A watershed episode of The X-Files, Humbug marks the full writing debut of Darin Morgan on the show. Of course, Morgan was credited with a “story by” credit for Blood earlier in the season, but here we’re given our first pure glimpse of what the words “written by Darin Morgan” would mean.
In other words, comedic, tongue in cheek and darkly silly. It would be a piece of work that would give the series a new playing field with which to explore itself and thus pave the way for some of the most popular works the show would ever deliver. Its importance cannot be underestimated and as such must surely rank with the Pilot, The Erlenmeyer Flask, Squeeze and Duane Barry as to how much of an impact it was to have on the series it was a part of.
It is also a work of pure brilliance and must surely rank as the single best writing debut on the show.
Right from the opening teaser sequence, Humbug is the work of someone who has set out to play with some of the most obvious clichés on the show. We’re presented with two kids playing in a pool who look like they are in danger from a creature with scaly skin, but alas it’s actually their father, an alligator man, who in turn is the one who ends up getting killed as the scene moves into the title sequence.
It puts the audience on edge right away to expect the unexpected and Humbug does exactly that. Set amongst a sideshow community in Florida, the episode presents a wonderful guest cast, some of the sharpest dialogue to ever appear in the show, and arguably one of the funniest funerals ever portrayed on television.
The second directorial work from Kim Manners, who once again shows his touch for horror was no fluke on Die Hand Die Verletzt, the episode is a masterwork all the way through and is the perfect combination of writer and director. The jokes land brilliantly and the scares are very effective and brilliantly weird in that manner that only The X-Files can do. The fears that the episode would somewhat hurt the show going forward would, most famously, turn out to come to nought, and would actually also fit nicely with the show’s aesthetic.
Amazingly one of the things that many forget about Humbug is just how weirdly scary it is. I’m not talking about the fact that it has circus performers in it, that’s the least of the episode’s reliance when it comes to scares, but the eventual explanation as to who, or what, is actually committing the crimes throughout the narrative is beautifully bizarre, and feels like some sort of beautifully hideous love child from a David Lynch and David Cronenberg film. There is a strong undercurrent of body horror as to who the eventual killer is, and the way in which Manners has his camera linger on a pivotal wound is both nauseating and strangely moving as well.
Of course, the Lynch comparison can’t be helped when The Man From Another Place, Michael Anderson himself, appears. His character, Mr Nutt, the manager of the trailer park where Mulder and Scully are staying, gets one of the most brilliantly witty scenes in the history of the show as both he and Mulder are set off on a somewhat antagonistic path when they both, unwittingly, reduce themselves to stereotypes.
It’s a scene which is most important to the fabric of the episode as the episode is centred around the theme of appearances and looks. We also witness the Sheriff becoming annoyed at Scully for not realising that there is more to the community than what’s on the outside, and is then the subject of our heroes’ suspicions himself when they find out that he used to be a Dog-Faced Boy.
In some respects it is also the most purest X-File that Darin Morgan would script. Although the final scene bears witness to a lovely piece of de-constructionist humour as Dr Blockhead (Jim Rose) pokes fun at Mulder, it features very little of the blatant attempts to deconstruct the fabric of the series, and in particular its leading man, in the way that War of the Coprophages and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” would do in the third season. It’s as close to a “meat and potatoes” episode its author would craft and even still is much more than that description could ever say.
On top of handling the scares as well as he does, the final set piece set in Hepcat Helm’s “Tabernacle of Terror” is gloriously over the top and weird, with its never-ending corridors, atmospheric use of mirrors and superb sound design.
Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, it goes and ends with one of the best final lines of any episode. Like most X-Files, Morgan can’t help but throw in an unanswered question, but does so with a line of dialogue that is quite simply hilarious.
One of the most common arguments over the show is frequently which one of Morgan’s four scripts, which then became five last year, was his best. For my money, it’s always been Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, which had a tremendous amount of heart and soul to go with its achingly subtle humour, but Humbug comes pretty close. It’s such a gorgeously put together piece of surreal comedy, that moves at a brilliant pace and feels so confident in its approach to being a more comedic episode of the show that it comes as a surprise that it never attempted an episode in this style before.
Surely a contender for one of the best ever episodes of the show.