Could it be said that up to this moment in time in The X-Files lifespan that One Breath was the show’s best ever episode? Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question because the answer is yes, it most definitely was.
Written by Morgan & Wong, directed by R.W Goodwin (a rare non-premiere/finale directorial gig for the show’s co-executive producer) and featuring the best performances from the entire cast of the show, One Breath is once again The X-Files showing itself, in the space of its second year, as a show that is in a very different place than it was in its first.
Most shows wouldn’t get to a place like the one this episode is in until the third or maybe even fourth season, but developments behind the scenes has meant The X-Files has had to grow up quickly, and they took the pregnancy of its leading actress, something that may have curtailed other shows in their path, and ran with it and allowing it to do truly great things.
For once we never see anyone get murdered or abducted by aliens in the teaser, unless you count the snake that a young Scully shoots at, fatally hurting and thus, in true origin story fashion, carve the path for her to become a medical doctor (okay, maybe not the defining moment, but it explains a lot). The scene is shot very differently than most X-Files teasers. Opening with a camera shot flowing through the clouds, with vibrant, natural colours, its setting has to be the most well-lit forest that we would ever see on the show.
It does threaten to go all Touched By An Angel on us, but this most lyrical and beautifully nostalgic of openings is off-set by the dark image that Margaret Scully is telling this story to Mulder as they wait for Scully’s headstone to be unveiled to them. It’s been three months, and the time has maybe come to give up.
It’s an unsettling enough scenario, but before we even get used to that, once the title sequence is over, Scully is back, in a hospital bed without any knowledge on how she got there and Mulder is on the warpath, determined to find out how she has ended up in a coma, her body turning against her. The scene where he screams at the hospital staff, a superb piece of acting from Duchovny, as he is dragged out of the hospital pretty much setting the tone for the intense character drama that is about to take place over the next forty-five minutes.
One Breath is quite simply, and I cannot stress this enough, a masterpiece, quite simply the best forty-five minutes The X-Files produced to this point and an episode that still resides in my personal top ten episodes. Suffice to say episodes that would follow over the next number of seasons would challenge their way to my heart, but this one still holds up, even after all these years. It shows the power of the episode that the show itself would recall one of its most pivotal moments in the recent revival’s Glen Morgan helmed Home Again.
This would end up being one my most rewatched episodes of the show. In the UK, FOX Video released the Duane Barry and Ascension two parter, alongside One Breath, in a specially edited, feature-length video release that was more or less played out, much in the same way as the Tooms episodes, were.
The second season of The X-Files has seen the show truly expand itself and shown audiences and television critics that it wasn’t just some winningly formulaic supernatural thriller in a police procedural uniform, that it could do wonderfully intense character drama and had earned such brilliant character driven plotting in such a short space of time. It says a lot about how much the show and its two heroes had become so easy to care for that an episode like this could work on such a powerful level.
Despite being back in the show, Scully spends the majority of the episode in a coma, and thus the reunion we are waiting for is dangled in front of us for much of the run time. The moment, when it comes, is everything you could hope for; sweet, lovely and just a touch awkward. The journey there is the most intense drama the show had ever delivered and when it delivered the happy ending we all wanted, it was so worth it.
Amazingly, nearly the entire episode takes place in the hospital. Whereas Duane Barry and Ascension were like an intense action movie that went from being a hostage drama to one that opened up to take in James Bond-esque stunt on a cable car, One Breath keeps things smaller and personal but is no less gripping for it. Instead it takes the time and spends it with the show’s ever-expanding cast, and even allows one or two of them genuine moments to shine, one of which feels very game changing and would help set the tone for an actor who would go on to become one of the show’s most popular characters.
With a developing mythology and story arc, The X-Files in its second year has truly filled out its character roster, as we saw the return of Margaret Scully and The Lone Gunmen, whilst Skinner and the CSM took on more of a presence in the show’s FBI scenes, while newcomer Krycek really made his mark in Sleepless and Ascension especially.
With One Breath we once again see the show’s developing supporting cast come to the forefront as Mulder finds himself surrounded by would be friends and potentially dangerous allies and villains, whilst the only person he trusts more than anything is dying in front of him. Scenes with Margaret Scully are always great because Sheila Larken is so damn good; stoic and with grace, she stands up to Mulder’s crusade to save Scully in a way that never belittles our hero, and I think the show deserves credit for not trying to mine angst riddled, intense drama in an easy way.
I mean, there is angst and it is pretty intense, but the show never allows its characters, especially the Scully family, who gains a new member in the shape of Mellisa, played by Melinda McGraw (Mad Men, The Dark Knight), to ever become vindictive or mean to someone who they know now plays a key part in their daughter and sister’s life. We’ll get to a character like that eventually, and I’ll write more about him then.
There are touches of antagonism between Mulder and Melissa, but the scenes are played beautifully and there is a joyful delight, yet sadness, that Scully’s sister is deeply spiritual and someone who could probably be a potential kindred spirit or good friend to Mulder through their shared openness to the supernatural, but don’t because they find their opinions differing during the course of the episode.
The episode has many key confrontations throughout that help sell it so well. It isn’t the most plot heavy episode by any means, it is a deeply entrenched character drama the likes of which the show had never really attempted before but is doing incredibly well with. We get another appearance from Deep Throat replacement X and he shows that he isn’t some mere replacement. This is a guy who is willing to fight for the truth and does not care about getting his hands dirty.
Where Jerry Hardin had a mature, fatherly presence about him throughout season one, Steven Williams feels like a hurricane who has come in to tell Mulder how it is in a real, and direct way. He executes a man without giving it a second thought and isn’t afraid to set those up who abducted Scully to be executed by Mulder in what is one of the episode’s most quietly chilling moments.
Steven Williams has only been on the show now three times, but his appearance here doesn’t just hint at a different type of informant, it confirms it with deadly force and is bloody brilliant.
Whilst Williams becomes a force of nature, Mitch Pillegi shows a side to nicely different side to AD Skinner. He finally gets out from behind his desk and his nice office and visits Mulder in the basement and shows that there really is more to the character than previously thought. It’s the moment his character has been building towards all season, the cold and tough demeanour thawing away, bit by bit, until he eventually tells Mulder about his own supernatural experience in Vietnam. It is a genuinely lovely moment, beautifully played by Pillegi who sells it so well. He even removes his glasses and effectively lowers his shield to allow Mulder this one moment to see the real him. The camera holds on Pillegi throughout and it is without doubt one of the most beautifully delivered monologues on the show, the line reading both cathartic and heartbreaking with its subtlety.
Skinner would go on to become one of the most complex, wonderful characters of the show, and really his journey as that character begins here, the harsh boss, but with his heart in the right place and who always, eventually, does the right thing. The right thing in this case is giving Mulder the location of the Smoking Man.
William B Davis finally moves from being credited as “co-starring” to a main guest star. R.W Goodwin was a little reluctant to give the actor such a large role fearing he may not be able to carry his larger number of scenes, not knowing he was a very accomplished theatre actor and teacher. Forever the mysterious unknown figure hanging around the periphery of many a scene, here we get our first glimpse and idea of how far the hand of this character reaches. In many ways the key scene that Mulder shares with the Smoking Man and Skinner are watershed moments for the show and its relationships with both these characters, setting up and paving a direction and attitude that would carry throughout much of the rest of the show.
If Mulder’s conversation with Skinner is an emotional cornerstone for the episode, then the confrontation with the CSM is a cementing of the character’s antagonism. Not only has he been involved in hurting Scully, he masks his behaviour in villainous kindness by declaring that he likes both her and Mulder and that’s why she was returned. Mark One Breath down as the point where the CSM truly becomes the antagonist of The X-Files. His confrontation with Mulder may only take up one scene, but the staging of it would be reprised twice again, both times deliberately recalling the intensity of this; CSM, sitting down, cigarette in hand with Mulder standing above him with a gun. The second time they would replay it, however, the staging would be reversed.
The dialogue is intense, Duchovny, once again proving just how great an actor he is with an emotional intensity that is off the charts, conveys Mulder’s desperation superbly, while Davis is calm, cool, and deliciously evil, on a path where he is about to become a villain to relish. There is something so brilliantly chilling and yet subtly bad-ass about declaring that you “don’t threaten me, I’ve watched Presidents die“.
This is sublime, brilliant television, the show at the top of its game. It is going to put some of these toys away for a while, with Scully back, the series is going to try to go back to its paradigm of stand alone investigations, but even those are going to be affected by a touch of intensity that wasn’t apparent in season one.
The final scene of One Breath is a lovely coda that adds a spiritual element that may be easy to see coming, but the episode would lack a little bit of magic without it. It’s a quietly beautiful scene, where the episode basks in the warm glow of John Bartley’s lighting, Mark Snow’s heavenly music and the lovely sense that our heroes are back together again. It’s absolutely wonderful.