The X Files: 11.06 Kitten
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Assistant Director Walter Skinner was always the third hero of The X Files. From a by-the-book antagonistic boss to Mulder and Scully to a close ally in their fight for the truth, he had quite the journey in the show. There was a particularly strong growth to his character after witnessing Mulder's alien abduction in season seven's Requiem and the subsequent events of season eight and nine, working closely with Doggett on great episodes like The Gift and defending Mulder in The Truth. We even got some personal Skinner-centric stories once a year from season three, from to Avatar to Zero Sum, giving audiences insight into what this man's motivations were.
Which was made his return in the season 10 revival all the frustrating; all that character growth seemed to be gone and he was back to being the antagonistic boss of the season two era. This is why fans were so excited when they heard that Skinner would get much greater focus in season 11 with an episode that would explore his past. Unfortunately Kitten wasn't quite the revelatory episode we were all hoping for.
That's not to say that it was a bad episode - it was firmly in the 'good' category of last week's Ghouli - but it wasn't that big episode that gave new insight into the character while giving the always solid Mitch Pileggi something to get his teeth into. In fact, he was barely in the episode for the first half.
Now, like many fans, I won't say no to getting as much screen time of Mulder and Scully working together in the short space of time we have left. It was also a genuine delight to have James Pickens Jr. make a brief return as Deputy Director Kersh to demand the whereabouts of Mulder and Scully's boss and make a sly remark that there were the cause of his lack of career progression. But had this episode been carried by Pileggi, I would have been happy; he's proven he has the acting chops to carry an episode before and I admit I would have liked more resolution to why he has changed in the days since The X Files returned. As Scully noted, he was a good man but they never really knew him more than professionally and this was a good opportunity to bring some well-needed development and closure to the other character sharing the title sequence.
So what of the story itself? In a dramatic opening, directed with gusto by new director (but long-running script editor Carol Banker), we saw a younger Skinner (Cory Rempel) in the midst of the bloody Vietnam war. His fellow soldier John 'Kitten' James (Haley Joel Osment) is infected with a deadly gas during a violent gun battle and proceeds to murder a terrified band of locals. It sets the scene for something hugely significant in Skinner's past as his absence in the present leads Mulder and Scully to a small town to track their boss and uncover why he received a severed ear from the corpse of a fellow Vietnam vet.
This was the first full script Gabe Rotter and it felt like the mystery aspect was a draft or two from being fully complete. The promise of the opening falls flat after Mulder and Scully discover former vets being targeted in vicious bear traps in the woods while hunting a 'monster'. There is no monster and Skinner, despite the local sheriff's assumptions, is not the man behind the killings. Instead he seems to be wandering around with no direction, until he comes across James' son Davey (also played by Haley Joel Osment). I presume there was supposed to be a moment where we though John hadn't aged; the gas transforming him into an immortal monster might have had more drama, though it probably didn't suit the grittier nature of this tale. The whole sub plot with locals losing their teeth due to crop dusting felt a little under-cooked, despite the 'Ooooo!' ending that made this conspiracy theory all too real.
There was a little insight into Skinner's past - after the murders, Skinner testified against John in a trial while hiding any reference to the gas from orders above and sent his former friend, a man that had been innocent and pure before the infection, to 38 years of incarceration. Somehow, the broken son Davey has become consumed with hate and rage, donned the monster mask and now hunts the men responsible, trapping Skinner in a trap before Mulder and Scully rush to the rescue in the woods. There was certainly some atmosphere in the direction but the underlying story raised a number of questions, never really explaining Davey's motivation, or why the homeless man was saying the name kitten (I presumed this was supposed to be a spooky reference the episode's ambiguous title).
The episode was saved by three things; the skilled direction of the hunting scenes, the always delightful banter between Mulder and Scully and their final scene with Skinner. His assertions that they helped him to fight for the truth after covering it up after Vietnam offered a renewed closeness between the three allies, even if it didn't wrap up any of the continuing storylines with his ties to the Cigarette Smoking Man and other higher powers.
Kitten was enjoyable fare and it was nice to get the focus on Skinner we did; it's just a shame the episode didn't go so much further. Perhaps, like Ghouli before it, this was another set up of the players for the upcoming finale. At least the series has put Skinner back in the 'good guys' camp and we can all be grateful for that.