In the early seasons of The X-Files, so often FBI agent Dana Scully finds herself in the usual damsel-in-distress roles. In “Squeeze,” she is stalked by a shapeshifting serial killer who invades her home while she’s preparing a bath. In “Genderbender,” Mulder saves her from becoming seduced and poisoned by a member of an Amish-like religious sect. And in “Ascension,” she is kidnapped by a desperate madman, who throws her in a trunk, bound and gagged, to be offered up as an alternate sacrifice to the aliens who abducted him. Her whereabouts after this are unclear.
“One Breath” follows the events of this abduction. In this episode, Scully simply appears out of nowhere, after a period of being missing, prostrate on a hospital bed. There is no intake information on her admittance chart. Because she is unconscious, she can’t tell the story of her recent trauma, or give her family any indication whether to pull the plug as her body begins to shut down. The episode circles around Scully’s choice whether to remain alive. Symbolic visuals are employed: The image of Scully sitting in a rowboat, tethered only by a single rope to the dock, the land of the living. She waits, emotionless, neither here nor there.
I was nine, ten, eleven years old. My family lived in Utah, and for a spell in Nebraska, drifting from apartment to apartment. Life was boring, but watching TV was fun. Of all the shows, The X-Files, normally prohibited by my mother due to its coverage of the “occult,” was the closest I had ever come to an elevated experience. By stroke of luck, it aired on Friday nights, when my parents were away at their weekly Bible study group. While they were having their elevated experience, I too was having my elevated experience. I would make a whole night of watching “occult” shows that played on Fox during its Friday night death slot, which at various points included Sliders and Mantis. I can’t remember anything now about these other shows, but The X-Files is deeply ingrained in my psyche. Sometimes it replays in my dreams. I’m wandering around its soggy, dismantled sets, encountering spirits and mutants, solving mysteries that keep getting unsolved, weeping in frustration.
There’s a particular sadness that pervades season two, at least in its opening episodes. At the end of the previous season, the X-Files department has been dissolved. Their partnership disbanded, the agents are assigned to work in different areas of the FBI. By the beginning of season two, already there is a disruption to Mulder and Scully’s work routines, and therefore to the show’s format. Separated from each other, untethered without their banter, the agents seem to flounder. Occasionally, Mulder covertly calls Scully for forensic advice on cases. Otherwise, there is a resigned, cynical mood to those initial episodes, a sourness.
In “One Breath,” the eighth episode of season two, Mulder and Scully grapple separately with the question of giving up. It’s an episode about faith. While Scully hovers between life or death, Mulder faces an existential crisis, and wonders whether to quit the FBI. He seriously considers whether his obsession with finding the truth is worth the high stakes, the personal unforeseen costs. At heart, he blames himself for placing Scully’s life in jeopardy. “What if I knew the potential consequences but I never told her?” he asks Assistant Director Skinner, who replies, “Then you’re as much to blame for her condition as the Cancer Man.”
Eventually, Mulder pens his resignation letter from the FBI and hands it in.
In one of the symbolic sequences, the rope tethering Scully to the harbor breaks and she drifts away, presumably having made her choice. In the ensuing afterlife scene, Scully’s deceased father appears to her in his military regalia. He addresses her still-silent, prostrate body, now outfitted in an angelic white dress for, presumably, a heaven-bound journey. “People would say to me life is short,” her father says. “I never listened. To me life went at a proper pace. There were many rewards until the moment I understood I would never see you again… Then my life felt as if it had been the length of one breath, one heartbeat.” It is better, he implies, to keep going while you still have a chance, given how quickly it all goes away. He concludes, “We’ll be together one day. Not now.”
As Mulder packs up his office, putting things into boxes, Skinner confronts him and rips up his resignation letter. Mulder attempts to explain himself: “All the forensics, the field investigations, the eyewitness accounts—to still know nothing. To lose myself, and Scully. I hate what I’ve become.” Instead of arguing, Skinner discusses his own harrowing experiences in Vietnam, including a near-death moment after a deadly siege. “I’m afraid to look any further beyond that experience,” Skinner says. “You? You are not.”
Considering that the show ran for nine seasons, we know what Mulder and Scully will eventually choose by the episode’s end. Yet “One Breath” is not just a shark-jumping psych out, but it has the effect of resetting the series, still in its early stages and attempting to find its footing despite its unpromising time slot, of re-committing its characters to their wild goose chases and conspiracy-exposing mission. In order to deepen one’s faith, the episode suggests, one must first come close to losing it. Mulder’s crisis of faith adds shading to his character, and we trust him more for it. Perhaps the difference between himself and a mad man is the presence of doubt. And, after Scully comes back to life, she seems to prioritize the X-Files, a division to which she had been reluctantly assigned, more than anything. The early seasons show her on dates, at her godson’s birthday party, at luncheons with work colleagues… These signifiers of a “normal” social life taper off as the show progresses. Everything falls away except for the work.
Fittingly, “One Breath” ends with the reinstatement of the X-Files department.
As for me, after the episode ended, I would turn off the TV. By the time my parents returned and my mother palmed the back of the television, its heat would have neutralized. And, by the next episode the following week, the show’s typical format would have been reinstated, beginning, as per usual, Mulder and Scully poring over visual aids that point to curiosities on a new case. Scully having made an astoundingly quick physical recovery, the agents fly to Oregon to investigate the disappearance of a volcanic research team, wrecked by some kind of fungal disease. I was satisfied by the show’s return to its established routine.
Ling Ma received her MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Vice, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. A chapter of Severance—now available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux—received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. She lives in Chicago.