This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.
If there were ever any doubt that The X-Files is fundamentally about faith in the nineties, One Breath should put the matter to rest.
An astounding, moving, staggering and thoughtful piece of work, One Breath not only wraps up the arc that opened the second season, it also provides closure to the themes that writers Glen Morgan and James Wong had been seeding throughout this first stretch of the season. One Breath bookends the meditation on faith that began in Little Green Men and serves as a counterpoint to the paranoia of Blood and the nihilism of 3.
One Breath is a tremendous piece of work, the best episode of the season and one that deserves to be mentioned among the very best the show ever produced.
There are many interesting things about One Breath. First of all, it’s pretty fantastic that Gillian Anderson came back to work so quickly. She only missed a single episode of the show during her pregnancy, which is a phenomenal accomplishment. That is one incredible work ethic, and seems quite consistent with Bryan Fuller’s observations about working with Anderson on Hannibal years later. It’s a staggering commitment to the show, and one that deserves all manner of praise and recognition.
It’s also worth noting that the production team have done a wonderful job turning the situation into a storytelling opportunity. The opening eight-episode stretch of the second season of The X-Files demonstrates just how far the show is willing to go. The X-files themselves are closed for the first six episodes, and we don’t get a reversion to the classic “Mulder and Scully investigate strange stuff” format until the ninth episode of the season. That’s a massive creative risk for the show, and it’s to the credit of all involved that it worked so well.
In many respects, it set a number of important precedents for the years ahead. Most of those precedents were positive. It demonstrated that the show would take risks, and that it would not stick rigidly to the familiar formula. It showed that Chris Carter was willing to shake things up a bit, and also to move outside the confines of episodic storytelling. Many of these aspects would become hallmarks of The X-Files as it matured and developed.
The only real problem with this stretch of episodes was that it cemented the idea that Mulder and Scully were the two essential and indispensable ingredients of The X-Files. The X-files themselves were expendable. The show could shift genre easily enough, telling different sorts of stories. However, without both partners together, the show was fundamentally broken. It doesn’t help that 3 was the only episode in that stretch to feature Mulder totally and completely alone.
This wasn’t really a problem in 1994. After all, Mulder and Scully were a hot commodity. Chris Carter was already fielding questions about “unresolved sexual tension”, as viewers became as engaged with the dynamic between the two agents as they were with the cases they investigated. The show was only a year or two away of photo shoots featuring the two actors in bed together, and Carter was already relentlessly teasing a flirtation between the two. (The fact that 3 treats Scully’s abduction as the dissolution of a romantic relationship certainly helps.)
However, when Duchovny (and later Anderson) decided to move on from the series, it meant that the production team would have all that weight pushing down on them. When the eighth (and particularly ninth) season of the show tries to figure out what The X-Files might look like without Mulder and Scully, it has to deal with the fact that the second season of the show forcefully insisted that there is no X-Files without Mulder and Scully.
Still, all of that is in the future. One Breath is a phenomenal piece of television, demonstrating that James Wong and Glen Morgan are the two best writers on the show’s staff. What is remarkable about the episode is just how positive it is. For all that The X-Files is described as a bastion of nineties cynicism, it can also be strangely heartwarming, as Morgan concede in The X-Files Confidential:
“Duchovny challenged us to do a Beyond the sea for him. The show had been so dark and bleak, and Jim [Wong] and I feel that there is a side to the paranormal that’s very hopeful – the phenomena of angels and hope and peace. We wanted to do that side of it. I had read a book called Raising the Dead , about a guy who was a surgeon and a writer. He was in his study and the next thing he knows, he’s lying on the floor, there’s a paramedic over him, and his wife is freaking out. W hat happened is that it was Legionnaire’s disease. He had gone into a coma. The guy wrote a diary of his time in that state of consciousness, which is fascinating. The original intent was that was what the whole episode was going to be. I had wanted to do this from the beginning of the year. I thought it would be a great opportunity for Duchovny, but then the situation came up with Gillian’s pregnancy. We needed to get her off her feet anyway. There’s a line in there where Scully’s sister says. ‘Just because the belief is positive and good doesn’t make it silly or trite.’ It was the whole theme of the show.”
As much as The X-Files is a show about how horrifying the unknown and unknowable can be, and how powerless individuals are when facing the weight of oppression, it is also the story of two people who manage to find and maintain faith in one another. Mulder and Scully may never be able to topple a vast global conspiracy, but they will be able to help one another. In One Breath, Mulder’s affection helps to guide Scully home, and Scully helps to bring Mulder back into the light.
In many respects, this is the flip side of the coin to episodes like Blood or 3. Although both episodes were flawed in execution, to varying degrees, they touched on the sense of cynicism and nihilism that many associate with the nineties. Blood is in many ways a piece of self-criticism from the show, a story about how paranoia was not a healthy or conducive state of mind. (Which should really be self-evident, but this is The X-Files, after all.) In 3, the Son rants and raves about how life after death does not exist.
Both of those episodes explore ideas that are quite close to Mulder’s heart. Mulder is paranoid, he just has the convenience of being right; there is a vast government conspiracy against him. Mulder is also suggested to be an atheist, and seems to consciously reject traditional spiritual beliefs like the idea of life after death. As much as Little Green Men suggested that his faith in extraterrestrials empowers him, it is clear that Mulder holds a very pessimistic worldview.
However, One Breath draws attention to the fact that The X-Files is not exclusively a show about cynicism or pessimism. As much as it might be rooted in the legacy of Vietnam or Watergate, the sort of “extreme possibilities” that Mulder and Scully investigate need not be grim and unrelenting horrors. The unknown need by hostile and terrifying. The night need be dark and full of terror. There may be wonders to match horrors.
Skinner, of all people, concedes as much. As with so many supporting characters in One Breath, the show touches upon the idea of Skinner’s faith. It’s revealed that he served in Vietnam, another example of the conflict echoing into The X-Files. And yet, despite all the cynicism associated with that war, One Breath uses it to demonstrate Skinner’s sense of faith. “When I was eighteen, I went to Vietnam,” he confesses. “I wasn’t drafted, Mulder, I enlisted in the Marine Corps the day of my eighteenth birthday. I did it on a blind faith.”
There’s that word. Skinner wasn’t tricked or coerced. His patriotism stemmed from faith, just as Mulder’s belief in extraterrestrials does. “I did it because I believed it was the right thing to do,” Skinner remarks. Most, telling, however, is the way that the episode touches on his current attitudes towards his service. He adds, “I don’t know, maybe I still do.” Skinner has not become jaded and disillusioned, despite the show’s attitude towards the conflict. Some of that original faith endures.
However, Skinner’s story also offers an example of how the unexplained isn’t necessarily terrifying and horrific. Recalling a near-death experience during his service, Skinner muses, “I looked down at my body from outside of it.” He talks about the strange “peaceful, unafraid” feeling he had during the experience. To Skinner, this is what the X-Files represent; they are not only adventures into the horrifying or the grotesque, but also profoundly philosophical and spiritual journeys.
They ask big important existential questions that are worth asking, and which cannot really be handled elsewhere. “I’m afraid to look any further beyond that experience,” Skinner admits to Mulder. “You? You are not.” It’s a beautiful character moment that explains why Skinner has been so stoicly (albeit silently) supportive of Mulder, and why he puts up with Mulder’s insubordination.
Indeed, One Breath is the episode that firmly grounds Skinner. It seems to suggest that Skinner is the most reasonable member of the entire cast, the cast member most at peace with himself, despite the compromises that he has had to make. Episodes like The Host and Ascension had done lot to solidify Skinner as a reasonable authority figure, but One Breath clinches it. He’s really the only member of the core ensemble to tell Mulder what Mulder needs to hear.
He clearly has an emotional investment in the loss of Scully, an agent under his command. “Agent Scully was a fine officer,” he admits to Mulder. “More than that, I liked her. I respected her.” When Mulder points out that he casually put his life on the line to help Mulder locate the Cigarette Smoking Man, Skinner muses, “Agent Mulder, every life, everyday is in danger. That’s just life.” Contrasted with how Mulder and X react to the situations in which they find themselves, Skinner seems like the most anchored member of the cast.
As much as Mulder scoffs at Melissa Scully’s new age philosophy, is it any more absurd than his own belief in extraterrestrials? Well, that’s a loaded question in the context of the show, given we get to see aliens quite regularly. However, outside the fact that Mulder is a main character and Melissa is a small recurring player, her new age beliefs really are just another belief system. They represent another way of seeing the world.
Melissa’s beliefs don’t cause any harm. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made about some aspects of new age healing, they don’t apply here. Melissa’s efforts don’t interfere with her sister’s medical treatment; she doesn’t decline any medicine that might help Dana come out of the coma. Instead, she chooses hope and faith over cynicism and pessimism. And One Breath acknowledges that this is a perfectly justifiable decision.
Compassion seems to be the primary virtue of One Breath. As much as the show might laugh at Frohike showing up in his tuxedo, it’s a strangely heartwarming sight. The show humanises Skinner by revealing his empathy for Mulder and sympathy for Scully. Melissa Scully is the character who finally convinces Mulder that being with Scully is more important than avenging her. One Breath is an incredibly moving piece of work.
It’s telling that the actual plotting of the episode is somewhat loose. How or why did Scully end up in hospital? Pressed on the issue by Mulder, the best the Cigarette-Smoking Man can offer is an unconvincing, “I like you. I like her too. That’s why she was returned to you.” It seems a little strange. After all, if the government wanted to monitor her progress, why not just oversee some of her recovery in a government lab, as opposed to a public hospital?
The episode does little to advance the overall mythology plot, instead focusing on the character consequences of the arc. Indeed, Scully’s abduction isn’t even properly tied into the show’s overall mythology arc until the third season of the show. After all, the idea of a series-spanning mythology was only beginning to take root at this point in the show’s run, despite the ubiquitousness of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. The conspiracy is more a bunch of loose associations than a driving plot.
Religion is a big part of One Breath, and the story is saturated with conventional depictions of the state between life and death – familiar characters calling back, long corridors, a sense of being adrift. The story opens with Scully’s mother telling a story about Scully trying to save a snake, an obvious biblical allusion. Indeed, Morgan and Wong would return to the association between Scully and the snake in the fourth season episode Never Again, which even has obvious (if unplanned) connotations related to Scully’s mortality.
Given the long-standing association between the serpent and knowledge, along with Scully’s Cathlicism, it’s a lovely character touch. Of course Scully pursues knowledge deemed “dangerous.” That’s a pretty effective distillation of who she is. It is, in essence, part of how Scully ended up in this situation in the first place – and why she refuses to allow her abduction to impede her work in later episodes.
Writing in Unreal TV, Rhonda Wilcox suggests another subtext to that introductory sequence:
In One Breath, from the second season, Scully’s mother recalls aloud a story of Scully’s youth. There is a snake and a loss of innocence, but the Garden of Eden story is reversed: Scully tries to save the snake. Catholic though she is, the character does not accept the patriarchal story.
This is probably the most interesting aspect of the script to One Breath, the way that Morgan and Wong write around some of the unfortunate implications of Scully’s arc in these episodes.
After all, the abduction arc reduces Scully to a plot point – a character to be fought over. She is taken away as a means to hurt Mulder, and she lacks any real agency in the arc. The focus in the first stretch of the second season is almost entirely on Mulder, with Scully existing in Mulder’s orbit. She’s a wall off which he can bounce ideas or a rock to which he can cling. Despite being present for extended portions of Ascension and One Breath, she actually has a minimum of lines.
And, to be entirely fair, you can justify this – to an extent. Gillian Anderson had limited availability. She was having a baby. Although there is some disagreement about the immediate reaction to Anderson’s decision, the production team chose to work around that and to accommodate her as much as possible, and she worked phenomenally hard to ensure that she was available to the production as much as possible. Scully was always going to have a reduced role in this stretch of the season, and the show’s options were to either replace her or push her to the background.
As such, since David Duchovny was available and able to work, he got the material. The first stretch of the second season is very much told from Mulder’s perspective with an emphasis on Mulder’s character arc. Little Green Men is about Mulder’s crisis of faith. The Host is about Mulder discovering that he has friends where he doesn’t expect them. Sleepless is about Mulder trusting the people around him. Blood is about Mulder’s paranoia. Ascension might feature Scully’s abduction, but it’s all about Mulder. A significant proportion of her limited number of lines consist of calling to Mulder for help.
So, while all this is understandable, there is a catch. While the producers weren’t responsible for Gillian Anderson’s limited availability, they were responsible for how the show chose to address it. Scully could have gone to a medical conference for a week or two, available only via pre-filmed inserts. Scully could have become pregnant herself. Mulder could have been physically separated from her by an assignment. The show could have simply ignored the character for the time that Gillian Anderson needed. Instead, the show chose to have Scully abducted to punish Mulder and to generate angst for him.
So Scully’s abduction ends up being entirely about Mulder. Indeed, even after Gillian Anderson is back to occupying the role of full-time lead, the show takes a while to circle back to Scully. The very next episode, Firewalker, isn’t about Scully, but focuses on Mulder; it is a show about how terrible it is that great men generate collateral damage. Red Museum is about the man who killed Mulder’s contact, rather than about the man who may have been involved in Scully’s abduction.
The show eventually figures out how to bring things back to Scully, but it takes a while. Outside of Irresistible, the show doesn’t properly delve into Scully’s side of the experience until the third season. Here, Morgan and Wong are working within the confines of Gillian Anderson’s limited availability, but they manage to play with expectations a bit. One Breath sets up what looks like an all-too-common narrative around Mulder’s reaction to Scully’s return, only to cleverly subvert those expectations.
One of the more common readings of Scully’s abduction is a stand-in for rape and sexual abuse. As Elyce Rae Helford argues in Fantasy Girls:
The alien abduction scenario central to The X-Files is a rape narrative; it echoes the countless stories in which women are abducted by sky gods with agendas. It is also a contemporary version of Mary Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Subjected to experiments with superovulation and hybridisation that render her infertile, Scully is represented as every woman exploited for her body by patriarchy and power, as revealed in season three’s Paper Clip, Nisei and 731.
It’s no coincidence that the ranking members of the conspiracy tend to be old, white, male and privileged. Here, the experience leaves her hospitalised. Much later, in Emily, the show stresses the reproductive element of the violation, revealing that she had a child by the experience.
Given the plot’s focus on Mulder, the narrative arc of One Breath seems quite obvious. It seems like The X-Files setting up the audience for the classic “rape revenge by proxy” trope, where a male character seeks to avenge himself upon those responsible for the abuse of a female relative or friend. It is an all-too-common story template, dating back to at least Töre’s daughters in Vänge, which inspired Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.
It’s a fairly standard plot that has become far too common – male characters reacting with violence and brutality to avenge the assault of a woman close to them. This particular brand of male power fantasy has a long history in cinema. Examples can be found in virtually any decade, across films as diverse as The Searchers, Death Wish II, Straw Dogs, and A Time to Kill. It remains a stock film and television trope.
In A Review of Research on Sexual Violence in Audio-Visual Media, Carol Harring and Tainui Neilson note:
The finer points of genre classification aside, Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave , and Death Wish II are united by a focus on a single or multiple rapes, and the subsequent revenge by the victim or a (male) family member of the victim. All caused classification controversies because of their representations of sexual violence.
This rape revenge genre is built on the narrative of rape as a catalyst and justification for male violence, criticised by Cuklanz in her analysis of TV detective shows. In both Straw Dogs and Death Wish II the rape of a female character justifies violent retribution by a male character. Women in the two films are both victimised and avenged by males. Furthermore, the male heroes in Straw Dogs and the Death Wish films are initially a “pacifist” and a “mild-mannered liberal,” respectively, and are forced to rekindle their “wavering masculinity” to avenge their loved ones. In short, the films show violent masculinity as a solution to sexual violence rather than as an underlying social problem.
It is a very uncomfortable genre.
It almost goes without saying that these male revenge fantasies reflect something of a double standard – revenge by female characters tends to be treated more ambiguously than revenge by male characters. As Jacinda Read notes in The New Avengers: Feminism, Feminity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle:
While, by its very nature, the family or conjugal relation involved in secondary revenge helps to legitimate it, in these cases one cannot help but feel that the fact that acts of violence and retribution are naturally associated with masculinity lends additional justification. Consequently, while in films featuring secondary revenge, the rape of a loved one is shown to be sufficient justification for male violence to unexplained and unpunished, in those featuring female violence or revenge, the presence of additional extenuating circumstances or punishment suggests that rape is not seen as a sufficient justification for such unnatural behaviour.
And yet, given how the second season has treated Scully so far, it looks like One Breath is setting us up for yet another revenge narrative, where Mulder hunts down those responsible for Scully’s abducted and exacts a terrible vengeance.
And One Breath plays with this idea. Mulder is full of rage at Scully’s condition, stopping just short of assaulting her doctor. “Who did this to her?” Mulder demands, barely allowing the man to get two sentences out. “I want to see what tests have been done! Listen, if you’re hiding anything, I swear, I will do anything, whatever it takes, I will find out what they did to her!” It’s a wonder Mulder is allowed back in the hospital.
Mulder’s personal crisis in One Breath stems from a sense of powerlessness. “Your anger and your fear’s blocking any positive emotions she needs to feel,” Melissa advises him. Mulder isn’t convinced. “I need to do more than just wave my hands in the air,” he replies, dismissing the value of offering support and standing by her side. Mulder means he needs to do something dynamic and stereotypically masculine. “I owe her more than just sitting around doing nothing,” Mulder tells X, which confirms that Mulder sees absolutely no value in simply being there.
Along the way, Mulder encounters various versions of masculinity. Frohike’s genuine concern for Scully and desire to help in some small way is perhaps the most moving, but so is Skinner’s refusal to allow Mulder to throw his life away to pursue revenge. Of course, Skinner provides Mulder with the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s address, but the scene plays out in such a way that Skinner was simply trying to force Mulder to confront his own thirst for vengeance so that he might better know himself coming out the other end.
In contrast, the show provides us with several mirrors to Mulder, offering several glimpses of where his revenge might lead him. X is perhaps the most obvious example. Steven Williams continues to be superb in the role, and Morgan and Wong work hard to distinguish the character from his direct predecessor. X is not the paternal figure that Deep Throat was. He is more paranoid, more on edge, more cynical. In essence, he is Mulder’s worst character traits amplified.
“I used to be you,” X explicitly states at one point. “I was where you are now. But you’re not me, Mulder. I don’t think you have the heart.” There’s a beautiful irony in that – reinforcing the idea that Mulder needs to prove his masculinity through violence and retribution – the very opposite of values traditionally associated with “heart.” X serves as a glimpse into one possible future for Agent Mulder, a version of the character who has let his own paranoia and anger overcome him.
X serves to tempt Mulder. He is a figure trying to coerce Mulder across the line. He offers knowledge and retribution, the two things that Mulder wants desperately at this point in time. “You want to see what it takes to find the truth, Agent Mulder?” X asks. “You want to know what I know?” Naturally, X is a cold-blooded killer, willing to murder witnesses rather than risk exposure. This is something he does routinely.
He tempts Mulder with the promise of sending the men who abducted Scully to their deaths at Mulder’s hand. It’s murder, as much as X couches it in euphamism. “You will be waiting,” X explains the plan. “To defend yourself with terminal intensity.” Mulder has no way of knowing whether these men were actually involved in the abduction. It just offers him a way to feel better about himself. Even as he offers to help Mulder murder the men who abducted Scully, X’ primary concern remains his own security. “After tonight, we cannot make contact for several weeks.”
If X is a version of Mulder consumed by paranoia and anger, then the Cigarette-Smoking Man is a version of Mulder who has given up everything in pursuit of his goals. The show consciously juxtaposes the two. Mulder confronts the Cigarette-Smoking Man watch television alone in an empty apartment, just as Mulder had been watching television alone in his empty apartment when he got the call about Scully’s return.
(It’s a nice touch that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is watching a black-and-white Second World War movie. One of the primary themes of The X-Files is that the legacy of the Second World War is much more controversial than traditional historical narratives allow. Of course the Cigarette-Smoking Man likes to remember it as black-and-white. That said, it’s also a nice bit of character continuity that Mulder appears to be watching pornography at the start of the show.)
One Breath presents the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a cautionary tale to Mulder. He is a man who has devoted his life to an ideal, at the cost of everything else. As Mulder confronts him, he remarks, “Look at me. No wife, no family, some power. I’m in the game because I believe what I’m doing is right.” There’s a sense that he believes in what he is doing just as much as Mulder believes in his own cause.
“Right?” Mulder repeats. “Who are you to decide what’s right?” The Cigarette-Smoking Man retorts, “Who are you? If people were to know the things I know, it would all fall apart.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man is a version of Mulder so devoted to his cause that he is left with nothing. He is Mulder without Scully, his life devoted to a lonely ideal. As with X, the Cigarette-Smoking Man seems to exist to tempt Mulder down a dark path. “I have more respect for you, Mulder,” he offers. “You’re becoming a player.” He sounds almost sincere.
In the end, Mulder doesn’t find closure through violence or murder. He doesn’t “avenge” Scully. The Cigarette-Smoking Man lives to fight another day. Mulder’s apartment is ransacked. At the last minute, staring into the abyss, Mulder decides that the important thing is to be there for Scully, offering what little support he can. One Breath turns the expected rape revenge narrative on its head. The important thing isn’t the retribution that reaffirms Mulder’s masculinity; it’s the support and compassion in response to a grotesque crime.
As Wilcox and Williams observe in “What Do You Think?”:
In this episode, Mulder must choose between traditionally masculine ratiocinative control mechanisms – gun, revenge, death – and the feminine strength of communicated emotion and self-in-relation. When Mulder returns to his apartment, his home has been invaded, penetrated, in effect raped; by choosing to go to Scully, he has left himself both physically and emotionally vulnerable. Craig Miller and John Thorne point out the oddity that Scully’s brothers are not at the scene of her expected death. However, their absence is appropriate for the subtext of the episode: in the penultimate scene, when Scully emerges from her coma, Mulder enters a place of women – Scully, her mother, and her sister.
In the context of this opening arc, Morgan and Wong are the writers who have dealt best with the issues raised by Scully’s absence, and One Breath manages to take all the potential issues with this story and turn them around on themselves.
One Breath is an absolutely fantastic piece of television, and a demonstration of just how elegant The X-Files can be. It wraps up the show’s first true long-form arc and concludes a pretty great run of episodes (3 not withstanding) in the first half of the second season. Now, to see if the show can maintain this momentum as it slides back into the familiar status quo…
- Little Green Men
- The Host
- Duane Barry
- One Breath
- Red Museum
- Excelsis Dei
- Die Hand Die Verletzt
- Fresh Bones
- End Game
- Fearful Symmetry
- Død Kälm
- X-tra: (Topps) Trick of the Light
- The Calusari
- F. Emasculata
- Soft Light
- X-tra: (Topps) #4-6 – Firebird
- Our Town