Season 4, Episode 21: “Zero Sum”
Original Airdate: April 27, 1997
What is Walter Skinner’s deal, anyway? No seriously, the guy is shadowy. You don’t think about it much, because he’s not constantly smoking cigarettes in dark rooms and looking smug, but how much do you know about this guy? You know he lives in a pretty ugly apartment building and you know that he was in Vietnam. You know that he can be pretty badass when he needs to be. But what drives him? Why does he defend Mulder and Scully? What, you might ask, is his deal?
The X-Files has never been a show of supporting characters, so it’s maybe not so very strange that we don’t know a lot about him. But that leaves a tough row to hoe for an episode like “Zero Sum.” Here we have a Skinner-centric episode, a Mitch Pileggi tour-de-forceful abdominal muscles, an episode about a man going to great lengths to protect his agents. If this were a Scully-centric episode, or a Mulder-centric episode, this would be a great opportunity to learn more about a beloved character, to get at some nuance-y deep layer business. But because we know so little about Skinner, “Zero Sum” is like a sprint through unknown territory, like a very promising pilot episode that won’t get picked up.
To be fair, Skinner’s role has grown steadily since his introduction in the first season. No longer just an angry man behind a desk, he’s been able to run some solid interference on the Cigarette Smoking Man, shielding his agents from conspiracies unknown. He’s done this at great personal cost—or physical cost, anyway (beaten up in a stairwell; shot in a diner). And when Scully’s cancer was revealed to him, Skinner pulled the biggest, bossest move of all: he made a deal with the devil. Sorry, the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The goal of the deal was to save Scully, but the terms of the deal were left unclear. We do not know exactly what the Cigarette-Smoking Man can or will do for Scully. We know only that Skinner has a debt.
So, Skinner has a debt. In “Zero Sum,” he pays. Maybe not in full? It’s hard to say. What he does first is cleaner’s work. He’s sent to a shipping facility to clean up after a swarm of bees attacks and kills an employee. Skinner gets on his hands and knees for the job, scrubs away all evidence of the bees in a wordless and strangely poignant scene. It was bad to watch him get punched in that stairwell, it was bad to watch him get shot, but to watch him with a scrub-brush—! It’s demeaning, on top of everything, plus then he has to go to the morgue and steal/incinerate the body, plus then he has to go the police station and pose as Mulder and switch the victim’s blood sample for a fake.
Skinner doesn’t appear to be questioning the assignment, not at first. He’s willing to bury all sorts of evidence, but the nature of the crime is obscure. What is clear is that it’s an X-File, and in particular a case that would be of real interest to Mulder. Part of Skinner’s assignment is to hide it from his agent, to delete an email to Mulder from local law enforcement. But Mulder is better at computers than Skinner is, and pretty quickly he tracks the fact that something is being hidden to him. He comes to Skinner for help—Scully, we learn, is in the hospital for tests—and Skinner averts his eyes, does some mediocre lying. He is working hard, forcing himself to believe that the case he’s obscuring is less important than the bargain he’s made—that death by bees can’t possibly have the significance of cancer brought on by abduction.
Only things get confused when one of the Cigarette Smoking Man’s minions kills a cop who mistook Skinner for Mulder and chatted him up in the parking lot. It’s an extreme measure, even for a cover-up, made worse when Skinner realizes that the cop was killed by Skinner’s gun. He’s not just a cleaner, he’s a fall guy. The realization pops the thin film of Skinner’s righteousness, reminds him which side he’s on. He investigates, and it’s charming to see him doing an agent’s legwork, to see him talking kindly to a witness, to see him taking a hammer to a wall to reveal a terrifying amount of honey.
Because here is the deal with the bees: they’re loaded with smallpox. Biological warfare with wings, a Consortium project that seems linked to any number of other bee-and-smallpox-themed Consortium projects we’ve seen. This incarnation is comparatively simple, though, and terrifying. The bees that killed the shipping employee were en route to be part of an experiment, an experiment that we see executed on a schoolyard full of children. CHILDREN! It’s awful, and also a little comical I am going to say. We know the Consortium is evil, but this is some mustache-twisting business, releasing smallpox-bees on a playground.
So anyway, Skinner works out at least that the bees are really bad and full of smallpox. He patches up as much as he can patch up with the semi-helpful assistance of Marita Covarrubias (who may also be working for the Cigarette-Smoking Man, it turns out, I mean is there no one who is not in that nicotine-scented pocket!), and he does all of this without telling Mulder. This means that Mulder gets super-suspicious and confronts him with his gun drawn (again!). Skinner talks him down and, in a loving show of masculine apology, Mulder files the serial number off of Skinner’s cop-killer gun so that Skinner will not be implicated.
And Mulder knows, now, that Skinner did this for Scully, because that is what Skinner tells him. But does Skinner know why Skinner does this? Does he love Scully, I mean couldn’t you just write a thousand pieces of fanfic about that? Or it could be because he believes in the X-Files, or it could be about duty. If it were my fanfic, that’s what I’d say, I’d say, it’s about Walter Skinner: dedicated Assistant Director. The guy who does not leave other guys behind, the guy who maybe doesn’t believe all of the crazy things you say but who at least believes in your right to say them. “Zero Sum” is good, because “Zero Sum” shows us what this man is capable of, but “Zero Sum” is frustrating, because “Zero Sum” insists on hiding him from us. This show will never be an ensemble show, but it could do with strengthening its periphery every now and again.