“S.R. 819” (season 6, episode 9; originally aired 1/17/1999)
In which Skinner has to die to save his own life or… something…
I was looking forward to “S.R. 819,” as I’ve always enjoyed the Skinner-centric hours of this show. Skinner’s such a great character, all hard-boiled and ready to leap into attack if need be, yet also possessed of a rich sense of morality. He’s a complicated character, and even if the act where Skinner warns Mulder and Scully not to pursue something but ultimately has their back had gotten so predictable that the series made a joke about it back in “Triangle,” hey, it’s a fun act to watch play out. The previous Skinner episodes—particularly season four’s fantastic “Zero Sum”—suggest how the conspiracy storyline might have played out if it had a guy who didn’t necessarily believe any of this bullshit but knew he had to dig deeper was at its center. So “S.R. 819” held lots of promise for me as I went back into it. Yet that didn’t really work out as I’d hoped it might.
I wouldn’t say this is a bad episode, but it’s certainly a disappointing one. For one thing, there’s surprisingly little Skinner. He stumbles around for a while, trying to figure out why he has a weird blood disease, then Scully and Mulder leap onto the case while he slowly expires in a hospital bed. The episode has a terrific ending, one that suggests a new twist in the relationships between the characters, but it’s also one that follows an episode filled with lugubrious plotting that doesn’t really go anywhere. The main problem with the episode is that it wants us to believe Skinner would die, but there’s just no good reason to suspect the show would do such a thing. It’s proved remarkably bad at writing people off the show on a permanent basis—see that figure who pops up in the back of Skinner’s car at the end, who’s been left in the middle of nowhere more times than I can count—so when Skinner “dies,” you’re just waiting for the twist.
John Shiban wrote the episode, reportedly, with the thought that Mulder would be the one to die in the episode, then be restored. And while he’s right that it wouldn’t have been very suspenseful to wonder if Mulder was going to die, it’s still not terribly suspenseful to worry about Skinner. Say what you will about the show’s procedural structure, but when it can really get you to care about a guest star of the week, then bump them off, it often makes for the best episodes of the show. There’s very little gas in the idea of Skinner dying, even if the rest of the cast does its damnedest to make us think this is Very Important Stuff. (David Duchovny, in particular, races through this episode and shouts loudly like he can save the whole premise through acting presence.) This leaves a largely fun episode that, nonetheless, feels a little empty until that closing twist.
The episode also makes a structural choice that proves key in how undramatic and turgid it can feel: It opens by showing us Skinner’s death (complete with Skinner voiceover that never again recurs in the episode). It then flashes back 24 hours to show us how he got to this point, but since we suspect that Skinner won’t actually die, we’re just waiting to get caught up, so we can see how he doesn’t perish. Yet the episode takes almost all of its running time returning us to the point where the doctor says, “Let him go” regretfully as he passes away, the nanobots in his bloodstream constructing the walls meant to build a heart attack more rapidly than the doctors can cut through those walls. The stuff we actually came for—which is much, much more exciting than the stuff we’ve been watching—takes up under five minutes of screentime, leaving the whole thing feeling like it’s spent a lot of time just running in place, waiting for us to catch up.
The thing about this is that it would be rather easy to fix. Come up with a different teaser—perhaps where Skinner realizes he’s got some very weird bruises—or shift the storyline so it legitimately opens with Skinner’s death (and he spends the episode searching for the means of his resurrection), and you might have something more structurally sound. As mentioned, the episode suffers because Skinner ultimately drops out of it for too long, when it’s ostensibly his story. Part of the fun of the conspiracy episodes (which this proves to be) in the later seasons has been in watching the characters other than Mulder and Scully deal with the massive plot they’re caught up in. And to be sure, watching Skinner chasing down his poisoner and getting involved in a gunfight in a parking garage is good, often riveting stuff. But the Mulder and Scully scenes feel fairly standard and rote, with only the bits where Scully’s trying to figure out what’s multiplying so rapidly in his bloodstream having any urgency to them.
Fortunately, the episode is saved by its plot, which is fairly fun. The idea of a conspiracy being enacted to ship nanotechnology out of the U.S. and into other countries, for presumably nefarious ends, is at least a nice break from the alien storyline, and it’s always fun to see characters like Senator Matheson, people who are on the extreme edges of the storyline. I also enjoyed Dr. Orgel, whose motives remained just shady enough to be genuinely intriguing until the full plot became evident. One of the great things about conspiracy stories is the way that they reinforce our beliefs that humanity isn’t to be trusted, that most people will immediately give in to their own self-interest when push comes to shove. And in that sense, the scenes where Matheson steadily sells everybody else out in order to keep his life are good, and the one where Mulder confronts Matheson at the power plant as the senator stands over Orgel’s lifeless body is the closest the episode comes to replicating the feel of conspiracy episodes from seasons two and three.
And then there’s that ending! In retrospect, it should have been obvious that Krycek was the man behind the “poisoning” of Skinner. The character hasn’t been featured in season six, and you knew he was going to come back sooner or later. Plus, as soon as you see the ridiculous beard Skinner’s poisoner wears, it should be obvious what’s happening. Yet the closing moments play as a fun shock, and the way that they restore the old status quo of Skinner’s allegiances being in question without assassinating the character are great, too. The idea of Skinner having something that could kill him instantly in his bloodstream, something that puts him under the conspiracy’s control, is a fantastic one, and even if the show doesn’t do much with it, ultimately, it’s still fun to watch Krycek’s devilish plot play out. “S.R. 819” has its problems, but it’s worth it for that final moment, that minor demon who claws his way back out of the abyss and makes life hell for everybody else.
- I had never realized Raymond J. Barry—perhaps best known now as Raylan’s dad on Justified—played Senator Matheson. It’s good to see you, Raymond!
- More evidence the “The X-Files have been shut down!” plot doesn’t work as well as it might have: Mulder gets involved in the plot because he just decides to stop by Skinner’s office for no real reason.
- The makeup effects on Skinner are legitimately terrifying. I love the way they pulse when he’s approaching death.
“Omertà” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired 12/18/1998)
In which Millennium offers a very special Christmas episode…
I want to hate “Omertà.” I really do. It does nearly everything wrong, starting from the very strange decision to attempt to do a heartwarming Christmas episode of this show. But then I think back on the way that a major emotional pivot point of the episode was two women with undefinable, sorta-European accents, who might have been angels, pushing a once-dead mobster (played as broadly as possible by Coen Brothers regular Jon Polito) around on a swing while he cackled with glee. Seriously. This was meant to be a heartwarming, moving moment, complete with the mournful music playing underneath and the shocker of having one of the two women get shot ending the scene and everything else. It’s just such a poorly judged moment, something that so utterly misses the mark, that I can’t help but like it just a little bit. Everybody’s trying so hard here, and it comes off as remarkably cheesy and remarkably stupid at the same time. Cheesy and stupid are two things I can build up a little affection for.
The episode starts off with the murder of said mobster, only to show him dragged off into the woods by a female figure (who turns out to be one of the two maybe-angels). We then cut to one of the laziest storytelling devices in all of crime-based TV: Frank is on vacation, and he stumbles upon an impossible case. When he sees a naked man wandering by the side of the road—Jordan asks what it is, and Frank says, “A naked man,” like it’s the most important thing to ever have happened—he also sees the cops haul him in and figures he doesn’t need to get involved. Oh! But he does! The cops come to ask him to come in, because they’ve heard of him and need his expertise figuring out just why the naked man turned up in a coat with 16 bullet holes in it. We in the audience know that it’s probably because he ended up in the mobster’s coat, but it takes everybody else a little while to catch up.
That might be fine if we were headed somewhere that didn’t completely leave the ground and float off into the realm of utter and total insanity. But that’s exactly what happens, as the show wanders fairly far afield of where it started out and ends up in a place where Frank is attempting to help the once-dead mobster protect the two maybe-angels he refers to as his “girls” by staging the explosion of an ambulance. Also, along the way, we get the idea that maybe the two women will resurrect Catherine Black, learn all about the town’s local Sasquatch Littlefoot (who turns out to just be the mobster), and watch a bizarre advent calendar-esque framing device. The music is cloying and overbearing, and the whole thing tries so damn hard to be the perfect Christmas episode of Millennium that it ends up trying a lot of things and being good at none of them. It’s overambitious to a fault, but it also doesn’t seem to have asked itself once if something is worth doing just because you can attempt it.
There are elements of a good episode here. I like the notion of Frank and Jordan getting wrapped into a case that makes them look back at Catherine quite a bit. Polito’s performance doesn’t stop at hammy when it can head all the way toward canned Spam, but it grows on you after a while, especially when it becomes apparent he’s going for something more akin to comic relief than anything else. I like that the show never bothers explaining just who Lhasa and Rose are, instead leaving us to figure out who they might be, even if all of the answers seem to boil down to “angels,” this being a Christmas tale and all. (Actually, I read an interesting theory somewhere online that these girls were just born with this healing—or resurrection—gift, and God chose to “hide them away,” so they wouldn’t be placed in some sort of zoo for people with mystical powers. I’m not sure how it would work, but I prefer that idea to angels.) And I like the idea of Littlefoot turning out to be a guy who’s supposed to be dead and very quickly comes to regret that he’s not when he gets dragged back into the world of the living. There are the pieces of a good episode here, even if they stubbornly refuse to cohere.
I suspect a lot of this stems from the fact that the episode is yet another one that seems to be aiming for a sort of X-Files-lite tone, and that’s a tone that rarely works on Millennium. In the show’s second season, it found a good way to do a supernatural Christmas story in the exemplary “Midnight Of The Century” (one of my favorite Christmas episodes ever made), but it flails at the same attempt here. To be honest, this story might have worked (even with all of these weird elements) with Mulder and Scully at the center. With Frank at the center, it takes too long to get to the essentially supernatural story of women with healing powers and the mobster who loves them. The show also isn’t quite sure just how far it can push all of this. How saccharine can it be? How much can it try to tell a genuinely heartwarming tale, and how much should it lean on its familiar tricks? When the episode takes an abrupt turn back into misery porn when Lhasa gets shot while pushing Eddie (our mobster) on the swing, it feels random and horrifying. Granted, that’s often a good thing for an act of violence in a story to accomplish, but it’s hard to see there being any reason for this to happen, other than to goose the drama.
All of this leaves us with the episode’s twin emotional cores: the relationship between Eddie and the “girls” and Frank and Jordan mourning Catherine. Having both of them at the same time ends up shortchanging both, even as each has nice moments. Since we never get a real sense of just what Eddie and the maybe-angels were like while hanging out in that cave together, that leaves us wondering just why he’s so devoted to them (other than the fact that they brought him back to life), and since the Frank and Jordan story about Catherine occasionally drops in for a moment here or there, it never gets the time needed to really gain emotional weight. These moments are added here and there for cheap effect, and it never stops being ineffective. There are all kinds of almost-great episodes clattering around in here, but they never add up to anything more than a bunch of false starts. The episode wants to be about miracles and mysteries, but it rather frustratingly refuses to commit to either.
- I’m always amused when law enforcement officials know Frank by sight. Is there some sort of “best law enforcement officials EVER” website that everybody tracks his exploits on?
- The Littlefoot stuff is really strange. It drops in out of nowhere, then is lifted right back out within minutes. You’d think it would have been removed entirely at some point in the scripting stage, but no, there it is, mucking up the story for no real reason.
- I got awfully sick of that sickly sweet soprano piece that kept popping up on Mark Snow’s score.
Next week: Zack checks out a great, underrated X-Files with “Tithonus,” then hopes things get better for Frank with “Borrowed Time.”