Sunday, September 11, 2016

Case 02, File 08: One Breath

AKA: This Episode Is Hard To Joke About, Okay?

I don't think it's controversial for me to say that The X-Files is a horror show, first and foremost. It has episodes that stray into other things, from drama, to comedy and even occasionally romance, but that's never going to be its focus in the way that horror is. But, often times, when they do step fully outside the self imposed bonds of horror, they can create some of the best episodes of the series. Other times, admittedly, they create some of the worst, but that latter option is certainly not the case here.

After trying (and failing) to pretend that 3 was the new status quo of the series, One Breath picks up the Abduction storyline where we left off. Scully's mom has given in to despair and assumes that Scully is gone forever, but Mulder isn't willing to give up. And Mulder is proven right, as he always is, when Scully appears in a hospital, in a coma.

Mulder is all gungho to track down whoever did this to her, but Scully's mom is more despairing and Scully's sister is more interested in hanging around the hospital being a psychic. So after a failed attempt to get X involved, he gets some assistance from the Lone Gunmen, who tell him that Scully has been infected (is that the word I want?) with Branch DNA, which is slowly poisoning her, and there's nothing he can do.

Later, while Mulder is hanging around the hospital, he sees a guy stealing Scully's blood and goes after him. On the way, he runs into X, who tells him in no uncertain terms (IE, with a gun to his face) that there's nothing he can do and that should drop this, before he gets them both killed. Mulder being the stubborn sort, keeps chasing after the dude, at which point X decides he's going to handle things and just offs the guy.

"Everybody look at me cause I'm sailin' on a boat!"
Back in hospital town, the doctor in charge points out that Scully's living will says that she doesn't want to be kept alive like that and her respirator is pulled out. CSM, who's been hanging about, goes to Skinner and tries to pin the death of the guy X killed on him, but Skinner doesn't buy it, and instead surreptitiously slips him CSM's address. Mulder tracks him down and threatens him to get answers, but CSM doesn't buy it and Mulder decides he's going to resign.

Skinner responds to the resignation letter by dropping some backstory about his time in 'Nam and tells Mulder he needs to suck it up. Mulder drops it, but gets some info from X that he's arranged for the guys who took Scully to ransack his apartment when Mulder is supposed to be out, so that Mulder can be there to talk (and by talk, I mean "Shoot them in the face.") Mulder initially decides to wait, but after a pep talk from Scully's sister, he decides to wait at her bedside. Sure enough, she wakes up, and she and Mulder reunite in a scene I can't talk about too much because it stirs something akin to genuine emotions in me.

I'd normally admonish the episode for having a plot that feels like it's wandering in circles, but in a way, that feels like it fits in with the theme. One Breath is an episode about helplessness, primarily about Mulder's need to try and do something, anything, productive to do about what's happened to Scully. In broader terms, One Breath is about grief, and how different people deal with it.

She looks like she gave birth something like 3 hours ago, no wonder she spent the entire episode in bed.
It comes across in every single character (this is one of the larger casts in recent episodes). Mrs. Scully tries to remain stoic and honor her daughter's wishes, Melissa (Scully's sister) retreats into faith, Frohike remains rational and detached and Mulder tries desperately to find something he can do to fix it, or if not, get some sort of vengeance.

All of that is up to Duchovny to sell, and he does an incredible job. Yeah he gets good supporting work from Mitch Pileggi and the Lone Gunmen (not to mention the always incredible Steven Williams and William B. Davis), but he's carrying the majority of the episode on his own. In many ways, the episode as a whole can be seen as being about his emotional journey, from the moment he walks into Scully's hospital room yelling for answers, to the moment where he breaks down and cries, and the writer and directors are putting a lot on Duchovny to carry all that on his own.

The other major subplot, the one I omitted from the plot summary above, is the visions Scully has while in a coma. These consist of little vignettes, mostly ones where she's sitting in a boat that's drifting away (symbolic!) watching what's happening in the hospital at a distance. One exception is a sequence where she's lying on a table and her late father comes in to give a speech about life and death.

"Scully's not here right now, so I'm going to have to be the one who solves all his problems through violence!"
This is one of the more famous sequences in the episode, the one that gives it its name, and it's completely understandable why. The speech is extremely well written and heartfelt, and Don S. Davis sells the hell out of it. The episode was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong (two of The X-Files' more recurring writers) and I don't know if either of them lost anyone soon before writing this episode, but even if they did, it's still impressive that they tapped into something that feels so real and personal. This episode in general, and this speech in particular, always spoke to me very deeply, especially after I lost a parent a few years back.

The only part of the episode that doesn't totally gel for me is the minor element where a nurse helps guide Scully back to reality, only to be revealed to be not real (or, more likely, an angel) in the final moments. I get why they included it, and it's not bad on paper, but it just doesn't have enough time devoted to it for it to land with any real impact.

I've noticed that occasionally a comedic or otherwise not-particularly-seriously inclined show will try and do a serious episode, something with a little dramatic or emotional weight to it. This is a fine line to walk, as being too heavy handed will often lead to the episode being insufferable (hence the recurring cultural joke about "A Very Special Episode") but being too light will make it seem like the episode is failing to take the subject seriously. But with the right touch, it can create some of the best work of the series. Scrubs' My Lunch and My Screw Up, Buffy's The Body and, of course, The X-Files' One Breath are all examples of the latter, and they all wind up in the series' pantheon of Best Episodes.

Case Notes:
  • The opening sequence is just a tiny bit too twee for an X-Files episode. I get what they're going for, but it just doesn't work for me. I guess the writers have trouble when they can't have their usual "Monster kills someone" cold open.
  • Scully felt guilty for shooting the snake? But Scully solves all her problems through shooting.
  • I love the Nurse trying to stop Mulder from going into Scully's room. Mulder will not be stopped!
  • Mulder flips the FUCK out when he finds Scully in the hospital, and honestly, it's a really good sequence. Mulder is clearly not emotionally prepared for this and is desperate to do something, even when he's helpless.
  • Scully just randomly showing up in the hospital is a little on the lazy side, but since aliens are involved, I'll allow it.
  • Gillian Anderson clearly gave birth like 2 days ago, and it's a little distracting.
  • Melissa Scully is a pagan version of that annoying acquaintance you have who is always talking about the power of prayer and tells you how good War Room was. This is especially true when she shows up at Scully's bedside here.
  • "We're hopping on the internet to nitpick the scientific inaccuracies of Earth 2." Oh Lone Gunmen. Never change.
  • My knowledge of genetic engineering and branched DNA is borderline non-existent, but I'm 90 percent certain the stuff the Lone Gunmen spout about it being in Scully's system and poisoning her is nonsense.
  • You know, I've never noticed it before, but Mulder is one of the few actors who can look good running.
  • X is still very insistent that he not end up like Deep Throat. And I've still got some very bad news for you friendo.
  • I'm always going to be a little disappointed we didn't much of a backstory on X. He drops some hints here that sound really interesting. Ah well.
  • The sequence with Mulder chasing after the dude who stole Scully's blood is ultimately pretty pointless, but X is such a badass in it, that I can't even begin to care.
  • The CSM ignoring Skinner's "No Smoking" sign is the height of petty.
  • Goddamn the scene with Scully's dad in the afterlife is great. I mean God DAMN. It's really well written, and Don Davis sells the hell out of it.
  • CSM lives at 900 W. Georgia Street. There is no 900 West Georgia Street in Washington DC, at least as far as I can tell. There is however one in Vancouver. Hm.
  • "Don't try and threaten me Mulder, I've watched President's die." That's a great line CSM, that is a great fucking line.
  • Everyone is getting more character in this episode, but Skinner's backstory is probably the best one in this episode.
  • Mulder finally breaking down and crying is actually a really powerful moment in context.
  • Scully's like 20 seconds out of the coma and she already has her snark back.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Don S. Davis, aka Major Briggs from Twin Peaks, makes another appearance here, but that's about it.

Future Celebrity Watch:


Audio Observations:


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