The X-Files: "Memento Mori"/ Millennium: "The Thin White Line"
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The X-Files: "Memento Mori"/ Millennium: "The Thin White Line"

“Memento Mori” (season 4, episode 14)

In which Scully has cancer, and Mulder thinks it’s caused by aliens.

I have an atheist friend who believes in Heaven.

Well, not exactly. He doesn’t believe in floaty clouds and angels playing harps or anything like that. Nor does he believe in anything like reincarnation or another life on this Earth. He cheekily calls the idea “atheist Heaven” because it’s a way to live again without actually having to believe in some grand force tugging the cosmos around beyond the normal old forces of the physical universe. Billions upon billions of years from now, the long process that began when the Big Bang turned an infinitesimal ball of matter into the whole, wide universe will end, and everything will start pulling back together. Stars will collapse into each other, planets will be burnt to dust, and everything that is will end, drawn back into the tiny place it all began. And then there will simply be nothing. An endless expanse of colorless, shapeless impossibilities, the only thing existing in it being something too small to see with the naked eye, yet something that somehow contains everything.

And then it will start all over again. The pressure of that tiny object will cause it to explode yet again, spitting forth everything that ever was or ever will be all over again. Stars and black holes and planets and France and aliens and donuts and sandstone and palm trees and giraffes will all pop into existence again. Some versions of the universe will be completely different. Some will have slight differences—I’ll have black hair here, you’ll be a super-intelligent cat there—but there will be some that are exactly the same, or the same with minor changes. And since time is infinite, we’ve done all of this before. I’ve written these words before, you’ve written that comment where you say, “This is ridiculous! Talk about The X-Files!” before, and Zack Handlen has read this and rolled his eyes and said, “I coulda done it better” before. 

My friend admits that all of this isn’t terribly likely. It’s only one possible interpretation of how the universe could end and begin all over again, and it’s one of the less likely ones. But it’s the one he chooses to believe in, because he used to be a diehard fundamentalist, and he likes to have SOMEthing to think about as the end approaches, even if it’s just the prospect of doing all of this all over again, making the same mistakes and celebrating the same successes. Ultimately, the idea that animates faith, that animates most belief, is the idea that death can’t just be it. For some people, that’s fine. The idea that this is the only shot we get is enough to get them up off the couch and making their lives better for themselves and those around them. But for most of us, death is a gaping canyon that swallows everything we had hoped to be, no matter how long it takes for it to take us. The only certainty is that every single one of us will die, no matter how much we hope it might not happen. (Also, Happy New Year!)

The twin impulses that animate “Memento Mori” seem at cross-purposes on a casual watch. Dana Scully is ill with cancer. She is going to die. There’s treatment, but the hope it will work is slim at best, and the doctor who thinks he can treat her turns out to not have her best interests in mind. There is no way out of this for her. At the same time, she’s a television character. She’s one of two regulars on a TV show that would be deeply harmed by either of the regulars being written out of the show. So she can’t die. As Clyde Bruckman said, Scully is more or less immortal, as she’s a fictional character who’s integral to the success of the story she’s a part of. We know that she will come out of this, perhaps a better and wiser person but still a LIVING person. It might change her on some level. She might really ail and struggle with the disease and get to do all sorts of Emmy-baiting things. But she will undoubtedly live. And since it seems her cancer was caused by the implant that was placed in her head when she was abducted and then later removed, it seems likely that someone within the conspiracy knows how to make her cancer get all better. It also seems likely that person will be the Cigarette Smoking Man, since he’s so plugged in and all.

Watching this episode again, this famous, Emmy-winning episode that routinely lands in top 10 fan episode lists and has been hailed by several of the series’ writers as one of the best mythology episodes they ever did, I was shocked by just how little these two ideas seem to work with each other. On the one hand, you have Scully starkly confronting her mortality, the fact that she will die sooner rather than later and deciding at the end of the line, what she wants to die doing is the work, the work that has come to define her life. On the other hand, you have Mulder wandering the eastern half of the United States, trying to find the answers he needs, the one key that will unlock the question of just how Scully will get better and get back to working at his side. And that’s not to mention Skinner cutting a devil’s deal with the Cigarette Smoking Man. It’s an occasionally beautiful, occasionally haunting, often overwritten story about one woman confronting what her life has come to mean with an action-packed, propulsive mythology episode that advances the human-alien hybrid plot and fills in a few key puzzle pieces (for once!) clumsily grafted on to it. Coming right after the moving, self-assured “Never Again,” an episode that does pretty much the same thing but mostly leaves Mulder out of it (as it rightly should), it seems even more ridiculous.

But then I started thinking about my atheist friend and atheist heaven. And I started thinking about faith and the reasons we cling to it, even when reason keeps battering at the doors we use to close it off from the rest of our brains. Scully is facing the end of her life, and she has nothing. What does she do? She tries to help a fellow woman suffering from the same kind of cancer. She writes a lengthy, perhaps intentionally pretentious message to Mulder in her diary. She finds another doctor who might be able to treat her. When all else fails, she returns to the mission, to the work that is now her life’s work as well, even though it was given to her by a long succession of men and not actively chosen by her. This is the moment when the X-Files definitively become her mission as well. The answer to what gave her cancer just might be in there somewhere. She has to have faith.

And here’s what I finally got: This is what Mulder’s doing too. Mulder’s not a believer in God. He’s a believer in the conspiracy, in the notion that a group of men in shadowy rooms are dictating the terms of the playing field he’s scrambling around on. When Scully gets sick, it makes Mulder feel powerless. Death makes all of us feel powerless, on some level, and he figures that to beat death, to cheat death, really, he’s going to need to get out there on the field and start fucking the conspiracy’s shit up. This is exactly what he does, of course, finding out about Betsy Hagopian’s death and the man trying to download the information she had on her MUFON network computer, then tracing that information to a strange medical facility (government-owned!) that ostensibly works to help women with fertility problems but is actually a front for the human-alien hybrid program, containing frozen ova from abducted women and a facility that’s growing … more versions of Mulder’s new MUFON friend, who turns out to be the grown version of the little boy from “Herrenvolk.” (See! It was easy to believe the pieces might come together at this point!) The mythology has, again, been stripped down to a very human complication: How are we going to get Scully better? And, as always, having that human story at the center gives everything the drive that it needs. The sequence with Mulder and the Lone Gunmen raiding the medical facility is legitimately thrilling on a number of levels.

The episode could turn terrible so, so easily. The storyline, as mentioned, feels like two episodes stuck together, when handling each separately might have worked better. (Making this a “Never Again”-esque character study and following it up with an episode about Mulder’s investigation, effectively turning “Memento Mori” into a two-parter, might have worked slightly better, structurally speaking.) Scully’s narration is the purplest of purple prose, and the way it keeps popping up, sounding like something a really pretentious kid writes in the high school yearbooks of his really pretentious friends, always jars. It’s all one can do to remain engaged with the episode when that narration rears its head again and again and again. The episode has the best writer on the series for dealing with the human side of these stories, Vince Gilligan, working on it, but every time it gets down into the nitty, gritty details of the human cost of Scully’s work, it shifts off to something else entirely. There are beautiful, understated moments here, like Mulder not being able to tell Scully what happened to all of those women she met last season or Scully trying to sit with Perry as she slowly slips away or the fragile look on her face as she restates her dedication to the cause at the end, but they almost get swallowed up by the action-heavy, mythology stuff that’s also going on.

And yet they don’t, not quite. And that’s because Gillian Anderson, who won an Emmy for her work in this episode, even though she’s not on screen nearly as much as you’d expect for it being HER STORY, and David Duchovny play absolutely everything in this episode like raw nerves. Both Scully’s desperation and the way she tries to bury it deep within herself, only to have it emerge at unlikely moments, are written all over Anderson’s face. And I expected that. She won the Emmy, after all, and this was one of the highpoints for both the Scully character and Anderson’s work as her. What I had forgotten was how drop-dead terrific Duchovny is here, as Mulder’s jokes stop being able to cheer Scully up and he realizes that there’s no way out of the predicament the two are in, that he’s going to lose his best friend, the woman he’s more attached to than anyone on Earth, the arguable love of his life. (Honestly, I wonder how much of this episode’s reputation stems from how forthright it is about how much Scully means to Mulder. The fans love that sort of thing.) Duchovny plays all of this as a man who’s simply unable to fathom that any of this is happening and, thus, plunges himself neck-deep into the one thing he believes in. The actors make up for any amount of purple narration or howlingly terrible dialogue. (The truth is in Scully? Groan.)

Or maybe it all works because, on some level, the notion that every single one of us will die and none of us quite knows what to do with that is at the very most basic level of this script, not just in the title (which translates to, more or less, “remember that you will die”). Chris Carter’s shows have always been terrified of the notion that, no matter how much you can possibly understand the secret workings of the world, no matter how much you can make sense of the senseless, you can’t make sense of death, not without doing some mental gymnastics and inventing a place to go once it’s all over, be that place a city in the sky or this world, the world as you know it with potholes and grocery stores and pudding cups and your next-door neighbor’s mail in your mailbox and the sound of rain on a Sunday morning, all over again.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Mark Snow’s score is omnipresent in this episode and could be overpowering, but somehow, it’s not. There’s a lot of beautiful music here, and it’s mostly used well.
  • The episode also somehow won an Emmy for art direction, and the script for it was nominated for an Emmy as well. 
  • It’s fun to play around with ideas of just who wrote what in this one. Frank Spotnitz obviously did the greater mythology plotting stuff, while the narration is all Carter, but it’s harder to slot John Shiban and Gilligan into the pattern.
  • Or maybe that’s because this episode was written over a weekend when Darin Morgan dropped out of doing an episode for the fourth season. It’s amazing that one of the most famous episodes in the history of the series was pretty much done as quickly as possible to get the crew something to prep before Christmas break. (I assume the show would have just done this episode slightly later in the season instead, since the Scully cancer arc was in place from the earliest days of planning the season, but that it was thrown together so quickly is a tribute to just how strong the material was in general.)
  • This episode is very well directed by Rob Bowman. In particular, I loved the indistinct blurs of color that gradually resolve into that image of Scully looking at her X-ray at the very start.
  • "Pick out something black and sexy and prepare to do some funky poaching."

“The Thin White Line” (season 1, episode 14)

In which Frank Black gets something of an origin myth and people tell a serial killer just how much they want it.

One of those things I believe that sounds heretical to people when I first say it is that TV drama doesn’t need especially good dialogue. Sure, it’s definitely a plus if you have an Aaron Sorkin or a Joss Whedon crafting clever bon mots on the edges of the show, but, ideally, that’s just gravy. The real success of an episode of TV drama stems from the structure, from the story underneath the dialogue that’s propelling us toward a foregone conclusion, toward a plot end or a thematic development or a character moment that will let us see everything in a new light. And if you have a good structure, all of the howlers in the world in terms of dialogue won’t ultimately matter. The audience will be hungry to know what happens next, and they’ll overlook so much more if the story is interesting. Exhibit A? TV’s The Walking Dead. The characters were weak, and the dialogue was hilariously bad at times, but the underlying structure of most of the episodes and the season itself was solid. You were always sure where you were and what you were heading to, and the show’s writers did a very good job of laying out why all of it mattered. And that’s why the show became a huge sensation. (Well, the zombies helped, too.) But, hey, the two biggest movies of all time, Avatar and Titanic, have abysmal dialogue but structures so rock-solid they kept people coming back for more, so don’t take my word for it.

Here’s another example: Millennium’s 14th episode of its first season, “The Thin White Line.” There are so, so many terrible lines in this episode—I’m thinking, in particular, of the imprisoned killer’s big speech about how he ate Frank’s fear like a Thanksgiving dinner—but the episode answers questions we’re curious about, introduces not one but two intriguing new villains, and always gives us the structural footholds we need to make sure we’re on the way to whatever’s next. It’s not the greatest script Glen Morgan and James Wong ever did. Indeed, it embraces many of their worst faults on some levels, as well as many of the worst faults of the show it’s a part of. But the thing MOVES, and when an episode rolls by as quickly as this one does, all sorts of objections get washed away by the momentum.

I agree with Zack that last week’s “Force Majeure” was a big step up for the show, and this one continues that step up. For starters, everything’s unafraid to be unapologetically weird. The cold open, where a man knocks on a pretty woman’s door and then is told by her that she’s ready to be a sacrifice, is just off-kilter enough that it instantly makes you wonder just what’s going on, even as it’s pretty obvious that what we’re seeing is unadulterated serial killer vision. Morgan and Wong return to this idea throughout, and every time, it packs a certain amount of intrigue. Indeed, a number of ideas Morgan and Wong come up with are winners, including the idea that criminal Richard Alan Hance is going slowly even more insane from hearing the hum of the fluorescent lights in his isolated cell (and then boosting the sound of the hum on the soundtrack) or the lengthy flashbacks to when Frank put Hance away, the villain stalking through an abandoned warehouse decked out in camouflage face paint. It’s a creepy image, made creepier by how it’s employed all at once and as our first introduction to Hance (since the man carrying out the new murders is carrying them out on his behalf).

If there’s an idea I don’t like in the episode, it’s the idea that Hance somehow corrupted Jacob Tyler by becoming his lover. It’s initially introduced like another of the show’s weird forays into sexual conservatism, and though Morgan and Wong try to put it over by selling the idea of the love between the two (and the actor manages to sell it, mostly), it’s still a pretty weird and offputting idea, tied into the series’ strange ideas of what’s meant to be “normal.” I’d have rather had the episode simply suggest that Hance helped Tyler tune into the secret frequencies of the world, the frequencies where people are just asking to be sacrificed and where the hunters must eventually be hunted. It’s not a fatal flaw, and the episode covers for it pretty well, but it does get some of this material off on the wrong foot.

Nearly everything else, though, outside of the dialogue and that little story quirk? It works, and it works extremely well. I like the way the episode is always letting us know exactly what we need to know, exactly when we need to know it. We’re not getting overwhelmed with information about Hance or his m.o. until we absolutely need it. What we get from the start is that weird scene between Tyler and the pretty woman, then Frank stumbling onto the case (somewhat improbably, admittedly) at the hospital, then Frank rubbing the scar on his hand that matches the scar on the hand of the woman. We don’t hear about Hance for a good long while, not until we’re really ready, and we don’t hear about how he kills in pairs and tosses the cards down near the bodies until we’re similarly ready. We discover the facts of the case at the same time as the officers and Frank, who moves like a man possessed because he doesn’t want to believe his own worst fears.

And yet the episode leaves us a certain amount of our own room to come to our own conclusions. When we see Hance for the first time, he’s clearly not the man who killed the pretty woman or the store owner. Is he a copycat somehow? That seems unlikely, because we’ve seen just how crazy he is and just how much he seems to have been warped by Hance’s view of the world. Is Hance controlling this man from the confines of a prison cell? Have we stumbled into a show that’s much more like The X-Files than it seemed to be at first blush? And when we finally meet Hance, when we finally begin to learn all about the evils he’s capable of, the show then takes great pains to humanize him. The first image we get of him, beating at the metal on the top of his cell, is a great one, and when we learn about his battle against the lights, he becomes almost poignant. (The scene where Frank interrogates Hance all by himself in the small room, Hance’s hands uncuffed, is a great one, structurally speaking. Despite a few dialogue problems, it works pretty well on that level, too, though I love pretty much any scene where both characters are having essentially different conversations.)

But I also like the way this episode suggests more thoroughly that Frank’s powers have their roots in something a bit more mystical. Is Hance’s little monologue to him about fear and seeing what he sees supposed to be the first time Frank does something like this? I don’t think we’re meant to think so, but it’s also clearly something that really throws the young cop, something that sets him on the path toward becoming the Frank he is today. Plus, when he has a vision of what Tyler is hearing from his victims, it’s the sort of thing he’d have no way of knowing unless he was psychic or something similar. All of this presages the weirder direction Morgan and Wong took the show in season two, while still staying roughly consistent with the first season’s more realistic focus. I get why Morgan and Wong felt the need to take the show in a wildly different direction in the next season, but a part of me feels like this episode might have made an even better template for them to follow. It kind of has the best of both worlds.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Seriously, top-notch sound work on the scene with the fluorescent hum. I like the way it becomes an annoyance to the viewer as well, so when it turns off at the very end, it’s as much a relief to us as it is to Hance.
  • One thing this episode doesn’t figure out: how to use Catherine beyond just having her drop in to tell Frank he’s a good guy. At least the two chastely kiss. 
  • Bletch continues to be kind of a nothing character. We know very little about him that we didn’t know the first time we met him, and Bill Smitrovich deserves better.
  • There are some pretty awful music cues in this one. Mark Snow fell a little too in love with the weird electronic burbles this season.
  • With that, happy new year, everybody! TV Club’s still on a reduced schedule for the weekend, but we’ll be back with all kinds of stuff come Monday. We’ve got great plans for 2011, and we thank you for your readership.

Next week: Zack watches Scully get back to work on “Kaddish,” then sees the Millennium mythology deepen on “Sacrament.”

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