Season 4, Episode 21: “Zero Sum”
“Zero Sum” is an interesting episode. There’s no Scully, limited Mulder, and Skinner is the star of the show. It’s funny, even though “Zero Sum” is an oft-forgotten episode, it’s kind of amazing how much sense its existence makes. When you watch it for the first time you think to yourself, well, what has Skinner been doing all this time with CSM and the Syndicate? Where does Skinner stand?
By giving us a Skinner-centric episode that’s much more connected with the mythology, I think we have a more successful attempt to give Skinner his time to shine – much more successful than Season 3’s “Avatar,” that is. But, even beyond giving Skinner much-deserved time in the spotlight, this episode is something else that, truth be told, kind of annoyed me when I watched it again just now: it’s…good.
Like, unfairly, sneakily good. Which probably indicates how often I watch it. And also makes me feel like an idiot. I, like many of you, used to give this episode the “well, I like Skinner, but Scully’s not in this one” treatment and go from “Small Potatoes” to “Elegy.” But, upon this rewatch, I found an episode that was more than worth watching. Darn it, Season 4. Stop being so good!
Of course, “Zero Sum” has flaws. I can’t let those slip by, especially the painfully terrible opening. This is one of the worst X-Files opening teasers of the season. Poorly written, poorly acted, and completely unbelievable. Jane the cigarette smoking mail worker doesn’t even see the bees until they’ve literally gathered in swarms on the inside of the bathroom stall’s door? Either those are the quietest bees in the world or Jane is both deaf and blind. In any case, the whole opening scene feels like a cheesy anti-smoking PSA gone wrong – with bees thrown in for good measure – rather than a usually gripping X-Files opening. It almost felt like watching a Season 1 dud.
After the terrible opening, though, the episode really picks up, and here we see Skinner in action. Now, Skinner’s always straddled the line, but up until now we’ve mostly seen him sticking up for Mulder and Scully in whatever way he can. We haven’t seen Skinner take a walk on the other side of the line, with CSM and his buddies. In fact, the last really memorable scene between Skinner and CSM was the highlight of the episode “Paper Clip,” when Skinner delivers one of the most in-your-face badass blows in television history. Skinner having the upper hand, however, seems to be short-lived. CSM’s got his Syndicate buddies and his sinister plans, and unfortunately Skinner’s just a piece of the puzzle.
I’m not exactly clear on which part it becomes obvious that Skinner is trying to help Mulder and Scully. I think it might be there from the beginning. You can see it in his actions that Skinner has someone’s best interests at heart. And we know, even if Mulder doesn’t, that Skinner’s not a killer. A common interpretation of Skinner’s character is that of the father figure that wants to keep his kids (Mulder and Scully) from getting into trouble, but I see him more as a big brother who tries to quietly clean up the mess before the parents find out in order to protect his younger siblings. He’s not the authority, but he’ll mess with the authority in the most discreet way possible. Skinner will take a bullet for you, even if it doesn’t endorse you all the way.
Looking at it from the outside, though, it seems like Skinner was merely hoping that Mulder wouldn’t figure him out eventually, rather than taking more steps to ensure it. I remember thinking while watching the episode, “Come on, Skinner, Mulder’s not an idiot. He’s going to figure it out.” And Mulder does, almost like clockwork. It’s one of the times I’ve actually appreciated and admired Mulder’s ultra intelligence, because it’s shown to us instead of being shoved down our throats.
Ah, and Marita Covarrubias. Every time I write about her, the sorrier for her I feel. She’s just not that interesting, unfortunately. However, in “Zero Sum” she actually did hold my attention a bit. I suppose it should come as no surprise to anyone that she’s involved with the Syndicate. Hint: practically every female character on this show (besides Scully) is. I think it works for her character, because it gives her another layer. And you’ve got to hand it to someone who can walk into a room filled with dying, smallpox infected children and look no more flustered as if a bird pooped on her car.
Speaking of which, the bee attack in the children’s playground was kind of brutal. Brutal and sad. I wonder if that was really necessary, but I suppose they needed to show that the evil government is evil. Still, that plot point doesn’t really go anywhere, and it’s a horrible thing to have to depict on screen.
I don’t know, guys. I don’t like it when Scully’s missing, either, but “Zero Sum” is really quite good. It’s not outstanding or anything, but, like so many other episodes I’ve mentioned (especially at the end of Season 4, it seems), it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten completely. Or skipped, for that matter.
Oh, and we get to see Skinner in his underwear. So there’s that.
Final score for “Zero Sum” is 7/10. Much, much better than I think it’s given credit for, atrocious opening scene aside. And, under the law of the X-Philes Fandom, I’m not allowed to give any episode featuring Mulder or Skinner wearing underwear-esque clothing less than a 7. So there you have it.
- I wonder how the underwear scene was written in the script. “And then Skinner removes his clothing, except for his cotton white Fruit-of-the-Looms.”
- Why bees? Why not mosquitoes? Who on the writing team had such a huge problem with bees?
- This episode is another great entry into the “The X-Files is actually just a giant anti-smoking PSA” line-up. Smoking kills, kids. Even if the cigarettes don’t, the bees will. No more smoke breaks.