X-Files Flashback: ‘Humbug’

Season 2, Episode 20
Director: Kim Manners
Writer: Darin Morgan

In Season Two, The X-Files finally reached that moment where episodes and dollars could be spent on episodes that were pure imagination. “Humbug” is one of those episodes. It doesn’t weigh itself down with heavy mythology themes or pretentious conspiracy theories. Instead, it focuses on a fun exploration of quirkiness. This is one of my personal favorite episodes.

It would be near-impossible to fully describe the plot of “Humbug.” At its core, there has been a bizarre murder of an equally bizarre man – the self-proclaimed alligator man. Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate the crime, and their exploration of the side show and the surrounding oddities is a fascinating journey into the bizarre. If you want more than that, then the Wikipedia has a great explanation. Better yet, go watch the episode yourself. Even if you’re not an X-Files obsessive, it’s well worth the hour.

The prologue to the episode is as close to a feat of art that the series as obtained thus far. We open at night with two young boys playing in an above-ground pool. They are stalked by a mysteriously deformed figure from the woods. As the figure (and the camera) comes closer, they scream, initially with fright but then with joy. Their father, the alligator man, has surprised them. The art in the scene comes next when the camera effectively recreates everything we’ve just seen, but, this time, the alligator man is murdered. It’s an accomplished trick and a signal that The X-Files has come to play.

The tone of the episode from its frequent monologues about the nature of freaks to its exploration of side show history most closely resembles the tone of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I suspect this is by design – the closest the two celebrated cult shows have come to intersecting. It’s no accident that Twin Peaks‘s dancing dwarf (Michael J. Anderson) has an extended cameo here. It also reminded me a great deal of the recent American Horror Story: Freak Show, a frequent Awards Daily TV punching bag of late. “Humbug” manages to improve upon the themes and overall sensibility in one hour-long episode that Freak Show took over a dozen episodes to convey years later. Granted, I personally think much of the point of Freak Show was a celebration of the visual splendor of a 50s-era freak show, something The X-Files didn’t have the budget to cover. Yet, in an hour, “Humbug” gives us a wide array of side show performers and a slice of their personal lives without becoming so Freak Show self-indulgent.

The other aspect of “Humbug” to celebrate is the emergence of Mulder and Scully’s morbid senses of humor. Dark jokes and sly comic references have crept up in the series before, but never has their collective lighter side been pushed to the foreground and used so effectively as in “Humbug.” Yes, the identity of the murderer was fairly obvious, but that’s not really the point. The murder is but a backstory to the overall celebration of the odd and the macabre.

Could “Humbug” be The X-Files best episode? Time will tell…

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