Eschatology 101

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Chris Carter
Director: David Nutter

In college I took a survey course in Russian literature. The professor, a defrocked Jesuit, spent a good half semester teaching us the ins and outs of eschatological trivia, the kind of thing that explains why 666 is an evil number, why in Western culture we "instinctively" knock on a door three times or five times but never two times, why seven is a lucky number and why eight is not. These clues to a deeper subtext in our own culture are fascinating and revealing to some intellectual minds, but of marginal interest to the rest of humanity. Whether that means the few who know the magic numbers can influence the rest of us I'll leave up to the occultists and the secret-society cognoscenti. What concerns me here is whether it will mean anything to the viewers of "Millennium".

Friday night's episode, "Gehenna", looks like a straightforward monster flick. A young man is given acid, dropped off in an industrial wasteland, and attacked by something lurking in the rusting ruins. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is called in when ashes in a community rose garden are discovered to contain human remains. The police quickly conclude that a serial killer is burning bodies and scattering the ashes in the roses to conceal the evidence. Despite creator Chris Carter's constant protestations to the contrary, it's hard to believe that Frank Black is NOT psychic when he takes one look at a human ear and concludes that the victims are being burned alive. The show quickly evolves into a discussion of the nature of evil, as Black and various members of the Millennium Group attempt to isolate this particular incarnation of it.

We meet not only Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn) again but Mike (Robin Gammell), Frank's mentor in the Group. Frank and Mike quickly turn the investigation of a murderous cult into an investigation into the character of evil, and whether it grows naturally in human souls or is an invasion from "out there". Mike states quite strongly that it is the result of a weak mind and a corrupt heart. Frank is less sure. Meanwhile, his intuition leads him to stake out the suspected scene of the last murder, and he catches a young man who has been drugged and left like the last victim. (Of course, simple police procedure, rather than intuition, is just as good an explanation for Frank's "hunch". Returning to the scene of a crime is a cliche precisely because it happens so often.) During his interrogation, the young man confesses to his involvement in a secret doomsday cult, then dies of heart failure brought on by "pure fright". It does not take long for Mike, and then Frank, to figure out where the cult operates from, and Mike gets himself trapped in an oven from which he is rescued at the last moment. The bad guy is apprehended, but has no lines. As is appropriate, since this story is not really about individual evil, but about the sort of free-floating angst that leads people to believe in an objective source of evil.

I think Chris Carter is getting in over his audience's head. He has never talked down to his audience, and that's part of the appeal of both "The X-Files" and "Millennium". But while the pop-cultural dumpster diving of the Fox Network laid the ground for "The X-Files" by giving us shows like "Sightings", nothing has prepared modern audiences for "Millennium". We have no context for this show. Thus references to the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza might be familiar to those of us permanently attuned to The Learning Channel or the works of Aleister Crowley, but most casual viewers will be scratching their heads and wondering where this is all leading. "Millennium", once we get past the flashy strippers and the classy images, is essentially a discussion in philosophy, one which will quickly alienate its viewers if someone doesn't come to the point damn quick.

Director David Nutter leached all the color out of this episode, leaving it as stark and bleak as the pilot. Certainly this expressionist approach gives it the depth and intensity of European art films, forcing us to concentrate on the characters rather than the half-seen action. This technique leaves us hurrying after clues, straining to hear half-mumbled phrases, focusing on Nutter's excellent close- ups for any sign or suggestion that will help. Nutter faltered only once, in a scene with the victim's immigrant parents that dragged almost to a stop. The rest of the time, his grim and melancholy vision married to Stephen Mark's editing scalpel made for an arresting vision. The mood seeped right through the screen and stained my whole night.

The writing is tight, spare, pithy: "Evil is born in a cold heart and a weak mind." Writer Chris Carter likes to make the shadows of our own homes the most menacing, and achieves it in a sequence where Catherine Black is worried about a flitting shadow outside her house. He doesn't write down to his audience, leaving it to us to connect the dots. He never gives us more blood than the minimum needed to establish the power and shock of violence intruding, like the Outsider Frank fears, into our lives. It's a well- crafted style, designed to rattle us without numbing us with over-the-top violence, and if "Millennium" can survive without the sexy leads in "The X-Files" it will be because of Chris Carter's writing and Lance Henriksen's acting.

Lance Henriksen is outstanding. His voice is the most remarkable thing about him: it can be seductively soft or menacingly cold. His frown hides a sharp mind and a loving heart that he reveals only to his family. Frank's light-bulb ritual gives us a glimpse into the tension Black hides behind that stone face. I like Megan Gallagher as Catherine. I even like the Neighbor from Hell; he's earthy and familiar and helps us ground Frank and "Millennium" in a well-known cosmos. Terry O'Quinn as Peter Watts is a very commanding figure, and the scenes in "Gehenna" where the Millennium Group is figuring out the Russian letter, finding the apocalyptic images that form the villain's mental landscape, are terrific.

It's true the kind of death cult depicted here happened in Jonestown, and yes, the People's Temple was actually based in the Bay Area. But such sects traditionally prey on the oppressed and alienated in our society. It takes more imagination than I have to categorize young white males in San Francisco as oppressed and alienated. The plot suffered from a major lapse in credulity at this point. It suffered another one when Mike, the experienced Millennium Group guru, went alone to a suspected crime scene. Smart people doing stupid things in the service of the plot are particularly irritating when the rest of the script shows such intelligence and acumen.

My old professor could translate from Latin into Serbo- Croatian, and had Navajo-Greek dictionaries on his shelves. He could tell me all sorts of minutiae concerning prophetic literature and its effects on Western culture. He could correlate the mystical traditions of religious communities world-wide, and show the common links between them. He could not show me any connections between my life and this esoterica. Art is the ability to show connections, and "Gehenna" just did not connect for me. I am still too keenly aware that our calendar is entirely arbitrary, and that for non-Christians the year 2001 is just another made- up number. I find it hard to invest it with the idea of imminent disaster implied in "Millennium". The fires of "Gehenna" left me lukewarm, but the imagery is terrific. Sometimes style can triumph over substance.

This episode gets four out of five snakes.

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