TV Review: The X-Files (Season 11, Episode 6)
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The first – and only – episode of the original series to focus on the character of Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) was the late season three episode ‘Avatar’.
A monster-of-the-week story focused on Skinner’s failing marriage and an accusation that he killed a prostitute, it was no surprise that the episode didn’t really captivate audiences.
Nothing of substance occurs in the episode. Throughout the original run, there are hints here and there of Skinner’s past as a marine and his time in Vietnam – which undoubtedly shaped his moral and emotional compass – but it wasn’t until the latest episode of season eleven entitled ‘Kitten’ that we actually catch a glimpse into the beginnings of a future Assistant Director of the FBI who struggled to balance between the line of distrusting the government whilst serving it.
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‘Kitten’ begins on a similar path to ‘Avatar’, beginning with a rather ambiguous introduction of Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) going AWOL after being sent an ambiguous severed ear alongside a note implying ‘Monsters Are Here’, Mulder and Scully are pushed by FBI Director Alvin Kersh (James Pickens Jr.) to find his whereabouts immediately. That is after Kersh has another chance to berate the duo, insinuating that they are the reason Skinner never advanced to the position of Director at the Academy due to his affiliation and adamant support of the X-Files and Mulder and Scully.
Offering further insight into the background of Skinner, ‘Kitten’ delves into his service as a Marine in the height of the Vietnam war, with a specific focus on delivering a chemical weapon payload that goes under the codename MK Naomi (a fictional weaponized gas/mind control agent that is deemed to be the successor of the non-fictional MK Ultra).
After an unsuccessful mission in getting the cargo to its destination, the group of marines – consisting of Skinner and John ‘Kitten’ James (Hayley Joel Osment) – are ambushed, and the container holding the chemical weapon is penetrated by a rain of bullets. James is exposed to the MK Naomi’s yellow gas and proceeds to immediately escalate into a violent frenzy, where he ends up murdering an innocent Vietnamese family.
Written by Gabe Rotter and directed by Carol Banker, ‘Kitten’ takes a well-rounded and intriguingly dark venture into the long-term effects of PTSD amongst veterans of conflict, alongside similar motifs and cinematographic decisions established in previous X-Files episode – ‘Darkness Falls’ of season one and ‘Detour’ of season five – that involve a monster lurking in areas of dense, dark forest.
This mysteriously terrifying backdrop adds both a sense of dark unease throughout the scenes in which it is utilized, and the effects areas like this have on veterans who scoped out dense jungles as battlegrounds in the Vietnam War.
It’s not so much a monster-of-the-week story for Mulder and Scully than it is an episode of soul-searching and understanding for Skinner. It’s clear by the pained and almost terrified expressions and actions of Skinner when scoping Davey’s – John ‘Kitten’ James’s son, also portrayed by Osment – claustrophobic cabin to Skinner’s near-death experience after falling into a punji pit constructed by Davey.
Rotter weaves a narrative of PTSD with conspiracy with clear ease, allowing us to explore the depths of Skinner’s character with detail without narcissistic monologues or first-person accounts of his history (take ‘Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man’ in season four).
Rotter captivates attention through having Mulder and Scully deal with a small-town investigation in which they are determined to find – and ultimately save – their boss (something he’s done for them on countless occasions throughout the series), whilst delving into impressively short flashbacks that ultimately display a prolonged PTSD that Skinner has been suffering from.
Not only as a result of his actions during the war, but it ultimately being his fault that his best friend eventually would end up in a mental institution due to his compliance with an untrustworthy government.
Mulder, Scully and Skinner haven’t been on exactly good terms this season. Hell, we’re still not even sure as an audience (who knows more than Mulder and Scully do) what Skinner is trying to gain by working with CSM. One thing we do know is, however, is that Skinner will go to any length at this point to protect Mulder and Scully.
He’s done so ever since he became embroiled with the duo and the X-Files. Mulder’s innate fear that he and Scully cost Skinner future employment at the bureau is case enough to warrant the amount of care that they have for Skinner; care that is further cemented by Scully lauding Skinner’s ability to blindly follow his positive moral compass.
Skinner eventually confirms their woven bond in the conclusion, stating that if weren’t for Mulder and Scully, he wouldn’t have learned to trust his instincts and distrust a government hellbent on hurting an innocent public for their own gain. It’s what Mulder and Scully have been fighting for from the start; the truth and the cost of its victims.
‘Kitten’ demonstrates that Skinner’s intentions are no different and does so in a manner much more concise and straightforward than has ever been done before in the original series.
It’s as though ‘Avatar’ doesn’t exist.
The X-Files airs on Mondays at 9pm on Channel 5.