Written by Howard Gordon & Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners
Yes, it’s yet another conspiracy episode, but this one has a much better flavor to it than the ones that we usually get. And because of Gillian Anderson’s lack of availability—- she was shooting a movie at the time—- it doesn’t even have the benefit of Scully. Most of the mythology episodes are filled with the inevitable Carter purple prose, but this time—- perhaps because Carter isn’t the one who wrote the dialogue—– its much leaner and fitter than what we usually get.
For starters, the first act has a virtuoso six minute sequence where no dialogue is uttered at all, and the camera for the most part is focused on a single man—- Walter Skinner. Underutilized for the majority of this season, the writers have made up for it by making Mitch Pileggi the center of the episode. And whereas last time, Skinner seemed, for all the focus on him , something of a cipher, this time we get a bit more behind the curtain. In Memento Mori, Skinner made what amounted to a Faustian bargain with the devil himself—- the Smoking Man. Now we see the payment come due, any even though its still vague as to what these people are actually dying for, we have a better sense of just how dear the cost will be.
By this point in the series, it has become a level of trust that Skinner now has to be considered an ally of the agents. The writers won’t get message for quite a few more years, but for once, the ambiguity works in our favor. We think Skinner can be trusted to do the right thing, so the opening sequence where Skinner disposes of evidence of the conspiracy’s wrongdoings — up to the point of his disposing of a body—- does come as something of a shock. When he learns about the death of the detective, its a genuine shock to him (if not to the audience) because he knows how genuinely complicit he is in this man’s death. There’s also genuine fear when he realizes that his weapon has been taken from him, and he realizes the machinations of the men behind the scenes—- it’s one thing to be theoretically on the side of the shadows, its another when they cast their nets onto you. And all of this makes the absence of Scully far more relevant, the reminder of what he sold his soul apparently wasting away with no chance of survival.
Mitch Pileggi gives a much more arresting performance in this episode than he did in Gordon’s other Skinner-centric episode Avatar. The situation is similar to that of the previous episode—- Skinner is being framed by the conspiracy for a crime he didn’t commit—— but different in the fact that before the ambiguity never revealed any real answers to the plot. This time, we know that Skinner is not guilty of the crime, but he is involved in the murder nevertheless. And yet despite all that, there is a genuine sense that he wants to somehow get caught, that if Mulder were somehow able to prove it was him, there would be some kind of genuine relief on his part. One can see that consequence paying a part in his actions for the remainder of the episode, as he tries, to make right what he himself has done wrong. (In essence, he gets a taste of what Mulder has been going through all these years, which you would think would make him more inclined to see his subordinates point of view. Man, those writers were thick.)
Admittedly, the backstory is still barely comprehensible—- the bees are back, and they somehow are carrying smallpox, and what the hell does this have to do with an alien invasion? But we are inclined to forgive the writers this time, because this time the consequences are much clearer. It’s one thing to be told that the conspiracy will do anything to further its agenda, it’s quite another to see them release a group of killer bees on a grade school. It also features a rich performance by William B. Davis as he exercises his ability to have Skinner dance for his own bargain. We should be dissatisfied with the climax where Skinner pulls a gun on CSM, but there is something very emotionally appealing about the scene where he deliberately misses him. We so very rarely see this man vulnerable, it seems almost triumphant to see his hands shake as he reaches for the inevitable pack of Morleys.
Admittedly, the last five minutes of the episode are unsatisfying as, same as it ever was, it becomes clear that the Syndicate has once again wiped all traces of their evidence away. And the supposed shock that Marita Covarrubias is in league with the CSM really isn’t a shock at all—- Mulder’s last two informants obviously were, it would only be surprising if she wasn’t at this point. But the fact of the matter remains that Zero Sum this is a strong and well done entry in the mythology. It’s something of a shame that Gordon would walk away from the series at the end of the episode—- if he had been able to continue his role as the series progresses, maybe the mythology still could have been comprehensible, or at least salvageable.
My score; 4 stars