The X-Files: “Humbug”

Fool’s Gold

by Sarah Stegall

Copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall

Written by Darin Morgan

Directed by Kim Manners

The fool functions in literature and art as a funhouse mirror, in whose distorted reflection we see our own foibles exaggerated for emphasis. Almost always, what we find intriguing in the sideshow freak, the fool, the outcast, is the departure from our norms, the expression of the forbidden. For a society hell-bent in pursuit of physical perfection, it is only natural that the physically deformed should hold a special fascination. Their very existence seems to violate propriety in a culture where plastic surgery, dieting, and “makeovers” are supposed to endow beauty and normalcy on everyone. Once again, as in “Irresistible“, “The X-Files” takes a look under those rocks we refuse to lift, and shows us what we hide from ourselves. Scully and Mulder are called in to investigate a bizarre series of killings, whose latest victim happens to reside in a circus town. What a complex and wonderful opening: two boys playing in a backyard pool at night are stalked by an ugly, monstrous creature who enters the pool, creeping up on the boys and surprising them. But the “creature” is their beloved father, who falls victim to the real killer a few minutes later. Prepared to be revolted by his physical appearance, we find ourselves in immediate sympathy with a man engaging in the universal human practice of playing with his sons. We swing from apprehension to laughter to horror in the space of seconds. Throughout the rest of “Humbug”, writer Darin Morgan (brother of Glen) keeps us constantly off balance, oscillating between gut-tightening horror and belly laughs.

Humor is based in cognitive dissonance, the contrast between foreground and background, between what we expect and what we see. We expect to be repulsed and thrilled by the sideshow freaks (their own proud and defiant term for themselves), but we find them not only normal but downright banal. The “normal” people in this episode, Scully and Mulder, lose their moorings completely against this background. (How exactly does one interrogate a man pounding a ten-penny nail into his own head?) We expect detachment and aloofness from Scully and Mulder; instead, the usually unflappable Mulder watches goggle-eyed as Scully eats a bug with perfect equanimity. Caught exhuming the sheriff’s potato, the glib Mulder is wholly at a loss for words. Scully even attempts to handcuff a professional escape artist. Mulder gets lost in a maze full of dead ends–what a perfect metaphor for “The X-Files”. The intellectual Scully pays extra money for “proof” of an extreme possibility: and gets taken in, in the oldest sideshow scam of all. Clearly, these two are out of their element. But not out of character: Mulder, confronted with a belligerent and defensive dwarf (Michael Anderson, from “Twin Peaks”), retains his wit. “You’d be surprised at how many women find my size intriguingly alluring,” the little man boasts. Deadpan, Mulder responds, “And you’d be surprised at how many men do, as well.” The dwarf’s dismayed reaction to this innuendo nearly killed me.

Digs at David Duchovny’s sex-symbol image are scattered throughout the episode, from the hotel keeper’s sneer at Mulder’s ties (one wonders what a person living among circus performers would consider unusual neckwear) to Dr. Blockhead’s (Jim Rose) use of him as an example of how bland and boring the future will be after genetic engineering smoothes out all our distinctive wrinkles. Even Gillian Anderson comes in for some gentle teasing, in one scene where she shows off a little decolletage: Dana Scully is as embarrassed to be caught staring at Lennie’s (Vincent Schiavelli) bulges as he is to be caught staring at hers. I applaud Darin Morgan for treating his subjects with maturity. By refusing to treat the physically deformed with pity and condescension, which is merely a way for ordinary people to distance themselves from the outcast, he brings them closer to us by showing us how “normal” they are under the grotesque exterior. The outrage shown by the bearded lady, the dwarf, the other freaks at the disruption of The Alligator Man’s funeral betrays their essentially bourgeois underpinnings. Like any other collection of humans, they have their norm to which they gravitate. We learn that even the circus, a haven for outcasts, has its fringe element– the geeks. And we find that, unlike the mundane world, the circus world treats the dwarf, the dog-faced boy, the Thalidomide baby without arms as special and rare, a gene- based aristocracy of the Big Top whose uniqueness lifts them out of the realm of the mere trained performer. Scully’s remark (“Imagine going through your whole life looking like that”) returns to haunt her when Dr. Blockhead says the same words to her–in reference to Mulder, the GQ cover boy. Her pity is inappropriate, directed as it is at people who have a fuller life than she does: homes, families, job security, and the ungrudging respect of their peers. Her remark echoes the unconscious arrogance of all of us who take comfort in our “normalcy” while donning the pious face of political correctness. A woman who chases UFOs for a living cannot afford this kind of smugness.

Morgan shows us a parable in the parasitic twin, Lennie’s submerged brother “Leonard”. Vincent Schiavelli’s portrayal of this sad and rejected man forges a compassionate link with the audience that overrides our initial reaction to his disfigurement. When asked if it hurts when his brother detaches from his body for those murderous little excursions, he responds, “It hurts not to be wanted.” Once again, we react not to the grotesquerie but to the universal human need for love. We go from loathing at the hideous twin to shocked laughter at his fate. I never saw that coming: Morgan’s set-up and payoff were superbly done and caught me absolutely flat- footed. It caught Mulder and Scully by surprise, too: their double take in the last scene, as they stare at one another in dawning, horrified realization, is priceless.

“Humbug” was flawlessly written and executed. The timing, on which comedy depends, was perfect. Director Kim Manners, confronted with the human curiosities on parade in this episode, could abandon the shadows in which “The X-Files” usually lurks and show us Mulder and Scully in broad daylight. Yet even this was offset by the delightfully murky maze sequence, not to mention the spine-tingling museum of “human curiosities”. It was well-paced, haunting, exciting and hilarious. “The X-Files” stays just this side of absurd only because it adheres so strictly to the straight and narrow in Mulder and Scully. So long as they are straight faced about it all, we can suspend our disbelief in beastwomen and giant flukes. Their stoic and familiar figures against a background of the fantastic and the bizarre keep us anchored and intrigued. But in “Humbug”, figure and ground are reversed. We like to think of Mulder as the “outsider”, but against the backdrop of this strange locale, we see him instead as representative of our entire society.

In our world, an unskilled, bizarrely deformed alcoholic who had lost his job would most likely wind up homeless on the streets. In Gibsonton, Lennie has a job, a community, a place, and people (like the sympathetic sheriff) to care for him. This is village life as it once was, among folk who care for their own. The town full of freaks shows up the profound alienation at the heart of American culture. Scully, in her ignorance, calls the performers “isolated” and speculates that they may have developed psychoses as a result of this “isolation”. Far from it: rather, we find a warm- hearted small-town atmosphere where one’s neighbors are one’s friends and co-workers, possibly the only place on earth where one will not be judged by his or her appearance. Contrast this to the stark isolation in the “real” world of Fox Mulder, whose co-workers spy on him, whose society rejects his ideas, who lives alone in a building full of strangers. By the end of the story, my pity was reserved for Mulder and Scully, clueless outsiders in this sunny neighborhood.

The warmth and wit of “Humbug” makes this an outstanding episode. The horrific “Leonard” evokes terror and disgust, but the one-liners come so thick and fast throughout the show that it’s hard to keep track. It would be all too easy to take the comedy too far, to make “The X-Files” a self- parody. Director Kim Manners kept control and gave us a light-hearted yet characteristic story. Like the Koshare, the Hopi clowns, this episode is valuable as a one-time departure from the rules, which serves by its excesses to point up the strengths of the show. It was funny and delightful. Don’t do it again.*

* Update, 2007: Obviously, Darin did “do it again”, and obviously it was hilarious. I was wrong. I freely admit it. Darin Morgan was and is a unique comic genius, and I’m glad he ignored my advice.