“Humbug” starts off with a classic Monster of the Week teaser, or so you think, until you realize the monster is actually the good guy… and the prey. It’s amazing that even though you would think that… it’s one of the most frightening teasers The X-Files ever did. Straight away you know you’re not only in for a twist on the typical, something that The X-Files is already good at, but you’re in for a twist on the typical X-File. This is the first time we see the show lovingly mock itself and it’s such jolly good fun that it quickly becomes a tradition.
“Humbug” unearths our presumption, our prejudice, really, that everyone wants to be “normal” and that by “normal” we mean perfect and without blemish. Upon first learning of the case, Scully is so distracted by Jerald Glazebrook’s skin that she pays no attention to the details of his murder and instead says with politically correct pity, “Imagine going through your whole life looking like this.” I’m sure she fancies herself empathetic. Gone are the days when your average person would have felt secure in bullying or mocking such people, instead we stuff them full of knowing glances and sympathetic nods. But Scully makes a gross misstep in that like the rest of us, she assumes that we’re the lucky ones and that no one in their right mind would want to look like Mr. Nutt rather than Mulder. By the by, I’m not ragging on Scully. I’m guilty of the same thoughts myself, which is exactly one of the reasons why this episode is so engaging. We’re forced to look at ourselves in a funhouse mirror. That the story concludes with Dr. Blockhead making the same word-for-word observation about Mulder that Scully made about Glazebrook. How strange that in a society more obsessed than ever with eliminating every wrinkle, every unsightly hair, every crooked tooth, there would be those that blasphemously enjoy their imperfections. Pure. Television. Genius.
For this we can only stand in awe of X-Files legend, writer Darin Morgan. A comedy writer reluctantly converted into joining the staff of a sci-fi show, he didn’t realize at the time that he penned an episode that in retrospect is easily identifiable as a giant evolutionary leap forward for the show. It opened up whole new possibilities for story ideas and, most importantly, humor. The X-Files has always had its share of funny one-liners, it’s true, but this is the first time an episode has been as equally focused on getting a laugh out of its audience as eliciting a scream. One of my major regrets on behalf of The X-Files is that Darin Morgan was around for so few episodes. Yet, unsurprisingly judging by his first outing, he’s one of the best-remembered players.
We also can’t go without acknowledging the directorial contribution of the late, great Kim Manners. His use of mirrors in this episode is Stupendous. The scene where Hepcat Helm is killed is pretty much all filmed in reflection and is a masterpiece. (Have I used enough superlatives to make my point yet?) The funhouse… I’m sorry, Tabernacle of Terror scene ain’t half bad either.
And I can’t let this review go by without paying tribute to the most memorable ensemble cast The X-Files ever put together. It’s no secret that most of these “actors” are actual freaks and geeks and it shows. They’re playing the same exaggerated versions of themselves that they play in real-life sideshows.
What’s so wonderful about this town that time forgot is that they have their own brand of normalcy. This fanciful community has it’s own set of rules. It’s a world turned upside down where the stranger you were born the more respect you receive. Scully is as much an oddity and an interest to Lanny as his appendage of a conjoined twin is to her. Morgan turns flips his own premise inside out again by not merely showing us society’s prejudices against the weird, but showing the prejudices those on the outside have against society. They’re not to be sympathized with because we pity them too much or not enough, but because they’re exactly the same as us, issues and all.
Even though I wholeheartedly love the humor of later seasons, what I like about this episode is how underplayed it is. I’m not knocking later episodes like “Small Potatoes” (4×20) or “Bad Blood” (5×12). Never that!! But like I said earlier, in this episode humor is equal to horror and later on, there will be episodes purely for the sake of humor itself. I just appreciate that in this early era The X-Files isn’t overly self-conscious. Mulder and Scully’s quiet reactions to the madness in this episode are subtle bits of glory.
This is one of those few episodes where I can find not a single flaw. Not one. It’s gross. It’s funny. It’s shocking. It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s perfect. I’ll be able to say the same of another Darin Morgan penned episode come Season 3, but I won’t spoil the surprise and tell you which one.
Moreover, it successfully delivers a message without being preachy or worse, boring. Yes, I’m looking at you “Fearful Symmetry” (2×18).
If you like, you can take away the feel-good moral that everyone is strange in their own way and everyone is special. Or you can just sit back any enjoy the fact that the strange and the normal alike are made fun of equally in “Humbug.” Even David Duchovny in all his manly grandeur isn’t safe.
Why are Mulder and Scully on a serial killer case, less than typical though it is? There’s no hint of paranormal phenomenon. Sometimes we’re reminded with a jolt that it’s not just the supernatural, it’s also unsolvable cases that get shunted down the tube to the X-Files division. Not that the show plays up that angle often.
Mulder, the admitted porn addict, indignantly comes to Scully’s rescue and wards off the innocent Mr. Nutt. Mulder: The Gentleman Pervert.
OK, if I’m going to make a full confession, Mulder pouncing on the Fiji Mermaid angle out of nowhere is a little weak. But, hey, Mulder makes illogical jumps pretty much every episode. Consider this the show taking another jab at itself.
Scully delivers a summary to The Human Blockhead at the end of the episode that obviously would have been delivered to Mulder if it wasn’t for the need to set up for that last, brilliant gag.
I don’t have an uncle who’s an amateur magician… and I have 9 uncles not including the ones that married my aunts.
I could pretty much copy over the entire script here, but instead you should go watch it and I’ll limit myself to a few gems.
Hepcat Helm: Who are the rubes?
Sheriff Hamilton: These are FBI agents Scully and Mulder. This is Hepcat Helm, he operates a carnival funhouse.
Hepcat Helm: Oh man, how many times have I told you not to call it that! It’s not some rinky dink carny ride. People go through it they don’t have fun, they get the hell scared out of them. It’s not a funhouse, it’s a tabernacle of terror.
Sheriff Hamilton: It’s a funhouse.
Mulder: Tell me, have you done much circus work in your life?
Mr. Nutt: And what makes you think I’ve ever spectated a circus? Much less been enslaved by one?
Mulder: I know that many of the citizens here are former circus hands, and I just thought that…
Mr. Nutt: You thought that because I am a person of short stature, that the only career I could procure for myself would be one confined to the so-called “Big Top.” You took one quick look at me, and decided that you could deduce my entire life. Never would it have occurred to you that a person of my height could have possibly obtained a degree in Hotel Management.
Mulder: I’m sorry. I meant no offense.
Mr. Nutt: Well then why should I take offense? Just because it’s human nature to make instantaneous judgements 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 FBI 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 FBI agent.
Mr. Nutt: Register here, please.
Lanny: Mr. Nutt, the kindhearted manager here, convinced me that to make a living by publicly displaying my deformity lacked dignity. So now I carry other people’s luggage.