Zero Sum 4×21: You’ll find it’s not that easy to walk away.

Smoking Kills.

Remember the “Killer Bee” scares of the 1990s? Remember the news reports of swarms migrating through the Southwestern United States? Remember My Girl?

Bees are freaky, but The X-Files already knew that since we were first introduced to the guest stars of this episode back in the Season 4 opener “Herrenvolk” (4×1). “Zero Sum” gives them top billing this time around, however. It must be due to the rise of the union.

I’m still not sure I understand how Smallpox plays into all this, even though this aspect of the mythology storyline was introduced way back in “Paper Clip” (3×2). I now count myself thoroughly confused.

Based on what we learned in Season 3, the project, as managed by the Syndicate and a handful of unsavory Axis power scientists, uses Smallpox vaccination records to track human subjects for their alien-human hybridization experiments. This is confirmed and further explained at the start of Season 4 in “Herrenvolk” when we learn that this genetic tagging was made possible through the SEP, the Smallpox Eradication Program, and that Drones, those created by the project as something more than human but less than a hybrid, are being used to catalog and track these tags from strategic positions within the Federal government.


But why bees? And why reintroduce Smallpox into the world?

As to the bees, I think we’ve covered that. Bees are freaky and that’s enough. Using, oh, say, Chicken Pox vaccinations to conduct illegal tests on unsuspecting citizens would be duly horrifying, but not in a peak-through-your-fingers in delightful agony sort of way.

Still, why Smallpox and why now? I can only guess, and this really is a guess, that the Syndicate, having only truly come into contact with the Black Oil for the first time in Season 3, is now aware that the Black Oil will be the method of infection, the virus, the tool for turning human beings into a slave race of the Alien Colonists. Since their job is to facilitate colonization (meanwhile subverting the whole process behind alien backs), they’re trying to figure out the most efficient method for spreading the virus. The time has not yet come for colonization, the aliens I guess are taking their sweet time, so the Syndicate is giving this whole mass infection thing a dry run of sorts using an alternate virus: Smallpox.

You would think that creatures who can stop time and transcend space (see “Max”) would be fully capable of infecting a planet of backward humans without assistance, but I gather they’d prefer the process not to be messy and so have employed the Syndicate who, despite their best efforts, always seem to draw attention to themselves.

I still believe there must be a better, more efficient, less dramatic way of infecting people. But then, would there be any point in watching? No. And besides, I really enjoy this craziness.


This is one of those (thankfully) rare episodes where Scully doesn’t appear and even Mulder’s role is greatly reduced. But if they have to step back, I’m glad Skinner could come forward. This is a much, much more satisfying outing for his character than “Avatar” (3×21), an episode that will probably be skipped on my next rewatch now that I’ve done my duty and reviewed it. Not that it was horrible, mind you, just dull. “Zero Sum”, despite its less personal subject matter, actually does Skinner more of a service by developing his character through his own actions rather than a quick, perfunctory speech toward the end of the episode. (Mulder and Scully did most of the legwork in “Avatar” rather than Skinner). This time, we get to learn more about who Skinner is through how he interacts with CSM and Mulder, and how thoroughly he can sanitize a crime scene. Skinner certainly isn’t one, like Mulder, to spend a lot of time analyzing the whys and wherefores of his predicament. He has a duty, he does it. If he makes a mistake, there are no excuses.

We finally see the effect of the deal with the Devil Skinner made with CSM back in “Memento Mori” (4×15); he essentially sold his soul for the cure to Scully’s cancer so that Mulder wouldn’t have to. I know why Skinner did it, but what’s in it for CSM? I suspect it’s just an exercise in power. Remember, Skinner used to be under his thumb before he rebelled and broke ties completely with that famous kiss off in “Paper Clip”. I don’t think CSM appreciated that much. Certainly, he could have used a minion that was far more experienced at covering up a crime than employing Skinner to do his dirty work. But this is something that he can hold over Skinner’s head, blackmail, to keep him in line. No more back talk from the Assistant Director.

Watching these two spar back in forth is part of the fun of this episode, which outside of the excitement the bees bring, doesn’t actually add much of anything to the mythology even though it focuses on it. In this respect, it reminds me of both “Memento Mori” and the soon to come “Demons” (4×23). In the same vein, the ending really resolves nothing, although it does ad a pleasurable twist to the proceedings. And at the very least, Mulder has even more confirmation that he can trust Skinner, a trust that will be crucial come the opening episodes of Season 5.

Believe it or not, not that one would have any reason not to, this was the first episode of The X-Files that I actually watched on Fox during it’s usual timeslot. At this point, FX was still airing Season 2 reruns and the show was on its very long summer hiatus between Seasons 4 and 5. I didn’t even know who Skinner was at that point. Still enjoyed it though.



Is Marita really working for CSM? Her predecessor, Mr. X, ostensibly was as well. But clearly he was actually working against his boss from the inside. It remains to be seen where Marita Covarrubias’ loyalties actually lie.

Unnecessary Additives:

I really enjoy this teaser. The bathroom scene is a little reminiscent of “War of the Coprophages” (3×12) without the comical edge. And watching Skinner stroll suspiciously out of Mulder’s office in the dark, the light falling revealingly on Mulder’s nameplate, is the perfect ending.

That playground scene is a winner.

Best Quotes:

Marita Covarrubias: I’ll tell him what you want me to tell him.
CSM: Tell him what he wants to hear.


CSM: Agent Scully stands to live a long and healthy life. I would hope the same for you, Mr. Skinner.


First Elder: Details are everything. Much more important than your vague assurances.
CSM: Well, you’ll have to trust my assurance that any other breaches have been handled.
First Elder: Handled by whom?
CSM: I’ve a man in place. A man with no other choice but to succeed.
First Elder: And what assurance can you give us that he can be trusted?
Second Elder: We can’t risk even the slightest exposure.
CSM: He has nothing to expose… except his own duplicity.

11 responses to “Zero Sum 4×21: You’ll find it’s not that easy to walk away.

  1. I always thought you the bees was pretty straight forward, as is confirmed in FTF. the Syndicate are looking for a vehicle to allow for mass infection by the black oil virus and are using a mutated strain of smallpox to be able to objectively identify how successful they are as vessel for carrying such a virus. The scene on the playground was a trial run to see the bees in action – how effective they can be,
    Furthermore, the syndicate are aware that the black oil will be used as virus/plague, (the 1973 aggreememt in Two Fathers & One Son), the issue is that they don’t the ability to get there hands on any yet (hence the issue with creating a strong enough vaccine) probably due to the fact that the colonists don’t want them to become to well acquainted with there most powerful weapon and life source. However, despite this fact, they must go ahead and pave the way for colonization as they are on a strict time schelude and must get the infrastructure In place – hence using smallpox as a substitute to test the bees effectiveness.

  2. And I learned something vital too… Proof read your comments and don’t post comments on the tram to work… Urgh my above comment is a messy disgrace, sorry lol. Hope you can at least infer what I was saying haha.

    • It was totally readable!

      Anywho, the general plot, that I get. It’s the whys and wherefores that trouble me a little. Surely there were less attention grabbing viruses they could have uses and more effective methods than bees, who truly couldn’t spread a virus that way even if they wanted to, but that’s a whole other topic. And, of course, there’s this nagging feeling I have that the Syndicate wasn’t all that necessary in the first place.

  3. Geo Fowler…….Agree. In addition they couldn’t use the black oil either because if they did alien beings would gestate and be “born” and set free in public. The Syndicate did not want that to happen years before colonization.

  4. My Girl traumatised me as a kid and after all these years I thought I had gotten over it, but that comment at the start of your review brought all those memories back. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover.

    Anyway, good write up as always, definitely one of the best Skinner centric tales for sure, thrilling, gripping and I just love how the episode for a good five minutes or so after the title sequence is dialogue free, and carried along by visuals and Mark Snow’s music.

    • OMW, My Girl did the same thing to me. That’s why I can’t see things about bees and not think of that horrible scene. Talk about traumatizing.

  5. And then you went and brought up “My Girl”. LOL.

    No for real, that bees on the playground scene of this episode is from my very worst nightmares.

    I think the work CSM has Skinner doing is borderline humiliating, and I wonder if that was intentional. Clearly CSM hires one of his goons to go wipe a crime scene, dispose of bodies, etc, but instead he has Skinner on this? I don’t know. It seems like an intentional slap in the face, like part of the package… not only does he sell his soul, he is humiliated every step of the way. It shines a light on just how evil CSM is, I think.

    I’ve come to look forward to Skinner-centric episodes, this one no exception. I love the dynamic that was thrown into this whole series, with Skinner taking the deal so Mulder would not.

    I also rest easy at night knowing I have my smallpox vaccination, thanks to the military. But then I get paranoid that my smallpox vaccination is being used to catalog/track me. Because that was discussed sometime in season 3, I believe.

    Clearly I need to get out more.

    • CSM is definitely rubbing Skinner’s nose in it. I think this is payback for that kiss off Skinner gave him back in “Paper Clip”. Skinner had freed himself from his clutches, but now that he’s come crawling back to CSM begging for Scully’s life CSM is going to make sure to enjoy it.

      Any anyone brave enough to enlist in the Military after watching The X-Files has my sincere gratitude. 😉

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