Season 4, Episode 14: “Memento Mori”
I made the joke on Twitter that my review of “Memento Mori” could be done entirely through Emojis: 😭😭😭😭. That’s not completely fair. “Memento Mori,” though it is practically designed to bring on the waterworks, is actually a very hopeful episode with a rather uplifting climax. “Memento Mori” is all about finding a foundation in the face of disaster, the will to keep on trekking when it seems everything’s done for. It’s a tremendously moving story and a mythology episode at that.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first: Scully has cancer. We are at the beginning of an arc that has been known to rob good, sane people of their working feelings, so first time viewers consider this your fair warning.
Although the shocking news was ingeniously delivered at the end of “Leonard Betts,” if you’ve been keeping up with the mythology you’ll realize that it’s actually not so shocking after all. Remember that pair of episodes back in Season 3, “Nisei” and “731”? Remember how I said they were deceptively important? First-time viewers may find it difficult to keep up with all the mythology storylines and long-time fans may dismiss the mythology as being convoluted, but this is one of those instances I think was actually plotted very well. We have the cause of the cancer in Season 2 (Scully’s abduction), the implant is discovered at the beginning of Season 3, and the effects of the implant are hinted at in “Nisei.” Scully’s cancer is not something that was pulled out of Chris Carter’s butt – or if it was, it’s not like it doesn’t have solid ties to the rest of the storyline.
“Memento Mori,” however, aims to be a very different sort of mythology episode than we’ve seen in the past. It really serves to be a deep character study more than works to further the plot (although it does plenty of that too). Here we have a struggle that is firmly Scully’s, an episode where she deals with her pain head-on and in her own voice. Unlike her near-death experience in “One Breath,” which was mainly Mulder’s episode, this is Scully’s battle to fight. She’ll do it with Mulder by her side, of course, but this episode belongs to Scully.
I think it was very smart of Chris Carter to tackle this storyline this way. We watch in dread the slower, more contemplative scenes where Scully’s health declines, when she writes to Mulder in her journal (kill me), and talks to her mother and brother. At the same time we have the faster paced suspenseful scenes with Mulder and the Lone Gunmen, which take on the more familiar mythology structure. It’s an incredibly balanced episode that doesn’t scream what it needs to say but seems to approach everything just right. Not too hot, not too cold. Amazing, considering this episode had four writers. FOUR WRITERS. THAT’S CRAZY.
Let’s start with that opening monologue. Ah, Chris, you and your purple prose. Well, in this case we can call it purple-ish prose, I guess. It’s absolutely dripping with cheese, but the whole thing becomes rather touching and squeal-worthy once you realize it’s being addressed to Mulder. And it ties in well with the rest of the episode, so I don’t find myself bothered by it too much. There will be worse opening monologues, believe me.
What I love – love – about this episode is how it sets the situation up as an X-File but slowly turns it into a personal matter for Scully. You feel a little like Skinner does when Scully says she wishes to treat this matter as an investigation rather than delve too deep into her personal feelings on the matter. I disagree wholeheartedly with the somewhat popular assessment of Scully as Ice Queen, but that’s not to say she’s exactly the most in-touch-with-her-feelings kind of person either. Whenever disasters strike Scully – we see this time and time again, from after her abduction to her sister’s death – she puts her back up against professionalism, work, and structure. She’s not one to wallow.
What “Memento Mori” does is force Scully to do some wallowing, and I think it’s good for her. She needs some time to assess what this is going to mean, to face her own fears, and to deal with the inevitable consequence of her illness. Mulder has to deal with it as well, but unlike Scully, he refuses to wallow (which is more in character for him). Instead, Mulder’s a man of action, searching desperately for an answer, a solution, anything that might change the inevitable. As soon as she sees Penny, Scully seems ready to give up as far as the investigation goes, perhaps because she wants to look for a cure medically rather than through the X-Files. Whatever her reasons are, Scully tries to approach her cancer as a case, and it doesn’t work.
Her stay in the hospital leaves her plenty of time for reflection, as do the talks with Penny and her family. She reflects with them and she reflects alone, as she writes in her journal. But she’s not completely reflecting alone. When she faces her death, writing in that journal, she’s not writing to God or to herself, she’s writing to Mulder. As if she knows exactly who her death will affect in the most tragic way.
She writes to Mulder in a way that might indicate she’s given up all hope of finding a cure. She’s going to die, and Mulder has to accept that. But he won’t, and when Scully finally comes face to face with Mulder, she’s reached a decision herself.
MULDER: When we find him. Scully something was done to you, something that you’re just beginning to remember. You can’t quite figure it out but it can be explained and it will be explained. And no matter what you think as a scientist or a doctor, there is a way, and you will find it, to save yourself.
SCULLY: Mulder I can’t kid myself. People live with cancer. They carry on, and so will I. You know I’ve got things to finish, to prove to myself, to my family, but for my own reasons.
(they smile, then hug)
MULDER: Come on back. (pause) The truth will save you Scully. I think it’ll save both of us.
And that is why I think “Memento Mori” has resonated with so many people over the years. This isn’t just something Mulder and Scully have to face. Anyone who’s faced a terminal illness or experienced some other tragedy or disaster in their lives has the choice to give up on life or pursue it. No choice in these matters are right or wrong. Some may find it better to quietly prepare to leave life, if they know there’s nothing that can be done. Others choose to pursue life in a way that’s as normal as possible, to try and finish the things they started, illness be damned.
Everyone has their own way of coping with the hardships of life. “Memento Mori” at its core is about not having to face it alone. Whatever you believe you should do, there is someone there – whether it’s someone like Penny, or it’s your family, or God, or if it’s the Mulder in your life, whoever that is – they are there with you. And that’s where the hope lies.
Cue the hug. 💚
Final score for “Memento Mori” is 10/10. As if I even need to explain why this episode is so good.
- Skinner and the Lone Gunmen make some fantastic appearances here. Their presence is always welcomed.
- Unless you actually call a rock your home, you know that this is the episode that earned Gillian Anderson her Emmy. I don’t really think I need to explain that one either.
- This is totally random, but memento mori means “remember you will die,” which I did not learn by Google search but actually already knew from A Series of Unfortunate Events.
- Oh yeah, Sheila Larken is amazing in this episode. Kudos.