Season 2, Episode 20: “Humbug”
Original Airdate: March 31, 1995
Behind this show’s cool exterior, beneath its layered mythologies, its paranoia, and lingering sense of dread there lies…comedy? Absolutely. Flip a drama as intense as this and you’re bound to find it has a soft, giggly underbelly. Usually when The X-Files deals in humor, it’s of the gallows variety—Mulder’s quips and Scully’s dry retorts can cut the tension when the tension desperately needs cutting—but every so often we get an episode that’s straight-up fun.
“Humbug” was the first episode written by Darin Morgan, who up to this point had been better known to you as The Flukeman. That’s right. The Flukeman wrote an episode, and it’s funny, and it’s also great. What have you done with your life?
A sideshow performer called the Alligator-Skinned Man is murdered in his own backyard by something. The something leaves a wound that matches the wounds in forty-seven other attacks perpetrated over the last twenty-eight years. Mulder and Scully attend the funeral, a solemn affair attended by a number of other sideshow performers and interrupted by Doctor Blockhead. The Doctor drives a spike into his chest and no one likes it, least of all the good Sheriff Hamilton. Hamilton explains the lay of the town to Mulder and Scully, which is, it’s a town full of and founded by circus performers looking for respite during the winter. Scully says, maybe something about how the pressure of being a freak can turn you into a serial killer, which isn’t a great theory but at least it’s a theory. Mulder meanwhile focuses on a drawing of the Feejee Mermaid, because he himself is entirely a freak.
A man named Hepcat drew the drawing and he operates a carnival funhouse, only you’re not meant to call it that, he prefers “tabernacle of terror.” Either way, he is the artist and after a bit of prodding he tells about how the Feejee Mermaid was a PT Barnum situation, a monkey sewn on the head of a fish and advertised as a “genuine fake” mermaid. Mulder flashes a picture of the crime scene, which includes some bizarro tracks that, I guess? Could have been made by a tiny fake mermaid that is actually a monkey? And at this point Scully’s eyes are rolling so very much that she maybe has died and her body has been turned into a pinball machine. It is hard to tell.
They rent trailers from Mr. Nut, a man of small stature who lectures Mulder on what it is that assumptions make out of “u” and “me.” Also at the trailer park the agents meet Lanny, a large alcoholic who has a small conjoined twin jutting out of him. Lanny treats them to a halfhearted rendition of the twins’ old sideshow routine, then drinks some more. Meanwhile, Hepcat gets himself murdered and our agents build their list of suspects. Doctor Blockhead seems like a good possibility, as he is kind of sassy and also an escape artist and he has a lot of sharp things. They also meet The Conundrum, a taciturn young man with puzzle-piece tattoos covering most of his body. The Conundrum likes to eat things. Anything. Scully suggests one of those “anythings” might be human flesh, at which Doctor Blockhead offers her one of The Conundrum’s favorite snacks: crickets. Scully palms one and pretends to eat it, thereby winning all of the cred points. It is an excellent scene, and it becomes even more excellent when you watch this bit of the Season 2 Blooper Reel (that’s right, nerds!), in which David Duchovny pretends to eat a cricket (but doesn’t) and Gillian Anderson actually does eat one (for real).
After lunch it is time to split up. Scully heads to a museum where the curator pretends to be helpful, gives her a pamphlet about someone named Jim-Jim the Dog-Faced Boy and then totally tricks her out of $5. Mulder goes off and gets some test results on blood found at the second murder scene; the type matches Doctor Blockhead’s type so maybe that’s a possibility. Scully floats another theory—Jim-Jim the Dog-Faced Boy, it turns out, is Sheriff Hamilton. The two agents engage in a little freak-profiling and stake out Hamilton’s house. They catch him doing something suspicious in the backyard which actually just turns out to be burying a potato to cure himself of warts. He catches them, they are embarrassed, it is hard to believe these are the best the FBI has to offer. Meanwhile, Mr. Nutt gets himself murdered.
Lanny has had a lot to drink and very unhappy about this, so Sheriff Hamilton dumps him in the drunk tank to dry out. Mulder and Scully find a pin at the scene that previously was in the possession of Doctor Blockhead. They arrest him and tote him back to the station, just in time to hear Lanny mourning pitifully from a cell. They check on the poor fellow and find him covered in blood, his twin gone. Gone! Because as it turns out, Lanny’s twin, Leonard, has been looking for another home. For twenty-three years he’s been extracting himself from his brother’s body and running all around, looking for a new body to crawl inside. It’s a terribly sad story. And also it is still in progress.
Mulder and Scully pursue Leonard into the tabernacle of terror, and we have some fun in there. The agents fire guns at mirrors and run straight into themselves, and into false walls, and turning panels, and Leonard gets away. From them, anyway. Leonard scoots across the trailer park and zeros in on The Conundrum, who is just a man trying to take out the trash. The two scream and scuffle. By the time our agents arrive, The Conundrum is lying flat on his back, breathing heavy, his stomach a little rounder. Leonard is nowhere to be found.
The next morning, Doctor Blockhead and The Conundrum prepare to leave. Scully chats with them some, cheerily discussing her autopsy of Lanny (who died of a liquor-scarred liver) and marveling at the anatomical discrepancies of his body. Doctor Blockhead is unimpressed by her wonder and points out that in our current age, the one with the genetic engineering, we may be slowly weeding out all the freaks and the mutants. He points at Mulder, casually striking a pose in the distance. “Imagine going through your whole life looking like that,” huffs Doctor Blockhead. Then he drives off, leaving two of the world’s most attractive people to their chosen work: the study of mutants, aliens, and every humbug that might not be humbug after all.
Next week: “Anasazi”