‘The X-Files’ turns to Skinner and his spotty past in an episode that does justice for both the character and the show, but barely
“Have you ever wondered why after thirty-five years in the Bureau Walter Skinner isn’t sitting on this side of the desk?”
Towards the end of The X-Files’ original run, a number of spinoffs were naturally put under consideration. One idea that gained a little steam was that the season five episode “Travelers” could act as a springboard for a series that focuses on Arthur Dale’s exploits with early X-Files cases. That’s a solid enough premise, but it’s a little surprising that no one was ever like, “Hey, you know, Skinner’s also been with the department forever and the audience actually knows who he is…” A spinoff that looks at a young Skinner’s early X-Files adventures has even more appeal than The X-Files: The Early Years. So in spite of how this idea was never on the table, it’s comforting to see the series finally start to explore that territory now.
Season 11’s “Kitten” is a Skinner-heavy installment and it’s seriously about time. Up until this point there’s really only been one episode in The X-Files’ 200-plus run of episodes that puts Walter Skinner in the spotlight and that’s season three’s regrettable “Avatar.” “Avatar” explores Skinner’s life, but the episode curiously decides to focus on Skinner’s crumbling marriage and the Assistant Director’s disastrous attempt at a one-night stand. “Avatar” isn’t the best episode and it doesn’t make the strongest case that regular visits into Skinner’s past are a good idea, but it doesn’t change the fact that he is a deep, fascinating character that has been apart of this show for as long as Mulder and Scully have and he’s seen just as much as them.
It’s really rather surprising that the show didn’t take advantage of Skinner and flesh out his life outside of the X-Files (or even his time there before Mulder and Scully enter the picture), especially during the show’s eighth and ninth seasons when Mulder’s presence was minimal and the character was in the need of an upgrade. Season eight’s “S.R. 819” certainly puts Skinner front and center too, but that’s more about Krycek turning him into a victim than learning anything about his past. So it’s nice to see Skinner get a showcase episode in the 11th season, and it’s a long overdue one, but it becomes a question of whether this episode delivers or if this is just another messy installment like “Avatar.” “Kitten” is a better episode, but it’s hardly vintage X-Files.
It’s worth to note that enough character assassination has been done to Skinner this season that even if this episode were to be a complete failure, it would still play a little better due to how the character has been portrayed this year. That’s also kind of the point here, as Skinner’s mysterious, questionable behavior this season hits its apex and that’s what prompts this glimpse into his past.
It feels like an episode of this nature that digs into Skinner’s past would be written by someone like James Wong or Chris Carter himself. However, “Kitten” has relative newcomers behind the wheel on this one. Gabe Rotter writes the script and Carol Banker directs and they both do a decent job with this dual storyline that unfolds in both the past and the present.
A “men on a mission” style X-Files where an army platoon has to keep a top-secret crate safe while under enemy fire is a pretty damn good idea for an episode. If Star Wars can reinvent itself in a number of ways, then why can’t The X-Files also take similar cues from various genres? As awesome as an episode that’s set entirely in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War would be, unfortunately this idea gets reduced to a strong cold open for a commendable installment, but one that still feels like standard X-Files rather than something special or different. “A WAR IS NEVER OVER” is the episode’s “Truth Is Out There” placeholder and even that feels rather lazy in its message. Not only that, but there have been many great X-Files episodes that explore that theme through PTSD. A theme that’s a little more original could get a lot more accomplished with this episode.
“Kitten” marks the return of Deputy Director Alvin Kersh, who’s back for the first time since season nine’s finale, “The Truth!” I’ve never been the biggest fan of Kersh and he’s always just seemed like a more belligerent Skinner who applies pressure on Mulder and Scully when necessary, but it’s still nice to see him again. There are still plenty of other characters I’d rather see before Kersh, but this appearance does justify itself, even if it’s more practical than anything else.
Kersh calls Mulder and Scully in when Skinner goes missing and he does a good job at dressing the two down in the process. He blames Skinner’s allegiance to the two of them for why his career with the FBI has remained stagnant and he figures that they must have something to do with his current disappearance. Mulder and Scully are out of the loop on this one, but it does at least put Skinner’s absence on their radar and they can begin to do their own digging on the matter (although Mulder was probably enjoying the peace and quiet). Kersh basically tells them that it’s their responsibility to find Skinner and get him back to work or he’s officially burned his last bridge with the Bureau. This might be a little ham-fisted, especially when it’s all laid out this way at the top of the episode, but it gets the episode’s gears in motion and Mulder’s juices flowing.
Much of the horror within “Kitten” that’s not of a psychological nature deals with a weaponized fear gas that manifests itself as a freaky cattle skull creature. This beast is at the center of the episode and it’s an appropriately creepy creation (it also is a dead ringer for the titular character in the anime, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, FYI). After this monster pops up a few times, “Kitten” starts to push the idea that perhaps Skinner is this monster. This clearly shouldn’t be taken literally, but the episode wants people to consider that possibility, which is pretty insulting and ludicrous. There’s no way that Skinner has actually been a monster through the course of the show. Even the idea that Skinner’s ultimately the episode’s villain feels like an angle that the episode is just waiting to tug out from under the audience’s feet.
Thankfully, Mulder and Scully are a little savvier than everyone else in this episode, which largely consists of the residents of a small hamlet known as Mud Lick. The two don’t think that Skinner is to blame here. If anything they’re concerned about his mental state and that he might be lost in some sort of PTSD-related stress. Skinner is of course totally fine here, but that’s not the case for one of his former squad members. Skinner was lucky enough to only get exposed to a minimal amount of this fear gas while he was in Vietnam, but others suffered to the point where the gas allegedly “changed” them.
Skinner’s past in Vietnam is put under fire from Haley Joel Osment’s character, Davey, who attacks the Assistant Director for not standing up for his fellow infected teammates when their actions were put under scrutiny. Skinner had the power to potentially save them or at least reduce their sentences, but he remained silent. Now somebody thinks it’s time that he paid the consequences for that. Skinner, of course, stands by his moral actions and “Kitten” tries to rebuild his character as the faithful boy scout that he’s been in the past. He’s given a good reason for everything that he does here. The episode is more interested in having a discussion about the effects of war than it is in vilifying Skinner.
As “Kitten” approaches its final act, Mulder, Scully, and Osment’s Davey all go back and forth in his tiny home and it’s maybe the episode’s most interesting scene. The sequence slowly leaks out tension as Davey’s weird demeanor starts to become more alarming. It’s the most unsettling scene in the entry and it plays into Osment’s strengths where he can apparently channel a creep rather well. The episode’s conclusion offers up a strong companion scene in Davey’s home where Mulder searches for clues and a record blares rock music to create an eerie atmosphere. It’s just a shame that so much of his discussion comes down to government brain manipulation, which is pretty old hat and cliché for conspiracy theories.
As Davey’s plan continues to unravel, at one point it looks like Skinner might die after he gets impaled on some nasty rebar. Make no mistake, if Skinner were to die in some random episode, that would be awful, but it would at least be something interesting and ballsy for the show to do. Instead, The X-Files delivers the most overdone war story possible, but “Kitten” could still be a whole lot worse.
In the end, “Kitten” is really the story of the first time that Skinner becomes disillusioned with the government that he thought was infallible, which is a thread that Mulder and Scully have run with through the course of the show. This message may be a little muddled throughout the episode (even if Skinner explicitly tells it to the audience during the episode’s final moments), but it is a strong note to go out on and the right way to re-center Skinner’s relationship with Mulder and Scully. That being said, this doesn’t reverse Skinner’s recent pact with the Cigarette Smoking Man and I’m sure that when “My Struggle IV” comes along, he’ll inexplicably be evil again because it’s what the story dictates.
“Kitten” deserves points for its message, but there are a number of awkward spots throughout it that are hard not to cringe at. Most of the material between Mulder, Scully, and the Mud Lick police department is awkward to watch. It just doesn’t click. The same can be said for Skinner’s Vietnam flashbacks, which also fall a little flat. There’s also a “mystical homeless man” named Trigger Davis who warns Mulder and Scully about “Kitten” right from the start. Additionally, for a “Skinner-centric” episode there’s still a lot of Mulder and Scully leading the way. About halfway through the entry Skinner’s presence thankfully takes over, but this balance could still be worked out a little better. “Kitten” at least clears his name by the end of all of this, which is still a step in the right direction for the show.
The X-Files’ 11th season is officially past its halfway point now, which seems like a reasonable time to address whether this new year was worth it. “Kitten” amounts to yet another example of mediocre X-Files, which is fine, but why bring a series like this back for just fine? This season has still done more harm to the show’s legacy than it’s done good, but perhaps the final few episodes will manage to turn out some gems that conjure the magic that this show is capable of.
Oh, and don’t forget to floss, guys. Teeth are falling out all over the place.
‘The X-Files’ 11th season will continue Wednesdays at 8pm (ET) on FOX