"One Breath"
Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by R. W. Goodwin

In which Scully is returned by the conspiracy in a comatose state, and Mulder is tempted with the possibility of revenge against his enemies...

Synopsis - Analysis - Memorable Quotes - Observations




As the episode begins, Margaret Scully recounts a time when Dana was a child, and her brothers got her a BB gun for her birthday. They convinced her to shoot at a garter snake, but when the snake was mortally wounded, Dana was deeply hurt by the consequences of her actions. As Ma Scully finishes her story, Mulder offers that it’s too soon to give up hope that Scully is alive. But as Dana’s tombstone is prepared for Ma Scully’s approval, Mulder’s message is somewhat lost.

Later, Mulder watches a porn video, apparently rewinding the same scene over and over. The phone rings, and Mulder is soon racing down the hallway of the Northeast Georgetown Medical Center, rushing to the bed where Scully lies in a coma. Mulder rifles off several questions about Scully’s arrival to the nurse, and when she can’t answer, Mulder attacks the doctor. When Mulder is taken away by security, he warns the doctor that he’ll find out if something is being kept from him.

Soon, Mulder and Ma Scully are brought into the doctor’s office. The doctor explains the grim details. Scully is in a coma, with absolutely no awareness of self or environment. Apparently there is no evidence of how Scully arrived at the hospital, or how she was attended to while in such critical condition. In essence, the doctor cannot make a diagnosis, because there is no indication of a cause for her symptoms. Perhaps the worst news is that Mulder witnessed Scully’s living will, which was extremely specific in terms of criteria for terminating life support. Her current condition falls below the criteria.

Mulder walks into Scully’s room, and finds a woman standing over her, holding a crystal in her hand. The woman claims that Scully told her to call him Mulder, not Fox. When Mulder observes that Scully’s EEG doesn’t indicate that she awoke, the woman claims that Scully’s soul is there, speaking to her. Ma Scully walks in, and recognizes the woman as Scully’s sister Melissa. Melissa explains that Scully is choosing whether or not to live or move on, which prompts Ma Scully to walk out.

Melissa claims that Mulder can feel Scully, and pulls his hands over Scully’s body. In what appears to be Scully’s mind, she sits unmoving on a rowboat, staring at Melissa and Mulder on the nearby dock. Mulder, of course, fells nothing, and Melissa claims that his anger and fear is blocking any positive emotions that Scully needs to feel. Mulder, angry, walks out of the room.

Mulder goes back to his apartment and tapes an “X” to his window, turning off all the lights except for the lamp behind the tape. He waits out the night, impatient for a sign from his informant, but nothing comes. When he checks the morning newspaper, he looks for information hidden inside, but there’s nothing.

The next morning, Frohike comes to visit Scully’s bedside, decked out in a tuxedo and bearing flowers. Mulder is amused, but then Frohike mentions that something odd is indicated on Scully’s chart. Frohike steals the chart, and he and Mulder visit the conspiracy theorists (one of whom, Byers, refers to the group as the Lone Gunmen). With the help of their newest member, a super-hacker called the Thinker, they identify some odd protein chains in Scully’s blood as inactive trace fragments of branched DNA.

As the boys explain, branched DNA is the first step in creating a biological version of a microchip, which could be used for tracking or marking human beings. However, the inactive fragments are like a poison to Scully’s system, and with her ravaged immune system, there is nothing they can do to help her.

Meanwhile, back at the hospital, a woman called Nurse Owens softly speaks to Scully, explaining that she’s there to help Scully recognize that it’s not time to leave life yet. She leaves as Mulder walks in, along with another nurse to take a sample of Scully’s blood. Mulder notices a man in an overcoat next to one of the other patients, an old woman. Without warning, the old woman goes into cardiac arrest. In the confusion, Mulder notices that the man in the overcoat is gone…and so is Scully’s blood sample.

Mulder chases the man down, eventually running into the underground parking garage. Before he can follow the man in the overcoat, his informant grabs him and puts a gun to his head. The informant tells Mulder to forget about chasing the man in the overcoat, claiming that Mulder effectively killed Scully with his choices. He orders Mulder to accept her death, and not risk everyone else in the process.

Mulder forces his way back into the chase, and captures the man in the overcoat in a darkened laundry facility. Mulder retrieves the blood sample, and then decides to take the man into custody. The man in the overcoat, of course, fights back, and the process Mulder loses the vial of blood. Before the man in the overcoat can reclaim the vial, Mulder’s informant brutally subdues the man, breaking his arm before shooting him in the shoulder. The informant shoots the man in the head, telling Mulder to leave while he attends to the mess.

Sometime later, Doctor Daly meets with Ma Scully, Melissa, and Mulder. Based on the criteria in Scully’s will, he is preparing to take her off the ventilator. Daly disputes Mulder’s claim that branched DNA is involved, and tells him to stop making uninformed diagnoses. Both Ma Scully and Melissa dislike Mulder’s attempt to act against Scully’s wishes, but they understand how he feels. Ma Scully invites Mulder to be there when they pull the plug, but Mulder declines. Moments later, in Scully’s mind, Nurse Owens stands at the dock as the rope keeping the rowboat in place snaps, and Scully begins floating away.

The cigarette-smoking man slaps down a report onto Assistant Director Skinner’s desk, claiming that Mulder was responsible for the murder of the man in the overcoat. He moves to light a cigarette, but Skinner pointedly gestured to a “Thank You For Not Smoking” sign. The cigarette-smoking man lights it anyway, threatening to deal with Mulder more directly if Skinner is unable to handle the job. His point made, the cigarette-smoking man stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray, just before Mulder knocks on the door.

Skinner grills Mulder about what happened at the hospital, and his knowledge of the murder. Mulder plays stupid, which only serves to piss off Skinner. When Skinner calls him out on it, Mulder asks Skinner how he likes having his questions answered with denials and more questions. He tosses the still-smoldering ashtray in front of Skinner and insists that the cigarette-smoking man (Mulder calls him “Cancer Man”) is the one behind all of it. Mulder offers everything to get his hands on Cancer Man, but Skinner reminds him that they are agents of the DOJ. Skinner also reminds Mulder that Scully knew about the consequences of her vocation. Mulder isn’t sure that he ever explained the full possibilities to Scully, and for that, Skinner believes that Mulder is equally responsible for Scully’s condition.

In Scully’s mind, she is lying on a table, wearing a white dress. Her father walks to the table, wearing the dress whites of a naval officer. Her father explains that he never knew how precious life, how much he loved his daughter, until he realized he would never have the chance to tell her. He wants them to be together again, but it’s not time. In the hospital, Nurse Owens says much the same thing.

In the hospital cafeteria, Melissa tries to tell Mulder that chasing down the people responsible for Scully’s condition won’t bring her back. As he seems to admit a part in Scully’s condition, a woman comes up to the table, asking for change for the cigarette machine. Mulder doesn’t have any, but the woman makes a point to tell Mulder that there’s already a pack of Morley’s left in the machine, but it’s not her brand. Mulder, however, recognizes that as Cancer Man’s brand of choice, and checks the pack. Inside, a slip of paper indicates an address.

In an apartment, Cancer Man watches an old war movie, surrounded by countless snuffed-out cigarettes and empty beer bottles. Mulder sneaks up on him, pointing a gun at Cancer Man’s head. For his part, Cancer Man is far from concerned, even when Mulder’s smacks an unlit cigarette from his mouth. Mulder wants to know why Cancer Man targeted Scully instead of him. Cancer Man smoothly points out that Scully was returned to Mulder because he likes them. Mulder tells Cancer Man that he should be the one to die, but Cancer Man asks Mulder why, when he is only doing what he believes is right. After all, if everyone knew what he knew, everything would fall apart. Cancer Man is impressed, however, that Mulder would actually go to such a length. It doesn’t stop Cancer Man from rubbing in his victory, as he lights a fresh cigarette despite Mulder’s gun.

Shortly, Mulder prepares a resignation letter. Later, as he packs his things, Skinner stops by to refuse Mulder’s resignation. Mulder explains that he hates the man that he’s become, that he would allow himself to risk Scully’s life in his search for the elusive truth. In response, Skinner tells Mulder about his tour of duty in Vietnam. After being forced to shoot a young child in the war, Skinner went numb inside. But then he was badly wounded when his squad was ambushed. He watched from above as his body was placed a bodybag, but through some stroke of luck, he was discovered to still be alive. Skinner admits that he can’t examine that experience, because he’s afraid…but Mulder is not. For that reason alone, Skinner refuses to accept Mulder’s resignation. Mulder belatedly realizes that Skinner gave Mulder the address for Cancer Man, and that for the first time, Skinner risked his life for Mulder’s cause.

On his way out of the building, Mulder is confronted by his informant, who hands him a plane ticket. The informant explains that the men who took Scully are convinced that Mulder is leaving town, and will take that opportunity to search for information that Mulder supposedly has hidden in his desk at home. The intention is for Mulder to wait for the men to arrive, and then take his revenge. The informant warns that Mulder should not seek him out for several weeks afterward.

About 45 minutes before the appointed time, Mulder waits in the dark, his gun waiting on the table. Someone knocks on the door, and when Melissa calls for him, he reluctantly answers the door. Melissa informs him that the doctor believes Scully could die at any moment, and that she assumed Mulder would want to see Scully for the last time. Mulder explains that he can’t go, and Melissa recognizes that Mulder is about to make a very dark choice. She shouts at him, telling him that telling Scully how he feels in her final moments will be much more important than getting revenge.

Shortly, Mulder arrives at the hospital, and places his hand on Scully’s. He tells her that he feels that she believes it’s not time for her to go, and that she’s always had the strength of her beliefs. Whatever happens, he promises to be there, just in case it helps her come back. The appointed time for his revenge passes as he waits. When he returns home in the morning, he finds his apartment ransacked, and he slumps to the floor, sobbing.

Sometime soon after, Scully appears to be lying on a bed in a small clearing within a forest. Slowly, her surroundings fade into the appearance of her hospital room. One of the nurses walks by, and quickly calls her a doctor. At home, still dumbstruck by his apparent loss, Mulder gets a phone call…and he breaks out into a smile.

When Mulder arrives at the hospital, Ma Scully and Melissa are already in Scully’s room. Scully is awake, and seemingly healthy. She doesn’t remember what happened after Duane Barry abducted her, but Mulder says it doesn’t matter. He leaves her to rest, but before he goes, Scully tells him that she had the strength of his beliefs. He pulls out her gold cross necklace and returns it, explaining that he was holding it for her.

After everyone leaves, Scully touches the cross, which is now around her neck. As a nurse comes by to give her some medication, Scully asks if she can see Nurse Owens. For some reason, she remembers her from intensive care, and she wants to thank her by giving her the necklace. But the nurse calmly explains that there is no Nurse Owens at the hospital. Scully watches the nurse leave, wondering what she might have experienced.


The perfect ending to what is arguably the best story arc of the series, this episode returns Scully to Mulder in a condition that will have ramifications stretching to the very last episode. This episode also sets the stage for a version of the mythology that might have been more interesting and subversive than the direction ultimately chosen. Whatever the case, this is the foundation of the series, without which it could not have survived as long as it did.

While there are still some minor references to the possibility of alien involvement with the conspiracy, this episode firmly roots Scully’s abduction in the realm of government/military experimentation. As depicted, it would have been very easy to contain the entire mythology within the realm of government secrets and cover-ups, which would have fit the tone of the series extremely well.

At the heart of the episode is Scully’s fate, and there are layers to that question which were never truly explored. The specific references to branched DNA and the idea of an organic microchip were intriguing, especially in light of the obviously inorganic tracking and control implants that had been used with Duane Barry. This could have been the beginning of an interesting exploration into the evolution of population control and military experimentation gone to terrible lengths, but the specific reference was never directly addressed. Obviously, the later discovery of the inorganic implant in Scully’s neck derailed that line of inquiry somewhat.

There is also a great deal of spiritual content in this episode, not the least of which is the imagery within Scully’s metaphoric comatose state. Nurse Owens, one of the few explicit depictions of a guiding spiritual force watching over the characters, was an inspired choice. The implication is that Nurse Owens is an angel, or at least something very similar, and that could have been an interesting plot thread to explore.

After all, Mulder’s search for the truth is firmly rooted in the material world. He has little patience for the idea of the spiritual, which is eventually (and poorly) changed over the course of the series. Scully, on the other hand, has a very strong sense of her faith, and it’s equally clear that her family’s psychic abilities run counter to her religious background. Scully’s eventual acceptance of the paranormal in concert with her faith is never fully addressed.

This is unfortunate, because this episode sets the stage for enormous character exploration and growth. Both characters are clearly moving in opposite yet complementary directions. The bulk of the mythology through “One Son” would focus on the material, with only sporadic reference to a deeper and more meaningful spiritual reality. The post-“One Son” mythology promised to address this, but did so in a fashion that was so obtuse and indirect that it’s almost completely unrecognizable.

This episode, on the other hand, demonstrates that such topics can be dealt with honestly, without fear of offending or alienating the audience. Considering that the solution to Samantha’s disappearance, such as it is, directly involves the spiritual could have tied in very well had Mulder been struggling over the years with the realization that there was a higher power.

Melding the harsh reality of the conspiracy with the possibility of a grand design gives the episode a sense of perspective. It would have been easy to let Mulder slowly betray his own principles, becoming the very thing that he hated, without peering into the larger scope of the consequences. In fact, this is one of the few mythology episodes to directly and fully address the impact of Mulder’s decisions on those around him.

One of the major criticisms leveled at Mulder’s character over the course of the series was his cavalier attitude towards long-term ramifications of his actions. Short-term gains were always considered to be far more important, despite the more tempered logic of his colleagues. Rushing in where angels fear to tread might have been immediately satisfying, but in this episode, Mulder is apparently supposed to recognize that acting without forethought can get his allies killed.

Mulder is so strongly affected by this realization of how far he has fallen that he offers to resign, despite the personal importance of his work on the X-Files. He admits that his decision to haphazardly defy the terms of his reassignment following the closure of the X-Files led directly to Scully’s abduction and near-death. While this single-minded focus engenders loyalty, this episode forces him to be mindful of his responsibility to those following his lead.

Perhaps this episode also explains why this lesson is so quickly dismissed. After all, Mulder ends the episode with more allies than he starts with, despite experiencing the temptation to fall into darkness. Rather than teaching Mulder a lesson, this episode actually serves to reinforce Mulder’s reckless behavior. The fact that Scully continues to experience negative effects from her abduction doesn’t seem to remind Mulder of the potential consequences…at least not enough to stem his maverick nature.

One aspect of this episode that simply didn’t work was the introduction of Melissa Scully. Ma Scully brought a certain earthy tragedy to Scully’s story, especially since it helped give perspective to the constant Scully family casualties. Melissa, however, was an obvious attempt to give Mulder a love interest that wasn’t Scully, since Chris Carter was adamant that Mulder and Scully never cross the line. Of course, as the episode demonstrates, Melissa works better as a conduit for Mulder’s feelings for Scully.

Melissa, however, was a missed opportunity in another sense. Mulder’s family drama was well explored over the course of the series, especially considering the drama concerning his true parentage. Scully’s family, on the other hand, was left largely in the background. Had the spiritual angle been more fully explored, Melissa and her esoteric beliefs could have been an interesting way to incorporate Scully family politics into the mix.

Cancer Man is finally brought fully into the forefront in this episode, but his depiction is jarring in comparison with his later importance. Cancer Man is definitely portrayed as something far less than the mastermind he is revealed to be. The reality, of course, is that Cancer Man’s role in the conspiracy was being left intentionally vague, with the suggestion being that there were those even more powerful guiding his actions.

Considered from a different perspective, however, this episode demonstrates how Cancer Man manages to manipulate events on several levels. Mulder is offered the chance to eliminate the men supposedly responsible for Scully’s abduction by Cancer Man himself, following the confrontation in the apartment. Even if Cancer Man was shocked that Mulder had discovered the apartment, that location was part of a carefully cultivated false identity.

It seems a little odd, however, that Cancer Man would return to the same method for framing Mulder. After all, Mulder was framed with Duane Barry’s murder only a few months earlier. It might have been designed to manipulate Mulder himself, as bait to see how far Mulder would be willing to go. If anything, Cancer Man was shocked at the extent to which Mulder compromised himself.

By the end of this episode, the suggestion is that the agents of the X-Files have come through the gauntlet, gaining Skinner as an ally in the process. At the same time, the conspiracy is well aware of Mulder’s determination, and have returned Scully to Mulder in the hopes that they can use her to control and direct his efforts. The surveillance function of Scully’s chip is a part of that effort, since the conspiracy has learned that Scully’s reports often fail to tell the whole story.

The audience had every reason, after more than 12 episodes of interconnected episodes, to think that Scully’s abduction and the circumstances of the X-Files would carry through the entire season. The episodes that would follow would prove that assumption quite wrong. However, the second season is still remembered for its strong contribution to the series mythology.

Memorable Quotes

MULDER: “I need to do more than just wave my hands in the air.”

BYERS: “Good work sneaking out these charts.”
FROHIKE: “Snuck ‘em in my pants.”
MULDER: “There’s plenty of room down there…”

INFORMANT X: “This high-capacity compact SigSaver .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!” (Just the fact Steven Williams managed to nail this line, even once, is impressive!)

INFORMANT X: “You want to see what it takes to find the truth, Agent Mulder?”

MULDER: “Is this about the tooth that was found in the cafeteria jello?”

MULDER: “What if I…I knew the potential consequences but I…never told her?”
SKINNER: “Then you’re as much to blame for her condition as the Cancer Man.”

CANCER MAN: “I’m in the game because I believe what I’m doing is right.”
MULDER: “Right? Who are you to decide what’s right?”
CANCER MAN: “Who are you?”

SKINNER: “Agent Mulder, every life, every day…is in danger. That’s just life.”

MULDER: “Brought you a present. ‘Superstars of the Super Bowls’.”
SCULLY: “I knew there was a reason to live…”


- Ah, yet another reference to Scully’s other brother, the one no one seems to want to talk about...

- So Scully is roughly 30 years old at this point in the series...

- There’s something that happened both times one of the original agents appeared to die: the tombstones!

- I wonder what Mulder found so interesting about that one sex scene...

- Gillian Anderson had to have hated being strapped up with all those tubes and tape!

- This is easily one of the best performances by David Duchovny for the entire series...

- Some fans may not like Melissa, but I think she’s damned cute with that choker and red dress!

- The score for this episode is also one of the best early efforts, drawing the tone of the narrative along, moment to moment...

- Funny to hear those obscure references to “Earth 2”!

- This is the first reference to the Thinker, who of course plays a massive role in the season finale...

- I’m surprised that Mulder and Informant X don’t drown in each other’s righteous spittle!

- In the world of the X-Files, there’s no such thing as parking garage security cameras...

- What’s the point of having all the lights off in the laundry room?

- The most interesting part of Informant X’s first shot at the man in the overcoat is the fact that he somehow hits his target while aiming way off to the left!

- Love that No Smoking scene...

- Also gotta love Mulder’s tone of voice when he’s answering Skinner’s little questions!

- Exactly what kind of bra do they have Scully wearing under that white dress, anyway? Sheesh!

- Has Don Davis ever played a role out of uniform? If so, why did they bother? He’s practically iconic...

- Could Skinner’s accomplice have been more obvious? And why didn’t Cancer Man have Mulder under surveillance?

- I like the Spartan look of Cancer Man’s faux apartment...it echoes his claims to an empty life...

- Just from his speech in this episode, one can see how Skinner’s character could have been better served by the writers...why couldn’t they see that?

- I wonder if Mulder’s renter’s insurance covers all of those stolen items...

- It’s interesting that none of the characters, knowing the chance of Scully’s survival, seem to realize that there must be something more behind it...especially since Mulder knows that she only recovered *after* it was clear he knew nothing about her abduction!

Overall, this is easily one of the best episodes of the series, if not the best. Everything that was revealed, referred to, or simply hinted at in this episode should have been the basis for the entire mythology. David Duchovny is actually compelling, and there’s not one moment wasted along the way. Truly a masterpiece.

I give it a 10/10.

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