2.8: One Breath
Commonly cited as a peak episode, but I don’t think One Breath is quite that. It’s good, but it strains so hard with its circular rhetoric of profundity – as the series at its most irksome was wont to do – that every scene where Mulder isn’t thrashing around on a revenge quest revolves around someone offering their Little Book of Insight for the day. If you turned it into a drinking game, you’d be thoroughly sloshed after 45 minutes.
Mulder: I need to do more than just wave my hands in the air.
This comes from Morgan and Wong, and I may have done Carter a (slight) disservice by pointing the finger of mawkish existential rumination squarely in his direction in the past. They seem equally, if not more, inclined to such indulgence. It feels like they’re particularly pushing things in One Breath partly because there’s so little real depth on a weekly basis, if you’re not counting those existential bookend monologues. Nevertheless, this is an interesting idea, so credit for going there: an episode-long bedside vigil, punctuated by some carpark confrontations.
Melissa: I’ve been told not to call you Fox.
Mulder: By who?
Melissa: Dana, just now.
Mulder: Dana talked to you just now? If she talked, the EEG would have moved.
Melissa: Her soul is here.
After being abducted for a whole episode – really, they might have milked that one a bit – while Mulder has sex with vampires (he’s so cheap), Scully’s found safe and comatose in a hospital wing. Cue the return of Mrs Scully and the first sighting of Dana’s sister Melissa (Melinda McGraw). Revisiting these, it’s quite evident where the inspiration for Monica’s spook sense comes from (well, that and Deanna Troi). Melissa’s so overboard, she makes Fox look positively buttoned down and steeped in cold, hard science when it comes to matters unexplained.
Melissa: Listen. I don’t have to be psychic to see that you’re in a very dark place... much darker than where my sister is. Willingly walking deeper into darkness cannot help her at all. Only the light...
Mulder: Enough with the Harmonic Convergence crap, okay? You’re not saying anything to me.
Melissa: Why don’t you just drop your cynicism and your paranoia and your defeat. You know, just because it’s positive and good doesn’t make it silly or trite! Why is it so much easier for you to run around trying to get even than just expressing to her how you feel? I expect more from you. Dana expects more.
I like McGraw’s performance, but the writing of Melissa is a little too unfiltered (ditto everyone here), such that it’s entirely reasonable and deserved when Mulder explodes with “Enough with the Harmonic Convergence crap...” Actually, it’s structurally a smart move for her to show up and talk crap – Mulder is about to take a path of no return, revenge-wise – but Melissa’s spiritual high ground is insufferable. And it’s representative of the approach Morgan and Wong take throughout, where no opportunity for canvassing concepts of the continuation of the soul should be left unexploited in the most gratuitous manner.
William Scully: Hello, Starbuck. It’s Ahab. People would say to me, "Life is short." "Kids, they grow up fast," and "Before you know it, it’s over." I never listened. For me, life went at a proper pace. There were many rewards... until the moment that I knew, I... understood that... that I would never see you again... my little girl. Then my life felt as if it had been the length of one breath, one heartbeat. I never knew how much I loved my daughter until I could never tell her. At that moment, I would have traded every medal, every commendation, every promotion for... one more second with you. We’ll be together again, Starbuck. But not now. Soon.
Hence the frankly hilarious cliché of Scully’s limbo, whereby she’s sitting in a tethered boat as Mulder and Melissa or mum talk on the jetty. Or marvellous magical Nurse Owens (Nicola Cavendish) gently coaxing Scully back to corporeal consciousness despite “Dana, I’ve worked here for ten years and there’s no Nurse Owens at this hospital”. Yes, it’s nice to see Don S Davis return in flashback and spectral form as Captain Scully, but Margaret’s opening story sets the tone for the painfully meaningful monologues Mulder is supposed to absorb in vaguely uncomfortably constipated fashion (before going off and threatening someone again). That one’s about Scully’s impulse to caregiving (she killed a snake).
Skinner: When I was eighteen, I, uh... I went to Vietnam. I wasn’t drafted, Mulder, I... I enlisted in the Marine Corps the day of my eighteenth birthday. I did it on a blind faith. I did it because I believed it was the right thing to do. I don’t know, maybe I still do. Three weeks into my tour, a ten-year-old North Vietnamese boy walked into camp covered with grenades and I, uh... I blew his head off from a distance of ten yards. I lost my faith. Not in my country or in myself, but in everything. There was just no point to anything anymore. One night on patrol, we were, uh... caught... and everyone... everyone fell. I mean, everyone. I looked down... at my body... from outside of it. I didn’t recognize it at first. I watched the V.C. strip my uniform, take my weapon and I remained... in this thick jungle... peaceful... unafraid... watching my... my dead friends. Watching myself. In the morning, the corpsmen arrived and put me in a body bag until... I guess they found a pulse. I woke in a Saigon hospital two weeks later.
Later, Skinner reveals he’s a Nam veteran in an effort to explain to Mulder why he refuses the latter’s resignation. This one’s extremely awkward, but that actually works quite well, because it ought to be. The broader problem is that everyone’s been piling on the half-baked wisdom for half an hour by this point, and we have (or ought to have) had enough.
X: I can’t tell you why she was taken. It’s too close to me. I’m giving you the men who took her.
The scenes with Steven Williams’ X couldn’t be more of a contrast to the abundant musing: no-nonsense, urgent and vital. I distinctly recall being underwhelmed by X at the time. He didn’t seem a sufficiently distinctive character to replace Deep Throat, even down to the rather half-assed moniker. But I was impressed with Williams’ gusto on this occasion, portraying a nervy tough guy who’s as much about self-preservation as he is honouring his debt to Deep Throat.
X: You want to see what it takes to find the truth, Agent Mulder? You want to know what I know? (X shoots the man again, in the head.) I’ll attend to this.
Also, for all Mulder’s haranguing of X, the latter is entirely right about our hero. When it comes down to the wire, Fox doesn’t have the bottle. We see that repeatedly in One Breath, Mulder railing around impotently – initially towards the hospital staff – and when he gets to point a gun at people he completely fluffs it. First with the Overcoat Man (Michael Ryan), whom X rather dramatically deals with (two bullets). Then with CSM. And finally, with Scully’s – purported – abductors (“I can’t tell you why she was taken. It’s too close to me. I’m giving you the men who took her”). Mulder’s prevented from carrying through there by Melissa’s arrival, but I think we can guess he’d have made a meal of things (this is all to his ultimate credit as a human being and to the series’ depiction of heroes who aren’t gung-ho, but there needs to be a degree of self-awareness at the limits of one’s moral capacities). X is there to provide some tough love while Deep Throat would, relatively, sugar coat it (“It’s the only way, Mulder. The law will not punish these people”).
CSM: Look at me. No wife, no family, some power. I’m in the game because I believe what I’m doing is right.
Mulder: Right? Who are you to decide what’s right?
CSM: Who are you? If people were to know the things I know, it would all fall apart. I told Skinner you shot the man in the hospital but I didn’t really believe it. And here you are with a gun to my head. I have more respect for you, Mulder. You’re becoming a player. You can kill me now, but you’ll never know the truth... (Mulder fails to shoot him.) ...and that’s why I’ll win. Don’t worry. This’ll be our secret. We wouldn’t want others to… start rumours.
Admittedly, I’ve only been watching the mythology episodes in succession, but this feels like the biggest reveal of CSM and his motivation thus far. It actually seems less cagey than much of his subsequent involvement too (until they dive in to revealing far too much, under the illusion he actually had cachet once he was in the spotlight. And then there’s the wretchedness of reanimating him for the comeback series).
Mulder: Why not me?
CSM: I like you. I like her too. That’s why she was returned to you.
Skinner gives Mulder CSM’s address in a pack of Morleys, and Fox proceeds to wave his gun about. There’s a fundamental problem with the scene in that Mulder announces “Tonight, I ask the questions” and proceeds to ask nothing of consequence. Indeed, it’s really CSM volunteering, but nothing pertinent to helping out Dana. Even if he attested there was nothing to be done, you’d expect Mulder at least to ask CSM.
Nevertheless, while I’m generally not a fan of the manner the show over relied on CSM – I believe in a misguided response to fan appreciation – this is a good scene for the character. His response to Mulder’s “Why not me?” is unexpected, and as we’ll later see, not entirely dishonest, and he has a very precise grasp of Mulder’s limits while dropping hints (“I’ve watched presidents die”) that probably didn’t need detailing.
Langly: This is way beyond cutting edge. This technology fifty years down the line.
Mulder: What’s it used for?
Frohike: Could be a tracking system.
Byers: Developmental stages of a biological marker.
Mulder: You mean a high-tech identity card?
Langly: Or something as insidious as grafting a human into something... inhuman.
The patchiest part of One Breath goes back to the magic-wand element of Scully’s condition and cure. Albeit, it’s as much to do with the stakes of her state. Mulder visits the Lone Gunmen for advice about her problems (a rather lovely, understated moment – “I know, right?” – finds Frohike showing up at the hospital, in suit and tie, with flowers). Having been in contact with The Thinker (to be personified in 2.25: Anasazi), they report back that abnormal protein chains in Scully’s blood are the result of branched DNA utilised, most likely, to track her (reliable Wiki does indeed report that branched DNA can be used in nanotech, while The Daily Mirror – I know – cited the episode a few years back in reference to potential scientific advances).
Byers: This branched DNA is inactive. It’s waste product. Whoever was experimenting on Scully is finished. Now it’s nothing more than a biological poison.
Mulder: Will she live?
Byers: Um... her immune system has been decimated and, uh... I doubt even a healthy human body has the ability to fight this. Mulder, there’s nothing you can do.
It seems that, while this DNA is inactive, it has wreaked havoc on Scully’s immune system. Hmm… Where else have we heard about experimental manipulation of DNA having potentially appalling consequences for subjects’ immune systems lately? Come to that, where else have “do not resuscitate” orders been utilised en masse (Scully’s choice of living will as a consequence of her condition)? Quite where Mulder makes the leap from this to “It’s possible branched DNA can be treated with designer antibiotics” I’m not sure, though. I suspect that’s Morgan and Wong being as magical as they are with Scully’s eventual revival. Lest we forget, antibiotics operate very much like magic in most films and TV.
Melissa: She’s dying. That’s perfectly natural. We hide people in these rooms because we don’t want to look at death. We have machines prolong a life that should, that should end. That’s a much more unnatural circumstance than any cause of her death.
Mulder: That’s very politically correct.
Melissa: That’s very human. I love her. This is right.
This recovery is presented as a miracle/spiritual affair. Albeit, we never learn what the Overcoat Man was doing in the hospital. And it may be that Scully’s condition was a “natural” phase in having government aliens fiddle with you and insert tracking tech into your system (either that, or they presumably have quite a high casualty rate with regard to test subjects). Whatever the circumstances, we’re supposed to think a guardian angel coaxed Scully through, although Morgan and Wong’s insistence in this area rather encourages us to come down on the side of Mulder’s take that Melissa’s a flake (interesting that she was conceived as a potential romantic partner for Mulder). But towards the story as a whole.
Melissa: Why is it so dark in here?
Mulder: Because the lights aren’t on.
There isn’t a lot of room for humour in One Breath. The above and Mulder’s response to Frohike revealing that he snuck the charts out in his pants (“There’s plenty of room down there”) are among the few examples (they’re both great ones, though). I’m probably sounding harder on the episode than I actually feel, as I do like One Breath. I just don’t think it’s an example of peak profundity, on the grounds that it tries too damn hard to be; Morgan and Wong reportedly conceived it as Mulder-centric version of the far superior Beyond the Sea. The positive of Anderson’s pregnancy is that it probably pushed the show towards greater connectivity than it would have mustered left to its own devices. The negative is that, without real ongoing developing relationships (only sporadic arc ones), the attempts to suddenly double down on such areas are much greater leaps than they should be.