The X-Files – ‘Kitten’

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SKINNER: Then you two came along, 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 I’d make the same decision every damn time.

One of the major criticisms of the previous season of The X-Files, the six-part revival series after many years of uncertainty about the show’s future, is that we didn’t see nearly enough of Mitch Pileggi and his character, Assistant Director Walter Skinner. It was a more than valid concern in regards to a character (and actor) who have been, without question, one of the key reasons Chris Carter’s series became such a pop-cultural success. ‘Kitten’ is a clear, unashamed attempt to redress that balance, squaring the focus entirely on Skinner, his past and his present. The fact it disappoints, therefore, is not only a touch unexpected, but more than a little frustrating.

The character of Skinner has been with The X-Files since late in the show’s first season, debuting in ‘Tooms’ which aired early in 1994. Fitting the template of Agents Mulder & Scully’s boss, a template Carter had struggled to fill across the first season with a succession of potential, internal antagonists who came briefly and went, Skinner represented not just the FBI, but a bulwark of old-fashioned masculinity in a show with a female scientist and nerdy conspiracy theorist as leads.

Skinner is the equivalent of a small-town Sherriff in an American Western; a compromised man having to tolerate the lawless thugs who run his streets wild while proving sympathetic to the lawmakers and townsfolk he’s there to serve. Skinner described himself once by declaring to Mulder that “I stand right on the line that you keep crossing” and this contextualises his function, since essentially Season Two premiere ‘Little Green Men’, for the entire run of the series.

Though in most episodes serving in the function of a hard-line FBI boss who reigns Mulder (and Scully) in on their investigations, Skinner has in places had levels of focus over the run of the original series which paint a portrait that leads, ultimately, to ‘Kitten’. In Season 4’s ‘Zero Sum’, Skinner is complicit in cold-blooded murder as he works to cover up conspiratorial tests being ran by the nefarious Cigarette-Smoking Man, in order to ensure Scully is cured of cancer.

Later in Season 6, Skinner becomes infected with a nano-virus of a possible extra-terrestrial source in ‘SR-819’, and is blackmailed by sinister rogue agent Alex Krycek for more than two seasons to work quietly against the investigations being ran by the X-Files department. Often Skinner has worked in covert opposition to our agents while doing his best to shield or aid them from that compromised position.

Later in the run of the classic series, following the full-time departure of David Duchovny from the show, Skinner became much more of a confirmed ally to the X-Files department – indeed fans speculated for a time that Skinner could become the regular partner of Scully, and he did by Season 9 get his own position as a regular character in the main credits (which remains to this day). Skinner no longer acted as the brooding internal antagonist – he was one of the team, in many ways, with Deputy Director Alvin Kersh assuming the tough superior role Skinner had inhabited for most of the series’ run. Though Skinner rarely was gifted his own episode focus as we had seen in the aforementioned stories, or Season 3’s different showcase ‘Avatar’, his involvement was part of the fabric, and his own blackmail by Krycek serves as a key narrative component to the denouement of Season 8.

Consequently, Skinner absence (bar a cameo) in second movie I Want to Believe, and his scant, almost token appearances in Season 10, seemed an unusual creative decision. Carter seemed so concerned with returning to the core dynamic of Mulder & Scully from Seasons 1 to 7 that he ended up sidelining Skinner and almost forgetting how much the man had thrown his lot in with the X-Files quest to expose the apocalyptic alien conspiracy at the heart of the American government, to the point he looked for all the world like he may be killed at the end of ‘The Truth’ for helping break Mulder out of military prison (an entire cliffhanger plot line Carter ended up forgetting, given how much he’d written the character into a corner). Skinner simply slotted back into the role of FBI Assistant Director, called out to add some exposition when needed in Season 10, and then he disappeared into the woodwork.

Season 11, therefore, has worked hard to reintegrate Skinner back into the narrative of The X-Files in far more of an integral manner. The character is now compromised by the Smoking Man in a way we haven’t seen since the Season 4, burdened with a terrible secret about Scully he is keeping from the agents, hosting the CSM in his FBI office like in the early days of the series, and generally operating back on that ‘line’ that Mulder again is pushing into. ‘This’ and ‘Ghouli’ have both essentially cast him as a reimagined version of the ‘Deep Throat’ informant template Jerry Hardin first essayed in the early days of the show, replete with key information about the deeper conspiracy he communicates to Mulder, while trapped in an antagonistic, complicated relationship with those sinister forces. Skinner, very quickly, has returned to the interesting position he was always in, with a few added edges.

‘Kitten’ attempts to provide a context to Skinner’s position, therefore, by exploring a key element of his backstory which had previously been mentioned in the series. Early in Season 2, in the revered episode ‘One Breath’, Skinner delivered a powerful monologue about his experiences in the Vietnam War which shaped his philosophy and gave context to why he had a sympathy regarding the work of the X-Files:

When I was eighteen, I, uh… I went to Vietnam. I wasn’t drafted, Mulder, I… I enlisted in the Marine Corps the day of my eighteenth birthday. I did it on a blind faith. I did it because I believed it was the right thing to do. I don’t know, maybe I still do. Three months into my tour, a ten-year-old North Vietnamese boy walked into camp covered with grenades and I, uh… I blew his head off from a distance of ten yards. I lost my faith. Not in my country or in myself, but in everything. There was just no point to anything anymore. One night on patrol, we were, uh… caught… and everyone… everyone fell. I mean, everyone. I looked down… at my body… from outside of it. I didn’t recognize it at first. I watched the V.C. strip my uniform, take my weapon and I remained… in this thick jungle… peaceful… unafraid… watching my… my dead friends. Watching myself. In the morning, the corpsmen arrived and put me in a bodybag until… I guess they found a pulse. I woke in a Saigon hospital two weeks later. I’m afraid to look any further beyond that experience. You? You are not. Your resignation is unacceptable.

‘Kitten’ doesn’t shine a spotlight over the entirety of those experiences. Oddly enough, it doesn’t show us the most supernatural aspect of Skinner’s backstory, the out-of-body, ethereal experience which in their script for ‘One Breath’, Glen Morgan & James Wong use psychologically as Skinner’s deeply personal sharing of information to try and prevent Mulder resigning, a reveal which visibly chokes Mulder up. It’s a powerful scene, beautifully acted by Mitch Pileggi, and frankly needed no deeper exploration.

‘Avatar’ in Season 3 does try and provide an extra layer of supernatural tether to Skinner, framing his fear of the unknown in parallel with marriage problems (with a wife we never heard of before, and never hear of again), but it doesn’t necessarily add a deeper meaning to the character. The above monologue is a near-perfect encapsulation of why Skinner ends up being such a quiet ally to Mulder & Scully for the next few decades.

Which makes ‘Kitten’, in its mission statement, somewhat redundant. Gabe Rotter’s debut script for the series pulls out a deeper level of detail in Skinner’s Vietnam experiences, fleshing out his unit who in 1969 faced the aforementioned Vietnamese child suicide bomber, but we never see the emotional fallout of that. ‘Kitten’ is more interested in Skinner’s feelings of duty owed to the titular Kitten, his former comrade-in-arms played by Haley Joel Osment, following their exposure to ‘MK-Naomi’, an experimental form of mind-controlling nerve agent which ends up creating ‘monsters’ in the minds eye of the Vietnam soldiers. It suggests, perhaps, that Skinner’s trigger happy felling of a child bomber may have been a residual effect of exposure to a nefarious piece of experimentation by the American shadow government, rather than the fractured, fearful psyche of a soldier in the middle of an ideological war without end.

Yet what the story fails to understand is that the consequences of Skinner’s actions in Vietnam were always more interesting than the causes, and in trying to provide an unexplored angle to what happened in Vietnam which *caused* the incident with the child, which then led to his brush with the supernatural, the story serves to simply cheapen the monologue from ‘One Breath’. Skinner had already, according to this episode, suffered exposure to the kind of secrets the X-Files would work to expose *before* his OOB experience.

Parallels can be drawn to Season 5’s ‘Unusual Suspects’, which suggested Mulder’s entire paranoid psychology may well have been the result of exposure to a similar mind-altering government experimental compound in the late-1980’s, but as a revelation it remains open to a level of conjecture. ‘Kitten’ works hard to make Skinner’s entire psychology–past, present and future–entirely about these incidents in Vietnam, and it feels somewhat like revisionist history in play.

Perhaps that’s appropriate given Season 11 of The X-Files. It is, after all, a season which has worked hard to present versions of reality and truth which may be clouded by nebulous uncertainty and distorted perspective. Samantha Nelson has argued the series has rejected an existential alien menace for exploring the fears and anxieties of American culture, and ‘Kitten’ without doubt serves to backup such analysis. The X-Files has explored Vietnam before, of course; Skinner plays a significant role in Season 4’s ‘Unrequited’, about the crimes and misdemeanours of and perpetrated upon American POW’s abandoned in the jungles of Vietnam.

We have also seen earlier episodes such as ‘Sleepless’ explore the effect of unsanctioned government experimentation on their own soldiers, and ‘Blood’ detailing the traumatic psychological effect of chemical testing on an unsuspecting American populous, so ‘Kitten’ is presenting nothing new in the broad cultural context of The X-Files. It oddly feels like a 1990’s throwback precisely because of this, like an episode that has arrived twenty years too late, for the series and indeed for Walter Skinner.

Rotter works hard to try and make the ultimate point of the episode be that Skinner, in the end, has sacrificed everything for our dynamic duo Mulder & Scully. The point is hammered home by a returning Kersh from the very beginning of the episode – Skinner could have been running the FBI by now if he hadn’t consistently helped and protected the work of the X-Files. Incidentally, this feels a little rich coming from Kersh, a man who in ‘The Truth’ himself was prepared to sacrifice his own career (and maybe life) to aid Skinner in breaking Mulder out of that military prison, and is yet another example of Carter purposefully ignoring the series’ historical mythology. Nonetheless, Kersh’s point echoes across an episode where Mulder & Scully end up following a trail which leads to their boss, a personal validation, and in truth little else to honestly add depth or deeper personal meaning to Skinner’s journey.

‘Kitten’, therefore, doesn’t work, despite its best intentions as a character story for the series’ most pervasive and well-liked supporting character. Pileggi does his best, as always, with what he’s given (and he only appears, remarkably, for less than half the episode’s run time, despite it being *about* Skinner) and from a production standpoint, everything is competently put together, with the ‘monster’ evoking shades of the fear toxin produced by Batman villain The Scarecrow, certainly how that was itself presented in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It simply doesn’t tell us anything about Skinner we didn’t already know, couldn’t infer, or hadn’t realised, beyond a few more detailed facts about his most personal of Vietnam wartime experiences.

Honestly, if you want a far more intriguing exploration of Skinner’s Vietnam story, read Joe Harris’ tie-in comic two-part issue appropriately titled ‘Skinner’ from 2017. You may come out more satisfied by that narrative than a great deal of what ‘Kitten’ presents.

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