“Kitten” opens with a Vietnam War flashback. This isn’t new ground for the show—the war, with its morass of political betrayal and meaningless death is fertile subtextual territory for the mythology—but there’s something almost charming to see it now, a curious nostalgia arising at the vision of a helicopter bearing down over all that lush greenery. One of our country’s great nightmares has been pop culture fodder for so many years that it’s largely lost its ability to haunt us, at least as a fictionalized setting. A place and a conflict that created a decade’s worth of nightmares for millions has become a theme restaurant. Please have a seat; would you like the Credence or the Buffalo Springfield?

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Still, there’s comfort in that, and while this isn’t the best episode of the revival, it’s the first in a long time that feels like old school X-Files. Not a home run, but solid, the sort of meat-and-potatoes style entry the show used to offer up on a weekly basis in its heyday. The main reason I was legitimately excited to hear that season eleven would run nearly twice as long as season ten was the probability of getting more standalones like this one; episodes which reinforce and develop the lead characters and re-establish their world without needing to strain for big moments or shocking twists.

It doesn’t hurt that “Kitten” pulls in the one major character who still feels underserved by all this tomfoolery: Walter Skinner. While the show often engages in wild narrative shifts, it’s anchored by the usual structural conservatism that was a hallmark of TV shows from its era: namely, as much as things change, the basics stay the same—Cancer Man is nearly always the villain, Mulder and Scully are sort of but not exactly in a relationship, the government is up to something secret and no good (occasionally involving aliens), and Skinner is a good guy but we aren’t sure how much we can trust him.

In general, this stolid refusal to really change the status quo (all while promising greater and more horrifying revelations to come) works, because we want to see big exciting things, but we also like Scully and Mulder enough that we don’t want anything to change so much that it would actively affect our enjoyment of them. But it has done a disservice to poor Skinner, whose loyalty and desperate efforts to keep our heroes out of harm’s way have so often been rewarded with suspicion and even outright hostility. The show was making some progress towards this in the later seasons of its original run, making Skinner more or less a de facto part of the team, but the reboot has seemingly pushed him back out into the cold. Cancer Man is back in his office, and Mulder’s shoving him around. The poor guy deserves a win.

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I’m not sure I’d call getting nearly murdered by the son of the man you testified against in court is a “win,” exactly, but it’s smart to do a Skinner-centric entry at this point, and I appreciate that the writers found time to do it. After the Vietnam flashback cold open, the episode has Skinner pulling a disappearing act; Kersh (who is apparently still in the same job, which is impressive) questions Mulder and Scully about the disappearance, and the two decide to do some poking around, prompted in part by the revelation that Skinner’s stalled out career path is due to his determination to protect them in them bureau. This isn’t a huge surprise, and honestly, it’d be embarrassing if Scully and Mulder hadn’t already realized this, but it makes for a good starting point for the episode’s emotional arc.

That arc is the best thing “Kitten” has going for it—our heroes realize they’ve been taking Skinner for granted, Mulder risks his life to save him, Scully risks her life to save them both, and then Skinner tells them how their search for the truth inspired him to embrace his own suspicions about the government’s activities; suspicions which started during his time in Vietnam, which makes for a nice continuity. None of this is exactly new, but it’s satisfying nonetheless, and a relief to see Mulder actually get off his boss’s back long enough to offer support.

Apart from Skinner, the best part of the hour is Haley Joel Osment’s dual role as the father and son whose lives are both destroyed by the mysterious crate gas. Apart from underlining Skinner’s guilt (Dad Osment was one of his squadmates, and Skinner is partially responsible for getting him locked up) and making sure the idea of damage passed down through generations is as literal as possible, there’s no real reason for him to play both parts, but Osment does a fine job. He gives his rants a sort of sad-sack authority that makes them both cringe-inducing and difficult to ignore. It’s a shame that the characters he plays aren’t much more than symbols of paranoia and impotent rage, but he makes them more memorable than they might have been.

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The actual story here isn’t much to get excited over: an experimental gas, a soldier turned into a monster by his government, and a son determined to get revenge for his father by killing veterans and dressing up as some kind of freaky forest demon. There’s some perfectly good thematic stuff going on here, especially in the final reveal that the some agency really is blanketing the town of Mud Lick with the fear toxin, and it all more or less makes sense in a way that X-Files doesn’t always bother to do. That it’s not precisely memorable outside of a few choice moments keeps this from being a classic, but they can’t all be classics, and it’s nice to see that the show is still capable of this sort of thing.

Stray observation

  • Given the ultimate nature of the threat, it makes sense to keep the “monster” mostly on the sidelines. There’s never any real question as to who’s in the suit, but the fact that the episode never goes out of its way to spell things out explicitly (as in, we never see Davey taking off the costume) is clever. And I loved the shot of Mulder finding the suit in a closet and then moving on—just as the thing rises to full attention.
  • “There’s no way to tell what Skinner’s been up to recently. But I’d keep my eyes peeled for cigarette butts.” -Mulder
  • Mud Lick is charmingly odd even if you don’t factor in the “everyone there has been dosed with a fear gas” element.
  • Really excellent use of John Cale’s “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend.”

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