Written by Darin Morgan
Directed by Kim Manners
Thank you, thank you, Darin Morgan.
Humbug is one of the most significant episodes in the series history, for reasons which even the casual observer can pertain. The first episode to take the world of the series, and decide to play it for straight out comedy, it would be significant because it would help guarantee the longevity of the series. By making The X-Files more of a light-hearted romp than the alien filled world Chris Carter had perceived, the series no doubt lasted nine full seasons because of the brilliance of the standalones rather than the pained styles of the mythology.
If it were just for that purpose, this would be a brilliant episode. But as the first line of the review indicated, this episode introduced us to that master of humor and pathos, Darin Morgan, who decided to take the world of Mulder and Scully and shift it a full 180. He does so in such a marvelous fashion that it’s astonishing to consider that this is the first teleplay he’d ever constructed. Set in the world of the circus sideshow, from the teaser itself, Morgan makes it very clear that he has no intention of playing by the rules that his elder brother spent two years establishing. He sends up the series in perhaps the most astounding way, deciding to take the world of circus freaks, and put them into such a scenario where are beloved FBI agents are the abnormalities.
Perhaps the most daring thing he does is take Scully way outside the comfort zone for her character, and have her— gasp!— have fun. There’s the scene where she appears to eat a cricket that has been offered her by the Human Blockhead, participate in a tour of a museum, gets caught staring at a former-performers conjoined twin, while he looks at her cleavage, and of course, the scene where she figures out before Mulder who the killer is. Much to Mulder’s (and our) astonishment. Giving him the occasion to tell Scully “Now you know how I feel.”
Trying to describe Darin Morgan’s dialogue is rather pointless. You can quote it, of course, and even out of context, it can be hysterical, but not even that can give the reason why it seems absolutely perfect. Every character sounds like the typical selves, but every time they deliver a serious line, it’s always undercut. The dialogue that Mulder and Scully have with Dr. Blockhead is a gold mine of comic delivery, with Mulder trying to give as good as he gets, but for once, failing. The wonderful scene checking into the motel, where the short-stature Nutt cuts Mulder down to size (so to speak) on his stereotypical point of view, then tells him he’s done the same… only he’s completely accurate. The way that everybody being approached before the killer strikes utters the phrase “What the hell” as if in a town filled with sideshow attractions, this is something that they don’t see everyday. And of course, The Conundrum’s only line of the entire episode which may be the greatest last line of anything, since ‘Nobody’s perfect.’
As much as I want to give Morgan all the credit (and he deserves lots of it) it is entirely his. Kim Manners does a masterful job in directing this episode, and has one brilliant example of camerawork. From the opening shots which seems to be parodying Jaws. The funeral of Jerald Glazebrook. Mulder spotting the Conundrum devouring a raw fish. And especially Scully’s visit to the museum of freaks, where she has an encounter with a hideously disfigured curators whose full face we never quite see. It’s so incredibly well done that one can basically forgive that the climax in the funhouse is basically a ripoff from The Lady From Shanghai, another gem Morgan must have pilfered from. Additional credit must go to Mark Snow for finally coming up with a score that it so absolutely set to the mood of the episode.
Then there are all the sublime performances, including Jim Rose as Dr. Blockhead, one of the two actual sideshow performers who was cast. His dialogue is delivered at such a perfect pace, it’s astonishing to learn that he had such difficulty keeping the lines straight. Michael Anderson as Nutt (another Twin Peaks veteran), and the astounding Vincent Schavelli as Lanny, the drunken older man, who sorrowfully comes to realize that his brother doesn’t love him as much as he thinks he should.
Now there are some pikers out there who know doubt think that Humbug doesn’t work as well as it should, because it’s basically got a bunch of scenarios tied to get together as an excuse for jokes. To which I say, but they’re such great jokes. The comedy factor in any Morgan episode always must go to eleven, but any series that makes you laugh hysterically nearly twenty years after the fact must be doing something right. And the fact of the matter is, as will be the case with every Morgan episode, is that there actually is a message, buried deep within the sly remarks. When Dr. Blockhead tells us that genetic engineering will eventually rid us of all freakishness as well as all difference to the point that all of us end up looking like, well, David Duchovny, and he does using the same line that Scully used when describing the Alligator man that’s a very critical distinction and a point well-delivered. Compared to some of the other episodes this seasons that have delivered their points with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it’s refreshing indeed, and a perfect way to end a perfect episode. Bravo.