The X Files Revisited: 3.21 Avatar
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. Avatar delves deep into the personal life of Assistant Director Walter Skinner, cementing his place as a pivotal character in the show...
Avatar is quite an important episode in the show's mythology; it is the first time Skinner encounters an X File. Stalked by a succubus, he finds himself framed for murder in a ploy to discredit and kick him out of the FBI and remove a key ally in Mulder and Scully's search for the truth. But while there are some strong moments in this episode, it also struggles somewhat to define whether it is a supernatural on conspiracy thriller episode. In truth it probably should have been the latter, but the trouble with genre shows is that they always feel the need to have the genre hook and for Skinner it is the visions of the old woman stalking him.
Still it is a good story for Skinner and the chance for Mitch Pileggi to stretch his acting chops. We certainly see the softer side to him in his complicated relationship with soon-to-be divorced ex wife Sharon. We also see him at him at his most vulnerable, perhaps more so than his shooting in Piper Maru / Apocrypha a few episodes earlier. His life may have hung in the balance in that episode but here his faced with surviving without the love of his life and his all-consuming work.
The conspiracy angle is by far the more successful element of this story. An emotionally broken Skinner, refusing to sign divorce papers, meets a young woman (an early role for Stargate SG1's Amanda Tapping ) and ends up having a one night stand. When he wakes, he finds her dead and himself the prime suspect. From their Mulder and Scully, who have come to trust and respect Skinner, fight to uncover the truth and prove his innocence even when the evidence is stacked against him. This is all standard detective murder-mystery fare and at times feels a little unremarkable. However considering what we know is at stake and strong performances from Pileggi, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, the episode flows nicely even if it feels a little uninspired at times.
The most interesting angle is Skinner's refusal to take a polygraph test and Scully's struggle against the incriminating evidence. She even suggests her boss killed the woman in his sleep by accident after seeking treatment for REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder. It is certainly the most believable - if disturbing - option and the episode cleverly holds out from delivering another viable suspect for the majority of proceedings.
I also like the power struggle taking place. A scene between Mulder and Skinner in an interrogation room is observed by a brief appearance from the Cigarette Smoking Man. We say him take action against Skinner's insubordination by having him shot in Piper Maru and here it is assumed he is taking more nefarious means. Scully is forced to defend Skinner in a FBI hearing conducted by the very agents who worked with Skinner to have her suspended in The Blessing Way. Recurring FBI agent Pendrell make another appearance, this time working with Mulder to prove Skinner is innocent and together they find another suspect hired to kill the woman - revealed to be a prostitute (unbeknownst to Skinner) and later run his ex-wife off the road.
Mulder and Scully tracking down the prostitute's boss (later killed in a grisly fall out of a window) and then using poor Judy as bait to lure the killer out is a big deviation from the supernatural but works well sandwiched between the hilarious and bizarre alien abduction tale (Jose Chung's "From Outer Space") and the loch-ness monster-style tale that is Quagmire. The scene at the hotel where the killer knocks out Scully and is then shot and killed by Skinner is right out of a tense thriller.
As as to how he gets there, that is where the supernatural comes in. You'll probably have noted that the story flows quite well without the presence of the succubus and this is where Avatar falls short. It's a nice idea if a little muddled; after getting shot he finds himself getting visions of the old woman in the red hood and mack (surely a homage to Don't Look Now?) and a chilling scream that wakes him to find the prostitute dead and detectives at his door telling him his wife has been in a car accident. At the same time, in light of conspiracy thriller at play, it makes no sense that she is a vengeful spirit out to kill any woman in his life.
What works better is the idea that she is a guardian spirit, protecting him in the worst moments of his life. Skinner tells Mulder he first saw the old woman when he had the near death experience in Vietnam (a call back to the conversation he shared with Mulder in season two's One Breath) who reappeared again after he was shot. It is certainly in keeping with that last scene between Skinner and his wife in the hospital where his wife is replaced with the vision of the old woman who tells him to go to the hotel to stop the killer. But while audiences don't need detailed explanations (and The X Files rarely gives them) it feels so lightly done that the episode would have worked fine without it.
At the end of Avatar Skinner puts on his wedding ring but we never know whether this is in memory of Sharon who died of her injuries or because she lived and they decided to reconcile. Jennifer Hetrick never made another appearance on the show and we discover years later that Skinner lives alone, suggesting she did die or that their marriage ultimately failed. But then the show was really about Mulder and Scully anyway; this episode is but a fleeting glimpse into the man who becomes their biggest ally in the FBI.
Avatar isn't the strongest of episodes but it does hold up mostly because Walter Skinner is a great character. It came about at the suggestion of David Duchovny who thought he could take a bit of a backseat for one episode, though like Scully he does get a lot of screen time anyway. It is an episode that really cements the assistant director as a pivotal character and continues to deal with the fallout of his standing up to the Cigarette Smoking Man at the start of the season. It arguably made him a more well-rounded character and that is always a good thing...