Anyone who knows a little bit about Kumail Nanjiani knows that he’s a big fan of “The X-Files” — in fact, he’s arguably one of the show’s biggest celebrity fans, one who has hosted 57 episodes of a podcast about the show, got cast as a guest star in the recent revival, and wrote several references to the show into the deeply personal romantic comedy “The Big Sick.”
Nanjiani co-wrote “The Big Sick” with his now-wife Emily V. Gordon, which chronicles the real-life story of how a surprise illness and Gordon’s subsequent coma changed their relationship and their lives. While there are the elements of fictionalization you might expect, Kumail’s real name is used, and his real life obsession with “The X-Files” is mentioned. But beyond his ringtone and a few asides of dialogue, there’s a less-obvious connection between the film and the show — unless, of course, you’re a massive fan of a specific episode.
Season 2’s “One Breath” is often considered one of “The X-Files'” best installments despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the supernatural takes a back seat to a deeply emotional story about what happens when Scully (Gillian Anderson) is abruptly discovered, comatose, following her abduction by aliens and/or a government conspiracy.
Scully’s abduction was written into the season as a way of handling Anderson’s pregnancy (“One Breath” was filmed mere days after she gave birth), but it ultimately had a seismic impact on the show’s course for seasons to come, giving her character a personal stake in her and Mulder’s (David Duchovny) quest to uncover “the truth.”
It also meant an awful lot to Nanjiani personally, as he revealed in 2014 on his podcast “The X-Files Files,” during an episode devoted to discussing “One Breath.” In fact, it’s the first thing he mentions as he and guest Rhea Butcher dig into their discussion (beginning around the 40 minute mark) — how much he identified with the character of Mulder after his own experience with Gordon’s coma.
“Whenever I watch this episode, I can’t not have that connection to it,” he said during the podcast — because, much like Nanjiani in “The Big Sick,” Mulder is forced to deal with his frustration over Scully’s illness, fighting with doctors and his own powerlessness while the woman he cares for fights for her life.
“I really connected with Mulder. He’s in a situation where he has no agency, so he’s sort of looking for other things to do — like when the guy takes the blood, he chases after the guy.” Nanjiani said. “That’s how I felt. I mean, I have no expertise. I can’t make her better, so you go and you get the tires in her car fixed or get new curtains or whatever. So I really connected with that idea of feeling helpless and wanting to do something and not being able to do something directly, but doing stuff around it just to feel like you’re doing something.”
There’s a big difference between getting new curtains and trying to beat up conspiracy minions, but the emotional journey remains the same. So in “One Breath,” the dramatic climax of the episode is constructed around Mulder’s choice to return to Scully’s bedside rather than pursue a lead, a decision Nanjiani describes as follows:
“Here he was trying to do all this other stuff — run around, solve the mystery — and then he realizes that I should just go talk to her. That’s confronting the thing that’s scariest — the person that he’s connected to the most in the world is very very sick and he can’t do anything but go talk to her. And he has this great line where he says ‘I don’t know if me being here helps you, but I’m here.'”
“That really was affecting to me,” Nanjiani said about Mulder’s bedside moment, a few years before filming a very similar scene of his own, talking to “Emily” (as played by Zoe Kazan) during a dark bleak night.
In the “X-Files Files” episode, Nanjiani also mentioned that many of the details regarding the way Scully’s coma was depicted aligned with Gordon’s experience, even though the monster responsible for Gordon’s coma was a bacterial infection, not aliens and/or a government conspiracy. It’s a testament to the way in which a sci-fi story can still feel real when it’s grounded in realistic details, similar to the way in which the emotional truth of Gordon and Nanjiani’s experience lives on the screen in “The Big Sick,” thanks to their writing and Michael Showalter’s direction.
And ultimately, the fact that “The X-Files” might have had a deeper impact on the film than we might have realized on the surface just speaks to the fact that pop culture isn’t just a distraction. Pop culture can help us, heal us or make us feel heard in ways we might never expect.
“The Big Sick” is currently in limited release in theaters now.