The X-Files: “Memento Mori”

I Alone Have Escaped To Tell Thee

by Sarah Stegall

copyright © 1997  by Sarah Stegall
Written by Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, and Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman
During the Renaissance, even as artists and sculptors looked forward to a New Age of humanism, they looked back on the plagues and wars of the Middle Ages. No matter how serene and optimistic their present circumstances, they could not forget that “in the midst of life we are in death”. So the custom arose of working the image of a human skull into a painting or statue, a memento mori or reminder of mortality. From El Greco’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy” to Durer’s “Knight, Death, and the Devil”, even to Shakespeare’s own “poor Yorick” of Hamlet, great writers and artists remind us of our fate. Thus to see “Memento Mori” open with the modern image of a skull–an X-ray– hearkens back to the masters of the Renaissance, and their respect for the Grim Reaper. “Memento Mori” is an episode which brings our heroes face to face not with a sudden and valiant death, but with the long, slow, painful death of cancer. And in doing so, it necessarily must bring them face to face with questions of the heart.
“Memento Mori” opens with a voice over narration, Agent Scully reading from her journal. Though the language is as formal as Scully’s reports, the emotion in it seeps through to saturate the scene in despair and resignation. Although somewhat self-conscious, the narration is still poetic and lyrical: I never thought to hear the word “numinous” on prime time TV. The camera takes us down a long tunnel of white light, reminiscent of near-death experiences, to focus finally on Dana Scully’s X-ray, showing a deadly mass growing at the base of her brain. From this image of the death’s-head, the episode unreels as a parallel story deriving from Scully’s abduction: Scully fights the result of it and Mulder seeks the cause of it. Along the way, he ropes in AD Skinner and the Lone Gunmen, along with a young man, Kurt Crawford (David Lovgren) who appears to know more than he should about Agent Scully and her abduction. We revisit earlier scenes from “Nisei”, where Scully met Penny Northern (Gillian Barber) and other women who claimed to remember Scully from their own abduction experiences. As before, Scully rejects their stories, but is forced to rely on Penny, who is dying of brain cancer, as her guide through the ordeal of cancer therapy. Like a shamaness initiating her successor, Penny must counsel, support, and challenge Dana as she faces the void. Mulder, meanwhile, searches desperately for information about the other women of that luckless group, all of whom are dead; his investigation leads him to a fertility clinic and a confrontation with a hybridization experiment that now vitally involves Scully.
“They’re our mothers,” Kurt the Clone tells Mulder. In such small and offhand sentences whole story arcs are born. In “Herrenvolk”, X’s last words to Scully herself were a warning to “protect the mother”. As I said then, that is the prime directive of any hive mind, perhaps one native to the cloned intelligences directing the hybridization experiment now clearly gaining momentum. Whether Dana Scully is indeed the genetic mother of a set of red-headed clones is a question Carter and company will tease us with, probably until the X-Files movie comes out. More important, however, is the effect of this knowledge–or suspicion–on Fox Mulder. For good or ill, his partner now is more deeply involved in an X-File than he could ever be, Samantha or no Samantha. The stakes are higher for Scully.
Like Ishmael of Moby Dick, who alone of all his doomed crew returned to tell the tale of a quest driven by a morbid fixation, Scully clings to survival partly out of obligation to the dead. Seeing the last link to her own abduction experience die before her eyes, the last woman who can really understand what Scully is experiencing, would send many women into the depths of despair. But Dana Scully is above all a fighter, and now she has a Cause. Penny Northern tells her, “You’ve got to be the one. You can’t give up hope.” Nor does she. Scully is now invested with the mantle of a champion, with a mission which, in moral terms, exceeds Mulder’s solitary quest. I have never seen Dana Scully as the kind of woman who would put her own agenda above the truth (as Mulder might). Even when she was abducted, or her sister was killed, she has shown a willingness to toe the corporate line and go through channels. But now that she has a dozen innocent lives to avenge “for her own reasons”, it may be that Cancerman has a more dangerous enemy than Fox Mulder.
I would need another whole review to properly praise the work that went into “Memento Mori”. I must do the writers–Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz–a grave disservice in cutting short the praise I should be heaping on them for so seamlessly integrating a myriad of themes into a poetic and powerful story. The metaphor of cancer as an invading demon, with chemo/radiation therapy as a form of exorcism, struck a profound note. The mini-drama between Skinner and the Cigarette-Smoking Man alone deserves a paragraph, as Skinner contemplates a Faustian bargain. Scully’s diary entries beautifully summed up her relationship with Mulder with her usual dispassionate and objective mien: like Marie Curie, Scully would take her own temperature and make her own diagnosis on her deathbed, a scientist to the end.
Instead, I will concentrate on that part of the storytelling that came across like gangbusters: the acting. I’m not sure where to begin in describing Gillian Anderson’s benchmark performance. Suffice to say that while she may have earned her Golden Globe in “Never Again”, she earned her Emmy in “Memento Mori”. None of her performance sank even to “average”, but for me, the most honest and sympathetic parts were the scenes between her and Gillian Barber. The bonding and empathy between these two sufferers, establishing a companionship akin to war veterans, brought out Anderson’s remarkable ability to convey warmth and objectivity at the same time, to show us Scully’s emotional identification with a fellow martyr at the same time she is denying Penny’s version of events. The scenes between these two actresses were of exceptional depth and intensity, an accomplishment for both women.
Likewise, Sheila Larken’s brief scene as Mrs. Scully once again showcased her capacity to show tenderness, anger, and bitter grief mixed together. Mitch Pileggi’s terse and troubled Skinner struck the perfect note of worry and resolve, and the final image of the episode, closing in on his profoundly disturbed expression, sounded the right grace note for the story. Bruce Harwood, as Byers, got in a good turn as the eye-rolling, fear-ridden professor suddenly forced into field work and scared to death of it. And as noted above, Gillian Barber’s portrayal of the ill-fated Penny Northern was enough to bring tears to a statue.
Which brings me to David Duchovny’s wonderful performance, highlighted by a voice control that grows more adroit with every episode. His husky whisper has always underscored an extraordinary screen presence, one which is beautifully matched to the intimacy of television. In “Memento Mori”, he let us hear the tears stuck in Mulder’s throat, the anger choking him, the fear nearly strangling him. Struck nearly dumb with grief and denial, he fights to maintain his usual sang-froid and utterly fails. From the sea-change that comes over Mulder’s face when Scully tells him of her cancer, to the barely-repressed grimace when she calls him to bring her bag to the hospital, Duchovny gives us a Mulder stripped down to raw, bleeding nerve. In a storage room that might contain his own sister’s eggs, he doesn’t even look for a drawer with her name on it. In the midst of a struggle with the fleeing Kurt Crawford, he stops to worry about Scully’s nosebleed. In Skinner’s office, he is willing to sell his soul cheap for Scully’s life. Mulder is down to his last emotional nickel here, on the ragged edge of despair. The most sensitive moment in “Memento Mori”, however, the one that demonstrated Fox Mulder’s innate humanity, came as Scully walks away down the hospital corridor. He takes the vial of her eggs from his pocket– and does nothing. The truth, and his quest, might be served by revealing to Scully at this supremely vulnerable moment that she has suffered a violation as intimate and visceral as rape. But the Fox Mulder who might have blurted out the painful truth in the first season now thinks twice. Finally, he understands that some things–such as compassion- -are more important than his version of the truth.
So the final scene between Mulder and Scully comes at the end of a story that has had both of them converging on the same point of emotional revelation. Scully, exhausted and empty, meets Mulder, anxious and disconsolate, in the hallway of the hospital where Scully’s last link to her abduction has died. A wonderfully healing embrace of mutual trust, and yes, love, brings them both comfort and resolution. It’s not the kiss we should have seen*, but it was a great moment to remember. The last defenses are down, the drawbridges lowered, the partnership now founded in an emotional bond tight enough to survive, perhaps, death. It is a long, long way from “I thought you were sent to spy on me” to “The truth will save both of us”, but we finally got there.
“One Breath” got six sunflower seeds because it opened up the emotional walls between these two. “Colony/Endgame” got six sunflower seeds because it revealed the bones of the “mythology” arc and pulled together the X-Files into a mega- conspiracy. “Memento Mori” is the third story to get six out of five sunflower seeds, because it gives Dana Scully a crusade of her own, and Mulder a partner unto death.

*The kiss was filmed–I saw it–but Rob Bowman deleted it from the episode. I’m not sure it ever showed up on a “blooper reel” either, but it was there, once. And it was perfect.