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.