotting it:

This episode arose entirely out of my efforts – almost literally – to go into stream-of-consciousness story-telling and just see where it ended up. So I started with a girl driving down a forest road and she puts a tape in the tape deck – it was the 90s – and there’s this gentle hiss, and then it starts to snow, and she drives on thinking how pretty, but then she starts to hear the flakes hitting the windscreen, and it’s weird, and then scary, and they’re getting louder, and louder, and then one cracks the windscreen, and… etc. etc. I was doing stuff, coming up with stuff, just to see if I could keep Chip (and Ken Horton – Ken was always there) listening, not interrupting, waiting to see what would happen next.  If someone were to analyse seriously the genius of Chris Carter’s story-telling, it’s that: keep your audience suspended in the dark waiting to see what happens next.

Anyway, after that came the struggle to make it all mean something, relate it to Frank, find an episode in it. And I realised, after several weeks’ uncertainty, that these mysterious cassettes were a kind of consciousness-enhancer, sending their listener into a quasi-hypnotic state where the past became physical, real. So I asked Chip and Ken if we could bring Megan back, and they said okay, and we had our story, and I was able to resolve one of the big unanswered questions of the series. Was it daunting, the Megan part of it? If I’d been asked to write an episode specifically resolving the Megan/Frank relationship, that would have been daunting, but as it was, coming at it backwards, as it were, it seemed simple, logical, and right. I was simply finding closure for her, for us.

It is remarkable that the episode came together as well as it did, particular in light of the revelation that the episode found its climax organically and naturally.

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It is worth noting that The Sound of Snow feels like a coda to the second season, more than any other episode to air in the final year of Millennium. It is an episode that revisits the second season, in a very literal and material way. It remains true to the spirit of the second season, with Frank discovering that the yellow house simply does not exist any more. The Time is Now put a crack in the foundation, while The Sound of Snow simply paints it white. The second season was the story of Frank’s exile from the yellow house; The Sound of Snow returns to the metaphor.

More than that, The Sound of Snow embraces a lot of the weird religious subtext that underpinned the second season of Millennium. With exceptions like Borrowed Time and Forcing the End, the third season tends more towards secular government conspiracies than weird religious esoterica. So it is quite striking when The Sound of Snow starts talking about the divine judgement implicit in the concept of “Saint Peter’s Gate” or when the Millennium Group reverts back to quoting Nostradamus rather than tangling with the army or the CIA.

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Although no representatives of the Millennium Group appear in The Sound of Snow, outside of the use of Peter Watts in flashback footage, it is clear that Patrick Harbinson understands how Morgan and Wong conceived the organisation. In dialogue and conversation, the Millennium Group is once again defined as a rival family unit; it is second family that threatens to steal Frank away from Jordan and Catherine, which seeks to create a larger enough circle to protect its members from the outside world.

This is the first time that the show has grappled with Frank’s guilt over what happened, and The Sound of Snow is clever enough to tie it to the second season’s themes of family. “They wanted me to join them, and they wanted me to join the Group and then you’d be saved,” Frank admits. “Peter Watts’ family’s alive. His daughters have a mother. They set the table and she sits down to eat. You know that Jordan sets an empty place? Every night. Every night she sets an empty place and I can’t, I’ll never ask her to stop. Believe in them and you’ll be saved.”

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It is a very succinct summary of the arc that carried Frank across the second season, conveying the weight of the decisions that he had to make. However, in keeping with the recurring idea that the third season of Millennium is about balancing hope and fear, Catherine presents an interpretation of the second season that makes the Black family out to be victors. “You chose me, not them,” Catherine reassures Frank. “They had already taken too much of you. We beat them. All of their protections and their mysteries and their power. You chose me. We chose each other.”

Of course, it is very hard to paint that as an unambiguous triumph. Catherine Black is still dead; Jordan Black will still grow up without a mother. However, The Sound of Snow argues that Frank and Catherine enjoyed a (very) qualified victory. As with Borrowed Time, there is a clear sense that something good must have come from that truly horrific event. Millennium could be a very bleak show, but the third season interestingly attempted to build a contrast between hope and despair. It dared to suggest that the turn of millennium might present an alternative to doomsday.

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It is so easy to get distracted by the way that The Sound of Snow interacts with the rest of Millennium that it is possible to lose sight of just how interesting the episode is on its own merits. The teaser to The Sound of Snow is absolutely superb, standing as one of the best Millennium teasers ever produced. It is atmospheric and mysterious and ethereal. With the paranormal trappings and weird dream imagery, the sequence could easily seem like another attempt to emulate The X-Files, but it is underpinned by the sort of wistful melancholy that Millennium does so well.

Director Paul Shapiro does a great job with The Sound of Snow, which really feels like the sort of ambitious and ambiguous story that that show might have attempted during its more experimental second season. There are lots of sequences that feel just a step or two removed from normal prime-time television, allowing The Sound of Snow to bask in atmosphere and mood ahead of plotting or exposition. The episode feels very much like a mood piece, with Shapiro’s direction and Harbinson’s script working perfect harmony.

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It helps that The Sound of Snow is tied together by the themes of existential ennui that Millennium handles so well – the feeling of disconnect and divorce from the world around us. In The Sound of Snow, guilt seems to travel in hand-addressed envelopes. It is broadcast on tapes that play nothing but white noise. The listener is invited to project their own fears and uncertainties into that white space. The result is a deeply personal reckoning – a moment where a person sits alone in judgement of their own sins.

The Sound of Snow captures that sense of melancholy quite well. The second season repeatedly suggested that the end of the world was a deeply personal experience; that everybody must face their own apocalypse in their own way. The Sound of Snow picks up that theme. Carol Wheatley is driving down a quiet country road when she has her visions. She might as well be the only person in the world. Sure enough, she escapes into her own private world, populated with her own private horrors. The same is true of Frank.

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Isolation and distance are themes of The Sound of Snow, as the listeners all find themselves wandering into their private reckonings. “Did you know that whales could talk to each other over thousands of miles,” Alice Severin asks at one point in the episode. “We don’t hear very well, do we?” The episode makes it clear that Severin is not personally associated with any of the people who received the tapes. When Giebelhouse discovers her private “mailing list” with thousands of names on it, there is nothing to indicate anything personal to all this.

There is something beautifully ironic in all this. The tapes invite the listener to relive their most personal and traumatic experiences; but the tapes are sent out anonymously over the mail. It is unclear how Severin selected her victims; it is even somewhat ambiguous as to whether she knew precisely what fears and anxieties her tapes would drag up. In a way, this captures the recurring anxiety in Chris Carter’s work about feelings of isolation and anomie. It is possible to find yourself simultaneously caught up in something huge and impersonal, yet strangely intimate.

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After all, the tapes do not seem to be perfectly calibrated for an individual person. Frank does not receive the tape addressed to him until halfway through the episode. He is initially forwarded on the tape that killed Carol Wheatley. However, while Frank is able to pick “glimpses” of what haunted victims like Carol Wheatley and Jerry Origo, the tape that gave Carol visions of Neil drowning under the ice haunts Frank with flashbacks to the release of the Marburg Virus and the death of his wife.

In many ways, the mailing of the tapes cannot help but evoke the strange phenomenon of chain letters. In particular, the chain of custody on the tape that Frank initially receives suggests that the tape has been passed through several sets of hands. Although most of the tapes featured in The Sound of Snow arrived direct from Severin, it is interesting to wonder whether there is a “pay it forward” approach for those many listeners who survived their experience with the tape, whether somebody would knowingly send on the tape to somebody else.

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In many respects, chain letters evoke a lot of the same ideas at work in The Sound of Snow. They often seem deeply personal, even as there is a deeply impersonal aspect to their manner of spread and propagation. As a 2008 survey on the phenomenon observed, chain letters can ironically demonstrate how detached we all are from one another:

These messages also rarely took the most direct route between two inboxes, even when two people were connected by a few degrees of separation. “The chain letters themselves often got to people by highly circuitous routes,” Kleinberg said. “You could be six steps away from someone, and yet the chain letter could pass through up to 100 intermediaries before showing up in your inbox.”

Chain letters frequently arrived with a supernatural promise of good fortune for those who passed it on, and misfortune for those who did not – evoking the same mystical and inexplicable sense of power that the tapes seem to hold in The Sound of Snow.

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Chain letters were not a new phenomenon when The Sound of Snow was broadcast; after all, consider the “send a dime” chain letter that exploded across the United States in 1935. However, they were a lot more prominent than they had been. In 1995, celebrities like Demi Moore and Kevin Kline were suckered into taking part in a chain letter for the “Romanian Orphanage Trust.” At the same time, the Meme Research Group at the University of California was fascinated by how the development of the internet had made it even easier to spread these sorts of letters.

In a way, the explosion in chain letters and memes spawned by increased access to the the internet would become a recurring and theme and motif in horror fiction. In January 1998, the Japanese horror Ringu had proposed a truly viral horror story – evidence of a horrific child murder that would kill you if you did not pass it on to another person. The Sound of Snow is never quite as explicit, but the use of the mail to send something that is simultaneously deeply personal and completely anonymous touches on those big ideas.

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The Sound of Snow is probably the strongest episode of the third season. It is a story that finally picks up where The Time is Now left off. There is a sense that the third season can really begin at this point. As such, it feels almost tragic that the third season is now half-way over.

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2 Responses

  1. I talking about the legacy of his shows, The X-Files and Millennium, I am always struck by how much Carter emphasizes the visual/cinematic element to those shows and downplays the more serialized element. He seems more than happy to acknowledge his role as a precursor to CSI and Criminal Minds, but much less willing to acknowledge his role in laying groundwork for serialized stories like LOST or Breaking Bad. For as much as he wanted his shows to be “capers” and anthologies, he couldn’t help himself from putting the serialized elements in. It’s an interesting contradiction and you can’t help but wonder what could have been if he had allowed himself to really cut loose with seasons 6 and 7 of The X-Files or season 3 of Millennium.
    I vaguely remember catching this episode in a rerun sometime after the show went off the air but I don’t remember much about it. One thing I did notice in your recap is the screenshot of (presumably Jordan?) next to a truck on a highway that looks strikingly like an image from The Road, which you have referenced as one of Morgan&Wong’s ideas for how season 3 could have played out.

    As for the change in continuity made in this episode, I do remember in the season 2 finale Frank did flash to Catherine walking out into the woods. That wasn’t actually shown in the climax; we only saw Frank waking up, seeing blood on the pillow and then a cut to Jordan waking up. And I agree, it all fits ambiguously enough to preserves themes of both episodes/seasons.

    • I thought Frank caught a glimpse of her between the trees from the window after noticing the pillow, although maybe it was a flash? The sequence in The Time is Now is clearly edited to suggest Frank stayed with Jordan, which makes sense in context. (Not that there’s a “right” or “happy” choice in that scenario.)

      That sequence of Jordan finding the truck is ethereal and haunting. It actually feels like something from The Time is Now, which is very bold for a third season that ran as far away from that episode as possible. But The Sound of Snow is just a beautiful episode in general. That teaser is amazing.

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