Season 6, Episode 9: “S.R. 819”
Original Airdate: January 17, 1999
People don’t die so much on The X-Files. I mean, people die on The X-Files all the time, and if you’re an informant you’ve really got to watch your back, but this is six seasons and a movie and we’re talking fairly minimal recurring character death. So what are we to think, facing a cold open with a flat-lining Walter Skinner? Are we thinking, this is it, they’re killing someone off! Or are we thinking, oh hey! It’s the Slightly Disappointing Semi-Annual Walter Skinner Episode.
Yeah, we’re thinking the latter. “S.R. 819” is roughly on par with “Avatar” and “Zero Sum,” which is to say, it’s fine. It’s also fairly simple, and cleanly constructed: Skinner is infected with something, mysteriously, and Mulder and Scully try to help him figure it out, or he will perish. Plenty of this-man-is-going-to-die-unless to keep things moving, plenty of opportunities for Scully to practice medicine while Mulder works the field. And it’s fine. It’s all fine.
But it is also a missed opportunity, as Walter Skinner tends to be. With Mulder and Scully off the X-Files, we’ve seen less of him, and it’s a shame—Kersh has thus far been nothing but a barking villain, while Skinner at least had a touch of sympathy in his reprimands. “S.R. 819” is an attempt to loop Skinner back into the mythology, although you’d think at this point he was fairly looped? But he’s not, he’s been distant lately. Never writes, never calls, never asks for our help. Just gets poisoned and barely tolerates us.
The conspiracy that Mulder uncovers is actually a red herring, a thing about a senate resolution and some nanobot technology that’s being exported to Tunisia. Senator Matheson shows up, he and Mulder yell at each other, it’s a whole thing, but! As it turns out, Skinner’s infection has less to do with shifty Tunisian diplomats and more to do with the guy those diplomats hired/chose to hang out with: a be-wigged Alex Krycek, who controls the nanbots in Skinner’s bloodstream and therefore has the technology to kill him in a minute.
Krycek, at least, is an interesting choice. The last we knew, Krycek was running errands for the Well-Manicured Man; since the Well-Manicured Man exploded into a million pieces in Fight the Future, Krycek’s current role with the Consortium is unclear, and possibly nonexistent. So he’s working for someone, or he’s working for himself, but either way, it makes sense that he’d target Skinner. Because first of all he hates him (the only two men who have tussled more often would be Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man) and because second of all, Skinner is easily frightened.
It’s true, though. It’s hard to tell because Mitch Pileggi puts a lot of muscle behind his portrayal, but Skinner is a scaredy-cat. When first we met, he was under the thumb of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Got himself out of that and then got his hands tied by corporate, which is to say, couldn’t do a damn thing about our agents being kicked off the X-Files. And you could say, I mean, what’s the guy supposed to do? His job is Assistant Director not Head Babysitter, and yeah, I know, there was that time he got beat up in a stairwell, there was that time he got shot. I’m not saying he’s not suffered. But.
The thing that makes Skinner cowardly is that he knows better. He may not entirely believe all those reports about aliens and the supernatural, but he knows for sure there’s a conspiracy. He’s been shot, for heaven’s sake. But watch how he folds at the end of this episode, watch how he prevents Mulder and Scully from investigating further, how he doesn’t tell them about Krycek’s involvement. Skinner has spent a lot of time running scared. He’s good at it.
I’m torn, discussing a character issue like this, because there’s a part of me that believes the character never really had a chance. In the same way that the show rarely kills anyone, the show also rarely develops its secondary characters. Skinner hasn’t been active in dismantling the conspiracy because Skinner isn’t Mulder or Scully, he’s not the one the show is about. It’s also not something I think about, much—at least until we come up on one of these Skinner-centric episodes. Until we’re asked to think of him as a primary character and find there’s a lot of sand in that well.
“S.R. 819” does attempt to acknowledge this gap; unfortunately, “S.R. 819” attempts to acknowledge this gap with one super-brief scene between Skinner and Scully. As he lays in a hospital bed, near death, he tells her that he regrets not being a part of Mulder and Scully’s quest. “I always played it safe,” he laments. “I wouldn’t take sides. Wouldn’t let you and Mulder pull me in.” Scully tries to comfort him, but what words can she offer him, really? It’s okay, Walter. She might say. It’s not your fault. It’s just the way you were written.