TV discussion

TV Rewind… Millennium – 1×08 – ‘The Well-Worn Lock’

Following a more substantial role for Megan Gallagher in “Blood Relatives” last week, Chris Carter’s third script for Millennium sees Catherine front and centre, in an episode that really pushes the buttons on a distressing and disturbing story line.

It’s central storyline is centred on child abuse and incest and doesn’t pull any punches in doing so. It has at its villainous heart a character who is an elder male with substantial amount of power, but where someone like the Cigarette Smoking Man is very much a villain centred around science fictional threats and poses a more genre level of danger, Joe Bangs (Paul Dooley) is possibly the most repulsive and vile monster that Carter has ever created.

There is a danger that when dealing with themes like this you could very easily handle it incorrectly, and there are maybe viewers who will take offence or see the unsubtle nature of Carter’s teleplay, but compared to the more histrionic narratives of something like Law and Order:Special Victims Unit (or at least the later seasons), Carter manages to stay the right side of subtle, which, even though he is a writer that has done some fantastic things with his creations (and he truly has despite what some fans of his shows may think), he has a tendency to downplay or not be aware of his somewhat light treatment of sexual violence, or when it comes to issues of consent (“The Post Modern Prometheus” from season five of The X-Files definitely has that problem, even though it is an episode everyone, including this reviewer, adores).

Thankfully “The Well Worn Lock” treats its themes very seriously, and darkly; although nothing graphic is ever shown, it still manages to be one of the darkest and most distressing hours of television from the 90’s.

In today’s age, there may be an even better way to handle these themes, but credit where credit is due, it never falls into  the realm of sensationalism, and makes a valiant attempt to be subtle about how it deals with sexual abuse.

At the heart of “The Well Worn Lock” are tremendous portrayals from Gallagher and Michelle Joyner as Connie Bangs, whose abuse at the hands of her father as a child, and fear of what might happen to her own daughter, a child born out of the abuse she has suffered, has thrown her into a rabbit hole where she has been left with no choice but to come forward, which is easier said than done when a justice system can make proving and prosecuting such cases more difficult than they really ought to be, and when her father has clout within the community.

Given than Catherine is a social worker, it sadly makes sense that such a case will be the focus of an episode centred around her. While “Blood Relatives” made a great effort at incorporating her into that episode’s events, it was really there as prelude and way for Frank to become involved in that investigation, but here Carter and director Ralph Hemecker (making devastatingly, and superb, uncomfortable use of close-ups of the performers throughout) put the attention of Catherine’s role in the investigation, while not forgetting about its story’s unfortunate victim.

While Frank does get caught up in the episode’s events, the episode never allows him to eclipse the fact that this is Catherine’s time to take centre stage in Millennium’s exploration of evil. It shows that acts of evil are really what Millennium is about, as opposed to serial killer of the week, but despite the fact that nobody actually dies in a violent manner, it is, unsurprisingly, the darkest hour of the show so far.

Even as a serial killer of the week, Millennium is playing with genre elements, but this is very much a ripped from the headline type of story that deals with a crime that is all too real and distressingly plausible, even down to the angry twist early on when it’s shown that a crime like this is difficult to be prosecuted successfully in the court of law. We’d rather bury our heads in the sand and pretend something like this couldn’t happen, an idea further pushed later in the episode when Catherine converses with Connie’s mother, and we see first hand that ignorance is bliss.

While the episode does potentially throw merry hell into the show’s timeline by doing a six months later time jump, it is a wonderful reminder that a case like this, isn’t just resolved just because the villain of the week is captured and arrested. We have an arraignment, but the story is not over until Joe Bangs is prosecuted for good. It’s a wonderful reminder that despite falling into the realm of crime procedural, albeit one with philosophical and deeper intent than most, criminal investigations aren’t done just because the end credits roll.

The final third of the episode features a courtroom confrontation, but amazingly it stays the course and remains subtle, with the focus put firmly on Connie’s admission of the years of abuse she has suffered, with Catherine by her side to support her. Michelle Joyner is magnificent; raw, uncomfortable and superb, with Hemecker, for the most part, keeping her in one of those agonising close-ups as she tells her story.

After all of this, the episode does manage to end on a note of hope. It doesn’t cop-out at the last-minute to include Frank in some way, the episode leaves the final moment to Catherine, Connie and her daughter Sara, with more emphasis on Connie. This is an episode in which Catherine confronts evil head on, but the note of hope for the future is given to Connie and Sara.

Mark Snow’s music comes in beautifully, and there is an image of symbolism that gives us as much closure as we are going to get. It may fall dangerously into the realm of giving too much closure, a rare thing in a Carter script, but it is a welcome one coming in a tale that is as dark as the show has gotten to this point.

For the entire duration of the running time, Megan Gallagher takes the opportunity granted by the script and runs with it. While most of the time the show offers the image of Catherine waiting at home for Frank to return, and thus followed by a philosophical conversation of that episode’s themes, something that the show does well, here the tables are turned; we’re treated to Catherine falling asleep at work, coming home late to Frank and partnering up with Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich).

It’s a wonderful twist on Millennium’s format early in the run and Gallagher runs with the script. Like Frank, we’re presented not with some typical detective, but with a character within the framework of law enforcement and crime prevention simply trying to do right by those she wants to protect. That it presents a married couple fighting evil this way, but doing so in a way that isn’t a cheesy take on “fighting evil” is remarkable. Catherine and Frank never come across as some naively written characters, but complicated three-dimensional creations who are being confronted with the worst that humanity has to offer.

Based on this episode, it’s a shame that the series cannot find more ways to incorporate Gallagher into its stories because her presence and performance is wonderful throughout, and, like Henriksen, she has the ability to make you wish that the real world had figures like this to protect us from the darker corners of the world.

“The Well Worn Lock” is probably a tale that will come in from easy criticism, but  in shining Millennium’s focus on a crime that we would rather turn away from than admit exist, (almost making the audience “prefer” the more graphic and bloody leanings of the show’s exploration of serial killers), and doing so in a way that manages to not fall into the realm of exploitation and sensationalism, it manages to deal with its heavy and incredibly difficult subject matter very, very well. It’s not an episode you’ll want to go back to again and again, but it is a very worthy one.

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