"Momento Mori"
Written by Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, and Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

In which Scully’s search for answers to her cancer diagnosis leads her and Mulder to the last of a group of women with the same diagnosis and a connection to Scully’s abduction...

Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis


Status Report

In the previous episode, it was quite clear that the episodes were aired out of sequence. It seems even more so after watching the beginning of this episode, where the opening is almost a perfect continuation from the end of “Leonard Betts”. The writers must have understood, when breaking the middle of the season, that the audience would need time to work out the issues brought up in “Never Again” before accepting the rather different dynamic between Mulder and Scully in this episode.

“Never Again” was an exploration of the dominance/submission relationship between Mulder/Scully, and how Scully continues to follow the same patterns over and over again. That episode ended with Scully’s objection to being defined by Mulder and his work. In essence, she was rebelling against the idea of being treated like an extension of Mulder instead of a separate person with desires of her own.

It’s jarring, then, for Scully to jump so abruptly back into her usual mode of behavior. Had “Leonard Betts” been scheduled after “Never Again”, the transition would have been more smoothly accomplished; Scully begins that episode still annoyed with Mulder, only to be floored by the news of her cancer. As a doctor, Scully would react immediately and have herself tested, as seen in the teaser to this episode.

Usually, if more than two people are involved in the writing of an episode, there’s an essential weakness in the final product. Certain writers handle different aspects of a series and its characters in unique ways; it’s easy to distinguish a Vince Gilligan script from the rest of the pack, for instance. Writing by committee takes all of that unique and consistent style and mashes it into one uneven package. Or rather, that’s the usual end result. In the case of this episode, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

As with most of the mythology episodes, previous interpretations regarding the goals and policies of the conspiracy and Cancer Man pertain directly to the interpretation of the current episode. Therefore, the speculation and interpretation outlined in previous reviews are assumed to be familiar to the reader. In particular, the summary of the mythology given in the review for “Herronvolk” is critical to the analysis of this episode.

It’s not unusual for the mythology episodes to be mated with character exploration. As the series marched on, it seemed like character development was confined to those episodes, or ignored if covered elsewhere. This would become a great source of frustration, but “Momento Mori” actually builds on character threads begun as far back as “Quagmire” and emphasized in “Herrenvolk”.

By this point in the series, Scully has become an expert at self-delusion and denial. Despite everything that happened to her in the second season, she pulled back intellectually and emotionally in the third season after her sister was killed. But by the beginning of the fourth season, Scully invested herself into Mulder’s quest more emotionally than ever before. Part of that was her growing realization that her abduction experience could not be ignored, even if she had no intention of acknowledging Mulder’s interpretation of events. Her thoughts turned to children on more than one occasion. Of course, Mulder was not exactly out of the picture. If he wasn’t the one on her mind, then she wouldn’t have needed to rebel in the previous episode.

In this episode, Scully finds that there are, in fact, some major consequences to her experience, and they are not at all good. She knew the possibility for a little more than a year, but let herself think that it was more remote. After all, Betsy and Penny all mentioned several abductions throughout their lives; Scully had just the one, and she doesn’t even believe that was an abduction anyway. Perhaps more importantly, the concept of increased risk of cancer is easy to dismiss, as any smoker can attest, but the reality is impossible to ignore.

Mulder’s response is perfectly in character. The man who reacts so badly when Scully seems to be distancing herself emotionally now refuses to believe that something could take her away involuntarily. As noted in the previous episode, Mulder doesn’t want to think of Scully as being out of his world; he’s as dependent on her presence as she has become on his authoritative manner. Even as she falls back on clinical facts in her attempt to reconcile her fate, Mulder refuses to believe that something can’t be done to keep her in his life. (And it is partially selfish on his part; he refuses to deal with the cancer on her terms, after all!)

Faced with the physical consequence of her abduction, Scully finds herself seriously conflicted. On the one hand, she doesn’t want to pursue treatment on a personal level, because she would have to explain and acknowledge too much about the abduction in the process. (Just imagine how she would react to the initial consultation interviews with all those doctors!) On the other hand, her only alternative is directly related to women who claimed to have been abducted with her. Unable to fully ignore her experience, no matter her proclivity for denial, Scully can only choose to approach the subject from the detached point of view afforded by her profession.

It doesn’t make a great deal of sense (and few emotional choices during illness do), but it provides the perfect excuse to bring Mulder along and gain strength in that. Mulder’s presence, in turn, adds an investigative element that leads to the discovery of Kurt Crawford’s connection to Betsy Hagopian. This is a clever and consistent way for the writers to set Mulder and Scully on two separate paths to the same destination.

Scully’s attempt at early treatment is inexorably linked to the advancement of the mythology. This is actually one of the most revealing episodes of the series; pieces of the puzzle actually start coming together. It should be noted that the post-“Paper Clip” mythology was loosely worked out to culminate with the film; as such, the elements pertaining to Scully’s abduction needed to come to a kind of resolution before that point. This episode was clearly intended to achieve a large part of that goal.

Kurt’s involvement early in the episode serves to place Scully in an even more difficult position. Kurt suggests that the terminal cancer experienced by the rest of the women abducted with Scully is a result of the experimentation conducted. Mulder figures that out instantly, but Scully falls in the now-familiar pattern of denying an uncomfortable truth by questioning interpretation. Knowing Scully all too well at this point, Mulder pushes her in the right direction by appealing to her rationality. Note that this is highly consistent for Mulder; in different circumstances, his dialogue in this scene would be identical but more biting and sarcastic. His opinion doesn’t change; he just delivers it with a bit more care.

Scully’s fractured mindset continues seamlessly into her first meeting with Penny Northern, where she seems to barely hold back her impatience regarding Penny’s beliefs, yet jumps wholeheartedly into the promise of a cure. She can understand and even partially admit that the similarity in source makes it logical to work with the same doctor for treatment, but she still can’t admit to herself that she’s effectively accepting that she had the same experience as the other women.

It’s telling that Mulder drops everything and comes to Scully’s aid as soon as she indicates that she’s staying at the hospital. Ultimately, everything he does in this episode is about Scully, even if there is a possible upside for his crusade at the end of it. He’s pursuing the files with Kurt to find out as much as possible about the source of the cancer and how to treat it, and as mentioned before, he’s terrified at the thought that her illness has taken a worse turn.

The scene with Scully and her mother is very powerful, because both actresses are communicating very real emotions. It would have been even better had the scene with Bill Jr. remained in the final cut. Ma Scully is still holding back a lot of her feelings on the cost of Scully’s career, and Bill Jr. eventually becomes the mouthpiece for that point of view.

That perspective is very important, because like “Never Again”, it highlights the fact that Scully has sacrificed quite a bit to join Mulder on his personal quest. Within the space of the relationship, it can seem almost normal, but taken objectively, these two people are psychologically damaged. It’s not at all surprising for Scully’s family to think of Mulder as victimizing Scully, because they don’t acknowledge or recognize that Scully is actually making that choice. If she’s a victim, then she’s a willing victim.

While the “demon possession” metaphor is intriguing, it’s hard to believe that Scully’s medical school would have characterized cancer as a “dark invader”. Cancer doesn’t invade the body; cancer by definition is cell division gone bad. It’s the betrayal of one’s own body. A deeper context within the mythology already exists to drive home a connection to Mulder’s work. The conspiracy has been laboring to master human evolution and create a being that can control its physical form to an infinite degree; cancer is the antithesis of this goal.

Mulder and Scully take their respective journeys in parallel, each coming closer to the truth as they walk in the darkness. Scully begins to remember her abduction experience, including Penny’s part in it, and it wears at her ability to deny. Mulder hits a similar wall, and finds himself faced with the ultimate Faustian bargain. He seeks the intervention of Cancer Man (a name that resonates with this particular role in the plot arc), but Skinner makes Mulder find another way.

Now halfway to the resolution of Samantha’s fate, Mulder has come to the point of placing Scully’s fate on par, if not above, that previous benchmark. Mulder has done this before, but never in such a fundamental way. Mulder has never gone to Cancer Man in full supplication, asking for the truth about his sister. In this instance, Mulder is willing to hand over his fate to his worst enemy. It’s still obvious from future events that Mulder places Samantha first and foremost, but Scully is now just as integral to his well-being as the hope of finding his sister has become.

Mulder’s decision is thematically an extension of his choice to confront Cancer Man in “One Breath”, so it makes perfect sense for the writers to tie Scully’s cancer back to her condition in that episode. Scully nearly died because her system was flooded with branched DNA following her abduction; the control chip in her neck made her survival possible. One would expect that the alterations to her body chemistry would remain; removing the control chip would prevent the nanotech within her system from repairing the resultant damage. Over time, the damage results in cancer and subsequently, the elimination of test subjects that learn too much about the experiments conducted on them.

This much is very clear, since the writers intentionally place Dr. Scanlon on the conspiracy’s payroll. Dr. Scanlon would be performing two functions for the conspiracy: increasing the knowledge of how the Phase I control chip and Phase II reproductive experiments impact the human body and eliminating the test subjects as they filter in for treatment.

The “cancer arc” doesn’t just give Mulder and Scully’s overall dynamic more depth; it also gives the writers a direction to go with Skinner. As Cancer Man points out, Skinner has strayed further and further to Mulder’s side of the very fine line. Skinner is now seen by Cancer Man as Mulder’s patron, and considering the fact that Cancer Man has certain expectations of Mulder for the future, having Skinner as an ally in controlling Mulder works to his advantage. Skinner, for his part, makes what will become a familiar move: sacrificing his own free will in the hopes of fostering Mulder’s own.

The writers drop a rather large set of answers on the audience, and while the presentation is clear, it’s also deceptive from the perspective of the mythology as a whole. As outlined in the review for “Herrenvolk”, the clones used by the conspiracy would have been recovered from the Roswell crash of 1947, put to work on the Phase II cloning/reproductive experiments based on their limited knowledge of the methods that led to their own creation. In reality, they are using the conspiracy to facilitate the goals of the so-called “Rebels”, the organic super-soldiers that are the desired endpoint of the Rebel power structure.

Protecting their “mothers” is not simply about rebelling against the conspiracy; it’s about ensuring that their own non-sanctioned experiments can continue to the intended goal for as long as possible. The more test subjects remain, the more the genetic engineering can continue. The Rebels are aware that the conspiracy, and particularly Cancer Man, has been hunting for women with the right genetic markers to create humanity’s foretold savior. The Rebels want the ability to work with that material, and that is jeopardized if the women are killed to cover up the conspiracy.

Not surprisingly, the Kurts know about Mulder and Scully. The vessel that crashed at Roswell was sent from the future intentionally, to take the necessarily measures to ensure the plans of the Rebels would come to fruition without interference. Part of the Rebel plan was using Cancer Man’s assumptions about Mulder, Scully, and the destined savoir as a smokescreen, so that the conspiracy would overlook the Rebels in their desire to acquire and control Mulder and Scully’s child.

As far as the Rebel leadership is concerned, Scully needs to survive and Mulder needs to gain access to her ova so that the “false savoir” child (William) can later be born, the result of Scully’s unwitting participation in the late stages of the conspiracy’s Phase II experiments, thanks to the re-implantation of the late-stage Phase I control chip in “Redux: Part II”. (William, of course, was ultimately the result of intervention by the “angelic” spiritual forces that aid Mulder and Scully towards their destined roles throughout the course of the series.) This is why the Kurts intentionally lead Mulder to their location, and aren’t surprised when he finds them. They are waiting for him, because they have always known that the moment would come.

The fact that Scully has been rendered barren pertains directly to her previous thoughts on children in “Home”. Not only is her cancer the legacy of her abduction experience, but she is now unable to have children at all. In every possible way, Scully finds her existence on the precipice. This is often seen as a somewhat misogynistic exercise on the part of the writing staff, but in the context of the fourth season, this is consistent. It’s easy to forget that Mulder stands to lose the one person that has kept his faith and earned his trust, the two things that remain important in his life. Both Mulder and Scully are faced with the prospect of losing everything that holds meaning to them.

Once aware of the true nature of Dr. Scanlon and the fact that the conspiracy was once again attempting to manipulate her fate, Scully reacts as one would expect: she resolves to fight them every step of the way, even if only through the life-affirming choice of working with Mulder until the end. And of course, she vows to do this through her work with Mulder, a choice that Mulder sees as satisfying both their needs. (All in keeping with Scully’s psychology as revealed in “Never Again”.)

This episode is perhaps the best example of an instance where the needs of the mythology and the desire to develop characters over time mesh together in a cohesive whole. Mulder is forced to recognize just how important Scully has become in his life, setting up a conflict between his long search for Samantha and his desire to hold on to Scully. Scully is forced to the edge of her own penchant for self-delusion by glaring evidence of experiments conducted on her by the conspiracy. Skinner is forced to compromise himself in the hopes of saving Scully’s life.

Even Cancer Man must come out of this situation in a difficult position. His control of the Syndicate has been precarious at best since “Paper Clip”, when his carefully laid plans began to fall apart. The conspiracy does not have the same information he does regarding Mulder’s future importance, and every time Mulder gets too close to the truth, the conspiracy has less reason to keep him alive. Much of what happens with Cancer Man during the rest of the “cancer arc” is related to his attempts to keep Mulder in line and preserve his control of the Project.

This episode is also a highlight for David and Gillian. By the fourth season, even David was aware of his reputation for playing Mulder with a dearth of expression; instead of denying it, he uses it in episodes like this, so that any overt expression of deep emotion is a sign of his psychological duress. Gillian has also made the most of the deeper context of the episodes this season, and this episode gives her the chance to prove her ability.

It was Carter’s intention, when he completed the final rewrite of the episode, to keep Mulder and Scully true to their previous characterizations, avoiding the easy road of taking them into a traditional relationship. The episode is better for it. To allow either one of them to pull down the barriers and commit to the other would ignore the fact that both of them are still working out some serious personal issues. There’s a reason why neither of them are ready to cross that line until the latter half of the seventh season, after all. That process is not always clear, because in the seasons to follow, less effort was made to explore the inner conflict of each character.

It’s also apparent that Morgan and Wong were part of the early discussions regarding the “cancer arc”. The structure of the fourth season is such that the context for this episode is provided in the first half of the season. Without that context, an episode like this would not have been as effective. By firmly establishing the evolving nature of Mulder and Scully’s relationship, Morgan and Wong made it possible to take the characters to the extremes seen at the end of the season.

Memorable Quotes

MULDER: “Scully…”
SCULLY: “What? I’m fine, Mulder. Quit staring at me, I’m fine!”

CANCER MAN: “For Agent Scully’s life? What would you offer?”
SKINNER: “What’ll it take?”
CANCER MAN: “Well, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Oh, Mr. Skinner…which way is the elevator?”

MULDER: “The truth will save you, Scully. I think it’ll save both of us.”

SKINNER: “There’s always another way.”
CANCER MAN: “Yes, I believe there is...if you’re willing to pay the price…”

Final Analysis

Overall, this episode is one of the best of the season and easily one of the best mythology episodes of the series. David and Gillian give some of the strongest performances of their careers as each character is taken to the edge of their own principles. The mythology elements, rather than adding confusion, actually pull lingering plot threads closer together. This is perhaps the highlight of the fourth season.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 4/4

Final Rating: 10/10

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