The final contribution to the first season from Glen Morgan and James Wong, who would go on to become showrunners of Millennium in its second season, “The Thin White Line” is another masterful teleplay from one of the most celebrated writers of the Ten Thirteen-Verse.
While last week saw the series expand its storytelling scope further with Chip Johannessen’s wonderful “Force Majeure”, Morgan and Wong return to the scope of serial killer-of-the-week, but do so with a forceful sense of brilliance that not only matches their work on “Dead Letters” and “522666”, but surpasses both those instalments with an episode full of ambitions as a thriller and a character study of Millennium’s leading character.
One of the best things about Morgan and Wong throughout their work on both Millennium and The X-Files is how they have always tried to filter their explorations of the characters at the centre of these shows through an emotional spectrum; on The X-Files’ celebrated first season episode “Beyond the Sea” (which would make a wonderful double bill with this Millennium installment) put Scully front and centre in a way that the series had never done with Gillian Anderson up to that point, while their tenure as Millennium executive producers would take Frank Black away from the realm of a more spiritual form of crime solving superhero, so to speak, into a more flawed and yet every bit as engrossing lead character.
Some of that attempt to bring Black down to a more realistic pedestal can be seen here with a tale that explores Black’s past, his own insecurities and fears that come from the work he has done. While we have been told in several episodes at the start of the season about Frank’s break down prior to when we are first introduced to him, the series has only ever really shown us the Frank Black who is a fully capable investigator, with a somewhat flawless nature.
“The Thin White Line” presents us with flashbacks of a Frank at the start of his career, with less refined instincts as he has now, while in the present day is consumed by fears over mistakes he has, or possibly could, make, and Lance Henriksen runs with the opportunity afforded by Morgan and Wong’s teleplay, to ground Frank into a less mythological sort of character and into a more realistic persona.
Not that Frank has ever been anything other than a three-dimensional character, but Millennium has always been trying something grander and deeper than the majority of most crime procedurals; from the spiritual quotations that open each episode to the symbolism of the “yellow house” to the philosophical aura that surrounds the show, it’s actually lovely to see Morgan and Wong try to filter the show’s atmosphere and hero through something less grand and more brilliantly mundane like insecurities and a flawed nature.
By any other series’ reckoning Black is still something of a virtuous character here, but we see one or two elements that are somewhat reckless, including signing a waiver that potentially puts his life in danger when he confronts a dark spectre from his past, Richard Alan Hance (Jeremy Roberts), another in a long list of X-Files and Millennium serial killers with a triple-barrelled name.
This being a thriller from the 90’s, it does fall somewhat into the unfortunate trope of having a gay couple being responsible for the violence being doled out, although thankfully there is no attempt by the episode to equate Hance and his lover’s sexuality with their violent acts, but it is another example of a television series or feature film from a bygone era that, even if the narrative isn’t trying to make the correlation, does fall into the characterisation of combining an LGBTQ relationship with physical violence emanating from it and being doled out to the rest of the world.
The character of Hance only appears at various points, the real killer is his prison boyfriend Jacob Tyler (Scott Heindl) who, upon being released from prison, continues the violence that began with Hance years previously. There is a wonderful conceit where Tyler imagines his victims giving vocal consent to his murdering them, and being deeply understanding of his motivations, a darkly wonderful scenario that comes as a real jolt in the episode’s teaser, subsequently murdering them, cutting their palm and leaving a playing card at the scene of the crime, the card itself being a subtle reference to Morgan and Wong’s previous series Space: Above and Beyond.
The episode builds to what is without a doubt one of the best pieces of writing from any television series of the 90’s when Black visits Hance in his maximum security prison wing, signing a disclaimer that, should he be held hostage by Hance, the prison will not negotiate for his release, something Black does without a second thought, and then, for nearly ten minutes of screen time, something that felt somewhat rare on television back then, especially for a network series.
The episode effectively devotes itself to a mini-two person play between Henriksen and Roberts, a scene with crackling dialogue and brilliant staging courtesy of director Thomas J. Wright, the latter making what could have been a stagey scene simply between two actors into something dynamic, relying on close-ups and intense direction to make the energy and the scene feel as tension soaked as nothing put on television before, while Morgan and Wong’s words just add fuel to a wonderful fire, with magnetic performances from Henriksen and Roberts.
At the time this seemed as if it would be the last contribution from Morgan and Wong to the series. This and “Never Again”, their last fourth season X-Files episode, aired closely together and it seemed as if the two would never set foot again into the Ten Thirteen-Verse, but they would subsequently return to take the show in a somewhat new direction, some of which, strangely enough, both this and the last episode have somewhat set up in their storytelling and character development.
An approach where Frank Black is less of a spiritual superhero, going off into the darkness to fight crime and returning to the light of the yellow house, gets a subtle tryout here and works superbly. It’s funny that Morgan and Wong will see fit to change the show’s storytelling dynamic and tone somewhat because they actually did the serial-killer-of-the-week aspect justice with all three of their episodes, “The Thin White Line” being one of the best examples of it ever done for the series.
This is a pulsating, brilliantly structured thriller that once again makes use of a crime procedural format in a way that sadly never gets done like it any more on television, relying on in-depth characterization and plot to make it work as opposed to relying on formula. It’s a masterpiece from the series for sure and an episode that is always a dark filled joy to return to.
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