Monday, February 28, 2011

Deny Everything About Scully: "Ascension" And "One Breath" Are Perfect X-Files!

The Good: Amazing character study, Tense plot, Creepy, Well-acted, Intense, Bonus feature
The Bad: None that I can find! (Medium issues)
The Basics: When Scully is abducted, Mulder hunts those responsible and attempts to find her in two episodes loaded with great performances and wonderful character moments.

It takes a pretty extraordinary series to hit perfection early on. Some shows have a number of perfect episodes, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which arguably made the best hour of television ever with the episode "Duet" near the climax of its first season. The X-Files managed a perfect episode or two in its first season, most notably "Darkness Falls" and "The Erlenmeyer Flask" (reviewed here!). Illustrating that the show could be kept taut and interesting and create more episodes that were groundbreaking and excellent, The X-Files soared to perfection with two episodes that essentially act as a two-parter (though they were separated by an episode in their original airing and in The X-Files mythos) with "Ascension" and "One Breath."

"Ascension" and "One Breath" are essentially the stories of FBI agent Dana Scully's abduction and return, which was necessary because actress Gillian Anderson was pregnant and needed to be written out of the series for a short time. In the process, The X-Files created two episodes that are perfect in very different ways. "Ascension" is a plot-driven thriller as Mulder races to rescue Scully from Duane Barry and "One Breath" is perhaps the ultimate early The X-Files character study.

In "Ascension," Mulder checks his answering machine to discover that Scully has been abducted and reaching her apartment, it is clear to Mulder that Duane Barry is responsible. Going without sleep, Mulder launches an investigation into Scully's abduction, with Krycek in tow. For his part, Duane Barry begins to make a beeline for the place he believes his prior abductions occurred. Pulled over for speeding, Barry kills a trooper.

That death puts Mulder and Krycek on the right direction, to Starland Mountain. Eager to prevent Duane Barry from exchanging Scully for himself with the aliens, Mulder takes a risky gambit; riding the lift car up the mountain to try to reach the top first. Unfortunately for Mulder, there is someone working against his - and Scully's - interests and by the time he realizes this, it may well be too late for Scully!

In "One Breath," Mulder is exhausted from searching for Scully and Scully's mother decides it is time to move on and she purchases a grave marker for Dana. The next day, Scully's comatose body turns up at a Washington hospital and Mulder bursts onto the scene demanding to know how she got there. Calmed down, her doctor reveals that no one knows how she arrived at the hospital or why she is in a coma. Kept on life support while her mother and sister watch over her, Mulder goes in search of answers.

Mulder does his best to contact X, who finds Mulder when the FBI agent chases down a mysterious man who steals a sample of Scully's blood. Determined not to end up like his predecessor, X lets Mulder know Mulder doesn't have it in him to do what he does. While Mulder turns to the Lone Gunmen and Skinner for assistance in tracking down any leads - and the Cigarette-Smoking Man - Scully drifts in the netherworld between life and death seeing visions.

"Ascension" continues pretty much where "Duane Barry" (reviewed here!) left off, though for those who did not see that episode, everything is fairly well explained, without doing a "previously on The X-Files" bit. Instead, Mulder infers what happened when he visits Scully's apartment. The episode then becomes a chase and Mulder and Krycek hunt for Duane Barry, a hunt that intensifies when Mulder realizes that Scully is still alive.

It is in that scene where David Duchovny infuses a look into Mulder that says what virtually every fan of The X-Files wanted at the time. Without saying "I love you," Mulder leaps into action and Duchovny does it perfectly with the understated performance of the line "she's still alive. . ." Throughout "Ascension," Mulder acts far more like a man who loves - perhaps not romantically - his ex-partner than one who is simply hunting down a colleague.

But for genuine character, "One Breath" is packed end to end with it. Opening with a story about Scully told from Scully's mother, the episode gives big character sequences - usually in the form of monologues from the characters - to X, the Cigarette-Smoking Man ("I've watched presidents die . . ."), Walter Skinner, the deceased Scully (Dana's father), and Dana Scully (through visions and what her family says about her). Every act has a remarkably complete explanation of who and what the characters of The X-Files are with revealing explanations into how they became who they are. Skinner's is perhaps the most extensive and obvious exposition and his potentially monolithic character is suddenly exploded into a substantive and essential role.

That said, the character who does the most in "One Breath" is Mulder whose sleep deprivation puts him in a rage that compels him to chase down those responsible while Scully lays dying. Instead of dealing with her impending death when her mother insists they execute her living will and take Dana off life support, Mulder attempts to avoid his feelings and chase down those who were responsible for abducting Scully and the ultimate character act of the episode comes in his decision as to what kind of person he wants to be for the rest of his life. It's a huge decision and he has to choose whether to become one of the people who utilizes power or retain his innocence.

This is not to say that Mulder is the only worthwhile character to watch or Duchovny's performance is the only one that makes a splash. Far from it; both episodes are graced with wonderful performances, ranging from Steve Railsbeck's brilliant portrayal of crazy as Duane Barry to Nicholas Lea's cold and brutal portrayal of Krycek. Don S. Davis makes an auspicious return to The X-Files in a vision where he delivers one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever to be voiced on the series.

But Gillian Anderson ought to get a lot of credit for her performance in "One Breath." In "Ascension," she is stuck in the trunk of a car, which was ballsy for the producers and director to do to a pregnant woman, but in "One Breath," Anderson has to perform, usually by playing dead. The thing is, her performance in her own dream/vision sequences is so good they often do not feel like what they are: Anderson as Scully sitting and looking blankly while the world turns around her. Anderson helps the viewer get inside the mind of Scully, cleverly infusing a genuine sense of genuine loss into even her most mundane scenes.

Fans of The X-Files who like to nit-pick things should still absolutely love "One Breath" because it implies that the future is not yet written. Presumably, Scully's dead father has some knowledge of the future when he says to Scully that she will join him soon, but not now. Die-hard fans of the show come to realize that after a certain episode there is a real lack of ability to believe Scully is in danger as a result of something that happens to her (it's real irksome to tiptoe around revealing the big secrets one garners if they simply pay attention to the show). "One Breath" happens well before that and the nice thing is, even for fans of the show, it reminds us that the jeopardy to Scully is still very real.

On video, these two episodes are accompanied by a little behind-the-scenes featurette called "A private conversation with Chris Carter." It gives details on how parts of the episodes were made and they are fun for fans and add a little extra value to the video.

But this is a pairing of episodes that hardly needs additional value; they are tight, fun, suspenseful and heartwrenching. In other words, they are everything great television ought to be.

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete Second Season, reviewed here!
As well, those who already love The X-Files will find The X-Files - The Complete Series to be an even better buy and my review may be accessed by clicking here!
Thanks for reading!]

"Ascension" - 9.5/10
"One Breath" - 10/10
VHS - 8.5/10

For other television episode and season reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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