The Man in the Iron Mask
by Sarah Stegall
copyright 1996 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Howard Gordon
Story: Howard Gordon and David Duchovny
Director: James Charleston
It’s been a rough year for Walter Skinner.
We began the season with an armed confrontation between the X-Files agents and their boss. He got shot in the gut for pursuing the investigation into the death of Melissa Scully. Now he gets framed like a Picasso by the same guys, for the murder of a prostitute. No wonder the man rarely smiles.
Friday’s X-File, “Avatar”, takes us behind the mask that Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) wears in public, to let us discover…the mask he wears in private. The story, by X-Files co-executive producer Howard Gordon from a story by him and star David Duchovny, mixes up the paranormal and conspiracy threads of this multilayered series in a plot straight out of Raymond Chandler by way of Geoffrey Chaucer. Faced with the final dissolution of his seventeen-year marriage, Skinner opts for a couple of quick ones at a downtown bar and then another quick one with a pretty pickup. The pickup winds up dead in his bed and Skinner can’t remember what happened. All he knows is that he’s been haunted by nightmares of an old woman who visits him in lurid dreams, terrifying him so much he seeks psychiatric help in a sleep disorder clinic. Mulder, unaccountably loyal to the boss who has chewed his ass out so many times, rushes to his superior’s defense, followed by the more reluctant Scully. Unfortunately, the deeper they dig, the more evidence they uncover to Skinner’s detriment. After hearing about Skinner’s dreams, Mulder concludes that his boss is being visited by a succubus.
The trouble is, Agent Mulder seems to have misplaced both his dictionary and his mythology references, because the creature who keeps appearing to Walter Skinner combines aspects of the Night-Riding Hag of European legend, the bean sidhe or banshee of Irish folklore, and the guardian angel of Christian tradition. She bears little resemblance to that medieval centerfold, the succubus, who is invariably portrayed as a babe. And none of these incarnations fits the definition of “avatar”. Geoffrey Chaucer would no doubt recognize the beautiful lover who suddenly turns into a frightening old woman from his “Tale of the Wife of Bath”. I found the symbolism of this old woman confusing and distracting.
I have to say straight out that I was disappointed in “Avatar”. I was looking forward to an episode that peeled away the top layers of armor from Walter Skinner and let us see what makes the man tick. For all that its plot is a little too familiar, “Avatar” is a serviceable story considering that it functions solely as the frame for character revelations about Skinner. Unfortunately, there *are* no character revelations about Skinner to bolster the plot.
Take, for example, the bedside confession scene. The disclosure of deep feelings to a near-corpse is a standard plot device, since we no longer accept soliloquies. In “One Breath“, Fox Mulder sits by the side of his dying partner, telling her how much she means to him. His words are few and emotionally neutral. He then goes home and we see the mask slip as he breaks down in private. That crying scene not only provided the “kick” set up by the bedside confession, it let us into Mulder’s pain and anguish so thoroughly it earned six sunflower seeds out of five from me. The bedside scene in “Avatar”, however, did not let us into Skinner’s soul. We saw Skinner deliver his little speech, which rushed immediately into a plot point to further the story. But it was not entirely the fault of the script. As Skinner refused to let even his wife into his private hell, so Mitch Pileggi failed to let the audience into Skinner’s inner self. Perhaps he was attempting more subtlety than the role called for. As it was, we learned exactly nothing about the interior landscape of Walter Skinner.
The supporting cast gave us some good moments. The icy, hard-nosed madam in the elegant penthouse showed both vulnerability and arrogance in a convincing manner. The always delightful Agent Pendrell’s (Brendan Beiser) enthusiasm for his lab work injects a welcome note of warmth into this depressing episode. Jennifer Hetrick’s Sharon Skinner came across as believable, caring, and genuine. She looked like the woman who would stand by Walter Skinner as long as he would let her, which is what happened.
The conspiracy subplot worked pretty well for me: Mulder’s explanation that Skinner is being set up by the same men who shot him earlier hangs together better than the succubus theory. And bringing in the same Gray Haired Man who warned Skinner away from the Melissa Scully case in “Piper Maru” is a neat touch that conveys much in an elegantly brief way. The one scene that sent a thrill down my spine was the one where the Gray Haired Man hangs up on Judy Fairly and the camera racks focus, to reveal that he is sitting outside the restaurant watching her with Mulder and Scully. The reflection of the Cigarette Smoking Man (looking almost gleeful) was too brief to add any information to the scene at all, but the moment when Scully calls Mulder on her cell phone, only to have him answer her from ten feet away, was a nice touch.
Finally, I must confess that I was extremely put off by the implied notion that the very thought of sex with an older woman is, in and of itself, terrifying. Since the succubus of mythology is, in fact, young and beautiful, the only reason to change her into an old woman would be to make her fear-inspiring. When an old man in “Excelsis Dei” is accused of raping a woman, he is treated as a comic figure. When an old woman in “Avatar” is suspected of lusting after a mature man, she is treated as disgusting. What that says about ageism and sexism in our society, much less in Walter Skinner’s psyche, deserves another essay in itself. Suffice to say I found it offensive.
All in all, I found “Avatar” to be an average story, with some strong points but some vital weaknesses, not helped by Pileggi’s over-controlled performance. I really wanted this episode to succeed–it had great potential and some interesting possibilities for Mitch Pileggi. But somehow it misfired. This one gets three out of five sunflower seeds.