"Small Potatoes"
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Clifford Bole

In which Mulder and Scully encounter a loser with the ability to change his appearance, and when the man lives Mulder’s life for a day, the results aren’t pretty...

Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis


Status Report

Many fans noticed that the fourth season was perhaps the most emotionally depressing. Early on, Mulder was finding it hard to keep the faith, and Scully finally discovered the true cost of her abduction. Levity was hardly the flavor of the week, and with the recent descent into self-compromising, there was no reason to expect an episode like “Quagmire” with heaps of laughs along with the character commentary.

After nearly four years of becoming more and more dependent on each other, thanks to various lessons in the folly of trusting anyone else, Mulder and Scully have found themselves in something of a comfort zone. They love each other, which is rather obvious, but they have both slipped into roles that prevent those emotions from being expressed. For Scully, it’s the war between her desire to maintain a professional relationship and her tendency to attach herself to dominating personalities.

For Mulder, it’s something very different. His inability to make an open and obvious romantic gesture is directly related to his overall flat affect. Mulder’s not just reserved when it comes to romantic emotional involvement; he’s reserved when it comes to any psychologically rewarding emotional relationship. Mulder feeds on the negative emotions that have driven him from day to day since the night his sister was abducted. Each measure of truth (such as the recovery of the abduction memories several years earlier) is merely another addition to his internal laundry list of reasons to curl up into an emotional fetal position.

Later seasons would reveal some of the reinforcement of Mulder’s complicated psychology. He might play ball every so often and have a drink at a bar, but he prefers to interact with the world from behind a series of self-imposed barriers. His obsession with porn and phone sex is more than a running joke; it’s an expression of his unconscious inability to communicate to women on a level playing field. He thought he found someone he could identify with, but Diana Fowley turned out to be like so many other people in his life, working for the very people he despises.

Mulder is also unwilling to compromise his obsession with his perception of the world. He’s not going to pretend at normalcy for the sake of fitting into the rest of society. He wants to be isolated, because it’s easier than caring for someone who could be taken away. In that regard, working with the VCU was perfect, because it was the kind of job that supplied his negative world view with an endless array of new and exciting fuel.

Enter Dana Scully, who is the exception that proves the rule. In the beginning, Mulder wasn’t sure that Scully had any genuine interest, and he had every reason to mock her participation. Over time, of course, Mulder had to realize that Scully was something special. She actually began investing in his quest. Mulder didn’t have to know that his personality was perfectly suited to Scully’s weakness for men with dominating personalities. He simply recognized that Scully was willing to walk his dark road with him, and that was enough.

Except, of course, that anyone in their right mind would want to have the opportunities at Mulder’s fingertips. There are plenty of men who would love to have Mulder’s looks, not to mention the obvious inroads with a woman like Scully. All in all, Mulder might have a tortured past, but he chooses, on some level, to perpetuate the negativity in his life. And certainly, one has to wonder why Mulder can’t see what he has standing next to him, especially since she’s the one person who has no intention of abandoning him.

To an extent, he does see it, as episodes like “Momento Mori” demonstrate. But on a day to day basis, Mulder seems to take the relationship for granted. He’s become “comfortable” with Scully as his “Gal Friday”, someone he can flirt with without being taken seriously. He figures that Scully understands him, and that’s good enough. Quite simply, her side of the issue doesn’t come into his thought process.

In “Quagmire”, the point was to reveal to the audience something of Mulder’s psychological reasons for chasing every single hint of the paranormal, when his goals were supposedly quite narrow in scope: finding Samantha and uncovering conspiracy. In that episode, Scully noted how Mulder’s constant search for hope and meaning took him in a direction he didn’t intend to take. This episode builds on that, reminding the audience that Mulder is far from sane. By extension, the writers point out why Mulder and Scully aren’t an example of a typical romantic couple, by any means. Mulder isn’t ready, plain and simple.

This episode has all the calling cards of a “Darin Morgan Tribute”, right down to the casting of Darin Morgan as Eddie. While this episode effectively takes place within the series continuity (a few of Morgan’s own episodes did not), it remains as absurd in its own fashion as episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”. The teaser is the perfect introduction to the bizarre circumstances in question, where the less serious side of Mulder and Scully must necessarily come into focus.

It’s saying something when even Mulder must turn around and walk out the door. As amusing as this scene is, it begins the exploration of Mulder’s mindset. If Mulder is still struggling to find hope in a world where Samantha may never be found and his one true ally is dying, he’s not so desperate as to investigate Luke Skywalker as the potential father of a “monkey baby”. He’s ready to take a different tactic, but Scully beats him to the punch, offering a rather sensible and scientific explanation (while also teasing Mulder to no end!).

It doesn’t take much investigative work to uncover Eddie, and if there’s any doubt that Mulder finds the whole situation somewhat below his usual bar, he covers that adequately by rolling his eyes about as hard as a normal person can. The subsequent tackle and slide is over the top, and yet it fits the tone of the investigation perfectly.

Upon meeting Eddie and considering the prospect of being romanced off her feet by Eddie, Scully’s theory expands into the use of date-rape drugs, while still remaining very much within scientific reality. At this point, the absurd situation has taken on something of a sinister edge, what with the non-consensual sex, but it’s hard to take Eddie seriously. Just as Mulder needles Scully about the one flaw in her logic, opportunity, Eddie shape-shifts. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out where this is going, and the short wait does nothing but amplify the anticipation.

Here’s where Gilligan works his usual magic, even while channeling the Darin Morgan mystique: continuity. Mulder and Scully actually remember that they’ve encountered shape-shifters before, and that they were supposedly alien in origin. They actually consider that fact and then dismiss it, right there on screen. If for nothing else, this episode should get an award simply for making Mulder and Scully look like they’ve found treatment for their long-term associative memory problems.

There’s time, along the way, for some interesting philosophical commentary about identity. Mulder asks the obvious question concerning the ability to change one’s appearance: who would you be, if you could be anyone? Scully takes the rather practical approach to the question, maintaining that she would be herself regardless, so why change herself to look like someone else? Mulder considers the opposing point of view: if people think you are someone else, and began treating you that way, wouldn’t you be living their life?

This pertains, on a tangential level, to the spiritual aspect of the series mythology. Scully, a person with spiritual faith and reason to believe that the soul (or something like it) exists and moves on after death, would look at the question from a practical point of view and say that the soul remains constant, regardless of the material form it happens to take. But Mulder, who hasn’t come to that realization yet, thinks less in terms of the person making the change than the people reacting to the change. Unable to see the soul, most people would react to what they perceive, rather than reality.

The funny doesn’t take long to resume, especially when Eddie’s next door neighbor bears an odd resemblance to Mark Hamill, throwing Mulder for a complete loop. Even better is Mulder’s happy reaction at the thought of Eddie’s father dropping his pants to show off his tail. Scully is requisitely horrified at the very thought. It doesn’t take much exposure to the Van Blundht home to figure out why Eddie would have eventually lost his mind, never mind his morals.

Once Eddie morphs into Mulder, it’s just a matter of time before he switches places with the agent, and the episode doesn’t let it happen too soon. While Scully drops some useful exposition about how a shape-shifter might actually do its business (an explanation that only works to a small extent, but nice try!), David Duchovny gets to demonstrate some of his comic timing. But it does lead to Mulder’s decision to check into the difference between Amanda and the married women, which is necessary to bring Mulder and Eddie into the same place at the same time, while Eddie continues to wear Mulder’s face.

Eddie’s visit with Amanda begins to explore the same philosophical ground that Mulder and Scully brought up earlier in the episode. As far as Amanda knows, she’s talking to Mulder, and so she responds as if it really were Mulder. But Eddie doesn’t react as Mulder would react; one can tell that every unkind word cuts him to the core. In this case, Eddie remains Eddie, regardless of how people might react to his altered appearance. Scully’s position, consistent with the mythology, holds.

Mulder solves the small problem of apprehending a shape-shifter by simply handcuffing everyone he finds in the men’s locker room, which is actually not a bad idea, under the circumstances! In a nice bit of thematic continuity, Eddie drops on Mulder in pretty much the same way that his father’s corpse did in the previous act. The inevitable happens, and Mulder is locked away while Eddie gets to live his life.

With Scully’s theory proven, the episode then begins to ask another question: what if someone took your place, and no one noticed? Perhaps Scully would reply that people should notice, especially people who know the real “you”. Otherwise, it’s a rather sad commentary on the person being replaced. Sure enough, despite some serious differences (misspelling the full name for FBI…twice), Skinner and Scully don’t realize that anything is different.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Eddie spends much of the afternoon walking through Mulder’s life, and he finds it rather pathetic. It’s hard, from his point of view, to say that he’s wrong. He wonders why his tax dollars are going into investigations of the paranormal (something many would, in fact, want to ask) and how Mulder can live in that apartment. Mulder’s answering machine messages consist of paranoid invitations to see JFK assassination footage and personalized reminders to call phone sex operators. One begins to wonder if Eddie can, in fact, do better with Mulder’s material than Mulder.

Thoughts naturally turn to the most obvious that Mulder is overlooking in his life: Scully. It says an awful lot that the woman who trusts Mulder with her life can be fooled so easily. Is it simply that Scully wishes Mulder would make such a bold move and open up, or that Mulder is still such a stranger that Scully doesn’t realize that such a move is completely out of character? Certainly the alcohol had something to do with it, but if Mulder had really been revealing himself to Scully over the past few years, then she would have known the difference. What appears to be a commentary on Scully’s emotions (already known by now) is actually a rather horrible commentary on Mulder.

The final scene leaves Mulder with the knowledge that he has lost sight of living. Scully might find it easy to overlook his apparent lack of personality or interest in personal enrichment, but Mulder has never even thought to question it. In essence, Mulder gets to reconsider his own theory, and he’s forced to draw a different conclusion that he might have expected. Maybe he is defined by how others react to him, but that’s only because there seems to be nothing else there, at least metaphorically. Ultimately, the philosophical point is that Mulder may have a soul, something unique to himself, but it’s been a long time since he’s actually fed it, and now he really doesn’t know what to do about it.

This episode is another highlight for Duchovny’s career, revealing an aspect of his portrayal of Mulder that not many people might recognize. Many criticize Duchovny for being wooden and unable to express emotion, but this episode proves that this is not the case. It’s not Duchovny who doesn’t express emotion, but rather, Mulder who constantly puts up a wall between himself and other people. As Eddie, Duchovny manages to mimic Darin Morgan rather well, and he shows more than one facial expression, that’s for damn sure!

One aspect of the episode that is often overlooked is Gillian’s perfect counterpoint performance. Scully’s psychology is difficult at best, and there’s delicate balance to be struck in the relationship between the two characters. It would be all too easy to overplay the romantic yearnings, especially since the fact that Scully was falling for the seduction is dangerous ground. But given the fact that Scully was at least a little drunk and dealing with conflicting emotions over her cancer, there’s sufficient explanation for it, especially since Gillian makes Scully’s response more passive. Neither character steps over the line, but they come close enough that it required a nuanced performance, and both David and Gillian succeeded.

The rest of the season is largely lacking in humor, so this episode was a nice diversion from the angst that saturates the fourth season. In many ways, this is the perfect time for such an episode, because the humorous episodes are always best when used sparingly. When there’s too much of it (like the third season, for example), it’s hard to get a feel for the overarching narrative thread, since one can never be certain what is or is not meant to be taken seriously. In this case, the overall integrity of the season arc is maintained, and the humor informs the mindset of the characters at this stage of their lives. As usual, it’s not flattering, but that makes it all the more fascinating to watch.

Memorable Quotes

SCULLY: “So, what else about this interests you? Could it be…visitors from space?”

AMANDA: “His name is Luke Skywalker. He’s what’s known as a Jedi Knight.”
SCULLY: “Did he have a light saber?”
AMANDA: “No, he didn’t bring it. He did sing a song for me, though. Da da, da da da da, da…”

MULDER: “How would this happen?”
SCULLY: “The birds and the bees and the monkey babies, Mulder…”

SCULLY: “On behalf of all the women in the world, I seriously doubt this is anything to do with consensual sex…”

SCULLY: “But what are you saying, that Van Blundht is an alien?”
MULDER: “Not unless they have trailer parks in space…”

MULDER: “I’m all right!”
SCULLY: “What?”

MULDER: “I was just here…where did I go?”
AMANDA: “Huh?”

SKINNER: “Which one of you wrote this?”
EDDIE: “I did, sir.”
SKINNER: “You spelled Federal Bureau of Investigation wrong.”
EDDIE: “It was a typo.”
SKINNER: “Twice!”

EDDIE: “Where the hell do I sleep?”

SCULLY: “I don’t imagine that you need to be told this, Mulder, but you’re not a loser.”
MULDER: “Yeah, but I’m no Eddie Van Blundht either, am I?”

Final Analysis

Overall, this episode was a wonderful respite from the dark material of the season’s character arcs, taking a humorous look at Mulder and his complete lack of a life. Gilligan channels Darin Morgan in many scenes, especially when it comes to making scathing observations about Mulder through the soft stick of humor. Duchovny pulls off a nuanced performance, easily one of his best.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 3/4

Final Rating: 9/10

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