The X-Files: “Small Potatoes”

The Man Who Would Be Mulder

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall

“”What we are not by nature we take unto ourselves through imitation.” —Aristophanes, “Thesmophoriazusae”

Written by Vince Gilligan

Directed by Clifford Bole

It’s easy, and dangerous, to make us laugh at others. Poking fun at others can alienate us from them, creating emotional distance as we emphasize the difference between Self and Other. Writer Vince Gilligan and actor Darin Morgan’s genius is that they can identify for us that part of ourselves present in The Other, and thus make the laughter shared laughter. And few things humanize us to one another like shared laughter; man is the animal that laughs.

In “Small Potatoes”, Mulder hauls the bemused Agent Scully off to Virginia in pursuit of a case from one of his favorite sources–a tabloid. The births of no fewer than five babies with tails in one small town defy the odds, and when one mother claims that the father is from outer space, of course our True Believer cannot resist the call. When Scully quickly determines that all five women were inseminated by the same man, Mulder zeroes in on the janitor at a local fertility clinic, who just happened to have been born with a tail. So how to explain Eddie Van Blundht’s (Darin Morgan) sudden outbreak of fatherhood? He’s a shapeshifter, able to mimic the appearance and voice of anyone he studies. By impersonating the husbands of several women seeking maternity, he fulfills their dreams–and his–right down to looking like Luke Skywalker. Or Fox Mulder.

“You’re a damn good-lookin’ man,” acknowledges Eddie, right before he cold-cocks Mulder and locks him in a basement, stealing his identity. What follows is a witty and sardonic look at Fox Mulder, as Eddie explores Mulder’s apartment, his life, and his relationship with Scully. In every case, we see Fox Mulder in a new light, through Faux Mulder’s eyes, as it were. (Eddie even gets in yet another joke at Mulder’s habit of dropping his gun, when he drops the clip while practicing a quick-draw in the mirror.) His office is a waste of taxpayers’ money, his friends are geeks, and his relationship with Scully unfulfilled–or so Eddie sees it. All the wish fulfillment fantasies he projects onto Mulder–the romantic G-man image, the tough guy, the man about town–tell us more and more about the humble, unpretentious, and plain Eddie. Who is, not too surprisingly, a better lover than Mulder.

Scully, who somehow has not noticed that her witty and intelligent partner is suddenly neither as glib nor as literate as he was yesterday, is surprised to find “Mulder” at her door with a bottle of wine. In a few hours, she is poring out her heart as he pours out the last of the wine, and sits mesmerized as this Faux Mulder moves in on her. It’s not hard to imagine why–unlike Mulder, Eddie Van Blundht takes the time to actually listen to Scully, as his conversation illustrates. Half the time Fox Mulder hardly listens to Scully, but Faux Mulder hangs on her every word. Being the focus of that level of attention is in itself erotic. Coming as it does from a man she knows to be emotionally constipated must have been stunning.

We can see Eddie as a mirror image of Mulder’s id, (Ed = Id?) which erupts into daylight, overpowering the ego (Mulder). Id changes places with ego as Eddie locks Mulder in the sub-basement (subconscious?) and proceeds to act out impulses that Mulder would ruthlessly suppress, until the moment when the freed ego crashes back into reality and cages the id again. Matters get positively Freudian when we learn that Eddie has stashed his dead father in the ceiling to live parasitically off the old man’s Social Security checks. (In a moment of crisis, Eddie resorts to the ceiling again, crashing down on Mulder just as the tailed revenant of his father did). Ultimately it is the parasitism of the id that undoes Eddie: unable, like Mulder, to exist for long on his own, he resorts to his favorite emotional crutch–sex. It is his conquests in this most demanding arena that feed his ego, and it is in this area he most fundamentally differs from the man he is impersonating. He cannot BE Mulder, although Director Cliff Boles stages several scenes where Eddie literally reflects Mulder–in a hospital door window, in a mirror in Mulder’s apartment, in the glass booth in the reformatory where Eddie finally is neutralized*.

Darin Morgan gave us an endearing Eddie, a Faux Mulder who is, in many ways, a much humbler, sweeter, and more appealing man than the real Fox Mulder. He may not be a world-beater, but he’s a nicer guy. His can’t-blame-a-guy-for-trying look at Scully after his attempt at seduction is revealed is a classic. He is completely convincing as a nebbish on the order of Wallace Shawn or Woody Allen, and his timing is flawless. At the end of “Small Potatoes”, he even lets us see a bit of the envy that drives Eddie, as he tells Mulder mockingly, “You should live a little…I would, if I were you.” Deep irony, coming from a man who lives his entire life as other people.

David Duchovny turns in a tour de force performance, putting a whole layer between himself and Fox Mulder. Even before the Eddie character’s intervention, Duchovny was subtly parodying his alter ego in the tail-breaking scene during Scully’s autopsy. Once Fox became Faux the comedy bar was raised several notches, and Duchovny topped it with ease. The interview with Amanda (Christine Cavanaugh), where Eddie hears a few home truths about himself uttered to Mulder’s face, was a masterpiece: we saw Eddie through the Mulder mask. The pratfall in Mulder’s chair earned a sunflower seed all on its own. And Duchovny let Eddie’s wistful yearning seep through his romancing of the glamorous Dana Scully just enough to keep the audience well aware of who was really sitting on that couch. Not every actor can parody his own character so thoroughly, and yet retain the audience’s goodwill.

Vince Gilligan’s script is one of the best we’ve had this season. From the subtle tease of Eddie’s leaf-blowing neighbor, who bears a very strong resemblance to Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, to Eddie himself, we are constantly reminded that “we are not who we are”, and that things are not always as they appear on the surface. This is also one of the gentlest X-Files—no one is killed in this story. And the scene where Mulder’s careful questioning of Amanda unleashes a lunatic tale of seduction by a Jedi Knight was fabulous—I love it when things get too weird for Mulder. Again, Gilligan shows his careful attention to detail and backstory when Mulder reminds Scully, “We’ve both seen something like this before”. It’s a good line, one which simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses as irrelevant the earlier, established presence in the X-Files universe of morphing aliens.

Midway through “Small Potatoes”, Mulder tells Scully, “Ultimately, it’s other people’s reaction to us that make us who we are.” If so, then Darin Morgan is a cross between Buster Keaton and Woody Allen. This episode gets five out of five sunflower seeds.

* My thanks to Johanne LaRue for an in-depth discussion of the psychological points here.