X-Files Flashback: ‘Avatar’


Season 3, Episode 21
Director: James Charleston
Writer: Howard Gordon (Based on a Story by David Duchovny and Howard Gordon)

So, the story goes something like this: David Duchovny became weary of the persistent expectations of him to carry the brunt of the series. So, given Assistant Director Walter Skinner’s (Mitch Pileggi) growing popularity with fans, Duchovny recommended an episode that focused on Skinner, someone we actually know very little about as a character. Thus, “Avatar” was born, although completely lacking any of James Cameron’s giant blue people. As an exploration into Skinner’s character, the episode offers more detail on the man but is also still maddeningly opaque in terms of character details. Ultimately, the end result is a mediocre episode that doesn’t really forward anything memorable, despite offering a nifty 70s horror allusion.

Surprisingly, Skinner is a married man at the beginning of the episode. We know this because he’s in the process of signing the final divorce papers as we open. Reluctant to finalize the deal, Skinner retreats to a bar where an attractive blonde comes on to him. Sealing the deal upstairs, Skinner falls asleep and dreams of an old woman on top of him in bed. He screams and awakens to find the blonde dead, her head twisted all the way around. Mulder and Scully are naturally drawn into the investigation and begin to explore the case, finding damning evidence against Skinner along the way. Scully performs an autopsy on the dead woman, who turns out to be a prostitute, and finds a mysterious phosphorescent glow around her nose and lips.

Meanwhile, Skinner repeatedly sees the old woman of his dreams standing nearby in a red coat. Mulder hypothesizes that Skinner has become attached to a succubus, an old woman who viciously attacks any woman in direct competition for her man. In the end, Mulder and Scully determine that Skinner appears to have been set up, but the who and the why are never clear. Skinner kills the man operating against him in the end and effectively tells Mulder the rationale is none of his business. We close with Skinner putting on his wedding ring, recommitted to his wife.

My number one complaint with this episode is that I have no idea what ultimately happened. Skinner claims to have seen the red coated-woman in Vietnam, so was she really a succubus as Mulder speculated? Was she a figment of Skinner’s drug-addled Vietnam brain? Is this a really bad case of PTSD? What was the phosphorescent substance around the prostitute’s mouth? Was it a sedative to knock Skinner out so that someone could come in and kill her? What was the point of the overall plot? Was it really to discredit Skinner with the ultimate rationale to discredit the X-files? If so (and it certainly seemed that way since the Smoking Man was seen spying on him), then it feels like an incredibly elaborate scheme. There are undoubtedly a dozen additional unanswered questions that detract from the other benefits of the episode.

On the plus side, this episode is a strong opportunity for Mitch Pileggi to make a stronger impression than he has through the series. The point is to crack the secretive shell that Skinner has formed around him, and they are successful at giving Skinner some additional coloring. You experience his touching and troubled relationship with his wife. You see him open up to Mulder about his days in Vietnam. These are two valuable aspects of his personal life that help us understand more about the man that has become such an important part of the series. Another positive about this episode is the horror-geek cred of employing the red coat conceit, lifted straight from 1973’s Don’t Look Now. True, it’s just a sneaky allusion and has little overall meaning or resonance in the episode, but it’s still super cool.

Overall, “Avatar” is well intended but a little flat. The introduction of the old woman in the red coat ultimately feels like an extraneous plot point, tossed in to spice up a Skinner-centric episode with some supernatural flair.

And thank God there were no blue people.

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