This is one of those episodes, and it won’t be the last this season, that I’m not really sure how I feel about. The issue isn’t that I don’t enjoy it because I do. It’s that “Terms of Endearment” is somewhat schizophrenic; this episode isn’t sure whether it’s an homage to Hitchcock, a Rosemary’s Baby knockoff, a comedy, a tragedy, or an X-File. It’s also undecided as to whether its protagonist is an F.B.I. agent with an uncanny mind, a demon with an identity crisis, a naïve wife or a diabolical one.
Yes, the point of view changes so often in this episode that rather than what evil the demon villain is up to, the main mystery is which character is actually the protagonist. Whose perspective are we supposed to be seeing the story through? Ultimately, I believe the protagonist is meant to be Wayne Weinsider. In a twist on Rosemary’s Baby, the story is told from the viewpoint of the devil rather than that of the hapless female. However, the references to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, such as the glowing glass of poisoned milk Wayne carries up the stairs to his wife, and consequently the audience’s identification with the wife who doesn’t know if her protector is actually her destroyer, causes some confusion. Throw scenes with Mulder and his uncanny intuition into the mix and it’s hard to hold out for a hero… as there isn’t one. This is almost an ensemble piece.
The main source of confusion, however, lies with the demon character of Wayne Weinsider himself. This is one of the rare X-Files where the guest star is actually the protagonist. Actually, it may even be the first depending on how you think of previous episodes such as “Leonard Betts” (4×14). Yes, it’s a joy to have Bruce Campbell, previously of Hercules, Xena and now Burn Notice fame, on board for an X-Files adventure and as much as lies within him, he does an excellent job with the role. But there’s weakness in the Wayne Weinsider character that has nothing to do with how he’s played.
The way the character is written it’s hard to either hate him or love him. He’s neither an underworld nemesis worthy of an exorcist nor is he a sympathetic soul in his quest for normalcy. He’s doing the unspeakable, killing his own children, and yet he’s so harmless a few mere bullets can incapacitate him. Tell me, what kind of demon is felled by bullets?? They’re not even silver bullets! You just shoot the devil’s minion a couple of times and he goes down? That’s all it takes? Where’s the holy water? Yegads.
It’s inevitable that the devil loses his impact when there’s no God for him to rebel against. Rosemary’s Baby pulls this off, depicting a fight against the king of evil without claiming any standard of good, but it can do that because the claustrophobic nightmare of its heroine, her rape and the ongoing violation of nourishing within her own body a monster not of this world, is enough to convince anyone of the evil of her enemy. Here Mulder is so unimpressed by Wayne Weinsider that he baits him, teases him, and initiates a campaign of harassment against him all without any fear of being pulled into the lake of fire.
I also wonder if the homage to Rosemary’s Baby, the decision to depict Wayne’s true demon identity in a distinctly 1960s style, may have been lost on the audience. Those horns, those rubbery looking hands, they’re hardly the stuff of horror in recent years. The demon that a 1990s audience would nightmarishly conjure up at the food of their beds wouldn’t be so… Harryhausen-esque. The demon baby too, with its claws peeking out over the car seat in a direct reference to the earlier film, I fear isn’t as impactful as it could be. Perhaps this is all too stylized for primetime television. Perhaps the elemental horror of the Rosemary’s Baby storyline keeps the special effects from being perceived as hokey and “Terms of Endearment” doesn’t have that built in fail-safe.
There was a golden opportunity here to turn an insurance salesman into something more nefarious than his job already makes him, but I suppose that wasn’t the point. The point was to have a sympathetic villain. The problem is, since when is the devil sympathetic? How do you make him a well-rounded character? He loses all his power that way. He’s supposed to be the devil, dang it. Turning him into a sentimental family man is laughable. And yet, this isn’t a comedy. Neither is it a horror story despite the brooding gothic manor Wayne resides in. It falls into the nether regions in between – a fate that also awaits first time writer David Amann’s sophomore attempt, “Agua Mala” (6×14).
I say this isn’t a comedy, but I don’t mean to say that it isn’t funny or that the laughs are all unintentional. I enjoy watching David Duchovny and Bruce Campbell play in the same sandbox. And I can’t deny that my 14-year-old self and her best friend giggled for days over Wayne being blindsided by wife number two and the cool factor of her subsequent joy ride. The use of the band Garbage’s music in the soundtrack didn’t hurt either.
And the Verdict is…
Too bad the devil isn’t so easy to identify with. If he had been, this could have been a rousing success. Turning his nefarious plans back on him in a twist ending isn’t quite enough to create sympathy for the devil, though his decision to give life back to his victimized wife comes close. Then again, I would have preferred it if it had been completely, well, devilish. If he had been an unapologetic villain along the lines of Eugene Victor Tooms I could have relished the story more.
But now that I’ve poked my fingers in all of this episode’s open wounds, let me also attest that I do enjoy it and I find most critiques of “Terms of Endearment” to be unduly harsh. This isn’t the first X-Files episode to fall slightly short of its promise and it won’t be the last, that doesn’t mean it’s a dismal failure. By no means is it “Teso Dos Bichos” (3×18).
We have a very talented guest lead, some memorable visuals, funny moments and taboo subject matter – All the makings of an X-File. The disparate elements are here, if only they worked in concert.
How would you prosecute a demon for killing his demon spawn? Is that even a crime?
I realize much has been made about Mulder’s “I’m not a psychologist” comment and it’s hard to defend since Scully introduces Mulder to the audience as an “Oxford-educated psychologist” way back in the “Pilot” (1×79). But though this offhand comment may smack of discontinuity, it doesn’t bother me in the least. I can’t excuse it by claiming that Mulder was being sarcastic since his tone doesn’t bear evidence of that, but does it really matter? Besides, it’s not like he went to graduate school in the field.
How does Betsy know just where to find Mulder and Scully in the middle of the night? If demons read minds, surely Wayne would have better avoided detection… and would have picked up on his wife’s duplicity.
I see you, Mark Snow, throwing in that Gregorian chant.
Maybe Bruce Campbell’s just too funny. It’s hard not to interpret his actions as comic because he’s so naturally hilarious.
Deputy Stevens: I know this went right into your caseload but I never imagined you would get here so soon, Agent, uh…
Mulder: Oh, Mulder. Fox Mulder. Though I ask you not to make that known to anybody. The F.B.I. likes to keep our work on these cases very hush-hush. [He holds a shredded report that’s been taped back together]
Deputy Stevens: Sure, of course. But I would like to thank Agent Spender.
Mulder: Oh. No, no, no. I’ll thank him for you because I have to call in my, uh, progress report.
Mulder: Scully, this is a classic case of demon fetal harvest, what they called in the middle ages “atum nocturnem,” the impregnation of an unwitting woman by a dark lord of the underworld…
Scully: As host for his demon seed.
Scully: I saw Rosemary’s Baby on cable the other night, Mulder.
Mulder: [Carrying out a large container of dietary fiber supplements] Whatever else we find, I know everybody in this house is regular.