TV discussion

TV Rewind… Millennium 1×16 – ‘Covenant’

It goes without saying that by the time “Covenant” premiered in March of 1997, the first season of Millennium had not turned out to be the massive commercial success equal to The X-Files that Fox, as well as many within the television industry, expected of it.

Serial killers may have been the “in thing” with movies during the 90’s, something spearheaded by the success of The Silence of the Lambs and then finding mixed levels of commercial and critical success with the likes of Se7en, The Bone Collector, Copycat and When the Bough Breaks (the latter ironically starring Ally Walker who would go on to appear in Profiler, NBC’s attempt at a serial killer profiler series that launched the same season as Millennium), but while audiences were more than happy to go see such dark movies in two hour increments, spending an hour week in and week out appeared more daunting, even if the series was coming from a production company and executive producer that had launched one of the biggest pop cultural successes of the same era.

It’s maybe the acknowledgment of this lack of commercial success that had greeted the series that would see the show put something like the Robert Moresco-scripted “Covenant” on to the air; it is unremittingly dark, emotionally grim and offers no easy resolution to its story centred around the arrest and potential execution of William Garry (John Finn) for the murder of his family.

It is also one of the greatest hours that Millennium would produce, which is really saying something since the series, perennially underrated and never talked about enough in the pantheon of great television from the 90’s, produced some of the finest genre television of the era.

While many fans of the series will debate over which iteration of the series they prefer (the more forensic horror explorations of the first season, or the more mystical, mythology-driven stories of season two, with very few championing season three, sadly), I have to admit to always being split internally over what version of the series I love the most.

Rewatching season one always makes me wish the series had stayed on its course longer, something that may have happened had Frank Spotnitz took up the offer to assume showrunner duties when Carter stepped down to oversee the lead in of The X-Files to its big screen version. Getting into season two, however, is easy, and Morgan and Wong’s approach hooks you in fast, and does so with a run of truly incredible episodes, but when one watches “Covenant”, and even just thinking about the episode will do this to you, it makes you wish that maybe, just maybe, it had stayed doing what it was arguably doing so well.

There is a beautiful 12 Angry Men approach to the episode, albeit with a more openness to it than the famous stage play and subsequent Sidney Lumet film, arguably one of the greatest ever produced.  Instead of taking place in a single location, Robert Moresco’s teleplay takes place in many locations within its small-town setting and utilizes flashbacks to a devastating degree, but the impetus of its story is remarkably similar; a man is accused of murder, everyone is in agreement he did it, but only one person, Frank, believes he is innocent and works to change minds, eventually managing to bring to his way of thinking a pathologist involved in the case, Didi (Sarah Kosoff, recognisable from The X-Files “Pilot”) and Garry’s defence attorney Michael (Jay Underwood), while facing obstacles from the local prosecutor (Michael O’Neill, who has appeared in everything from The West Wing to 24) who is hellbent in getting William executed.

The spiritual superhero element of Frank has been a key component of Millennium from its inception, coming on like it has touches of a western or mythological play, with Frank venturing into the world to stop darkness and returning to a castle, or in this case a yellow house, a world of hope and love from which he gains inspiration in his life, his feelings, and to remind himself and the audience of the world he is fighting for in light of the horrible crimes he has seen.

“Covenant” presents a similar familial set up in its opening teaser, but then brings terrible violence upon it. This may be different than last week’s level of crime that visited upon Frank’s home when his sister in law was kidnapped, but it still connects to “Sacrament” in its tale of violent crime visiting the suburbs, and may even be a connected hint of what’s to come in two weeks time when creator Chris Carter contributes his next script for the series, arguably one of the most terrifying hours of television ever crafted.

As for “Covenant”, it once again reiterates just how wonderful Millennium is as a crime procedural and how it’s adept, like The X-Files, at subtle and minor experimentation within itself. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Jorge Zamacona’s “The Wild and the Innocent” earlier in the season; instead of exploring an ongoing cycle of serial killer induced violence, it instead explores the emotional ramifications of it while still managing to fit into Millennium’s explorations of violent human behaviour. The crime has happened in the teaser and it’s the only killings within the tale, the key now for Frank is to figure out why, and even how.

It still carries a deadly emotional charge; at the end of the day, the episode is about a family, including children, being murdered in a suburban home. It never becomes too exploitative in its imagery, but make no mistakes, this is still a very sobering story that deals with murder and suicide.

Presented with a town that wants justice and closure, regardless if the outcome they have come to is true or not, it becomes a taut, tightly wound thriller the likes of which network television doesn’t devote time to anymore on a self-contained basis. Yes, ongoing serialised television is amazing and wonderful, but stand-alone episodes, or filler as some most like to call it, can be exemplary if you take the time to use your show as a filter to do it in a more interesting way, like the way Ten Thirteen did with their own shows.

“Covenant” is a prime example of this; it taut, it’s dramatic, it has twists, it has turns, it’s intelligent and shocking, engaging and powerful and boasts one of the finest teleplays from any television show of the era.

The answers are portrayed to us by the end, but it leaves us hanging as to what will happen next now that Frank and Didi have presented the facts. We never find out if William is released, but the eventual cut to the executive producer credit cuts like a knife, but the ending never feels like a cop-out. It honestly feels correct and right, and above all else, it’s honest.

It simply makes “Covenant” even more of a masterpiece.

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