Red Letter Night

by Sarah Stegall

copyright 1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Glen Morgan and James Wong
Director: Thomas Wright

I was strongly tempted to turn off my television after the first act of "Dead Letters", Friday night's third episode of "Millennium". I could not believe that anything that followed the initial meeting between Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) and James Horn (James Morrison) could possibly live up to it. That scene, with two first rate actors staking out roles, territory, and personality in a few superbly chosen lines, is some of the best drama I have ever seen. What was truly amazing, however, was that the next thirty minutes proved me wrong--what followed that dynamite scene only enriched it.

The real trouble with television is that the creators have no feedback for their performances. In my house, the commercials during "Dead Letters" were drowned out by the sound of thunderous applause. I have not been so thrilled by the sheer power of an actor's performance in a long time. James Morrison, who dominated "Space: Above and Beyond" as Colonel T. C. McQueen, here rules the screen as a highly intelligent, experienced, and sensitive man who is going through the same personal crisis that took Frank Black out of the FBI and into the Millennium Group. And as we met Frank's mentor, Mike, last week, so we now see Frank himself as mentor, shepherding Horn through the terrible rite of passage that transforms men from ordinary cops into the shadow warriors of the Millennium Group.

The show begins deceptively, with a child's nightmare worthy of Stephen King himself (and reminiscent of his flawed but brilliant "It"). While comforting his daughter, Frank Black gets a call to a murder scene reminiscent of the infamous Black Dahlia murder case: a woman's body, cut in half. Black is paired up with a candidate for inclusion in the Millennium Group, James Horn. The two of them work through the psychological profile of the killer even as they are working through the psychological stresses of Horn's divorce. Murder piles on murder, with the murderer leaving taunting clues at the crime scenes hidden so well that only Black, who knows to look for them, can find them. Horn proves to be Black's equal in every facet of forensic psychology, but falls short of Black's composure as the stress in his own life mounts. In the final act, he destroys the best evidence against the killer even as he nearly beats him to death, "tainting" the evidence and making it inadmissible in court. Yet even as he realizes his mistake, he poses an impossible question for Black: "Why do you do what you do?"

Morrison pulls out all the stops without ever losing control. His James Horn is an immediately real and believable man. So finely drawn is his anguish he broke my heart every time he even looked at his son. The very real spiritual and emotional crisis faced when a good man must fight a losing battle against evil hovered over him like a personal black cloud throughout the episode. Good actors will show you what the character is feeling; great actors will show you the feelings the character is trying to hide. Morrison revealed James Horn to us not only in the elegant dialogue of Glen Morgan and James Wong, but in the small twitches, the suppressed reactions, the refusal to look death in the face at a crime scene. Made emotionally vulnerable by the wrenching apart of his family, he is no longer armored in that detachment as necessary to a homicide detective as his badge.

At the core of all tragedy is the fatal flaw. As Aristotle points out in the "Poetics", real tragedy emerges from a flaw in the hero's heart, an unwise choice that cripples an otherwise invincible hero. The hero who defeats himself is the classic tragic figure. In James Horn, the tragic flaw is his inability to gain that vital distance between himself and his quarry. Yet even this flaw is a sympathetic one: it grows out of his fierce compassion and empathy, qualities no hero can do without. And as this tragic hero, Morrison was incandescent.

Only an actor of Lance Henriksen's caliber could have stood up to such an achievement. Sheer strength of personality allows Henriksen to hold his own onscreen while Horn works through the tortured issues in his life and career. Henriksen does it the same way David Duchovny of "The X-Files" can sometimes do it: with a quiet voice and eyes that have seen *everything*...twice. Black can be dreamily distant, involved with the emotional calculus in his head, and yet focus like a laser with an almost audible snap. Again I was struck by the way Henriksen uses his voice to tell us bizarre truths in an absolutely believable, nonchalant monotone. The very normality of his delivery underscores the impossibility of what he is saying.

The final scene, with Frank Black cradling his daughter to guard her from a nightmare, was a wonder. Here is a man lying awake trying to answer that unanswerable question posed by Horn, and the answer literally walks in. He does it to protect his child, and all children, from the monsters. There can be, in my opinion, no finer definition of manhood. Not a sexy body or a handsome face, not a glib tongue or charming affect, but the steady, steel hearted courage and resolution of a defender of innocence. I love this guy.

Of course it was not lost on me that Jim Horn was written as a foil for Frank Black. By placing Frank Black in the role of mentor, we get to learn as much about him through what he teaches Horn as we would learn from a soliloquy. As he guides Horn through the latter's dark night of the soul, we see what similar wounds have been left on Black's soul, and how he has learned to go on. As character exposition, it is a master stroke. What great partners Black and Jim Horn would make--Black the cool, detached, yet empathetic intellectual, and Horn the passionate and brilliant warrior. Although Horn failed the test of character this episode set him, the door is left open for a repeat appearance. I can't think of a more satisfying outcome than to keep this character and bring him back. Horn is experiencing a terrible life crisis, but when he gets past it a little there is no reason to think he will not be a dazzling addition to the Millennium Group.

Director Thomas Wright showed that he understands restraint as well as the actors. The murder of the nurse was not as brutal as I would have expected, and the barely controlled rage of Jim Horn was not allowed to dominate the scene. The scenes with the children were beautifully done. While it would be easy to let the bedtime story sequences overflow into mawkish sentiment, in the context of a particularly gruesome series of murders they grant us a much needed psychic relief.

This episode shot right off the charts. Five snakes out of five are not enough; this one gets six. Television--nay, drama--does not get any better than this.

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