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The X-Files – Terms of Endearment (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Terms of Endearment is perhaps the most conventional episode of The X-Files to air between Drive and Agua Mala.

The early sixth season was generally quite experimental and playful, and Terms of Endearment stands out in this stretch of the season as an episode that is very much structured like a horror story and which conforms to the expectations of an episode of The X-Files. A local law enforcement official brings a case to the attention of the FBI; Mulder and Scully trade theories; Mulder pursues his hunches, while Scully offers pseudo-scientific rationalisations. There is a crime; there is a paranormal element; there is a secret.

Who said their marriage is lacking some fire?

Who said their marriage is lacking some fire?

Terms of Endearment is an episode that could easily have been written into the fifth or seventh seasons of the show without any real difficulty. Barring the brief appearance of Spender at the start of the episode, and the occasional references to the fact that Mulder is not technically on the X-files anymore, this is business as usual. Indeed, the episode’s themes of reproductive horror might have fit quite comfortably with the recurring infant-related horror stories that populated the fifth season.

Still, Terms of Endearment works. In a way, its somewhat conventional nature serves it well. As with the stand-alone monster of the week stories scattered sparingly through the fifth season, it is easier to appreciate an episode like this when it feels exceptional rather than generic. Featuring an intriguing central metaphor, a great guest performance, and a number of memorable visuals, Terms of Endearment is a clever and powerful little script. It is not a bad début from writer David Amann.

"Who loves you, baby?"

“Who loves you, baby?”

Terms of Endearment is the first episode of the sixth season to be credited to a new writer on the show. All the earlier episodes of the season were the work of X-Files veterans, writers who had been on the show for years at this point. David Amann was an established industry veteran at this point. He had scripted two television films – Dead Air and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die – in 1994, before spending two years on the writing staff of Chicago Hope. He migrated from Chicago Hope to The X-Files at the start of the latter show’s sixth season.

David Amann would be credited as a writer on eight episodes across the show’s final four seasons. Amann would work as executive story editor during the show’s sixth season, and would be bumped up to a producer for the remaining three seasons. (Co-producer for the seventh season, producer for the eighth, supervising producer for the ninth.) In short, Amann is here for the long haul. Amann is the first truly long-term addition to the writing staff on The X-Files since Vince Gilligan at the end of the third season.

A crying shame...

A crying shame…

As such, Terms of Endearment is not a bad debut script from the writer. It hits upon a number of ideas that will recur in his stories for the series. Many of Amann’s stronger scripts tend to explore the strange intersection between suburbia and the supernatural. Terms of Endearment features a demon driving a convertible and selling insurance as he aspires to a “normal” family; Chimera is a story about a housewife who transforms into a monster; Invocation is the story about a missing child who is mysteriously and inexplicably returned home years after disappearing.

In many respects, Terms of Endearment is more than just a classic X-Files story; it is a classic horror tale. The idea of the “demon baby” is a staple of horror fiction, stretching back centuries. The middle ages is populated with stories about incubi, male demons who would seduce and impregnate innocent women. The story remains popular to this day. Terms of Endearment cannot help but evoke Rosemary’s Baby, but there are lots of other body horror stories about monstrous impregnation like Demon Seed.

Happy times...

Happy times…

Mulder cites a long line of historical precedent for this “classic case of demon fetal harvest.” In The Supernatural, writers Douglas Hill and Pat Williams speculate that such cases were common in medieval times because they provided a loophole to repressive contemporary sexual more:

Demons were thought capable of impregnating humans, and so had fatherhood by rape attributed to them in many awkward illegitimacies. An unfaithful wife could assure her husband that she had been assaulted by an incubus; and similarly for a straying husband. A man accused of seduction or illegitimate paternity could swear that an incubus must have assumed his shape. And so on.

But the belief in the sexual demons had an even darker side. A girl using the incubus as an explanation of pregnancy might find the trick backfiring when she was beaten or burned for consorting with demons, if no one chose to believe her story of having been raped.

There are a whole host of unfortunate attitudes and prejudices that inform and play into this long history of demon stories, which makes stories about demonic pregnancies an interesting vehicle to explore issues of sexuality and gender.

I would watch a show about a bigamist demon played by Bruce Campbell. Call it Big Demon Love, and I'm in.

I would watch a show about a bigamist demon played by Bruce Campbell. Call it Big Demon Love, and I’m in.

On the surface, it is interesting that it took The X-Files so long to do a straight-up “demon baby” story, particularly given the prominence of recurring themes about body horror and exploitation of the female reproductive system. There were elements of the classic “demon baby” story to episodes like The Calusari, but Terms of Endearment is the first time that the show has really committed to a story like this. Most of the “monster children” in The X-Files are only exposed as monsters after they have been born.

There is perhaps a reason for this. The X-Files has something of a complicated and storied history when it comes to dealing with classic horror monsters. Oddly enough, The X-Files is not very good at doing “straight” takes on classic horror conventions. Instead, the series tends to work better when it comes up with a clever twist on an old-fashioned concept. The modern vampires of Bad Blood worked a lot better than the conventional blood-suckers of 3. The show struggled with conventiontional werewolf stories in Shapes and Alpha.

Somebody's really not taking this whole "off the X-files" thing particularly seriously...

Somebody’s really not taking this whole “off the X-files” thing particularly seriously…

The script for Terms of Endearment manages to find a clever twist on the demon baby narrative, shifting the emphasis from the human mother to the demon father. As The End and the Beginning notes, the story evolved considerably from pitch to screen:

“It was about the fifth or sixth idea I suggested,” he says. “I had this idea for doing a kind of  Rosemary’s Baby in  reverse  – not from the point of view of the hapless woman unwittingly impregnated, but from the view of the devil, who has his own needs and ambitions. Chris seemed to really like this.

“Afterward there were more boards and drafts and rewrites than I can remember, to be honest, but I do remember a lot of sessions with Daniel (Arkin) and Jeffrey (Bell), a lot of feedback from Frank and John and Vince, and finally we hit upon a version that everybody seemed to agree was good.”

Earlier versions, recall several participants in the process, were heavier on pure shock value and lighter on humor and human interest. At one point Laura Weinsider gave birth to a serpent, not a humanoid. (Rob Bowman, for one, remembers feeling much relief when that aspect of the story was changed.)

It really seems like Terms of Endearment was very carefully and skilfully developed by all involved in the process. The episode is not as light as many of the episodes around it; there are quite a few heavy moments in the hour. At the same time, the script never wallows in the grim and gritty elements of the story.

Mulder smells sulphur...

Mulder smells sulphur…

To be clear, the idea of doing Rosemary’s Baby from the perspective of the demon is a risky proposition. After all, Rosemary’s Baby is regarded as something of a key feminist film. Although Agnieszka Holland – who directed a 2014 remake miniseries – has argued that Polanski’s film was released “before the feminist revolution, really”, there is no denying its themes and subtext. Scott Poole describes it as a movie that is “largely about the efforts of men to constrain women to home and family.”

Adapted from Ira Levin’s second novel, Rosemary’s Baby arrived in cinemas in 1968. It captured a lot of the mood of the time. It arrived as the pill was changing the way that people thought about contraception, even as the Vatican reaffirmed Catholic teaching on the subject as part of the Humanae Vitae. Roe vs. Wade was still half a decade away, but there were already legal challenges being made to abortion legislation across the United States. As such, the idea of a woman’s control over her own reproductive capacity was already a matter of discussion.

As far as Mulder's concerned, the devil in Rosemary's Baby was Roman Polanski...

As far as Mulder’s concerned, the devil in Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski…

As James Marriott notes in his introduction to Horror Films:

The film plays consciously on fears of male control of the female reproductive process: the Pill had been introduced at the start of the decade, revolutionising female biology, but its original hormone levels were soon considered dangerously high; and the Thalidomide scandal of the early 60s proved that many women’s anxieties about male science were well grounded. It would not have been too much of a step for women to identify with Rosemary when she is bullied into drinking a noxious cocktail against her fears of what it will do to her, and decisions about her pregnancy are taken away from her at every stage.

It is worth noting that Terms of Endearment nods to that sequence quite overtly. Wayne aborts his wives’ babies by feeding them “a noxious cocktail” that he disguises as warm milk.

Love bite.

Love bite.

Terms of Endearment cleverly decides to retain the feminist subtext of Rosemary’s Baby. Although the episode is focused on Wayne and largely told from his perspective, it still touches on the familiar themes about male control of female bodies. Most obviously, Wayne himself attempts to abort the babies. Not only does Wayne force Laura to lose their child, he then convinces Laura that she is responsible for the loss of their children. Playing the role of concerned husband, he pretends that he was really just trying to keep her safe.

“Laura, I was just doing it to protect you,” he promises her. “I knew that I could never bring back our little boy, our precious little Wayne, Junior but I couldn’t bear losing you.” Of course, Wayne is really just trying to protect his own secret, and has no qualms about blaming Laura for the horrors he inflicted upon her. The authorities are also quick to blame Laura for the loss of the child. Scully advises Mulder, “Virginia law on third-trimester abortions requires you to put her under arrest.”

He is literally sucking the life right out of her...

He is literally sucking the life right out of her…

In a nice bit of character continuity, Mulder is really the only character who seems to keep an open mind and who doesn’t leap to blaming Laura for the loss of her child. This is very much in keeping with the version of Mulder presented in episodes like Oubliette or Mind’s Eye, further demonstrating just how great a statistical aberration Excelsis Dei turned out to be. A recurring theme on The X-Files is Mulder’s ability to see through attempts to blame women for crimes committed against them.

Terms of Endearment never denies that Wayne’s actions are monstrous. The story suggests that he does feel some small measure of guilt and no small sense of loss, but he is quite clearly a monster. He might cry as he disposes of the remains of the lost fetus, but he immediately tricks Laura into blaming herself for his actions. The final twist, in which Wayne encounters a female demon perfectly willing to exercise autonomy over her own body is presented as a piece of brutal poetic justice – one that puts Wayne in a position similar to that in which he placed Laura.

Dream on, demon...

Dream on, demon…

So what are the benefits of focusing a story rather like Rosemary’s Baby on the demon rather than the mother? The answer would seem to lie in what these stories suggest about contemporary masculinity. As horror critic John Kenneth Muir observes in his Horror Film FAQ:

If God is indeed dead, suggests Rosemary’s Baby, it is because the twentieth-century American patriarchy killed Him, substituting its own narcissistic, preferential rules for the bygone human values of liberty and freedom for all, even women. In this case, the monstrous, yellow-eyed devil is the corrupt system that allows innocent Rosemary’s sacrifice for promises of wealth, fame, and power.

Terms of Endearment is fascinated by the type of evil at work in a culture like this. What are the impulses that drive this sort of behaviour and exploitation? What could lead Wayne to treat Laura (and to try to treat Betsy) so cynically and callously?

A bloody fight...

A bloody fight…

Terms of Endearment suggests that the answer is heartbreakingly banal. Wayne is not part of some demonic conspiracy to summon the antichrist and create hell on Earth. Wayne is just trying to create a normal life for himself. He is an anonymous cog in the system, a traveling insurance salesman just looking for stability. “I just want it to be normal,” Wayne tells Laura in the teaser. The word “normal” is repeated throughout Terms of Endearment with considerable frequency. Confronted by Mulder and Scully at the climax, he confesses, “I just wanted what everyone wants.”

This is perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Wayne Weinsider. Wayne is not trying to be exceptional; he is just trying to claim what he feels entitled to. Mulder’s research suggests that Laura is not the first victim of Wayne’s fixation of normality, and his plans with Betsy suggest that she would not have been the last. Wayne has left a trail of destruction and devastation in his pursuit of what is deemed normal. Terms of Endearment is a haunting tale of conformity, and the damage done pursuit of that end.

Buried secrets...

Buried secrets…

As a show deeply rooted in nineties anxieties, The X-Files had a strong recurring fear of conformity – as reflected in the mythology’s fascination with clones and hybrids. In terms of the “monster of the week” stories, the subject seemed to come up whenever the show ventured into suburbia. It had been present since at least Eve in the first season, and the sixth season would revisit the theme in Arcadia towards the end of the sixth season. Terms of Endearment presents Wayne as a monster motivated by conformity.

The episode offers a fairly strong cue when Mulder and Scully arrive at Betsy’s home at the climax. Investigating the empty house, the two agents find the 1956 adaptation of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit playing on the television. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was a highly popular novel published in 1955 that explored the issue of conformity as it related to American masculinity. It was the story of the existential crises facing a man looking for the American Dream in time of economic prosperity.

Does not scan...

Does not scan…

As Philip M. Lockette argued in Sex in the Kitchen, this anxiety about conformity may have been rooted in gender issues:

The idea of suburbs as feminizing (and thus cities as masculine) offers an interesting counterpoint to the approach of Wright, Jackson, and Hayden. Whereas these three historians regarded the expansion of suburbs at the expense of cities as harmful to society, critics in the 1950s viewed the homogeneity and (the perceived) manic lifestyle of the white collar commuter as detrimental to masculinity. As men conformed—married, began a family, moved to the suburbs, toed-the-line at work—in order to fit into corporate life, their manhood diminished. The fear of conformity lurks behind “the myth of suburbia.” In affect “conformity” was an acceptance of the synergy between inherited and emerging values, but the impression that men were ceasing to be their own agents by conforming was misconception. The stable society these critics valued depended on a mass conformity in activities that made up that society—work, family, home ownership.

As such, tying Wayne’s anxieties into a traditionally feminist narrative is an interesting twist on an old story.

That's a Brucie bonus...

That’s a Brucie bonus…

It is worth noting that this fear of conformity and uniformity was a feature of the fifties, but it saw something of a resurgence during the nineties. As The X-Files itself suggested in episodes like Travelers, there are a number of striking similarities between the mood of the fifties and the atmosphere of the nineties. Both were periods of political stability and economic prosperity following particularly turbulent periods of world history. In the fifties, the United States had just emerged from the Second World War, while the nineties followed the Cold War.

The X-Files suggested that the United States was caught up in an existential crisis into the nineties. Fallen Angel and Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man implied that the United States struggled without an enemy against which it could define itself, perhaps suggesting that the communist witch-hunts of the fifties were a glue that held society together through troubled times. During the fourth season, episodes like Tunguska and Terma wondered whether there was some measure of moral equivalence to be found between the United States and its former adversary.

Got milk?

Got milk?

Terms of Endearment reveals that Wayne Weinsider is actually an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. The dates that Mulder provides in the biography of the man “also known as Bud Hasselhoff, also known as Gordy Boitano” are significant. He was born in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution which solidified the power and influence of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. It was also the year that the film adaptation of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was released in the United States.

Wayne would have been twelve years old when the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia.  Although there are any number of significant differences between the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring, there is an increasing sense that the two events are more closely intertwined than traditionally accepted. More than that, both events served to cement the reach of the Soviet Union. We are told that Wayne Weinsider migrated to the United States in 1994, the year following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"But plenty of demons can go on to live rich and fulfilling lives! Haven't you seen Hellboy?"

“But plenty of demons can go on to live rich and fulfilling lives! Haven’t you seen Hellboy?”

It is no coincidence, then, that the type of conformity and normality to which Wayne aspires is more firmly linked with totalitarian communism than liberal democracy. As Jamie Cohen-Cole suggests in The Open Mind, this might have been one reason why Americans were so discomforted by mass conformity:

Moreover, domestic conformity suggested a worrisome lack of distance between the United States and the Soviet Union. For the group of intellectuals concerned with “mass society”, there was a direct connection between conformity and authoritarianism. The bland and homogeneous American suburb and the totalitarian machine that was the USSR shared a common feature: they were both populated by a similar sort of subject. In the imagination of liberal intellectuals, it was that kind of person who, devoid of a true self, could undermine American democracy.

Like Morris Fletcher before him, Wayne Weinsider represents the most banal sort of evil; he is a clever individual willing to do (and to go along with) whatever it takes to keep his head down. Wayne does horrible things in pursuit of a normal (rather than an exceptional) life.

A devilishly handsome man...

A devilishly handsome man…

There is a criticism of nineties America buried in all of this. Terms of Endearment has suggested that the American Dream has been slowly eroded, eaten away bit by bit. Wayne is a immigrant who comes to America in pursuit of a better life, but he does not aspire to exceptionalism. Instead, he finds the trappings of success – an expensive convertible, a nice house, a loving wife – by aiming squarely for mediocrity. Wayne is a monster trying desperately to fit in with the world around him, sacrificing his own children because they do not conform; because they could not “pass.”

Another feature that Terms of Endearment inherits from Rosemary’s Baby – and one that it uses rather well – is the ambiguity surrounding the demonic plot elements. Terms of Endearment explicitly suggests that Wayne is a demon – the red eyes as he burns the “leaves”, the deformities on the babies that resemble horns, the claw visible in the final scene. However, the episode works primarily as metaphor. Scully is correct when she argues that “a man can be demonic that he may have demon-like attributes” without the need for horns and a pitchfork.

"You know me, I'm a devil for the old insurance industry..."

“You know me, I’m a devil for the old insurance industry…”

As James Marriott, Rosemary’s Baby is quite unclear as to whether anything supernatural is actually going on. The impact of the film is in no way muted by the possibility that the demonic elements are hallucinations or metaphors:

The film would work dramatically without any reference to Satanism; it is Rosemary’s fears of pregnancy – and, to a lesser degree, her lapsed Catholicism and related sex guilt – that drive the narrative. Her fears of her changing body shape are foregrounded by idealised representations of the body, such as the nude statue seen with her in several shots, and her isolation, illness and sense of impotence are not uncommon early reactions to pregnancy.

Terms of Endearment feels like a similarly allegorical horror. “I know what you are,” Mulder warns Wayne early in the episode, and it doesn’t matter that Mulder never actually sees Wayne in demon form. He is just as much a monster.

You know, if Mulder is wrong about Wayne, this is quite possibly the dickish thing that he has ever done...

You know, if Mulder is wrong about Wayne, this is quite possibly the most dickish thing that he has ever done…

It is possible to read a lot of the episode as metaphor. Maybe Wayne is demonic in the same way that Irresistible suggests that Donnie Pfaster is demonic. When Laura sees the demon harvesting her baby, it is simply a symbolic representation of the abortion that Wayne induced using mandrake. “It’s also been known to be used as an hallucinogenic,” Scully suggests to Mulder. Of course, this reading would invite the audience to wonder what is “really” happening when Betsy grabs Wayne by the throat during his attempt to abort her child.

Nevertheless, there is something very human about what Wayne is attempting to do. Any parent recognises the fear of discovering that their child will be born with severe birth defects; the horrible sense of responsibility (and even guilt) that tends to come with such a revelation, not matter how irrational such concerns might be. Even the Wayne’s decisions to act upon that fear are monstrous, he remains a very understandable monster. It is possible to recognise a humanity in Wayne that is beyond that of Tooms or Flukeman.

The first row is always the toughest...

The first row is always the toughest…

Wayne might well seem at home with more human monsters featured on Millennium. Certainly, Terms of Endearment has all the hallmarks of a Millennium episode, with is depiction of an evil that has infiltrated a wholesome family home, demonic imagery, and loads of dead children. (That said, Terms of Endearment never wallows in the misery of… say, Through a Glass Darkly.) Wayne might easily hang out with the punch-clock demons featured in Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, villains who are at their most effective when they embrace humanity.

A large part of why Terms of Endearment works so well is down to a fascinating central performance from Bruce Campbell. Campbell is an actor with a resume populated by cult properties – his face (and, he would quip, his chin) are instantly recognisable to just about any pop culture aficionado. Despite the fact that Terms of Endearment is his only actual appearance in the show, Campbell has a long history with The X-Files extending both long before and shortly after the episode in question.

"Heh, just like old times..."

“Heh, just like old times…”

Bruce Campbell was the lead on the short-lived television series The Adventures of Brisco County, Junior, which debuted on Friday nights in late August 1993. A few weeks later, The Adventures of Brisco County, Junior was joined by another young show with “cult” written all over it. As Brian Lowry notes in The Truth is Out There, the network expected The Adventures of Brisco County, Junior to be the breakout hit:

Even then, however, The X-Files was still the other drama Fox ordered that spring, with most of the network’s hopes and attention focused on a Western (another genre little-seen in primetime at that point) entitled The Adventures of Brisco County, Junior. “Brisco County was still the show that most people in the company felt more passionately about,” Grushow concedes. “The assumption was that Brisco was really going to lead the way, and The X-Files was going to benefit from the very significant lead-in that Brisco would provide for it.”

Things would not work out that way. The Adventures of Brisco County, Junior would close up shop after a single season, while The X-Files would last through to the new millennium. Nevertheless, it provided the first point of intersection between Bruce Campbell and The X-Files. In his autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, Campbell recalls sharing a plane ride with David Duchovny during a publicity tour for Fox’s Friday night schedule.

"David Duchovny's not the only one who can do tortured man tears..."

“David Duchovny’s not the only one who can do tortured man tears…”

Terms of Endearment was not Bruce Campbell’s first brush with The X-Files, and it would not be his last. When David Duchovny departed the show at the end of the seventh season, Campbell was one of the actors that Chris Carter considered swapping in for the eighth season. It is interesting to wonder what the eighth season might have looked like had the show cast Campbell as the new male lead. He certainly would have provided a sharp contrast to the rather solemn and grounded atmosphere brought to Agent Doggett by Robert Patrick.

Ultimately, Campbell was not drafted in as a potential replacement for David Duchovny. Campbell cites his own outstanding obligations as putting a dampener on that idea. “I tried to get involved it the X-Files show, but legally, I couldn’t even take it if they offered it, because I’m not legally available,” he explained in an interview. “I had worked on an X-Files episode before, and I think they sort of remembered me from that. It was nice to be involved in that – even if you don’t get it, it’s nice to hang out at that party.”

Father of the frickin' year...

Father of the frickin’ year…

As with a lot of early sixth season episodes, Terms of Endearment is elevated by a memorable and powerful central guest performance from an actor who probably would never have been cast in the show even a year earlier. The sixth season relaxed Chris Carter’s attitude towards casting “recognisable” faces, and Terms of Endearment makes great use of Bruce Campbell, who imbues Wayne with an incredible sense of humanity and tragedy. Campbell never downplays the monstrosity of Wayne, but also makes the character hauntingly recognisable.

It is an interesting and nuanced performance, and one that stands out among the rest of Campbell’s filmography. Campbell has a tendency to dominate media in which he appears, to shew mercilessly on the scenery and own every frame that holds his image. Campbell’s performance style is typically as mannered and self-aware as that of actors like William Shatner or Clayton Rohmer. Campbell’s traditional style would fit comfortably with the heightened absurdity of something like Triangle, Dreamland, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas or The Rain King.

"And stay away from my kids'... graves, in the backyard!"

“And stay away from my kids’… graves, in the backyard!”

As such, Terms of Endearment seems like a real odd fit for Bruce Campbell as a guest actor – perhaps the most awkward fit in this stretch of the sixth season. After all, Terms of Endearment is the most grounded and traditional episode of The X-Files to air between Drive and Agua Mala. However, Campbell very shrewdly decides to underplay Wayne Weinsider, reining in his traditional performance style in favour of something a lot quieter and more restrained. It is not at all what fans would expect from “Bruce Campbell on The X-Files” and it works beautifully.

Indeed, the closest thing to a traditional “Bruce Campbell moment” in Terms of Endearment comes as Wayne tries to convince Laura that she conducted the abortion. Wayne’s story is heartbreaking and believable, but comes with an oddly-specific demonic chant (“zazas, zazas, nastanada zazas”). It is an absurd little moment that Campbell sells with absolute conviction, embracing the ridiculously specific dialogue without breaking character. It is a moment that might have tripped up a more naturalistic performer, but Campbell just breezes over it with effortless cool.

No claws for concern...

No claws for concern…

Discussing his guest appearance years later, Campbell would compare it to “stepping into a well oiled machine, it’s not an ad libbing type show, you are part of their world.” In his autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, Campbell recalls how he and Duchovny would lighten the mood between takes:

When most people think of The X-Files, they think of paranoia, mystery, and science fiction. I think of farts.

David Duchovny, known for his sober performances on screen, was actually a funny guy. One night on set, he got his hands on a fart cup — you know, those plastic cups, filled with a gooey substance, and he couldn’t put it down. Eventually, we got into something of a farting contest, to see who could simulate the best potato chip fart (fast and dry), or the raunchiest Taco fart (slow and wet). We called it a draw when the crew couldn’t handle it anymore.

It is a charming anecdote, one from an autobiography absolutely packed with fun little stories about Campbell’s career. Terms of Endearment makes for an interesting intersection between two cult icons.

Who loves you, baby monitor?

Who loves you, baby monitor?

As noted above, Terms of Endearment is a surprisingly traditional episode of The X-Files, particularly given its place in the sixth season’s broadcast and production orders. Since Triangle, the sixth season has turned into something of a screwy romantic comedy with a lot of emphasis on the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. It seemed that the biggest paranormal mystery left on the show had nothing to do with Samantha Mulder or alien experiments, but was instead concerned with how long it would take Mulder and Scully to start making out together.

Terms of Endearment is the first episode to consciously separate David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson since Drive. Mulder spends the majority of the episode investigating Wayne in Virginia, while Scully only joins him there towards the end of the episode. There are nods to the fact that the X-files are closed, but the structure of Terms of Endearment is notably different from the surrounding episodes. And not just because it feels more like an old-fashioned horror story than a fluffy paranormal romantic comedy.

"And, yet, despite the fact that I actually do my job... Mulder somehow still gets paid more than me."

“And, yet, despite the fact that I actually do my job… Mulder somehow still gets paid more than me.”

Unlike Dreamland, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas or The Rain King, there is little emphasis on how Mulder and Scully now like to do weird stuff together in their spare time. For the first time since Triangle, it seems like Mulder is willing to investigate an X-file on his own – rather than using his investigations into the paranormal as an excuse to spend time with his partner. Although there are two paranormal couples at the heart of Terms of Endearment, the episode is not particularly interested in the dynamic between Mulder and Scully.

There are the faintest of nods towards the sixth season status quo, although they have no real bearing on how the plot unfolds. When Mulder harasses Wayne, the demon phones Assistant Director Kersh to scare the dogged investigator off his back. However, Kersh doesn’t seem to demand that Mulder return to Washington immediately; he gets a warning through Scully, much like one might have expected from Assistant Director Skinner only a season earlier. Deputy Arky Stevens brings the case to Spender, but Mulder still ends up investigating.

"We have top men working on it. Top men."

“We have top men working on it. Top men.”

The presence and use of Spender in Terms of Endearment is interesting. Although Spender only appears in a single scene of Terms of Endearment, it remains one of the character’s most defining and iconic moments. As The End and the Beginning recalls:

Shortly after 6×06 aired in January 1999, actor Chris Owens began noticing interesting reactions from people who  recognized him on the streets of Los Angeles. “People kept looking at me with expressions that I guess were saying:  ‘You destroyed evidence! What a prick you are, Spender!’ One day, somebody actually waved his finger at me and just said, ‘Paper shredder!’

It makes sense that the scene should become character-defining. It is probably the best illustration of the “weasel” nature of Spender’s character to which Scully alluded in Triangle. More to the point, it is Spender’s only appearance between Triangle and Two Fathers.

Mulder pieces it together...

Mulder pieces it together…

Terms of Endearment demonstrates just how much of a missed opportunity Spender is. Turning the character into a two-dimensional villain until Two Fathers and One Son needs to redeem him to give his “death” weight is just a waste of Chris Owens. The idea of putting another character in the basement opens up all sorts of interesting and novel storytelling opportunities for a show willing to take them. There is a sense that the sixth season’s Mulder-and-Scully-lite episode might have been better focusing on Spender rather than Skinner.

(It is fun to imagine what Spender and Fowley’s time on the X-files actually looked like. The Beginning suggests that they did leave the basement at some points, and it might be fun to see Spender and Fowley forced to investigate a “monster of the week” case. Is Fowley legitimately interested in the paranormal? How would Spender react to catching sight of flukeman? There is an interesting fan fiction or tie-in comic book in that material, and it is a shame that this stretch of X-Files continuity is so underdeveloped.)

Nineties moment!

Nineties moment!

Still, Terms of Endearment was never going to a particularly quirky off-format episode, even if its very traditional story structure feels at odds with the more adventurous episodes around it. Terms of Endearment feels like something of a throwback to the fifth season, particularly with its emphasis on reproductive horror. The fifth season was quite fond of the idea of childhood and parenthood as something that might be considered monstrous or easily perverted – consider The Post-Modern Prometheus, Emily, Schizogeny, Chinga, Kill Switch, and so on.

As a rule, the sixth season is more interested in broader themes like time and love. The early stretch of the sixth season is interested in mirroring the Mulder and Scully dynamic and exploring it as a marriage – whether comparing it to the repressed attraction between Holman Hardt and Sheila Fontaine in The Rain King or to the ghosts of the star-crossed lovers in How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, or even offering weird alternate takes on it like the body-and-wife swap in Dreamland or Mulder’s decision to kiss 1939!Scully in Triangle.

Demons have feelings too!

Demons have feelings too!

Terms of Endearment does focus on Wayne’s rather unconventional attempts to establish a normal family, but the themes are not as strong here as they are in surrounding episodes. Still, connections can be made – even if they feel like something of a stretch. Perhaps Wayne’s attempts to have a so-called “normal” family serve as a contrast with the admittedly abnormal dynamic between Mulder and Scully. If Wayne causes all this damage establishing his normal family, perhaps it’s okay at Mulder and Scully are anything but normal.

That said, despite its heavy subject matter and (relatively) serious tone, Terms of Endearment is never suffocatingly bleak. It would be too much to describe the episode as “playful” or “fun”, particularly given where it sits in the season, but it is self-aware and light-footed. It is hard to imagine an episode of an earlier season featuring Mulder stalking Wayne while blaring I’m Only Happy When It Rains out of his car stereo. Given that Wayne just his lost his child, Mulder really commits to his efforts to wind Wayne up. No half-measure dickery here.

"We'll take it under advisement..."

“We’ll take it under advisement…”

With Mulder’s aggressive pursuit of Wayne, Terms of Endearment helps to give a sense of what it must be like to be a monster in the world of The X-Files. The show had touched on the idea before in episodes like Leonard Betts, but Wayne really takes the centre of Terms of Endearment. Vince Gilligan would write a truly monster-centric episode in Hungry, early in the show’s seventh season. In a way, Terms of Endearment could be seen as something of a link between Leonard Betts and Hungry.

Terms of Endearment is a fascinating little episode, and a great debut from new staff writer David Amann. It is an episode that might be easy to take for granted had it aired during the fourth or fifth seasons, but which stands out in contrast to the lighter material around it. Although perhaps not as powerful or effective as Drive, it serves as a reminder that the move to Los Angeles had not completely changed the essence of the show.

You might be interested in our reviews of the sixth season of The X-Files:

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