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The X-Files – Zero Sum (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

For all that The X-Files exists in a murky shadow world populated by ambiguous figures and a government conspiracy dating back generations, the show has a pretty straightforward sense of morality. No good can stem from evil, the show seems to suggest; the show’s central mythology repeatedly has Mulder and Scully confront the legacy of sins committed by their forefathers. Even the title of Zero Sum alludes to the hollowness of Walter Skinner’s deal with the devil, his moral compromise that has no demonstrable benefit and severe demonstrable harm.

In Memento Mori, Walter Skinner compromised himself. He made a deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, in return for Agent Scully’s continued well-being. “What’ll it take?” Skinner asked, desperate for a chance to save Dana Scully. Ever ambiguous, the Cigarette-Smoking Man offered, “Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Unfolding a few months later, Zero Sum is essentially about paying the piper. It is Walter Skinner settling up with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. He rolls up his sleeves and jumps into the dirty work.

Fire and brimstone...

Fire and brimstone…

Zero Sum is a story that you could not tell with Mulder. Although Mulder never faces the same choice as Skinner, the show has been quite consistent in its portrayal of Mulder’s morality. Mulder does not compromise; Mulder does not subscribe to the theory that a deal with the devil could ever pay dividends. In contrast, Skinner is a more ambiguous and pragmatic figure. Skinner spent significant sections of the second season caught between Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The show only firmly committed him to Mulder and Scully in Paper Clip.

Zero Sum is a fantastic example of how the world of The X-Files has really grown and expanded around the lead characters. While the show will never quite develop into an ensemble, it is a series with a broad cast. It makes sense that it should begin to use them in a productive manner.

"Walter Skinner, F.B.I."

“Walter Skinner, F.B.I.”

In many ways, Zero Sum builds off Avatar from the same point in the third season. There, writer Howard Gordon worked with David Duchovny to build a story around Walter Skinner. The result was an hour of television dedicated to building up Skinner as a character and deepening the show’s understanding of him. That said, Avatar remained an episode of The X-Files. Mulder and Scully both investigated a paranormal or conspiratorial case; it just happened that the paranormal or conspiratorial case was centred around Walter Skinner.

Zero Sum is a bit more confident. With Gillian Anderson off filming her role in The Mighty, a film starring Kieran Culkin and Sharon Stone, the production team needed an episode without Scully. Rather than focusing on Mulder, they decided to allow the supporting cast a little time in the spotlight. Mitch Pileggi would effectively headline the hour. In many respects, this is the same behind-the-scenes logic that would lead to the production of Unusual Suspects at the start of the following season; albeit focusing on the Lone Gunmen rather than Skinner.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tale…

However, there is something quite fascinating about Zero Sum. It is very much a typical X-Files story. There is a mysterious bee attack and a subsequent cover-up. However, the story is told from two different perspectives than we are used to. In the opening act, we witness Walter Skinner covering up the crime; disposing of the body, cleaning the scene, flushing the toilet. For the rest of the episode, we focus on Walter Skinner trying to balance various demands on him as Mulder conducts his own investigation into the incident.

It is perhaps a bit much to compare Zero Sum to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s play that dances between the lines of Hamlet by focusing on two supporting characters caught in the epic sweep of that drama. At the same time, it is interesting to see a familiar story from two different perspectives. For most of Zero Sum, we only see Mulder through the eyes of Walter Skinner; he is on the phone at the crime scene, or interrupting Skinner in the basement. It is an interesting and dramatic shift.

"Not the bees!"

“Not the bees!”

Walter Skinner is not the hero of The X-Files. That is not his role. He does not have the luxury of indulgent monologues decrying the status quo; he does not get to wallow in righteous anger at perceived injustice. Zero Sum is a mythology episode without any of the purple prose that might be expected from such an instalment. Instead, the episode reflects its central character. Walter Skinner is not the protagonist of The X-Files; he is a character with a function to fill, who just gets things done and does what is demanded of him.

As with Frank Spotnitz’s treatment of Tom Black in Sacrament, his second episode of Millennium, the script for Zero Sum treats Skinner as a character possessing no shortage of self-awareness. In Sacrament, Tom Black seemed aware that his fraternal relationship to the show’s protagonist was directly responsible for the horrible things that had happened to his family. In Zero Sum, Walter Skinner seems aware of his station. He will never get to be the lead character in some heroic story; he can only hope for the role of the pragmatic but compromised supporting character.

As heavy as bodies...

As heavy as bodies…

After all, Mulder is barely in Zero Sum, but he still gets the big emotional moments. He gets to be shocked when the cleaned up image reveals Skinner talking to Detective Thomas. He gets to point at gun at Walter Skinner inside his own apartment. Mulder gets the luxury of being indignant and betrayed as part of a narrative in which he barely features. “You’re a liar! You’ve been working with the Smoking Man all along. You knew when he had my father killed, and you knew when they took Scully.” Everything is about Mulder, because he is the lead.

In contrast, Walter Skinner spends most of Zero Sum playing the dutiful supporting player. The after the credits role, there are almost eight minutes of complete silence as Walter Skinner does what he is supposed to do. There is no talking, no angst, no exposition. When he lashes out at the Cigarette-Smoking Man at the end of Zero Sum, Skinner is impotent. A supporting player could never kill the Cigarette-Smoking Man; he could never decide to jeopardise Scully. When he finally fires his gun repeatedly at the Cigarette-Smoking Man, those bullets could never hit.

He reflects on his reflection...

He reflects on his reflection…

Skinner is ultimately trapped by his role. In fact, there is something quite tragic about Zero Sum. After all that has happened since he first appeared in Tooms, Skinner has found himself right back where he began. Once again, Skinner is caught between the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Mulder. There is something quite tragic in that realisation, the suggestion that Skinner can only ever be so much – even when a narrative focuses on him, it focuses on him in the context of his supporting role.

Zero Sum is co-written by Howard Gordon and Frank Spotnitz, and it benefits greatly from their respective strengths. Howard Gordon wrote Avatar to focus on Skinner; while the episode had its problems, the portrayal of Walter Skinner was not one of them. Gordon also brings an energy and momentum to the story. In particular, the first act flows beautifully. The sequence of Skinner covering up the death of Jane Brody conveys so much without recourse to dialogue or exposition.

"Oh, yeah, Herrenvolk happened..."

“Oh, yeah, Herrenvolk happened…”

Spotnitz connects Zero Sum to the mythology. Like Tempus Fugit and Max before it, Zero Sum is an episode that is more firmly rooted in the broad themes of the mythology than in the fine details. It does feature a few references to the larger conspiracy plot line. It is the first episode of the season to build off Herrenvolk in a meaningful way, even if it avoids explaining how Mulder managed to get ahold of a photo of a bunch of Samantha clones working on a farm. It also uses Scully’s cancer from Memento Mori as a plot point.

As with so much of the fourth season mythology, it does little to advance these plots in any significant way. However, as with Tempus Fugit and Max before it, this lack of movement or momentum seems to be the point. Zero Sum uses the conspiracy backdrop as a set-up to stage an interesting morality tale. The episode is quite candid that Skinner is not going to make a difference; he is not the hero of the story, so he will not bring the conspiracy crashing down. Towards the end of the episode, he even questions whether his actions have done anything to keep Scully safe.

The walls come crashing down...

The walls come crashing down…

Zero Sum hits on the morality of The X-Files in a rather direct manner. For a show about shadowy conspiracies and secret histories, the moral outlook of The X-Files is quite simple. Chris Carter’s work has a very clear moral through-line. The X-Files might not be as overt or as frequently on-message as Millennium, but it does have an internally consistent ethical philosophy. Evil is an infectious and corrupting force that exists within the world, and it must be fought. No good will ever come of treating with evil.

The X-Files firmly rejects consequentialism – a moral philosophy that can be crudely summarised as “the ends justify the means.” The idea comes up time and time again in the course of the show, and is roundly rejected at every turn. The conspirators make moral compromises to save as many as they can; Bill Mulder sacrifices Samantha in order to protect Fox and Teena; the Cigarette-Smoking Man claims that his brutality protects millions. In Max, Garrett makes a similar rhetorical argument to Mulder about his work. In every case, the show rejects it.

Skinner has blood on his hands... Metaphorically, of course. That's actually honey.

Skinner has blood on his hands…
Metaphorically, of course.
That’s actually honey.

It could be argued that the central narrative of The X-Files‘ vast mythology is a cautionary tale about this sort of compromise. Episodes like Nisei and 731 suggested that the United States made similar sort of justifications in its decision to recruit Nazi and Imperial Japanese scientists after the Second World War. As Paul A. Cantor argues in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, these decisions and compromises tainted the government:

In short, the whole invasion/conspiracy plot connecting the aliens, the syndicate, and the U.S. government symbolises the way that America’s military and imperial aspirations led to its being caught up in a system of international power relations in which it came to resemble the enemies against whom it claimed to be defining and defending itself. The X-Files suggests that to a large extent the United States created this system, but eventually it became a prisoner of its own creation, subject to the dictates of an amoral and inhuman science, whose unbridled use in totalitarian regimes it had condemned.

The X-Files tends to present evil as corrupting and infectious. There are standalone episodes like Grotesque and Empedocles that deal with that theme, but it is also a part of the mythology. Piper Maru and Apocrypha introduced the black oil. It is a substance that infects and transforms its host; in its early appearances, it is literally radioactive. This is the kind of evil that Mulder and Scully find themselves facing.

"Yes. This is what a bee looks like."

“Yes. This is what a bee looks like.”

It is no surprise that The X-Files has presented Skinner’s deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Faustian terms. In Memento Mori, Skinner cracked a joke about the Cigarette-Smoking Man being the devil shortly before asking for a favour. The Faustian nature of the deal is reinforced towards the end of the first act of Zero Sum. To dispose of the body of the body of Jane Brody, Skinner uses a furnace. The image that closes that first wordless act is the flames dancing; they are reflected in Skinner’s glasses so as to suggest hell fire itself.

The opening act positions Skinner as an agent of the conspiracy. This is very much the sort of work that people like Malcolm Gerlach or Scott Garrett do. Skinner is tainted by the act. He wears a disguise to conceal his identity, but it also serves to hide his shame. When he disposes of those clothes after returning home, it is not just an attempt to destroy incriminating evidence; it seems like an attempt to shed any association with the work that he has just done. Walter Skinner has become part of the very apparatus he opposes.

Red lights...

Red lights…

Skinner tries to save Scully’s life through compromise. He makes a deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, in return for a favour. However, that favour very quickly accrues a high cost. Over the course of Zero Sum, Skinner finds himself implicated in the murder of Detective Thomas, the death of Doctor Valedespino and a biological attack on a school full of children. The X-Files is not subtle when it comes to moral philosophy; Skinner’s compromise to safe Scully’s life is indirectly linked to the suffering (and possibly death) of young children.

Although Skinner is not directly responsible for any of these incidents, the show makes a rather explicit link. Skinner’s firearm is used to execute Detective Thomas. “He was killed, shot in the head execution-style,” Mulder informs Skinner. “His body was found near the precinct two hours ago, possibly by the same person who forged my name to gain access to evidence from the forensics lab.” In other words, Skinner is very obviously the primary suspect in this killing and the man most likely to be held accountable.

Smoke... and the smell of sulphur...

Smoke… and the smell of sulphur…

When Skinner finds out about the murder of Detective Thomas, he is appalled. He immediately demands answers from the Cigarette-Smoking Man. “I need to know what that man died for,” Skinner insists. Finally, the Cigarette-Smoking Man makes it explicit. “He died for you, Mr. Skinner,” the Cigarette-Smoking Man informs his old acquaintance. “He died so you could have what you wanted – a cure for Agent Scully. Isn’t that what you want?” This is another variation on the numbers game logic of the mythology.

There is a particular irony to all of this. Towards the end of the episode, Skinner confronts the possibility that Cigarette-Smoking Man is lying about helping Scully. “You have no intention of saving her,” Skinner proposes. “You never did.” This is hardly a crazy suggestion. The Cigarette-Smoking Man has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted time and time again. In Anasazi, he claimed that he had nothing to do with the assassination of Bill Mulder. He also lies regularly to his own superiors, as episodes like The Blessing Way and Zero Sum demonstrate.

"We really have to talk about your annual performance evaluation, Cigarette-Smoking Man..."

“We really have to talk about your annual performance evaluation, Cigarette-Smoking Man…”

All of this combines to form a pretty clear moral. Skinner cannot save Scully in this way. He cannot hope to protect Scully by becoming complicit in a series of morally abhorrent acts and by dealing with unprincipled and untrustworthy individuals. In the end, it will not be Skinner who saves Scully from her cancer. All of Skinner’s compromises will be for nothing. At the very best, Skinner might have bought the FBI agent just a little more time. It certainly does not seem worth it.

At the same time, Zero Sum works very well as a character study between the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Skinner. The two have always enjoyed an antagonistic relationship, with Skinner barely tolerating the Cigarette-Smoking Man for extended portions of the second season. This relationship culminated in the climax to Paper Clip, in which Skinner soundly humiliated the Cigarette-Smoking Man with the assistance of Albert Hosteen. It seems that insult is not forgotten. In his development from the end of the second season, the Cigarette-Smoking Man is a petty individual.

"Damn, I forgot this is only a Scully-less episode!"

“Damn, I forgot this is only a Scully-less episode!”

It seems quite likely that the Cigarette-Smoking Man signed off with glee on the assassination attempt made on Skinner at the climax of Piper Maru. A scene between the two characters was cut from Avatar, but it seems likely that the plot against Skinner was executed with considerable relish. There is a sense, watching Zero Sum, that the Cigarette-Smoking Man takes a great deal of pleasure in lording this power over Skinner. After all, just about any goon could be doing this clean-up job; there is something sadistic about assigning it to Skinner.

In fact, the assassination of Detective Thomas seems particularly mean-spirited. Of course Thomas saw Skinner posing as Mulder, but it seems unlikely that he would ever see Walter Skinner in any other context. Looser ends have been allowed to dangle, after all. “You didn’t have to kill him,” Skinner states, bluntly. “He didn’t have to die.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man offers no justification, and just reinforces the power dynamic that now exists between them. “You’re in no position to question the terms of our arrangement.”

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

It has been suggested that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is a character who values power above all else; power as the ultimate currency and as its own end. Timothy Dunn and Joseph J. Foy observe as much in Moral Musings on a Cigarette Smoking Man:

Perhaps the most interesting and disturbing thing about the CSM is that he appears to perform what we call a transvaluation of power. By this we mean that elevates power to the level of intrinsic goods. For him, power becomes not merely a means to an end but an end in itself. All other values, including friendship, virtue, and even his own happiness, become subordinate. The CSM regards power as singularly valuable in itself, and everything else is valuable only insofar as it enables him to maintain or increase that power. Rather than viewing power as a means to some type of end – even an immoral end, as, say, the classic examples of Hitler and Stalin would do – the CSM regards power itself as the rightful object of human affairs. His closest parallel is neither Stalin nor Hitler, but rather the character O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984.

This certainly seems consistent with his portrayal in the show. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is a character almost entirely devoid of morality. For all his rhetoric in episodes like One Breath or F. Emasculata about the greater good, his appearances since Anasazi have stressed his selfishness and his self-centredness.

Park your ass there...

Park your ass there…

This seems to be pushed to the fore in Zero Sum. The Cigarette-Smoking Man probably has more qualified people to do this work; he probably has solutions that don’t involve murdering a local law enforcement official. However, the Cigarette-Smoking Man follows these courses of action not because they serve “the project”, but because they reinforce his own personal power. His triumph is bending Skinner to his will. In fact, the actions of the Cigarette-Smoking Man here seem to put the conspiracy at risk; they generate more attention and a higher profile.

Zero Sum continues to suggest that the show’s central conspiracy really is not that competent. “How did this happen?” one of the elders demands of the accidental death that sparks the episode’s plot. It seems a legitimate question. Even when Skinner successfully swaps out the evidence, he is undermined by a fairly basic screw-up. “She suffered from a mild form of anemia characterized by a folic acid deficiency,” Mulder explains. “The blood sample at the police forensics lab has a normal folate serum level.” Shouldn’t that be in her file or something?

A disarming revelation...

A disarming revelation…

Once again, The X-Files suggests that humanity is the natural enemy of the conspiracy. Unlike the bees used to spread the smallpox or the alien clones assisting with colonisation, the conspiracy is largely overseen by human individuals. These human individuals make human errors, they succumb to human vices, they feel human emotions. Humanity seems to be a random element in the otherwise well-order system; it also seems to be the vulnerability. The little screw-ups, the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s pride; even the freak empathy of Jeremiah Smith in Talitha Cumi.

Zero Sum marks the return of the bees from Herrenvolk. The bees remain primarily confined to the fourth season of the show; they serve as a centrepiece of The X-Files: Fight the Future, filmed between the fourth and fifth seasons. They were pretty quickly phased out for a number of reasons, and remain a controversial part of the mythology. If the black oil didn’t stretch audience credibility, the bees seem to come close – one detail too much for a conspiracy that was already too sprawling.

He's all tuckered out. Destroying evidence is hard work.

He’s all tuckered out. Destroying evidence is hard work.

That said, there were also behind-the-scenes considerations that made the bees quite difficult for the show. Many of the bees featured in Herrenvolk and Zero Sum did not actually show up on camera; they had to be added in digitally afterwards. More than that, the bees where also subject to filming restrictions. On Fight the Future, the production staff were informed that the bees had to shoot their scenes before 4pm, otherwise they would become “uncontrollably angry.” David Duchovny quipped, “The bees had better working conditions than we did.”

Zero Sum is also notable for revealing that Marita Covarrubias is working with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. She is a double-agent, informing on Mulder and Skinner to the conspiracy. It would be a bigger twist if the show had done anything to characterise her before this point. Instead, Covarrubias has just been there as the plot needed – to provide Mulder with exposition in Teliko and Unrequited, and to get him and Krycek into Russia in Tunguska. She has no clearly defined relationship like Deep Throat as “the surrogate father” or Mr. X as “the angry uncle.”

Well, either there's something funny going on, or she was really allergic...

Well, either there’s something funny going on, or she was really allergic…

Instead, Covarrubias is just there. She seems like a device that fits into whatever narrative gap exists, rather than an interesting character in her own right. So the reveal that Covarrubias is working with the Cigarette-Smoking Man is not as shocking as Deep Throat’s betrayal of Mulder in E.B.E. or Mr. X’s cold-blooded execution of a defeated adversary in One Breath. That said, it is a development that could serve as a nice springboard to future stories featuring the character; it could provide much-needed direction.

After all, there is a certain thrill to the idea that the Cigarette-Smoking Man has so thoroughly out-manoeuvred Mulder that he even controls the new informant. Mulder has generally been too open and trusting, so he is well-suited to this sort of subversion and manipulation. Allowing the audience to discover this information before Mulder could give Covarrubias an edge that she previously lacked; it could help to define her as more than just a convenient way to tell Mulder what he needs to know to advance the plot.

Drawn to the edge...

Drawn to the edge…

Sadly, it seems like the show never figures out what to do with Covarrubias as a character. She bounces around a bit over the next few seasons, without any clear arc or rudder. Zero Sum just becomes the first of many attempts to figure out an interesting role that she might fill. One of the frustrating aspects of The X-Files was a tendency to build up a lot of baggage, with no real idea of how to handle it. Appropriately enough, Covarrubbias would soon end up paired with Krycek – another character with a somewhat haphazard arc across the series.

Zero Sum also features a highly-publicised sequence in which Skinner strips down to his y-fronts. According to I Want to Believe, Mitch Pileggi was less than thrilled when TV Guide chose to use that particular screen grab from the episode. While his frustration is understandable, it is interesting to note that The X-Files devotes considerably more energy to sexualising the male body than it does to sexualising the female form. The show tends to treat David Duchovny, Nicholas Lea and Mitch Pileggi as sexual objects more often than Gillian Anderson; this is quite refreshing.

There's a reason they call him the Skin man...

There’s a reason they call him the Skin man…

Although episodes like Never Again suggest that the creative team might have been a little hyper-sensitive when it came to issues of Scully’s sexuality, it is interesting to note that The X-Files was a lot more willing to engage in “beefcake” than sexualisation of Scully as a character. Mulder strips down to his underwear in Ice, and wears a tiny red speedy in Duane Barry. The show ramps up the homo-erotic tension between Mulder and Krycek. Both Avatar and Zero Sum feature scenes that are designed to showcase Mitch Pileggi as a sexual object.

It is an attitude that was very much ahead of its time. Shows like Supernatural have garnered attention and generated discussion by demonstrating that heterosexual female can cultivate a so-called “female gaze” of male characters on television. However, it seems like The X-Files was well aware of this fact as early as the mid-nineties. The X-Files was a show that understood fandom; in particular, it understood that it could cater to and cultivate a fandom beyond the stereotypical heterosexual male audience.



Zero Sum is the last script credit for Howard. It is a suitably high note for the writer’s retirement. While Kaddish provided a nice example of many of his monster-of-the-week tropes, Zero Sum highlights the energy and tightness that Gordon brought to the mythology episodes. Gordon worked with Chris Carter on F. Emasculata and with Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz on Nisei. Both episodes are tightly plotted and move with incredible momentum. Collaborating again with Spotnitz, Zero Sum has a similar kinetic energy.

Zero Sum is another example of the best way to approach a stalling mythology. Rather than trying to present the illusion of movement, the episode instead uses the mythology as a backdrop for a more intimate morality play. As with Tempus Fugit and Max before it, this approach pays off. Despite the fact that nothing much actually happens, Zero Sum feels like one of the stronger mythology episodes of the season.

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

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