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The X-Files – Humbug (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The world is a weird place, but it seems to get a little less weird all the time.

One of the great recurring themes of The X-Files is that globilisation and rapid development have cast light on the deepest nooks and crannies, having a homogenising effect. There’s little room in the world for the eccentric and the strange, as Starbucks opens an average of two stores every day and access to the internet in the United States doubling between 2000 and 2014. In 2009, the furthest a person could be from a McDonalds in the United States was 107 miles. The world is getting smaller.

Funhouse mirror...

Funhouse mirror…

Paradoxically, this only winds up pushing people further apart. This happens on both a community and an individual level. Small towns find themselves struggling to survive in the current economic climate, despite the increased accessibility. Despite the growth of social media to make interpersonal communication easier than ever, the number of people feeling socially isolated has doubled since 1985.

Humbug is the show’s first script from writer Darin Morgan. While not as polished as his later work, it perfectly captures that mournful sense that a certain kind of weirdness is passing.

Something fishy is going on...

Something fishy is going on…

Darin Morgan would go on to become one of the most influential writers to work on The X-Files. He would be the first member of the writing staff to take home an Emmy, for his superlative work on Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose. Morgan was frequently cited by other writers as an influence on their work, demonstrating exactly what was possible within the framework of The X-Files. Certainly, Vince Gilligan’s scripts – including Bad Blood, Small Potatoes and Tithonis – would be heavily influenced by Morgan.

And yet, despite all this, Morgan was not an exceptionally prolific writer. He would be the first to concede that he was a “slow” writer. He contributed four episode scripts to The X-Files, and earned a story credit on another, while serving as story editor for the show. He was convinced to join James Wong and Glen Morgan on Millennium in the second season, writing and directing two more episodes. That means Morgan was credited on seven stories in total over three seasons.

Caught, hook, line and sinker...

Caught, hook, line and sinker…

To put that in context, that is compared to thirty credits for James Wong and Glen Morgan over five seasons; thirty-six solo and collaborative credits for Vince Gilligan over nine seasons; twenty solo and collaborative credits for Howard Gordon over four seasons; around sixty solo and collaborative credits for Frank Spotnitz across eleven seasons and two films. It seems perfectly reasonable to observe that Darin Morgan was not the most prolific of contributors to The X-Files and its family of shows.

And yet, despite that, Morgan became a defining voice for the series. Morgan’s scripts all have a wonderfully coherent thematic through line. It’s quite possible for a viewer to recognise Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” as the work of the same brilliant mind that gave us Somehow Satan Got Behind Me. Morgan deals with big thematic issues that resonate, to the point where Morgan’s vision of the show is at once uniquely his own and also shared among the rest of the writing staff.

Shadows and symbols...

Shadows and symbols…

Morgan’s stories hit on a sense of powerful existential loneliness, a fear that everybody must eventually die alone at the whim of a random universe. “It hurts not to be wanted,” Lanny reflects towards the end of Humbug, and that sense of complete abandonment and isolation reverberates throughout Morgan’s work on The X-Files and Millennium, from that wonderful closing montage of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” through to the final segment of Somehow Satan Got Behind Me.

It’s an aspect of Morgan’s writing that can even be felt on Blood, the early second season episode where he earned his first story credit. Blood was a story about a small-town community that was witness to acts of terrible violence, supposedly directed by print-outs on electronic devices that nobody else seemed to see. It’s a story that suggests social isolation and disconnect, even in a tight community with modern trappings. (Mobile phones are one of the mechanisms used to convey the messages.)

What's cooking?

What’s cooking?

The second season of The X-Files has largely been about growing and developing as a television show. Chris Carter has justified the decision to press ahead with Humbug as an example of the show trying new things:

I don’t know if you guys saw the Humbug episode, the freaks episode last year. That’s just an ep that I never imagined. to tell you the truth, when it came in, I thought it was a pretty big departure from what we had done before, but I thought at that time, the 45th episode, that we had earned the right to stretch a little. If I can make a baseball analogy, we had been throwing fast balls and curve balls and this was a knuckleball, something new to our repertoire.

Even after production wrapped, the team were anxious about it. “Everyone thought it was going to be a disaster up until the time we aired it,” Morgan reflected. And yet Humbug can be seen as a vital stage of the development of The X-Files, like other second season episodes like One Breath, Die Hand Die Verletzt, Irresistible, Colony or End Game.

"There's something in the water!"

“There’s something in the water!”

What Darin Morgan brings to The X-Files is a willingness to pick the show apart – to chip away at the show’s underlying ideas. Morgan’s scripts are quite happy to explore the assumptions that power The X-Files and engage in criticism or deconstruction of them. Indeed, Blood could be seen as an episode that is highly critical of the show’s paranoid mode of discourse, suggesting that perhaps Mulder’s perspective is more unhealthy than the show would generally concede.

Humbug offers a much more interesting twist on the standard episode set-up. We open with two normal-looking kids in a pool. The camera stalks them. There is something in the pool with them. It’s a monster! Except it’s not. It’s their father, a performer with a skin condition that allows him to make his living as an “alligator man” on the road. The kids are delighted to see him, even as he sends them to bed. Taking a moment to enjoy the late-night dip in the pool, the alligator man is viciously attacked by an unknown entity.

Dirty work...

Dirty work…

It’s a teaser that beautifully up-ends audience expectations. In purely practical terms, it’s cleverly structured – one fake scare, followed by a lull, followed by a real scare. However, it’s also a brilliant twist on the classic format of The X-Files. In this case, the character who would be the monster in any other episode is identified as a family man with two children and a life on the road. Given its nature as a genre show, The X-Files frequently relegates “freaks” and “mutants” to that status of monsters, antagonistic forces preying on innocent victims.

To be fair, it’s a problem that comes with the territory. As a show that trades in horror tropes, The X-Files is inevitably going to portray deviations from the norm as monstrous. Still, there is a rather unfortunate subtext to all this – Mulder and Scully can occasionally seem like they exist to protect the “normal” from the “abnormal.” The fact that Mulder and Scully are both very beautiful people in the conventional sense (with Duchovny and Anderson have both placed on People‘s “Most Beautiful People” list) only reinforces this sense.

Hanging on in there...

Hanging on in there…

Of course, the show is generally shrewd enough to work around these unfortunate implications, but it can occasionally seem a little reactive. Rob Bowman and Howard Gordon’s Fresh Bones rather shrewdly avoided a lot of the problems that typically come with a voodoo episode. However, episodes like Excelsis Dei and The Calusari both possess rather uncomfortable subtexts about “outsiders.” Humbug forces the audience to confront this directly, giving us a community of outsiders who are victims rather than perpetrators.

Indeed, at one point, Humbug explicitly calls Mulder and Scully out on this. On discovering that the sheriff was a former circus performer, the two immediately suspect him of the crimes. Digging in his backyard late at night, Mulder reflects, “We’re being highly discriminatory here. Just because a man was once afflicted with excessive hairiness, we’ve no reason to suspect him of aberrant behavior.” Scully replies, “It’s like assuming guilt based solely on skin color, isn’t it?”

A dogged investigation...

A dogged investigation…

Much of The X-Files operates on the logic that what is different is inherently dangerous or evil, and one of the stronger aspects of Humbug is the way that it acknowledges this somewhat problematic aspect of the show. However, having made that connection, Mulder and Scully get right back to digging… because, well, what else can they do? Humbug presents Mulder and Scully with a case that they can’t solve following standard procedure. Finding them in his backyard, Hamilton is sympathetic. “Investigation isn’t going too well, is it?”

The community of Gibsonton actually exists, home to people who made their living on the traveling circus and freak show circuits. Morgan did considerable research on the community while writing the episode. Although the industry had been in decline from the middle of the twentieth century, it had seen a bit of a resurgence in the nineties thanks to organisers like Jim Rose, who appears as Blockbuster in Humbug. Rose’s work had been an influence on the development of Humbug.

Checking out the reports, digging up the dirt...

Checking out the reports, digging up the dirt…

Gibsonton is portrayed as one of those odd enclaves that is slowly fading, the type of eccentric space that feels like it may soon vanish into history. As one account of the town notes, the community has become a lot less unique and distinct in recent years:

Where there was once rich farmland, eccentric restaurants and bars, and small exhibitions of circus animals, magic shows, and concessions, there are now subdivisions and big box stores. Many of the previous residents have passed away or moved out. Gibsonton, once known as one of the oddest towns in the country, is beginning to look like so many other towns in the United States, but not quite.

The town’s unique zoning laws allow residents to keep circus animals and equipment on their property, although much of that equipment has fallen into disrepair over the past number of years.

A gripping thriller...

A gripping thriller…

Melvin Burkhart, the performer known as “the Human Blockhead”, passed away in 2001. Many other influential and iconic performers had passed away in the previous decade:

Mr. Burkhart, who lived in Riverview, Fla., was one of the last of the old-time sideshow performers clustered around the Tampa area. Percilla the Monkey Girl died in February, and Jeanie Tomaini, the Half Girl, died in 1999. James Taylor, publisher of the journal Shocked and Amazed, which chronicles sideshow history, also listed the Lobster Boy, the Ossified Lady and a man famed for boxing gorillas, all of whom have died in the last decade.

Appropriately enough, Humbug ends with the character of Blockhead – played by contemporary circus organiser Jim Rose – departing Gibsonton for parts unknown. It is time to move on.

Cheque-ing in...

Cheque-ing in…

The lifestyle is itself in decline, with a variety of factors ensuring that there are no younger generation emerging to replace the deceased members of the community:

Other freaks aren’t stepping up to take their places. Political correctness teaches it’s not nice to stare, and besides, you can see the world’s largest man and a family of dwarves on cable TV. For someone covered in tattoos or piercings, go to the mall. Better prenatal care, genetic counseling, corrective surgeries and amniocentesis have contributed to the decline.

Blockhead’s closing thoughts suggest as much, suggesting that the days of his community may be numbered.

A lonely place of dying...

A lonely place of dying…

Casting Jim Rose and the Enigma as Blockhead and the Conundrum makes for a pretty self-aware twist. Blockhead works hard to inject life into the local community – even interrupting a funeral for his latest shocking performance act. He hasn’t reconciled himself to the death of the surreal and bizarre. Blockhead describes himself and the Conundrum as “the self-made freaks”, perhaps reflecting the fact that Jim Rose and the Enigma have taken it upon themselves to breath new life into the circuit.

Still, normality will out. “Twenty-first century genetic engineering will not only eradicate the siamese twins and the alligator-skinned people, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a slight overbite or a not-so-high cheek bone,” Blockhead explains. “You see, I’ve seen the future and the future looks just like him.” (The corresponding cut to Mulder’s dramatic pose is one of the best gags in the episode.) While Blockhead might be exaggerating slightly – his predictions can’t help but conjure images of Gattaca – there’s no denying that he has a point.

What a man...

What a man…

Humbug treats its subjects with a great deal of respect, inviting both Mulder and Scully to consider their own attitudes and prejudices. Humbug never patronises or condescends to its characters, instead acknowledging that their lifestyles are their own. At one point, Lanny reflects on his past career as a side-show freak. “Mister Nutt, the kindhearted manager here, convinced me that to make a living by publicly displaying my deformity lacked dignity,” he tells Mulder and Scully. “So now I carry other people’s luggage.” Is that any more dignified?

Similarly, the episode plays the revelation that James Hamilton was “Jim-Jim, the dog-faced boy” as a massive twist – something that Hamilton has buried in his past and from which he hopes to escape. Mulder and Scully, following the familiar plot beats of an X-Files episode, treat this as evidence of his guilt. Instead, Hamilton reveals that he didn’t quit the circus because he was ashamed or offended. He explains, “One morning I noticed a bald spot on top of my head and realized I was not only losing my hair but my career as well.”

Nailed it!

Nailed it!

When Scully uses the word “freak”, Hamilton immediately corrects her. “Now, now, hold on a second. Around here, we refer to them as ‘very special people.’ Now, some of them may be different on the outside but it’s what’s inside that counts. And on the inside, they’re as normal as anybody.” Even Mister Nutt is forced to concede that these folk pay their bills on time. The community in Humbug is eccentric and strange, but eccentric and strange in the way that just about any community is. Paradoxically, they are normal in their abnormality.

Humbug evokes the work of David Lynch, an obvious influence on The X-Files. The episode seems to play this up comparison – casting recurring Twin Peaks guest star Michael J. Anderson in a prominent guest role. As with Twin Peaks, there’s a sense that Gibsonton exists as a place where the eccentricities of American small town life have been exaggerated and enlarged. As with Twin Peaks, it suggests that “normal” is perhaps an abstract and meaningless term – an artificial construct that can’t account for the realities of day-to-day life.

Here there be monsters!

Here there be monsters!

“Nature abhors normality,” Blockhead tells Scully in the episode’s closing scene, suggesting that “normality” is a concept imposed by some external force and runs counter to the laws of nature. The idea that an externally-imposed “normality” is pushing away the shadows and local eccentricities is something that The X-Files revisits quite frequently, in episodes like Gender Bender or Home.

There is some suggestion that Morgan was “disappointed” with how Humbug turned out. Given his later work on the show, this is understandable. Humbug is perhaps the weakest episode of the show credited to a Darin Morgan teleplay. Morgan would become more involved in the production and post-production of the third season episodes, stepping up to direct his own episodes during the second season of Millennium, giving him pretty much absolute creative control of his work.

A tough Nutt to crack...

A tough Nutt to crack…

It is worth noting that Humbug does follow the structure of an episode of The X-Files a bit more closely than his later scripts for the show. Morgan has suggested that he wasn’t consciously trying to reinvent the series, just writing a conventional episode of The X-Files in his own voice:

“I wasn’t trying to be goofy,” Morgan said. “I wasn’t told to do a funny X-File. I just wrote an episode that would have enough scares and be strange enough to be an X-File, and where the comedy would be good enough that they would let it slide. And that’s what they did. They said, ‘Okay, we’re going to go with it.’”

Humbug features a lot of the staples of the show, despite its inventiveness. There’s a solution to the case. There’s a creepy “chase” climax. There’s a significant body count, with deaths positioned within the episode so as to increase the dramatic tension. For all that Humbug is credited as the first comedy episode of The X-Files, Die Hand Die Verletzt did set a precedent.

Mirror, mirror...

Mirror, mirror…

That’s not to suggest that Humbug wasn’t a unique addition to the show’s canon, and that it didn’t push the boundaries of what the production team could do with an episode of The X-Files. However, it does feel like an episode that exists half-way between the standard X-Files template and Morgan’s later work. That said, Humbug is still a fantastic episode of television, and one of the best the series produced.

Kim Manners returns to the show to direct his second episode. It’s hard to imagine a more difficult “trial by fire” for a new director joining the second season than assigning them both Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug. As with Die Hand Die Verletzt, Manners cleverly avoids playing the comedy too broad. Instead, he plays it all relatively straight and counts on the absurdity to carry the episode. It’s an approach that works well.

Biting commentary...

Biting commentary…

Manners very cleverly frames Humbug as an episode about gazing and looking. The Curator of the local museum is captured mostly in reflection, as if teasing the audience about their desire to see his deformity in detail. As Rhonda Wilcox and J. P. Williams reflect in What Do You Think? The X-Files, Liminality, and Gender Pleasure:

Humbug focuses (with humour) on difference, sex, and looking – misguidance through image, mistaken seeing. It is set in a town largely populated by circus freaks. One of these, Lenny [sic], exists with a very small brother attached, Siamese fashion, to his chest. When Lenny [sic] is sent to awaken Scully one morning, the two stand in her her trailer doorway looking at each other’s protuberances – Scully at Lenny’s [sic] partially uncovered brother, Lenny [sic] at Scully’s partially uncovered breasts – until they both realise what they have been doing and simultaneously adjust their robes to cover themselves. The man’s gaze at the woman’s difference is obviously connected to the woman’s gaze at the ‘monster’s’ difference. However, in this case the two recognise what they are doing and thus force the audience’s recognition as well. Staring at a woman’s breasts is just as unacceptable as staring at a person’s ‘deformity’; each gaze involves the objectification of difference.

It’s a clever little scene. Indeed, it allows Manners and Morgan to cleverly emphasise how rarely The X-Files sexually objectifies Scully. The scene works because seeing Scully as a sexual object in the context of The X-Files is almost as unusual as seeing a man with a conjoint twin.

"Miss Anderson, the shot is ready..."

“Miss Anderson, the shot is ready…”

One of the more interesting pieces of commentary that Humbug makes on the nature of The X-Files itself seems to foreshadow the debate about the show’s larger mythology arc. Morgan would mock the mythologies of both The X-Files and Millennium relentlessly in his scripts. As Sue Short reflects on Cult Telefantasy Series, Morgan was arguably ahead of the curve:

If many felt cheated by the fact that an exposé never occurs, they might be accused of taking the show too serious, with a number of clues (particularly in episodes written by Darin Morgan) affirming its status as a pastiche cobbled together from various parts simply to entertain, like the Fijian Mermaid in Humbug.

Blockhead himself teases Scully with the mystery of how nature “can’t go very long without creating a mutant.” After prompting Scully to ask why that might be the case, he reflects, “Maybe some mysteries are never meant to be solved.” It seems like a wry piece of meta-commentary on the show itself.

Putting down stakes...

Putting down stakes…

Humbug is a classic, a season and a series highlight. However, the most satisfying aspect of Humbug is that the best is yet to come.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of The X-Files:

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