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The X-Files – Memento Mori (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

It is easy to see why Scully’s cancer arc is so fondly remembered.

It arrived at a point where the show was at the very top of its game. Scully’s cancer arc comes amid a slew of beloved and classic episodes, in the middle of a season that contains Home, Unruhe, Paper Hearts and many more. It is the defining mythology plot point for the show’s fourth season, which was the point at which The X-Files just exploded into the centre of popular consciousness. More than that, the episode introducing Scully’s cancer – Leonard Betts – was the most-watched episode of The X-Files ever broadcast.

What's in your head?

What’s in your head?

Memento Mori has its own endearing aspects. If Leonard Betts was the show’s highest profile and most populist success, Memento Mori counts as one of the show’s biggest critical successes. The episode is largely responsible for winning Gillian Anderson her Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. It also took home the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction for a Series and received a nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. It is perhaps the most prestigious episode of the fourth season.

However, in spite of all of that, Memento Mori remains something of a mess. It feels like a clumsy retread of One Breath, a story that worked much better in the show’s second season.

Send in the clones...

Send in the clones…

There was chaos behind the scenes on the fourth season of The X-Files. It seemed like the show was racing against time to get everything finished. In fact, the special effects on Terma were actually being finished as the episode was broadcast, leading to a bizarre situation where viewers in different parts of the country wound up watching slightly different versions of the episode. More than that, Chris Carter’s attention was somewhat divided between the fourth season of The X-Files, the first season of Millennium and drafting The X-Files: Fight the Future.

It was a very stressful environment, and a lot of that stress can be seen on screen. It never seemed like the writers had a clear direction or arc for the season, with the show leaning one way and then the other. Glen Morgan and James Wong were engaged in a number of creative disagreements with the rest of the writing staff over episodes like Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and Never Again. In fact, Never Again was moved around in the broadcast order, so the point of the script was radically altered by context.

Maximum Byers...

Maximum Byers…

With all this going on, it should not be a surprise that Scully’s cancer arc was a (very) last minute addition to the season. The revelation that Scully had cancer was thrown into Leonard Betts at the last minute, when it turned out that Darin Morgan would not be able to contribute a script to the season. As Frank Spotnitz notes:

Memento Mori was challenging for a number of reasons. Most people don’t know that Memento Mori almost didn’t happen. John, Vince and I were still writing Leonard Betts and Darren Morgan was supposed to do the next episode. But he dropped out and we had no script. So there were literally only a few days in which to come up with a story and write a script. We had talked about the Scully cancer story for six months and very quickly decided that this would be the time to do it. So we wrote the story in a mad rush. The crew in Vancouver began prepping the episode right before the Christmas vacation. Over Christmas break, Chris Carter took it with him to Hawaii and did a rewrite of it which really made it into the script it was.

This is a very interesting illustration of the pressures of working within a television writers’ room, where there is a desperate need to get something ready for production. There was no time for consideration, no plan to which to adhere. There was just an empty slot in the schedule that needed to be filled, quickly.

The outside looking in...

The outside looking in…

In fact, the turnaround on Memento Mori was phenomenally fast. According to Frank Spotnitz, the script went from a basic pitch to a draft ready for production in only three days:

We had been debating the Scully cancer storyline, because there were some people who didn’t think we should do it. And then we said, “Look, we’ve got three days. We’ve got to have a script to prep. And so we’re going to go for it.” And so in three days, John, Vince and I outlined that story and wrote the draft, and had something to prep.

It has been suggested that The X-Files had one of the best writers’ rooms in the history of television; this example supports that theory, turning around an Emmy-nominated teleplay at the last minute in only three days.

Stick with it...

Stick with it…

Of course, this does illustrate some of the potential problems with the show’s large and over-arching mythology. There is no doubt that Chris Carter had a rough idea of where he wanted the show’s central conspiracy storyline to go, that he could picture a rough outline of a plan. However, it was also quite clear that this “plan” was more of a general direction than a well-documented roadmap. The show’s central mythology could often seem like something of a metaphorical stew, populated with interesting images and concepts that never fit together as well as they might.

To be fair, this has been quite apparent since the early days of the show. The first season of The X-Files did not have a central mythology so much as a collection of stories built around common themes. It was only with The Erlenmeyer Flask that episodes like Fallen Angel and E.B.E. seemed to galvinise into a larger and more mysterious story. The second season really expanded this idea of a story arc outwards, with Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy leading to Duane Barry and Ascension, the show’s first mythology two-parter.

Mulder was so desperate for answers that he started searching the Y-files. Those where much more existential.

Mulder was so desperate for answers that he started searching the Y-files. Those where much more existential.

As such, the show’s central mythology did not appear fully-formed, it evolved in fits and starts – in a manner that was organic rather than pre-planned. Memento Mori is perhaps an effective illustration of this organic approach to plotting the conspiracy arc. It demonstrates that the show could decide to give a lead character cancer on something approaching a whim – in order to fill a gap in the production cycle. Memento Mori is perhaps the gravitational centre of the mythology plot line in the fourth season; its heart and its substance. It is also not anything that was planned.

Of course, the lack of a plan is liberating in some respects. It gives the writers a great deal of freedom. Part of what makes the mythology so interesting in those first few seasons is the way that it constantly grows and expands – that there is always something intriguing or novel that can be added to the mix. Shape-shifting bounty hunters! Clones! Black oil! Bees! Cancer! The fact that show can cook up an episode like Memento Mori in only three days demonstrates the appeal of this free-form approach plotting.

We all wear masks...

We all wear masks…

However, this free-style approach has its problems. These problems become apparent with time, as it becomes increasingly difficult to tie the individual cool elements together into something approaching a coherent whole. This is also the case with Scully’s cancer. Although Memento Mori does good work with plot point, it seems like the rest of the season drops the ball – that everybody on the writing staff has been so engaged with idea of doing an episode like Memento Mori that nobody stopped to ask, “What happens next?”

Memento Mori has a strange effect on the season around it. It exerts so much weight and gravity that the stories around it are pulled into its orbit. Moving Never Again closer to Memento Mori in the broadcast schedule completely distorted the episode; Glen Morgan complained that the scheduling of Never Again in the middle of the larger cancer arc completely undercut the point of his script. However, it becomes clear later in the season that the writers have no real idea of how they plan to get out of the plot; it lies mostly fallow – barring Zero Sum and Elegy – until the season finalé.

A stabbing pain...

A stabbing pain…

Frank Spotnitz concedes as much on the commentary, acknowledging that the cancer arc had been discussed beforehand, but had never been clearly mapped out or plotted:

Anyway, I was talking about the decision to let Scully’s character contract cancer, and it was kind of a controversial one, honestly, among the writers who were on staff at the beginning of t he season. Some people didn’t think it was a good idea, but we felt when we came up with the idea, that was actually at the beginning of the season, the summer before the show was shot, that it was almost obligatory because we’d already set up there were all these other women in this MUFON chapter who had the chips in the backs of their necks and who had contracted cancer and died. And it felt like the other shoe had to drop – that Scully had to contract cancer, too – to be consistent with the story we’d set forward. Of course, it was an enormous decision to make in terms of her character and we weren’t quite sure where it was going to take us or how we were going to resolve it.

This explains why the show had a bit of trouble integrating this fairly significant character beat into the tail end of the season.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

Still, those are problems for the future. Memento Mori is notable for being the second collaboration of John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan. As Gilligan explains, the three writers eased into a rhythm that worked for them:

None of us had really collaborated before, until Leonard Betts. Our collaboration worked pretty much the same way on this one, and it still works well for us. First, we go sit in a room together and figure out the story, putting index cards on a big bulletin board for the teaser, Act 1, Act 2, and so on. We hash it out, scene by scene, throwing around ideas, and then once we have a story from start to finish that we like, one that Chris has signed off on, we start writing. That much is true for just about any episode, but in the case of a collaborative episode, we assign different acts: I might do the teaser and Act 1, John might get Act 2, and so on. Then, the three or four of us together sit in a room with a laptop computer hooked up to a monitor, and we’ll all do Act 4 together. Then, we go back and rewrite the whole script, all of us together.

It is a method that seems to work for them. Shiban, Spotnitz and Gilligan would become a prolific team. It is not hard to see why; the three writers bounced well off one another, and had a terrific turnaround.

By Zeus (storage)!

By Zeus (storage)!

Interestingly, Memento Mori offers Vince Gilligan a very rare writing credit on one of the show’s mythology episode. Although he worked on Memento Mori as part of that writing team, Gilligan would generally steer clear of the show’s central story arc. In face, Gilligan recognised it as one of his weaknesses:

Well, I can tell you where my strengths don’t lie. I definitely don’t have a facility for the mythology episodes. There was only one that I was actually involved in as a writer, and that was the quasi-mythology episode, Memento Mori. I’ll be honest, I love watching the mythology episode, but I watch them as a fan. I don’t have that much to do with them. They’re a different king of story-telling, and a very good kind, but one I don’t feel particularly equipped for. If I had strength on the show, it would be for the stand-alone episodes that don’t deal with the mythology or the over-arcing mythology of the series.

This confession seems ironic, given that he would go on to create Breaking Bad, a very successful highly-serialised television show. However, it is worth noting that – barring the second seasonBreaking Bad was mostly plotted in the same loose “making it up as we go, mostly” fashion that Carter used on The X-Files.

Physician, heal thyself.

Physician, heal thyself.

Memento Mori is an episode credited to four writers. About half of the show’s core writing staff have their names on the script. Featuring the talents of Chris Carter, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan, the episode offers a nice snapshot of the show’s writing staff as it stood at this point in the run. Indeed, most of the fourth season writing staff absent from the episode – Glen Morgan, James Wong and Howard Gordon – had either already departed or were in the process of departing.

One of the more interesting aspects of The X-Files is the way that the major writers all have their own voices and tics. Chris Carter encouraged his writers to find their own voice on the show. As a result, each writer has a slightly different version of Mulder and Scully. The core of the characters remains consistent, but they end up filtered through a different lens. Darin Morgan writes a version of Mulder distinct from the version written by Howard Gordon. Glen Morgan and James Wong have their own take on Scully, one quite separate from Carter’s version.

"This is a much more sanitary storage environment than an old abandoned mine!"

“This is a much more sanitary storage environment than an old abandoned mine!”

One can almost get a sense of the various voices working on Memento Mori. The pacing and structure seems to come from Spotnitz, a writer who tends to build his mythology episodes to run. The purple prose monologues feel very much like the work of Chris Carter, with the occasional line of stilted dialogue thrown in for good measure. The lighter and more thrilling subplot featuring Mulder and the Lone Gunmen breaking into a high-security facility feels like the kind of sequence that might have been penned by Gilligan and/or Shiban.

Memento Mori is a bit of a mess. Like Never Again before it, it is an episode that went through many iterations before broadcast. The finished product feels like a chimera, a collection of sequences and plot points gathered from various different episodes; all slapped together to provide forty-five minutes of television. Memento Mori is very much a buffet of classic X-Files storytelling. The episode hops around between various different story threads, fighting to keep everything contained.

Down the rabbit hole...

Down the rabbit hole…

Watching Memento Mori, the episode might have made a good two-parter – after all, 731 was expanded to include Nisei. There is enough plot here to support two episodes, and that approach would allow all the elements room to breath. In fact, much of the script was cut, including the introduction of Bill Scully, who had to wait until Gethsemane for his first appearance. There is considerable mood whiplash as Memento Mori switches from paranoid thriller to maudlin hospital drama to tense break-in adventure. It struggles to hold all those different elements together.

To be fair, this approach does help offset the problems with some of the script choices. Memento Mori contains quite a few of the distinctive verbose monologues that one expects from a Chris Carter script. The teaser is just a long shot of Scully examining an x-ray while narrating an extended letter to Mulder. “I feel these words as if their meaning were weight being lifted from me,” she offers, “knowing that you will read them and share my burden, as I have come to trust no other.” The episodes jumps to those letters a number of times, and it is always a little saccharine.

Where's her head at?

Where’s her head at?

In fact, Carter’s somewhat stilted and flowery writing style even works its way into conversations between the leads. When Scully assures Mulder that there is nothing to be done, he cannot accept that. “I refuse to believe that,” he tells her. Scully responds, “For all times I have said that to you I am as certain of this as you have ever been.” She sounds like a walking eulogy, rather than a living person. Memento Mori allows Carter ample opportunity to indulge in his distinctively verbose style.

However, Memento Mori shrewdly offsets these potential problems by cutting from those excessively cheesy monologues to something a bit lighter and more exciting. A storyline about cancer and mortality will inevitably be a sombre and heavy affair. However, one of the episode’s subplots rather cleverly teams Mulder up with the Lone Gunmen. This provides quite a few wry one-liners. “Well pick out something black and sexy and prepare to do some funky poaching,” Mulder quips as he assembles his crack team of break-in experts.

Down the drain...

Down the drain…

Later on, he laments the fact that the team could only afford one earpiece. “You guys couldn’t spring for two of these?” Mulder really takes his government expense account for granted. There is a nice flow to those scenes, a sense that Memento Mori is not as grim as it might be. It is perhaps a bit much to describe the interlude as comedic, but it does provide a nice counterpoint to the rather oppressive atmosphere in the hospital scenes. It could have been integrated better, but it works surprisingly well.

In many ways, Memento Mori offers viewers their first glimpse of the Lone Gunmen as a crack team of action heroes. Up until this point, the trio have largely been confined to dialogue-heavy sequences, providing vital exposition and quick laughs. There had been one short sequence of the trio assisting Mulder in Apocrypha, but nothing quite as involved as their work here. In Memento Mori, Mulder takes them out into the field with him as he desperately tries to find a cure for Scully’s condition. It is very interesting to see these characters outside their comfort zone.

Hey, kids! We call this a floppy disk.

Hey, kids! We call this a floppy disk.

Talking about the episode on the season DVD box set, Frank Spotnitz reflected that Memento Mori was part of the genesis of The Lone Gunmen as a television show:

You know, for years people had talked about doing a spin – off of the Lone Gunmen, these three sort of computer nerds conspiracy-theorist friends of Mulder’s, and that was the first episode where we thought to give them something to do. I think, looking back on it now, that was a really important episode for those three characters, and later we did episodes that focused exclusively on them, and I think it never would have happened if it hadn’t been for that episode.

Of course, the trio would get their big break in Unusual Suspects, the early fifth season episode that they carried by themselves while David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were working on Fight the Future.

Hacktion heroes!

Hacktion heroes!

In many ways, Memento Mori can be seen as an example of how much of a supporting cast the show has built around Mulder and Scully. Mulder and Scully would always be the heart of The X-Files, and the show would never develop into an ensemble drama, but the production team had worked very hard to create a tangible world around the two lead characters. Memento Mori gives Mulder and Scully a lot to do, but it acknowledges that the world of The X-Files is defined enough that there are supporting characters who fit in a story like this.

The Lone Gunmen are an obvious example, providing technical support to Mulder as he tries to find a cure. However, the show also brings back Gillian Barber as Penny Northern; building off the character’s one prior appearance in Nisei. Similarly, Sheila Larkin returns as Margaret Scully – getting a nice little scene with Gillian Anderson early in the episode. These are all nice touches that are not strictly necessary to the episode, but serve as an illustration of how that show was trying to incorporate its own continuity and its own extended cast.

The devil himself...

The devil himself…

In fact, Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man get a subplot that is almost tangential to the plot threads following Mulder and Scully. Skinner ends up quietly saving the day, by striking a sinister deal with the Cigarette-Smoking Man. That deal will eventually come back to haunt him. It is a very quiet little plot, one playing out in the background of the episode. It is actually quite brave of Memento Mori to give Skinner the plot that appears to ultimately saves Scully. In the end, Memento Mori implies that it is not Mulder who saves his partner, but the self-sacrifice of Walter Skinner.

Memento Mori places a lot of faith in actors Mitch Pileggi and William B. Davis. They get a couple of dialogue-heavy scenes together, without the action that anchors Mulder’s break-in or the melodrama that grounds Scully’s hospital visit. Building off the success of their stand-offs in The Blessing Way and Paper Clip, Memento Mori is content to have Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man trade barbs on standing sets. It is a nice little subplot that reaffirms the idea that Skinner is an under-appreciated ally, with the Cigarette-Smoking Man is evil incarnate.

Cancer woman...

Cancer woman…

In fact, Memento Mori is quite explicit in its estimation of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. Pulling back from the humanity hinted at in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man or the desperation in Paper Clip or Talitha Cumi, the episode hints quite heavily that the Cigarette-Smoking Man is nothing less than the devil himself. William B. Davis picked up on the implication in his biography, Where There’s Smoke…:

As for me, Memento Mori we get the first suggestion that CSM might be the Devil incarnate. Ironic, of course, as it is a reference from Skinner, and yet as the series progressed Chris Carter drew the allusion frequently. The evil intent, the constant smoke and even fire from cigarette lighters, and the shadowy presence certainly suggested a unique villain.

When Mulder suggests contacting the Cigarette-Smoking Man, Skinner warns him, “If he knows, you can know too but you can’t ask the truth of a man who trades in lies.” Perhaps Cigarette-Smoking Man fancies himself a prince of lies, if you will. Skinner gets more overt in a later conversation with the villain himself. Responding to a quip about assigning Mulder to the basement, Skinner reflects, “At least he doesn’t take an elevator up to get to work.”

X-ray of hope...

X-ray of hope…

This very much feels like a continuation of Carter’s pet themes. Carter is fascinated with the idea of good and evil – the notion that evil exists as a force with influence on the larger world. This theme played itself out quite well in Millennium, but traces of it could also be found in The X-Files from time-to-time – episodes like Aubrey or Grotesque or Empedocles. The black oil – also, appropriately enough, identified as “the black cancer” in Tunguska and Terma – is a literal representation of evil infecting and corrupting. Memento Mori plays into these broader themes.

The Cigarette-Smoking Man is presented as a literal devil with whom Skinner must deal for his “miracle.” Scully’s cancer is another metaphor for infection and corruption. “In med school I learned that cancer arrives in the body unannounced, a dark stranger who takes up residence, turning it’s new home against itself,” she narrates. “This is the evil of cancer, that is starts as an invader, but soon becomes one with the invaded, forcing you to destroy it, but only at the risk of destroying yourself. It is science’s demon possession.”

If it bleeds, we need some leads...

If it bleeds, we need some leads…

This fear of “the invader” which eventually “becomes one with the invaded” is a recurring fear in The X-Files. The show’s central narrative follows an alien attempt to colonise Earth. Hybrids are just one facet of this process – creatures that are both human and alien simultaneously. The alien plot also turns common motor oil and bees into weapons that might be harnessed against mankind. The X-Files is fascinated by this idea of infestation and corruption, making Scully’s cancer a very effective metaphor for the show’s larger themes.

In fact, Momento Mori is so fond of its clever thematic connections that they even extend to snow globes. Trying to break into a computer at the “Centre for Reproductive Medicine”, Mulder notices a snow globe labelled “Vegreville.” Appropriately enough, given the themes of the location and the episode in general, the snow globe features a giant egg – itself modelled on the gigantic sculpture in Vegreville. Apparently, the crew had to manufacture that prop from scratch. According to Frank Spotnitz on the commentary, it cost $2,000.

Egging Mulder on...

Egging Mulder on…

That said, it is a little frustrating that Memento Mori treats Scully as such a passive character. Despite the fact that the episode is based around Scully’s battle with cancer, Scully is actively sidelined for a large portion of the episode. She spends time in hospital, with her mother and with Penny Northern. In contrast, Mulder and Skinner are both working very hard to save her. Scully feels more like a plot point than a character, with most of the focus on Scully coming through those over-written voice-over monologues.

There is a sense that Memento Mori is ultimately covering the same ground that One Breath covered more effectively. Skinner acknowledges as much when Mulder considers consulting the Cigarette-Smoking Man. “You’ve come to me before like this Mulder,” Skinner offers. One Breath was a story which saw Scully in a comatose state, while Mulder tried to figure out what to do. In Memento Mori, Scully is conscious and alert, but she is similarly passive. Both stories are about Scully, but are largely driven by characters other than Scully.

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

In fact, Memento Mori seems like the kind of story that One Breath was deconstructing or exploring – the narrative about a male hero desperately trying to save a damsel in distress. The beauty of One Breath was in allowing Mulder to accept that supporting Scully was more important than satisfying his own desire to play hero. It forced Mulder to confront various masculine archetypes, and ultimately subverted them. In contrast, Memento Mori allows (and even encourages) Mulder’s adventuring and Skinner’s self-sacrifice.

One Breath was notable for the way that it captured the sheer sense of idleness and uselessness that one experiences while a loved one is in hospital; the waiting, the sitting, the thinking, the dreading. Most effectively, it captures the desire to do something that will make it all better, and the knowledge that there is nothing that can be done. Memento Mori undermines a lot of the fear and dread that comes with a cancer diagnosis, treating it as something that can be defeated (or at least warded off for a few months) in a forty-five minute episode.

Pumping out the little über Scullies...

Pumping out the little über Scullies…

It feels like Memento Mori misses the horror that comes with a cancer diagnosis – the creeping sense of mortality and uselessness, the knowledge that your own body has turned against you. Sure, there are elements of that in Scully’s plot, but they are drowned out quite quickly. Instead, Memento Mori quickly engages with races against time to save Scully’s life. There is no long and slow and painful treatment here. Scully’s cancer is very clearly not something that will affect her week-in and week-out. It is just a plot point.

There are some rather unfortunate choices in Memento Mori. At its core, Memento Mori breaks down into an episode where the male characters (Mulder, Skinner, the Lone Gunmen, the Cigarette-Smoking Man) do exciting heroic stuff while the female characters (Dana and Margaret Scully, Penny Northern) sit around a hospital waiting for either death or salvation. As with her abduction in the second season, it feels like the show is treating Scully as a plot point rather than a character.

"Welcome to the vault..."

“Welcome to the vault…”

Memento Mori is an episode that seems more sympathetic to Mulder than to Scully. When Scully receives her diagnosis, she is resigned to her fate. “I have cancer,” she tells Mulder. “It is a mass on the wall between my sinus and cerebrum. If it pushes into my brain statistically there is about zero chance of survival.” In contrast, Mulder refuses to accept the reality of the situation, arguing that there must be a cure or a treatment. Scully just wants to live with her cancer with dignity, Mulder insists on chasing down the conspiracy. Mulder gets to be right.

Indeed, the exchange where Mulder confronts Scully about the terminal nature of her cancer feels more than a little weighted. When Mulder refuses to believe that, Scully references all the times that she has refused to believe him. It feels like a very reductive impression of the Mulder and Scully dynamic. It seems a little unfair to suggest that Scully refuses to believe; it makes more sense to suggest that she needs prove or evidence to validate beliefs that would seem to contravene the way that mankind understands the world.

Cloning around...

Cloning around…

Arguing that Scully “refuses” to believe makes her seem like the more irrational member of the duo. It suggests that Mulder has been able to furnish proof and evidence supporting his claims and beliefs, and Scully has simply rejected them out of hand. It feels like self-parody, the popular image of a Scully who is so deeply entrenched within the “sceptic” mindset that she is in denial. It seems to suggest that Scully’s adherence to scientific method is a character flaw or failing, something that hinders her or holds her back, preventing her from accepting the world as it clearly is.

It is interesting that Memento Mori offers a glimpse of the relationship between Mulder and Scully that Never Again had skewered so brutally. Although Memento Mori is much more optimistic and romantic in its portrayal of the dynamic between Mulder and Scully, faint traces of the dysfunction evident in Never Again still shine through. Mulder might arrive at the oncology department with a bundle of flowers, but he also seems quite reluctant to actually listen to what Scully actually has to say.

"There's a reason they call me the Cancer Man."

“There’s a reason they call me the Cancer Man.”

Mulder is still just a little patronising in how he talks to her. “I want you to listen to me,” he urges her, gently. “About what you won’t to admit to yourself, what you’re denying.” When Scully rejects the idea of talking to Penny Northern as one cancer patient to another, Mulder suggests, “If that’s too hard for you then I think you should call an investigator. You have one remaining witness Agent Scully. I’d think you’d want to know what her story is.” There is a sense that Mulder is very much trying to manage Scully’s reaction to her diagnosis.

Even with Scully facing death, Mulder is still fixated on the truth and his crusader. “You can’t quite figure it out but it can be explained and it will be explained,” he assures her. “And no matter what you think as a scientist or a doctor, there is a way, and you will find it, to save yourself.” Mulder seems almost evangelical in his devotion to “the truth” as an almost religious concept. “The truth will save you Scully,” he promises, as he holds her tight. “I think it’ll save both of us.” Mulder seems to have little idea of how to help Scully, beyond doubling down on his pursuit of the truth.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

However, despite the fact that many of aspects of the Mulder and Scully dynamic that were skewered in Never Again are present here, Memento Mori seems incredibly romantic in its treatment of the duo. Mulder shows up with flowers, and the embrace at the climax. According to Spotnitz’s commentary, an even more physical take was filmed:

Now, this scene became notorious because in one of several takes that they did here, Mulder and Scully did indeed kiss on the lips. And it was very nice and very effective and we… it was not scripted, however. And we thought and thought about it and finally we decided not to… not to use that take. And as so many things have gotten out on the Internet over the years, and this information did indeed get out on the Internet and there were some people who were upset with us for it but I still think it was the right decision. Again, returning to my theme, it’s, you know, so much what the characters don’t say, it’s also so much what the characters don’t do, is so important. And this is so intimate and personal and their eyes tell you so much about how they feel about each other without having to have them kiss on the lips. And their embrace. We felt like the kiss on the lips would be sending the wrong signal at this moment and distract from it, the emotion of it.

However, even allowing for that trim, it is hard to believe that too many shippers could have been unhappy with Memento Mori – particularly following on from an episode like Never Again. While the show enjoys teasing those fans who want a documented physical relationship between the two, it is clear that they do love one another.

Patients is a virtue...

Patients is a virtue…

Chris Carter himself makes a similar argument when discussing the episode in I Want to Believe:

“I’ve already people say, ‘You’ve got to give the audience that moment, they’re expecting it,’ but I try to keep away from it as long as I can. I mean, look at what happens in Memento Mori – Scully writes to Mulder in her diary, but when he actually visits the hospital, they don’t really talk about it. I think their relationship is defined not by what’s said but by what’s being withheld.”

Carter adds: “But it’s absolutely plain that they love each other – in their own way. And it’s the best kind of love. It’s unconditional. It’s not based on a physical attraction, but on a shared passion for life and for their quest. These are romantic heroes, romantic heroes in the literary tradition.”

After all, Memento Mori makes it clear that Scully told Mulder about her cancer before she told her own mother.

Three is the magic number...

Three is the magic number…

Memento Mori also touches on the theme of motherhood that seems to be threaded through the fourth and fifth seasons of the show. It is likely a coincidence, rather than a clear design, but the theme keeps popping up. Scully has confronted a rather perverse twist on motherhood in both Home and Leonard Betts. In Home, Scully looked on in horror at what sons would do for their mothers; in Leonard Betts, she witnessed what mothers would do for their sons. It feels appropriate, then, that motherhood is incorporated as a major theme in Memento Mori.

Memento Mori confirms that Scully cannot have children as a result of the experiments conducted upon her by the conspiracy. Instead, she – and many women like her – were treated as nothing more than “one half of the necessary raw materials” for creating the future. One of the many clones created by the project observes, “And now they’re left to die, their conditions hastened by the men running this project.” His use of gender is quite pointed. This project is not run by “people” or “individuals.” This exploitation of the female body is organised and overseen by men.

Shadowy figure...

Shadowy figure…

However, despite all this, Mulder discovers that the hybrids are trying to save their biological mothers. When Mulder asks why these clones assisting him, one explains, “They’re our mothers.” There is just a grain of optimism to be found amid all of this exploitation and cynicism. The X-Files is in many ways a show about the sins of the father; the effect of compromises made and atrocities committed in the distant past. However, The X-Files repeatedly suggests that the younger generation can somehow work to atone for those sins, to redeem themselves.

The hybrids try to right these past wrongs, just as Mulder confronts his father’s own complicity in this multinational conspiracy. The past cannot be escaped, but it can be exposed. Although the current generation has benefited greatly from historical injustices, they have a responsibility to make things right. The X-Files is a show fascinated by the idea that the sins of the past inevitably haunt the present. However, the hybrids presented in Memento Mori suggest that Mulder is not alone in his attempt to balance the scales.

Mission: Improbable...

Mission: Improbable…

(The revelation that the female abductees were used to create hybrids for use in colonisation makes a great deal of sense, fitting comfortable with earlier episodes like Nisei or 731. Coupled with the revelation that the hybrids featured here are the same as the male children from Herrenvolk, this suggests that there is some community out there in the Canadian wilderness populated by clones of Samantha Mulder and hybrids created using the DNA of Dana Scully. It turns out Mulder’s “über Scullies” quip from Home might have been on the money.)

Memento Mori is a mess of an episode, but it is a very interesting mess. It is very much a “kitchen sink” episode, with perhaps too much going on around the edges, stealing focus from what should be the central theme of the hour. However, it is a fascinating snapshot of where The X-Files is at this point in time, a veritable buffet table of the themes and tones that the show can strike, drawing in most of the heavy-hitters on the writing staff who will still be around by the time that Redux I is broadcast.

The light at the end of the corridor...

The light at the end of the corridor…

Memento Mori is a very well-remembered episode, and understandably so. However, it suffers from a lack of focus and a sense that the show already covered much of this thematic ground in the second season. Still, it is a fascinating mythology episode, and an interesting demonstration of how chaotic the fourth season of The X-Files was. Memento Mori is an episode that bends the rest of the season around it. Not bad for a script drafted in three days.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fourth season of The X-Files:

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