The X-Files: “One Breath”

Holding My Breath

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1994 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Glen Morgan and James Wong

Director: R. W. Goodwin

“Don’t try to threaten me, Mulder. I’ve watched Presidents die.” The Cigarette-Smoking Man

The Cigarette Smoking Man’s sneer to Fox Mulder sums up the cold-blooded arrogance of the forces arrayed against Mulder and Scully. In “One Breath” we finally see the face of the real enemy–not some laughable little extraterrestrial or sideshow freak, but the ruthless amorality of a government that holds honor and justice and truth in contempt.

Not that I give a damn, but there wasn’t much about the X- Files in “One Breath”: no pyrokinetics, no werewolves, no little green men, even by implication. As I suspected, Duane Barry was hallucinating. Whoever took Agent Dana Scully from Barry, they did not ride in flying saucers and they probably hold Social Security numbers. It is pretty clear from Mr. X (Steven Williams) and the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) that there is a plot here, but it is a tangled human plot manipulated by humans. Extraterrestrials need not apply. Rather, we got a good look at the human relationships involved in this series.

There were no bad, not even any mediocre performances in this episode. Mitch Pileggi’s star turn when Deputy Director Walter Skinner opens up to Mulder was believable, in character, and very humanizing. Sheila Larken as Dana Scully’s mother turned in a fine-honed, low-keyed performance. Even Tom Braidwood’s touching protrayal of the gnome Frohike gave us a new dimension on that marginal character. And how typical of “The X-Files” that one of the most revealing and emotional speeches is spoken by a dead man–Admiral Scully’s (Don Davis) monologue to his dying daughter is eloquent and moving.

In my review of “Ascension” two weeks ago, I expressed the hope that David Duchovny would give us more reaction when Mulder is finally reunited with his partner. I could have asked for no more: in “One Breath” he gives us the whole range from fury to despair to quiet joy. I think the pinnacle of the series occurred for me at about 9:45 on Friday night, when Mulder returns from his dying partner’s bedside to his ransacked apartment. He is confronted by the futility of his situation: the ruthlessness of Mr. X, the secret and unstoppable power of the men he is up against, the imminent loss of Scully. His emotions stripped raw, he breaks down in a profound and poignant moment of sheer human misery.

David Duchovny has delivered no more passionate line as Fox Mulder than his “I owe her more!” to Plot Device–excuse me–Mr. X. During the scene with Mr. X in the hospital garage, Fox Mulder’s rage and frustration nearly reach spontaneous combustion. Almost, almost, Mulder succumbs to the temptation of violence as an antidote to his baffled grief: Mr. X provides the opportunity, and Mulder waits in his darkened apartment to ambush, and probably murder, the men who abducted his partner. But Scully saves him from this fatal mistake–not Dana Scully but her sister Melissa.

There are so many echoes in her character: like Mulder, Melissa Scully (Melinda McGraw) is a believer–but from the heart, not the head. Like Mulder, she is about to lose a beloved younger sister. Like Mulder, she is estranged from her family–her own mother is surprised to see her at Dana’s bedside. Best of all, she sees straight through Fox Mulder to the heart; her confrontation with him in his apartment awakens Mulder to the best that is in him . This scene–Mulder edgy, bitter, tense as a coiled spring, and Melissa Scully resolute, caring, and strong–is excellent. Beneath the trendy New-Age babble is a shrewd judge of character and a heart of gold. If Fox Mulder has any brains at all, he will get this woman’s phone number.

This episode works on several levels, but it works best as a morality play. The men who hold temporal power–Mr. X, the Cigarette Smoking Man–are revealed as cardboard cutouts: shallow, corrupt, full of fear. Fox Mulder, on the other hand, even in the depths of despair, can find courage, faith and resolution. His decision to forgo revenge in order to stand by his dying partner in her need imbues the character with a power his antagonists will never know. This is a profoundly more interesting story than who kidnaped whom and why. We are learning a lot about Fox Mulder this season: Friday night he learned something about himself as well.

As Lord John Whorfin said in Buckaroo Banzai, character is what you are in the dark. In the dark, we find that Fox Mulder is a man not only of passionate intensity, but of fundamental integrity. He will not stoop to cold-blooded murder. The struggle embodied in the X-Files is recast into a struggle for the soul of one man.

Bravo, bravo, bravissimo.

This one gets six sunflower seeds out of five. It’s the best yet.