X-Files Flashback: ‘Memento Mori’

Memento Mori

Season 4, Episode 14
Director: Rob Bowman
Writer: Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz

“Memento Mori” is the episode that finally helped The X-Files gain some traction and major hardware at the Emmy Awards. That’s not to say that series creator Chris Carter was necessarily in the hunt for Emmys, but the series, at the time, had been building a great deal of credibility with the Television Academy – a surprising fact given their relative abhorrence for all things science fiction at the time. Still, it’s hard to overlook the episode given the series’ spin on a more traditional dramatic storyline, allowing star Gillian Anderson the ability to play Dana Scully as a broken and vulnerable woman. It’s something I would argue is there in the previous episode “Never Again,” and it’s something that plays out dramatically and beautifully here in “Memento Mori.”

Having been unwillingly diagnosed by the killer Leonard Betts, Scully begins the episode reviewing the X-rays of her head, showing the tumor lodged between her sinus and cerebrum. The prognosis isn’t good, but Scully (and Mulder) aren’t willing to give up. They journey to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to reconnect with the group of women who, like Scully, were abducted by aliens and contracted a deadly form of cancer that, as we later discover, has nearly wiped them all out. In Allentown, they track down a man, Kurt (David Lovgren), who apparently has ties to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) to which the women belong, and he begins helping Mulder sort through materials that may be critical to Scully’s survival. After Mulder is called to help Scully, the Gray-Haired Man kills Kurt who turns out to be an alien-human hybrid.

Scully, meanwhile, visits the last surviving member of the women’s abductee group – Penny Northern (Gillian Barber) – who is undergoing a last-ditch treatment to stop the cancer. She points Dana to Dr. Scanlon (Sean Allen) who has been treating and reportedly learning from the previous women who have died. Dr. Scanlon immediately recommends treatment for Scully, and she begins to undergo chemotherapy with her mother (Sheila Larken) at her side. Mulder, meanwhile, finds evidence in a nearby research facility that he suspects may be able to help Scully. After using the Lone Gunmen to break in, he discovers that there are other hybrids identical to Kurt, all working on a potential cure for their “mothers” – the women abducted by aliens who helped give birth to them. Believing that Scanlon is actually killing the women to protect The Program, Mulder takes information back to Scully who is grieving over the death of Penny Northern. We close with Skinner, who had instructed Mulder not to contact the Smoking Man, making a deal with the Smoking Man to save Scully’s life.

It is easy to see why the Television Academy fell relatively hard for “Memento Mori.” This is one of the more accessible episodes of the series and most certainly of the overall mythology series. It gracefully blends the human drama of cancer and Scully’s waning will to live with lighter touches of alien and conspiracy lore. To its credit, it allows Gillian Anderson to show incredible strength and, later, vulnerability in Scully. She runs the gamut of human emotions through the course of the episode, pulling a real tour-de-force performance out of the Emmy-winning Anderson. I especially loved the sequence at the end where she shares the vulnerability with Mulder, allowing him to kiss her forehead only as they continue to fight their natural impulses toward one another. This coupled with “Never Again” provides ample evidence of Gillian Anderson’s amazing acting powers, never overplaying her hand yet finding the right note each and every time. Her performance is so good that she even elevates David Duchovny’s typically flat performance as he balances between adult realization and coping and his natural immaturity, making him dance back and forth on his feet as he interacts with the very ill Scully.

“Memento Mori,” does have its flaws. It is laden with ponderous and pretentious voice-over meant to give Scully a reflective tone as she prepares to die. After Mulder secretly reads her words, she expresses deep regret that he had, telling him she intended to throw it away. That would have perhaps been a very wise choice given the florid nature of the text, which ultimately runs together and blends into nothingness. That is a minor quibble, though, as the rest of the episode finds a way to make Dana Scully’s cancer seem curable by the second as Mulder races to determine a cure. They managed to put a time clock on cancer growth, and that was a wise move given the episodic nature of many of the episodes. Still, Scully’s cancer will linger through the rest of the season and into Season Five as Skinner’s search for her cure takes him down a dangerous professional liaison.

In the end, “Memento Mori” is a touching and heartbreaking bit of television as we watch Scully slowly break. She has been so practical and certain of everything, yet that practicality and certainty works against her as she realizes the odds of her survival. Even though the voice overs are over-written and unnecessary, they do provide a certain haunting quality to the episode that helps it linger in our memory.

We may not like or even remember the words, but we’ll always fondly recall the tune.

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