The X-Files: Small Potatoes

Case: Women in a small town are giving birth to babies with tails.

Destination: Martinsburg, West Virginia

"Did he have a lightsaber?"

I think 'Small Potatoes' is that universally-agreed upon episode where when asked about it, all XF fans have hearts in their eyes. Written by Vince Gilligan and directed by Cliff Boyle, Duchovny and Anderson are at the top of their comedic game in this charmer.

It's very early on in the hour that the entire tone of 'Small Potatoes' is manifested. Mulder and Scully visit Amanda Nelligan's hospital room, post-labor, to interview her. Beat by beat, Duchovny, Anderson and company (you too, Mark Snow) hand to the audience, on a platter, the ingredients that make this episode great. Mulder's micro-expression of hope and longing that Amanda was impregnated during an alien abduction certainly stands out. But Scully's long beat before asking Amanda (who has asserted that it's not an alien at all that is the father of her baby, but rather Luke Skywalker) if "Luke" had a lightsaber is among my favorite moments in TV history. Gillian's comedic timing and dry delivery after a pause that you could drive a truck through easily rivals the high degree of difficulty of anything dramatic she repeatedly pulled off (and continues to within the TV multiverse). Because in Vince Gilligan's XF universe, Mulder and Scully not only regularly access the wild and varied inner workings of their minds, they also communicate them to the other with the most elegant efficacy. This is a level of sophistication at work that is ecstatic in its subtlety. Mulder and Scully's attachment, essentially, is electric. (Tonally, 'Small Potatoes' also paved the way for Season 5's 'Post-Modern Prometheus' and 'Bad Blood', in my humble opinion.)

In some way, this no-frills, by the book story is a tribute from one writer to another. Gilligan had the idea of writing the character of Eddie Van Blundht to give Darin Morgan a proper, authentic yet unexpected send-off since it was clear at this point in the show that Morgan was not going to write any more episodes. Gilligan wrote an homage to Morgan in several ways. He honored the tone Morgan first imbued the show with in earlier episodes like 'Humbug', but he also tipped his hat to Morgan's proclivity to subvert the series and some of its concepts. Van Blundht is a literal foil to Mulder's life's choices just as Morgan's previous episodes have overtly poked fun at the quest that fuels the show's foundation. But Gilligan goes further allowing Morgan's Van Blundht to morph into Mulder for the show's fourth act and really feel what it's like to have his life. A big step from merely editorializing the character of Fox Mulder. Alternatively, this gave Duchovny an opportunity he'd never had before, to play someone else playing him. (This was toyed with in Morgan's 'Jose Chung's From Outer Space' when Duchovny got to play Mulder through someone else's perception.) 'Small Potatoes' results in some of Duchovny's finest work on the series because, in short, it was multifaceted. And again, the episode provides another suave example, and it shares this trait with the upper echelon of the series' offerings, of an incidental story that's paramount in showing the psyches of Mulder and Scully. Gilligan was masterful at making the plot serve to deepen our investment in the characters. It's really the kind of upside-down thinking that makes his episodes so meaningful and memorable.

As for Eddie Van Blundht, I think he goes down in XF history for being our proxy to the Mulder and Scully relationship, and a great one at that. After all, he asks them to stop and consider the nature of their relationship. His request to speak with Mulder after he was incarcerated shows real self-possession, a self-confidence that bolsters his validity on our minds. We never see Eddie through the eyes that Amanda or his court-appointed therapist do (as a loser with low self-esteem). Not for a moment do we underestimate or deny the sheer audacity that underpins all of Eddie's significant actions. Writing the character this way makes his transformation into Mulder more subversive because there is a stark contrast we must reconcile (and so must Mulder) between Eddie's moxie and Mulder's. Eddie's chutzpah is infectious and fun, we wish Mulder had some of it, too. So does Scully and both she and Mulder know it. Bringing Scully into it -- well, that's quite a fine point to put on this philosophical concept.

Other Thoughts

* Amanda Nelligan is played by Christine Cavanaugh, one of the most gifted voice actresses ever. Perfect casting here, too.

* There's an extremely veiled reference to an earlier S4 Vince Gilligan episode in the post-teaser scene. Scully is looking at the front page of a tabloid paper and one of the stories is a reference to ETAP, the kind of film used in 'Unruhe', Gilligan's episode about psychic photography.

* It took awhile before The X-Files inserted a reference to Taxi Driver but here it is!

* I cannot believe I didn't process the fact that the final shot of an inmate mopping the floor behind Mulder and Scully isn't Eddie but rather another inmate who previously beat him up for the SUPERSTAR hat. I always thought it was Eddie. Wow. That's so great.


Doctor Pugh: "Good lord, not another one."

Scully: "I think there's more going on here than Luke Skywalker and his lightsaber."

Eddie: "They spelled my name wrong. It's Van Blundht, with a silent H. B-L-U-N-D-H-T."
Mulder: "We'll get right on that."

Mulder: "Scully, should we be picking out china patterns or what?"

Mulder: "Ultimately it's other peoples' reactions to us that make us who we are." (A great encapsulation of the Gilligan world view.)

Amanda: "He's one of those guys you look back on and you go, 'Oh my god, what was I thinking? WHAT was I thinking?'"

Skinner: "Which one of you wrote this?"
Eddie as Mulder: "I did, sir."
Skinner: "You spelled Federal Bureau of Investigation wrong."
Eddie as Mulder: "It was a typo."
Skinner: "Twice."

Eddie: "You should live a little. Treat yourself. God knows I would, if I were you."

Scully: "I don't imagine you need to be told this, Mulder, but you're not a loser."
Mulder: "But I'm no Eddie Van Blundht, either. Am I."

Final Analysis: I love this episode with the fire of 10,000 suns.


ChrisB said...

Unless I am reviewing the episode. I now watch an episode of The X-Files while I do something else. I have seen them all at least two or three times; most don't require or warrant my full attention any more.

But, then, there are those episodes that I sit down and watch -- over and over again. This is one. In fact, I would put it in my top five favorites of all time. As many times as I have seen it, there are scenes that still make me laugh out loud. While I agree that Scully's light saber remark is howlingly funny and brilliantly delivered, it is Mulder's reactions to Amanda's story that always make me laugh. His face as he walks out the door is brilliance itself.

The main reason I love this episode so much is that the writers finally acknowledged that Duchovny and Anderson had such unmissable sexual chemistry that it would have to be addressed on some level. The looks they give each other as Mulder crashes through her front door interrupting that kiss say more than any words ever could.

The awkward final scene is the icing on the cake. Each knows that their relationship has shifted, yet neither really wants to go there completely. They have a very brief, very real exchange, but leave themselves and us back where we started. The relationship has been altered, but not so significantly that they can't continue on as before. Genius.

Heather said...

So very well said. This episode, with exceptional skillfulness, pushes the characters forward in a truly elegant way. It's in my top 5, too.

Juliette said...

I like bodyswap stories and this episode is definitely very funny, but I'm glad I wasn't reviewing it, because I just can't enjoy it as much as everyone else clearly does. I feel like a total buzzkill, but all the humour and clearly light touch around what Eddie did to those women - tricking them into having sex with someone they would not have chosen to have sex with - sits really uncomfortably with me. I do love the Mulder/Scully stuff though.

Heather said...

It probably says a lot about me that I suspend my feelings about the fact that Eddie is a rapist when I watch this episode. I hear you though and your viewpoint isn't a singular one. I've seen it expressed elsewhere on the web over the years.

ChrisB said...

You are absolutely right, Juls, that this episode does have a side that shouldn't be, but often is, ignored. I'm guilty of it, I'm afraid. I get lost in the humor and the Mulder/Scully dynamic and tend to forget just how awful what Eddie has done really is.

Juliette said...

It's probably good to be able to do that really, it's not like this corresponds to a real life possibility! And it does come up a lot in bodyswap stories (I've seen worse I think). Maybe it's cause Mulder and Scully are supposed to be law enforcement that I have trouble getting past it in this case!

drnanamom said...

I agree with the comments about rape and how it is ignored and you can see the horror on Scully's face when she realizes who she is really talking to. What is really creepy is that Eddie was giving her (and probably the other women) the partner that they wanted. I was surprised that Scully couldn't tell that it wasn't Mulder but I think she liked this form of Mulder a lot. Many, many layers to this episode.

Billie Doux said...

I skipped some mythology episodes to add this one to my rewatch and it's just as wonderful as I remembered. It has to be one of David Duchovny's best performances on this series; he is hilarious. I'm also with you guys as far as the creepy aspect is concerned. I'm always aware throughout that Eddie is essentially a rapist; it adds an X-Files edge to what could have just been a funny story. Mulder walking in on Scully when Eddie is about to kiss her and the looks on their faces -- wow.

ChrisB said...

Billie -- good choice to skip a mythology episode or two to watch the ones like this. I am loving your comments as you do your re-watch.