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This Is Who We Are: Queerness in Millennium

Chris Carter’s Millennium first aired in 1996, and follows protagonist Frank Black’s (Lance Henriksen) struggle against the forces of evil as the year 2000 approaches. While its sister show The X-Files was having its heyday in the mainstream, Millennium gained a cult following—it was too dark and esoteric to reach the same heights of popularity, but nonetheless it is strikingly good television. Given the minimally inclusive nature of ’90s genre fiction, the episodes ‘The Thin White Line’ and ‘In Arcadia Ego’ stand out for their portrayal of same-sex relationships (to varying degrees of generosity). One merely has to look to notice how queer stories entered the Millennium canon on the back of 20th Century history and the gothic genre.

For a long time, queerness in the media was relegated to subtext—as a result, there are stories that ‘feel’ queer without making explicit reference to gay or transgender people. Victorian gothic literature, for example, brought to the forefront stories about unconventional people and their transgressive desires. Moreover, gothic stories often explore trauma (e.g. the trauma inflicted by Dr Frankenstein on his creature) in a way that is less about the shocking jump-scare plot moments, and more about an atmosphere of dread that pervades the story. In both historic and modern times this has made it a suitable genre in which to express queerness, since LGBT+ history has been shaped by the lasting trauma of persecution, police brutality and the AIDS epidemic. Millennium (anti-mainstream and neo-gothic by nature) in particular is infamous for its constant bleakness; it forces the audience to be immersed in the darkness. Therefore it can sometimes feel closer to the reality of being queer than other contemporary representation (such as Will and Grace). The operable word being ‘sometimes’—Millennium is not immune to prejudices of the era.

In examining the queer perspective on Millennium, there is room for both criticism and praise. An understanding of how the gothic genre facilitates queerness, and of the importance of LGBT+ history in the latter half of the 20th Century, adds layers of meaning to an already complex and nuanced show.

Two Halves of a Whole (‘The Thin White Line’)

The Thin White Line’ was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong—it seeks to explore an inner conflict within Frank by having his past brought to life, so to speak. What makes this episode doubly interesting is the relationship between the murderous Richard Allen Hanz and his protégé, Jacob Tyler. The specific nature of Hanz and Tyler’s relationship is ambiguous—certainly, the episode never uses the word “gay”, although there are homoerotic implications in the way that Hanz describes it. It is clear that the relationship between these two men is complicated, and quite possibly abusive. Tyler—referred to as “the living reincarnation of Richard Allen Hanz”—finds his identity inextricable from Hanz’s, and throughout the episode he has hallucinations, showing that he has been severed from reality. There is irony in choosing The Bee Gees’ ‘How Deep is Your Love’ to play during the epsidoe, since the lyrics could certainly have unique significance to same-sex couples, however ‘The Thin White Line’ is not a representation of a loving relationship between two men. 

Jacob Tyler on the cover of a magazine called 'Captured' (hallucination)
“Captured”

Presumably the magazine found in the warehouse building—“sex freak drank his victim’s blood!”—is supposed to imply perversion on Hanz’s part. To be honest, it’s unclear how one is meant to read this, it’s such a fleeting moment. The murders themselves are not sexual in nature (unless you count the fact that he always has to kill in pairs). The magazine seems just to be a way of increasing Hanz’s creep-factor, like his constant allusions to cannibalism (“I ate his fear up like it was a Thanksgiving meal”). 

In order to separate the antagonist from the noble protagonist and innocent audience member, as well as making them even scarier, horror films (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs—from which this episode takes many cues) give their villains extra socially-deviant qualities. It isn’t enough that Hanz is a serial killer, he also might be gay. His cannibal-like nature excarcerbates this—cannibalism has been linked to homosexuality, historically and in the media (see again The Silence of the Lambs) because of the symbolism of a male consuming the flesh of another male. To liken homosexuality to perversion or violence makes this episode guilty of an outdated prejudice.

I touched his life like no one else can […] we are as one […] every second these lights burn, tells me that’s another second he’s out there. That’s not murder, that’s love.

– Richard Allen Hanz

Frank is repulsed by Hanz, and has sympathy for Tyler. He believes that Hanz “killed him and made him another Richard Hanz”—what Hanz calls “love”, Frank calls “murder”. Either Hanz and Tyler really are two halves of a whole, or Hanz has manipulated Tyler to the point that he believes them to be so. ‘The Thin White Line’ uses the motif of doubling: two versions of events, two halves of the playing cards, two Franks, and of course, Hanz and Tyler. The idea of doubling and the alter ego is very gothic and very queer. Some interpretations of Jekyll and Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson) claim that having an alter ego with which to enact socially unacceptable behaviour is an allegory for covert homosexuality.

The queer status of Hanz and Tyler’s relationship is sort of just a fact (it’s important to the story that they met in prison, which necessitates a same-sex relationship) and sort of not. One can imagine a similar story being told with a heterosexual couple, and not much would change except for the subtext. However, since Hanz is (literally) a condemned man, abhorred by Frank and cultural history, who must use a doppelganger to fulfil his transgressive desires, it is surely easy to see how one could read this as a (somewhat outdated) queer allegory, a re-imagined Jekyll and Hyde

‘The Thin White Line’ is a compelling and well-crafted episode of television that nonetheless exerts a kind of judgemental heteronormativity—especially in the context of a show that treats Frank’s nuclear family as the thing that ought to be sacred.

The Miracle of Love in ‘In Arcadia Ego’

The Season 2 episode ‘In Arcadia Ego’ was written by Chip Johannessen and directed by Thomas J. Wright. The title means ‘I am in Arcadia’, where the ‘I’ traditionally refers to a personification of death. It is a warning that even in the most beautiful and harmonious of places (as the mythic Arcadia was said to be) there will be death and misery. This could serve as an epigraph for the whole show, as Millennium is so often about the light within the dark, and the dark within the light. Undoubtedly, the light in ‘In Arcadia Ego’ is the love shared between Janette Viti and Juliet “Sonny” Palmer. 

Wrapped in her arms, Janette gazes lovingly at Sonny
Safe in each other’s arms

Like Hanz and Tyler, these women met in prison. They break out together in anticipation of the birth of Janette’s child, who they believe was an immaculate conception. By the end of the episode, there is no evidence to suggest that they are mistaken in this belief. The way that ‘In Arcadia Ego’ combines theism with queerness in a positive way is surprising and heartwarming; the two are so often portrayed at odds with each other. Furthermore, Johannessen seems to have made a conscious effort to sympathetically portray the reality of queerness. When they run away from prison, Janette and Sonny believe they are running towards something positive for them both (an Arcadia of sorts) but there is a brief moment in the women’s clinic waiting room when a mother pulls her children away from Sonny, as though she is contagious, which is enough to plant the seed of trepidation in viewers’ minds. 

They don’t believe God would waste his time making a miracle for two people like Sonny and me, but he did.

– Janette Viti

A pitfall of queer representation is often that lesbian relationships are portrayed with the intent of being appealing to men. In the opening of ‘In Arcadia Ego’, a prison guard demonstrates this mindset, as he is watching what looks like an erotic video set in a women’s prison. The sexualisation of Janette by the male side characters is purposefully disturbing, and intends to antagonise this behaviour. Indeed, the episode seems conscious and scornful of the misconception that a woman’s sexuality must centre around men; another guard taunts Janette, saying he can give her something that Sonny can’t, and there is a similar sentiment from the first: “sooner or later, they all see the light”. The guard is blatantly incorrect, and Janette and Sonny remain steadfastly committed to each other until the end.

By all accounts they’re completely devoted to each other.

– Frank Black

The problem is that men are important to Janette and Sonny’s story, even if they shouldn’t be. Their backstories, as well of the events of the episode, are entrenched in trauma caused by men. Certainly, this is a story that ought to be told, and in no way does it detract from the strength of the loving relationship at the heart of the episode, but in light of the context, it should be noted that women needn’t have been abused by men in order to be attracted to other women.

Though arguably ‘lighter’ in sentiment than most other episodes, arguably ‘In Arcadia Ego’ does what the gothic genre does best, and gives a voice to social outsiders who are breaking free from an oppressive system. Gay women are told certain things by society: that they ought to be attracted to men, or they ought not to have children. By choosing a gay couple rather than a straight one to tell a story about immaculate conception, Johannessen has created an allegory about the endurance of love (symbolised by the miraculous child) in the face of oppression. This is a queer story that deserves to be told.

It is significant that Sonny’s real name is ‘Juliet’, because of the obvious association with Romeo and Juliet, another story about a controversial relationship that ends in death. Because Janette and Sonny do die at the end; Sonny commits ‘suicide by cop’ so that she can be reuinted with Janette, who died in childbirth. One can hardly demand a happy ending from Millennium, where any side character is expendable (and given how Season 2 ends, there are hardly grounds to suggest the gay couple is being treated worse than the straight ones). However, so many queer stories end in tragedy—far more than end happily—and this is why, even though Millennium is an ‘anyone can die story, it is frustrating that this gem of positive representation is so short-lived. 

So it is possible to criticise this episode. But there is something so enjoyable about hearing confessions of love between two women—it is earnest, respectful, and poignant. Clearly Janette and Sonny are markedly different from their male counterparts in ‘The Thin White Line’—for a start, this episode is definitely more explicit about the nature of their relationship. The simplest conclusion would be to say that ‘In Arcadia Ego’ is better representation, just because the gay characters are better people. This doesn’t have to be the case, however ‘The Thin White Line’ is weighed down by negative stereotypes of homosexual relationships. These same stereotypes are subverted in ‘In Arcadia Ego’—no matter what the police chief might say, there is nothing perverse at all about the love between Janette and Sonny.

The Problem With Sex-Changing Demons

In the Millennium lore, there are demons that can take male or female forms. The myth of the incubus (or succubus, depending) has, since the writing of Thomas Aquinas on the matter, been believed to be that of one demonic entity that will take a male and female form in turn. Otherwise thought of as being ‘truly’ male, but taking a female form when preying on men. The origins of the myth can be explained by a combination of sleep paralysis, hypnagogic hallucinations, and nocturnal emission, as well as fear surrounding sexual assault.

In Millennium, the demon, sometimes known as Lucy Butler (Sarah-Jane Redmond) who appears in several episodes—most notably ‘Lamentation’, mere moments before a main character’s death—has both a male and female human form. Some of her appearances have heavy implications of sexual predation, so it is clear that the succubus myth was an influence here. Yes, it’s symbolic of the fact that evil can have many faces, yes, the succubus is a centuries-old myth, but even so one must acknowledge that telling this story may reflect poorly on transgender people. Trans people have been dangerously misrepresented as predatory in the media and real life. Gender fluidity and sex changes are queer concepts, but in Millennium they are quite literally demonised.

On the other hand, a more charitable interpretation may be this: in the gothic genre, there is often a lack of fixed identity. Humans can become vampires, dead things come alive, Jekyll becomes Hyde. In the queer perspective, fluid identities ought to be celebrated…however, it is unfortunate that in Millennium this is a facet designated to an embodiment of evil.

A sinister man with long dark hair
Lucy Butler’s male form

Queerness in the 20th Century

Millennium is broadly a show about the anxieties of the 20th Century—from which LGBT history cannot be excluded. Especially given that Season 2 culminates with the outbreak of a deadly disease; fears about an apocalyptic virus were escalated by the terrible reality of what the gay community faced during the AIDS epidemic. 

The very first episode of the show includes references to AIDS at the centre of the conflict. The serial killer of the week—known as ‘the Frenchman’—goes cruising to find a victim among young gay men. The man he picks up is later found mutilated in such a way to prevent him from committing sexual acts (mouth sewn closed, injured hands) and to stop an infection from entering his system. One merely has to listen to Frank’s dossier of the killer in order to grasp the subtext: “the killer is confused about his sexuality. He feels guilt, quite possibly from his mother. So he goes to peep shows to try to feel something toward women…” 

The Frenchman believes he is ridding Seattle of “the abominable” (an epithet Frank takes from the Bible) fuelled by his own sexual repression and shame. Inscriptions of “peste” (plague) and references to “the great plague” appear throughout the episode, as does a lot of blood imagery—from the shocking visions of red-soaked walls, to the extraction of Jordan’s blood in hospital. The Frenchman is testing his victim’s blood to seek out the afflicted, for he believes that the prophesied “plague” is AIDS. Thankfully, Frank is there to rationalise that the Frenchman is acting out of shame about his own repressed sexuality, and not legitimate concerns that AIDS is the mark of Satan.

The killer’s passing judgement. He’s probably testing the blood, carrying out his death sentences on the afflicted.

– Frank Black 

In 1995, the CDC estimated there had been 50,000 AIDS deaths in the US that year; the disease was nicknamed the “gay plague” back in the ’80s, because it was disproportionately infecting gay men. Queer bodies became synonymous with affliction. When the Frenchman has visions of gay men with mutilated faces, it is a symptom of the way he sees the world “differently”, and it could also be interpreted as a projection of the ‘monstrous’ connotations of gay sex. In stark contrast to the fear and disgust the Frenchman feels, is Frank’s compassion for the young male victim. It is a harrowing and poignant moment, when Frank cradles the sobbing man, his cries muffled by his injured mouth. This moment well establishes Frank as an empathetic character, as well as achieving the crucial humanisation of the young man in the face of so much stigma.

A hallucination of two men whose eyes and mouths are sewn shut
The Frenchman’s vision

The end of the 20th Century also saw the birth of the internet, and all the ensuing ways that it liberated (and condemned) sexuality. The Season 2 episode ‘The Mikado’ approaches the internet as a “new playground” for evil, and it serves as a hindrance to Frank’s ability. However there is a throwaway comment from Brian Roedecker (Allan Zinyk) that stands out: “in the anonymity of cyberspace, people are free to experiment. Online, I’ve changed my name, my appearance, sexual orientation, even gender.” Nothing particularly comes of it in the episode, but a male character who goes by the pseudonym ‘Lady Love’ online is an example of what Roedecker is talking about. Given the wider context of the episode, it’s hard to tell what kind of judgement (if any) is being placed on Roedecker and ‘Lady Love’—however, the use of words like “liberated” and “free” speak to the positive impact of the internet. Plus, to hear a character so unabashedly declare he has been experimenting with his sexual orientation online is enough to make a queer viewer’s ears prick up.

Conclusion

Millennium was braver than most shows, in more ways than one—this is clear to see. It was not a show that necessarily set out to tell queer stories, but this may actually be a good thing in terms of representation. It never sought to fetishise or exploit the queer community; in the ’90s, the mainstream began to see opportunities for profit in the plunder of gay culture, and thus ostensibly ‘queer’ things began to wiggle their way into the limelight (Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ would be an obvious example). 

Millennium was blessedly anti-mainstream. The queer characters in Millennium are…like all the other characters in Millennium: sometimes loving, sometimes otherworldly, sometimes deeply evil. ‘In Arcadia Ego’ in particular proves that it is possible to tell interesting queer stories in genre fiction—despite the fact that subsequent examples have been few and far between, this shouldn’t be a surprise, given all that has been argued about the gothic genre. Freed from the restraints of popularity, Millennium delighted in challenging its audience, and therefore the presence of queer stories does not feel like happenstance. Perhaps modern LGBT+ representation ought to be more deliberately non-conformist. And misgivings about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ representation aside, Millennium is the kind of show that might resonate with a queer audience simply by virtue of its dark gothic style and themes. After all, who would know more about fighting internal and external demons than the queer community?

Written by Christopher Lieberman

Writer, teenager, John Webster appreciator. Talks about The X-Files a lot.

One Comment

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  1. Love this article! I’m a fan of Millennium from way back and remember having some thoughts about the portrayals of the LGB characters, but hadn’t really thought about Lucy Butler as a T representation; I thought of that as more of a “you can’t spot evil because it can look like anyone”, much like The First in Buffy, as Lucy was the one female representation, but this particular demon also appeared as a wealthy lawyer, a petty criminal, and a young boy (and I’ve wondered if any of the winged demons were meant to be the same, or if Crocell appearing to Frank was really his personal demon in disguise). I’ll have to rewatch with your ideas in mind. Thanks for this piece!

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