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The X-Files – Avatar (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Avatar is really the first time that The X-Files relies on a member of its supporting cast to carry a story all by themselves.

Later seasons will get a bit more adventurous when it comes to sharing screen time. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and En Ami both offer viewers a glimpse at the man behind the cigarette. The Lone Gunmen prepare for their own spin-off with The Unusual Suspects and Three of a Kind. Even Skinner gets a couple more character-centric episodes with Zero Sum and S.R. 819. In a way, Hungry is a day-in-the-life episode of a monster of the week.

Pushing Mulder to the background...

Pushing Mulder to the background…

Avatar is an episode that demonstrates that these kinds of stories are possible – that The X-Files can lift the focus off of Mulder and Scully for a week and flesh out those characters who exist at the periphery of the series. Just under two years after he was first introduced, Mitch Pileggi has proven himself invaluable to the series. Asking him to carry an episode like this demonstrates the show’s faith in the character.

Avatar is a bit rough around the edges, struggling to decide whether it is part of the show’s conspiracy mythology or a stand-alone monster tale in a season that has worked hard to delineate the two types of show. Still, it’s an ambitious late-season installment that makes a lasting impression on what The X-Files can be.

Don't look now...

Don’t look now…

The third season of The X-Files has really been about consolidating the show, and working to get better at things that already work. It is very easy to trace this genealogy for a couple of the third season episodes, with a few shows drawing obviously from episodes in the first two seasons. 2shy is Irresistible meets Squeeze. Grotesque is Lazarus done right. Oubliette echoes Aubrey and Irresistible. There are broader indications that the third season of The X-Files is drawing on lessons learned during its first two years.

The third season’s mythology episodes are very much patterned on the ambitious second season season two-parters. Die Hand Die Verletzt and Humbug worked well, so the show feels more comfortable with comedy. Vince Gilligan’s script for Soft Light impressed, so he joined the staff full-time. Darin Morgan had proven himself quite adept at writing for The X-Files, so he wrote more. Kim Manners had done good work on his two episodes, so he stuck around.

Skinner really turned her head...

Skinner really turned her head…

The third season is – as a rule – less experimental than the seasons surrounding it. There is none of ambitious “throw stuff at the wall” logic that was in play towards the end of the second season, as it felt like the show was really trying to figure out what it could and could not do. There is also nothing quite as weird as Glen Morgan and James Wong’s four deconstructive fourth-season scripts, that treat nothing on the show as sacred. The third season is largely about ironing out what business as usual should look like for The X-Files.

And it’s worth stressing that there’s nothing wrong with this. The third season is very consciously striving to be the best that it can be, but it is very much about honing The X-Files. The third season of The X-Files is efficient and effective – almost brutally so. The show has reached a point where it can pretty consistently hit it out of the park. The show is so stable that Teso Dos Bichos is a bump in the road, rather than the indicator of a late-season slump. There are hundreds of television shows that will never reach the level of consistency evident in the third season of The X-Files.

Consider this a divorce...

Consider this a divorce…

However, there are also cases where The X-Files is still experimenting and playing around. Hell Money is an episode that feels entirely unique in the show’s nine-year run, often overlooked and ignored. Avatar is an episode that isn’t as strong as it might be, but is consciously carving out new ground for the show. It allows the show to share the spotlight out among a wider ensemble, to offer a glimpse into the life of somebody who is a reliable background player.

The X-Files is a show about Mulder and Scully. It will always be about Mulder and Scully, even when the duo aren’t really around. The second season made sure of that, suggesting the two were more important that the eponymous files. This would become a problem in its final years, as the show struggled to be about Mulder and Scully even as David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson stepped away from the series. Even though Avatar is about Skinner, it is still driven by Mulder and Scully’s investigation into Skinner.

Scully goes on-record...

Scully goes on-record…

Avatar was based on a story idea by David Duchovny, who has admitted he figured it would buy him some time off. He joked as much in Trust No One:

“Actually, I conceived the idea trying to give myself a break,” he says with a grin, pointing out that episodes where Mulder and Scully get separated provide one of the few ways he and Anderson “can get a little time off” during production, in that one of them might take a break while the other’s shooting. “If we’re together, then there’s no way,” he says. “As it turned out, it was a very heavy episode for me.”

Mulder and Scully’s investigation drives a lot of the plot of Avatar, even though Skinner remains the focus.

Talk about a healthy glow...

Talk about a healthy glow…

That said, it does demonstrate that there are stories to tell using characters outside the lead duo. Skinner is a particularly interesting example, because he is very much a part of the show – while still remaining a mystery. Here, Mulder and Scully are surprised to discover that Skinner is getting a divorce. “Neither of us even knew that he was married,” Scully admits to Sharon Skinner. “I mean, he never told us.” The audience similarly had no idea.

The X-Files has hinted that Skinner does have an active life outside Mulder and Scully. After all, he makes a point to underscore these obligations to Mulder in The Host, when Mulder arrives to complain about his assignment only to discover that Skinner is in the middle of his own on-going meeting. There is a sense that Skinner has a life – professional and personal – that exists beyond his relationship to the basement of the FBI building. Like Mulder and Scully, we only see glimpses of that.

Being very (Assistant) Direct(or) here...

Being very (Assistant) Direct(or) here…

Mitch Pileggi has talked about the mystery and ambiguities surrounding Skinner, admitting that he didn’t necessarily fully flesh out the character’s history and back story in his mind:

Chris had created quite a backstory, with Skinner’s military background and his brush with the supernatural when he was in Vietnam. I would throw in a few things on the fly every once in a while, to flesh out what I was doing or saying. I’m actually quite lazy, so a lot of times when people say, “What were you thinking in this scene?” I have to be honest and confess that I was just trying to remember my lines. Skinner was a workaholic, who didn’t have too much of a dating life going on, except when he got involved with Amanda Tapping in that one episode. Every time I see Amanda, I embarrass her about it. That was pretty much it in terms of romance for old Walter. When the Lone Gunmen got a spin-off, I said, “Hey, Chris, when are we spinning off Skinner?” He said, “What’s it going to be? Skinner in his apartment eating noodles?” He was right on that one. Though maybe Skinner turns into my character on Sons Of Anarchy on the weekends: he rides motorcycles and becomes a white supremacist.

Avatar suggests that Skinner has a pretty mundane life outside of what we’ve seen. His marriage is crumbling. He lives alone, in a house where he hasn’t even bothered to unpack all the boxes.

I read the news today, oh boy...

I read the news today, oh boy…

The third season has made a conscious effort to tie Skinner into the world of Mulder and Scully. Avatar suggests that Skinner is a character who has a normal life, but his grip on that normal life is slipping. He had a loving marriage, but that is slipping from his grasp. He had a happy home, but now he lives alone in a messy space. He has become so entangled in the world of The X-Files that even a random hook-up at a Washington bar is tainted by Skinner’s association with Mulder and Scully – tainted literally and metaphorically.

The show has consciously made a point to mirrored Mulder and Scully across the second season – to demonstrate that the two are bonded and tied together as they wade deeper into a secret world of conspiracies and aliens and other sinister forces. Scully had a near-death experience in Duane Barry, Ascension and One Breath; Mulder had a similar experience in Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. The show has drawn Skinner into that world as well.

Keep his shirt on...

Keep his shirt on…

It is Skinner who negotiates on behalf of Mulder and Scully in Paper Clip. The three-parter bridging the second and third seasons makes it clear that Mulder and Scully are not alone in opposing the conspiracy, Skinner has their back. Skinner is not out in the field chasing aliens or waving a flashlight, but this is now his fight too. Indeed, Skinner even has his own conspiracy-related near-death experience in Piper Maru and Apocrypha, albeit of a much more mundane variety than those endured by Mulder and Scully.

After all, Avatar really has very little to do with Walter Skinner’s life. It has nothing to do with his own choices or the kind of person that he is, outside of his support of Mulder and Scully. If Skinner’s near-death experience in Piper Maru and Apocrypha put Skinner in the same position as Scully in One Breath or Mulder in The Blessing WayAvatar very clearly mirrors Scully’s abduction in Duane Barry and Ascension. He is being targeted by an all-powerful conspiracy as another way of hurting Mulder and his quest.

Body of proof...

Body of proof…

The third season has some interesting symmetrical aspects. It folds rather neatly on itself – opening with two mythology episodes and closing with two mythology episodes. The mid-season two-parters are equidistant from the middle of the season. The show before the middle of the season has Darin Morgan affectionately mimicking Chris Carter, while the show directly following the middle of the season has Chris Carter affectionately mimicking Darin Morgan.

However, Skinner’s story seems to invert Scully’s arc from the second season. Scully is targeted by the sinister government conspiracy in the first two-parter of the second season, before spending a single episode in critical condition. In contrast, Skinner was shot and left in critical condition in the second two-parter of the third season, and is targeted by the sinister government conspiracy in a single episode after that point.

Picture perfect...

Picture perfect…

Avatar is the fourth-last episode of the third season. Sleepless, the fourth episode of the second season had ended with the Cigarette-Smoking Man vowing to strike at Mulder by taking care of Scully. There is a clear symmetry there, even if was unintentional. Mulder even draws attention to this. “I think Skinner’s been out-maneuvered, Scully,” he remarks. “They found a weakness and they’re exploiting it.” When Scully asks why that might be, Mulder replies, “To put us in check. You remove Skinner and you weaken us.”

That is the same logic used to justify Scully’s abduction in the second season. However, it is interesting to note the slight change in emphasis. In Ascension, Scully was kidnapped to weaken Mulder. However, the show has made a point to put Mulder and Scully through hell together – suggesting that they share a common frame of reference and purpose. They have grown closer. This is no longer just Mulder’s quest, it is Scully’s quest too. Taking Skinner does not just weaken Mulder, as taking Scully did. It weakens both Mulder and Scully.

Face of the enemy...

Face of the enemy…

There is a sense that The X-Files is truly a show about a shared vision – that Mulder and Scully are now completely on the same page, despite their differing philosophies and approaches. This isn’t solely Mulder’s mission any longer; this is something bigger. Despite the mantra of “trust no one”, it becomes quite clear that Mulder has learned to trust quite a few people. He trusts Scully. In Avatar, his unwavering conviction of Skinner’s innocence suggests that he trusts Skinner too.

That said, the show does suggest that Mulder’s crusade has considerable collateral damage. Mulder has been doing this a while. It seems like Mulder has almost forgotten the normal world he abandoned in his pursuit of monsters and conspiracies; his porn addiction and the fact that his apartment does not even have a bed are treated as jokes. However, The X-Files suggest that the Mulder’s quest seems to draw in and affect those people around him.

Faceless...

Faceless…

It is suggested that Scully had a pretty normal life before she was assigned to The X-Files. Scully has friends who are concerned about her in Squeeze and even goes on a date in Jersey Devil. However, over time, these traces of a wider life begin to slip into the background. In War of the Coprophages, Scully’s night off is spent alone, waiting for Mulder to call her on the phone. In Quagmire, her mother is the only person who can mind the dog – she seems to have no friends outside her family.

It is worth comparing Avatar to Never Again. There are quite a few similarities between the two episodes – right down to an opening sequence concerning the dissolution of a marriage and the fact that bother episodes are about romantic entanglements that go horribly wrong. However, the most striking similarities are thematic in nature. In Never Again, Scully discovers that her work has become so vital a part of who she is that even a random hook-up becomes an X-file. In Avatar, the X-files follow Skinner out of the office and into his personal life.

The pen is mightier...

The pen is mightier…

There is a sense that Mulder’s work tends to worm its way into the lives of those around them, that it changes them in a very fundamental level; it creates a situation where people like Scully and Skinner can never break entirely free. Once they have been exposed to these horrors and monstrosities, there is no escape. When the interrogating agent asks Scully whether Skinner “has been affected by – or enchanted by – Agent Mulder’s notions”, he hits quite close to the bone. Of course Skinner has been affected by Mulder’s mission; that is the entire point of the episode.

In many ways, The X-Files is a show about faith in the nineties. One of the recurring ideas is that some things cannot be entirely denied, despite our best efforts and impulses. In One Breath, Skinner confessed to Mulder that he supported the X-files because Mulder had the courage to confront uncomfortable ideas that challenge mankind’s understanding of the world. “I’m afraid to look any further beyond that experience,” he admitted. “You? You are not.”

The other side of the desk...

The other side of the desk…

However, there is a sense that Skinner sells himself short here. He may not have been able to look into that experience directly himself, but he could not deny it completely. He supported and encouraged Mulder, albeit in a tough and somewhat aggressive manner. Skinner is a character who may not always be equipped to tackle truth, and to chase it, but he is also a character who cannot deny it. He is a fundamentally decent person.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Skinner reflects at one point in Avatar. It takes a lot of courage to admit that. That is very much Skinner’s character arc in a nutshell. At the end of Tooms, his first appearance, he was dismissive of Mulder and Scully’s findings. “You read this report?” he asks the Cigarette-Smoking Man. “You believe them?” However, when confronted repeatedly with evidence of the paranormal or supernatural, Skinner was unable to deny it.

It's a lot to take in...

It’s a lot to take in…

That is Skinner in a nutshell. He is a man who may not be willing to pursue “the truth” with as much enthusiasm as Mulder and Scully, who cannot bring himself to deny years of training and experience that have taught him to respect authority. Skinner is somebody who likes the comfort of the system, the logic and safety of rules and structure. At the same time, he is not a character who can deny what he sees, and not a character who can ignore injustice when it happens around him.

This is a beautiful conflict at the heart of the character. When he finally has an honest heart-to-heart conversation with his wife, he confesses that his difficulties come from being unable to ignore the terrible things in the world while trying to stay within the structures that he has been trained to respect. There is a beautiful contradiction there, as Skinner is a man who grew up by-the-book, but has slowly and painfully realised that the book allows for some truly horrible things.

He may dodge the charge by the Skin(ner) of his teeth...

He may dodge the charge by the Skin(ner) of his teeth…

In a way, this failing attempt to compartmentalise is at the root of his marriage troubles as well. Just as he cannot reconcile following the rules and the evil that can be done by those enforcing the rules, he cannot find a way to tie his idealised family life into his work life. Skinner is a mess of contradictions and struggles, and Avatar lays them bare. It is a very clever example of taking what we already know about a character from earlier episodes, and extrapolating from that.

“Some of the things I’ve seen – the violence and the lies that I’ve witnessed men inflict on one another – I could never tell you that,” he admits to his wife. “Not that I ever stopped believing in the work, but there were contradictions that I, that I couldn’t reconcile, which meant shutting down part of myself just to do my job.” In a way, Skinner’s journey is a microcosm of The X-Files, reflecting Scully’s journey. Once a character’s eyes have been opened to those horrors, it is very hard to return to a so-called “normal” life.

Strange bedfellows...

Strange bedfellows…

All of this works quite well within the context of Avatar. However, the script is a little clumsy and messy in places. Most obviously, it isn’t sure exactly where it lies on the spectrum between the standard “monster-of-the-week” stories and the larger mythology arc. On the surface, it is very much a mythology episode. It is about Skinner being punished for his support of Mulder and Scully. William B. Davis is even credited on the episode, even though his scene was cut.

However, Avatar also features a strange old lady who haunts Skinner in a very obvious homage to Don’t Look Now. This old woman makes for a suitably haunting visual, and ties back into Skinner’s near-death experience from One Breath, but the plot doesn’t seem sure about what it wants to do with her. You could remove the old lady and Avatar would flow a lot smoother. It would lose some of its creepiness, and some of its more memorable visuals, but the story itself would be streamlined.

A nice ring to it...

A nice ring to it…

The old lady is described by Mulder as a “succubus”, and there are a lot of similar stories in various cultures around the world. For example, the idea of a nightmare being sitting on a character’s chest and trying to smother them evokes the German “alp” demon. Theresa Bane describes the creatures’ method of attack in Encyclopaedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures:

Once the prey is selected, the alp shape-shifts into mist and slips into the person’s home completely undetected. Next, it sits upon the victim’s chest and compresses the air out of their lungs so that they cannot scream. Then the alp will drink blood (and milk if the victim is a woman who is lactating), which will cause her to have both horrible nightmares and erotic dreams. The next day, the victim will have vivid memories of the attack and be left feeling drained of energy and miserable.

This image was depicted in Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, an iconic and haunting piece of eighteenth-century art. It seems quite likely that these stories – similar to alien abduction lore in the United States – might be explained through sleep paralysis and the mind’s attempt to work through subconscious trauma.

Dead tired...

Dead tired…

However, the “alp” is just one example of a global trend. It seems that almost every culture has some variation of the myth, with many identifying the spirit as female and describing it as the “night hag.” As noted in Folklore – An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art:

The night hag has been documented throughout history and in a variety of cultures, suggesting auniversal distribution. Victims of classic hag attacks wake to find themselves paralysed, with a malevolent form astride their chests attempting to strangle them. Many cultures have an established interpretation that categorises the classic form in particular. Representative examples are augumangia and ukomiarik (Eskimo), spirit possession that occurs while the soul wanders during sleep; dab tsog (Hmong), nocturnal pressing spirit; cauchemar (African-American French-Catholics in Louisiana), a spirit that “rides” the victim; witch riding (Europe, Colonial America), oppression by a witch “riding” the victim to the witches’ sabbath; and kokma (St. Lucia), the spirit of a dead, unbaptised infant who attempts to strangle the victims while sitting on their chest.

Indeed, the Hmong belief was the focus of some media attention in the eighties, with Hmong immigrants to Los Angeles dying randomly in their sleep. The news reports of these deaths inspired Wes Craven to write A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

To be fair, the image of the old lady works on a symbolic level. The dream of being suffocated and oppressed reflects understandable anxieties for Skinner. He was almost murdered in Piper Maru and Apocrypha. He has had his view of the world threatened, the rug taken out from under him. Some would interpret dreams of suffocation as expressions of anxiety – concerns about pressure bearing down on a person.

Discussing the mythology of the “night hag”, Mulder suggests that “sometimes the succubus becomes so attached to the man that she would kill any woman competing for his affection.” In a way, the old lady works as a metaphor for the X-files themselves. Skinner had started out as a man with a life and job that existed well outside the world of Mulder’s investigations into the unknown. More and more, however, it feels like the X-files are claiming the majority  of Skinner’s time and his life.

The ex-files?

The ex-files?

As discussed above, this is how the X-files seem to work. Mulder’s pursuit of the truth leaves little room for anything else. It squeezes any hint of normality out of people. At this point, Scully and Skinner have both suffered great losses as a result of their support for Mulder. The old lady serves as an effective stand-in for the X-files. With her red jacket, she serves as an effective red herring. She isn’t the direct threat to Skinner. Indeed, she represents legitimate anxieties. However, she is also jealous and possessive and controlling.

The problem is that the idea of the succubus feels superfluous here. It feels excessive. It feels like a plot point that never entirely connects. The third season of The X-Files really codified and solidified what the show could be. One of the things it established quite quickly was the idea that the show’s mythology was now clearly delineated from the surrounding monsters of the week, in a way that they had not been during the show’s first couple of years.

Character assassin...

Character assassin…

The first and second season had somewhat blurred the line between alien mythology and standard episodic monster tales. Ghost in the Machine could suddenly become a government plot in its last act. There could be hints of conspiracy in Young at Heart. The Cigarette-Smoking Man could offer his opinion on Tooms. In the second season, episodes like F. Emasculata and Soft Light blurred the line even more; episodes that suggested government conspiracies existed outside the context of aliens.

The first act of D.P.O. made a clear effort to distinguish between the conspiracy plot and the monsters of the week, with Mulder and Scully explicitly stating that this case was not one concerning aliens or government conspiracies. Part of what was striking about Piper Maru was the sense that so many plates that had presumably been spinning safely during the monster of the week episodes should all come crashing down at the same time – from Krycek to Melissa Scully’s murder to the DAT tape to the spaceship at the bottom of the Pacific.

Filing it all away...

Filing it all away…

By the time the show reaches Avatar, that distinction is already in place. There would be later episodes that would subvert that distinction. Leonard Betts is a particularly effective subversion, because it hinges on the twist of being a monster of the week story that affects the show’s wider mythology. However, it feels like Avatar is a show that might have played a bit better in the show’s more experimental second season – that it’s a good idea that doesn’t get the balance quite right.

Still, Avatar is an interesting episode, even if it is a flawed one. It’s a nice reminder that The X-Files has not yet reached a point where it is afraid to experiment.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

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