The X-Files: Humbug

Case: Mulder and Scully investigate the murder of a sideshow performer in a town populated by self-proclaimed freaks.

Destination: Gibsonton, Florida

While The X-Files is a show I often think of as highly dramatic, it had its fair share of purely comic episodes as well. “Humbug” was the first of these, but it uses the comedy to explore much deeper themes.

The first, and most obvious, is the theme of the outsider. The circus folk portrayed in this episode are all outsiders due primarily to how they look or how they live. Yet, each of the characters we come to know in this episode are fully fleshed personalities. The humor is not around the fact that they look like an alligator or that they eat anything in sight; it is in what they say and do.

For example, Mr. Nutt, the trailer park manager played to perfection by Michael Anderson, is hilarious in his dealings with Mulder. He knows that people see him differently based solely on his height, yet here is a man who went to school and now runs a successful business. His snark when dealing with Mulder is delicious.

The second theme is that of community. Forced to live apart from the rest of the world, this collection of people has created its own. From the hotel to the museum to the caring sheriff, the town in which they all live is fully formed and fully functional. Each of the characters has people who care about him or her and each cares about someone in return.

The ultimate irony is, of course, that this group of outsiders sees Mulder and Scully as outsiders. The way they look becomes grist for the humor mill. Scully stares at Lennie’s bulge, but it happens while he is staring at her breasts. Scully’s comment about Jerald Glazebrook, the Alligator Man, “Imagine going through your whole life looking like this” comes back to haunt her as Dr. Blockhead says the same thing about Mulder, caught posing.

Scully falls for the oldest con in the book when she buys useless information and she tries to put handcuffs on an escape artist. Mulder is at a loss for words twice, once when Scully eats the bug and again when he is caught digging up the potato. These two just don’t belong.

What elevates this episode to greatness, however, is our realization that Mulder and Scully are also outsiders away from this world. Shunned by their co-workers because they are seen as different and weird, the two of them are forced to create their own community in the basement away from the strangers with whom they work. They are, finally, exactly like the people they are investigating.

The message is clear and Dr. Blockhead’s sermon at the end sums it all up perfectly. Genetic perfection is overrated. What matters is that we have people in our lives who love us, scales and all.

Other Thoughts

This was the first episode written by Darin Morgan and it was the second directed by Kim Manners. Morgan went on to write some of the best-loved episodes of the next couple of seasons and Manners was one of the primary directors until the end.

Jim Rose, who plays Dr. Blockhead, is the modern equivalent of P.T. Barnum. His circus is filled with odd people who refer to themselves as freaks. The Enigma, who plays The Conundrum, is part of this circus.

Gillian Anderson really ate that roach. Duchovny’s reaction to her doing so was caught by Manners and used in the final cut of the episode.

The opening scene sets the stage perfectly. What we think is the MotW turns out to just be a dad playing with his kids.

Quotes

Scully: “Do you recall what Barnum said about suckers?”
If you don’t, there’s one born every minute.

Mr. Nutt: “Well then, why should I take offense? Just because it's human nature to make instantaneous judgments of others based solely upon their physical appearances? Why, I've done the same thing to you, for example. I've taken in your all-American features, your dour demeanor, your unimaginative necktie design, and concluded that you work for the government. An F.B.I. agent. But do you see the tragedy here? I have mistakenly reduced you to a stereotype, a caricature, instead of regarding you as a specific, unique individual.”
Mulder: “But I am an F.B.I. agent.”
Scully’s reaction to this exchange always makes me laugh out loud.

Dr. Blockhead: “Did you know that through the protective Chinese practice of Tiea Bu Shan, you can train your testicles to draw up into your abdomen?”
Mulder: “Oh, I’m doing that as we speak.”

Dr. Blockhead: “If people knew the true price of spirituality, there’d be more atheists.”

Dr. Blockhead: “That's why it's up to the self-made freaks like me and The Conundrum to remind people.”
Scully: “Remind people of what?”
Dr. Blockhead: “Nature abhors normality. It can't go very long without creating a mutant. Do you know why?”
Scully: “No, why?”
Dr. Blockhead: “I don't know either. It's a mystery. Maybe some mysteries are never meant to be solved.”

Final Analysis: Not only one of the best episodes on the second series, it is one of the best overall. Humorous, yet moving. I love this one.

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

3 comments:

Jess Lynde said...

I love this one, too. It is just so freaky, gross, and hilarious. The twin monster is one of their more disturbing “freaks of the week” with some super gross kills, and a sort of delightfully ironic final fate.

Plus, Gillian Anderson had some truly fantastic facial expressions and reactions in this one. I particularly loved her pointed nod toward Mulder after the P.T. Barnum quote and her look after realizing she’d been snookered by the guy at the curiosities museum (which was especially funny after accusing Mulder of being the sucker). I’m also quite fond of the two of them trying to explain themselves to the sheriff after digging up his potato. “That doesn’t quite explain the potato.” Tee hee!

Heather said...

Chris, love the trip back to Humbug here with you as the guide. I LOVE THIS EPISODE SO MUCH. I am also a fool for Darin Morgan and his next level work and once I became a writer, I loved him even more for many professional reasons. Sad for us, the viewing audience, his talents and style didn't fit the production schedule of television.
All four of his offerings into TXF canon can make me laugh or cry depending on my mood. There's a thread of profound sadness through all of them but they are framed with so much levity and humor about humanity, it makes them the perfect paradox, the likes of which I haven't had the pleasure to experience in any other show before or since.

Cheers!

drnanamom said...

Great episode, great review! This one was fun in all kinds of ways and the comment on our society was quite blatant. One of the reasons I love the X-files.