A while back, I began -- but, sadly, did not finish -- a project for another blog wherein I revisited and rated the entirety of The X-Files. I still plan to finish that one of these days, but in order to help myself feel better about the time I've put in already, I decided to post a lengthy extract here: namely, a lengthy plot summary and analysis of the episode "Humbug."
Rather than edit it for context, I now merely present it to you (mostly) as it would have appeared there.
And at last, we come to the first of the episodes written by Darin Morgan. The only reason I didn't give this episode a 5X rating is because I do genuinely feel as if it is a hair less good than "Beyond the Sea," "One Breath," and a few other episodes which will be coming up later in the run. Asked to justify why, I guess I'd say that the themes and idea Morgan introduces work better separately than they do as a whole. But I'm not really sure I believe that. Whatever. This is a great episode. I could write a very lengthy post all about it. "Hey," I hear you asking, "waitaminit! Where's the summary?" Well, in this particular case, I couldn't bear to use the shitty one at Wikipedia, so here comes one of my own creation, complete with extensive screencaps. To be honest, I wish I could do this for each and every episode, but there just isn't time for that level of scrutiny. I feel like I can make an exception for "Humbug," though, and I'll probably end up doing the same for Darin Morgan's other episodes. So, here goes: On a moonlit night in Gibsonton, Florida, two young boys are at play in a backyard swimming pool. They are, ominously, being watched, by an unseen figure; we glimpse only its hand, which is monstrously deformed, and an eye, which sits within a similarly monstrous face.
In shadow, it moves closer and closer to the pool and the boys. It slips unseen into the water, and we see it approach the children from beneath the surface. Suddenly, the boys scream, and a hideous monster bursts from the water.
Moments later, it is clear that we have been deceived: this is no monster, but the boys' father, who evidently has a skin condition of some sort. He's been traveling with a carnival and has returned home after months on the road. "Did you see a lot of weird stuff this year?" one of the boys asked. The father allows as to how it was the weirdest show ever, but makes the boys go inside to go to bed. As they leave, we see that this scene is being observed by yet another monstrous-looking figure, whom we also see only in extreme close-up. It, too, slips unseen into the pool, and from beneath the water swims up to the father. This time, though, the result is quite different: whatever it is attacks the man, and blood begins to spread through the pool. After the credit sequence, we find Scully in the X-Files office, pondering a photo of the deceased man, Jerald Glazebrook.
She wants to know what happened to him, and Mulder explains that it was nothing she could see from the photo: Glazebrook suffered from icthyosis, a condition which gave him extremely scaly skin. Instead, he died as the result of a large puncture wound to his side; he is the 48th victim to die from such wounds over the course of the last 28 years. The killings fit no known profile: the mutilations do not seem to be the work of ritual cult activity, nor have they escalated in intensity as would befit serial killings. Mulder asks Scully for her opinion; "imagine going through your whole life looking like this," she says, looking at the photo of Glazebrook in a not-unkindly manner. Cut to another photo of Glazebrook, one at his burial service.
Scully and Mulder show up as the minister is delivering his sermon, and right away we sense that something is maybe a bit off, given that the minister has no arms and is turning the pages of his Bible using his toes like a champion.
|I don't know who this guy is, but he's great. Not only does he use his toes like a champ, he also delivers a mean sermon.|
As the scene continues, Scully looks around, and sees a few things she maybe wouldn't see at an average burial.
|Surprisingly -- disappointingly, even -- the bearded widow makes no further appearances.|
|Scully's spidey-sense is tingling, so she turns and looks behind her, and sees some little people looking back at her.|
|I love this guy.|
|I also love that Scully returns his smile.|
Mulder, meanwhile just looks glum.
Soon, the coffin begins shaking violently, which causes a bit of a reaction from the crowd. The pallbearers rush forward and remove the coffin, and it turns out that the shaking is coming from the earth beneath it. Seconds later, a man bursts out of the ground; he, evidently, is an escape artist. He didn't know Glazebrook personally, only by reputation; and he has come to pay his respects via a tribute. Namely, ramming a spike into his chest with a hammer.
A scene of general disarray erupts, leaving Scully and Mulder sitting in place, seemingly so unsure of what has happened that they don't even know whether to get up or not.
"I can't wait for the wake," deadpans Mulder. Afterward, the agents meet with the local sheriff in a diner. They note that Glazebrook listed his profession as "artist," and the sheriff insists that he was an artist: the best escape artist since Houdini, although his skin condition kept him restricted to the sideshow circuit. Scully is surprised to learn that there are still sideshows in existence, but the sheriff tells her there are still a few. Mulder notes that the town appears to be home to numerous sideshow performers, and the sheriff says that the town became what it is starting back in the '20s when a number of Barnum & Bailey performers relocated there. Scully speculates that the nomadic nature of sideshow performers might account for the widespread map of the 28-years'-worth of killings, but the sheriff objects to this; he points out that it's what's inside a person that matters, and that on the inside the residents of Gibsonton are just as normal as anyone else. Mulder, looking at the diner's menu, sees an illustration of a bizarre half-man/half-fish creature, and asks the sheriff if the artist is a local.
He is, and his name is Hepcat Helm. Mulder asks if the sheriff can introduce them, and there's a shock-cut to:
Which is cool enough, but it's accompanied by the sudden appearance on the soundtrack of "Frenzy" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. What a fuckin' dynamite song, man. Just killer. Embedded below for your listening pleasure.
We are, of course, at the studio of Hepcat Helm, who isn't necessarily happy to have people disturbing his work.
"Who are the rubes?" he asks the sheriff, who introduces Scully and Mulder. The sheriff introduces him to them, as well, and notes that he operates a carnival funhouse. Hepcat really balks at this. "Oh, man," he sighs, exasperated. "How many times have I told you not to call it that? It's not some rinky-dink carny ride," he explains to the agents; "people don't have fun; they get the hell scared out of them! It's not a funhouse," he insists, proudly; "it's a tabernacle of terror." "It's a funhouse," deadpans the sheriff. Mulder asks Hepcat what the illustration on the menu is, and Hepcat explains that it's the Fiji Mermaid. Scully wants to know what that is, and we learn that the Fiji Mermaid was "a bit of humbug Barnum pulled in the last century." It was billed by Barnum as a real mermaid, but all it was in reality was a dead monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish. It looked so fake that Barnum changed gears and began billing it as "a genuine fake." But Hepcat doesn't see this as a negative, necessarily. "That's why Barnum was a genius," he says. "You never know where the truth ends and the humbug begins. He came right out and said this Fiji Mermaid thing is a bunch of b.s. And it just made people want to go see it even more. So, I mean, who knows? Maybe for box-ofice reasons Barnum hawked it as a hoax, when in reality..." "The Fiji Mermaid was a reality," finishes Mulder, obviously glad to finally have somebody peaking his language from the get-go. Hepcat Helm makes a noncommittal gesture and goes back to his work. The sheriff wants to know what this is all about, and Mulder divulges that tracks present at the crime scene have never been positively identified, but that there has been some speculation that they could be simian in nature. The sheriff is aghast, and half-jokingly asks Mulder if he thinks the Fiji Mermaid is their culprit. "Do you recall what Barnum said about suckers?" asks Scully. She flicks her eyes at Mulder, who has just been the victim of a sick burn. It is unclear whether he is aware of it.
Later, the agents are checking in at the Gulf Breeze Trailer Court, which seems both a step up and a step down from their normal motel accommodations. The clerk checking them in is a little person, Mr. Nutt, and he's played by Michael Anderson, who was awesome on the awesome series Carnivale (which was, unawesomely, canceled by HBO after its second season). He's awesome here, too. Mulder wants to know if he's done much circus work, and Nutt is insulted.
|I am a big fan of Mr. Nutt's dog, Commodore.|
"And what makes you think I've ever spectated a circus, much less been enslaved by one?" Nutt speaks to Mulder as though he is speaking to a nine-year-old. "You thought that because I am a person of short stature, the only career I could procure for myself would be one confined to the so-called Big Top. You took one quick look at me and decided that you could deduce my entire life. Never would it have occurred to you that a person of my height could've possibly attained a degree in hotel management," he says, proudly/angrily holding up a framed degree which he has taken down from the wall.
Mulder apologizes, insisting that he meant no offense. Nutt stays in attack mode. "Well, then why should I take offense?" he continues. "Just because it's human nature to make instantaneous judgments of others based solely on their physical appearances? Why, I've done the same thing to you, for example. I've taken in your all-American features, your dour demeanor, your unimaginative necktie design, and concluded that you work for the government. An FBI agent," Nutt concludes triumphantly. "But do you see the tragedy here? I have mistakenly reduced you to a stereotype, a caricature, instead of regarding you as a specific, unique individual."
"But I am an FBI agent," Mulder deadpans, holding up his badge.
"Register here, please," says Nutt disgustedly. It's a marvelous scene, one that allows us to stand outside the normal course of the show and see Mulder for the somewhat ridiculous figure he (from some perspectives) is. Of course, he really isn't those things; in some ways, Mulder stands in opposition to the norm, which is really what Nutt is accusing him of typifying. But do the complexities of the situation matter to Nutt? Not really. And why should they? He's undoubtedly been judged in the same way his entire life, so why, when confronted by direct evidence that Mulder is just another in the long line of people who prejudge him based on his height, should he feel obligated to not immediately do the same in turn? Hard to blame him, really.
The scene turns, of course, when Mulder reveals that Nutt's prejudging of him has, in fact, been totally accurate; which implies the possibility that Mulder's prejudging of Nutt, too, might have been totally accurate, hence Nutt's annoyed and disgusted reaction.
It's a comedic scene, and a very funny one. But there is also something serious going on underneath it all. Michael Anderson plays the scene as though Nutt's anger is a bit of a put-on, something he has probably rehearsed and "performed" for any number of customers. (That's my take on it, at least; I might be completely incorrect.) But there's more to it than that: you also sense that while Nutt's performance may be rehearsed, it must have had its origins in a place of genuine anger. Therefore, while it may seem like a bit of a put-on, it is also representative of real emotion and real pain turned into a sort of real-world theatre piece.
If you find youself now thinking back to Hepcat Helm's words about the Fiji Mermaid, and about not knowing where the humbug ended and the truth began, then you are smelling what Darin Morgan and the cast and crew are cooking in this particular episode. The episode revolves around that theme beautifully.
We can extrapolate it even further, too: if it is true to say of the Fiji Mermaid that it was difficult to see where the lie ended and the truth began, then it is ten times as true to say that of most conspiracy theories. Obfuscation renders sorting truth from fiction a near impossibility in most of those cases, and in some ways, that's what The X-Files is about. For the most part, the series comes down on the side of insisting that the conspiracies are all true; there is the occasional turnabout (such as in "Død Kalm," when Mulder's Philadelphia Experiment theory fails to pan out), but for the most part the series is taking the stance that it's all true, and that it all means exactly what we're afraid it means.
But there is yet another way or looking at it. One of the frequent complaints about the series -- and it's a complaint I myself have made many a time -- is that the "mythology" never ends up amounting to a whole heck of a lot in terms of clarity and forward story momentum. It's a valid criticism, but the second one begins to consider the mythology element of The X-Files less as a concrete, linear story and more as a reflection of the "truth" of the "conspiracy" about U.F.O.s -- i.e., that that element of our cultural history is so incredibly convoluted that parsing the literal truth about it may long since have passed into the realm of impossibility -- then the eventual trajectory of the mythology arc begins to seem inevitable, and maybe even logical.
"Humbug," then, is directly playing with some of those themes. Can you believe what you see? If not, does that mean that you can believe nothing you see? Clearly not. Think back to the opening scene, when we believe we are seeing a murderous monster threatening a couple of young boys: our expectations are turned on their heads the second we discover that what we are actually seeing is a loving father teasing his children. Then, we see the father, too, being observed by what seems to be a murderous creature; and this time, it turns out that that is exactly what is happening. (Except, of course, that it isn't, given our eventual discovery of the motivations behind what the "monster" is doing.)
So, can you believe what you see? "Humbug" answers that question by implying that sometimes you can and sometimes you can't, but regardless of which, it's almost always going to be a more complex answer than you thought. Life is not a binary yes/no proposition; life is complex, and complicated, and ambiguous, and even those whose minds are open to extreme possibility can on occasion find themselves in the position of being closed-off and prejudiced.
With those weighty thoughts thunk, let's get back to the summary.
After the scene with Mr. Nutt, the agents are escorted to their trailers by Nutt's employee, Lanny, who is played by Vincent Schiavelli.
You might recognize Schiavelli from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amadeus, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Batman Returns, or Tomorrow Never Dies, or maybe one of his other numerous guest-appearances on television shows. He's a distinctive fellow, so if you haven't seen him, I'd be surprised. Amazingly, he never appeared in a Stephen King project, although he'd have been a natural for any number of them.
Anyways, Mulder asks him about working in the sideshow business, and Lanny -- who has what appears to be a conjoined twin sticking partially out of his side (Lanny refers to him as "Leonard") -- says it was the best job he ever had. He's moved on now, though, thanks to Mr. Nutt, who convinced him that displaying his deformity for others lacked dignity; "so now I carry other people's luggage," Lanny says, proudly.
Cut back to Hepcat Helm's workshop, where he's still working away (and still listening to "Frenzy").
In a reflection, we see a small, monstrous creature appear in a small window behind Hepcat's back; it slithers inside, unbeknownst to the toiling artist.
Moments later, though, he sees it crawling along the floor, and then he sees it launching itself at his face, and then he sees it kill him.
The majority of this is conveyed via reflections in various mirrors and metallic surfaces, which on the one hand is a gambit designed to cover up the cheesiness of the puppet being used for the monster; but it's also a representation of the theme of appearances versus reality, and the humor of the piece makes the cheesy effects seem less like a burden and more like a purposeful advantage.
The next morning, Mulder is jogging, and he is flummoxed by the sight of a heavily-tattooed bald man in a loincloth emerging from the river with a live fish in his mouth.
The man proceeds to begin eating the fish, and seems content with life until he sees Mulder, at which point in time he runs off, spooked.
Elsewhere, Scully is still in bed. This is a great, surreal moment, but it doesn't screencap well, so I'm going to try to embed a video I made of it. Here goes:
I love that. Anyways, it's Lanny at the door with the news that the sheriff wants to see the agents. Lanny and Scully are both still in their robes, and there's a great moment where Scully finds herself staring at Lanny's disfigurement, and Lanny finds himself staring at Scully's breasts, and then they both realize they are staring at each other and cover themselves.
|I am sympathetic to everyone in this scene.|
"There's been another murder," Lanny says. Cut to Hepcat's workshop, where Mulder and Scully are investigating the scene. Mulder finds a smear of blood on the outside of the window, and Sheriff Hamilton speculates that whoever came through that window not only could have come through the open door instead, but must also be a contortionist, or crazy; or both.
Cut to the guy who we earlier saw escaping from Jerald Glazebrook's grave. He's in a straitjacket, suspended upside-down over a kettle of boiling water. I forgot to mention this earlier, but this character is played by Jim Rose. You kiddies might not know who he is, but Rose was sort of a big deal in the nineties thanks to the Jim Rose Circus and Sideshow, a traveling act that not only toured the world but also played Lollapalooza, and opened for folks like Nine Inch Nails.
Rose, here, is playing Dr. Blockhead, who is not merely an escape artist and a contortionist, but also performs "astounding acts of body manipulation and pain endurance." To make his point, he slowly hammers a long nail into his skull through a nostril. Scully speculates that he must be "one of those rare individuals whose nerve endings don't register pain."
"You just keep telling yourself that," Dr. Blockhead gloats. He asks Mulder if he knew that by practicing an ancient Chinese technique, one can train his testicles to retreat into the abdomen. "Oh, I'm doing that as we speak," counters Mulder saucily.
As if on cue, a man pops out of the kettle of boiling water. It's the tattooed man Mulder saw enjoying a fish breakfast; he's known as The Conundrum, according to Dr. Blockhead (and he's played by Rose's associate The Enigma). The Conundrum, explains Dr. Blockhead, is what is known on the circuit as a "geek": he eats anything, ranging from live animals to dead animals to lightbulbs to rocks to corkscrews.
"Human flesh?" asks Scully, who knows a potential suspect when one appears right in front of her.
"Only The Conundrum can answer that question," replies Blockhead; "but he doesn't answer questions; he merely poses them." Specifically, his audiences are consistently left with the question "Why?" To illustrate this point, Blockhead grabs a tub of live crickets and dumps a bunch of them into The Conundrum's mouth. He chews away happily as a few of the luckier ones crawl up his face to relative safety.
"But where are my manners?" asks Blockhead, who mockingly offers the pail of crickets to Scully.
She peers at it, grabs one, and pops it into her mouth.
|Note David Duchovny's increasingly dismayed face.|
The agents walk off, and Mulder looks like he is simultaneously bewildered, horrified, excited, and amused. Scully pulls the cricket out from behind his ear; she's performed a sleight-of-hand trick her uncle taught her. I don't think Gillian Anderson did, though; I'm pretty sure she just ate a damn cricket, which is rad.
Mulder has pulled his own sleight of hand and has palmed the nail he helped remove from Dr. Blockheads's nose; it's got blood on it, and he wants to check it against the blood found on the window in Hepcat Helm's workshop. Scully, meanwhile goes to investigate a museum of curiosities.
There, she meets the curator, a facially-deformed man who tells her the story of the death of Chang and Eng, the famous conjoined twins. One died first, and the other had hours to lie in bed beside him before eventually dying himself. Imagine lying there, he says; knowing half your body is dead and unable to do anything about it. He says that the autopsy revealed Chang's cause of death to be cerebral hemorrhage. And Eng's, Scully wants to know?
Fright, says the curator.
|That's a great shot composition.|
The curator tells Scully he has recently obtained a genuine Barnum artifact, billed as "the great unknown." He doesn't show it to everyone; only to those with the intellectual curiosity to understand it. For a modest donation, he ushers Scully into the room where it is kept.
It is an unlocked chest, which she opens to find . . . nothing inside.
There is a buzzing sound, and an exit door springs open.
Scully, who looks simultaneously chagrined and amused by the scam, walks out a bit wiser than when she walked in.
The scene is another joke, of course, but let's consider: is there a more perfect representation of "the great unknown" than that? An ominous buildup to an empty box.
Later, Mulder has returned to the trailer court and is going to Scully's trailer. He hears furtive noises -- not dissimilar noises to the ones we've heard the killer make before dispatching Glazebrook and Hepcat -- coming from beneath, and finds Mr. Nutt emerging. Mulder self-righteously wants to know if Scully knows he's down there; Nutt answers that he's been fixing the plumbing and skulks off grumpily. [I'm puposefully omitting a pretty great joke that appears here.] Scully pokes her head out, greets Mulder, and asks if Mr. Nutt has finished.
Mulder has lab results from Dr. Blockhead's blood, which was O-positive, just like the blood on the window. Further tests will be required, but Mulder has also determined that the man's real name is Jeffrey Swaim, that he is not from the Yemen as he claims but from Milwaukee, and that he does not in fact hold a doctorate.
Scully has done some investigating of her own, and has discovered that Sheriff Hamilton was once a sideshow attraction in his own right: Jim-Jim the Dog-Faced Boy.
The agents decide to go investigate the sheriff, and observe him burying something in his back yard by moonlight. They wait for him to go inside, and then unearth the burial. It turns out to be a potato, which Hamilton explains as being a folk remedy for warts on his hand. He freely confesses to once having been Jim-Jim; he got out of the business when his hair began falling out.
"Investigation isn't going too well, is it?" he asks.
Back in the trailer court, The Conundrum spies Mr. Nutt's dog and begins chasing it. He almost catches it, too, but is stopped by Nutt's dog-door.
Nutt opens the door and glares at The Conundrum, who offers him a rent check.
The dog begins barking again once Nutt is inside, and the hotelier assumes The Conundrum is still outside. Nope: hands reach through the doggy-door and grab him. He's able to get away, but only momentarily; moments later, a horrible face appears inside the doggy-door, and pretty soon, Mr. Nutt is forever removed from having to chastise people for their misconceptions.
Lanny shows up at Scully's trailer; he lets himself in with bloody hands, and tells the agent that he found him, and that's he's dead. He's referring, obviously, to poor Mr. Nutt. Scully goes to investigate, and finds Mulder already at the crime scene; he's found a pin belonging to Dr. Blockhead (he observed it there earlier, and we've seen that it was used to pin The Conundrum's rent check to his loincloth so it wouldn't get lost). Mulder assumes this is evidence of Blockhead's involvement, though; and really, it's hard to blame him. He tells Sheriff Hamilton -- who is in the process of taking Lanny to be tossed into the drunk tank for his own protection (he's a complete, wasted wreck) -- that he'll go take Swaim into custody.
When Mulder and Scully arrive at Swaim's trailer, they find him affixing a large number of hooks to his skin in preparation for an act involving being suspended in mid-air, dangling by the hooks in so much pain that his spirit leaves his body and floats freely.
"If people knew the true price of spirituality, there'd be more atheists," he asserts. Scully begins to arrest him, but he slips free of the handcuffs and runs off. Not before giving Mulder a shove, though; a shove that results in him falling onto a bed of nails. Mulder seems unfazed by the incident; "more comfortable than a futon," he says.
Luckily, Sheriff Hamilton was outside, and he has grabbed Swaim by the hooks. They take Swaim to jail, and once there they all hear a horrid moaning coming from Lanny in the drunk tank. They go check on him, and Scully finally offers up a theory about the goings-on: Leonard, Lanny's conjoined twin, is able to disjoin from his brother. And, for twenty-eight years, has been going around killing people. Lanny confesses that this is true, adding that there was no way to turn Leonard in without also turning himself in.
Scully wants to know why Leonard is attacking people, and Lanny clarifies: he thinks Leonard is unaware that he is hurting anyone. Lanny thinks he is merely trying to find another brother to join with. Sure enough, the marks on Lanny's side where Leonard should be match the victims' wounds; Leonard has simply been trying to make new relationships.
Mulder and Scully get a glimpse of Leonard crawling -- quite quickly -- away from the police station, and go off in pursuit of him. They track him to Hepcat Helm's
funhouse tabernacle of terror, and go inside. The agents split up, and Mulder nearly catches Leonard a couple of times, but not before the little fella evades him. Scully, meanwhile, ends up in a mirror maze.
She sees Leonard, gets rattled, and shoots at the squirmy thing.
|These effects are barely even Troma-level quality. But they work. Especially, they work within the context of the episode's themes about appearances, prejudices, humbug, and so forth.|
But it was just a reflection, and a lot of glass hits the floor.
Scully meets up with Mulder again when he unexpectedly comes shooting out of of a slide in the wall. The two of them determine that their best course of action is to go outside and wait for Leonard to re-emerge, but he's already out, and he's headed for the trailer court.
In fact, he's already there; we see The Conundrum taking out some trash, and then Leonard is trying to make himself a new brother.
Or, at least, he's trying to try: a bit later, Scully and Mulder find The Conundrum lying on the ground, seemingly stunned but otherwise unhurt; they run off to continue the pursuit, and we see The Conundrum contentedly rubbing a full-looking stomach as it makes rumbling noises at him.
|Seriously: how great is this resolution?|
Leonard got in, alright; just not the way he was expecting.
The next morning, the "man"hunt is still underway. Scully sees Dr. Blockhead and The Conundrum packing a car, evidently leaving town. Blockhead is rattled by the creature still being on the loose; it seems that Lanny died during the night, of advanced liver cirrhosis. Scully describes a bit of what she saw from performing an autopsy, and admits that she has never seen anything like it.
"And you never will again," says Blockhead. "Twenty-first century genetic engineering will not only eradicate the Siamese twins and the alligator-skinned people, but you're going to be hard-pressed to find a slight overbite, or a not-so-high cheekbone. You see, I've seen the future, and the future looks just like him." He points at Mulder, who is striking a heroic, all-American pose. "Imagine going through your whole life looking like that," Blockhead says, revolted.
|Words cannot express how much this cracks me up. David Duchovny is great in this episode.|
"That's why it's up to the self-made freaks like me and The Conundrum to remind people."
"Remind people of what?" asks Scully.
"Nature abhors normality," answers Blockhead. "You can't go very long without creating a mutant. Do you know why?" Scully does not. "I don't either," says Blockhead; "it's a mystery. Maybe some mysteries are never meant to be solved."
As the two self-made freaks prepare to drive off, Mulder asks what's wrong with The Conundrum, who is sort of passed-out looking and groggy. "Probably something I ate," says The Conundrum with a grin.
The two drive off, and Scully and Mulder shoot each other an apprehensive look.
And that is that. A great episode of a great series has come to an end.