On this episode of The X-Files, we learn that Assistant Director Walter Skinner’s (Mitch Pileggi) nickname in the Vietnam War was “Eagle,” a moniker derived, as Mulder (David Duchovny) conjectures, from Skinner’s gentlemanly baldness, even though a cold open flashback and a series of photographs from his deployment depict the erstwhile X-Files ally sporting a full head of youthful locks. Granted, Mulder’s attachment of “Eagle” to the bird’s white dome and not its American-ness could be a coincidence, as could be Skinner’s late-in-life loss of hair, but none of this episode’s writing (scripted by Gabe Rotter, a regular series crew member in his first credited screenplay) leaves that nickname open to ambiguous deduction, which means that it simply exists. It’s semi-clever connecting tissue, not meant to be questioned, nor to anecdotally lead a whole review about the episode in which it unfortunately appears.
Were that episode—called “Kitten” after another of Skinner’s war buddy’s nicknames—more functional than a mid-season reminder that Skinner is still a main character, with main-character-level backstory we’ve previously not been privy to, who, up until this point in his arc, may’ve been far too embroiled in shady dealings with the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), and therefore more of a liability to Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) than friend. Were that episode a compelling examination of Skinner’s dubious place within The X-Files mythos, an attempt not to explain but to dissect the background of a person who’s devoted his life to serving a government he knows full well doesn’t deserve such loyalty, a career law enforcement man who, after 40-plus years of that service, has finally found himself at a point where he has to make a choice: between the edifice he’s spent a lifetime building, and the moral truth he’s spent a lifetime of complicity covering up. Were “Kitten” that episode, we might rejoice in such a historically overlooked character given, after all this time, some serious ethical attention besides the crisis at hand whenever Mulder and Scully find themselves in a pickle beyond their purviews.
“Kitten” is not that episode. Essentially, though, it operates as a way to understand the precarious role Skinner holds in Mulder and Scully’s lives, implying that he’s been knowledgeable of the government’s nefarious doings since long before he held any position of importance—a revelation that’s admittedly important to the 11th season’s narrative arc, since Mulder and Scully have spent much of the past season relying on Skinner while never quite trusting him, and we all know how important “trust” is to The X-Files. In “Kitten,” a message alluding to an event in Vietnam, in which Skinner witnessed first-hand the U.S. government’s trial run in biological warfare—in this case, mind-control gas that convinces those exposed that they’re being attacked by monsters (see last week’s “Ghouli” for more government mind-control chicanery), codenamed “MK Naomi”—draws the Assistant Director into a clandestine hunt for his old army pals and whatever dirty secrets have been buried. Contacted by known stick-in-the-mud Deputy Director Kersh (James Pickens Jr.), a man still berating Mulder and Scully for their “spooky” work like he’s just chronically out of the loop—because at this point you probably couldn’t walk five steps in the FBI without stumbling upon some recently declassified shocker—our two agents travel to Mud Lick, Kentucky, to find Skinner finding Kitten.
Skinner doesn’t find Kitten, but instead pretty handily stumbles upon his son, Davey (Haley Joel Osment, proving to be a formidable character actor in adulthood), who, no doubt due to his dad’s exposure to the MK Naomi monster gas, has become a full-on conspiracy nut, replete with ascetic life outside town in a Unabomber-ish cabin, much like Mulder’s. In the ensuing confrontation, Skinner suffers a horrible injury (without revealing too much, combine “wooden stake” and “liver” in your head), which sets the stage for Mulder and Scully to stop by, confront Davey and save the day. Mulder, of course, sympathizes with Davey, and in their small scene together, the strength of the show’s subtle ability to present intriguing character parallels, for a moment, exists simply without comment, Duchovny watching Osment with a mix of admiration and terror, perhaps seeing in the poor recluse a life he could have led had he not found Scully. The specter of an alternative life, another timeline, emerges without beating the point into the viewer’s forehead.
The whole mess resolves as one might expect, though in the aftermath of the episode’s climax, as Scully patches up Skinner’s open, gaping wound and Skinner gets up to walk around rather fitfully and probably even drive himself home—a feat Mulder and Scully (who is a medical doctor, remember) do not comment upon, as if a wooden stake going clear through your abdomen is nothing for a seasoned FBI agent—Skinner officially vows his allegiance to Mulder, Scully and the truth. In turn, Mulder and Scully affirm that they trust Skinner, that they are “with” him as together the trio moves into the last leg of their biggest season yet. The whole life-threatening organ-piercing thing was both literally and figuratively an upping of stakes to push Skinner to this place, nothing more. Which is why he gets up and walks away. Which is why his Vietnam nickname doesn’t need to make logical sense.
What this development in the relationship between the agents and their long-time boss doesn’t account for are the previous ten seasons of Skinner’s waning faith in the goodness of the United States government, nor the fact that Skinner witnessed the deplorable effects of government experimentation way before he ever entered the FBI and climbed its ranks. “Kitten,” then, does not earn the emotional resolution it flaunts, because, as evocative as Pileggi can be as an often underutilized actor, the weight of 50 years of complicity with the government’s blatantly evil methods of warfare does not make its way into Skinner’s confessional outpouring. Perhaps that guilt lies underneath Eagle losing all of his hair, but a man who at a very young age witnessed his friend’s frequent slaughter of innocent Vietnamese civilians due to his own government’s sinister actions is not the same man who gets a pass all these years later after almost 20 years of further witnessing the disastrous outcomes of the same kind of subterfuge. Just more sloppy retconning on behalf of a show which, it looks to be the case more and more each week, is using its possible final season as a way to make excuses for a reputation for sloppy retconning.
A simple Google search will unearth enough conspiracy theories about where The X-Files is ultimately headed, and I’m more and more convinced that we’ll soon learn of a massive, heretofore unknown web of alternate realities governing the contradictions and lapses in logic we’ve previously tried to ignore. Maybe the timeline in which Reggie Something was a founder of the X-Files is as “real” as the timeline in which Season Ten never happened, or as real as the timeline in which the apocalypse foretold at the end of Season Nine occurred, and the aliens did colonize, and CSM did die in New Mexico. Maybe, but that would also mean The X-Files has no stakes, that the show’s narrative continuity will always be at the mercy of further plot lines, retconned and re-explained until they fit. It faces the same problem that the Mission: Impossible films and Pretty Little Liars faced: When you have characters who wear masks that allow them to be anybody, then it hardly matters what happens to whom or when. When you open your sci-fi show to infinite timelines, it hardly matters what is real for whom, or when, or why—it hardly matters what the “truth” is anymore.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention. You can follow him on Twitter.