Many a television series or movie has played the apocalypse card. In fact, it’s a narrative direction that we have seen more and more of in the last few years thanks to it being what can be best described as “good old dependable” in the many superhero movies that have made their way to the big screen in recent years. No matter what the characters face, it’s going to be the biggest threat of all threats. Until the next movie in the franchise/series/shared universe.
Even The X-Files with its increasingly entangled mythology dealt with the oncoming apocalypse. What were the plans of the Syndicate and their collaboration with the alien colonists but an attempt to save themselves and their families when the end of the world came from the hands of aliens?
There has always been an apocalyptic thread to Millennium. Even if in the first season the series wasn’t positing itself as one about the physical end of the world as opposed to a more metaphorical, social apocalypse (the world is going to hell one serial killer at a time it seemed), the series always had an unmistakable apocalyptic prism.
Glen Morgan and James Wong had a different mindset to Carter when it came to those concerns, wanting to explore prophecies and end of the world and end time beliefs more directly as opposed to having them as part of the background. In effect it came to be the series’ version of The X-Files mythology. Where Mulder and Scully found themselves up against fractions of the government, Frank Black has found that the Millennium Group, a previously thought off consulting group whose interests were in helping local law enforcement agencies of America catch violent criminals, are in fact more of a cult that is trying to instigate the apocalypse rather than oppose it.
In any other hands, this could leave the audience bitter and annoyed that the series has turned a massive corner into something else entirely, but Morgan and Wong make it work so damn well. Depending on you ask, either the writers themselves or Millennium-scholars who analyse every aspect of the series, these episodes were either designed to be a cliff-hanger to lead into the Morgan and Wong-less third season, or Ten Thirteen meeting the oncoming difficult-to-ignore cancellation of the series after this season head on and ending the story on its own, spectacular terms.
Both Morgan and Wong have denied that this was their intention, stating that they deliberately left “outs” for any incoming writers coming into to take over for them if the series got renewed. The thing is, there is an almost romantic quality to the idea that Millennium ends its second season where it does because everyone thought the writing was on the wall and so they decided to send the world to hell in a cart.
Obviously being a television series, it doesn’t have the budget to go all out and yet, for a series with a limited budget compared to most big screen movies, “The Fourth Horseman” and “The Time is Now” genuinely invoke the feeling that the end has come. There has never been an apocalypse portrayed in any live action medium that has ever felt as real, personal and truly terrifying as what is portrayed here.
For a series that started of using the 2000 year as a MacGuffin of sorts to explore more violent concerns in a societal manner, Millennium goes all out for its second season finale in such a way that we never for one moment think that anything other than the end of the world is here. Brilliantly, unlike The X-Files which hinted at the coming apocalypse but either treated it as a build up (“the date is set”) or then did show it and then washed it away with the idea that it was all a dream (“My Struggle III”), Millennium goes full force into the idea that the end is here.
Using a virulent disease at the means to end the world, the series presents us with several scenarios and set pieces that add to its brilliant doomy atmosphere; a farmer discovering his herd of chickens are dead and then bleeds to death himself; a family sitting down to a dinner of fried chicken and then each one dying by severe haemorrhaging that is both as disturbing as anything ever shown on television and yet darkly funny too for how middle class and cheery everything is before the first hint of blood.
Even on the personal front, there is a sense of finality and loss that permeates throughout the first half before the onslaught of apocalypse in the second half. Following through on the ending of “Midnight of the Century“, Frank’s father sadly dies and it leads to one of the most heartrending moments of the entire series when, standing at his father’s graveside, Jordan asks him if he is lonely without his parents. The camera then pulls back from Frank standing there where, in another sign of just how great Lance Henriksen is in the role, he says sadly, “very lonely”.
It’s graceful, beautiful, and deeply sad in a way that it’s hard not to get choked up at the thought of it. Death has always been a mainstay of Millennium. We’ve seen guest stars and extras get killed off in grisly, sometimes violent ways but we’ve taken it on the chin somewhat because that’s the narrative thrust of a series that deals with the themes like this one does, but here, just seeing the sadness in Frank’s eyes, and the use once again of the angel from the Christmas episode, reminds one of just how horrible loss of this nature can be. It’s a reminder of the emotional horror of bereavement and loss that is about to permeate every aspect of the next two hours, made even more devastating by the further loss about to hit Frank by the time the season ends.
It already feels as if the series is aiming to go for the jugular throughout the first half of its finale, but by the time we get to “The Time is Now”, the series is delivering its greatest ever episode. We go back to the Yellow House, only for the Black family to learn they can never go home again; Peter Watts finally learns the error of his ways working for the Group, but apparently pays for his conscience with his life and then, before we get to the powerful final stretch, we see the end of the world through the visions of Lara Means.
Taking up an entire act of television, and set to “Horses” by Patti Smith, it is without a doubt one of the greatest pieces of editing ever put together for television. From Thomas Wright’s direction, Robert MacLachlan’s photography, James Coblentz’s editing and a fiercely committed performance from Kristen Cloke, this is Millennium throwing in a towel but in a way that the series doesn’t give up on its ideals or its ability to be daring. If this is to be the end, the series is going out fighting. It may be confined to one setting and be through the dazzling visions of a character going crazy, but it genuinely does feel as if the end is here. The time is truly now.
However, the series has one more note to strike a chord with. Leaving her vaccine for Frank, the Black family take off to a cabin in the woods, one previously belonging to Frank’s late father left to our hero in his last will and testament. Frank, having been vaccinated against his wishes by the Group, tells Catherine that he won’t get sick, but only has one dose of the vaccine left.
Of course, it will be Jordan who gets it. It’s a simple choice for any parent. Waking up bleeding, Catherine goes into the woods to die. Cut together with bursts of static separating each scene, Frank wakes up, goes out to find his wife, then Jordan wakes up and finds her dad, his hair having gone white, staring off into the distance, a broken shell of who he uses to be. “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans plays over the soundtrack as the executive producer credits appear.
Millennium is over.
Until it wasn’t. As mentioned before, Morgan and Wong have denied it was meant to be an ending, and yet, it’s hard not be taken or swept by the romantic notion of a television series, one with the concerns of societal breakdown and apocalyptic notions as this one had, facing its cancellation head on and deciding that to hell with it, let’s just end the world.
It’s brave, kind of foolish, and yet brilliant. So, so brilliant.
The first time I watched these episodes were on a graveyard slot on the Irish television network RTE who had pretty much given up on the series after its first season. The episode went out at Midnight, or close to it, me being fourteen and crazy about this series (and The X-Files, obviously) stayed up, on a school night no less, and was blown away. Watching it that late at night just hammered home the horror of it all and made its apocalyptic and nightmarish feel all the more powerful during that time of night. It was one of those moments when one thinks to themselves, “what just happened to television?”
Alas, Millennium would be back. A third season was renewed, and new show runners would have to figure out a way to bring the series back from its apocalyptic brink. The third season will be one of the most curious seasons of television that would come from Ten Thirteen. Consensus has it that it’s terrible. Not all of it is. There is some good in there, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the second season is Millennium hitting its peak.
There has always been a part of this reviewer who, when indulging in a rewatch of the series (as I did for these reviews) always feels a little melancholy that the series never stayed the course on its serial killer of the week mode when rewatching that first season, and yet once I get into season two I fall in love all over again with it.
Yes, there are some episodes in season two that aren’t that great (some of the more X-Files flavourings of the earlier episodes are a disappointment) and yet, even the disappointments are kind of recommended because the season had the audacity to try something different and unique instead of replaying the crime of the week stories of the first season. Nearly every episode was different from the last one and it genuinely felt like the series developed the X-Files-like ability to open itself up to experimentation in genre and tone.
Best of all, Morgan and Wong weren’t afraid to “go there” in its final hours. The X-Files mythology, as great as it was at its peak, was still always afraid to have the world end or come close to it. Its mythology and exploration of alien apocalypse, in the end, came down to a “close call” and eventually some old white men getting burned to death in an air hanger.
Millennium had no such fears. Yes, this was not the end, and the time may not have been now after all, but in potentially being cancelled, the series went in a way that no other American network genre series had done since Twin Peaks. It dared to be different, it dared to be terrifying and it dared to kill characters with emotional abandon and leave its world scattered to the winds.
If this had been the end, it might have made Millennium one for the history books. No matter your feeling on where we’re going now, Millennium is still one of the greatest dark wonders to ever air on network television, with “The Fourth Horseman” and “The Time is Now” a pinnacle of that pursuit of unique vision and dark story telling. Together these two episodes, with its emotional bruising tone and fearlessness to go to extremes make it not only great television, but some of the greatest television ever broadcast anywhere in the world.
A masterpiece of the highest order.
Are you a fan of Millennium? Let us know what you think of these episodes.