Skinner does not fail up
Credit: Eric Millner/FOX
S11 E6
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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)

The ear and the note were wrapped in a newspaper clipping from Mud Lick, Kentucky, so Mulder and Scully follow Skinner’s trail to the rural community, where too many people — including the town doctor, whose body was found with an ear cut off — have been turning up dead in punji stick traps, a staple of the Vietnam War. When one local veteran falls into a pit in the woods, a motion-activated camera catches Skinner standing over the body. The sheriff rushes to put out an APB without bothering to see how the footage ends, but Mulder and Scully sneak a peek: A figure in a horned, skull-like mask looms toward the lens.

For once, the partners are in agreement that they’re not dealing with an actual monster. In counterpoint to all of this weaponized fear, Mulder and Scully are a united front in “Kitten” (just look how many times I’ve already written “Mulder and Scully” in this recap). But for most of the hour, Skinner stands a little bit outside that circle of trust; even though they’re defending his good name and working to prove his innocence, the fear that he’s turned a dark corner still colors Mulder and Scully’s private conversations, which would be more effective if they had any sensible basis for that fear. They still don’t know the one good reason to be at odds with Skinner: He’s keeping secret everything he knows about CSM’s alleged role in Scully’s pregnancy. By leaving that issue off the table, this episode misses out on the potential for real, emotional tension, giving the agents so little to work with (a few ignored phone calls and dodged questions: hardly world-ending betrayal) that they just look disloyal. Maybe that, too, is part of the point — fear and logic rarely coexist — but after 25 years, this mistrust is a little too illogical.

Obviously, Skinner’s motives are all on the level. Though we never do find out how he found that body in the woods, he didn’t call it in because he’s on a mission to help his friend. But John’s son Davey (Haley Joel Osment in a dual role) says his father blamed Skinner for the way their lives turned out: John spent 38 years at nearby mental institution Glazebrook, where he was experimented on even further in order to advance the development of the gas. It’s implied that Davey’s mother killed herself (her face is cut out of a photo on the wall, possibly in a nod to season 4’s “Demons,” in which a man shot himself after cutting his face out of every photo he could find). Skinner’s testimony helped set all of this in motion, and he bears that guilt even though you get the sense the military would have had its way regardless. This is the moral gray area we’ve come to expect from Skinner: He believed in the system and paid the price.

But he wants to make things right, and Davey, ominously, agrees to take Skinner to his father. After nightfall, he leads Skinner to a tree outside his trailer, where a man in uniform hangs high in a noose. Did John manage to hang himself from this very tall tree? Did he kill himself elsewhere and Davey moved the body like bait? Or, despite Davey’s claim that his father was “driven” to this, was John killed at his son’s hand — or the government’s? Davey says his father was released after almost four decades because he was no longer a danger, but clearly he was. They made him that way.

John may have been the only member of his family to breathe the gas, but he wasn’t the only one infected by it. For Davey, the idea of it has become as potent as the gas itself, pushing him to become the monster his father sees. When Skinner steps closer to the body, he drops into a pit and is impaled through the abdomen — which isn’t quite the mild flesh wound this episode makes it out to be — and Davey hovers over him with a flashlight to his face: “Now who sees monsters?” (We get it, Davey.) While Mulder and Scully interrogate Davey, Skinner is left to bleed out, his cries for help drowned out by John Cale’s “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” on vinyl. Davey claims he’s never heard of Skinner, but his family photo albums give him away, so Mulder doubles back on foot as soon as they’ve driven far enough from the trailer to throw Davey off the scent, leaving Scully to call for help.

The attempted rescue is cut short when Davey, in full monster getup, rams Mulder into the pit, though at least Mulder lands close enough to the wall to avoid the spikes. It almost looks like Skinner pushes him to safety. Skinner, still remarkably conscious, offers to give Mulder a boost (aww), but Davey returns with gasoline and a lighter — and then Scully shoots him from behind (AWWW). Unfortunately, being impaled with multiple punji sticks seems to be the only injury that sticks in this town, and by the time Scully has thrown Mulder a rope, Davey’s disappeared. The agents chase after him, paying too little attention to their feet for how many traps are in these woods. Right before they hit a tripwire, Skinner comes out of nowhere and knocks Davey to the ground, punching him repeatedly. Davey crawls right back into the wire, releasing a grid of wooden stakes; Skinner rolls out of the way just in time, but Davey is killed, taking everything he knows about his father’s last days with him. (Next: Call your dentist)

In the light of day, as Scully bandages Skinner’s mild flesh wound, the partners admit that Kersh suggested they’re the reason the Bureau doesn’t love Skinner, as if that never occurred to them before. Earlier, to Mulder, Scully reasoned that it was ultimately Skinner’s own choice to stay loyal to them — but does it really absolve them if the only other item on the list of reasons why Skinner hasn’t advanced his career is “the intangible concept of free will”? But Skinner doesn’t blame Mulder and Scully either, telling them, “If it wasn’t for you two, I wouldn’t be here right now, and I’m not talking about the fact that you showed up here today.” Like Scully, he defines his life by choice: He enlisted; John James was drafted. Watching the war upend John’s life poked holes in Skinner’s faith in the government. “You two came along,” he says, “and you taught me not to hide from it but to have the guts to shine a light directly into the darkest corners. And if given the choice between advancing my career by being blindly loyal to some faceless puppeteers pulling strings from the shadows or to throw in with you two, make no mistake about it, I’d make the same decision every damn time.” It’s a speech so good and so well delivered that it almost makes this episode’s chaotic ambiguities feel appropriate: In a story with a lot of open ends, Mulder and Scully still make sense.

As Skinner finally makes his way to an ambulance, Mulder and Scully recommit to their boss: “We’re with you.” They never had a good reason not to be, but there’s still something a little charming about the fact that nothing of substance really happened here. Skinner didn’t admit anything about what the Smoking Man told him; there was nothing for the three of them to work through. Fear was undone by trust alone: an exchange of faith to make up for what Skinner lost in the war. But coming as it does just after this season’s halfway point, this episode misses major opportunities to mine potential conflicts, trading the bigger story for a theme that isn’t even new to the show.

Fear as a weapon has been done on The X-Files; fear as an X-File was done just a few episodes ago. There’s a retro vibe to all of this, right down to Scully and Mulder’s dynamic with Skinner and each other, but the straightforward throwback feels out of step with a season that’s spent so much time interrogating the purpose of nostalgia. The episode ends with a biplane flying over Mud Lick, spraying its crops with a form of the gas; this must be why everyone in town (plus Skinner) is losing teeth. Whatever shot this scene had at subtlety is lost when a voice-over from Davey kicks in, repeating what he told Mulder and Scully earlier: “Imagine the power of a government that could literally control the minds of millions and millions of its citizens, could influence every choice and decision they made simply by exposing them to this poison. It’s happening. It’s happening right now.” Again, Davey, we get it.

The visual calls back to a couple of other X-Files stories about tainted crops: not only that iconic corn field from the 1998 movie, but also season 2’s “Blood,” which, like “Kitten,” dealt with pesticides that heightened existing paranoia. In one biting line in “Blood,” Mulder calls fear “the oldest tool of power. If you’re distracted by fear of those around you, it keeps you from seeing the actions of those above.” Comparatively, this episode is (literally) toothless; there’s no commentary here on why the government hopes to heighten people’s fears in order to incite violence. Scully tells Davey that his idea sounds like a dystopian novel; it does, but it also sounds like the same view of America in 2018 that The X-Files has taken all season. “Kitten” just never connects the dots.

Open files:

  • At least this episode wasn’t a throwback behind the scenes: Carol Banker is only the third woman to direct an X-Files episode, joining Gillian Anderson and Michelle MacLaren in a too-small club.
  • Mitch Pileggi nailed that last monologue.
  • Eagle is bald, but Eagle wasn’t bald then. So how’d he get his nickname? (I was really hoping Skinner would be Kitten.)
  • Do we think the mustachioed man who was compelled to kick John at Glazebrook was meant to be a younger version of Ozzie, the hunter who was trapped in the first pit?
  • I love Scully defending Skinner on the basis that if he murdered, he’d be better at it.

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