Monday, October 5, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E21 "Zero Sum"

[ S4:E20 "Small Potatoes" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E22 "Elegy" ]

Spoiler Warning: Like Memento Mori, this is another stand-alone mythology episode. So beware of spoilers!

We haven't really had stand-alone mythology episodes (not full mythology episodes) since the first season (or the second, if you count Red Museum, which was at least half monster-of-the-week, or One Breath, which was really the conclusion to Duane Barry/Ascension). It's kind of refreshing, though. By now, the mythology episodes have fallen into a routine, and it's nice to shake things up a bit. And this episode is particularly non-formulaic, focusing on Skinner to an extent we haven't seen since last season's Avatar. In fact, Scully is completely absent (which is surprising to me, because I was convinced 3 was the only episode in the series Gillian Anderson didn't appear in). It's a testament to the quality of this episode that you barely even notice her absence, and that Mulder's in only a few short scenes. Skinner drives the episode, but it's the conspiracy stuff we learn that really sells it.

The episode opens with a creepy, bee-related death, and then we see Skinner getting to work covering up the evidence, even going so far as to impersonate Mulder. For a moment, you wonder why Skinner would be involved in these kinds of shady dealings, until you remember that deal he made with the devil - er, the Smoking Man - in Memento Mori (which Mulder wises up to by the end of this episode). It's bad enough seeing Skinner stoop this low, but having to scrub a bathroom floor? That's just adding insult to injury. I imagine this is another example that contributes to Skinner's reputation as being sometimes untrustworthy. I think he's always been a man of justice, but he keeps managing to get himself into morally compromising situations. Or, at least, that's how it appears on the surface. We have to remember he's doing all of this for a noble cause! (I'm reminded of Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar singing, "I will be dragged through the slime and the mud").

It's actually pretty neat to see a cleanup operation from an inside perspective for once. We've seen the aftereffects plenty of times before - a well-placed bullet here, a little creative arson there. With Skinner on the clock, we get to see the nitty, gritty details, and realize it's not as glamorous as it looks. (Although, it's fun seeing whether Skinner's cleanup is thorough enough to thwart Mulder's unparalleled investigative skills). I have to admit, when Skinner nearly got caught in the morgue, I was really afraid that he'd have to take out the guard. That's what a normal cleanup guy would do, but I couldn't see Skinner committing an unjustified act of murder in cold blood. That's something he'd never be able to return from. I'm glad it didn't turn out that way. Of course, he still manages to get nearly framed for murder when the Smoking Man sends in another assassin to smooth the corners on his cover-up. But that just encourages him to turn the tables and try to find out just what he's being ordered to cover up.

Which is where things really start to get interesting. I appreciated the reference to the events of Herrenvolk, which basically made explicit what we'd all been thinking ever since the bees turned up. And we actually get some answers for once! The bees are carrying an especially virulent strain of smallpox. To what end? The full answer yet eludes us, but we get to see the Syndicate again, which - apart from the Smoking Man making a personal visit to the Well-Manicured Man in Tunguska/Terma - we haven't seen all season. They make an eerie reference to a "trial run", after which we witness a horde of the lethal bees descending on a poor elementary school playground. Talk about sadistic! This episode ends with a thrilling conclusion that left me breathless - I haven't felt that way since the merchandise trilogy! Knowing that the coming season finale takes a bit of a detour from the main arc of the series' mythology (albeit an incredibly compelling detour), I really feel like this episode, rather than the finale, is the answer to the season's premiere.

Speaking of which, we also get to see Marita Covarrubias again, who has barely made any appearances of consequence throughout the season. It would be enough to drive home the impression that she's no worthy successor to X, and that her only function on the show is to add a little sex appeal (at least she succeeds at doing that). But finally she gets a significant development - she's working with the Smoking Man! I guess that shouldn't be surprising, since that's been the case with Mulder's previous informants. How else would they be able to leak information to Mulder? But since the start, Marita was different - she didn't seem to be involved in any of that. Finding out that she is is a little shocking, but the real betrayal is the fact that the Smoking Man knows she's helping Mulder, and that she knows he knows, and they're both in it together. I guess the conspirators have learned something since Deep Throat and X, and now they've planted an "informant" to keep tabs on Mulder (or whatever her true purpose happens to be).

Aside: At this stage, you begin to notice a pattern in most of the leads our heroes find that result in them uncovering little bits and pieces of the greater conspiracy. It's almost always caused by some kind of leak, something slipping through the cracks. Anasazi was the most obvious, with the hacking of the MJ documents. But it goes back at least to The Erlenmeyer Flask, when a test subject escaped, making the news. Red Museum was the result of some pervert deciding to shed light on the government's secret experiments, all because he cared too much about the kids who were unwittingly being used as subjects. Nisei all started with a MUFON member's lucky recording of a satellite transmission depicting a government-sanctioned alien autopsy. And the events of Talitha Cumi were predicated on one of the cloned hybrids losing faith in the "project" and choosing to use his powers for the good of mankind.

In this episode, everything we learn is because one of the conspirators' packages filled with bees was damaged en route, and the bees unexpectedly killed a postal worker. It would be tempting to say that this is exactly why conspiracies don't work - there are too many moving parts, and it's way too easy for one of them to break, causing the whole thing to fall apart. But, on the other hand, it's a testament to how thorough (and important) the cleanup crews are. Sure, some quick investigators like Mulder and Scully might be able to sneak a peak behind the curtain every now and then, but they never seem to get off with any hard evidence (and, of course, nobody will believe them on their word, because conspiracies sound crazy). Or, when they do - as in the case of Paper Clip - the conspirators hold so much power that they can usually get what they want just by leveraging the right people's lives and reputations.

Memorable quotes:

Smoking Man: I'm not here to answer your questions.

(Well, at least he's up front about that).

Skinner: I won't be a party to murder.
Smoking Man: I wouldn't get too comfortable on your moral high ground, Mr. Skinner.

Smoking Man: You're in no position to question the terms of our arrangement.
Skinner: Then we have no arrangement.
Smoking Man: You'll find it's not that easy to walk away from, Mr. Skinner.
Skinner: No?
Smoking Man: A man digs a hole, he risks falling into it.

(It's so creepy hearing the Smoking Man talk to Skinner about their "arrangement", because it brings back memories of Krycek in Ascension. Skinner, on the level of Krycek, before Krycek even had the balls to stick up for himself? That's low).

Skinner: You're saying this man was stung by bees carrying smallpox?

(Just imagine, for a moment, the horror of this statement).

Smoking Man: It's been taken care of. The details are unimportant.
Elder: Details are everything. Much more important than your vague assurances.

Smoking Man: Yours isn't the first gun I've had pointed in my face, Mr. Skinner. I'm not afraid to die. But if you kill me now, you'll also kill Agent Scully.

Smoking Man: I'm sure Mulder will be contacting you. He'll want to know if Skinner's seen all there is to see.
Marita Covarrubias: I'll tell him what you want me to tell him.
Smoking Man: Tell him what he wants to hear.

(This is just one of the Smoking Man's amazingly subtle lines. He's a liar, for sure, so maybe he's just being coy. But at the same time, you get this feeling that he's playing such a dirty game, that he can afford to tell Mulder the truth (well, bits of it, anyway), and it doesn't make a difference, because he holds all the cards. On the other hand, you could take it to mean that he doesn't want her to answer Mulder's questions so much as give Mulder the cover story he's looking for, in the sense of believing in crazy shit that's not even true (although he doesn't know that). It's like the scene in Paper Clip, in the garden, when the Well-Manicured Man details the plan to create hybrids and catalog the public and whatnot. As the viewer, you're thinking, this is great! But how come he's revealing so much to Mulder? Isn't he the enemy? And Scully comes in with the whole, "he's only telling you what you want to hear" argument and walks off. And then Mulder questions him, "why are you telling me this?" And he replies, "it's what you want to hear - isn't it?" And it makes you think he's lying, making a game out of it, like Mulder and Scully both suspected Deep Throat of doing on occasion. But at the same time, you can't help but wonder if what he said was exactly true. God, I can't believe how much is communicated (and at the same time, not communicated) by this one little almost-throwaway line. And all of that - that doesn't even touch on the thrilling revelation that Marita Covarrubias is working with the conspirators... Wow).

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