We gave it a B-
Hot on the heels of last week’s mile-a-minute, meet-your-dead-son-wait-he’s-alive game-changer, it’s time for “Kitten,” wherein the height of the action is Skinner falling into a hole. And yes, walking himself directly into a spiked pit because he was trying to help someone is a metaphor for Walter Skinner’s career. Mulder and Scully’s beleaguered boss takes center stage this week in an episode that attempts to tackle the partners’ fear that he’s gone to the other side, but even by X-Files standards, it doesn’t give us many answers — even to the question of why Mulder and Scully stopped trusting him in the first place. He smelled like smoke that one time? Explain it to me, Mulder.
In their 25-year history as the FBI’s most extreme two-person clique, Scully and Mulder have made it a habit to suspect Skinner of betraying them when he obviously isn’t. (They’ve also made it a habit to erase those periods of mistrust from their memory; Scully wonders early in the hour, “What happened to the old reliable Skinner we knew and loved?” like she never pulled a gun on him.) Part of their us-against-the-world appeal is that they’d rather go on the run together than get in their boss’ car, but there comes a time when the agents’ exclusivity can only hurt them and the people they care about, Skinner included. “Trust no one” has its limits, and as this episode tries to demonstrate, all it does is benefit the same government Mulder and Scully don’t trust.
On that note: Kersh is back! I didn’t realize I missed James Pickens Jr.’s hard-nosed deputy director, but here he is, takings digs at Mulder and Scully’s “conspiracy-addled minds,” and here I am, delighted. He’s summoned the agents to his office to inform them that Skinner has gone AWOL, which he’s making their responsibility because how many of Skinner’s professional problems aren’t Mulder and Scully’s fault in the end? “Walter Skinner’s stalled career has everything to do with his blind loyalty to the both of you,” Kersh insists, “and your misguided search for some imaginary truth.” For someone who hasn’t been promoted in 16 years, Kersh is awfully petty about Skinner’s lack of upward mobility. Mulder and Scully answer all of his questions with more questions just to match him for pettiness.
The partners start their search by breaking into Skinner’s tastefully minimalistic apartment. (Mulder, deadpan as ever: “Maybe he’s out meeting with an interior decorator.”) It seems absurd for Scully to worry about invading Skinner’s privacy when his home couldn’t reveal any less about him if it tried, but she and Mulder both know that sometimes the most polished surface is the one with the most to hide. In this case, the dirty secret is an envelope addressed to Lance Corporal Walter Skinner, containing one human ear and a note: “The monsters are coming.” This season already did its Twilight Zone riff, and Oak Lane isn’t quite Maple Street, but I was reminded anyway of Rod Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” another story about how fear makes monsters of us all.
Take this episode’s Vietnam War flashbacks. One of Skinner’s earliest standout moments came in season 2’s “One Breath,” when the assistant director opened up to Mulder about his wartime experience. “Kitten” is impressively faithful to those details: enlisting in the Marine Corps the day he turned 18 only to lose his faith after blowing the head off a 10-year-old North Vietnamese boy who walked into camp covered in grenades (this boy looks slightly older than 10, but for the sake of all of our trauma I’ll allow it). In “One Breath,” Skinner went on to tell Mulder about an out-of-body experience that probably would have made a more interesting X-Files episode than anything in “Kitten,” but it also would have been too supernatural for the message this episode is trying to send: Humans are capable of worse atrocities than any monster.
So instead we get the story of John “Kitten” James, one of Skinner’s platoon-mates. John (played in flashbacks by Haley Joel Osment) was a frightened kid until he was exposed to an experimental gas that turned his fears against him, making him see monsters. Skinner (played in flashbacks by Mitch Pileggi’s nephew, Cory Rempel) watched as his friend morphed into a ruthless soldier who wore his victims’ ears around his neck like trophies, but even though he knew the gas was to blame, he was forbidden from mentioning it at John’s trial — and Skinner, as he tended to do before he met Mulder and Scully, followed orders. The government vanished John after that, and Skinner assumed he was dead until that letter arrived last week. (“Letter” is Skinner’s term, and it says a lot about how accustomed he is to getting body parts in the mail.) (Next: “The Pit” by Mouse Rat)