"Zero Sum"
Written by Howard Gordon and Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners

In which Skinner finds himself in a terrible moral dilemma when his deal with Cancer Man forces him to cover up a deadly experiment conducted by the conspiracy...

Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis


Status Report

Like the third season episode “Avatar”, this was an opportunity for the writers and producers to deliver something that the fans had wanted for years: a Skinner episode worthy of the name. “Avatar” had been a complete and utter disaster (largely due to massive writing mistakes), and while it wasn’t enough to kill the chances of making Skinner a third lead, it came very close. That particular job was completed with this episode, which takes a golden opportunity and turned it into another mess.

Considering some of the choices made earlier in the season, it’s annoying to think that the producers needed an episode without the leads to accommodate Gillian’s film shoot on “The Mighty”. But it was a chance to follow through on the end of “Momento Mori” and Skinner’s deal with Cancer Man, which was a good starting point. It was also a good way for the writers to explore elements of the mythology without revealing anything to Mulder or Scully, thus informing the audience and giving the agents’ actions in the future and adding to the overall tension of the season finale.

Or it would have, if the writers had taken that path with the story. Instead, Chris Carter made the decision that the usual intrigue without explanation would remain in place, despite the opportunity to give Skinner a strong plot thread with its own particular flavor. Carter also assigned Howard Gordon to write the episode, despite the fact that “Avatar” was poorly received. Granted, Gordon is a good idea man, but his episodes as a final product are spotty and often filled with plot contrivances.

In this case, it’s not solely Gordon’s fault that the episode makes no sense. The intrigue involves the next step in the use of genetically altered bees as a delivery system for Purity, which takes the form of a genetically adaptive virus with a basic Variola structure as its template. For that reason alone, the conspiracy is interested in taking the smallpox virus and modifying it into something closer to the Purity lethality. The result is a form of smallpox that apparently cannot be passed from person to person, but is remarkably quick with the onset of symptoms.

As with most of the mythology episodes, previous interpretations regarding the goals and policies of the conspiracy and Cancer Man pertain directly to the interpretation of the current episode. Therefore, the speculation and interpretation outlined in previous reviews are assumed to be familiar to the reader. In particular, the summary of the mythology given in the review for “Herronvolk” is critical to the analysis of this episode.

The writers could and should have taken this episode as an opportunity to explore the details of how this delivery system would work. “Herrenvolk” depicted the bees as carrying an unknown but highly lethal virus, which would not affect the cloned “hybrids”, and seemed to be directed through an unknown process to attack certain individuals. The “drones”, the young clones with limited self-motivation, were the natural controllers.

In essence, this episode repeats the same information, only specifying the nature of the virus currently being delivered by the bees and noting that the bee delivery system is undergoing “real world” trials. How the bees swarm out of nowhere, seemingly out of unbelievably small hives, and how they know to concentrate their attack on individuals is unclear. The suggestion is that the bees are genetically programmed to identify vulnerable targets and remain within a certain distance of the target being attacked. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the bees have spread into the Transcontinental facility or the rest of the neighborhood?

There’s another side to this question that is completely ignored: once the bees attack and infect, how do they know to return to a safe, specified location for storage or disposal? Again, this could be a matter of genetic programming, but it could have easily been covered, given how little actually happens in the episode. For one thing, it would have been enough to link the genetic engineering in South America that produced “killer bees” to the goals of the conspiracy, thus lending a long-term rationale to what is actually a rather silly idea.

In the larger sense of Cancer Man’s true goals (using the conspiracy to cover his own agenda in terms of bringing forth humanity’s savior, ala the “prophecies” on the UFO recovered at Roswell), the bee delivery system had to be a product of his overall plan. It’s just clever enough to seem like a good idea for rapidly spreading a non-contagious disease, but problematic enough to take decades to develop even a mildly successful prototype. He would, of course, want to protect and foster it, if only for appearances.

But the project is also coming to a head, at least in terms of the disparity between Cancer Man’s goals and the interests of the conspiracy. This pertains directly to the knowledge gap between the two: the Syndicate and their allies believe that they are collaborating with Purity to ensure its creation while secretly developing methods to survive it; Cancer Man is using the conspiracy to develop the genetic information and technology necessary to defeat Purity altogether. Neither side is aware of the fact that the conspiracy itself, in the efforts to survive Purity, ends up creating the virus it inhabits (the vaccine).

It is this culmination of conflicting interests that places Scully’s fate in such jeopardy. For Cancer Man, Scully is someone he wants to keep in play, if only as possible breeding stock with Mulder. He has every intention of saving Scully’s life, but he can’t tip his hand, or he loses the power that her fate grants him. At the same time, he must justify that against the need for the conspiracy to cover its own tracks by eliminating the test subjects. Already on thin ice over the past two years with the rest of the Syndicate, he is in a terrible position.

Controlling Skinner, therefore, is not a bad resource. It’s simply used in a rather confusing and ultimately defeating manner. It makes perfect sense for Skinner to be assigned to damage control, and for Cancer Man to ensure his cooperation through blackmail. It’s quite another for them to let Skinner make mistakes without correcting his mistakes to avoid exposure. Of course, it’s possible that Cancer Man is using Skinner’s own sloppy methods as a means of eroding Mulder’s trust in Skinner, but it’s not clear from the episode itself.

The story is rather thin, especially with the leads being sidelined, and many scenes take forever to unfold. Skinner’s “cleaner” work at the Transcontinental facility wastes an amazing amount of time, which could have been used later to tighten up the plot. It also seems incredibly sloppy for Skinner to use Mulder’s name, since he knows damn well that Mulder can’t leave anything alone, especially when it looks like someone is trying to conceal something from him!

It’s clear in the very first act that Cancer Man has someone tidying up after Skinner’s mistakes; again, why only fix some of the problems while leaving others open for exposure? Mulder finds out about the case and that someone is posing as him after the detective who sent the information is killed; why not make sure Mulder never hears about it?

The sudden worsening of Scully’s cancer is barely mentioned, even though her health is at the heart of Skinner’s attempt to make Cancer Man happy. For all that, Skinner doesn’t try nearly hard enough to conduct his business with a minimum of fuss, because his activities are easily exposed by Mulder. It’s supposed to be a sign of Skinner’s inner conflict, but in essence, he’s handing Cancer Man any number of reasons to go back on their deal, simply by his own half-hearted effort. (Either that, or he was promoted because of his lack of field ops skill!)

Many of the problems with this episode are a matter of exaggeration. A honeycomb the size of a loaf of bread wouldn’t produce, in a matter of hours, thousands of bees, even if they were genetically altered. Skinner’s reaction to every setback and possible exposure is so plain on his face that he gives away the whole story on his own. It becomes impossible to believe that Mulder wouldn’t recognize that Skinner was purposefully hiding something. When Mulder finally does get evidence of Skinner’s deception, he’s far more stunned than he should have been.

Other items come too easily. In “Herrenvolk”, Marita refused to speak to Mulder openly, requiring a meeting after hours to discuss the subject of bee husbandry. In this episode, Marita takes Skinner’s call in the office and even discusses the finer points of the subject without subterfuge. Granted, she was trying to draw Skinner out, to get him to reveal his conflicted loyalties, but Skinner should have been suspicious that she wasn’t trying to conceal their discussion in any way.

The scene between Cancer Man and the Syndicate clearly demonstrates how battered and bruised his credibility is within the organization he helped to create. This is partially due to the low-key role that he has adopted over time, letting the others run things so that the “alien” cover story maintains itself. The Syndicate has begun to recognize that Cancer Man has his own game, and because they don’t know anything about that game, he is perceived as a potential threat. This plays directly into the events of the next set of mythology episodes, starting with “Gethsemane”.

When a story is weak on its own merits, one cliché is to threaten or kill children. Sometimes it works, but in most cases, it comes across as manipulative. This is definitely a case where children suffer for the sole purpose of giving the “trial run” more impact. The fact that it never comes up again, not even on a larger scale, undermines the importance of this piece in the overall mythology puzzle.

But even worse, the audience at large completely missed the point of the bee attack at the school. One of the most heard criticisms about this episode and this aspect of the mythology overall is how confusing the use of bees as a delivery system really is. Time wasted earlier in the episode could have been used at this point in the story to lay it out for the audience, to explain in clear terms that the conspiracy is studying how to use bees for mass infection. (It’s eventually important in the feature film, but even then, some felt it came out of nowhere, when the role of bees in the film was directly related to the “trial run” in this episode.)

One strong aspect of the episode is the fact that Cancer Man uses Skinner’s contact with Marita, however badly initiated, as a trap. Skinner has the chance to expose the truth, and thereby destroy himself in the process, not knowing that Marita would protect Cancer Man from any liability. At the same time, Mulder knows the truth as well, and acts to protect Skinner, because he understands why Skinner made the choices he made and how hard Skinner has struggled to keep his hands from getting too dirty. In particular, Mulder’s actions echo his convictions regarding Skinner in “Avatar”, which is a nice (if all too shallow) exploration of their unusual working relationship.

The end of the episode is far better than the rest, if only because it puts some pieces together in a manner similar to episodes earlier in the series. Skinner confronts Cancer Man much as Mulder confronted him in “One Breath”, for much the same reason. It’s a nice parallel, and the difference between Skinner and Mulder is made very clear when Skinner comes much closer to shooting his enemy.

When Marita calls Cancer Man for guidance, the natural implication of the scene is that Mulder is standing just out of sight, waiting for Marita to provide more explanation. But that’s not necessarily the best explanation. What if that blurred figure is actually Krycek, thus establishing the period during which the two forged their personal alliance? After all, Cancer Man ultimately brings Krycek back into the fold before the fifth season, and as later episodes would reveal, Krycek and Marita were lovers. Since Cancer Man is behind the effort to get the Russian vaccine for Purity to the Syndicate, this point in the timeline makes sense for those initial meetings to take place.

Speaking of timelines, this episode takes place roughly two months after “Momento Mori”, in April 1997. The end of the season takes place in October 1997. As usual for this series, several episodes in the middle of the season cluster together within a matter of weeks, while others are separated by months at a time. One thing comes to mind: what else was Skinner forced to do in the roughly seven month span during which he was working for Cancer Man?

That might have been another topic for this episode to tackle, but since the plot was dedicated to the rather shallow exploration of Skinner’s dilemma, his other activities are never revealed. Beyond the use of genetically altered bees as a delivery system for Purity, this episode could have touched on other aspects of the mythology as well, delivering clarity and direction, which was sorely lacking at this stage of the game. Granted, Chris Carter was trying to take specific aspects of the mythology as explained in “Fight the Future” and use them as seeds for each new mythology installment, so focusing on the bees fit that pattern. But it wouldn’t have hurt for the writers to take what was revealed, up to this episode, and connect some of the dots.

More than that, the title of the episode doesn’t easily relate to the topic at hand. One could argue that it’s a question of “zero sum morality”: Skinner trades his own moral well-being for Scully’s life. But it’s not very clear, and the title actually gives one the impression that something much bigger is happening. The biggest event is the “trial run”, the rationale for which has nothing to do with “zero sum” logic.

When the writer or director tosses in a gratuitous underwear shot of Mitch Pileggi to convince fans that they are paying attention, it sends a rather dubious message. Chris Carter would sometimes make choices for the series based on either giving in or directly opposing fan demands, and in each case, the results were typically disastrous. This was largely a question of execution; Mulder and Scully could have become romantically involved without the mess that was the final third of the series. Similarly, a Skinner-centric episode could and should have been more substantial and memorable for something other than Pileggi in his shorts.

Memorable Quotes

SKINNER: “I needed some sleep.”
MULDER: “Is that why you’re taking the garbage out at four in the morning?”

CANCER MAN: “A man digs a hole, he risks falling into it.”

CANCER MAN: “He died for you, Mr. Skinner. He died so you could have what you wanted: a cure for Agent Scully. Isn’t that what you want?”

CANCER MAN: “Only yesterday, you said you wouldn’t be party to murder, and now here you are. Yours is not the first gun I’ve had pointed in my face, Mr. Skinner.”

Final Analysis

Overall, this episode was another lost opportunity for a Skinner-centric episode. The overall plot was so thin that the episode feels padded in many scenes, especially in the very beginning. The exploration of the “delivery system” could have been far more interesting, and the writers missed a real opportunity to reveal answers about the mythology without giving it away to Mulder or Scully.

Writing: 1/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 1/2
Style: 1/4

Final Rating: 5/10

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