For this edition and in honour of Thomas J. Wright Week, What the Killer Sees takes its cue once again from the recent podcast interview with writer Michael R. Perry in which he talked at some length about the episode “Nostalgia” and notably Thomas J. Wright’s direction thereof.
Whilst some considerable focus has been placed upon the visual feast that is “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions” this week to date, Thomas J. Wright’s legacy for Millennium is of course much broader. He directed twenty-six episodes – over a third of the series’ entire run – and served as a producer on forty-five. Added to this is a huge body of directorial work that takes in turns for other series as diverse as The X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond, Max Headroom, Angel, The Wire and NCIS, to name but a few. It is no understatement to say that Thomas J. Wright – whose career started out as a storyboard artist for the late, great Alfred Hitchcock – stands now as one of the foremost television directors of his generation.
Consider for today, then, how that directorial vision told the story of an uncomfortable return to a childhood home for Emma Hollis, and the unveiling of a murderer who, racked with guilt, has hidden for years in plain sight…
Episode: “Nostalgia” (7 May 1999)
Writer: Michael R. Perry
Director: Thomas J. Wright
Quote: “I think he wanted them to know what he had done, what he carried around inside, because they never stopped him. Show them, Jerry. Show them where the bodies are.” –Frank Black
Profile: Jerry Neilson is a killer wracked with guilt. In many ways he sees himself as a moralistic judge, not so much motivated by any pleasure he takes from killing so much as by anger at Liddy Hooper’s lack of self-respect and how she thus allows herself to be used and passed around in the seedy backroom of Bar None. Nonetheless there is a sexual motivation – probably accompanied by self-hatred – since the “genetic evidence” inside the lifeguard stand within the State Park reveals his unhealthy obsessions and, in flashback, we see him about to violate Liddy having drowned her. He judges the other men who have used and abused her, but none more harshly than himself for sharing their proclivities.
Neilson fully expected to be called to account for this first killing, but when he wasn’t he repeated the ritual with other girls who would not necessarily attract too much attention. Thus Frank notes that his MO has evolved, that he has become cocky over the years between his murders. That guilt remains an underlying motive too, however, with the subsequent killings perhaps committed in the hope that each one would lead to his capture, ultimately causing him to only bury the foot of Jan McCall, his final victim, in shallow ground and in an inhabited area where it would soon be discovered.
Investigation: During the course of this investigation, Frank Black all but gets to act out any Columbo fantasies he may have harboured. Whilst the audience is not privy to witnessing who committed the murders at the outset, it becomes clear very early on to both Frank and Emma Hollis that Neilson is guilty. Rather than see them both seek out an unknown killer, then, we watch instead how Frank goes about evincing a confession from him.
When we as viewers first arrive in South Mills we are presented with what seems to be a bright, welcoming community, the one that Emma remembers from her childhood. The camera tracks across gleaming white picket fences and shows clean, open streets bordered by well topiaried trees.
The titular reference to nostalgia is a strong aspect of a core theme to the investigation – and, for that matter, the episode as a whole – in terms of perspective. Emma Hollis remembers South Mills as the “last good place” she lived in. She is, ultimately, angered to find out that it is in fact no different to anywhere else as its seedy, murderous underbelly is revealed. Neilson’s perspective is one we have explored in his profile, whilst we learn how conflicted are the other local law enforcement in their own perspectives to the murders under investigation. As Michael R. Perry revealed in the aforementioned interview, Thomas J. Wright utilised a split-focus diopter to allow the camera lens to give us depth of focus and facilitate close-up shots of eyes and faces. This really allows us, the viewer, to fully experience those perspectives: their viewpoints, embarrassments and revelations.
Ultimately, Frank succeeds in convincing Neilson to admit to his crimes and allow the bodies of his victims to be recovered and buried with dignity. The mood of the episode is thus transformed in turn from those bright, open vistas of South Mills to darker images that reflect the sinister reality beneath the town’s veneer, pulling the viewer along Emma’s emotional journey that lies at the heart of the story. These later scenes confer a brooding melancholy, granting “Nostalgia” a shifting tone that stands apart as a singular investigation from Millennium’s varied and rich tapestry, one that stands out due to Thomas J. Wright’s masterful direction.