X-Files Flashback: ‘Zero Sum’

Zero Sum

Season 4, Episode 21
Director: Kim Manners
Writer: Frank Spotnitz, Howard Gordon

The X-Files‘ “Zero Sum” has a hard time shaking the reputation that it is nothing more than a filler episode while Gillian Anderson took a week off to make a film (The Mighty in case you asked). Rather than focus exclusively on David Duchovny, the episode gives the supporting characters – the “B team” – a chance to shine, specifically Mitch Pileggi as Walter Skinner and Laurie Holden as Marita Covarrubias. A nice gesture, but they’re saddled with a secondary script that dabbles in mythology but fails to move the story forward satisfactorily despite the plentiful usage of the bees.

Oh and there’s the huge revelation – Walter Skinner wears a mighty pair of tights whities.

The episode begins when a postal employee takes a smoke break in the bathroom. While she’s squatting on the toilet, a swarm of bees seeps into the room through multiple holes, eventually attacking and killing her. The next 15 minutes are something of an X-Files rarity: Director Skinner spends 10+ wordless minutes erasing all details of the bee-related death and uses Mulder’s identity to do the work. Mulder starts investigating still, but Skinner approaches the Smoking Man angrily, wanting to know why he had to cover up the death. Skinner is doing favors for the Smoking Man because he claims to be able to cure Scully.

After deciding to investigate on his own, Skinner returns to the postal facility and discovers massive honeycombs in the wall. He takes a section of the honeycomb to a forensic scientist for identification, but the bees reach maturity and kill the scientist. Skinner also reaches out to Mulder’s U.N. contact, Marita (Holden), for additional information on the Canadian bee farm Mulder discovered early in Season Four. Meanwhile, the Smoking Man meets with the Syndicate and informs them that a plan is in place to test the bees. Cut to a school yard in South Carolina where bees begin attacking innocent school children with multiple casualties. In the end, Skinner face the Smoking Man in his apartment, nearly killing him but choosing not to do so to save Scully’s life. The Smoking Man’s phone rings, and it is Marita with an unknown man listening on the same line. The Smoking Man tells Marita to tell Mulder what he wants to hear. Fade to black.

“Zero Sum” does offer opportunity to showcase the great Mitch Pileggi and the future star of The Walking Dead Laurie Holden after both have been relegated to the sidelines for multiple episodes. However, the mystery of the bees is an improbable and elaborate mess that the series fails to wrestle into a coherent whole. Why does the Syndicate believe this is a good way to spread the reborn smallpox virus? Where do the bees go when they attack and kill the postal victim and scientist? How can these bees be controlled? Why are they looking to spread smallpox again? Perhaps I’m supposed to know the answers here, but honestly I have no idea. What I can tell you is that the schoolyard scene in which bees attack the children is a pretty compelling sequence full of natural, vivid horror – especially when a surviving boy watches his teacher die in the sand.

That sequence is great stuff, but I wish there were more of it within the episode. “Zero Sum” is technically a mythology contribution, but it again offers nothing in the overall scheme of things. It’s a shame because that bee attack scene was compelling and frightening. It’s the kind of sequence The X-Files should employ further.

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