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Millennium – Via Dolorosa (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.

And so, Millennium ends.

That is not entirely accurate. Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That are really the third ending to Millennium. Chris Carter’s oft-overlooked series famously reinvented itself in each of its three seasons. Every season finalé was a series finalé, bidding farewell to one version of the show before another arrives. In the first season, it was a serial killer procedural with ominous spiritual undertones. In its second season, it was the story of a family breakup that drew in all manner of religious conspiracy theories and eschatology. In its third season, it was…

"Did I tell you that I REALLY like The Silence of the Lambs?"

“Did I tell you that I REALLY like The Silence of the Lambs?”

Well, it is hard to tell what the third season was – or even what it wanted to be.

Nevertheless, Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That feel like an attempt to grant the series some sense of closure. In a way, these episodes typify the third season. They are messy and confused, awkwardly paced and drawn in broad strokes. At the same time, there are enough interesting ideas and clever concepts that one can see how they might have come together with a bit more craft. There is an outline of a great episode here, with Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That making a valiant effort to pull together messy strands of continuity from across the show’s run.

"Yep, it feels a little bit like that."

“Yep, it feels a little bit like that.”

The third season of Millennium was hampered by terrible decisions made out of the gate, but the final stretch of the season has no shortage of ambition and drive. It is no secret that the third season suffered from a number of serious problems at the start of the year. Maybe if those had been avoided, Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That would have an easier time drawing down the blinds. Still, it is impossible to know what might have been, and the truth is that Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That are a flawed conclusion to a flawed year.

Perhaps appropriately, Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That offer a rather disjointed conclusion to a rather disjointed year. Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That are written by two different teams of writers and directed by two different directors. Although the plot carries across both episodes, there are points where the transition seems rather inelegant or incongruous. Then again, this is about wrapping up the show’s troubled third season, so it is certainly representative.

"Take a picture. It'll last longer."

“Take a picture. It’ll last longer.”

To be fair, Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That serve to close the book on this particular version of Millennium. As with Paper Dove and The Time is Now, this is only the end of Millennium in one sense. The show lingers on, well over a decade since Frank and Jordan rode off into the sunset together. Chris Carter would bring the character back for a bit of closure in Millennium, the fourth episode of the seventh season of The X-Files. IDW would resurrect Millennium in comic book form less a year before the announcement of the revival of The X-Files.

Fans have done tremendous work to keep the show alive. The wonderful Back to Frank Black fan campaign has archived the show for posterity, conducting interviews with dozens of people involved in the creative process and publishing the definitive tome on the series. Fans every wrote a hypothetical fourth season of the show. As one might expect of the guy who wrote Milagro, Carter endorsed this fan season. “I’m very curious to see how the characters are treated and in what direction the fans take the show so that I can nitpick them!” he quipped.

The night plumber.

The night plumber.

However, there is no getting around the fact that this was the end of the most popular and wide-reaching iteration of Millennium. This was the end of the weekly television series. The writing had been on the wall for quite some time. The show’s ratings were not what Fox had hoped for. The Pilot had set a record for the network, but the numbers had been in decline from that point. They fell across the first season. They fell across the second season. They fell across the third season.

In February 1999, Carter conceded that “Millennium’s future is in question.” In interviews two months later, Chris Carter was less than optimistic about the chances of a renewal from Fox. He explained, “I hope Millennium comes back next year. I’m not counting on it, but I think it deserves to come back because I think it’s still quality storytelling.” This was not enough to convince Fox to renew the show, and so Millennium wrapped up after three years. There are a host of ironies surrounding the cancellation, not least that Millennium did not make it to the millennium.

Meta!

Meta!

There are other ironies. One of the oft-cited justifications for the cancellation was that Fox felt that another show would perform better in the Friday night slot. As Frank Spotnitz observed in Endgame, Fox had cancelled Millennium based primarily on the assumption that they had a better performer lined up:

In its final season the show ratings-wise had plateaud. And I think that while it wasn’t doing badly, it was clearly not going to be a monster hit for the network. And I think it was a calculation on their part: ‘Do we bring the show back? It’s got a certain audience, it’s got a certain level of critical estimation. Or do we roll the dice and hope we’re going to come up with a big hit in that time slot?’ And I actually think, looking back now, we realize that the audiences for network television were in the process of eroding, and nobody was quite aware of it yet. And the fact that ‘Millennium’ was able to hold its audience to the degree it was, was in fact quite a success. But nobody, at that time, really saw it that way, so I can’t really blame them for hoping they could do better with something else.

Shortly after the cancellation, Carter would argue, “The ratings were such that Fox believed that they could do better.” In particular, they believe that they could do better with another Chris Carter show.

Reflecting on what might have been...

Reflecting on what might have been…

Since its launch in October 1996, Millennium had occupied the 9pm Friday night slot that had played host to The X-Files. Fox had very clearly hoped to incubate another breakout hit in that slot. However, as quickly became apparent, Millennium was a much less populist show than The X-Files. It seemed rather unlikely that the series would ever inspire hit US or UK singles, for example. With the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to wonder whether the expectations for the show were improperly managed, and whether splitting it up from The X-Files was the best idea.

For the new season, the Friday night slot that Millennium had occupied for three years had been allocated to Harsh Realm. Harsh Realm was Carter’s latest series, which had been filmed in Vancouver in March 1999. The network had enough faith in Harsh Realm that they scheduled it into the slot Millennium had held since its inception. In a very real way, Chris Carter squeezed himself out of the schedule. Given all this, it is rather ironic that Harsh Realm scored even lower ratings than Millennium, leading to the cancellation of the show three episodes into the first season.

Nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler.

The abrupt cancellation of Harsh Realm is notable as one of the few decisions by Fox that seemed to consciously ruffle Carter’s feathers. In an interview with Kevin & Bean, Carter was much more magnanimous about the cancellation of Millennium, which had enjoyed a good run. He explained, “The show went three years and it wasn’t really a big ratings getter, so I was happy to have it on for that long. But, you know, it would have been a tough year to do that show because the climate, right now, is very sensitive to that kind of drama.”

Nevertheless, it is clear that Carter had (and continues to have) a great deal of affection for Millennium. As early as 2000, he was talking about the possibility of putting together a Millennium movie or bringing back Frank Black beyond his guest appearance on The X-Files. He remains engaged with the show’s fandom, doing occasional interviews with Back to Frank Black and including The Pilot in his selection for the Austin Film Fest in 2012. Dead is not really dead, with some fans speculating Frank might pop up in the pending X-Files revival.

"Yep. This is a bedroom. The couple probably had sex. There's your cause of death."

“Yep. This is a bedroom. The couple probably had sex. There’s your cause of death.”

Nevertheless, according to Patrick Harbinson, Via Dolorosa was written with the expectation that Millennium would not see a fourth season:

I don’t remember a lot about Via Dolorosa which I wrote with another friend Marjorie David. But I think we felt that the show was coming to an end. Though the fractured free-form style of Season 3 led to many lovely episodes, especially Chip’s, it could be confusing, indeed irritating, to the audience. So, by the time we were writing Via Dolorosa, yes, I think we thought it was heading for the finish.

It very much feels like a finalé to Millennium, even if it doesn’t entirely mesh with Goodbye to All That.

This poses a problem...

This poses a problem…

Via Dolorosa was written by Patrick Harbinson and Marjorie David, and was directed by Paul Shapiro. Goodbye to All That was written by Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton, and directed by Thomas J. Wright. Both episodes are very clearly part of the same story starring the same characters and building to the same conclusion, but they fit together in a rather inelegant manner. Then again, that feels like an entirely appropriate way to wrap up three years of Millennium, a show where each of the three seasons feels like a different show.

Both Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That focus around a serial killer named Lucas Wayne Barr, who has been mimicking the work of Ed Cuffle. Cuffle was the original polaroid stalker. Only a few episodes earlier, in Seven and One, Frank had suggested that the original polaroid stalker was dead, another inconsistency in a season full of them. Via Dolorosa presents Barr and Cuffle as the archetypal Millennium killers, adding a health does of voyeurism to their violence. However, Goodbye to All That plays those elements down.

Dude seems pretty cross...

Dude seems pretty cross…

To be fair, both episodes are careful to ensure a minimum amount of continuity across the two-parter. Barr’s use of his night vision goggles in Goodbye to All That is dutifully set up in Via Dolorosa. However, the two episodes feel quite distinct from one another. Goodbye to All That has Barr move in with a blind friend in what is just one of several homages to the work of Thomas Harris, but it seems to come out of nowhere. More than that, Barr’s modus operandi also changes completely between episodes.

In Via Dolorosa, he leaves the bodies of his victims staged at the crime scene while engraving Roman numerals on furniture as a nod towards the stations of the cross. His Catholicism is repeatedly cited as a major motivating factor. In Goodbye to All That, Barr is somehow storing the bodies of his victims in the house of a blind friend and any religious subtext of his crimes is casually brushed aside with the discovery that he left a television set to channel fourteen, the final station of the cross.

"I probably should have set this on silent before we did the raid, huh?"

“I probably should have set this on silent before we did the raid, huh?”

The presentation of Barr is not the only difference between Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That. Peter Watts’ personality has been quite elastic over the course of the third season. He was reintroduced as an obvious villain in Exegesis, and his characterisation has tended towards extremes. Collateral Damage and even Matroyshka hinted at a more nuanced and human portrayal of the character than Skull and Bones or Bardo Thodol. It seems like the season could never figure out which version of Watts it preferred, and the same is true of the finalé.

Via Dolorosa tends towards a villainous take on the supporting player. As with Bardo Thodol and Skull and Bones, it is clear that Peter is up to no good. Using a cure for Emma’s father as leverage, he tries to turn Emma against Frank. It is possible to argue that Peter is just trying to force Frank out of the Bureau so he will accept his place in the Millennium Group, it still feels like an act of two-dimensional villainy. Certainly, neither Via Dolorosa nor Goodbye to All That allow Peter to make a compelling case for why this blackmail is justified.

Daddy's girl.

Daddy’s girl.

In contrast, Goodbye to All That has Peter reenact his second season character arc. Confronted by Frank about the Millennium Group’s interest in Jordan, Peter comes to accept that the Millennium Group is not up to any good. He provides Frank with vital inside information about what is happening, arguing that the Millennium Group serves the greater good. The climax of the episode features a body lying on the floor of Peter’s study, suggesting that the character has been murdered for helping Frank. It is very much a retread of his appearance in The Time is Now.

Notably, Via Dolorosa casts Peter in the role of the blackmailer who convinces Emma that this is the only way to help her father. In contrast, Goodbye to All That keeps Peter at a distance from that blackmail plot. It feels like the two-parter needs a second member of the Millennium Group, and that Peter is being forced to occupy two opposing positions across the episode. It underscores just how much was lost when the third season jettisoned the characters and mythology that the second season had built around the Millennium Group.

He likes to watch.

“Damn. These night vision goggles make me look sexy.”

That said, it might not be a bad thing that Goodbye to All That breaks away from Via Dolorosa. The changes that the second episode makes are generally improvements. Peter Watts (and Terry O’Quinn) works much more interesting as a conflicted man of faith than as a two-dimensional heavy. Similarly, the decision to drift away from the Christian imagery is probably for the best. Barr’s pathology is under-developed, and the whole “stations of the cross” motif feels like a transparent grasp at profundity.

Taking the emphasis off of Barr’s fixation on voyeurism and sex in Goodbye to All That is a shrewd move. In some ways, Via Dolorosa harks back to the excesses of scripts like Darwin’s Eye or Loin Like a Hunting Flame. It seems like it is impossible for anybody in Millennium to enjoy healthy sex without the intrusion of a voyeuristic psychopath. (Frank learned this in Paper Dove.) It is one of the more unfortunate recurring motifs in the show, and it is a shame to see Via Dolorosa wallowing in that shady aesthetic after the care taken in broaching the subject in Nostalgia.

His interest in Hollis is Peter-ing out...

His interest in Hollis is Peter-ing out…

More than that, most of Via Dolorosa has no real sense of momentum or forward movement. Barr sneaks into a house where a couple are having sex and murders them; then he sneaks into a house where a couple are having sex and gets chased out of the house. The pacing improves towards the climax of the episode, as the FBI walk right into a trap, but it all feels very rote and very safe. There was more tension in Jerry’s confession at the end of Nostalgia than there is in Via Dolorosa. There is nothing to match Frank’s visit to Peter in Goodbye to All That.

This is one respect in which the dissonance between Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That hurts the episode. While Via Dolorosa moves very slowly, Goodbye to All That struggles to cram in all the necessary plot beats. Several of the biggest twists in the episode feel like they accelerate from zero to sixty in no time at all. Emma’s flirtation with the Millennium Group was hinted at across the season, and her father was introduced in Darwin’s Eye, but her betrayal of Frank needs more build-up. Similarly, Peter’s betrayal of the Group needs more than just Collateral Damage.

"Don't worry. I'm sure this character development is part of a long-term character arc. What? Yeah, I'd love to lead an assault team to catch a military-trained psychopath at the end of the first part of a two-parter!"

“Don’t worry. I’m sure this character development is part of a long-term character arc. What? Yeah, I’d love to lead an assault team to catch a military-trained psychopath at the end of the first part of a two-parter!”

This applies to the climax of Via Dolorosa itself. Barry Baldwin has not been the most interesting of guest characters, but it feels transparent to humanise him right before killing him off. Technically, Baldwin dies in the opening scene of Goodbye to All That, but Frank’s honest to goodness compliment to Baldwin on his hard work in Via Dolorosa all but seals his fate. The death of Agent Pendrell meant something in Max because we had come to appreciate his goofy charm over several appearances. Turning Baldwin into a good guy minutes before killing him feels like a waste.

That said, Via Dolorosa looks fantastic. Director Paul Shapiro does great work bringing the story to life. While the pacing of the plot might seem a little off, Via Dolorosa is always atmospheric. The execution sequence at the start of the episode is suitably unsettling, as are the extended sequences where Barr stalks his victims. Shapiro helps to give Via Dolorosa an uncomfortable edge. There is just the right amount of flourish to his work, particularly that wonderful sequence where Frank seems to deduce that Baldwin is walking into a trap by staring into some flames.

Film freak.

Film freak.

Even the little shots work very well. There is a beautiful shot after Peter makes his offer to Hollis in the elevator at the FBI building. Peter is in the elevator, in the foreground; Frank is in the hallway in the background. Hollis is caught between them, in the middle ground. It is a very simple shot, but one that arguably conveys a lot more than any of the dialogue in the episode. It hints at Emma caught between the two characters. The little touch of having the elevator close so Frank cannot see Peter really sells the moment.

Thomas J. Wright tends to get a lot of credit for his work on Millennium, which makes sense. Wright directed twenty-six episodes of Millennium, not to mention the crossover episode of The X-Files. Wright directed more than a third of the show, so he deserves a great deal of credit for the look and feel of the series. However, there are other directors who contributed a great deal to the show. David Nutter directed directed four of the first twelve episodes, providing a solid basis for the show. Paul Shapiro directed five episodes of the final season.

"You guys go first. I might be a guest star, but you guys don't even have any lines."

“You guys go first. I might be a guest star, but you guys don’t even have any lines.”

As with writer Michael R. Perry, it seems like Shapiro arrived on Millennium at precisely the wrong time. Shapiro found himself tasked with directing some of the weirdest instalments of a particularly weird season – Skull and Bones, Omertà, The Sound of Snow, Saturn Dream of Mercury and Via Dolorosa. Those are very memorable episodes, even if not always for the right reasons. Ignoring the issues with any of the scripts, Shapiro’s work very clearly improved as he worked on the show.

While Skull and Bones and Omertà are hardly classic episodes of Millennium, the problem was never the direction. In fact, the acid trip sequence at the start of Skull and Bones feels like a nice rehearsal for what would come later. However, The Sound of Snow and Saturn Dream of Mercury only work as well as they do because of Shapiro’s direction. The teaser for The Sound of Snow is possibly the best teaser that Ten Thirteen ever produced, which is saying something in a season of television that also offered the teaser to One Son.

Lifting her spirits...

Lifting her spirits…

Via Dolorosa doesn’t work as well as The Sound of Snow or Saturn Dream of Mercury, but that is because the script does not play to Shapiro’s strengths in the same way. Shapiro does a lot of nice tense sequences, but there is never really an opportunity for any of the more abstract imagery or stylistic touches that mark his best work on the show. Thomas J. Wright was always going to direct the final episode of Millennium; that was only fair. However, it is nice that Shapiro got to direct the penultimate episode. (It’s a shame his next Ten Thirteen credit is Fight Club.)

Via Dolorosa is the first part of the final episode of Millennium. It is the penultimate episode of the third season. As such, it feels entirely appropriate that Via Dolorosa is defined by its strange tonal choices, its eccentricities, and its stubborn refusal to fit comfortably with the second part of this two-part story. To try and close the season on any other note would almost be disingenuous.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice find on somebody calling for Frank Black to be in the 2016 X-Files revival! Someone somewhere must have asked for it, and you found it. There were also some rumors — and I think Lance H was not completely innocent in this — that Frank would appear in the second X-Files movie in 2008. The Millennium fan base is a rather small group but very focused.

    • It is. And I’m constantly impressed by how much love they have for the show and the way that they organise. (And just their general can-do spirit.) The X-Files fandom is just as fun, but it seems less organised; perhaps due to its relative size, I suppose. It’s harder to administer a much larger body. Plus, I think that X-Files fandom generally got their fill of the show with an incredibly long run, so they weren’t too eager for a return until the possibility was actually mooted.

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