Fear is a Man’s Best Friend: The X-Files, 'Kitten'
The last three seasons of The X-Files have included FBI Director Walter Skinner in the opening credits, an acknowledgment of how important he has been to the show’s narrative trajectory. Yet, as Scully remarks in to Mulder in this episode, “after all these years, we know precious little about Walter Sergey Skinner beyond the professional.” Skinner has revealed some aspects of his personal life before; in Season 2’s “One Breath” he talked about his experiences in Vietnam. In “Kitten” we see one of these stories come to life.
Back in 1969, Skinner and his friend John “Kitten” James (played by Haley Joel Osment) were tasked with carrying a mysterious box near Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Viewers familiar with secret CIA programs probably raised their eyebrows when they saw MK NAOMI stenciled on the side of this large box. After the drop-off, Quon, one of the soldiers, is injured. Skinner goes to help him, leaving John inside a hut with the mysterious box and a terrified Vietnamese family. After being pierced by bullets, the box begins to emit a strange, yellow smoke which seems to turn the previously meek “Kitten” into a raving maniac who slaughters the Vietnamese family and then turns on his friend, who reminds him that, “It’s me, it’s Skinner!”
Deputy Director Kersh calls Mulder and Scully into his office to question them about Skinner’s whereabouts: apparently he’s “gone AWOL.” Kersh then chides them for having “conspiracy-addled minds,” accuses them of knowing where Skinner is and lying about it by omission, and states that their “misguided search for some imaginary truth” has directly stalled Skinner’s FBI career.
It’s an interesting twist on the way that Skinner has often chastised Mulder and/or Scully from behind a desk, accusing one of them of knowing yet concealing the whereabouts of the other. Now, however, Mulder and Scully are united on one thing: they need to find Skinner, who has apparently been poking around in places he shouldn’t.
After the duo find a severed human ear (shades of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet) in a padded envelope in Skinner’s surprisingly austere and depersonalized apartment, they travel to Mud Lick, Kentucky, where the body of a Dr. Wegweiser has been found missing an ear, Scully tells Mulder that she hasn’t been able to find out anything about Skinner’s Vietnam history because it’s all been classified as Top Secret.
They also discover other things that can’t be coincidental: Dr. Wegweiser was killed in a bear trap similar to the Punji stick trap used in Vietnam, the nearby Glazebrook Institution houses several mentally ill Vietnam vets, and the people of Mud Lick keep losing teeth. Oh, and residents have been claiming they’ve seen “some kind of monster out in the woods.”
As it turns out, it wasn’t just Kitten who went crazy back in 1969. The legacy of MK NAOMI has extended its smoky fingers into the present. Skinner meets John’s son Davey, and thinks he’s seen a ghost. In a way, he has. Davey has taken his father’s gas-induced insanity to heart. Skinner had testified against John for his crimes in Vietnam and as a result, the man spent 38 years in Glazebrook. Neither John nor Davey has ever forgiven Skinner for ruining their lives.
As it turns out, Davey has brought the old monster to life, including killing his father and taking on the mantle of his past misdeeds. He keeps a skull costume in his closet, and this is what the people of Mud Lick have been seeing. Or is it?
The idea that these MK NAOMI tests are continuing is presented; Davey tells Mulder and Skinner about how the government used tests to “harness our fears to manipulate us into violence.” He seems almost excited to share the details with them: “Imagine the power of a government that could literally control the minds of millions and millions of its citizens, influence every choice and decision they ever made simply by exposing them to this poison.” While Scully is skeptical, Mulder reminds her of government research into mind control like Project Bluebird, MK ULTRA, and MK DELTA. The end scene of the episode repeats Davey’s words while showing a small plane releasing a gas over the fields of Mud Lick, something that arrived at the town in a box that looks startlingly similar to the one that was marked MK NAOMI.
Once again, the audience is forced to confront conflicting ideas: is Mulder just suffering from a “conspiracy-addled brain”? Is he no better than Alex Jones ranting about “lizard people”? Or does the fact that such secret government programs existed lend credence to the idea that the government is still trying to control its citizens? While that may not be happening with poisonous gas, as “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” proved, the “truth” is whatever “they” say it is.
Mulder and Scully do manage to rescue Skinner, who is stuck in a Punji stick trap that Davey lured him into. He assures them that “if it wasn’t for you two I wouldn’t be here right now… you two came along and you taught me not to hide from mistrust, but to have the guts to shine a light directly into the darkest corners. Given the choice between advancing my career by being blindly loyal… or to throw in with you two? Make no mistake about it; I’d make the same decision every damn time.”
Earlier in the episode Scully had asked Mulder “what happened to the old reliable Skinner we knew and loved” but it seems like he never actually went away.