The X Files Revisited: 4.21 Zero Sum
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The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we'll pick the story highlights of each year. Zero Sum reintroduces the killer bees to the show's wider mythology and has Walter Skinner take centre stage once more...
One of the most interesting elements of season four is how it has layered the mythology of The X Files; we didn't get the the traditional second two-parter established in season two; instead we got two surprising mythology stories scattered among the monsters and serial killers of the week. Memento Mori, which kick started Scully's cancer and tied 'alien abductions' into the colonisation arc saw Skinner make a deal with the devil - the Cigarette Smoking Man - and in Zero Sum we see just how terrible that cost is.
This episode is a sequel to Memento Mori in many ways; Gillian Anderson is absent for the entire episode as Scully's cancer begins to metastasis and she seeks treatment. But the real focus in on Skinner; like last season's Avatar, Mitch Pileggi steps up as the episode's leading man with David Duchvony making only fleeting appearances as Agent Mulder.
After the pre-title sequence reintroduces the killer bees from season opener Herrenvolk and the horrific death of a postal worker taking a cigarette break in the toilet, we spend the next 10 minutes with Skinner as he covers uop the evidence of what happened, deleting files on Mulder's computer to stop his interest in the case, cleaning up any evidence of the bees from the bathroom and then travelling to the morgue to steal the body, dumping it in the furnace of an abanonded factory in the middle of the night, switching blood samples and then pretending to be Agent Mulder in the police parking lot as he is questioned by the detective who sent Mulder photos of the bee attack. It is an intriguing opening, brought to live a focused non-dialogue performance from Pileggi and an ominous musical score by Mark Snow.
Mulder doesn't even appear until 13 minutes in, seeking answers. It turns out he managed to look at the photos before Skinner deleted him and is now hunting the man - Skinner - who covered up the evidence, stole the body and murdered the detective. That's the real hook of the episode; not only is Mulder one step behind an ever more desperate Skinner, but the poor assistant director is also being framed for murder. The tension is not if but when Mulder finds out what his boss has been doing.
By the time Skinner meets with the Cigarette Smoking Man, demanding to know why the detective was killed the realisation that he has been working for the devil ever since Memento Mori becomes tragically clear. "I've handled him, just like I handled everything else you asked me to do. I've followed your instructions." The villain dangles Scully's cure, using the director to cover whatever insidious plans he has going on. Despite seeing the more human side of him in Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man, here he is more evil than ever.
And this is where the episode really gets interesting. Knowing that stopping him now will see him framed, discredited or even killed, Skinner tries to find evidence to use against the Cigarette Smoking Man all while Mulder continues to unwittingly hunt him. Given that this is a Mulder and Scully-lite episode, it could easily have lost the audience's interest but Mitch Pileggi is so great in the role that he carries the episode effortlessly and we are with him all the way.
Skinner's search for evidence leads to a surprise connection - Laurie Holden's Marita Covarrubias - and evidence of the beehive project first glimpsed in Herrenvolk. This is the episode that really establishes what they are about; genetically engineered insects designed to infect the population with smallpox as part of the wider colonisation arc. "Shall we presume the trial run is proceeding as planned? the Cigarette Smoking Man's shadowy colleague the First Elder asks. "It's already begun." the series' main villain chillingly replies.
And that leads us to the episode's most chilling moment, the bees swarming on a busy playground, kids screaming as they run for their lives while they are stung and infected with the long dead disease. The kid watching from safety as the teacher who saved him dies screaming as the bees swarm her body is particularly disturbing.
Mulder meanwhile discovers that Skinner is the suspect in the cap he found on surveillance footage of the night the detective was murdered. Duchovny effectively conveyed Mulder's betrayal in the scene where he confronts Skinner at gunpoint but thankfully the show doesn't choose to return to the early days where their relationship was much more antagonistic. Skinner and Mulder have gone through so much already that I liked Mulder's dedication to help save his boss from the murder for which he was framed.
And in so in turn, Skinner finds himself pushed to the limit, with his actions not only covering up the death of the woman killed by bees and the murder of the detective but the horror inflicted upon the children in the playground. Pileggi continues to deliver one of his best performances yet as he in turn confronts the Cigarette Smoking Man in his apartment, raging that the villain as no intention at saving Scully. While the Cigarette Smoking Man keeps his bravado during their confrontation, Skinner shooting several bullets into the wall near his head leaves him shaking.
My real gripe with the episode is the ending; after such a build up it ends so abruptly you're left wondering what happens next. Scully isn't cured, Skinner appears to be free and safe from prosecution and Marita Covarrubias reveals herself to be working for the Cigarette Smoking Man but it gives the audience no answers. And so, while Zero Sum delivers a strong episode for Mitch Pileggi to get his teeth into and establishes another piece in the mythology puzzle it doesn't really give the audience anything satisfying in return. It is a gripping episode for sure but also indicative of the mythology stringing along, adding complexity without giving the audience answers. It's the first time where you have to question - was there an endgame to Chris Carter's big story or was he making it up as he went along?