The X-Files focuses on Walter Skinner’s past in an episode that does great work for both his character and the show.
The X-Files Season 11 Episode 6
“Have you ever wondered why, after thirty-five years in the Bureau, Walter Skinner isn’t sitting on this side of the desk?”
During the height of The X-Files’ popularity, a number of spin-off ideas were put into consideration. When the series began to wind down, a new vehicle that focused on fan favorite characters the Lone Gunmen went into—and then quickly out of—production. The Lone Gunmen have a bunch of quirky appeal, but there’s a fundamental character from The X-Files that has been in the picture for as long as Mulder and Scully have, yet he continually gets skirted over. Assistant Director Walter Skinner may not carry the same appeal as Mulder and Scully, but he’s a necessary component of the FBI that makes their jobs possible.
Over the course of The X-Files’ eleven seasons and upwards of two hundred episodes, there has somehow only been one installment that’s focused on Skinner. That’s insanity. Season three’s “Avatar” shines a light on Skinner’s romantic life and tells a story about his failing marriage and his horrible attempt at a one-night stand, but it’s a fairly forgettable episode. The fact that “Avatar” isn’t the strongest X-Files entry means that nobody has really rushed out to deliver another Skinner-centric episode. It’s truly a shame because Skinner is a deeply interesting character who’s witnessed even more than Mulder and Scully.
While it’s too bad that the series has never dug into Skinner’s early years with the Bureau or his X-Files days pre-Mulder and Scully, season eleven’s “Kitten” finally begins to right these wrongs and explore the character’s past. “Kitten” might not have a high bar to pass when it comes to Skinner episodes, but it does the character justice and it’s long overdue.
Skinner’s behavior has been questionable this season, as he’s almost turned into an antagonist of sorts. He has some kind of alliance with the Cigarette Smoking Man, plus this year Mulder seems all too ready to throw him under the bus whenever possible. Skinner’s atypical actions come to an apex in this installment, with the supernatural business of the week dating all the way back to Skinner’s time in Vietnam.
There are some welcome flashbacks to Skinner’s tenure in the army when he first comes in contact with X-Files-like behavior, but unfortunately the majority of the episode is spent in the present. An X-Files episode that’s set entirely in 1969 and done as a “man on a mission” war movie with a young Skinner would be absolutely wonderful, but it’s not meant to be (although this is no doubt how Vince Gilligan would have done the episode). That being said, “Kitten” does deliver a satisfying installment that explores PTSD to strong effect.
All of a sudden Skinner winds up AWOL and Deputy Director Alvin Kersh (who hasn’t been seen since season nine’s “The Truth, II”) naturally assumes that Mulder and Scully either have something to do with it or that they know where he is. Kersh is all sorts of awful here and he not only dresses down Mulder and Scully, but he tells them that the reason that Skinner has never gotten anywhere in the Bureau is because he continues to help them out. Furthermore, Kersh tells them that if Skinner doesn’t show up to work, then he’s officially done at the FBI and that it’s Mulder and Scully’s responsibility to bring him in. Kersh’s asinine comments sting, but they at least make Mulder and Scully aware of Skinner’s disappearance.
The fear within “Kitten” is largely of a psychological nature, but there’s also an efficiently eerie creature at the center of it all. While Skinner’s company was in Vietnam, the government exposed them to a weaponized fear gas (they’re fans of Batman’s Scarecrow, no doubt) that makes people see this cattle skull beast. It’s a freaky visual, especially when it runs right at you, and “Kitten” succeeds on that front. Skinner is seen wherever this cattle skull creature shows up, and even though many people begin to vilify Skinner, Mulder and Scully continue to believe the contrary. If anything, the two of them are worried about Skinner’s state of mind. They’re concerned that he’s suffering from some PTSD-based trauma and the episode’s focus is more on exploring the psychological consequences of war than it is about hunting a monster.
As Mulder and Scully dig deeper into the government’s dealings in Vietnam, it starts to look like someone has an ax to grind with Skinner on the matter. Haley Joel Osment’s character, Davey, reveals that he still holds a grudge against Skinner because, when his fellow men were put on trial for their fear gas-influenced crimes, Skinner didn’t stand by them or help clear their names. Davey has good reason to be angry with Skinner, but Skinner defends his actions and comes up with satisfying reasons for why he did what he did. “Kitten” actually does a commendable job to clear Skinner’s moral ambiguity and return him to the “tough love boy scout” demeanor that defines his character.
The most interesting scenes from the episode all take place within Davey’s trailer, and they largely build off of the uncomfortable energy that Osment gives off. He does a really good job in this role and is careful to not overdo it, but also comfortably plays into the character’s more uneasy qualities. On top of that, Davey’s trailer is a cramped little space and the claustrophobia definitely sets in, especially when it feels like Davey could go off at any second.
Another strong moment features a rock and roll record that loudly scores a tense escape attempt from Mulder. All of the moments where Davey runs his mouth about the government really work well, but it’s a little discouraging that they boil down to mind control conspiracy theories, which are pretty overdone at this point.
The reason that “Kitten” works is because it explores the first time that Skinner becomes disillusioned with the government and learns that they can do wrong. This is an idea that plays parallel to what goes on in the present timeline with Davey, and it’s obviously something that Mulder and Scully push throughout every episode of the series. This makes sense as a device to help bring Skinner back to Mulder and Scully’s good graces, and it will hopefully reframe his character for the back half of the season.
“Kitten” does a lot of things right and it manages to be one of the better X-Files episodes from this season, but there are still plenty of rough patches in this installment. All of the material in Mud Lick falls pretty flat and Mulder and Scully’s interactions with their police department leave plenty to be desired. It’s also hard not to cringe at Trigger Davis, the “magical homeless man,” who warns the FBI about “Kitten” right from the jump. His appearance is completely unnecessary and really just muddles what’s going on. “Kitten” might not be the perfect Walter Skinner episode, but it marks a strong start and at least makes the case for why the character deserves more chances to star.
Hopefully, he’ll still have most of his teeth left when he next gets the opportunity.