The X Files Revisited: 2.08 One Breath

A spiritual episode that closes off the abduction storyline in style…

The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we’ll pick the story highlights of each year. One Breath marks the conclusion of Scully’s abduction storyline in a beautiful, spiritual episode that sets the show back towards its original path while moving the story forward…

After the dramatic events of Duane Barry and Ascension, One Breath is a much more spiritual affair. But it isn’t any less compelling. Scully had been missing for one episode, the rather disappointing 3, and while it proved to show Mulder’s descent into darkness, it didn’t really offer anything to the story, apart to show Mulder return to his dust-covered office and file his first new X File – Scully’s file. This time, however the storyline reaches its beautiful conclusion .

After a couple of scenes in Ascension, Sheila Larken has a much bigger role as Margaret Scully, while Scully gets to show some of her expanded family. Don Davis makes a memorable cameo from beyond the grave as her father, her three siblings appear in flashback that showed Scully’s lifelong compassion through the death of a snake, and Melinda McGraw makes her debut as Melissa. She is a far different character to ‘Dana’, all healing energies and psychic beliefs; in a far different situation Melissa and Mulder may have got on very well but here the angst and trauma of Scully dying drives a clear wedge between them.

As for Scully’s return, it as just as mysterious as her abduction. No one knows how she arrived at the hospital or who treated her. Mulder is immediately wracked with paranoia – is it the government, the military? And what happened to her in the weeks since she vanished? The identification of branched DNA alludes to scientific experimentation, but even the best efforts of Mulder’s allies, the returning Lone Gunmen, cannot offer any solution. (And talking of the Lone Gunmen, Frohike is just adorable, turning up at Scully’s bedside with flowers and a bowtie).

The hope of Scully’s sudden appearance disappears quickly as her condition worsens. David Duchovny continues to deliver a mesmerising, heartfelt performance as Mulder finds himself in conflict with Margaret and Scully over whether to pull the plug and let her go. Even a desperate call to help from Mr X fails to give him the answers he seeks. Steven Williams’ shadowy informant is even more paranoid than him, clearly and aggressively declaring that he doesn’t want to die like ‘him‘ or Scully. Deep Throat’s murder continues to have ramifications on the show.

When a man in black steals Scully’s blood, Mulder sets off in pursuit leading to a violent fight in the bowels of the hospital. Mr X shockingly intervenes, assaulting the man at risk to himself and snarling at Mulder; “You want to see what it takes to know the truth Agent Mulder? To want to know the things I know?” he declares before executing the man in cold blood. He might share Deep Throat’s secrets but he is a far more dangerous character, another glimpse into his evolving character.

Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man also get some well deserved development. Mulder’s boss finally opens up to Mulder about his own ‘out of body’ experience in Vietnam and the loss of faith he felt. It is a connection that starts the first real bond with Mulder who has only viewed Skinner as another enemy up until now. Threatened by the Cigarette Smoking Man, Skinner even goes as far to give Mulder the address to the shadowy figure’s home – albeit through a rather ambiguous conversation with a mysterious woman in the hospital. After reinstating the X Files in Ascension, here he actively supports Mulder’s crusade, crossing the line in doing so.

There would be plenty more revelations to come, but the scene where Mulder holds the Cigarette Smoking Man at gunpoint in his home gives us far more than a man who observes from the shadows and makes sinister demands to Skinner. He goes as far to admit that he was responsible for Scully’s abduction and returned her because he liked her. He also admits that he respects Mulder for becoming a player; from this point forward they would no longer circle each other from a distance.

But despite these conflicts between Mulder, Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man, One Breath is not an action-packed 45 minutes of television but a journey that takes the audiences through hope, despair and hope again as Scully returns, slips away and finally wakes up. Skinner’s talk of faith and Melissa’s meditations on Mulder’s own darkness perfectly reflect the spiritual nature of the episode and Gillian Anderson, while silent until the end, still gets be a major presence.

Throughout the episode she is watched over by Nurse Owens, a guardian angel that is revealed – in the episode’s final twist – as someone that only existed in Scully’s mind. The episode doesn’t make an attempt to explain her role, nor should it have done. She is the metaphor for Scully’s own struggle to survive. More explicitly is the metaphor of Scully sat in a boat on a lake, a rope tethering her to the shore while her friends, family and Nurse Owens watch on. When she deteriorates, the rope snaps before she finally returns to the world of the living.

Her miraculous recovery is never fully explained. Perhaps it is the actions of the the Cigarette Smoking Man, giving Scully back to Mulder in respect for his actions. Perhaps the effects of her strange experimentation simply reverses. It is as unnatural as her abduction but in a show like The X Files we would expect nothing less.

One Breath is a meditation on life and death, hope and despair and even on repeat viewing remains one of the most emotive, passionate episodes in the show’s history. It is a shame that the show never really took the time to deal with the impacts of her return in the subsequent episodes. The procedural nature of the show meant that they were back on their investigations the very next week. Though of course through Scully’s subsequent cancer in season four and the arrival of Emily in season five, the ramifications of what happened to her here would shape Scully’s fate for years to come.

But at this point, One Breath beautifully closes the abduction storyline beautifully, proving that season two could already build on the highs of season one’s excellent premise and take it it thrilling new directions.


Updated: Sep 12, 2015

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