In Which Skinner Tries To Save The Day By Pretending It Never Happened
The X-Files was never big on supporting casts. We have Mulder, we have Scully, and that, generally, is enough. It's hard to think of a successful show currently airing that brings in this many new characters each week; most procedurals have ensembles four, five actors deep, to orbit around each episode's central mystery like a bunch of snarky, comforting planets. Not so much on The X-Files, though, where much of our time is spent meeting people we'll only know for the hour (or less, if their luck fails). This doesn't always work very well. In the show's worst one-off episodes, not even Mulder and Scully can generate enough goodwill to get us through the weak story hooks, and it can sometimes seem like we're just cycling through group after group of anonymous cannon fodder in order to get to some nonsensical stinger ending. Even solid episodes have the difficult task of introducing us into a new world, and getting us to care about it, in a few scant scenes. To deal with this, we have our recurring heroes, who often serve as audience surrogates, and we also have a fairly well-established structure.
That structure is easy to mock, because we're all clever and familiarity breeds contempt and so forth. But it's actually pretty useful, providing the sense of stability you'd normally get from a larger ensemble. We know most of the cold opens on the show are introducing us to that week's threat, so we know we can expect to be freaked out or scared. We know that when the show comes back from its first commercial break, more likely than not, Mulder and Scully will be hanging out, giving us the backstory on whatever it was we watched before the title sequence. And so on. It can get repetitive from time to time, but it's solid, and solidity is important for TV (for storytelling in general, really). Plus, it means whenever the show decides to break from that structure, we sit up and take notice. Especially when the break is as startlingly effective as what we get in "Zero Sum."
"Sum" is a mythology episode, which means it's already playing with structure; myth episodes tend to be looser, with a handful of recurring villains, and a greater sense of personal involvement for our heroes. At first, this one looks like a standard MotW. A postal worker sneaks off to the bathroom for a smoke break, the bathroom fills with bees, and the lady dies screaming. While bees have a certain history on this show, our first real confirmation that something strange is going on (beyond, y'know, that instant bee swarm in the women's restroom) is when we cut to Assistant Director Walter Skinner deleting the woman's case file off someone's computer. The full reveal isn't until the very end, when a convenient ray of light illuminates the name plate of the office's true resident (there's a musical sting here, and a couple other places through the episode, that is hilariously overwrought), but fans will most likely guess the truth before they read "FOX MULDER." There's a case Skinner doesn't want Mulder to see.
Roughly the entire first act of the episode is taken up with Skinner covering up the postal worker's death. We don't hear the official reason for why he's doing it for a while, but we don't really need it. The Mulder and Scully team was always the main focus of the show, but their boss has managed to make an impression. Like the Lone Gunmen, he's a good guy to the core, although he's bit more of a hard sell when it comes the conspiracy stuff. So it's safe to assume from the start that he has some motive here that won't compromise his character. There's nothing shifty about Skinner, nothing particularly sly or self-serving, although he's quite thorough in his work here. (Although even that thoroughness has some cracks; you could take that as an indication that his heart isn't really in the work or that he's just not enough of a bastard to know how to do the Cigarette Smoking Man's dirty work. Or just that Mulder is very tough to fool at this point.) He's one of the few reliable foundations in a show full of shifting sands.
Which means there are only a handful of reasons he could be doing all this, and if we've been paying attention, we already know: He's trying to save Scully's life. (There's a great bit when Skinner's cleaning up the crime scene at the start of the episode. He finds the postal worker's cigarette and spends a few minutes scrubbing the floor clean. Unintentional or not, it's hard not to think of Cancer Man.) This is the price Skinner has agreed to pay to CSM in order to cure Scully's cancer. Which, let's be honest, should be a ridiculous idea. Yes, Scully's illness is linked to the chip in her neck that the bad men put in her when she was abducted, but she still has cancer, and cancer isn't something you can just wave away. Hell, Cancer Man himself had to make a deal with an alien to get rid of his infection. Given the number of lies and half-truths the conspiracy has parceled out over the years, it's almost charmingly naive that Skinner, who's even more of a hard-head than Scully, thinks he can trust CSM to save everyone's favorite redhead.
But it does work, and even though Scully doesn't appear once in this episode (she's at the hospital having tests done, which is possibly the most mundanely terrifying phrase I've ever heard on the show), her presence looms large. While I can be skeptical here, and while "Sum" itself gives you plenty of reasons to be skeptical by the end, the sheer force of Skinner's commitment to protecting his agents helps drive the point home. The episode is told largely through his point-of-view, another change in structure that serves the neat trick of making Mulder nearly as much of an antagonist as CSM is. Arguably, none of the information we get here is that new; we knew about the bees, and while it's telling that the Well Manicured Men has started to ship those bees out, that's not really the big hook here. Mostly, we're invested in whether or not Skinner can get away with covering up what he's trying to cover up, while at the same time hold on to some shred of his integrity. His motives are pure, but his actions here aren't.
Which makes you start thinking about slippery slopes and how Cancer Man himself started off with good intentions but went to hell soon enough. (Admittedly, going by "Musings," CM's first big assignment was shooting JFK, which is a little more... intense than what we see here. But still.) Skinner's worst mistake during his cover-up gets a cop killed, and it isn't even really his "mistake," just a matter of bad timing. Once Mulder gets on his trail, Skinner has to balance staying a step or two ahead of one of his best agents with trying to figure out just what he's gotten himself into, and that can't be easy. By the end of the episode, Mulder has caught up to him, and he's learned that he's involved in protecting a conspiracy that just got half a school's worth of ten year-olds infected with smallpox. Oh sure, he isn't directly responsible for that, but standing in a hospital surrounded by innocent victims isn't really the easiest time to split hairs.
"Zero Sum," as Todd said, is utterly bad-ass. Skinner's always seemed perpetually pissed to me (he'd give Raylan Given a run for his money in any "angriest man alive" contest), and "Sum" gives us a good reason to understand why he's so pissed. He's dedicated his life to upholding the law and protecting the people he works for, but he's risen to a level of power, through skill and drive, that forces him into a position where he's endlessly dancing around the potential compromise of those goals. And there's not a damn thing he can do about it. He confronts Cancer Man at the episode's climax, has a gun at the guy's face, and any hope he had that his actions will get Scully cured are nearly gone, but when it comes time to pull the trigger, he fires into the wall. Because there's still a chance CSM could save Scully, and he can't afford to lose that chance. He put his soul on the line for it.
- I got a little too caught up in, well, whatever the hell it is I always get caught up in, but I just wanted to stress, this episode is tremendously entertaining. There's something wonderfully noir-ish about Skinner's desperate attempts to clean up someone else's mess, and it's great seeing Mitch Pileggi do something more than glower.
- Oh, there is one important reveal: Mulder's new contact on the inside, Marita, looks to be working for Cancer Man. Unless this is a double bluff of some sort, which wouldn't surprise me. (I actually don't remember.)
- Oh, and royal jelly! So I guess they're trying to spread the bees across the country, creating new queens to create new hives? (Honestly, any mention of royal jelly just makes me think of that Roald Dahl story about parents feeding their baby the stuff, and the baby turns into a giant bee.)
In Which Russian Guys Are Scary
It's back to Crazy Bible Land in this week's Millennium episode, although I have to admit, I wasn't quite as taken with "Maranatha" as I was with "Powers, Principalities, Thrones, And Dominions." The madness I've come to expect from the shows best hours is certainly there. Did you know that the Antichrist, who is Russian, caused Chernobyl? I certainly did not. There's a secret agent with a grudge against the Bogeyman, the actual Bogeyman; multiple folks are shot directly in the face, and you can't just shake that off; although one guy sort of does; and then, like I said, there's the Antichrist, who is also the Bogeyman, running around being super evil and so forth. That's all I really want from this show at this point: a lot of freaky, and hardly any sense-making. (I find the more Millennium tries to put its horrors in some kind of "real world" context, the less I care.)
It didn't quite add up as thrillingly as I would've liked, however. Maybe I just don't like Russians. Or maybe it's because too much of this episode plays out as though the show is trying (and failing) to hedge its bets. "Powers" worked so thrillingly because it never pretended what we were watching was anything less than grand-scale apocalyptic fever dreams. I mean, the cold open had a guy shooting lightning out of his hands, and it never tried to back down from that. There are parts of "Maranatha" that hit that same full-throttle intensity, and I quite liked the climax, but there are also long stretches when the episode could almost just be about some mean dude who works for the government and kills people. At one point, Frank theorizes they may be dealing with the Antichrist, and in the same conversation, points out that the Antichrist doesn't actually have any real "powers." "No walking on water" or anything of that sort. So who the hell is he, then? We had a shape-changing demon last week who was also a lawyer! Don't wuss out now, show.
Or maybe I'm just disappointed that so much of this episode plays out like a ho-hum X-Files knock-off, with Frank teaming with a Russian agent, Yura, to find the killer, who's been dropping bodies in Russia and has worked his way over to Brighton Beach. Of course, just saying that it's overly familiar isn't all that helpful, and I'm sure there have been other Millennium episodes that followed the X-Files pattern before; it'd be nearly impossible to avoid it completely, since both are shows about people investigating unusual crimes that only they can solve, and sometimes those crimes are part of a larger conspiracy. Also, both shows have Chris Carter, who isn't exactly a creativity chameleon. I think my problem here is the "ho-hum" part. I love The X-Files, but the show had a fair number of dud episodes even in its best seasons, and yet, Mulder and Scully's back and forth was entertaining enough to make a lot of tedium worth sitting through. I love Lance Henriksen and Terry O'Quinn, but Frank and Peter aren't heavy on the banter. This is a show that takes itself so painfully seriously that it's only really effective when it lets its freak flag ride high. Without that, there's not a lot of fun to be had.
Which is odd, because you'd think the Antichrist would be tailor-made for the series. It's such a comic-book concept: The Un-Jesus, here to bring about the End of the World! And as bad guys go, Yaponchik, aka Russian Antichrist, aka Levan Uchaneishvili, is certainly imposing. We first see him running, throwing a few switches in Chernobyl and then running from the scene of the crime as the building explodes (this effect is one of the worst I've seen on this, or any other, show, by the way). Some time later, he's hanging out in the States, shooting folks and glowering. Frank gets increasingly upset over the whole thing, which remains one of Millennium's stronger cards to play. Whenever Frank, who's normally calm and resigned, gets angry, you know serious stuff is going down. Yaponchik doesn't appear to have a sense of humor, though, not even a sadistic one, which is too bad. He's got the stare of EVIL done cold, and he's physically distinctive, kind of a knife-blade in leather look, but as a character? Eh.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh; perhaps it's too much to ask for blood cults and bat-wings in every episode. And there are some interesting developments here, to be sure. Tying a real-life disaster to internal mythology has always struck me as a sort of cheap trick for any work of fiction, but the Chernobyl reference is arguably distant enough that it isn't as tacky as it might've been. (You better believe if Millennium had been on the air post-2001, we'd have had a 9/11 reference.) The idea that the Antichrist is hanging out in New York is certainly enough to give anyone pause, and the series does deserve credit for being able to support that twist. I can't imagine anyone who'd watched up to this point finding out who Yaponchik really is and saying, "Oh, that's just too far." Even more than The X-Files, Millennium is doing a good job in giving us the sense that there is some sort of end game here, and that the Apocalypse isn't just a vague threat.
Besides, "Maranatha" ends fairly well. Yura, who knows Yaponchik from the Chernobyl incident and has dedicated his life to tracking the bastard down, finally gets his chance and shoots the man in the head. But as the prophecy that Frank and Peter just conveniently explained to us in the previous scene foretold, Yaponchik survives the head wound, and when Yura tracks him down again, the half-dead man is able to convince the cop this is all part of some sort of plan. It's an odd scene, one that doesn't really make a lot of sense but nearly works, thanks to the actors. Then Yura helps Yaponchik escape to the roof, where a helicopter arrives to fly him away just as Frank and the others show up. Frank can't stop the Antichrist, but he can save Yura from being dragged along for the ride.
Which leads to the final scene, where Yura goes back to church, and we learn that there's maybe a good sign in all this Antichrist business: If the prophecies are coming true and the Apocalypse is coming, that means dark times ahead, but it also means that Jesus, or God, or Superman, will be here eventually. It's an oddly deterministic tack for a TV show to take, when you think about it. If all this is pre-ordained, what hope does Frank have to change any of it? I assume the Millennium Group is dedicated to minimizing casualties in the face of world-wide catastrophe, but they seem very small compared to the forces arrayed against them, and not in an underdog kind of way. This is a battle that's been promised for thousands upon thousands of years. We'd like to think our heroes might have some effect, but if it was all written down centuries before they were born, what hope to do they have to rewrite it?
- Frank makes a big deal out of Yaponchik killing people to keep fear of his name alive. So I guess the idea is that EVIL isn't really as powerful as it likes to let on and gets most of its work done through suggestion and scare tactics. Which works surprisingly well, judging by Yura's breakdown at the end.
- There was a joke in this episode! "This guy's one tough SOB." "Yeah, that's one theory." (Well, Terry O'Quinn made it funny.)
Next week: Todd writes a lovely "Elegy," and finishes the first season of Millennium with "Paper Dove."