“Terms Of Endearment” (season 6, episode 7; originally aired 1/3/1999)
In which a demon just wants a nice, normal life
With all of the horror movies The X-Files has subverted, turned inside out, and outright ripped off, it’s kind of amazing that it took the show this long to get to a direct take on Rosemary’s Baby. The series has had pregnancy fears and demonic motifs before, but it’s never really combined the two into one episode. I was going to suggest this was because Rosemary’s Baby is one of those unimpeachable horror movie classics, ones that even casual film fans are at least somewhat aware of and that even those who find the genre disreputable will hold up as “one of the good ones,” but then I remembered the series did its own riff on The Exorcist back in season two, and that’s another film that sits comfortably in the Venn diagram intersection of “awesome horror movies” and “films considered ‘respectable’ by the mainstream,” what with its Best Picture nomination and all. So who knows? Maybe the series was just waiting for Bruce Campbell to come along and play the demon baby’s dad.
It’s safe to say Campbell’s the best thing about this. The episode is aware at all times of the most famous version of this particular story—woman is impregnated with the spawn of a demon—so it’s constantly looking for ways to undercut that particular story in ways you wouldn’t immediately predict. This was the first time I’d seen the episode in years, and I had completely forgotten that Campbell’s character—Wayne Weinsider—was played mostly sympathetically. He’s a demon, sure, but he’s a demon who just wants a normal life and a normal kid. He keeps getting involved with women and knocking them up so he can finally have that tow-headed little boy or girl he’s always dreamed of and not have to worry about covering up the horns. Once Wayne’s plot is revealed, it’s so amusingly prosaic that the whole episode takes on a veneer of melancholy. All this guy wanted was a normal life, and the involvement of Mulder has caused that to go careening off its orbit.
Of course, he was causing lots of women undue stress and hardship, and he was framing at least some of them for his own crimes. Because this is The X-Files, you’re constantly aware that the demon Laura saw standing above her bed and reaching between her legs to “deliver” her demonic child was real and probably Wayne. But at the same time, there could have been a very compelling story here about an otherwise normal man carrying around some sort of genetic defect and so desperate to have a child that he turns to medieval abortion methods to remove the ones that don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s a horrifying tale, but it’s also one based in recognizable human motivations. That it’s being carried out by a demon adds that much of an extra twist, and reminds me of the great Millennium episode “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me.”
Campbell’s work really sells the part, too. The moment when he’s burning the corpse of the demon baby in the furnace out back is surprisingly poignant (even if the Netflix version of this makes it hard to pick out the child’s hand, indicating what he’s actually burning), and he makes the most of the moment when he’s weeping and his eyes turn to red, demon eyes. He also seems to have a real connection with both of the actresses who play his two lovers, and the stuff where David Duchovny is chasing Campbell around is quite fun, especially when Wayne’s normally tight-knit, happy-go-lucky persona begins to unravel in the face of Mulder’s doggedness. (I love the moment where Wayne’s driving in his sports car and listening to Garbage, then Mulder pulls up alongside him with that cocksure grin on his face. You can see where this guy would be a thorn in the side of monsters everywhere.)
At the time it aired, “Terms Of Endearment” was both praised and pulled apart for being a “return to form.” After four straight episodes more concerned with comedy and stylistic invention than with anything like a “traditional” episode, this one was back to the very straightforward monster-of-the-week format. It’s the first credit for David Ammann, and his work strives for a very classic tale in the series’ normal mode. Yet the more I look at this episode, the more it strikes me as almost as experimental as some of the others that came before. Has any episode spent as long hanging out with the “monster” as this one does and tried as hard as the episode does to make him sympathetic? When Wayne is finally bested by a fellow demon, the moment is meant to play as at least somewhat tragic, despite all of his crimes. (At times, I wonder if this series has the… healthiest attitude toward women.) This isn’t the series really trying to get into the point-of-view of a monster-of-the-week, but it’s like a transitional step between a traditional episode and one of the ones from later seasons that really did spend more of their time on the monsters than the agents chasing them.
As such, this episode’s biggest flaw is that there’s just too little Scully involved. She sits back at FBI headquarters, apparently waiting for Mulder to call in what’s happening, then she’s all too happy to simply do whatever he asks her to. It’s a weird return to the way the character existed back in the first couple of seasons of the show, before she was given more and more depth and allowed to carry her half of the series’ stories. This is perhaps an unintentional function of the way the series had to reboot itself to be about Mulder and Scully being taken off the X-Files, but the whole storyline is starting to show signs of wear and tear at this point. Spender is a comically over-obvious villain. (How much more interesting would this be if he, too, shared Mulder’s interest in the truth but also had handlers dictating to him from on high?) It becomes harder and harder to come up with reasons for Mulder and Scully to end up on cases. And this particularly affects Scully, who too often ends up stuck on the sidelines when, in many ways, she’s the series’ most dynamic character. The episode is very much a two-hander between Mulder and Wayne, and when Scully enters the scene, it’s almost as if the series’ writers have remembered, right, they have this other character to work with.
I’m also not the world’s biggest fan of the final twist. I’m not sure the episode would work without it, mind, but I wish it had been set up a little earlier. Finding out that Betsy is also a demon and is hoping to have a demon baby to raise is just a little too coincidental and pat, and it rests so much of the episode’s climax on new information that rather comes out of nowhere. The final image of Betsy driving off with her new demon spawn is a lot of fun, and I like the way that this gives Wayne his comeuppance by being outsmarted, rather than having Mulder catch up to him, but the whole thing just takes things too far for something that only comes up in the final 10 minutes. There’s a way to layer this in a little earlier, to give Betsy more screentime so the reveal doesn’t come out of nowhere. But that would require giving over even more time to the episode’s monsters, and that’s something the show wasn’t yet comfortable with.
- This episode just reminded me how omnipresent Garbage was back in 1998 and 1999. And how much I like “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.”
- I don’t really like the sheriff brother who keeps turning up here and there, even as a plot device to get Mulder interested in the case. That said, Lisa Jane Persky is very good in the thankless role of Laura, and when she’s un-coma-ed at the end, it’s a nice moment.
- When Spender leans back and shreds the case brought to him by the sheriff, he may as well cackle and twirl a mustache. The more I watch this season, the more I think this character is a huge missed opportunity.
“Through A Glass Darkly” (season 3, episode 7; originally aired 11/13/1998)
In which all is misery
How much miserableness is too much?
I’m specifically talking about fiction here. There’s a term I like to use when I’m discussing fiction that ladles on a thick pool of misery gravy to make itself seem more profound, and that’s “misery porn.” It’s a story that mistakes bad things happening for drama, that honestly believes that what makes a story meaningful is the number of awful things that happen to the characters. The example I always like to use is the film House Of Sand And Fog, where the sheer number of horrible things that happen to people—all because some woman won’t open her mail—becomes numbing and then ridiculous. Life doesn’t operate like this. There are good things mixed in with the bad, if you look down at the day to day level. That endless downward slope is as unrealistic as something where everything works out for the hero at all times.
Millennium has always trended toward misery porn, but I don’t know that it’s sunk as thoroughly into its clutches as it does in “Through A Glass Darkly,” which is an episode that opens with a kid almost being kidnapped in the ‘70s, then another kid dying from thirst, and just gets worse from there. Any time you’re dealing with the kidnapping and death of a child, you’re treading on uneasy territory. The idea of a child being endangered like that so offends us as human beings that it’s almost too easy for some storytellers to use child endangerment for cheap dramatic effect. Putting a kid in a position of peril is too often just a way for a TV series to score some quick points and get us invested, but it’s also something that becomes hard to extricate a story from. The loss of a child is a black hole that sucks everything toward it, and too many stories about children losing their lives glide over the grief that comes after, lest things get too emotionally complicated and dark. (For all its faults, The Killing at least tried to deal with the emotions that would be dredged up by something like this honestly.)
The problem is that “Through A Glass Darkly” doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone. The central idea of its story is that Max Brunelli, a man convicted of the death of said girl back in the ‘70s (and the attempted kidnapping of another), has been released on parole from prison and placed back into the neighborhood where he caused so much grief two decades ago. The people of the neighborhood no longer want him living there, of course, and there’s plenty of scenes of everybody treating him poorly (as you’d expect them to). Frank was called in as an expert witness in Max’s parole board hearing, and though he warned everyone Max could be a danger to society, his warnings fell on deaf ears. Now, he’s going to stick around until Max strikes again, which happens almost immediately. Max leans over to talk to a young girl—the daughter of his lawyer—in the woods, but is chased off by a teacher. Shortly thereafter, the girl’s friend, Shannon, disappears, and the authorities need to find her before she, too, dies of thirst.
Here’s the thing: The story of a man who committed a heinous crime returning to his old neighborhood and trying to reintegrate could be a good story. The story of a man trying to reintegrate, only to have crimes similar to those he committed could also be good—if a little coincidental. But Millennium wants to have its misery cake and eat it too. Max Brunelli, see, is innocent, the victim of his lawyer, who’s the actual perpetrator of those heinous acts. The lawyer—named Jarrett—planted the information necessary for Max to make a confession in Max’s brain (via browbeating and brainwashing), then Max made the confession and went off to jail, where he was abused and beaten by his fellow prisoners. Jarrett, meanwhile, apparently took out his predilection for young girls on his older daughter (who’s living with her mother’s sister now), biding his time until Brunelli was free again, so he’d have an easy scapegoat for what he wanted to do.
This is all patently ridiculous, as I think anyone would admit. Jarrett’s whole plot doesn’t make sense and seems to exist solely to keep us guessing about who the “real” kidnapper and killer is. Max Brunelli’s holy fool act creates a character who’s portrayed as a kind of saint, bearing the sins of his small town because he’s apparently big and strong enough to do so. (There’s a scene where he shows off the scars he received from his prison stabbings, and once you know the episode’s “twist,” it becomes an incredibly icky scene, as if all involved are trying to create a weird avatar designed to take upon his shoulders all the pain from those falsely accused of child molestation.) Plus, the episode is produced in such a way that it can’t be terribly forthcoming about what happened to the girls who disappeared, leaving your mind to fill in even more horrifying details than already exist.
But it’s the twist that dooms this one and keeps it from being successful. The show is so wedded to the mystery format that it forces one into the midst of a scenario that doesn’t really need it. Showing Frank gradually overcoming his doubt about whether Max was ready to rejoin society (and perhaps becoming convinced he didn’t kidnap the girl 20 years ago) could have made for a powerful enough episode on its own, but the series doesn’t know when to quit. Creating a scenario where this man was convicted, sent to prison, then released on parole, only for the crimes to start up again, is one thing. Setting up a storyline that then pivots on a completely unbelievable twist that’s unsupported by anything else in the episode (save for a brief misspeak by Max in an old interrogation video), just so you can have a moment that pulls the rug out from under the audience is a blatant cheat, and it exists only to keep us guessing. There’s a grim story about what happens to a community torn asunder by horrific tragedy here, but there’s also an attempt to tell a pulse-pounding mystery story, complete with an insane twist. The two can’t—and don’t—work together.
All of that would be bad enough, but then the episode chooses to end with Max racing into the street, hoping to find help for the girl his lawyer kidnapped and kept locked up in a storm cellar, where she couldn’t get food or water. He almost flags someone down, but then they see who he is, seem hellbent on running him down, change their course at the last minute, and finally knock him off of his feet. The man who runs Max over is his father, a character who’s barely been established before and seems to exist just to give the episode an extra grim coup de grace. It’s all so overwrought and over-the-top that it becomes impossible to take seriously and becomes a ridiculous farce. At all times, “Through A Glass Darkly” strains for profundity, hoping against hope that rubbing our noses in the darkness will make us think it’s deeper, smarter, and more important than it actually is. Instead, it just ends up feeling deeply silly, and even the sight of the local kids starting to forgive Max Brunelli in the episode’s final moments isn’t enough to alleviate the gloom. Millennium wants the gloom desperately, but it also doesn’t want to have to deal with the consequences. And that leaves it high and dry.
- The talk radio host is pretty hilariously focused on the FBI’s expert witness Frank Black. Who on Earth would know that much about the case and personally ream out a witness who tried to attain the effect desired by the host?
- The acting in this episode is particularly bad. There’s a scene where everybody is shouting earnestly at each other, and it feels like something out of a bad community theater production. The series was really falling apart on the guest casting level this late in its life.
- For someone who’s an evil mastermind, Jarrett is sure stupid, and his facial hair is sure ugly.
Next week: Zack consults with “The Rain King,” then tries to get to the bottom of “Human Essence.”