Jul 12 2012 12:00pm

Reopening The X-Files: “Small Potatoes”

Season 4, Episode 20: “Small Potatoes”
Original Airdate: April 20, 1997

“Small Potatoes” is a charming yarn about a mutant who tricks a bunch of ladies and has sex with them and then they have babies and the babies have tails and somehow he’s supposed to be sort of a sympathetic character who teaches us something about how to live one’s life. It is meant to be a funny episode, and parts of it are. But there is something off about it, a flawed construction that diminishes what should have been one of the series’ smartest and most affectionate demonstrations of self-parody.

Darin Morgan (seen previously, under a lot of make-up, as the Flukeman) stars as Eddie Van Blundht, the aforementioned mutant charmer. Eddie was born with a tail and with the ability to shapeshift. The tail’s been removed, but the shapeshifting remains. He works as a janitor in a fertility clinic and for some reason he’s recently posed as the husbands of some of the clinic’s patients in order to help them get pregnant. By having sex with them. While disguised. As their husbands. Except then all the women give birth to babies with tails and Eddie’s completely awful secret is revealed.

The episode treads lightly around Eddie’s acts, weakly attempting humor (can you believe that this dopy-looking dude managed to impregnate all these ladies??? lol) while also acknowledging the fact that Eddie is a rapist (Scully’s first theory is that Eddie roofied the women; later she registers him as a sex offender). But Eddie is also portrayed as a Nice Guy, a dude who genuinely believes that if “everybody was happy and no one got hurt, well, hypothetically, where’s the crime?” And although our skin is surely meant to crawl at the reality of his deeds, there’s also the fact that Eddie used his shapeshifting to have sex with (and impregnate) another woman—his high school girlfriend, Amanda Nelligan, who remembers him as a nice guy with no ambition. His evening with Amanda (he posed as Luke Skywalker; because she is also delusional?) is, chillingly, played as sweet: It’s the rape that shows how he just wants to be loved.

The Eddie-as-sensitive-loser construction is way less horrifying in the second half of the episode, after Eddie shapeshifts himself into a Mulder look-alike in order to escape arrest. Eddie-Mulder is a supremely great creation, mostly thanks to David Duchovny’s performance. As Eddie-Mulder, Duchovny apes Morgan perfectly, slowing his reactions and sticking out his jaw at strange angles. Morgan, of course, is a former writer on the show, responsible for The X-Files’ best comedic episodes (“Humbug,” “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”). The “Small Potatoes” script, written by Vince Gilligan, owes him a clear debt. Morgan always took great pleasure in dismantling Mulder, in pointing out how ridiculous it was that such a handsome, brooding guy could turn out to be a UFO-obsessed dork; here he gets to do it in character.

Gilligan finds new life in the conceit by commenting directly on Mulder’s deficiencies. Watching Eddie-Mulder explore Actual-Mulder’s life is genuinely fun, like watching an insult comic go to work on an ill-equipped heckler. He sneers at Mulder’s basement office, rolls his eyes at Mulder’s answering machine (one call from Langley, one call from a phone sex hotline), and marvels at the lack of a bed in Mulder’s apartment. Through Eddie’s eyes, we’re meant to realize that our hero isn’t super-heroic, that he’s actually kind of lame. A handsome guy who doesn’t date. A smart guy who has wasted his life in a basement.

The trouble is, Eddie Van Blundht isn’t just a truth-teller. He is a rapist. But “Small Potatoes” is determined to set him up as a gentle comic foil to Mulder, determined to drive home the lesson that Eddie has something to teach our agent. Inevitably, the final Eddie/Mulder battle is waged over Scully. Eddie-Mulder shows up at her apartment with a bottle of wine and a willingness to listen, and before we know it Scully is telling adorable stories about her life and kind of giggling. Eddie-Mulder leans in for a kiss, and she’s totally going to go for it! But then actual Mulder bursts in and it’s all wah-wah isn’t it funny. When in fact should we not be Tooms-level terrified, should Scully not be staring off into the middle distance like she just fought off Leonard Betts in the back of an ambulance?

In the episode’s final scene, Mulder visits Eddie in prison just so Eddie can say, “I just think it’s funny. I was born a loser, but you’re one by choice.” And Mulder totally lets it get to him! And Scully has to comfort him about it! I mean! Come on! You’re going to listen to Eddie Van Blundht, you’re going to let that guy tell you truths? I mean the next thing I know you’re going to be calling up the Cigarette-Smoking Man and asking him for lottery numbers. Asking Alex Krycek if he could just watch your bag for a second while you run to the bathroom. Texting Skinner to see if he wants to get drunk and throw bottles off the overpass. 

Because we know that Mulder isn’t entirely a loser. He’s actually just a little underwritten. He hasn’t made a pass at Scully because there’s no time to make a pass at Scully; he doesn’t have a bed because they just didn’t build that part of the set. “Small Potatoes” knows it, and “Small Potatoes” makes hay with it, but “Small Potatoes” could overall be a lot better. Vince Gilligan is a hell of a writer and certainly he could have earned Eddie-Mulder with a stronger prelude, a real X-File instead of a disconcerting stint at the fertility clinic. Ultimately: just small potatoes, my friends.


Meghan Deans is a damn good looking man. She Tumbls and is @meghandrrns.

Ian Tregillis
1. ITregillis
I never knew that was Darin Morgan. Huh.

I also never understood why they decided to play this premise for laughs. As much as I like the notion of an outsider temporarily inhabiting Mulder's life (and I agree Duchovny did a swell job here) it doesn't mesh well with something that's intrinsically so troubling.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I agree with Ian and Meghan. It almost seemed like they had two episodes here. One where they wanted to show Mulder from the outside and that they wanted to play for comedy and the other where they have a shapeshifting rapist. Then they became confused and oddly merged the two.
Duchovny did do a swell job of playing someone else playing Mulder. "His" reactions to Mulder's life were amusing. On the other hand, I recall not being amused at all as "he" was about to kiss Scully. Maybe the moment of dread that inspired was what they were going for. If so, it still isn't clear why they seemed to try to make Eddie as much of a sympathetic character as they seemed to try to do.
3. Ada
It is a little weird to realise that this is the same guy behind Breaking Bad....
4. HeidiX13
There are two things you mentioned that I interpret a little differently when I watch this ep which I must admit I rather like. One - Mulder letting Eddie get to him and Scully having to comfort him - I don´t think that was what it was, I think what bothered him was that Scully of all people would fall for Eddie-Mulder and his wine and puppy eyes. That she thought that the Mulder she knows would do something like that. His dry comment at the end, "But I´m no Eddie Van Blundht either, am I?" was directed at her, not at himself IMO. I don´t think he cares if people see him as a loser or not, he doesn´t have time for that.
And two - Eddie being portrayed as a sensitive loser - IMO he is trying to pass himself off as that but look at that blank face and blank stare he has. There is just nothing there but he is far from dumb IMO. He is hollow and cynical and complacent. But aggreed, they don´t play the horror of it up, it´s something that the viewers have to find underneath the laughs and seeming sweetness. Maybe horror and comedy could have been balanced better. But I´m not seeing Vince making excuses for Eddie, I see Eddie making excuses for Eddie.
5. janekathy1
I just happened to rewatch the X-Files (for the first time since junior high) and I'm sorry I was a little too late for this! I'm reading all your recaps and it is SO thoroughly enjoyable. Awesome!

I was thinking about this episode recently, and something I found interesting was Scully's receptivity to "Mulder's" advances. If the situation were reversed--if Scully tried to get all touchy-feely and seduce-y with Mulder--I don't think he would go for it, at all. (Well, at least then... at a later date canon says otherwise, of course.) I mean not in his conscious or external reaction. I just can't picture that. He'd be like a 13-year-old boy with a real live girl. Imagining that scenario has made me think it's primarily Mulder's fear that keeps the relationship chaste (and the tenderness and tension so delicious... I honestly have to avert my eyes during some later episodes, let alone the last movie, I'm so attached to the nature of their original relationship).

I agree about the funny/sweet rape-y stuff being highly problematic. (For that matter, I'm also bothered by the Scully-in-physical-threat-or-danger-from-mysognistic-or-just-plain-maniac / Mulder-in-danger-from-yet-another-mindfuck trope, the way that Scully continually has to defend her body while Mulder has the relative luxury of getting lost in psychological angst. Although I guess I'm really just pissed off at the society that the presence of the physical violence against Scully reflects.)

However, I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. They shouldn't have played rape so lightly, but I never did find Blundht that sympathetic a character--I mean, on top of the rapes, it was pretty evil to disappear Mulder and steal his life. Like, what was supposed to happen, eventually, after he finished that peanut butter sandwich? Die, I guess. And of course the scene where Blundht is creepily sensitively in a friendly way seducing Scully is, well, creepy, and it's supposed to be, because we know what's really happening. I thought real Mulder busting in was primarily a relief moment, with a nod to pathetic Eddie's reaction--not "wah-wah," but rather just like any of those moments where one rescues the other from the bad guy at the last second, but with this particular one having its own definite sense of special urgency and the involvement of the story of Eddie's character as well.

I felt they painted a unique angle on the character of Eddie, showing both his actions and how he viewed himself in a poignant-but-not-redeemable way, and getting in some really entertaining, satisfying material playing on the characters of our agents and on their relationship. I enjoyed, even more than the goofing on Mulder, the episode's putting the nature of Mulder and Scully's relationship and feelings in front of their faces and ours, without actually talking about it (as if they would ever talk about it anyway, not that we would want them to. Speaking for myself at least). Still, they shouldn't have played rape like that.

The show also plays rape for laughs/sweetness, of course, in The Post-modern Prometheus, one of their best eps of all time in my opinion. (Despite the sappy ending.) I think they get away with it there because the whole thing is SO unreal and entirely based on common tropes in variety of genres of entertainment from earlier in this--damn, I mean, the last century (well, okay, actually up to the present day, too) where assumptions about sexual violence were often problematic, and the whole thing is just silly, and genius, and somehow it works. Also I'm from Indiana, and them choosing that state for those archetypal townspeople just tickled me (townspeople living, by the way, in a town that bears no resemblance to the increasingly and overwhelmingly derelict real small towns of the Midwest, now or at the time of the story--I wondered, where do all these people work?) From the accents, it would have to be fairly southern Indiana... but then, they got so many things about rural Wisconsin totally wrong when they went there, so I'm not gonna think about it too much.

But, in sum, Season 4 Scully is a red-blooded (apparently) straight American woman who would totally go for (real) Mulder if he ever actually gave it a decent shot.

And, sorry for the parentheses addiction.
6. VLand
Wow was this disturbing...maybe that's what they were going for, but...ugh. I've been watching X-files - and thus this episode - for the first time. There were definitely funny moments. I guess that's what makes it so creepy. It's as if every time I wanted to laugh I had to remind myself 'but this guy just raped 5 women!' Are we not horrified by this? And then towards the end all I could think was 'are we really going to put Scully through attempted rape too?' only for that situation to also get played for laughs. *shudder* I agree wholeheartedly with janekathy1. This was the most aggravating Scully-always-in-danger-of-bodily-harm-of-the-week I've seen yet. And yet no one ok X-files seemed to mind much.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment