Millennium is a 1996 horror/mystery TV series, loosely spun off from The X-Files. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is a criminal profiler for the mysterious Millennium Group, investigating serial murders and other occult-tinged crimes.
In “Loin Like a Hunting Flame” (S01E12, aired January 31, 1997), this week’s serial killer is Art Nesbitt, a pharmacist with a habit of drugging people, abducting them, videotaping them having sex, killing them, and then leaving their bodies in artistic tableaux in public places. The victims are selected because they match his fantasies of sexual experiences he didn’t have: a young heterosexual couple at a rave, a pair of married women from a swinger party, and a newlywed couple.
Note that the swinger party scene begins with blindfolded women taking keys out of a bowl. This kind of random partner swapping is probably fictional, a misunderstanding of the term “key parties”, as seen in films like The Ice Storm (1997). Nesbitt lurks outside, spying through the windows, highlighting the voyeuristic, shocked-yet-titillated view of the episode itself.
This particular episode has more than a tinge of moral panic over then-topical issues like drugs, raves and swinger parties. Sometimes the camera switches to Nesbitt’s subjective view, in which everything seems “pornified”. In the case of the women from the swinger party, in his vision the middle-aged, ordinary-looking women are replaced by younger, heavily-made-up women.
Frank works with local Detective Thomas, who expresses disgust with the sexual subcultures he encounters and mild sexism over the role of women in investigating sex crimes.
When the husbands of the missing women talk to the police, Thomas treats them with contempt.
Thomas: “Wife swapping. You two are into that? Group sex? Are you proud of that, huh?”
Frank: “I don’t think pride is what’s at issue here, Detective.”
Husband 2: “We just want our wives back.”
Thomas: [under breath to Frank] “Yeah, so you can trade them up.”
Thomas: “Any screening? Like, say, to keep out the fat people, maybe?”
When the bodies of the two women are discovered, Thomas shows Frank a ball gag, which Frank rather squeamishly refers to as a “device”.
Thomas: “Well, it’s important to someone. Maybe those two sophisticates back at the station, huh?”
There were no ball gags or bondage equipment at the swinger party. Did one of the women just happen to have a ball gag in her pocket? Once again, BDSM gear is used as a signifier of deviant sexuality in general.
Working on the exotic drugs found in the victims’ bodies, they track down Nesbitt, but only find his wife. Turns out Nesbitt couldn’t consummate their marriage 18 years ago, and that is enough to drive him to commit multiple murders, instead of, say, seeking counseling.
When Nesbitt’s wife finds that he has a single, 18-year-old porn magazine hidden in the house, that is enough to make her say:
Wife: “He’s done something. He’s done something horrible, hasn’t he?”
The cops rescue Nesbitt’s latest victims, then stop him before he can consummate with his wife. Nesbitt injects himself, resulting in his death.
In the aftermath, Thomas talks to Frank about how his work in sex crimes made his marriage end and gave him a nervous breakdown.
Thomas: “Something is wrong, Frank. You know, in this day and age, people are carrying on, wild as ever, even moreso. Regular folks are doing drugs, acting nuts.”
Frank: “Sex and death comingled. One inseparable impulse. Risk feeds sensation. Sensation makes risk acceptable. We’re headed toward–”
Thomas: “Toward what, Frank?”
Frank: “Something perhaps we’d do better to avoid.”
There are a lot of implausibilities in this story, mainly on the logistics of how Nesbitt could drug people, move them in and out of the hidden room beneath his garage, and deposit their corpses in public places without notice. The main problem is the underlying phobia of sexuality
The AV Club review of the episode called it “quite possibly one of the worst episodes of television I’ve ever seen.”
The episode’s general sense of unease about all sex that’s not safe, nuclear-family-prescribed sex is just odd. The show can’t make up its mind about whether Thomas is supposed to be helplessly behind the times or another vigilant man on the walls of purity, keeping the darkness out. The character occasionally brings up all manner of sexual practices and condemns them as immoral with the same sweep, but the show also wants us to think of, say, a bunch of attractive swingers having a key party (and I’m firmly convinced these never actually happened) as vaguely titillating. It’s trying to play on our sexual desires, then whack us across the nose for any possible response we have to these scenarios that’s not horror.
This is the same mindset behind so many other procedural dramas when it comes to sex.