"Kitten" is the sixth episode of the eleventh season of The X-Files. It was written by Gabe Rotter, directed by Carol Banker and stars Haley Joel Osment and Cory Rempel as young Walter Skinner.
At the FBI Headquarters, Deputy Director Alvin Kersh is questioning Mulder and Scully about the whereabouts of Assistant Director Walter Skinner. It seems that Skinner has gone AWOL and the Bureau wants him back. In no ambiguous terms, Kersh lets the agents know that Skinner is in trouble, and then tells them that the reason Skinner never advanced up the FBI career ladder was his loyalty to the two of them.
Scully and Mulder's search for their renegade boss leads them to the small town of Mud Lick where someone is killing locals. All the evidence points to Skinner being the murderer, but the agents immediately suspect that there is something else at play. The agents also find out that most of the residents of Mud Lick have been losing their teeth for no apparent reason.
Meanwhile, Skinner is in Mud Lick to pay a visit to his old war buddy, John "Kitten" James after having received a cryptic message from him – a severed ear and a note that says, “The monster are here”. Instead of James, Skinner meets his now grown-up son, Davey. Through flashbacks and the strained dialogue between Skinner and Davey we learn that both Skinner and James have been exposed to an experimental weaponized gas during the war. The exposure made Skinner hallucinate and transformed James from a kindhearted young man to a sociopathic killing machine. James got court martialed for his war crimes and Skinner was forbidden from mentioning their exposure to the poison gas. James was committed to a mental institution outside of Mud Lick where, according to Davey scientists continued experimenting on him in their pursuit to perfect the weaponized gas.
A true conspiracy theorist, Davey is convinced that the military is exposing the public to this gas by spreading it with the help of pesticides and commercial air traffic. According to Davey, they do it as a means to mind control the population.
Davey offers to take Skinner to his father but instead lures him into a trap, injuring Skinner in the process. He is rescued by Mulder and Scully. They then chase Davey into the woods, until he’s killed by one of his own booby traps.
While Scully is tending to Skinner's wound, she and Mulder have a heart-to-heart with their boss. Instead of confirming their fears that his allegiance with the dynamic duo has stagnated his career, Skinner admits that it was his loyalty to them that helped him maintain his moral compass, and not to ignore the hard truth about his job. He then vows to do right by his friend who had been wronged by the government.
In the last shot of Skinner, we see him pull out one of his teeth. And in the epilogue, we see a crop duster spraying a field with a yellow gas as Davey's warnings about government conspiracies are repeated in voiceover.
|Is it too late to ship these two?|
Before delving into the depths of this episode, I want to go back twenty-two years, to the late season three episode, titled "Avatar". In that episode, Skinner's loyalty to Scully and Mulder becomes a problem for Cancerman, so he tries to frame the A.D. for murdering a prostitute. Skinner gets cleared much thanks to Mulder's faith in his innocence. This was the first episode to focus on Skinner, and it contributed greatly to exploring his character and his relationship with our heroes.
I can't help but notice the similarities between these two episodes, and in many ways, "Kitten" can be seen as a long-awaited sequel to "Avatar". Both episodes offer tiny glimpses into Skinner's traumatic and paranormal experiences in Vietnam; in both cases Skinner is being punished for his loyalty to his
children agents; finally, both
stories take Skinner's relationship with Mulder and Scully to a new
"Avatar" first aired on April 26, 1996. Since then, there has been a small number of Skinner-centric episodes, but none that delved as deeply into his background as "Kitten", which came over two decades later. Needless to say, Skinner-centric episodes are rare. This may have something to do with the way he was written from the start. A stern stuffed shirt who's married to his job isn't the most fun character to watch. But that doesn't mean that Skinner is a one-dimensional character. He’s actually one of the most complex and controversial characters the show has ever had.
Skinner's background has been revealed bit by tiny bit as the show progressed, and we have seen him grow more with each moral dilemma that he and his agents have faced. In fact, one way to see Skinner's character progression is by looking at how his relationship with Scully and Mulder has changed over the years. Since we don't know much about what kind of man he is outside of his work, we can only measure his growth by looking at the choices he makes as the Assistant Director.
It's still too early to say anything conclusive about season eleven, but I'm going to make a very careful statement and say that so far this season has been very focused. We've had five standalone episodes, and all of them have either been connected to the main mythology or contributed greatly to the characters' growth. So far, we've seen both Scully and Mulder reflect on their lives and reconcile with some of their more difficult choices. Now, it's Skinner's turn.
And yet, "Kitten" almost didn't come to pass. It’s strange how an episode that deals with the backstory of one of the main characters isn’t something that Carter has thought about doing. The idea for the episode was actually pitched by writer’s assistant Gabe Rotter, who thought that it'd be fun to take a deeper look at Skinner's Vietnam experiences, and to explain his loyalty to the most underappreciated FBI agents on the payroll.
Skinner is one of the most important characters in the entire show, and not to have an episode dedicated to him in what will most likely be the final season ever would have been a terrible betrayal of the character. Not to mention a big middle finger to the hardcore fans.
But is "Kitten" any good?
I have to say that the first time I watched this episode, I was a little disappointed: I mean, chemtrails? Really? It felt to me that the writers just took from a grab bag of Internet conspiracy theories. It is something that the show has been guilty of ever since the first season. Be it alien abductions or the Chupacabra, Carter and co have always been happy to borrow from the diverse catalogue of urban legends and conspiracy theories rather indiscriminately.
But as clumsy and on the nose as the poison gas/chemtrails trope may be, it actually serves a great purpose in pushing one of the central narratives of the show; that is the government's crimes against its own citizens. And having Skinner as the main character, the writers can tackle some pretty heavy subject matters, such as the horrors of war, and the government's treatment of veterans.
The chemtrails trope may be older than the urban legend itself. In the season two episode, "Blood" people are being manipulated into committing violent acts after having been exposed to a chemical agent in a pesticide that is used to provoke fear in insects. Similarly, the gas that Skinner and James have been exposed to in "Kitten", provokes fear and violent reactions in the subjects.
|When the Smoking Man goes out for|
So much for the plot. What about the episode itself?
The truth is that after all those Stranger Things and American Horror Stories I have been so desensitized to horror that it's become easy to forget how scary and disturbing The X-Files can be. For instance, I recently rewatched "Squeeze" which is the very first monster-of-the-week episode and I was genuinely creeped out both by the atmosphere and the monster. The scariest of The X-Files are the ones that don't over rely on the physical horror, but instead strive to create a chilling atmosphere and memorable villains. "Kitten" has both.
The star here is, of course, Haley Joel Osment who plays not one but three different characters: the timid pre-poison gas John James, the cold-blooded murderer he came to be, and his tinfoil hat-wearing, animal-abusing, veteran-killing son Davey. Davey is a grade-A creep and Osment's performance will without a doubt put him on the same "wall of fame" with such Big Bads as Donnie Pfaster and the Peacock family. The scariest monsters on The X-Files are humans.
Director Carol Banker does a fantastic job creating a chilling atmosphere, and the actors make you feel the unease and paranoia that these characters are experiencing. There is one particular detail that stuck with me: outside of Davey's dilapidated hunting cabin we see several domestic animals in cages, including a cat. We also see a half-skinned deer hanging in the background. Which begs the question: just what was Davey going to do with these small animals? And the whole time we spent outside the cabin, I wanted to yell at the screen, "Somebody please take those animals out of their cages! They're going to freeze to death!".
Visually, this episode is beautiful, and may be the best looking one of the six we've already seen. There is the familiar X-Files iconography, like the dark woods. There are a lot of dark shadows, and long suspenseful shots. I love the sense of isolation and claustrophobia that Banker creates. There are several shots that remind me of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (say what you want about that movie, but it is scary). And the Vietnam flashbacks feature some of the show’s best action moments. "Kitten" is an episode that is as ambitious as it is competent.
|Think fast, agent Mulder!|
There are a few missed opportunities in this episode,
though. For instance, if the people of Mud Lick are being exposed to an agent
that provokes violent behavior how come the only visible effect of the exposure
is the loss of dentition? Logically, the mass effect would be similar to the
one seen in "Blood", with otherwise normal people going on killing sprees.
Instead, we get a trip to the dentist.
The running theme of this episode is monsters. Both Skinner and James saw monsters when they were exposed to the gas; Davey lures Skinner to Mud Lick with a note that says, "The monster are here". Finally, Davey himself dresses up as a monster when he kills. The message is not a very subtle one: war turns people into monsters. You can also say that the people who were experimenting on James were themselves monsters.
I also want to mention some details that I thought were fun. I have been studying dentistry for a year and a half now, and hearing Scully drop terms like "bicuspids" and "periodontitis" made my ears perk up. And now I wonder what exactly that gas is made of if it makes people loose their teeth.
The other "detail" that I thought was fun was the brief return of Deputy Director Kersh. Actor James Pickens Jr. was able to take a break in his busy schedule filming Grey's Anatomy for this little cameo, something that I'm grateful for. Kersh was first introduced in season six, as yet another antagonist to Mulder and Scully, and one more tool of the Powers that be to keep the agents from doing their job. In many ways, Kersh was filling in for Skinner, whose allegiances have shifted early on in the series. And Kersh filled that role pretty well. His antagonism towards the duo culminated in the season nine finale, "The Truth" immediately followed by his last-minute redemption, when he helped Mulder escape from prison.
Seeing him now, sixteen years later as the same unsympathetic suit with a stick up his behind is a disappointment. But maybe our heroes do have a reluctant ally in Kersh. After all, he could have ordered any other agent to look for Skinner, but he chose Scully and Mulder. And I do read his little speech in the beginning as a warning for the agents to tread carefully.
I didn't mean to ramble on about Kersh so much, I just love seeing secondary characters make appearances, however brief they may be.
"Kitten" works on many levels and has many things to say about politics, war, and the effect the two can have on the human psyche. Above all, "Kitten" is a much welcome, and a very well-done study of the character that has meant so much for the show and its success. With Cancerman's secret still being safe with Skinner, the A.D. is still not out of the doghouse (as far as the viewers are concerned), but just like Mitch Pileggi himself, I like to believe that what Skinner says about Mulder and Scully being his moral compass is true. Skinner is a complicated person. His worldview may have been shaped by his environment, but he has worked hard to find his own place in the government food chain, and to stand up for what he believes is right, even at the cost of his career and - in some instances - his own life.
Sources and links
SyFyWire Exclusive: X-Files' Mitch Pileggi and Writer Gabe Rotter Spill the Secrets of Skinner's Past
TV Line: The X-Files Star, Scribe Break Down Skinner's Devotion to Mulder and Scully