TV reviews

TV Rewind… Millennium 1×02 – ‘Gehenna’ – Review

Coming after its foreboding and confrontational opening episode, “Gehenna” shows that Millennium’s “Pilot” was no one-off, and it’s going to be unflinchingly confrontational in its exploration of evil in a way no television series had ever attempted before.

Amazingly, on a production level, “Gehenna” manages to sustain the high production values of the “Pilot”, with David Nutter returning to the director’s chair once again, with another Chris Carter script, a repeat pattern of the first season of The X-Files which saw Carter’s “Pilot” followed by a first script for the series proper.

“Gehenna” is a very different beast to chew on, compared to the series premiere. Although the “Pilot” episode featured a serial killer, and serial killers will feature strongly throughout the entire first season, as well as throughout the series, even with its thematic shifts in seasons two and three, “Gehenna” is an indication that Carter’s most prevalent story and thematic concerns lies not only with serial killers, but with the theme of evil itself, loaning Millennium a charge every bit as loaded as the search for “the truth” that lies within The X-Files.

There are strange deaths and murders here, but they’re coming from something that manages to be both frightening, somewhat mundane, yet even more extreme than anything that Mulder and Scully would encounter.

Second episodes, or first past the pilot, can sometimes be more indicative of where a television series is going to go. Pilots can often feel more like mini feature films, while a second episode, filmed on a tighter productions schedule, can give a clear sense of where a show will go, or how it will pan out eventually. Amazingly, “Gehenna” carries the baton in terms of style, dark substance and prowess that one witnessed with the “Pilot”. We’re in the realm of the crime procedural in terms of narrative, but it’s one loaded with themes that pertain to big ideas on evil and extreme acts of violence, charged up with the tensions that came as the clock counted down to the beginning of the year 2000.

There is even a more dense and complex feeling to “Gehenna”. This is not a straightforward crime procedural. Then again neither was the “Pilot” if you wanted to chew it up more, but with this, Carter is laying down a more complex architecture to Frank Black’s investigations. There is also an opening up of Frank’s professional world which is welcome. After a cameo last week, it’s lovely to see more of Terry O’Quinn as Peter Watts, and it’s clear that many of Frank’s investigations, at least those not set in Seattle, are going to feature the future John Locke of Lost as Frank’s partner on investigations.

When it comes to the Millennium Group, there is a lovely lack of ego. Yes, in this day and age one may have an issue that many of the scenes involving Group members investigating cases involved middle-aged white men either with greying hair or no hair at all, but you gotta love the sense of professionalism here that is being represented by these characters. The episode introduces Chris Ellis and Robin Gammell as Jim Panseyres and Mike Atkins, and there is never any obvious drama or bitterness between the players, just an attitude of getting down to business  instead of mining for obvious drama.

Right from its opening moments, there is a flavour to the horror here that is a touch more extreme than The X-Files, or even anything else that was on network television at the time. It feels more like a thematic companion to Twin Peaks in trying to further how much one can go with content and themes, although there is little in the way of surreal comedic touches that came with the famed David Lynch/Mark Frost series.

There are hallucinations involving characters shape shifting into rabid dogs, and a beast causing a victim to be drenched in blood. They are astonishing images for 90’s television and would be the cause of much discussion over violence on-screen. Not for nothing, but sequences like this would cause Millennium no end of controversy in some quarters, and coming from someone like Carter who had already brought some challenging genre material into homes across the world, it does show someone not wanting to rest on their laurels in bringing new material to the screen.

In fact, looking at it now, one can see it as a deliberate attempt to try to circumvent expectations from an audience who were probably expecting an obvious X-Files follow-up; heavier violence, subtle hints at the supernatural as opposed to obvious suggestions, monsters are who all too real and cannot be explained away by flights into fantasy, complete with villains that you can put handcuffs on to. It’s this last part that I always find the most telling. With The X-Files Carter famously told Fox Network executives that you can’t put an alien in handcuffs. With Millennium he gives Frank and the Group monsters that you can slap cuffs on and put in a cell, but at what cost? The violence is more real, the bloodshed more disturbing, the damage more calculable.

The X-Files grew a reputation for being unsettling due to its lack of closure, as well as having subject matter that made it harder for its two leads to collect evidence with which to prove their claims. Millennium does the opposite, and yet once again it feels as unsettling as anything that Mulder and Scully have ever faced, a dark joke in itself.

By the end of “Gehenna”, the cult leader that Frank, Watts and the other Group members have been after is apprehended, but what is the face of the beast haunting not only his own visions, but that of the cult leader’s victims, members of his own organisation no less. A potential massacre has been thwarted, but as Frank says to Catherine in the superb final scene, maybe the “bad man” can’t be stopped.

It really says something about the show that even when it offers resolution, it’s doing so in a way that suggests that there is, in the end, no clear finality to it anyway. When the hell have you ever seen that sort of thing in a CSI or a Law and Order?

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