Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by R.W. Goodwin
When I was just starting out as a blogger around 2010, I made a list of the 50 greatest TV episodes of the last twenty years. I have since lost track of many of the choices I made, but I have never forgotten my choice for X-Files: this episode. (I'm pretty sure it was in the top ten.) Forget the spiral of the mythology. Forget the wonders that Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan (whose time is quickly coming, rest assured) produced: this may be the series finest hour. Not its cleverest, its scariest, its most whimsical, or most self-referential. Just it's best, and in many ways its simplest, and most low-tech. What makes it even more remarkable is, like Duane Barry, it's completely atypical, yet almost every regular in the episode is doing their best work, and doing so well.
What pervades the episode almost from its beginning is the sense of hopelessness that Mulder finds himself in. From the teaser where he desperately tries to keep Margaret Scully from buying a headstone for her still-missing daughter, to the end when he collapses in his ransacked apartment, he rails against the forces that have brought Scully back to him, but what appears to be (if you can keep your eyes of her ginormous breasts) as a lifeless shell. Just as he was a shell of himself last week, in One Breath, Mulder is filled with frustrated rage, and is even more frustrated by his inability to act on it.
Mulder is even more dismayed by his inability to make any kind of progress with the hospital, and with Scully's mother and (for the first time glimpsed) older sister, Melissa. (Maybe he just can't handle all these women calling him Fox.) As if he wasn't carrying enough guilt on his shoulders, he now has to deal with one additional element: his partners living will. (It is a testimony to the depth of their friendship that even this early on in their relationship, Scully still trusted Mulder with the importance of this decision.) It's not like he needed an additional burden (as this episode demonstrates, he's carrying enough for ten men) but he wants to do something, anything to make this situation better, which leads him to take some drastic steps.
For the first time, The Lone Gunmen step away from being comic relief, and show some genuine dimension to them --- even Frohike, who just leered after Scully in his first two appearances, shows that there is a soul behind it. You can tell that they genuinely wants to help, which makes their revelations about Scully's branched DNA all the more devastating. Some would argue that this is a plotline that would never be followed through; I would argue that it may lay the groundwork for far darker storylines down the line.
The episode also establishes the link between Mulder and X, as he tries to summon him for the first time (unsuccessfully). This is the episode where Steven Williams would come into his own, and guarantee that X would become by far the most interesting informant the show would ever do. When X is around, people tend to die, although, if anything, he's even less willing to give information than Deep Throat was. He also makes clear his position when he tells Mulder that he doesn't have the heart to become like him, and then gives him the means to demonstrate that he is. (We'll get to that.)
After months of being frustrated by him, Mulder finally confronts the man who he believes is responsible for what's going on. (He also creates the indelible nickname of 'Cancer Man', which no doubt offended the millions of carcinogens being associated with something that horrible.). The confrontation with CSM finally gives William B. Davis something to do other than loom in the corners, and seen at home, he actually looks a little pathetic. That said, even when Mulder has a gun in his face, he seems completely in control of the situation. He knows that Mulder doesn't have it in him to pull the trigger, and he doesn't even seem annoyed by the invasion of his privacy. (Some asked, now that Mulder knows where CSM lives, why isn't he there every night? Um, because he moved. Next time, we see him at home, it's an entirely different place.)
Still trying to find some action he can take, and blaming himself immensely, he resigns from the FBI. This is when Skinner steps out from behind his desk, and refuses to accept it. Mitch Pileggi's monologue of his experiences in Vietnam is high point for his character for this season, and demonstrates that he may be closer to being an ally than Mulder wants to admit. But even though he's received affirmation from his superior (and in a bizarre way, his arch-nemesis), he still plans on quitting. Then X comes to him, and offers to give him the men who took her, telling him to 'defend himself... with terminal intensity."
This may be the true test of Mulder's character. In Beyond the Sea, Morgan and Wong gave Scully a choice: to her father's last message to her, or stay by her fallen partner's hospital bed. Now, they give Mulder a similar choice with far darker implications. Perhaps Melissa makes it far too clunky when she comes to Mulder's apartment, but that may be the point. Through the entire episode, he's been trying to take action against those responsible and failed. It's when he chooses to not do something, to accept the death of his friend, that he really can do something. Scully recovers perhaps a little unrealistically quickly, but that's the point---- she needed the strength of his beliefs, along with hers.
And what does bring Scully back from the dead, from that rowboat tied to a pier we see so clearly? Is it the hope of her partner and her family? The message of love she receives from her father that gives the episode it's title? Or is it, the only truly paranormal element of this episode--- the guardian force of Nurse Owens? We'll never know for sure, and in some ways, this is one mystery that I'm willing to let go unsolved.
Everybody in the episode is at the top of their game, and they have to be, because Duchovny's at the top of his. Anyone who says his face is blank and expressionless, clearly hasn't seen his work when he returns to his apartment, and collapses after keeping a brave face. And the expression of joy that appeared on it when he learned Scully was alive. The moment I saw that I knew that Mulder was in love with Scully; I'm just astounded it took him so long to act on it.
One Breath has lost none of its power, even twenty years after the fact. It's only flaw, perhaps, is that an episode of this magnitude came at this point in the series. Of course, no one knew that The X-Files would run another eight years, and it doesn't diminish any of the series achievements.