“Mulder, whatever you found or whatever you might find, I think that we both know that right now the truth is in me, and that’s where I need to pursue it, as soon as possible.”
— Dana Scully
With Scully’s cancer diagnosis confirmed, Mulder races to figure out how her abduction may have triggered her illness.
Radhika: “Remember that you will die.” With that being the definition of the episode’s Latin title, and with its long monologues confronting one’s mortality, “Memento Mori” could have easily turned into a maudlin melodrama. In fact, the dialogue does border on overwrought at times. But the episode manages to be an emotional heavy hitter, while also providing us with the action and intrigue that often is part of the series’ mythology, and it remains a compelling installment to this day.
Scully has a cancerous tumor, hinted at in the episode “Leonard Betts.” She and Mulder go to Pennsylvania to see Betsy Hagopian — member of the Mutual UFO Network — who had also suffered similar symptoms. Betsy has died, but the agents get acquainted with Kurt Crawford, also a MUFON member. According to Crawford, everyone but one MUFON member Scully met in season three has died of cancer. Both Mulder and Crawford blame the women’s abductions for the illness.
Scully visits with the last survivor of the group, Penny Northern, who is being treated for cancer (yes, she dies by the episode’s end). Upon meeting Dr. Scanlon, the physician treating Northern, Scully decides it’s time to undergo chemotherapy. Meanwhile, Mulder discovers all the abductees — who were childless — had been treated at a fertility clinic. And we learn that Crawford is an alien-human hybrid when he’s killed by a stiletto weapon. But when Mulder goes to the clinic to figure out what’s going on, he runs into “Crawford” and they both find that Scully has a file in the clinic.
Desperate to figure out what’s going on, Mulder asks Skinner to help arrange a meeting with the Cigarette Smoking Man to make a deal that could save Scully. Skinner doesn’t encourage the plan, which leads Mulder to work with the Lone Gunmen to break into a research facility, where he meets multiple Kurt Crawford clones that work with Dr. Scanlon. Turns out the women who were treated have had their ova harvested, and had become the birth mothers to these clones, who hope to save them. Mulder leaves with Scully’s ova, saying nothing to her (because how do you have that conversation?). The episode concludes with Scully determined to fight her disease and Mulder thanking Skinner for keeping him away from the Cigarette Smoking Man. But it’s pretty clear that Skinner himself is trying to strike a deal with Old Smokey… just in time for the credits to roll.
The episode balances quite a bit of action, and even a couple of humorous lines — Mulder’s “Well, pick out something black and sexy and prepare to do some funky poaching” to The Lone Gunmen comes to mind. And it’s great seeing so many players involved in the episode, from The Lone Gunmen and Skinner and CSM to Scully’s mother. But it’s those emotional moments, even when the dialogue is a little exaggerated, that are key to this episode. Scully’s mother expresses the anger and distress a parent would when she gets belated news of her child’s cancer diagnosis. And the presence of the character does at least help humanize Scully a little more, especially as the agents seem to live in a detached sort of reality where they don’t have much of a personal life… of any kind.
And we see Scully sick and vulnerable in a way that we haven’t: Yes, she has been abducted, not just by those behind government conspiracies, but also by some of the most monstrous antagonists the agents have encountered. And we have seen her react to that. But here, she is probably more helpless than she’s ever been before because there isn’t much she can do beyond resolving to power through it.
It’s tough seeing Scully in this spot, and few others seem to be feeling it more than Mulder. He has been rather oblivious to Scully’s needs in recent episodes, but that bond the characters share — one we’ve been referencing since the series’ beginning — is prevalent in this episode. Much of that is seen in the hallway scene, a favorite of shippers, where Mulder expresses the fear and worry he felt upon not seeing Scully in her hospital room and finding a journal echoing her internal turmoil. Scully’s response is serious and reassuring, and then of course we have a forehead kiss — a classic Mulder move as the seasons progressed, though there was an on-the-lips scene improvised by the actors that got cut out.
It’s that final scene that tells us no matter how many ups and downs the two agents go through, this being one of the greatest rocky patches of all, they’re there for each other through thick and thin. Mulder may be telling Scully that the truth will save her at the end of this episode, but in a world where the “truth” is never black and white, it’s really their partnership that will most likely get her out of this mess.
Max: After the strains in the relationship between Mulder and Scully began to bubble to surface in the last episode, it is indeed reassuring to see that despite all the obstacles and emotions, that the two agents still have each other’s backs at the end of the day, and the hug in the hospital hallway is one of the most touching images of the entire series. Radhika, even you have to admit that that scene melted even a little bit of your cold dead Noromo heart (playfully ribbing you, of course). A common saying is “the only way out is the way through,” and by the end of the episode Scully has reinvested herself, determined not to end up like Betsy Hagopian or Penny Northern or any of the other Allentown MUFON members.
What is sometimes lost when people talk about our heroes is that Scully is just as steadfast and determined as Mulder is, it is just that the two agents have different ways of going about it, perfectly illustrated in the lead-off quote. Mulder spends the entire episode embroiled with Kurt Crawford hybrids and the Lone Gunmen attempting to find information that would lead to a cure for Scully’s cancer. Meanwhile, Scully comes to realization that whatever course of action must originate with the cancer that is slowly but surely embedding itself inside of her. Mulder is looking for someone to unlock things for him, but Scully knows that only through examining the cancer itself will things shift in her favor.
This though doesn’t stop Skinner though for entering into an agreement with the CSM that he himself tried to convince Mulder not to undertake. Being The X-Files, of course this will have repercussions down the line, but it is telling that Skinner would entertain a deal with the devil at this point. He has always had a soft spot for Scully, and has tried to protect her all the times things have gone sideways, and in perhaps the most prominent example, reopened the X-Files for Mulder out of frustration when investigative avenues became closed following her abduction.
Scully’s abduction. In this little universe we’ve seen constructed these past several seasons, an awful lot comes back to this pivotal event. In terms of seat-of-your-pants storytelling, I must say again how much Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy is perhaps the biggest coup for Carter and company. Not only did it begin to crystalize and give shape the nascent mythology, but it is paying dividends far down that road, and will continue to be a potent well of possibility. We know now that her ovum have been taken from her for use in hybridization programs, and that the procedures done to her not only caused her cancer but have left her barren. One of the defining characteristics of womanhood is the ability to give life, to have children, to be a mother. Now, unbeknownst to her, this ability has been taken from her, by a group of old men determined to continue their insidious project. While Mulder does not tell her what he discovered by episode’s end, her restored will to live is most certainly a kind of battle call.