“One Breath,” Episode 8 of The X-Files Season 2, is the one where Dana Scully was returned from her abduction experience and she decides to move on, or live. That’s what you’re left remembering when the episode ends, but there’s a lot more here. This is also a story where Mulder decides what kind of crusader to be. And in an even more subtle way, this is Mulder actively deciding to turn his back on the show’s foundational conspiracy. In this episode, Mulder chooses Scully over the “I want to know the” truth.
Thank God he did this because it’s what pushes Scully over the edge to return to the living. If Mulder had chosen to be a soldier of the truth, he would’ve been killing shadow agents and losing his humanity rather than giving Scully the positive strength of his belief. And from there we’d have a show about a partnerless Mulder becoming the next Cigarette Smoking Man. But The X-Files isn’t really about its plot, no matter how many times even the show may forget that.
If Mulder had become a player in CSM’s conspiracies, it would’ve been a world Dana Scully wouldn’t want to be in. The show’s quest for the truth is almost being outed as a McGuffin here—and so early in the series. It’s the heart shared between Mulder and Scully that allowed the show to move forward into week after week of monsters and conspiracies, but now we know deep down that Mulder would give it all up in a heartbeat if it meant a world where people like Scully were not going to die.
Not Knowing the Stakes
The opening shows a scene from Dana Scully’s past which her mother, Margaret, narrates: Dana and her brothers go out into the woods with BB guns and shoot a snake to death. Scully cries inconsolably because she was part of what she thought was an adventure, but was actually partly the cause of an unwitting living thing’s death. In current day, Margaret is telling Mulder that story as they are receiving Dana’s tombstone. Mulder is feeling just like Dana’s brothers here: they knew what they were planning to do, and Mulder knew the stakes of his work, whereas Dana did not. And this time Scully’s the one caught in the crossfire.
Later in the episode, Mulder is in Skinner’s office having an exchange that pertains directly to the opening scene’s theme:
Skinner: All know the field we play on and we all know what can happen in the course of a game. If you were unprepared for all the potentials, then you shouldn’t step on the field.
Mulder: What if I…I knew the potential consequences but I…I never told her?
Skinner: Then you’re as much to blame for her condition as…The Cancer Man.
The opening scene sets up our duo’s conflict well: Scully is deciding to survive longer than the snake, and Mulder is motivated by guilt to fight for answers.
This Is a Story of Dana Choosing to Move On, or Not
Dana is in a hospital bed, suddenly, with tubes and tape all over her. She’s in a coma, respirator and all. Which is better than needing a tombstone, but she’s also not that far removed from that fate. Her situation, as explained directly by her sister Melissa, who’s likely communing with her using a crystal, is that “Dana’s choosing whether…whether to remain, or move on.”
We see Scully on a small lifeboat at this time, for the first time. Mulder’s on the dock with Melissa, and during this visual, Mulder says “she’s not there.” The lifeboat doesn’t move an inch.
Nurse Owens arrives in a few scenes, speaking words of encouragement to her from the hospital. Her statement of intent is to “take care of you, sweetheart, to watch over you. Help you find the way home.” Which way that is, we don’t hear quite yet.
Next time we see Scully, it’s from the dock as the rope snaps on the lifeboat’s tether. This is right after Scully’s family decides it’s time to shut off the respirator. But Owens is there at the dock.
Next time we see Scully, she’s laying down on a table, lit all in white, while her dead father—also in white—stands nearby and delivers a classic monologue all about how much he loves his daughter. And it ends like this: “We’ll be together again, Starbuck. But not now. Soon.”
Was this actually her father delivering a message from beyond, or was it how she interpreted Nurse Owens, who we next see whispering to Scully in the hospital. “Dana? I know death is at arm’s reach tonight, but Dana? Your time is not over.”
The next time we see her is when Mulder arrives in her room to say this:
I feel, Scully…that you believe…you’re not ready to go. And you’ve always had the strength of your beliefs. I don’t know if my being here…will help bring you back. But I’m here.
This Is a Story of Mulder Choosing What Kind of Crusader He Is
The Mulder at the beginning of the episode, who believes the still missing Scully’s tombstone will belong on an empty grave, is despondently watching porn in his apartment when he gets a phone call. The next thing we see is him running through a hospital towards a bed with a tubed-up Scully in it. His anger, paranoia and protectiveness is on full display here, along with Mulder setting his intent into words:
If you’re hiding anything, I swear, I will do anything, whatever it takes…I will find out what they did to her!
In Melissa Scully’s first scene—with the crystal—Mulder doesn’t want to listen to her when she tells him Dana needs to feel positive emotion. Instead he goes home and puts an X on his window and waits fruitlessly all night for X to contact him with conspiracy-related information on Scully’s case.
Mulder accidentally bumps into Frohike of the Lone Gunmen, who’s paying respects to Scully, at the hospital. Mulder returns with him to the LG home base but gets news that Scully has branched DNA—a waste product of the experiments that is acting like a poison to her immune system. Science can’t help any further.
Just as random as Frohike’s arrival, Mulder is confronted with Overcoat Man, who likely flatlines an old woman in a nearby bed to cause a distraction that allows him to steal the freshly-taken vial of Scully’s blood. Mulder gives chase, but X intercedes.
This high-capacity compact Sig Sauer .40 caliber weapon is pointed at your head to stress my insistence that your search for who put your partner on that respirator desist immediately!
X won’t tell Mulder the story but he knows the story. He won’t put himself on the line like Deep Throat did, but as he says to Mulder, “I used to be you.”
How does Mulder become like X, a man who knows the story? First of all, killing a man literally in the shadows.
And just like how science shut Mulder out of answers, X says “I’ll attend to this,” and walks away.
Fresh from this experience, Mulder has a meeting with Margaret, Melissa and the doctor about Scully’s wishes and turning off the respirator, but all he can contribute is what he learned about branched DNA, which wasn’t helpful at all. Science is the first thing to not pan out for Mulder. Scully’s respirator is turned off and Mulder chooses not to be there when it happens.
What’s he doing instead? Being called in to Skinner’s office due to the killing of Overcoat Man in the hospital laundry room. Skinner begins by trying to get answers from a stonewalling Mulder, but the two men bond over their distaste for CSM, called Cancer Man here.
Mulder: Oh, you can have it all, you can have my badge, you can have the X-Files, just tell me where he is.
Skinner: And then what? He sleeps with the fishes? We’re not the mafia, Agent Mulder. I know it’s easy to forget but we work for the Department of Justice.
Mulder: That’s what I want.
Here comes revenge as a motive again. Anger rises back to the surface after being shut out by both science and Mulder’s one contact into the deeper conspiracy. He’s angry and feeling alone, but he’s still looking for answers. And when your roads fail you, you try to go all the way to the top. To CSM. He directly asks Skinner how to find CSM but is rebuked.
What will eventually appeal to Skinner is that line I quoted above: “What if I…I knew the potential consequences but I…I never told her?” But as of this moment, Mulder again walks out of a room empty handed.
In a hospital waiting room, Melissa again tries to give Mulder advice to not focus on those responsible for Dana, and focus on Dana instead, but literally during this conversation, a woman plants a pack of cigarettes for Mulder to find. It contains an address: 900 W Georgia Street.
This next scene is one of the most classic moments in all of The X-Files. There are cigarette butts and beer bottles on a table. There’s a chair and a TV and otherwise the apartment appears blank and empty. And this is where we see Cigarette Smoking Man himself. 16-year-old me was through the roof when I first saw this. I thought about how we’re finally getting the big answers. Mulder’s got the upper hand now, this is it! This is how we get Scully back and we’re going to crack this whole thing wide open. I bet that’s exactly how Mulder felt too, but of course we know that wasn’t how it went at all. CSM wasn’t going to cough up his secrets, and all he is is impressed by Mulder, not scared. “You’re becoming a player.”
But at the same time, Mulder sees how sparsely and family-free CSM is living. He sees the sacrifice and loneliness of what it takes to be a player in the peddling of “truth.” And Mulder leaves without getting any closer to an answer to Scully’s situation, other than CSM confirming he was involved. But we already knew that.
What Mulder really learned was that he didn’t want to be a cold-blooded killer. He didn’t want to lose his humanity. So he writes his resignation letter in the next scene.
You’d think the CSM scene would be the pivotal scene of the episode, but the real gist of things is right here. Skinner tears up the resignation letter and has a talk with Mulder, beginning with this: “I know you feel responsible for Agent Scully, but I will not accept resignation and defeat as self-punishment.”
Mulder, fresh off almost killing CSM, explains his state, summarized in this line: “I hate what I’ve become.”
This is when Skinner tells Mulder how he enlisted in Vietnam and eventually killed a 10-year-old boy. “I lost my faith. Not in my country or in myself, but in everything. There was just no point to anything anymore.” Then he describes a near-death experience where he saw himself from outside himself, being put in a body bag and everything. Yet he woke up in a hospital two weeks later. “I’m afraid to look any further beyond that experience. You? You are not. Your resignation is unacceptable.”
This is the first mention of faith by name. Melissa was using her crystals. Nurse Owens was acting like a guardian angel, and Scully has been having near-death experiences, but none of this namechecks faith itself until Skinner brings it up.
Mulder doesn’t have a chance to delve into faith because he’s immediately presented with one last alternate plan from X: take a plane ticket but stay home to ambush the people who will rifle through your apartment to see what you know. Those people will be the ones responsible for Scully’s abduction. Turns out X remembers what it’s like to be Mulder after all, and wanted to give him an option for closure in good faith.
Does Mulder take it? Yes, and no. He’s ready to kill people, waiting in the dark of his apartment. Except it’s not the conspiracy men at all who arrive. It’s Melissa Scully, and thankfully she speaks first. She gives him the news that Scully is weakening and could die any minute, and tells him off when he refuses to go then. But the kicker is when she appeals to the kind of person he’d be, rather than the kind of player he’d become. “Even if it doesn’t bring her back, at least she’ll know. And so will you.”
So he goes to the hospital. He’s with her, all through the night. And then he returns to his ransacked apartment, breaking down like we’d never seen him before. Wondering if he’d made the right choice because by the look of things, he’d lost Scully and the answers to her abduction experience. No Scully, no truth, all in one night.
This Is Also a Story of Mulder Siding With Dana
When science can’t help, and conspiracy can’t help—without making Mulder hate who he’s become—all that’s left is respect, and being human. The power of positive energy and connection. Luckily Mulder learns this lesson before he has to kill those men in X’s arranged scenario.
When Melissa tells Mulder about Dana’s struggle to move on or not in her first scene, we see Fox, Melissa, and Nurse Owens on the dock while Scully watches them from her lifeboat. This is the image we see when Fox says “she’s not here.”
Melissa tells him “your anger and your…your fear’s blocking any positive emotion she needs to feel.”
In the meeting between Margaret, Melissa and the doctor—after X kills Overcoat Man—Mulder makes a pitch for branched DNA being possibly treatable, but Melissa stops worrying about why and looks at what is: “she’s dying, that’s perfectly natural.” But at that point Mulder wasn’t ready yet to pay respect to Scully by being there for the removal of the respirator.
Melissa almost has a chance to get through to Mulder in the hospital waiting room but she’s dismissed for the cigarettes with the address to CSM. She’s not having very good luck getting Mulder to to focus on her sound advice.
But she has Mulder as a captive audience when he’s in his apartment in the dark. There’s no one else to listen to, and he has every incentive to do what she needs to get her out of harm’s way. And she appeals one more time to his humanity:
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 could have turned around right away and headed back to his apartment but he stayed with Scully. He put his loyalties with Dana rather than focusing on everyone who was responsible for her condition. He only says one line on camera, but he’s holding her hand when he says it. He means it, from the center of the person he is.
I feel, Scully…that you believe…you’re not ready to go. And you’ve always had the strength of your beliefs. I don’t know if my being here…will help bring you back. But I’m here.
And the next morning, after what surely was an entire night of doubting himself, he gets the phone call. And all we see is him beginning to smile. You can see his faith restored right here. After an episode oscillating between terrible options, he knows he made the right choice. And we know it.
At the hospital, Scully’s awake for the first time since we saw her abducted, and we’re as happy as Mulder is. The first thing he asks her is how she’s feeling, but Scully wants to pick up where she left off. “Mulder, I don’t remember anything…after Duane Barry…”
Technically, there’s any number of ways to set right back off into conspiracy theory. After all, this scene ends with Dana’s nurse telling her “I’ve worked here for ten years and there’s no Nurse Owens at this hospital.” You can start out with who Owens was, really. Was she a guardian angel or was she administering a cure because CSM liked Scully? Owens appeared at the same scene as Overcoat Man. Maybe they’re working together. There are ways to think of her as part of the bigger conspiracy picture if you want to.
But like Mulder tells Scully, “it doesn’t matter.” None of the conspiracy matters in The X-Files, not at its heart. What matters is she’s alive. After some quick banter, she even understands that. “I had the strength of your beliefs.”
Margaret and Melissa obviously respect Scully and her wishes. Frohike pays his respects to Scully too and his team tries to help find answers. X at least respects Mulder’s respect for her, and gives Mulder the plane ticket to arrange a way of getting to the truth. Skinner does the same: “Agent Scully was a fine officer. More than that, I liked her. I respected her.” And that’s how Mulder gets the address to CSM. And even CSM respected her: “I like you. I like her too. That’s why she was returned to you.”
All this respect for Scully either led to her not being killed, or helped Mulder along the road to being with Scully as two human beings, which ultimately led to Scully waking up. All the conspiracy stuff is window dressing. At the end of the day, the important part is respecting your fellow human beings. The “answers” are for everything else. Or as Scully’s father put it:
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.
Now She Understands the Stakes
How does The X-Files get so many more years when Mulder’s quest is so soundly shoved to the back by faith? Mulder’s path towards the truth is a dead end, illustrated plainly by 900 W Georgia Street’s clinical emptiness. Where is there to go?
The show becomes less about Mulder’s “I Want To Believe”—possibly a way to say finding faith, now that I think about it—and it becomes Scully’s quest that is the primary direction: “I want to understand.” Both what happened to her, and how it has affected her and her faith. She understands the stakes now. From this point forward—though even possibly the showrunners don’t recognize it—The X-Files becomes Scully’s story. Unlike Skinner after his near-death experience in Vietnam, Scully is not afraid to look further beyond her experience. He was speaking to Mulder but he could’ve easily been the show speaking to Scully. “You? You are not afraid to look further than your abduction. Your death is unacceptable.”
Possibly only David Duchovny knew—or maybe felt—that it was Scully’s story now, prompting him to feel free enough to leave the show. And it continued on without him, to the audience’s befuddlement. But I just explained how it could happen. The possibility of an X-Files without Mulder began here, early in the second season. We just wanted to know too much of the truth to notice at the time.