X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the X-Files television series.The past never leaves us. It flickers in our subconscious—hazy, nagging memories—until something (a sight, a smell, some other trigger) stokes it. All of an instant, where we are becomes where we were, a cognitive dissonance that FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) surely perceive at the beginning of “Kitten” (the sixth episode of The X-Files’ eleventh season, written by Gabe Rotter and directed by Carol Banker) when they walk into the office of Deputy Director Alvin Kersh (James Pickens, Jr.).
“I’m gonna ask you once and only once,” he says in his stock surly tone. “Where is he?” We’ll get to who “he” is in a moment. First it behooves us to consider if the Kersh Mulder and Scully encounter here jives with the Kersh they last interacted with in the original series finale, “The Truth.” Always an exasperatingly one-note character from his first appearance in Season 6’s “The Beginning,” Kersh is a by-the-book ball-buster with an absolute contempt for Mulder and Scully’s exploits. But in “The Truth” he became, none-too-convincingly, an ally—instrumental in helping the two agents he’d freely disdained go on the run from an alien-infiltrated FBI. Now it’s back to scornful business as usual. The only evidence that Mulder and Scully haven’t somehow time-traveled to the early aughts is that everyone looks their age, though can even that be trusted?
Character inconsistency and contradiction of past actions is an X-Files hallmark. Sloppy writing? “Sure, fine, whatever,” as a much younger, not-quite-herself Scully said in Season 3’s “Syzygy.” (I myself long ago made peace with the series’ tendency to incongruity of all kinds—a byproduct, I’d argue, of creator Chris Carter and his collaborators navigating the fraught terrain between what’s expected of the show and what it needs to be.) Viewed another way, all these rote behavioral traits illustrate one of The X-Files’ overarching themes—that people, with minor variation, are effectively trapped within themselves, engaged in the same Sisyphean struggles internally even as circumstances change and the world moves on. Kersh will always be an arrogant thorn in the side. Mulder will always believe in extreme possibilities to a fault. Scully will always revel in balloon-popping skepticism. And what about Assistant Director Walter Sergei Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), Mulder and Scully’s direct superior, and the “he” in Kersh’s query? He’ll always be a loyalties-waffling enigma, even though “Kitten” fills in some of the blanks in his backstory.
Skinner has mentioned his wartime service before, specifically in the essential Season 2 episode “One Breath,” in which he monologues to Mulder about several shattering experiences in Vietnam. One of his recollections from that installment is unflinchingly visualized here—his killing of a young Vietnamese suicide bomber who wanders into the American base camp—as well as some previously unmentioned memories revolving around fellow soldier John “Kitten” James (Haley Joel Osment). The teaser sequence, its visuals treated so as to look like the grainy celluloid of another era, lays it out: Somewhere near Khe Sanh in 1969, Kitten and Skinner (played as a young man by Cory Rempel, Mitch Pileggi’s nephew) are part of a platoon tasked with transporting a sealed crate marked “MK Naomi.” While under fire, the cargo is riddled with bullets, and a green gas is released that makes the up-to-then meek Kitten see horrifying visions and go on a killing spree. Skinner intervenes, but Kitten emerges a fully changed man, cruel and callous, prone to tooth loss (a side-effect of the MK Naomi fumes), and fond of slicing off the ears of his Vietnamese adversaries.
In the intervening years, Skinner and Kitten lose touch, for reasons that come out over the course of the episode. And now the Assistant Director has gone AWOL. Kersh tasks Mulder and Scully with finding him, but not before cold-bloodedly revealing that they are the main reason that Skinner has never advanced in his career. His support of the duo, dubious as it is at times, has tainted any image of him as a company man. So out of much more than professional curiosity, Mulder and Scully track their boss to the small Kentucky town of Mud Lick, which is home to multiple Vietnam vets (also inclined to tooth loss), to a government hospital that appears to be conducting nefarious experiments, to a monster running rampant in the nearby woods, and to Kitten’s son Davey (also Osment), who appears unduly affected by his father’s terrifying experiences overseas.
The bulk of the episode takes place in and around Davey’s forest trailer, a claustrophobic setting where a handful of characters ponder and pick apart what they think they know about each other. Casting Osment, expert at unnerving creepiness, in a dual role as father and son is a perfect embodiment of the story’s themes of stagnancy. Even between generations, the James family is caught in a kind of doomed moral and psychological loop. The root cause hardly matters anymore because it’s clear escape and redemption of any kind is impossible. A key lyric from John Cale’s 1974 song “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend,” which underscores several scenes: “We’re already dead, just not yet in the ground.”
I’ve speculated that Season 11 might be a kind of life-flashing-before-the-eyes purgatory for Mulder and Scully. But even if it’s proven that they’re not still on that Washington D.C. bridge awaiting obliteration by extraterrestrial death ray, there will still be a degree to which this year is about, for good and for ill, going through habitual motions. “A War Is Never Over,” states the altered tagline of this episode’s opening credits. That’s direct reference to Skinner’s life-changing experience—one that haunts him still—in Vietnam. But it’s also alluding to the larger battles, within and without, to which each character dedicates their energies, to often jaded ends.
At what point does the fight for truth become an idle struggle? “If it wasn’t for you two I wouldn’t be here right now,” says Skinner to Mulder and Scully late in the episode. He means it as a compliment. Their work on the X-Files taught him, he says, “to have the guts to shine a light directly into the darkest corners.” But there’s also an unwittingly resentful tinge to his statement, the subtext along the lines of “this is the only life I know…thanks a lot, guys!” It’s quite possible Skinner may just have traded one kind of prison (of blissful ignorance) for another (of helpless indecision). It’s one thing to say you’re inspired to gaze into the depths of the individual and collective soul, and quite another to actually do it.
As ever, the Assistant Director talks a good game (and no doubt, to some degree, a genuine one), though his underlying motive is clearly to get a skeptical Mulder and Scully fully back on his side. When Mulder finally says, “we’re with you,” Pileggi brilliantly plays Skinner’s reaction—a subtle shift of the eyes, a world-wearied nod of the head. You can tell he wants to say more (we know, for example, that he’s holding back some crucial information about Mulder and Scully’s on-the-run son William). But he bites his tongue and turns away, hiding his dejection beneath exhaustion. As he walks out of the trailer, he raises his hand to his mouth and wiggles a bloody tooth free. The rot inside can only be contained for so long.
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• One other line from the John Cale song that resonated with me and my own thoughts on Mulder and Scully’s decades-long quest: “Life and death are things you just do when you’re bored.”
• It should be mentioned, in light of the uproar that occurred as Season 11 was going into production, that this is only the third episode of The X-Files directed by a woman, after Season 7's "all things" (by Scully herself, Gillian Anderson) and Season 9's "John Doe" (by Michelle MacLaren, who would go on to do superb work on a number of series, including Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, both created by former X-F writer Vince Gilligan). The eighth episode of this season, "Familiar," also has a woman, Holly Dale, at the helm. Here, I'm especially enamored of how Banker shoots Davey's trailer so that, even when looking in from the outside, it feels cramped and weighed down by the varied torments of its inhabitants.
• My apologies to readers for the lateness of this recap. As many writers have said before and many more will surely say after, I hit a wall and needed some time to recharge. Fortunately, my “writer’s blockade” (to use Fran Lebowitz’s term) coincided with a three-week hiatus between episodes, so there’s no additional backlog. The next new X-Files installment, which I’m quite excited for as it’s apparently a near-dialogue-free entry featuring only Mulder and Scully, airs on Wednesday, February 28th. It’s my full intention to be back on the day-or-two-after-airdate publication schedule. Thank you for bearing with the delay.