Teleplay by Howard Gordon; Story by Gordon and David Duchovny
Directed by James Charleston
At this point in the series run, the series has given us little information on characters who aren’t Mulder and Scully. This was a key part of The X-Files—- character development was rarely given much time, because of the frustrating need for everyone in the series to occupy a gray area where the viewer, like our heroes, don’t know whether we can trust them. Skinner has been an exception so far, but until this season he has been seen walking the line that Mulder and Scully keep crossing over. As recently as The Blessing Way, the viewer was supposed to consider his motivations vague enough that he might execute Scully. However, things have changed for him, to the point where Mulder felt compelled to thank him for aiding them a few episodes earlier. The implication is Skinner is now a real presence in the series. This would close some doors, plotwise, but opened quite a few more, though at this point, no one on the staff was prepared to go all the way. Avatar is when this changes.
At one point in the episode, when Scully admits that Skinner’s behavior has been making him seem guilty, she reminds Mulder “The truth is, we don’t know a lot about him.” The door gets opened a little bit in this episode. On the one hand we see that his marriage of seventeen years has fallen apart , no doubt at least a little in part to his work on the X-Files. Clearly, the strain on this has been enough to wreck his marriage, which (at least at this point) he refuses to bring an end to. It’s also clear that due to his experiences in Vietnam (referenced in One Breath and again here) have added a level of stress and the possibility that a paranormal force may be involved in his life. At this point in the episode, Skinner isn’t even certain that he didn’t murder the woman he wakes up in bed with at the end of the teaser, and he refuses to tell his own agents as much.
While this is going on, it is clear that there has been set up an effort to discredit Skinner the same way they’ve been trying to get at Mulder and Scully for the last three years. It’s not as obvious as it is other episodes (a few lines of dialogue from the Smoking Man who appears but once again has nothing to say might’ve clarified this a little to the viewer) but clear there is a legitimate attempt to bring him down. There’s at least a little bit of a possibility that having failed to kill him in Piper Maru, they think that he’s more vulnerable this way, and they do move through the cleanup of witnesses as effectively as they do when they’re cleaning up some of the other conspiracies we’ve seen them do on this series.
Mitch Pileggi gives arguable his best performance on the series since Paper Clip, even though some would complain that there’s a certain level of restraint in his performance. However, at this point we see that this is the level of control and discipline that he has maintained throughout the series. This is a man who likes things in simple black and white answers, and who has been forced to live in the grey. As a result, the only way we learn that he clearly respects Mulder is when his soon-to-be ex-wife tells him as such. And its very clear that being in a position of authority has cost him dearly. Despite his brave monologue at Sharon’s bedside, the next time we see him he will clearly be living alone, and his wife is not so much as mentioned for the remainder of the series. It is for that reason that when the case is concluded and Skinner has been reinstated, the most thanks that he can give is for the speedy process. Then it’s back to business as usual, and the facade goes back up, not to be lowered again for a very long time.
Where the episode stumbles quite seriously is in the final act. Up until this point, there are two possible explanations for what has happened—- some ghostly spirit that has been shading Skinner ever since his ‘death’ in Vietnam, or this is some kind of frame up. Unfortunately, Gordon refuses to decide which one for the end, and that doesn’t help, because one contradicts the other. If the FBI was trying to frame him, what was the luminescent substance that was found on the prostitutes body, and how did he know where to go in order to save Scully? And if the old woman was trying to protect him, then the plot to frame him doesn’t make much sense. This is something that could have been resolved but the denouement gives us nothing, and decides to let Skinner’s silence speak for itself— except it doesn’t.
Ultimately, this stumble doesn’t take away from the episode’s strength, which is as a character study of one of the key parts of the series. And by admitting that the series has other characters to study at all, it means The X-Files has shifted slightly. We won’t learn more until later seasons, but right now, it seems like the show might be more than its two leads, which might end up helping it.
My score: 3.25 stars.