“I have lied to you, and I won’t make excuses for those lies, but there’s a reason that I did what I did – one that I think you’re in a unique position to understand. I advised you against a certain course of action some time ago … concerning Agent Scully. I didn’t follow my own advice.” – Walter Skinner
Skinner impedes and assists Mulder’s investigation into the death of a postal worker. Nicholas Cage, be afraid, be very very afraid…
Max: “Zero Sum,” while not exploring AD Walter Skinner’s life outside of the Bureau like in last season’s “Avatar,” is a perfect continuation of seeing the forces that make this man tick. The episode also bridges the gaps between elements of the mythology that will be brought to bear as we wrap up this fourth season. As we saw in “Memento Mori,” a desperate and concerned Skinner made a deal with the devil (well, the CSM) and here we see the results of the bargain as he is tasked to clean up the death of a postal worker who died as the result of lethal bee stings, which begins with him deleting files sent by a police officer off of Mulder’s computer.
We’ve seen the bees as a mythology plot device be introduced at the very start of this season, but here they become the primary menace, killing and incapacitating their victims with a form of the smallpox virus. They are quite a powerful symbol, and as menacing as Hitchcock’s birds in their eponymous film, bees here are just as terrifying, especially when they swarm and kill a playground aide at a South Carolina school, one of the more searing images of this season. The bees were released there as part of a test program run by The Syndicate, who used the postal system as a means of conveyance for their insect payload.
Skinner is given what amounts to rather tedious gruntwork performed by scores of unnamed men in black: sanitizing the bathroom where the postal worker died, stealing and disposing of her body in the morgue, as well as switching out blood samples from her the local police have as evidence. Posing as Mulder, Skinner is able to make the switch, but attracts attention when the police officer who sent the files approaches him and asks his opinion on what happened. Later, Mulder goes to Skinner’s apartment with news that not only is the police officer dead, but the evidence that the officer emailed Mulder is erased. Horrified, Skinner demands answers from the CSM, who continues to hold Scully’s cancer over his head. It becomes clear the CSM will make Skinner the fall guy if things go south.
Skinner undertakes his own investigation of what happened, while trying to evade Mulder whose superlative investigative skills are getting him closer to finding out it is Skinner he is looking for. Going through Mulder’s files and contacts leads Skinner to Marita Covarrubias, whose interest is piqued when Skinner says he may be able to obtain evidence of bees shipped from Canada (where the drone farm from “Herrenvolk” was located) to South Carolina (the site of the vicious schoolyard swarm attack. He also consults an entomologist about the nature of these bees, but isn’t able to get any concrete information before a sample of incubated bees swarms and kills the scientist.
All of this comes to a head when digital analysis of a security feed from next to the police station gives Mulder a clear picture of the man he’s been chasing all this time. Barging into Skinner’s apartment, he alleges that Skinner has been in cahoots with The Syndicate the entire time. Ordering Skinner to produce his gun, Mulder runs the firearm’s ballistics and they are a match for the weapon that killed the police officer. Unsure but somewhat convinced of Skinner’s plea of innocence, Mulder covers for his superior and has the serial number filed off. Meanwhile, the CSM gets a phone call from Marita Covarrubias about the bee attacks, and he says to tell Mulder what he wants to hear regarding this evidence.
As is the norm now in mythology episodes, there is an awful lot of information packed into this episode, and it has implications spanning the seasons. From smallpox to bees to Scully’s cancer and all the way up to the Syndicate’s grand project, the scope of the mythology is a sight to behold. In a way, Skinner’s indentured servitude to the CSM has allowed us a glimpse into avenues outside of Mulder and Scully’s usual investigatory pathways. It’s also shown us again the lengths to which our Assistant Director will go to help Scully, even if it means staining Mulder’s trust. Mulder gives Skinner a pass this time, but you can tell that in Mulder’s head, Skinner is on notice.
Radhika: It’s funny how a nearly accidental storyline helped enhance Walter Skinner’s character, while also containing some iconic imagery and plot points that would come to have even greater prominence in the series’ first feature film. Gillian Anderson had taken a week off from the show to film her parts for the movie, The Mighty, resulting in this episode becoming the second in four years to have no Agent Scully. And thankfully, it’s less tedious than the first episode (“3”) to do so.
While I do think this episode is a slightly better outing for the Walter Skinner character than “Avatar” was, parts of the pacing do feel a bit off, and I don’t know if that’s due to the lack of our dynamic duo’s exchanges. But the first 10-12 minutes or so of the episode are fantastically done, with hardly any dialogue and just a constant built-up stream of events. We’ve commented on the movie-like qualities of The X-Files before, and much of that can be felt here as well, not so surprising in retrospect when a feature film wasn’t too far away.
While Mulder is back to being slightly mistrustful of Skinner, a sentiment prevalent in the early seasons of the show, the viewers are now even more aware of how much Skinner cares about the agents he’s in charge of. He’s taking some serious risk to help Scully, when he could just as easily accept the news of her diagnosis and let events unfurl. It probably would be the safer route, anyway. Watching the tension mount during Skinner’s final confrontation with the CSM is rather fantastic — like the CSM, we don’t really think Skinner will harm the old devil, but the warning shots and the palpable anger in Skinner’s eyes almost make you believe he’s been driven to do what every character has managed to miraculously resist thus far.
There are other details in this episode that are kind of interesting, such as the moment where we realize that Marita Covarrubias, Mulder’s informant, and the CSM are in contact with each other. While we could never be completely sure if prior informants like Deep Throat and X were entirely trustworthy, there is a serious implication that Marita is a fairly malleable sort who is going to be no good for Mulder in the long term. But that hint is just that — a hint — and it would have been nice if that element of the storyline had been better fleshed out.
We’ve had one episode of the mythology focus on the Cigarette Smoking Man and now we’ve had another mythology episode look more deeply into the motivations of Walter Skinner. The X-Files universe, while very much about Mulder and Scully, is starting to expand… and there is only more to come.
SUPER FANTASTIC SKINNER SARTORIAL SHOWCASE
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Assistant Director Walter Skinner. This prime slice of Bureau man meat is quite the catch, donning his government issue briefs like there is no tomorrow. He will go out of his way to locate AWOL agents, obtain cures for extraterrestrial cancers, and be home in time for a romantic candlelight dinner (or to babysit rogue Syndicate operatives on his balcony). Can I start the bidding off at one thousand dollars?