As the new millennium dawned, it was heralded by a wave of panoptic terror, cresting on a surge of globalism, fearful of the burgeoning unknown. Chris Carter’s timely television series Millennium explored themes, concepts, and styles that mirrored those anxieties, both real and perceived. Consumer technology’s proliferation, the spread of the Internet, uncertainties about safety, privacy, morality, and the threat of digital voyeurism were amongst the tangible threats evoked. “Real life” — and, at its core, the nuclear family — were constantly menaced. With an emphasis on the philosophical and psychological, a thoughtful protagonist in the form of Lance Henriksen’s Frank Black, atmospheric visual storytelling, and a penchant for transgressive subjects, Millennium was a stunningly prescient compendium of society’s nightmares.
Slasher stylings and the masked bogeymen of 1980′s horror cinema franchises had grown formulaic in their mindless slaughter of sex-crazed adolescents by the time the ’90s rolled around. Audiences were starved for psychological thrills, which is why the new decade’s serial killer phenomenon more than fit the bill. Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs ushered in the early 1990s with charismatic killer Hannibal Lecter, who resembled Millennium’s demonic Lucy Butler (first appearing in season one’s episode “Lamentation”). Lecter’s doctor and Lucy’s “nurse” demonstrated an omnipresent evil lurking amongst our caretakers and confidants while the world floundered in disquiet. It was potent.
Millennium’s pilot episode killer The Frenchman introduced the archetypal serial murderer of the show. Serving as a dark foil to Henriksen’s character, the antagonist reflected the grim side of Frank Black’s gift (or curse) with cryptic, poetic messages about a rising, blood-dimmed tide. “Lamentation,” however, was the show’s first authentic horror episode and a singular outing — even with its main character far away from home during the most crucial moments. Carter manipulated haunted house and slasher film tropes when Legion/Lucy, who stalked Catherine through the darkness, infiltrated the sanctity of Frank’s yellow house. Meanwhile, the abduction and literal dissection of serial killer Dr. Ephraim Fabricant toyed with body horror elements. Again, he was a figure reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, though Fabricant traded antihero qualities with the beguiling Lucy Butler. Supernatural fright and the looming, biblical horror that tinted the series’ entire run was also nightmarishly palpable. The show’s creators turned another screw with the murder of Lieutenant Bob Bletcher. By killing off one of Millennium’s main characters — someone close to Frank’s inner sanctum — Carter reinforced the notion of all-pervasive evil. No one was safe.
Cementing Sarah-Jane Redmond’s role as a key player in the Millennium storyline was another solid horror episode. Season two’s “A Room with No View” found breathy seductress Lucy Butler turning her eye toward “ordinary” high school students to bend to her will. Her hunt reflected fractured American morality, societal pressures, and the underlying distrust of the country’s leaders during the 1990s that left people with little hope. The episode’s guidance counselor Teresa Roe was a despairing figure, demonstrating that even school officials had surrendered to ultimate corruption. The storyline made us wonder: with no strength of character and sense of conviction instilled in our children — thanks to the brainwashing of youth by an immoral “other” (Lucy) — who will lead us to a better tomorrow? This collapse of structure also mirrored the breakdown of the family unit — something signaled by the increase in divorce, and single or teenage parents during the 1990s. Lucy’s cruel, yet benevolent, treatment of her teen captives aroused questions about the idealized mythology surrounding nuclear families in the 20th century. The “cult of the child” transformed our treatment of the world’s youth during this epoch, particularly in America. Lucy’s abductee, Landon Bryce, dubs his mute cellmate “Ben Gunn” — a reference to the character in Treasure Island marooned on the titular isle by his crew, reinforcing the episode’s theme of isolation. It’s one of many subtle, smart references in the series that left a trail of breadcrumbs to bigger, entropic ideas. “A Room with no View” presented the terrifying realization that our collective apathy and deluded obsessions were actually the reasons for our downfall. Mankind sculpts its environment, but “A Room with no View” showed that, like Lucy, this construct threatens to turn on us and to extinguish the essence of humanity itself.
Taking the threat of social terror further, season two’s “The Mikado” played on our fears of the Internet as a reckless, all-consuming entity and blended it with horror motifs surrounding dark sexuality. The information superhighway promised us an almost godlike omnipotence: the world at our fingertips. In accordance with Millennium’s ongoing duality, however, we were quickly reminded that the world wide web also directly connected us to a clandestine enterprise that was still largely feral at the time: pornography. Another case for Frank, another serial killer — but writer Michael Perry’s decision to base “The Mikado’s” Avatar on the real-life 1970′s serial murderer known as the Zodiac Killer tapped into the wellspring of our anxiety. Using the framework of Zodiac’s unsolved, true crime case, coupled with the grim myth of an underground snuff cinema network exploited fears over the intangible — that which we cannot grasp or see. Refracting this anxiety back onto the audience, “The Mikado’s” voyeuristic opening (a theme carried throughout the episode) depicted a group of boys surfing the Net for sex shows, but instead facing the brutality of Avatar’s horrifyingly perverse website. The episode’s use of handheld video cameras, web broadcasts, and grainy, low quality videos further added to the gritty textural medley. Initially, Avatar’s heinous acts existed in the nebulous depths of cyberspace, frustrating Frank due to his inability to connect with the killer’s subconscious. With a lack of crime scene and physical evidence inhibiting Frank’s ability to see what we cannot, there’s a primal, authentic uneasiness about “The Mikado” that is forefronted.
The later part of the ’90s saw the introduction of postmodern horror. Wes Craven’s Scream was a paradigm of self-aware parody, teasing horror’s clichés and amusingly deconstructing its metaphors for audiences. Season three’s episode “…Thirteen Years Later,” released only two years after Craven’s 1996 film, similarly interrogated spooky tropes. Knowing references to the fictional narrative twisting of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths — read by Special Agent Emma Hollis, who also served as the episode’s victorious “final girl” — and canonical fright flicks like Halloween, Psycho, and Friday the 13th abound. These allusions paved the way for a case that reflected back on the pilot episode’s killer and the horror genre itself.
Though these are notable examples, Millennium is a series haunted by horror. Clearly riffing on cinematic precedents, Carter’s parade of baddies exploited underlying societal tensions, perceptively rendering collective anxieties as figures of fear. Exacerbated by turn-of-the-century doom mongering, his cast of antagonists espoused a dire prophecy — a succession of harrowing “What ifs?” that played out bleak endgame after endgame. Certain malaise of the series is confined to its historic specificity — locked in a 1990′s time capsule of terror — but other moments linger. Public and private boundaries continue to merge in the digital crucible, with fragmented, fluid identities undermining the notion of selfhood. Millennium’s success, then, is a measure of its very pertinence — a resonant pop-cultural psychoanalysis that collectively diagnosed the angst of millions. Y2K calamity may have been averted, but the show’s longevity — and emergence as a cult phenomenon — proves that its recurring bad dreams have lost little of their unflinching insight. A dim mirror for mankind’s ills, Chris Carter’s art of darkness endures.
[This essay was written to support the release of Back to Frank Black: A Return to Chris Carter's Millennium featuring introductions by Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, and Lance Henriksen. Purchase your copy here.]