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Millennium – Nostalgia (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.

Nostalgia is the last “serial killer of the week” story produced by Millennium.

Sure, there is a serial killer in Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That, but the last two episodes of Millennium are much more interested in the show’s mythology than in a nuts-and-bolts “Frank catches a serial killer” story. Appropriately enough, given its title, Nostalgia feels like a throwback to a simpler version of Millennium. In a way, it does more to capture the mood and feel of the first season of the show than anything like Matryoshka or Seven and One. It helps that Nostalgia is a great episode, judged by it own merits.

Frank sees all. All.

Frank sees all. All.

It makes sense that Nostalgia should come from Michael R. Perry. With his debut script for The Mikado in the second season, Perry had demonstrated quite a knack for traditional Millennium storytelling. The Mikado was arguably something of a throwback itself, the most old-school “serial killer of the week” story in the show’s delightfully off-kilter second season. If the show wanted to do one last “serial killer of the week” story, there was no writer better suited to crafting it than Michael R. Perry.

In a way, Nostalgia feels like belated vindication for the “back to basics” aesthetic running through the third season – proof that perhaps it might be possible for the show to recapture some of the stronger aspects of the first season even this late in the game. Nostalgia is a much better version of the stories that Closure and Through a Glass Darkly had tried to resurrect earlier in the year. It might be enough to entirely redeem the season’s stubborn fixation on a past fading into history, but it does demonstrate that there were interesting stories to be told using that technique.

Parks and recreation...

Parks and recreation…

Nostalgia sees Frank and Emma visiting the small community of South Mills to investigate the murder of Jan McCall. South Mills is presented as an idyllic small town, with Emma holding a lot of affection for the community. It was the last place her family lived before the murder of her sister, meaning that she feels a strong attachment to the idea of South Mills. Inevitably, Frank and Emma discover that not only was Jen McCall the victim of a local predator, but that she was far from the only victim.

Even the structure of Nostalgia is designed to evoke those classic first-season “serial killer of the week” stories. Chris Carter has talked about how he originally envisaged Frank Black as an archetypal western hero – albeit one without a gun. Nostalgia harks back to episodes like Covenant and Broken World, with Frank (and Emma) wandering into a small town and shattering the illusion of innocence before moving on. Even the closing shot of Nostalgia echoes those of Covenant and Broken World, with Frank’s red SUV driving off to leave a town to mourn.

Computer says maybe.

Computer says maybe.

It is worth reflecting on why Nostalgia works better than other attempts to resurrect the “serial killer of the week” form in the third season. Certainly, Nostalgia is as grim as Closure and Through a Glass Darkly. It opens with the discovery of a dismembered foot and provides a host of the sort of creepy pseudo-sexual imagery that can often seem sensationalist or exploitative. At one point, we see Jerry Neilson dunking his head in a bathtub in what is obviously an attempt at auto erotic aphyxiation. Later on, he sexually assaults Liddy Hooper while drowning her.

There are undoubtedly points in the show’s run where Millennium‘s fixation on sexual violence can feel salacious – Loin Like a Hunting Flame and Darwin’s Eye come to mind. There are points where it feels like the show is falling into the horror movie trap, objectifying its female characters in a way that feels exploitative even as the show claims that it is meant to be uncomfortable. The sequence where Eric Swan strips and hoses down Taylor Watts in Collateral Damage is one such example, with the scene going on longer than is necessary to establish the horror.

Shining a light on the subject...

Shining a light on the subject…

Nostalgia very shrewdly works around these issues in a number of ways. The most obvious is that there is actually a minimal amount of screen-time devoted to showing elements of the case that could be sexualised. Instead, Nostalgia is constructed around the build-up to and aftermath of these acts and sequences. While Frank is shown the room where Liddy Hooper would take her lovers, the show avoids showing those particular scenes. When Frank discovers the semen stains in the hut, the show is more interested in what Jerry was doing than what Jerry was watching.

Instead of watching Liddy Hooper hook up with half the town in scenes that would objectify her, Nostalgia offers us a glimpse of the lead-up to these affairs; the episode features sequences that underscore the grotty creepiness of how the community treated a vulnerable young woman rather than portraying her as a sex object. When Nostalgia demonstrates Jerry’s pathology, Thomas J. Wright makes sure to film the sequences in the creepiest manner possible. There are no point of view shots or flashes of imagined passion.

Drowning in melancholy. Also, water.

Drowning in melancholy.
Also, water.

There is really only one sequence in Nostalgia that feels like an example of the male gaze. In the teaser, Jerry Neilson pulls over Jan McCall. Carrying his torch, he peers through the car window at his victim. The camera very slowly and very consciously pans over Jan, from her open blouse to her hot pants to her long legs. Wright makes sure that the shot feels deliberate and pointed. Not only is the pan excruciatingly slow, but Wright emphasises the male gaze by then reversing the pan from her legs back to her face.

Wright is quite conscious about what he is doing; it is no coincidence that Perry placed the episode’s most overt example of the male gaze in the teaser to the episode. Over the course of the episode, Frank and Emma offer a pretty damning indictment of an entire community that enabled and encouraged Jerry. The community was complicit in the objectification and abuse of Liddy Hooper, of using her and allowing her to be used. That deliberate tracking shot is designed to make the audience passively complicit as well, even before the credits role.

The chains that bind...

The chains that bind…

Another advantage that Nostalgia has over something like Through a Glass Darkly is structural. As he explained in an interview with Back to Frank Black, Michael R. Perry rather shrewdly eschews the structure of a mystery in order to tell a much more interesting story:

“It is in some ways a straightforward procedural, but I did a dirty trick. In the first five scenes we say, ‘This the guy who did it.’ Because it’s Frank Black and he realises, ‘This is the guy who did it’, we’ve taken the whodunnit element off the table and now it becomes how are you going to bring this guy to justice and what are the social elements? What is the culpability of the other people in this town, the people who knew this woman and let her death go unnoticed and let the fact that [in relation to] the very first victim, years ago, nobody even knew it was a murder? It was because she wasn’t politically connected. She wasn’t powerful. She was a girl who hung around bars and everybody laid her, and nobody respected her, even in death. It becomes an episode about how – even though I’m not a person who says it is society’s fault – it sometimes is a thing that serial killers learn that they can get away with it because they start preying on victims who aren’t powerful people: sometimes prostitutes, sometimes people who are just not well connected.”

By revealing Jerry’s guilt early on, Nostalgia is spared the awkward hijinks of trying to be both a mystery and a character study. Instead, the script becomes an examination of Jerry and an exploration of the community that passively enabled his pathology.

Beyond suspicion...

Beyond suspicion…

The closing shot of the teaser does a lot to establish the mood and tone of the episode. The sequence closes with the discovery of a human foot retrieved by a family pet, half buried in the flowerbed. It recalls the discovery of a human ear under a bunch of flowers in Gehenna, which itself felt like a nod towards the opening to Blue Velvet. There is a sense that something particularly menacing and unsettling has been uncovered beneath the veneer of a wholesome community, a sense that the world is more violent than those white picket fence would suggest.

The community of South Mills failed Liddy Hooper, by refusing to face some truths that would have made them deeply uncomfortable. “You looked the other way to avoid embarrassment and because Liddy Hooper was a throwaway,” Emma argues at one point. “And that let Gerry Neilson know, loud and clear: ‘hey, you want to kill someone? just choose your victims carefully’.” While there is nothing as sordid as a police cover-up happening here, Nostalgia offers an exploration of a very banal form of evil that can take root in situations like this.

One foot in the grave...

One foot in the grave…

Sadly, the scenario proposed by Nostalgia does not seem too far removed from reality. In 2010, Lonnie David Franklin Junior was arrested by police, accused of orchestrating the “Grim Sleeper” killings in Los Angeles. It is estimated that Franklin was active for over twenty years between 1985 and 2007, killing as many as forty-two victims. When Franklin was arrested, it took the authorities five months to process all the film in his house. When they finished, there were up to 180 unrecognised pictures.

Franklin’s reign of terror in South Central Los Angeles was unparalleled in the United States. However, there is a sense that he was hiding in plain sight, with several neighbours noting his creepy behaviour towards women in general and prostitutes in particular. It seems more likely that Franklin remained under the radar because he specifically targeted the kind of people who would not be missed. By preying on African American women (and prostitutes in particular) in South Central, Franklin largely operated below the authorities’ radar.

Picture imperfect...

Picture imperfect…

Even after his arrest, it seemed that law enforcement was somewhat disorganised in its approach to the community and to relatives of Franklin’s victims:

Thanks to the extraordinarily poor diplomacy extended by the Villaraigosa administration and the LAPD brass to the victims’ mostly working-class black families, the Weekly was also the first to inform some families this month that the murders are known to be the work of one sick man.

Laverne Peters had long suspected that Janecia’s death was part of something bigger. Her daughter’s murder case was transferred from 77th Division to the specialized detectives “downtown” in 2007, and she knew that one easily forgotten young woman would not merit such an elite investigative crew.

“It doesn’t take a scientist to figure it out,” she says. But when LAPD detectives paid Peters a visit, they didn’t come clean with her. The city’s failure to involve the families, she believes, stems from the fact that “they are poor little black girls.”

There is a sense that a lot of this might have been prevented had authorities engaged with the community or taken earlier notice of this predator’s work.

He likes to watch.

He likes to watch.

Documentarian Nick Broomfield would produce a documentary around the case for HBO, Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Interviewed about his research for the project, Broomfield suggested that the disinterest extended even deeper into the community than law enforcement officials:

Well, in fact, one of the real ingredients of this story is that it wasn’t reported. It wasn’t reported in the L.A. Times. It wasn’t even on the local news. Black-on-black violence is not regarded as newsworthy. Had it involved a white person, I’m sure the story would have been all over the country, particularly with these kinds of numbers. So I think that was always very much a part of the story. There’s a sort of apartheid, almost, in news reporting.

It is a harrowing story of the systemic failure of a city to protect its most vulnerable inhabitants. Sadly, it is far from the only example. The history of such investigations is littered with systemic failures.

Digging up the past...

Digging up the past…

In 2012, the failure to stop Robert Pickton from murdering 54 sex workers and drug addicts in Vancouver was labelled a “blatant failure” but an investigative tribunal. By the time the authorities had noticed and begun investigating the Green River Killer, he had already stopped. In 1996, three years before Nostalgia aired the botched handling of the investigation into Marc Dutroux by Belgian authorities had culminated in the “White March”, a 275,000-strong protest in Brussels outraged at the handling of the affair.

As such, Nostalgia finds a clever new use for the classic “serial killer of the week” episode. Millennium has an unfortunate tendency to suggest that such crimes are the result of almost supernatural evil – that such killers are inhuman to the point of being monsters or aliens. There were points in the first season where Frank’s profiling of psychopathic killers seemed akin to an anthropological study of inhuman evil. Serial killers were treated as grotesque boogeymen, hiding in your closet or in the utility spaces of your local sports centre.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

While such an approach could be unsettling and effective, it did render Millennium rather repetitive and didactic. It was hard to make grand statements about human nature and the power of evil when evil seemed to always take a cartoonish and exaggerated form. Nostalgia‘s examination of the culpability of South Mills as a whole is what really helps the episode stand out from a lot of the weaker entries in the genre. The episode suggests that perhaps there is a wider context for these atrocities, and how these horrors are handled can say a lot about a community.

Even the portrayal of Jerry Neilson is more nuanced than most of the “serial killer of the week” villains. Art Nesbitt, Edward Petey and Willi Borgsen were all defined by their creepy behaviour – treated as if they were X-Files monsters that were somehow able to pass as human between their grotesque actions. Nostalgia never downplays the horror of what Jerry has done, nor the creepiness of his pathology, but it still portrays Jerry in a more nuanced and sophisticated manner than most of Millennium‘s procedural episodes.

He who drinks with monsters...

He who drinks with monsters…

In particular, the climax of Nostalgia hinges on a conversation between Frank and Jerry. There is no gunfight, no chase. Frank identifies Jerry as a suspect quite early in the story, so it just becomes a matter of catching Jerry. Ultimately, Frank doesn’t defeat Jerry by finding some evidence or racing against time. Frank manages to solve the case by reaching Jerry on some human level, reminding the audience that these monsters are still fundamentally human. Jerry might do truly horrific things, but he is still a person.

In a way, this makes Millennium scarier. It is somehow easier to dismiss the horror of the show when it makes so conscious an effort to “other” those responsible for such heinous crimes. In acknowledging Jerry’s humanity, Nostalgia becomes all the more unsettling. Jerry might not be just like everybody else, but he is closer than we would like to think. Nostalgia undercuts the distance that Millennium creates between its audience and its monsters. The lack of demonic trappings makes it more discomforting.

Being Frank about it...

Being Frank about it…

That is why the deliberate and conscious exploitation of the male gaze in the teaser works so well, because it consciously puts us in the mindset of the killer – a mind that, up to a point, is not too different from the way that pop consciousness works. Jerry objectifies the women around him, but he is not alone in that. Jerry’s ends are a lot more grotesque and violent than those of the men around him, but he simply takes the idea of “women as objects for male satisfaction” to an extreme conclusion.

It is telling that Jerry is able to write off his voyeuristic masturbation over the women on the beach as the behaviour of “a regular guy.” When Frank and Emma point out the stains, Jerry explains, “Look, I may live alone, but I’m a regular guy. Now, no one saw and no one was hurt.” Given Sheriff Tommy Briggs’ emotive reaction to subsequent revelations, it seems like Briggs is perfectly willing to write off “masturbating over women at the beach while employed to protect them” as within the code of acceptable behavior as “a regular guy.”

Smoking out a killer...

Smoking out a killer…

(This is where Nostalgia‘s relative restraint works very well. There are points where Millennium can seem a tad reactionary on the subject of human sexuality, as the series is prone to punish any characters who dare to partake in the act for purposes beyond recreation. By working around the sexual liaisons between Liddy and the members of the community rather than dwelling on them, Nostalgia avoids that potentially problematic subtext. It is not sex itself that is presented as negative, but certain attitudes towards sex.)

Perry’s script is also quite good on its own terms. Although he didn’t do a lot with the character, Perry writes one of the more compelling versions of Emma Hollis to appear on Millennium. … Thirteen Years Later might not have explored any tragic Hollis back story, but it did offer a glimpse of a young woman who loved slasher horror films and relaxed by reading Borges. … Thirteen Years Later was one of the few episodes in the season to suggest a version of Hollis that seemed like more than an amalgamation of family tragedies.

It's a killer spot...

It’s a killer spot…

Nostalgia finds Emma Hollis returning home (or to one of the places she called home) and discovering that it is not how she remembered it to be. It is a very relatable, very understandable fear. Memory seldom syncs comfortably with reality. It also helps to cement the idea that Hollis might be paralleling Frank’s journey, an under-developed thread in her flirtations with the Millennium Group. Frank discovered that the yellow house was not the fortress he dreamed it to be; Emma discovers South Mills is not the haven she thought it to be.

“You know, coming back here, this crime… I’m just angry that it’s no different here than what I see everywhere else,” Emma confesses at one point. The episode never dwells on the connection, but it is definitely there. If Emma’s growing curiosity about the Millennium Group in the third season was intended to mirror Frank’s own flirtation with the Group in the second, then giving Emma her own version of the yellow house fits quite nicely. As with a lot of the third season, there is a sense that these themes are lost in the hazy structuring and plotting of the year.

Putting the matter to rest...

Putting the matter to rest…

However, even the interactions between Frank and Emma in Nostalgia have an odd charm to them. As with … Thirteen Years Later, there is a sense that Emma brings out Frank’s inner humanity. The last exchange between the two is delightful and candid. Staring out at the memorial service, Emma wonders, “I know this town never was what I thought it was, or what the people here thought, but you know what it’s like when you show up at some vacation spot that was sunny and suddenly it starts to rain, and you feel like you brought the bad weather with you?”

As Frank gets ready to drive the car away, he cannot stifle a chuckle. “Do I know what that feels like?” he repeats. “Oh, yeah.” The humour quickly fades, giving Frank a moment of melancholy as he solemnly repeats, “Oh, yeah.” It is a great scene between the two lead actors, because it manages to underscore exactly what they bring out in one another. That two-line exchange between Frank and Emma is one of the most human moments in the third season, and it is a shame that these sorts of moments feel so rare in this stretch of the show’s run.

Running deep...

Running deep…

There is a sense that Michael R. Perry might have joined Millennium just a few months too late. The writer had been hired by Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz towards the end of the first season, and his work leans towards the sensibilities of that season. This likely contributed to his relative inactivity during the second season, where he contributed a single script to the show. Sitting in the middle of season two, The Mikado felt like something of a throwback to the style of the first season – albeit decidedly more playful than most of the show’s serial killer episodes.

During the third season, Perry really came into his own – providing four of the season’s twenty-two episodes. Based on scripts like Collateral Damage and Nostalgia (and even … Thirteen Years Later), Perry would have been very much at home on the writing staff at the tail end of the first season. It seems to have been just a matter of poor timing that he missed that window of opportunity. Nevertheless, Nostalgia stands among the very best of the show’s “serial killer of the week” episodes. It is a testament to its writer, its director and the show around it.

Cleaning up his act...

Cleaning up his act…

There are worse ways to head into the series’ two-part finalé.

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