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Millennium – Season 3 (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.

Three seasons is a good run.

It’s not a great run, but it is worth noting that Millennium ran longer than any of Chris Carter’s creations other than The X-Files. Given you grim and esoteric Millennium turned out to be, that is quite impressive. Notably, even the third season of Millennium performed better in the ratings than the first season of Harsh Realm. In many respects, Millennium is a very odd television show; it seems surprising that it lasted for three seasons. While fans (and many who worked on it) might have wanted more, Millennium is not a failure.

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That said, the third season of Millennium is a disaster. There are a lot of reasons for this. The show was renewed by Fox quite late in the process, meaning the production team had little time to prepare. Glen Morgan and James Wong had no interest in returning to run the show, even if the rest of the staff would have them. Either due to time constraints or frustration, nobody asked Morgan and Wong about resolving the ending of The Time is Now. Michael Duggan was hired as showrunner, only to depart eight episodes into the season.

With all of this going on, the problems with the third season are entirely understandable. The season feels like a disjointed mess because there was chaos behind the scenes. The season was confused about its own continuity because the production team had no idea what to make of the second season. With ratings plunging, the show sought comfort in the familiar; there is an extended stretch near the start of the third season where it feels like the production team were trying to turn the show into a copy of The X-Files.

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The third season of Millennium has fairly terrible reputation among fans. This is not entirely undeserved; the early stretch of the third season contains a string of the worst episodes that Millennium ever produced. As sympathetic as the surrounding circumstances might make an audience to the show, that goodwill evaporates when confronted with episodes like The Innocents, Exegesis, TEOTWAWKI, Skull and Bones, Through a Glass Darkly, Human Essence and Omertà. The series improves dramatically in its middle section; but it is never consistent.

The third season contains a number of underrated episodes that do count among the best that the show ever produced, and a whole host of more interesting failures around those episodes. Perhaps the best thing that might be said about the third season is that it is interesting at least as often as it is bad. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement. It isn’t. The third season of Millennium doesn’t work. The reasons for this are entirely understandable, but that does not make it any easier to watch.

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Given the tendency of Millennium to reinvent itself with every season, Millennium fandom tends to split along season lines. Those who prefer the meditations on evil (and serial killers) in the first season often find themselves at odds with those who respond to the eschatological (and familial) themes of the second season. Very few voices in fandom will argue in defense of the third season. That is because it is quite difficult to detect a single unifying theme or idea bubbling through the year.

In many respects, the third season seems full of narrative or thematic cul de sacs, with the show throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall and hoping that they stick. However, there is no real plan or objective. The first season did not necessarily have a point that it was building towards (beyond the polaroid stalker), but it had a very clear thematic consistency and conceptual bedrock. The second season began building towards The Time is Now in the opening minutes of The Beginning and the End, with every subsequent episode advancing the themes or the plot.

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The third season has none of this. With opening and closing the season with two two-part episodes presents a nice sense of symmetry, there is nothing The Innocents that feels like the show is moving in a straight line towards Goodbye to All That. Instead, there is a sense that the show is trying everything that it can in the hope that something might work. Not all of these ideas are good ideas, and the third season seems aware of this. It just seems to spend most of its run trying to secure a footing, lacking the self-confidence of the first two years.

Many of these ideas proposed over the third season are inherently contradictory. Peter Watts is presented as a lazy photocopy of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in shows like ExegesisSkull and Bones and Bardo Thodol; more nuanced characterisation is suggested in Collateral DamageMatryoshka and Goodbye to All That. Emma Hollis’ fascination with the Group is suggested in Forcing the End or Saturn Dreaming of Mercury, while she faces the organisation’s two-dimensional evil in Skull and Bones, Human Essence and Bardo Thodol.

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When ideas don’t work, they are abandoned so that the show can try something only slightly different. The show really wants to give Emma Hollis a tragic back story, but it takes three attempts before it sticks. Closure reveals that Emma’s sister was killed by a serial killer when she was only a young child, in a blatant attempt to do Conduit as an episode of Millennium. This does not stick, so Human Essence introduces a drug-addicted cousin. That did not work, so Darwin’s Eye features Emma’s father who is suffering with Alzheimer’s.

James Hollis works much better as traumatic back story than Melissa or Tamra. However, his effectiveness is hindered by the fact that it took the show took so long to figure out how to give Emma a traumatic back story that worked. James Hollis is introduced in the final third of the season, a Chekov’s Gun that goes off a mere four episodes later when the Millennium Group use him as leverage against Emma in Via Dolorosa. He is the perfect example of the problems plotting and pacing the season. Even as an element that works, he could work a lot better.

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The season moves in jerks and starts, doubling back over itself and wandering in circles. Exegesis reintroduces the Millennium Group as a lame knock-off of the conspirators from The X-Files, with assassins covering up a covert CIA remote viewing experiment and hunting down Frank and Emma inside a missile silo. Breaking away from the Freemasonry or Knights Templar associations of the second season, the Millennium Group is a nebulous force involved in all manner of conspiracy theories; Collateral Damage blames them for Gulf War Syndrome.

The Millennium Group’s generic evilness lingers over episodes where they don’t even appear on screen. In Human Essence, Frank suspects the Group of trying to get Emma suspended from her job; in The Sound of Snow, Frank suggests that they were responsible for sending him a killer tape recording. Of the complexity afforded the Group in the second season, only the faintest traces remain. An aging member lambastes the Group in a very self-aware sequence from Matryoshka, while Peter suggests a grander plan in Goodbye to All That.

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Although the third season repeatedly suggests that the Millennium Group is evil, it never seems entirely sure what the nature of that evil might be. Exegesis and Collateral Damage suggest a very generic conspiratorial evil. Matryoshka and Bardo Thodol suggest an interest in weird science. Seven and One hints that a truly demonic evil might have infiltrated the Group. By the time that Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That reveal that the Millennium Group is manufacturing serial killers, it is easier to just go along with it.

Of course, it is very hard to reconcile the versions of Millennium Group and Peter Watts presented in the third season with their earlier incarnations. Matryoshka presents a history of the Group that is very clearly designed to run counter to that established in The Hand of St. Sebastian, in spirit if not in word. (Although it is very difficult to reconcile in word.) This is perhaps the most overt example, but it is far from the only instance. The third season of Millennium spends an inordinate amount of time re-writing its own history.

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In Skull and Bones, the story of Cheryl Andrews’ betrayal of the Group in Germany differs significantly (and seems hard to fit with) the events of The Hand of St. Sebastian. The apocalypse at the end of The Time is Now is rewritten as a botched assassination attempt by the Millennium Group in Exegesis. In contrast, Millennium harked back to its first season, with episodes like Closure and Through a Glass, Darkly feeling like a conscious attempt to recapture the classic format of the show.

This approach did not do Millennium any favours, wiping away swathes of history and development. As the year continued, it seemed like the production team softened slightly in their assessment of the second season. Beginning with Omertà, the middle section of the season acknowledged the events of The Time is Now. Catherine’s name was no longer taboo, her death mentioned in Borrowed Time, Collateral Damage and The Sound of Snow. Even Peter Watts’ characterisation in Collateral Damage felt like it developed from the second season.

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However, as with a lot of the third season, it felt like the show took one step forwards and two steps back. As much as the middle section of the season suggested a new holistic approach to Millennium, later episodes found themselves suggesting that the second season was somehow irrelevant. Matryoshka suggested that the Millennium Group was definitely a bunch of old FBI agents and certainly not a Christian cult. Bardo Thodol pushed Peter Watts back into “generic baddie” mode.

Seven and One quickly discounted the second polaroid stalker who appeared in The Beginning and the End. Instead, the episode took great pains to clarify that it was referencing the character who had menaced Frank before the events of The Pilot. Ironically, this wound up creating a discontinuity within the third season. In Seven and One, Frank refuses to believe that the mysterious polaroids could have arrived from the original stalker, because he is dead. However, Frank attends the execution of that character two episodes later in Via Dolorosa.

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The third season seemed to zig-zag across its own continuity, never entirely sure of where it was going or what it was doing. As a result, its big themes and ideas were obscured by the demands of the moment. The big revelation in Via Dolorosa and Goodbye to All That that the Millennium Group had been creating serial killers was hinted at in stories like Skull and Bones and Bardo Thodol, as well as fitting with themes suggested by TEOTWAWKI. However, it seemed a rather zany plot for the villains of Exegesis or Collateral Damage.

There are lots of reasons for the disjointed nature of the third season. The most obvious is that Chris Carter was more involved than he had been during the second season, but less involved than he had been during the first. It was clear that Carter wanted to be involved in the running of the show, but the decision to move The X-Files to Los Angeles made it more difficult from a logistical standpoint than it had been in the first year. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz ended up contributing three scripts to the season, none of which really set a direction or tone.

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Initially, Carter hired Michael Duggan to run the third season. Duggan was new to the world of Ten Thirteen. In hindsight, appointing Duggan was a tremendously risky move. Glen Morgan and James Wong had been working on Millennium for half the season before they were put in charge of the second year. It is perhaps a little disappointing that Carter did not originally turn to Chip Johannessen to run the show or convince Frank Spotnitz to take the reins, with either being a safer choice in the circumstances.

Duggan’s appointment was a clear signal of intent as to the direction of the third season. In contemporaneous interviews, Carter talked about getting Millennium back on track – Duggan’s experience on procedurals like Law & Order and C-16: FBI offered a very clear indication of exactly what “on track” meant. The result was a rather generic and bland version of Millennium that felt like a blander (and greyer) version of The X-Files – with episodes like TEOTWAWKI, Closure, Through a Glass, Darkly and Human Essence.

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The result is one of the dreariest stretches in the entire Ten Thirteen catalogue. Under Duggan’s supervision, the show recaptures the dull grimness that defined a lot of the earliest first season episodes. However, this doesn’t feel like a show trying to figure out its identity. This is a show that has decided that episodes like Kingdom ComeWide Open, Weeds and Loin Like a Hunting Flame were the “golden age” of Millennium and something towards which to aspire. Shows like ClosureHuman Essence and (particularly) Through a Glass, Darkly wallow in their misery.

To be fair, the show did make a point to return to the classic “serial killer of the week” format in its final year. The only real “serial killer of the week” story in the second season was The Mikado, although episodes like Beware of the Dog19:19 and Goodbye Charlie played with the familiar story template. In contrast, the third season offers up a host of episodes that could be seen as a return to the format that was dominant in the first season. Closure, Through a Glass, Darkly and Nostalgia are all very conventional episodes.

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More than that, the show’s uncomfortable relationship between sex and violence returns over the course of the season. The second season generally avoided some of the more awkward serial killer tropes that connect graphic violence with explicit sexuality. In contrast, the third season embraces the connection. Collateral Damage is uncomfortably voyeuristic as Eric Swan strips and hoses down Taylor Watts; Darwin’s Eye luxuriates in its creepy pre-murder sex scene; Via Dolorosa has a killer watching married couples make love with night vision goggles.

There is something quite sordid about all this, something that feels rather crass and exploitative. Nostalgia does a great job of acknowledging the sexual component of the crimes while also avoiding excessive sexualisation of its violence. It is a same that the rest of the show does not have the same restraint. It often feels like Millennium operates by a rather outdated moral code. As Frank learned in Paper Dove, even married couples are not allowed to have sex without provoking a psychopath.

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While this trend runs through the season, it is the first stretch of the season that feels like a rather overt attempt to recapture the spirit of the early first season. Although later episodes like Antipas, Saturn Dreaming of Mercury and  Seven and One make a conscious effort to play up the show’s mysticism, the early episodes in the season feel relatively grounded. Even the remote viewing in The Innocents and Exegesis is discussed in a rather low-key manner. In this early run of episodes, Millennium seems downright rational.

It is interesting to wonder whether this opening stretch of the season helped to set the tone of discourse on the third season. Certainly, it is very difficult to enjoy the opening stretch of the third season – particularly coming off the sheer pulpy thrill of something like The Time is Now. While the second half of the third season never reaches the highs of the second half of the first season (or any stretch of the second), the episodes towards the end of the year are more interesting and exciting than most of the episodes in the opening third.

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Duggan did not last too long as showrunner, departing the show about a third of the way into the season. Showrunner duties were handed over to Chip Johannessen and Ken Horton. Horton had worked on Millennium since The Pilot, while Johannessen had joined the show in its first year. Both were very familiar with the show, having worked on both the first and second season. (They were also among the members of the production team who had voiced the strongest objections to the direction of the second season.)

Taking over any show midstream would have been a challenge, let alone a show that was already in the middle of an identity crisis. Given all the factors in play, Horton and Johannessen acquitted themselves phenomenally well. They were stuck steering a ship that was already a third of the way through its journey, without any idea about where that journey might take them. The fact that their aesthetics could not be any more distinct from those of Michael Duggan only added to the disjointed feel of the season.

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The back end the third season owes a lot to Chip Johannessen’s taste and style – with that approach become more pronounced as the season went on. Episodes like Borrowed Time, Saturn Dreaming of Mercury and Bardo Thodol all favoured abstract thematic elements ahead of routine plot beats. This almost impressionistic storytelling is very much in keeping with Johannessen’s storytelling preferences. His first season scripts included episodes like Force Majeure and Maranatha.

It is interesting to wonder what Horton and Johannessen might have done with a full season at their disposal, afforded the summer break to plot and plan the year ahead. Switching styles midstream meant that there is a certain inelegance to the third season. The two styles are diametrically opposed to one another, and so having to oversee the change in the middle of an already highly-stressed production cycle was just tempting fate. Not only is the third season hard to reconcile with either of the first two season; it is difficult to reconcile with itself.

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And, despite all this, there are points where Millennium comes quite close to working. The high points in the third season tend to come when the show decides to embrace and acknowledge its own history rather than trying desperately to paint over it. The Sound of Snow is one of the best episodes of the show’s three-year run because it acknowledges the impact of the second season finalé, while Collateral Damage and Goodbye to All That work very hard to pitch a grand unified theory of Millennium.

It is arguably an effort doomed to failure. It is impossible to reconcile all of Millennium to itself. It calls to mind Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, which was largely based around the idea of tying together seven decades worth of stories featuring the same character by a wealth of different writers. The third season of Millennium never had that level of self-awareness, even with episodes like … Thirteen Years Later and Goodbye to All That. Still, the effort is worth making. It is a nice magnanimous gesture, particularly given everything happening around it.

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That said, there are points where it feels like the third season has descended into an extended argument between various factions of the production team about what does or doesn’t “count” in the grand scheme of Millennium. There is a constant back-and-forth from the start of the season right through to the end. Even later in the season, Matryoshka and Seven and One are engaged with the same dull argument about what constitutes the “real” version of Millennium.

As a result, it feels like the third season of Millennium is rather introverted and isolated. It is no longer a show pushing into the future. It is a show that spends a lot of its time and energy attempting to manage and regulate its own internal continuity. There comes a point where the show simply needs to brush all that aside and move past it. Collateral Damage really should have been the end of all that, allowing the show to focus on the question of what is supposed to come next. Instead, it feels like the show gets bogged down in the same old arguments over and over.

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At the same time, there are good episodes in the run. Saturn Dreaming of Mercury is a delightfully abstract exploration of childhood growth and creeping awareness, told through symbolism and metaphor rather than dialogue or plot. Nostalgia is one of the very best “serial killer of the week” shows, buried quietly towards the end of the season. There are a lot of terrible episodes that drown out some of the more interesting episodes, but there is worthy material here.

Still, the third season never hits the consistent highs that mark the tail end of the first season or the entirety of the second. There are a wealth of explanations that account for the problems and issues with the season, but they don’t make it any easier to watch. The third season of Millennium is not completely without merit, but its merits are not strong enough to support an entire twenty-two episode season. It is a shame that Millennium did not get to see the year 2000, but the final season does not make a convincing case for the show’s continuation or survival.

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While the second season of Millennium was one of the strongest seasons of television ever produced by Ten Thirteen, the third season of Millennium is one of the worst. In some respects, Millennium might have served as a warning of things to come for The X-Files, with declining ratings and a lackluster season helping to cement the impression that it is impossible to go out while on top.

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2 Responses

  1. I notice you’ve downgraded Millennium season two from “the best season of television ever produced by Ten Thirteen” in that review to “one of the strongest” in this one. Maybe because the first was written in the thrall of afterglow, the second in a fog of disappointment?

    Now you’ve had some time away, which is it? We’re X-philes, we demand conclusive answers! (Catching up on your insightful reviews recently, it seems the other heavyweight contender is TXF season 3).

    I only got round to watching Millennium a couple of years ago, and it’s only the Morgan & Wong iteration that I feel the itch to re-watch. The ending feels so definitive, I’ll have no trouble pretending it’s the series finale.

    • I’d probably lean more to the first option. But I may have been hedging. 🙂 It’s the best season of television ever produced by Ten Thirteen. You’re right that the third season of The X-Files is really the only one that comes close, although the eighth is also more than the sum of its parts.

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