“Small Potatoes” (season 4, episode 20)
In which Agent Mulder learns he is no Eddie Van Blundht. (The H is silent.)
When I first met my wife in college, one of the first things we talked about—before we were dating, even—was our mutual appreciation for The X-Files. We talked favorite episodes, favorite recurring characters, and even favorite moments and lines. I tried to make my defense for how the alien conspiracy arc still made sense (this was around the debut of season seven, so clearly I was hanging on to something far longer than it needed to be hung onto). We talked about those videos that came in packs of three, putting all of Chris Carter’s chosen favorites onto tape for posterity and how those videos had guided us to the show before we watched regularly. Both of us had really come to the show through “Ice,” the first-season marvel of a Thing homage. But where I launched into my rather lengthy and tiresome defense of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” as my favorite episode, she just simply said her favorite was “Small Potatoes” and left it at that. She didn’t need to say anything more. I certainly wasn’t going to call her on it.
I think you’ll find that’s the case for most X-Files fans. Outside of my wife, I don’t know many who’d rank this one at the absolute top of their list, but I don’t know any who’d outright dismiss it. Even the ones who don’t love it like crazy still really, really like it. I swear I once read this essay by Roger Ebert (that I can find no evidence of now as I frantically Google it) wherein he talks about two movie fans just getting to know each other, and after listing all of the films each of them likes, one says, “Oh, I really love Casablanca,” and the other smiles and says, “I do, too.” “Small Potatoes” is kind of like that for X-Files fans. It may not feel as grandly important as many other episodes. It may not seem as wildly ambitious. But nine times out of 10, if I’m just going to throw in an X-Files episode, it’s this one. It’s TV comfort food.
Mulder’s learned of a woman in West Virginia who gave birth to a monkey baby—a baby with a tail. The tabloid report that intrigues him mentions four other women in the same town have had similarly tailed babies, and what’s piqued Mulder’s interest is a throwaway mention at the bottom of the tabloid’s front page: Were these women impregnated by men from outer space? The first woman, the one we see giving birth to her baby girl in the teaser, has steadfastly insisted that she was impregnated by a man from another planet. Mulder leans toward her, going in for the kill. Was she abducted? No. Was it an alien? Of course not! It was Luke Skywalker, and he came to her one night and they had a passionate evening together. And then she got pregnant. (Scully, with pitch-perfect comic timing: “Did he have a light saber?”)
It’s the other four women who create a problem, making both Mulder and Scully think there’s something more going on here. Why would four happily married women all seemingly dally with the same man? All four were going to the same doctor for artificial insemination, and our heroes conclude that likely has something to do with what’s going on. When they go to see the doctor (who’s being berated by all four couples, with threats of law suits), Mulder wanders down the hall to find a janitor at work. When the janitor bends over far enough—as janitors are wont to do—he notices the scar where a tail might have been removed. The janitor runs. Mulder, with a perfectly timed eye roll, gives chase. And that’s how we meet Eddie Van Blundht, would-be lothario and all-around loser, played by former X-Files writer Darin Morgan. Eddie can shapeshift. And Eddie’s been getting around.
The central idea that “Small Potatoes” sneakily works its way around to is a good one: Are you who you are because you choose to live your life that way, or are you who you are because of how other people treat you? Late in the episode, Eddie imprisons Mulder in the basement of the hospital where he works and assumes Mulder’s identity. Assuming Mulder doesn’t eventually burst in on Eddie putting the moves on Scully, assuming that he doesn’t reclaim his rightful place in the world, would Eddie eventually get so comfortable in Mulder’s life and get so used to it that he would become, functionally, Mulder? Are our identities so fixed that we would remain fundamentally the same if we somehow became someone else, or would the very act of having everyone treat you like a different person eventually make you a different person? Eddie sees Mulder as someone who chooses to be a loser (with geeks for friends and no real love life). He simply can’t understand that choice from such a tall, broodingly handsome man. Eddie, who’s schlubby and works as a janitor, longs for an escape from the life he was born into. And so he becomes the more handsome husbands. He becomes Luke Skywalker, the true love of the girl he dated all through high school. He becomes the best looking FBI agent on Earth.
But here’s what’s interesting to me: Eddie always returns to his old life eventually. Some of this is just practicality. He’s not willing to kill any of those husbands and, thus, can’t assume their identities on a more permanent basis. And he certainly can’t live his life answering to the name Luke Skywalker. Sure, he seems ready to become a more permanent occupant of Mulder’s life, but he also seems resigned to the idea that it will all be over eventually, that this is just a vacation. (Surely someone will catch on. Even Mulder wouldn’t misspell Federal Bureau of Investigation in a report—twice.) Eddie is, in some ways, resigned to being Eddie, ultimately. He’s willing to escape into other lives for a while, and what he does is clearly wrong and lands him in jail. But he’s one of the show’s most harmless monsters, a guy who just wants to be happy for a little bit as someone else and aims to give people what they want while doing so. As he puts it, if those women wanted kids and nobody got hurt and everybody was happy, where’s the crime?
And here’s the thing: Very few people are wholly happy being themselves. Almost everyone would change something about themselves if they could, or, rather, they THINK they would change something about themselves. (One thing that’s always puzzled me about this whole scenario is just why Eddie wouldn’t make himself even slightly more handsome using his magical layer of muscle that also seemingly affects the vocal cords.) I mean, I like my life quite a bit, and even I’ve spent plenty of time wondering what it would be to be someone else. One of the appeals of fiction—either consuming it or writing it—is the chance to live in somebody else’s shoes for a while. And from video games to immersive movies to people pretending to be, I don’t know, cats who can type in Internet chat rooms, the world gives us more and more opportunities to escape who we really are and try our hand at being someone else for a little while.
Ultimately, I guess, Eddie doesn’t escape for the same reason I don’t or you don’t: He can’t. At some level, he’s so fundamentally Eddie that he’d never be wholly comfortable as Mulder, even if he got used to the new role and won the girl. There’d be a weird element of genetic determinism to the script in this idea if the whole thing wasn’t so playful about what’s happening. Eddie can be anyone he wants, but he’s bound to the life he was born into by something stronger than simply that being who he was born as. The episode wants to raise these ideas of identity as a question, but it essentially sets out a hard and fast answer at the end: Even when you’re someone else, you’re still yourself. And that’s because, deep down, somewhere inside of you, there’s a core personality that asserts itself.
What’s interesting is that Eddie ISN’T a loser. The world perceives him that way, but in the episode’s pivotal scene, when he’s in the guise of Mulder and romancing Scully, he’s pretty darn good at it. Sure, when he moves in for that kiss, the look on Scully’s face is more “What the hell?” than, “Thank God this is happening after so long!” but he’s still good at getting her to open up, at getting her to like the more intimate friendship they develop in the time he spends hanging at her apartment and talking about her lousy prom night. (David Duchovny, who submitted this episode to the Emmys, gets most of the praise for this episode, since he plays two different roles and gets a number of incredibly funny comic setpieces, but Gillian Anderson is very warm and very amusing throughout. Indeed, for much of the first half of the episode, she’s the one with the funniest lines and comic beats.) One of the interesting things about the show was that Anderson and Duchovny’s sexual chemistry was eventually so undeniable that Chris Carter and his writers stuck the two characters together in a relationship, but up until this point, the show had kept them at arm’s length. In many ways, the two of them are more important to each other than any other people in the whole world, including family, yet they know basically nothing about each other’s pasts and hidden secrets. They’re more like courtly lovers, really, bound together by the shared quest but kept separate in almost every other way.
But all of the above, interesting as it may be, is just the underpinning for an episode that’s, ultimately, just a playful lark. Vince Gilligan has written many, many scripts since “Small Potatoes,” and many of them are better (some are much better). But he’s never written one as effortlessly playful and inventive as this one. Morgan guest stars as Eddie, and you can almost sense him passing on the mantle of “the guy who writes the funny episodes” to Gilligan, a title Gilligan would hang on to for much of the rest of the show’s run (though in season six, EVERYbody decided they could write funny X-Files episodes). Gilligan’s episodes aren’t as dense or as tragic at their cores as Morgan’s were. We’ll see this in the next season when Gilligan takes on the idea of a Rashomon episode, like Morgan’s “Jose Chung’s,” and makes it into a much sillier spoof of the show than even Morgan would have attempted. And we’ll see it here, where there’s something almost wistful and whimsical to the tone. This is the show letting down its guard after a few drinks. This is the show learning to just let go and have fun a little bit. Sure, there are high-minded ideas swirling around, but the real goal is just to have a good time. Morgan, in keeping with the spirit of the thing, turns in a solid performance and, as usual, seems to get the most enjoyment out of tweaking Duchovny’s image as the world’s most handsome man. Gilligan’s script plays around with so many ideas and allows for so many comic setpieces (like Eddie-as-Mulder wandering Mulder’s apartment and tossing out in-jokes for fans, as well as clumsily dribbling a basketball). Even things like the score or the cinematography seem more relaxed. This is a big hit show, late in a pretty dark and stressful season, just doing whatever the hell it wants and having a great time doing so.
And, in the end, that’s what makes this the perfect TV comfort food for X-Files fans. There’s enough there to dig into if you really want to. But if you just want to sit back and have a laugh and remind yourself of just why you loved this show so much at one time, there’s plenty of that, too. “Small Potatoes” isn’t the very best X-Files episode (though it’s certainly up there), but it’s perhaps the easiest episode to call your “favorite,” the most approachable episode, if you will. And for as long as the show is on DVD and people are still watching it, X-Files fans will be tentatively offering up to fellow fans, “I really love ‘Small Potatoes,’” and then, with the rush of a smile and a shared memory, get the response, “I do, too.”
- It’s easy to forget while watching this show just how gifted a comic actor Duchovny is. He even makes Californication, a show I rarely like, sort of watchable through sheer force of his comic charisma. It’s amazing how well he creates two completely different comedic characters in this episode, and both of them are very funny. In particular, I love his idea of how Eddie would try to “play” Mulder and always end up just a hair or two off.
- I remember Fox promoted this episode heavily with the footage of the near-kiss. And even though that kiss didn’t happen, the ‘shippers at the X-Files fan sites I frequented at the time didn’t mind. The episode was that much fun and that good.
- Gilligan’s current TV project (Breaking Bad, in case you were wondering) often has moments of sheer, lacerating dark humor, but once it’s over, I’d love for him to just write something purely funny again. He’s great at it.
- Just as Darin Morgan fans have to decide between “Clyde Bruckman” and “Jose Chung,” Gilligan fans have to decide between “Small Potatoes” and “Bad Blood.” And while I like “Bad Blood,” I do think this episode is the best Gilligan ever wrote for the show. It’s playful without ever trying to hard, where you can sometimes see the seams in “Bad Blood” (though I’d likely give that episode an A, too).
- X-Files may be the last major American drama to essentially completely change its tone in any given episode, based on what the episode best needed. There’s almost certainly a way to play this material straight. Thank God the show chose to do it goofily. It’s a nice reminder that underneath all of this, this is pretty silly stuff.
- Favorite visual gags: Mulder breaks off the tail on the mummified corpse of Eddie, Sr., then tries to put it back on. Eddie’s “Superstar” hat.
- Mulder never does call back that family to say it’s safe to use their bathroom. I like to think they still haven’t used it and are waiting for the phone to ring.
- "On behalf of all the women in the world, I highly doubt this has anything to do with consensual sex."
“Broken World” (season 1, episode 20)
In which Frank Black stumbles into the first act of Equus.
When Zack and I started these Millennium pieces, we got taken to task by some of you more dedicated Millennium fans for being hard on the show and not being open to its pleasures. And maybe that was the case (though I think it’s more likely that the show just took a while to find itself). But as we’ve gotten deeper into the season and as the show has subtly shifted its focus so it’s less obsessed with its weirdly retrograde attitudes about sin and sex and more interested in being awesome, there have been fewer and fewer of those complaints. Now that the show has grown more confident in its wild, weird nature as a serial killer thriller/apocalyptic treatise/Biblical hoedown mash-up, it’s much easier to take the unrelenting darkness. The show has spiced up that sense of the world coming apart at the seams with some of the fun of a well-told tale. There’s less sermonizing and more crazy. And I mean that in a good way.
Well, it had to end sometime. “Broken World” feels like it was held back from the first batch of episodes. There are attempts to set this apart from the show’s formula here and there, and there are places where the episode briefly becomes legitimately scary. But for the most part, this is the worst episode the show has had in quite a while, a bland, boring mess that ends with one of the most ridiculous deux ex machinas I’ve seen in ages. It’s like the show has temporarily lost sight of everything that was entertaining about it in the back half of season one and tried to get back to the show it was in episode four, which, I’ll remind you, wasn’t nearly as good as the show became. Are there interesting ideas here? Sure. But the rest of the episode is dark, gruesome, and twisted, simply for the sake of being dark, gruesome, and twisted. And if you’re gonna do that, you need bigger stones than “Broken World” does. And better acting.
Frank’s called in by law enforcement to Williston, North Dakota (one of those great old towns out in the middle of absolutely nowhere) to look into a case where a man who had just gotten finished killing a horse then also knocked out the woman who owned the horse with an electrical stunner. She was incapacitated, but he did little else, scrawling “HELP” in blood on the wall then leaving. With Peter’s help, Frank begins to dig into who this person is, placing a story in the local paper designed to get the criminal to come forward before he shifts his murders from horses (of which he’s killed many) to human beings. Peter and Frank chat darkly about psychosexual thrills and the killer now having had a woman under his control, and then, we meet the killer, who’s a guy named Willi, having trouble living with himself after what he’s done, until he meets a long-haul hog trucker outside of the local bar and zaps him, too. But pigs and an old man aren’t good enough. He needs more. Of course.
There are plenty of good ideas in “Broken World,” but none of them add up to much of anything. In particular, I like the idea that Frank almost gives this man a license to kill when he thinks he’s helping him. That story in the paper doesn’t give Willi the idea of killing, but it almost seems as if it suggests to him that what he’s about to do is inevitable, that he can’t avoid his eventual fate. Similarly, I liked the little “local detail” element of having Willi work not just at a slaughterhouse (which, let’s face it, is pretty cliché) but at a slaughterhouse where foals born on Pregnant Mare Urine farms are killed and sold for meat. (You just know someone in the Millennium writers room had read about PMU farms—which were only in North Dakota at the time of this episode’s airing—and needed to work it in somewhere. Briefly, they’re farms where mares are kept pregnant because pregnant mare urine has lots of estrogen in it. Needless to say, the practices of these farms are hotly decried by many.) And where I do find the psychoanalyzing of serial killers incredibly tedious in things like this, I thought this episode could have gotten away with it as Frank was present for, essentially, the birth of a violent killer, trying to keep that man from escalating his fervor and failing at every turn.
Sadly, though, the episode just doesn’t DO anything with any of this. One of the problems with the Millennium approach is that it needs to introduce a host of new characters in every episode, and this one has a particularly weak bench. Claudia, the woman that Frank strikes up a rapport with, mostly just seems to have struck up said rapport because the script needs to put someone Frank cares about in danger at some point. Sheriff Falkner is a uniform, not a character. Even Willi seems less interesting than he probably could seem. He’s almost generic serial killer #3 here, as if he’d been pulled down off the shelf at the TV writer dollar store and slotted in in place of a more compelling villain.
It doesn’t help that the guest cast is uniformly poor. In particular, Van Quattro is often laughably bad as Willi, amping everything up to the utmost and shouting his lines, leaving himself absolutely nowhere to go. This is a dude who’s confronting the fact that maybe what he needs to do to crawl back toward sanity is exactly the thing an insane person would do: Kill people. He’s also a guy who’s found a man in the newspaper who also seems to be inside of his head. He’s a guy who leaves messages to his unseen spirit guide in blood on the walls of horse barns. But Quattro just plays all of these beats as shoutily as he possibly can. When the camera films him from low angles to make him seem menacing, it’s hard to keep from giggling. (Particularly terrible is a long shot of Willi on all fours out in front of the barn where he takes the life of a pretty young rider, loping around like… well, I don’t know what. It’s an astoundingly bad scene.)
In a way, this script is probably too overstuffed, often with the things that make it so fascinating. There’s really no need for the PMU farm stuff to be in there, even if it keeps things from getting too dull. And the many characters further clutter up a story that is at its best when focusing on a man who’s slowly realizing the depths of his own depravity and the serial killer hunter who unknowingly guides him deeper and deeper into darkness. When the script gets away from that, it feels formless, leaving viewers to wonder what the hell the show is trying to say about any of this, making it seem like a cruel piece of television for the sake of being cruel. In its early going, Millennium often felt like it was being dark for the sake of being dark and trying to create a scary, brutal world that doesn’t actually exist. The show got away from that as the season went on, but some of that feeling returns in “Broken World,” trampling whatever’s good in the episode beneath its hooves.
- You want a ridiculous deus ex machina? You’re gonna GET a ridiculous deus ex machina! Frank, cornered by Willi in the slaughterhouse, collapses to the ground and is about to get a bolt gun through the forehead. That is, it’s going to happen until… the horses in the pen trample Willi to death. Yes. The horses.
- Some beautiful, beautiful shots here, particularly of those long, grassy plains that the horse riders gallop across. There’s some great location work tossed out for a pretty mediocre episode in this one.
- I was going to yell at the show about all of North Dakota having one area code and, thus, the phone trace getting just the first three digits being somewhat helpful (since it would narrow down which town the killer was from), and then the show… went right ahead and did that. Good work, show!
- Bad work, show: It’s My-not, not Mih-Noh. But I’m used to it. Everybody pronounces the state capital of South Dakota as Pee-Air, when it’s properly pronounced Pier. (I know.)
- "I'd like to ask you a few questions. About horses." The delivery of this line made me giggle.
Next week: Just three more weeks of these seasons! Zack tackles one of the bad-assest episodes The X-Files ever did with “Zero Sum,” then gets down and dirty with Biblical prophecy in “Maranatha.”