The X Files Revisited: 2.20 Humbug

A tale of brotherly rejection, circus freaks and perception is this witty, winning episode from writer Darin Morgan…

The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we’ll pick the story highlights of each year. This time we pick the late season two episode Humbug which captivated audiences with its darkly comic tone, something that would become recurring theme in later seasons…

And so we enter the bizarre world of writer Darin Morgan who delivered such deliciously dark comic tales as Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’. His debut here in season two is perhaps less ‘out there’ than his later season three comic gems but it is no less wonderful. Mulder and Scully visiting a circus freak show is ripe with bizarre imagery, eccentric characters and pure laugh out moments; if Die Hand die verletzt was one of the first episodes to dabble with comedy than Humbug is the one that jumps straight in.

But what is so great about Humbug is its ability to mess with convention. Take the opening; the monster is not the Alligator Man watching the two kids play in the pool; he is their dad and the victim of that first brutal murder. And when Mulder and Scully arrive at his funeral and mingle with the grieving bearded lady, a priest with no arms that reads the Bible with his feet, dwarves, giants and a man that claws his way of the ground and drives a metal stake into his chest – it is they, with their all-American good looks, that are out of place.

And they are not all labelled in the ‘freak with a heart’ territory either. While characters like Vincent Schiavelli’s Lenny are largely sympathetic, the hotel manager Mr Nutt (Twin Peaks‘s backward-talking dwarf Michael J. Anderson) is a jerk. He is openly hostile to Mulder and I loved the agent’s droll come back to Nutt’s assertion that many women find his size intriguingly alluring; “You’d be surprised how many men do as well.” It really show’s Mulder’s dry humour and firmly puts the manager in his place, so to speak.

The crux of the episode if the legend of the Fiji Mermaid, a creature potentially responsible for 48 attacks in last 20 years. The first couple of murders are gruesome but largely hold back on revealing the killer until near the episode’s end. Extreme close-ups and half-caught reflections in mirrors tease the monster before it is ultimately revealed – in the death of Mr Nutt – to be the detachable symbiotic twin of Lenny.

In Lenny, Schiavelli delivers a heartfelt, endearing performance as the man who is facing the ultimate rejection from his brother Leonard. In a surprise twist the agents learn that he isn’t deliberately hunting for victims, he is searching for a new person to bond with, having decided that he hates Lenny. The tragic truth of this episode is that it not about freak show acts killing off others but a tale of brotherly rejection gone horribly wrong. And indeed, when Leonard is separated for too long, Lenny doesn’t survive that rejection.

Aside from Lenny, the two most memorable characters are Jim Rose as Dr. Blockhead – a man who feels no pain and The Enigma as The Conundrum; tattooed head to toe in blue jigsaw there is little difference here between the character and the actor that plays him. Blockhead becomes the prime suspect in the series of murders and proves to be a frustrating presence in Mulder and Scully’s investigation. As someone who takes life to the extreme he becomes the voice piece for this rather unusual set of characters.

The Conundrum meanwhile is a silent character in this unusual double-act, eating raw fish and anything else in sight. Talking of animals, the scene where Scully put a live cricket in her mouth was real – Gillian Anderson took up the challenge much to the disgust of her co-star David Duchovny.

I also like how it was Scully, not Mulder, who latches onto the real culprit for the murders, the detachable conjoined twin Leonard. Embracing the bizarre nature of the case, the agents find themselves in a bizarre pursuit of the killer, chasing it through a house of horrors. That final action sequence is atmospheric, tense and great fun. From Scully catching sight of Leonard in house of mirrors to Mulder sliding down a shoot, it all builds to an even more ludicrous moment when Leonard attacks The Conundrum…who eats him!

Followed by Dr. Blockhead’s final speech to Scully about how twenty-first century genetic engineering will eliminate all the freaks and make the future look like…him (cutting to Mulder looking like the All-American hero, hands on hips as he stands posed on the trailer steps) to The Conundrum’s speaking at the end “probably something I ate.” the episode is a blast to the very end.

Humbug is filled with boundless witty, amusing dialogue and plays with convention to deliver something audiences had not quite seen before. Darin Morgan really sets himself as the writer of the show’s most funniest episodes and it is a shame he wouldn’t stay on past season three.


Updated: Sep 30, 2015

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