Season 4, Episode 20
Director: Cliff Bole
Writer: Vince Gilligan
I did not see who wrote the screenplay for The X-Files‘ “Small Potatoes” until I started to prepare for writing this piece. I should have known the balance of great writing, playful tone, and character-focused storytelling that typically comes from the brilliant mind of Vince Gilligan. The episode is one of those episodes that eschews the traditional X-Files tone and reworks its quirks and eccentricities into a brilliant new creation.
The episode begins with a woman going into birth. When asked the identity of the father, she claims the baby was conceived by an alien man, and you think you know exactly where this episode is headed. Particularly when the baby (and four others) are born with small monkey tails. However, when Mulder and Scully investigate by questioning the mother on her previous statement, she claims to have been impregnated by Luke Skywalker. Yes, that one from Star Wars. Mulder and Scully decide to question the physical who delivered all babies and potentially inseminated the others but are interrupted by a small mob of parents who claim he botched the procedures. The agents then spot a nearby janitor who appears suspicious. After tackling him when he attempts to flee, Mulder discovers a scar where a tail used to be on the janitor, Eddie Van Blundht (Darin Morgan).
Van Blundht (the “h” is silent) is revealed to be a shapeshifter, able to contort his physical appearance into anyone else he wishes. He has used that ability to escape from jail, impregnate five women, impersonate his dead father to maintain the Social Security checks, and countless other unknown persons. Yet, he has the most fun when he impersonates Mulder himself, allowing Van Blundht to grow close to Scully – so close that he nearly kisses her and almost gives The X-Files fanatics what they’d always wanted. The real Mulder bursts on the scene, knowing Van Blundht impersonated him, just before the two kiss. Van Blundht is imprisoned and given muscle relaxers to prevent him from changing shape, but the most surprising turn is Mulder’s realization that Van Blundht may not have the looks but definitely has a joy for life that Mulder sorely lacks.
Vince Gilligan gave David Duchovny an amazing gift with “Small Potatoes.” The script asks Duchovny to break from his usual deadpan FBI agent delivery and employ a goofy, relaxed approach to approximate the impersonated Mulder. And it works brilliantly. There are beautiful moments of comic joy interspersed throughout the episode – “Mulder’s” breaking of Van Blundht’s father’s monkey tail, “Mulder’s” dissection of Mulder’s personal life and apartment, etc. All of it culminating in a sequence between Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in which Van Blundht becomes the better Mulder that Mulder could never be. Aside from the comedy of the episode, the inherent sadness within the character of Van Blundht – the lovable loser who wants to be anything but himself – and Mulder’s revelation that he’s considerably less suave and important than he thought he was crescendo into an amazing climax.
Gilligan’s ability to reshape and poke fun at the core values of The X-Files makes “Small Potatoes” a small potatoes gem of an episode. The unexpected turns it takes are both breaths of fresh air and amazingly poignant glimmers of comic gold. The episode may not be incredibly advanced or intricate, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it doubles-down on Duchovny’s ability to poke fun at himself and reaps significant benefits.