Approaching the twentieth anniversary of its premiere this year, ‘Hungry’ is one of those X-Files episodes that doesn’t get as much attention as some of Vince Gilligan’s other works on the show, such as ‘Small Potatoes’ or ‘Bad Blood’.
Essentially beginning his television career working for the famed supernatural procedure that dominated the pop culture landscape in the 90s, ‘Hungry’ was an episode that came about as a means to incorporate not having its leads for as much screen time (it would be the first episode of the seventh season to be filmed, although the third to be broadcast with the first two, as always, being given over to resolving the previous season’s cliff-hanger), and so with that being an imperative for the first episode under production, Vince Gilligan’s stand alone tale opted to be a monster of the week told entirely from the point of view of that week’s monster.
That Vince Gilligan went on to create one of the most famous anti-heroes in television history when he got to create Breaking Bad, it’s not a surprise that many of his X-Files episodes feature more human monsters than many other monster of the week episodes that were a famous part of The X-Files bread and butter (the other being its convoluted mythology).
Right away from ‘Soft Light’ and its wonderfully tragic guest starring performance from future Monk Tony Shalhoub, Gilligan’s tales relied less on mysterious genre monsters such as Eugene Tooms and The Flukeworm, and more on human creatures that were given three dimensional characters and backstories. Not that these characters were the most sympathetic or anything; John Lee Roche from the superlative ‘Paper Hearts’ may in fact be one of the most horribly real and plausible characters the series would ever give us, and while its final moments hint at a supernatural ability, it frequently stays in the mould of a Thomas Harris novel, or something akin to a more straight forward crime procedural.
Human monsters were such a stock in trade for Gilligan that it’s no surprise that he would give us quite possibly the last word on male television anti-heroes, and that when it came to an X-Files episode told entirely from the monster’s point of view, that such a tale would come from Gilligan also.
Prior to the premiere of ‘Hungry’, Gilligan had mentioned Columbo in many interviews when talking about what his inspirations for the episode and one can see those inspirations clearly. Famously, Columbo was really more of a showcase for its guest stars, frequently big names, who would play murderers who were placed more into a protagonist role with the star detective showing up infrequently almost like a pest who needed to be vanquished and so it was that ‘Hungry’ presents to the audience a tale where Mulder and Scully, mostly Mulder mind you, are antagonists out to get a monster who doesn’t really want to be the monster that he is, but alas this is The X-Files and a monster of the week needs its monster.
We’re only privy to any Mulder and Scully interaction whenever the lead guest character Rob Roberts (a wonderful Chad E. Donella) is, such as when he listens to them over the intercom of the fast food restaurant he works at, while at various points of the episode, which follows Roberts as he goes about his life, Mulder shows up more as antagonistic figure than the series has ever dared to show us before; that Duchovny/Mulder charm, a winning component of the series for many, for the first time, becomes something dangerous and threatening as the episode continues, one of many gentle subversions going on here.
Most X-Files rely on the chemistry of Mulder and Scully, their witty back and forth as they investigate, their differences over who or what may be responsible for any murders they investigate, and then their thought patterns coming together to defeat the monster of the week. ‘Hungry’ dispenses with that to explore the life and inner workings of the monster of the week in a manner that goes beyond anything that Gilligan has ever done before.
‘Unruhe’, ‘Pusher’ and ‘Soft Light’ offered insights into their antagonists in a manner that was very different to the impassiveness that was afforded to the otherwise terrifying Eugene Tooms from the first season, but with ‘Hungry’, Gilligan would go even further. Yes, the reason for this was more of a production one; coming off the back of a summer hiatus filming movie projects and offering them a chance to have a small break before getting back into the swing of things, ‘Hungry’ was really an excuse to give its stars a chance to sit an episode out for a while (there has sometimes been a frequent rumour that the original plan was to give popular recurring star Nicholas Lea an episode to himself in an exploration of his character Alex Krycek).
The episode pays off. It’s never going to be an episode that will top the lists of all-time great X-Files episodes, but it has become one of its most underrated and underappreciated gems. With Gilligan scripting and the late, great Kim Manners behind the camera, who directed many of the show’s best ever horror episodes (including the infamous ‘Home’), ‘Hungry’ straddles the line that The X-Files did so well between being shlock and brilliantly produced genre television that could take B-movie material and turn it into something profound and amazing.
Sometimes a television show having to rely on actors other than its biggest stars and hence biggest draws can lead to an episode that is merely filler, and yet Gilligan goes and explores the very fundamental dynamics of the show’s narrative structure in a manner that makes ‘Hungry’ something of a quiet masterpiece that makes a viewer pose questions whenever they rewatch an episode like the double bill of ‘Squeeze’ and ‘Tooms’ that they would never have asked the first time they watched those tales.
We knew Eugene Tooms had a job at Baltimore Animal Regulations. Was he popular? Did everyone know his name? How did he feel that he was a genetic mutant who had to kill people every thirty years and how did emerging from hibernation affect one psychologically when so much in society can change in thirty years?
Watching ‘Hungry’ and seeing Donella’s performance and Gilligan’s wonderful scripting develop over its forty five minute run time, we see Roberts struggle with his brain eating compunctions in a manner that more akin to an addiction than a genetic need; we see him go into therapy and want to confess but then not; we see him struggle with murder and the moment he gives in and kills his landlady that he is actually friendly with is one genuinely horrible moment on a level very few monster of the week deaths have on this show.
The final moments hit home brilliantly when, upon dying, Roberts declares that he can’t be something he’s not. It’s poignant and tragic, but it also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Roberts is a monster, this is The X-Files, he has killed people, including one which tips the character from tragic to unforgivable and cements that the character needs to be punished before the Chris Carter credit at the end.
Just to hammer home this is from Rob’s point of view; the episode fades out of his POV shot as he dies.
Like a lot of Gilligan’s tales, there is dark humour at the heart of ‘Hungry’, but a sense of tragedy and shifting audience allegiances. As he would do with Walter White nine years later when he brought Breaking Bad to our screens and impacted considerably on the history of television, ‘Hungry’ has you being sympathetic one moment, and just when you’re getting comfortable, it goes and plays a story telling card that plays massively into its sense dark drama and leaves the narrative with almost nowhere to go but even darker realms still.
In many respects ‘Hungry’ not only cements what it was that made Gilligan’s work such a vital part of The X-Files lore, but it may also be a perfect approximation of his themes and ideas, not only with what he was doing while crafting mysteries for Mulder and Scully to solve, but also in what he would do when he would craft the keys to Walter and Jessie’s RV.