TV Discussion

TV Rewind… Millennium 1×03 – ‘Dead Letters’

For a series that came after The X-Files, Millennium always a feeling of being the “older” show of the two, so to speak, and nowhere is that more apparent than in “Dead Letters”, the first script of the series to come from The X-Files Hall of Fame writers Glen Morgan and James Wong.

Right away, Millennium presented characters who were older, married and usually with kids, and even if they’re not presented as having a family, are decidedly more mature age wise than Mulder and Scully. In The X-Files, elder characters are sometimes presented with a degree of mistrust; just look at the Cigarette Smoking Man and the Syndicate (old white dudes controlling the world in an effort to destroy it, how relevant), but with Millennium, in particular the Millennium Group, we’re presented (at least at this stage) with the polar opposite; a group of elder characters who want to save it, one violent murder case at a time.

It makes a lot of sense for the first non-Carter episode of Millennium to be a Morgan and Wong script. They were, after all, the first writers to craft an adventure for Mulder and Scully that wasn’t Carter and that script probably helped make The X-Files into the show it became, taking focus away from aliens, UFO’s and government conspiracies, allowing it to open up to a series that promised monsters and other genre related material.

‘Dead Letters’ is another excellent episode from Millennium, continuing the stylishly dark charge from the ‘Pilot’ and ‘Gehenna’, but it’s best not to expect it to be a game changing stylistic change in the manner of “Squeeze” from The X-Files. It’s clear that Millennium’s focus is more narrowed than that of Mulder and Scully. This isn’t a complaint, so far it’s working beautifully (and will do so for a lot of the first season), but it’s gives a sense that at this stage Millennium’s focus on dark crime stories means that it’s not going to be able to throw any clear curveballs.

This is really the only complaint that one can have, because ‘Dead Letters’ works powerfully well. Also contributing to the fourth season of The X-Files which was running at the same time, ‘Dead Letters’ continues a trend of the two writers crafting work for Ten Thirteen Productions that would allow them to cast actors from Space:Above and Beyond which had been sadly cancelled the season before, and way before its time.

‘Dead Letters’ sees James Morrison show up as Jim Horn, a potential future Group member who Frank collaborates with on another characteristically violent case. This being Morgan and Wong, we have more than just a plot to contend with here, and as is the case with so much of their best work, character is the key here, with some brilliantly intense character work and fantastic scenes, a lot of it shared between Lance Henriksen and Morrison.

The past two episodes have more than hinted at Frank’s breakdown prior to moving back to Seattle with his family in tow. Last week in ‘Gehenna’ we had a superbly scripted conversation between Catherine and Bletcher (recurring regular Bill Smitrovich) which mirrored Frank’s conversation with Bletcher in the ‘Pilot’. Here, we get a glimpse at Frank’s breakdown by proxy through Horn, a result of pursuing the dark-hearted mysteries at the heart of Millennium’s side of the Ten Thirteen-verse.

Morrison has constantly proved himself to be a fantastic actor who not only made a considerable impression in Space, but also in 24 as Bill Buchanan, and who would subsequently appear in The X-Files episode ‘Theef’, and here brings a brilliantly raw, anguished quality to Horn. In lesser hands, a character like this could prove too much, and possibly push it over to the side of unlikable, but he makes you root for Horn throughout the episode, hoping against hope that he will come through it all, even when we know the writing is on the wall for his emotional well-being.

There comes a lovely moment mid-way through the episode when Horn joins Frank’s family, the yellow house once again being a beacon of light and hope away from the darkness (a potent piece of symbolism that crime procedurals would never in a million years try today). It reiterates a theme of domesticity that is every bit as important to the show as the gory body count. While most crime procedurals are about characters who have very little in the way of lives outside of the precinct or crime lab, family is shown to be the biggest theme running throughout Millennium.

Jim’s family life has fallen apart, his breakdown causing his marriage to break apart and to be a weekend father to his child. It shows what could have happened to Frank if he had stayed the course he was on, while also, unplanned as it may be, foreshadowing some future developments for the series’ own future. Morgan and Wong have always been the most wonderful writers for not being afraid to stop the flow for a few moments and just stop to devote time to their characters, and the stretch of episode at the yellow house is a wonderful example of this, developing character and theme, without sacrificing pace or plot development.

Bravely, they keep their serial killer at arms reach, giving us glimpses here and there, but never allowing us or the episode to get too close to him. They never even give him a name. This runs counter to what they’ll do with their other two contributions to season one, which will spend a lot of time with their antagonists. Here, they instead show the impact such violence can have on those who have to deal with stopping them, and that violent crime can have as much impact on the mind as it does on the body.

Directed by Thomas J. Wright, the direction is as stylish as one would come to expect from the show, but it never becomes overbearing. Wright would go on to become the show’s resident director, effectively becoming the Rob Bowman/Kim Manners of Millennium, bringing a cinematic flourish to a series that would house some of the best production values on television during the 90’s.

Even more fantastically, there are numerous references to other serial killers that have populated pop culture; the killer’s habit of feigning injury while trying to load a van in order to lure his victims is straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, while Horn’s child walking into his office and being confronted with crime scene pictures recalls a similar moment in the movie Manhunter.

They’re lovely call backs to the adaptations of Thomas Harris’ novels, works with visuals and themes that run throughout Millennium. It may only be the third episode, but it brilliantly deals with what should be an obvious thread for the series to devote time to, which is that dealing with crimes of this nature does not come lightly, and can be incredibly damaging to the psyche and the soul.

Frank Black has been there and seen it all, and while we never see him answer Jim’s question on how he manages to do what he does, the episode’s final moment where he comforts Jordan after having a bad nightmare is as hopeful a visual to bring closure to the episode as one can get.

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