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The X-Files – Small Potatoes (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Darin Morgan’s absence haunts the fourth season of The X-Files.

According to Frank Spotnitz, Darin Morgan had originally hoped to contribute a script in the middle of the season. Unfortunately, that idea fell through. The scramble to fill that gap in the schedule led to Memento Mori, which ultimately became the centre of the fourth season’s mythology arc, for better or worse. Scully’s cancer arc was just one result of the Darin-Morgan-shaped hole in the fourth season. Small Potatoes is another, the show’s first real “comedy” episode since Morgan departed the staff at the end of the third season.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tail…

Darin Morgan often gets credit for introducing the concept of comedy to The X-Files. That is not entirely fair; Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote Die Hand Die Verletzt shortly before Darin Morgan wrote Humbug. However, Morgan did refine the idea of comedy on The X-Files. Darin Morgan won an Emmy for writing Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, and he still considers Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” to be among the best things that he has ever written.

Despite Morgan’s departure, it was clear that The X-Files could not completely avoid comedy. Once a show has demonstrated that it can do something particularly well, it becomes very difficult to stop doing that thing. Comedy episodes became something of a staple on The X-Files, with the show regularly churning out light-hearted and funny episodes (with varying degrees of success) until the show was finally cancelled after its ninth season. However, there was a long stretch after Morgan departed where the series seemed quite grim. Somebody would have to go first.

The inside, looking out...

The inside, looking out…

So Vince Gilligan stepped up to bat. Gilligan had been on staff for a bout a year at this point. He had quickly established himself as one of the most promising young writers in the room. While his first script for the show – Soft Light – was arguably more interesting than successful, Gilligan enjoyed an incredible hot streak when he joined the staff. Pusher, Unruhe and Paper Hearts are among the best scripts of the third and fourth seasons. With Small Potatoes, he seemed to position himself as the logical successor to Darin Morgan.

Darin Morgan even appears in Small Potatoes to pass the metaphorical baton.

"Here's Mulder!"

“Here’s Mulder!”

Vince Gilligan is a writer who learned a great deal from The X-Files. It was his first job on a television writing staff, and he has frequently compared it to attending film school. Gilligan would learn a lot of the skills and techniques that would help him later in his career. Breaking Bad owes a very clear and conscious debt to the time that Gilligan spent on The X-Files. It was a show that allowed him to learn the skills not only to write, but also to direct and produce. It is a testament to The X-Files that it produced so many great television writers.

As a writer, Gilligan was heavily influenced by some of his colleagues and contemporaries on the show. The influence of Glen Morgan and James Wong is quite apparent on Vince Gilligan’s script for Paper Hearts, for example – a script that finally manages to build an episode that functions as Mulder’s version of Beyond the Sea. Darin Morgan was also a significant influence on Gilligan. With Small Potatoes, Gilligan establishes himself as the show’s strongest comedic writer. However, his debt to Darin Morgan runs a little deeper.

"All me to be Blundht..."

“All me to be Blundht…”

Darin Morgan pushed The X-Files further than it had ever gone before. He embraced post-modernism, and cleverly played with the show’s format and its underlying principles. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” questions the philosophy underlying The X-Files, chipping away at its idea of objectively-verifiable truth. It toyed with form and perspective in a way the show had never attempted before. Humbug questioned the idea of “monsters” that underpinned the show’s “monster of the week” format. War of the Coprophages spoofed paranoia.

Vince Gilligan played with some similar ideas. Just like Darin Morgan, he was fascinated with the form and design of The X-Files. His episodes were frequently post-modern in construction. Bad Blood is rooted in perspective and subjectivity; X-Cops has Mulder and Scully invade another television show; Drive opens with footage specifically designed to look newsfeed of the OJ Simpson chase. Hunger is a spiritual companion piece to Humbug, a story that questions the use of the word “monster.”

Mulder is quite cagey about his experience...

Mulder is quite cagey about his experience…

This is to say nothing of the way that Tithonus literalised an affectionate one-liner from Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose in a way that Darin Morgan never intended. Similarly, according to his commentary on Small Potatoes, it was Vince Gilligan who pushed for The X-Files to continue doing comedy episodes after Morgan left:

This episode was my first comedic episode and I had a lot of fun writing it. I bugged Chris Carter for a while to do a funny one. I came from comedy, I was writing comedy scripts, movie scripts, before I got this job. And it was nice to be able to do a funny one here in season four because season for is pretty dark on the whole – Agent Scully got cancer, this was the season we found out she had cancer and it was pretty grim for a long time, so it was nice to lighten things up.

Gilligan has a point. The fourth season of The X-Files is pretty grim stuff. Barring Small Potatoes, it seems that Leonard Betts is the second-lightest script of the season. When your second lightest script ends with the revelation that one of your leads has cancer, you may have a bit of a humour deficit.

The truth is up there...

The truth is up there…

It was Gilligan who decided to cast Darin Morgan in the role of Eddie Van Blundht. According to Gilligan, the idea came to him when he was first writing the episode:

I was about ten pages into the script when I realized that Darin Morgan would be great as Eddie Van Blundht. I wouldn’t have cast him in that part if I had not seen him in another role first, which was in a student film he and a friend did. Darin starred in this fifteen-minute film, and he was wonderful in it. He did a great job for us in Small Potatoes. When I called to ask him if he would do it, I said, I’ve got this great part for you. You play a fat, ugly loser. He always tells that story now.

The presence of Darin Morgan in the episode helps to convey the sense that this is a passing of the baton, that Gilligan is very consciously trying to fill a particular void in the writing staff.

No need to get bent out of shape...

No need to get bent out of shape…

Indeed, the original plan was that Small Potatoes would push the in-joke even further. At one point, Mulder comes to suspect that Eddie Van Blundht has disguised himself as a leaf-blower outside his house. Tying back into Amanda’s close encounter of the Jedi kind, there were rumours that the leaf-blower was played by Mark Hamill. Vince Gilligan denies this, suggesting an alternative gag that never came to pass:

That’s a funny idea. It is not Mark Hamill but that would have been really neat. You know, the original plan was for the guy to be Glen Morgan, Darin Morgan’s brother, who if you have ever seen him in a magazine picture or whatnot, there’s a big family similarity. And I really wanted him to do that part and it would have been wonderful. But, you know, he’s a busy man and he was working on a pilot at the time and stuff like that. He originally said yes but then he had to cancel. So actually, honestly, the actual leaf blower guy, is just, I don’t even know his name. He is just a Vancouver extra. But Mark Hamill would have been a good choice.

Still, there is another nice in-joke as the “monkey babies” make the front page of the “World Weekly Informer.” Coupled with the front page exposé on Flukeman in Pusher, this is the second time that a Darin Morgan character has made the cover of that august publication.

Steady, Eddie...

Steady, Eddie…

Nevertheless, Small Potatoes is greatly indebted to the work of Darin Morgan. This is obvious in a number of ways. Most obviously, there is a sense of sadness and loneliness to the case that evokes Morgan’s work on the show. As funny as episodes like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” might be, they were underpinned by a sense of failure and disappointment. The rich comedy topping masked a core of pure tragedy directly underneath. Small Potatoes has that same sense of pathetic despondency.

There are the characters of Eddie and Amanda, two high-school sweethearts who are no losers in their own way. “You know,” Amanda tells Mulder and Scully, “I thought they were letting me stay in the hospital so long because I have really, really great insurance. Turns out they’re just keeping me here because they think I’m sort of crazy. They want to make sure I’m safe to be around my baby.” Of course, Amanda really believes that she was impregnated by Luke Skywalker, who serenaded her with the Star Wars theme.

Fertile discussions...

Fertile discussions…

“How many times have you seen Star Wars, Amanda?” Scully asks when Amanda proposes her theory about the baby’s origin. “Three hundred and sixty eight,” Amanda suggests. “I should break four hundred by Memorial Day.” There is something deeply sad and lonely about a young woman who has nothing to do but watch Star Wars all day, a woman so isolated and so disconnected that she does not question when a man who looks like Mark Hamill shows up and claims to be her soul mate.

This is to say nothing of Eddie Van Blundht himself. The two were together in high school, but eventually Amanda cut him loose as dead weight. “He’s just sort of a loser,” Amanda offers in assessment. “He’s one of those guys you look back on, you know, and oh my God, what was I thinking? What was I thinking?” When pressed for specifics, she reflects, “He had like one million annoying personal habits. You know, just no sense of romance, no ambition, no direction. I mean, I hear he’s like a janitor or something now.”

Daddy issues...

Daddy issues…

It is hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Eddie Van Blundht. Impersonating his father, Van Blundht suggests that the only thing interesting about him was his tail; a tail that he cut off at a young age. “I told him it was a mistake. I said son, you ain’t much to look at. You ain’t no athlete, and you sure the hell ain’t no Einstein. But at least you got that tail. Otherwise you’re just small potatoes.” The only thing that makes Van Blundht in anyway special is something that would make him a circus sideshow or a scientific curiosity.

In a way, Van Blundht seems broadly similar to Darin Morgan’s own major guest characters like Clyde Bruckman or Jose Chung. They are all sad failures of men, with a gift that is ultimately mundane or depressing; Clyde Bruckman has the ability to see exactly how people will die, while Jose Chung had a fine literary voice that he has allowed to descend to mere hackery. Eddie Van Blundt has the ability to take on the face of anybody. He uses this gift to collect social security payments in the name of his late father and to rape women.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

This, of course, raises the biggest issue with Small Potatoes. The audience is invited to feel sympathetic and compassionate towards Eddie Van Blundht, a serial and calculating rapist. Gilligan concedes as much on the episodes commentary:

There’s a great reaction coming up here where Scully says that he is indeed a rapist and the truth is Eddie van Blundht is really, I mean, as I said before, I sort of feel sorry for the guy and he’s sort of a sweet-natured character for the most part, but when you get right down to it he really does need to be locked up. It’s probably not a bad ending that he winds up in the pokey.

The problem is that Small Potatoes never quite calls Eddie Van Blundht out on this. The episode broaches the topic of rape a couple of times, but never pushes the issue. At the end of the episode, it seems like Van Blundht could simply be locked away for impersonating a federal agent.

Cleaning up his act...

Cleaning up his act…

Scully suggests date rape early in the episode, but Mulder shoots it down. “Those women don’t look like the type that do a lot of solo drinking,” he counters. Later, the episode goes out of its way to clarify that Eddie did not murder his father; he just kept the body in the attic to help him continue to claim the social security cheques. “But he was a rapist,” Skinner clarifies. The remark is something of a dark punchline, with the focus more being on Eddie!Mulder’s reaction to the observation than with the suffering that Eddie Van Blundht has caused.

In fact, the episode allows Eddie some form of self-justification, revealing that the women he impregnated are married to infertile men. “Look, I’m not saying anything one way or another,” Eddie states in custody. “I’m just saying hypothetically, if some women wanted to have kids, their husbands weren’t… capable, and everybody was happy and no one got hurt, well hypothetically, where’s the crime?” The episode doesn’t buy into Eddie’s logic, but it treats it as a joke; the families harmed by Eddie’s crime disappear from the narrative quite quickly.

Small Potatoes is now part of college safety presentations...

Small Potatoes is now part of college safety presentations…

The problem is compounded by the fact that pop culture has a tendency to play this sort of sexual assault as comedy. While rape by deception is still considered a crime, movies and television have a long history of treating it as a punchline. It has been argued that these portrayals date back to Shakespearean comedy:

Not to get too heady about it (and certainly not to dismiss their weirdness), but there’s something almost Shakespearean about all these scenes: It’s all about mistaken identity and this idea that when one literally drops one’s mask — in high school “nerd” vs. “jock” or “punk” vs. “prep” — you can see people for who they really are. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters lose themselves in the forest. In Sixteen Candles, they lose themselves in Budweiser.

Even allowing for that context, pop culture is far too casual in its treatment of sexual assault. Eighties teen films come to mind; films like Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds feature sequences where the male heroes take advantage of young attractive women… only to have those same women ultimately thank them for the experience.

The stage is set...

The stage is set…

To be entirely fair, this is not a problem unique to pop culture. Rape by deception is a somewhat contested legal issue. California only considered making “rape by impersonation” illegal in 2013. New Jersey’s 2014 attempt to criminalise “rape by fraud” quickly became somewhat controversial. Any discussion of Small Potatoes must concede that it feels spectacularly ill-judged. Eddie’s crimes are not dissimilar from real-life horror stories and the narrative never seems to take them seriously.

The fact that this is a common mistake does not excuse Small Potatoes. In many ways, The X-Files was one of the most interesting and insightful television shows of the nineties. Episodes like Fresh Bones, Hell Money and Kaddish were all mindful of the experiences of those living outside mainstream American culture; it has been argued that the central mythology has a strong feminist underpinning. The X-Files was a story about power imbalances, about exploitation and abuse of authority; it makes sense that the show should mindful of those disenfranchised.

A crack in the armour...

A crack in the armour…

At the same time, the show could be horribly tone-deaf. Excelsis DeiThe Calisuri, TelikoEl Mundo Gira and Badlaa were likely not intended as xenophobic episodes; nevertheless they could not help but come across as such. For all that episodes like Nisei and Memento Mori condemned the exploitation of women’s bodies by powerful men, it seems like Small Potatoes wants us to sympathise with a repeated rapist who tries to sexually assault Scully at the climax of the episode. It feels ill-judged, at best.

This would be easier to forgive if it were solely a problem with Small Potatoes. It becomes something of a recurring problem with comedy episodes on The X-Files from this point forwards. The fourth, fifth and sixth seasons all trot out the idea of “rape as comedy” for their more light-hearted episodes. The Post-Modern Prometheus has a similar starting point – a bunch of women who are impregnated against their will. Dreamland borrows a great deal from Small Potatoes, right down to the “Scully is almost raped by a guest-star-in-Mulder’s body” plot point.

Eddie!Mulder gets his blue steel on...

Eddie!Mulder gets his blue steel on…

To be fair to Dreamland, it does improve on this climax slightly; it allows Scully to retain some of her trademark intelligence. In Dreamland, Scully is quick-witted enough to resolve the situation herself; in Small Potatoes, she is saved by Mulder bursting through the door. The gag here is how painfully terrible Eddie is at impersonating Mulder; he fidgets with the cushions to get his pose right, offers transparent conversation with one goal in mind. If the primary joke is that Eddie!Mulder is obvious, the secondary joke is that Scully is oblivious.

This is all compounded by the sheer lack of common sense here. It is easy for this to sound like victim-shaming, but Scully feels distinctly out-of-character for the last act. As Mulder points out, the duo have encountered shape-shifters before, even if they haven’t actually seen Eddie change shape at this point. Although Scully doesn’t explicitly say it, she seems to accept, based on the evidence, that Eddie can transform himself physically. The two agents know that Eddie is an opportunistic rapist who impersonates someone close to the victim.

Drink it up...

Drink it up…

However, Scully never seems at all suspicious of what is going on at the end of the episode. She and Mulder both heard a statement from Amanda about how Eddie transformed into Mark Hamill to seduce her. The official position at this point is that Eddie is still at large. Scully has noted that Mulder’s decision to abandon his investigation is uncharacteristic. The X-Files has traditionally treated Scully as the least trusting of the two lead characters – consider her suspicion of figures trusted by Mulder in E.B.E. or Colony. As such, the climax feels ill-judged.

Indeed, there is something almost accusatory in the episode’s closing exchange between Mulder and Scully. After Eddie accuses Mulder of being a loser by choice, Scully tries to reassure him. “I don’t imagine you need to be told this Mulder, but you’re not a loser,” she remarks. Mulder responds, “Yeah, but I’m no Eddie Van Blundht either. Am I?” It seems rather pointed, and the delivery doesn’t help. Duchnovny frames the response as a very passive-aggressive dig, and Gillian Anderson seems to actually stop in response to it.

Pregnant pause.

Pregnant pause.

This is infuriating, because the script for Small Potatoes is otherwise quite brilliant. In keeping with Vince Gilligan’s clear affection for Darin Morgan, there is a lot of classic physical comedy or slapstick in Small Potatoes. Darin Morgan is a big fan of classic cinema; Clyde Bruckman is named for a famous director of the silent era. As such, the amount of physical comedy in Small Potatoes feels appropriate. David Duchovny is a big fan of the style – he was  upset at both Darin and Glen Morgan for cutting physical comedy gags in earlier episodes.

So Small Potatoes features a number of delightful physical sequences – whether it is Eddie!Mulder trying to distract Scully as he searches for the right key or Eddie!Mulder doing his best Robert DeNiro impression with an upside-down badge. In fact, the episode’s desire for physical comedy almost gets the better of it. Small Potatoes would arguably draw a clearer delineation between Mulder and Eddie!Mulder if it were willing to cut the gag where Mulder clumsily breaks the tail off the body of Eddie’s father in the morgue.

"The Bureau did not spend millions of dollars on Microsoft Office to allow typos..."

“The Bureau did not spend millions of dollars on Microsoft Office to allow typos…”

The script itself is also razor sharp. Although Skinner only appears in a single scene of Small Potatoes, the episode deploys Mitch Pileggi with laser-guided precision. Reading over Eddie!Mulder’s account of the investigation, Skinner notes, “You spelled Federal Bureau of Investigation wrong.” Eddie!Mulder quickly offers an excuse. “It was a typo.” Skinner is in stern stepfather mode, and simply responds, “Twice.” It is a delightful piece of character comedy that works very well in the context of these particular characters.

Of course, Small Potatoes is most interesting in its assessment of Mulder as a character. Again, this feels like another nice hook inherited from the work of Darin Morgan. More than any other writer, Darin Morgan seemed sceptical of Mulder as a character. Humbug offered a big speech around how conventionally attractive Mulder was as a person; War of the Coprophages focused on the dysfunctional nature of the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. Even Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” had more than a few laughs at Mulder’s expense.

Piecing it all together...

Piecing it all together…

Small Potatoes picks up where Darin Morgan left off, laughing at the idea that Fox Mulder is a creepy weirdo. The character is played by David Duchovny; it is hard to believe that he would have any trouble fitting in anywhere. Virtually any standard of beauty would acknowledge that Duchovny – and, by extension, Mulder – is “a damn good looking man.” By allowing Eddie Van Blundt to walk a mile in Mulder’s shoes, we get to see the character from the perspective of a real loser, a real pathetic character.

“I was born a loser, but you’re one by choice,” Eddie offers in his closing assessment. Despite the fact that he invites Mulder to “live a little, treat [himself]” – which always sounds creepy coming from a sex offender -there is a sense that the audience is meant to agree with Eddie. After all, as Eddie astutely points out on touring Mulder’s apartment and feeding his fish, Mulder does not even have a bed. “How do I sleep?” Eddie wonders, putting an X-Files in-joke into continuity and providing another gag for Dreamland to recycle.

Spelling doom and destruction...

Spelling doom and destruction…

Gilligan does have a point here, but there is something a little awkward about the logic. It seems like one of the reasons we should consider Mulder to be a loser is because he has not hooked up with Scully yet. Certainly, Small Potatoes suggests that Scully could be interested in Mulder romantically, if the situation were right. All Mulder has to do is put in a solid two or three hours of listening and she’ll fall head over heels. There is something a little chauvinist about that measure of success – it implies that self-worth is to be measured in sexual accomplishment.

It is very hard to imagine the episode working in reverse; suggesting the Scully is a loser because she hasn’t hooked up with Mulder yet. More than that, Small Potatoes never seems to consider that Mulder might not want to hook up with Scully – whether because he has no romantic feelings towards her, because he sees her as a friend, or even because he respects professional boundaries. Sure, Mulder has never been particularly concerned about professional boundaries in the past, but he might respect Scully’s attitudes towards those boundaries.

"You know, we should really have code words to prevent situations like this..."

“You know, we should really have code words to prevent situations like this…”

Small Potatoes also suffers from pacing issues. While Gilligan is very clearly a fan of Morgan’s writing, he lacks the same meticulous sense of structure that defines Morgan’s work. Morgan’s scripts all seem chaotic and random, but they are put together like clockwork. In contrast, Gilligan’s early scripts can be a bit clumsy and scattershot. This isn’t generally a problem; broadly speaking, Gilligan’s scripts are exciting and clever enough to make up for any structural weaknesses. Nobody worries about the convenience of Holly in Pusher or the escape in Unruhe.

However, it feels like Small Potatoes only gets to the meat of the matter in its final act. This is an episode about what it might be like to experience life as another person; however, Eddie only replaces Mulder around two-thirds of the way through the script. Small Potatoes has such a good time with the primary investigation that Eddie’s impersonation of Mulder is consigned to the last ten minutes of the episode. As a result, the script’s exploration of Mulder feels somewhat shallow; Eddie!Mulder isn’t around long enough to make any deep revelations.

A tall tail...

A tall tail…

Perhaps this explains why the writing staff produced Dreamland only a year-and-a-half later. The show’s only two-part comedy episode, Dreamland has Mulder replaced by an impersonator in the opening teaser. As a result, there is more room to explore Mulder’s life from the perspective of an outsider. Even with a subplot that sees Mulder impersonating a family man, Dreamland still has enough room to expand and develop on the observations made by Small Potatoes. The last act of Small Potatoes could easily sustain its own episode.

Small Potatoes is an episode that should be a lot better than it ultimately turned out. It is full of wit and humour, wry observations and great gags. Unfortunately, the execution is a little clumsy. It is Vince Gilligan offering a Darin Morgan impression; the result is inevitably intriguing, even if does seem a little hollow.

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

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