There is an exchange in “Memento Mori,” the fourteenth episode of the fourth season of the X-Files, in which Dana Scully – FBI agent, medical doctor, redoubtable skeptic, possible alien abductee, conflicted Catholic, survivor of hundreds of losses and tragedies – breaks the news of her recently diagnosed cancer to her partner Fox Mulder by saying,
Scully: “It’s what’s called a nasopharyngeal mass. It’s a small growth on the wall between the superior concha and sphenoidal sinus.”
Mulder: “A growth?”
Scully: “A tumor. You’re the only one I’ve called.”
Mulder: “Okay. Is it operable?”
Mulder: “But it’s treatable?”
Scully: “The truth is that the type and placement of the tumor make it difficult to the extreme.”
She is not holding back tears, though she looks cried out. Her eyes are glass, her words recondite, her heart distant.
The X-Files took an unconscionable time – over four years – to perfect one of it’s two leads. Maybe it was something endemic to the show, or – more likely – Scully’s development was the product of overwhelmingly male TV writers. After four seasons, she was in character limbo, embodying whatever stereotype was convenient for the moment: the impressed neophyte, or the adversarial foil, the bemused mother and wife. Throughout it she was so consistently attacked, abducted, abused, quasi-raped and stricken that it’s a wonder she doesn’t have some serious PTSD shit. For all of it, she was a plot point, even with the half the majority of the show’s screen-time.
Mulder: “It’s aliens, why can’t you see it? Why can’t you believe?”
Scully: “Aliens aren’t science. It’s obviously Waxman-Geschwind syndrome/delusional parasitosis/unruly youths. Don’t be silly.”
The phlegmatic, inscrutably scientific Scully versus Mulder’s boyish idealism makes up the show’s classic dynamic. Half way through the series, though, as “Memento Mori” occurs, the joke had begun to sour. But this exchange in a soulless hospital room, illuminated by the white fluorescence of x-ray light boxes, is so startling: the regular premise is laid out, but the punchline is subverted. The joke ended up not being a joke at all. The violation, in a flash, became infinitely less benign.
Scully was antagonistically scrupulous, and nothing of her was left for audience to engage with outside of the patchwork characteristics with which dummy writers stereotyped her. Unexpectedly, those characteristics were Frankensteined to life by this lightning moment, and what climbed off the table afterward was Chris Carter’s conflicted spiritualist, Frank Spotnitz’s shrewish skeptic, John Shiban’s humoring mother, and Vince Gilligan’s metatextual foil: a woman aware of her contradictions, who feels marginalized by her male partner but also keenly interested in his success. In this dire moment, viewers are faced for the first time not with a two-dimensional character but the human being.
Because of who Scully has developed into, the risk of a well-tread storyline like terminally illness became the most genuinely affecting moment of the series. Perfection is a wispy and labile concept, hard to grasp and harder to engineer. But this moment was completely unexpected and totally necessary. In an instant, Scully’s history was retconned: facile moments became profound revelations, the show’s central relationship had tangible poignancy; it vouchsafed emotional justification on past decisions and emotional heft to past conversations.
Carter and Gilligan are two of the best working television writers. At it’s best, the X-Files’ potency was only peripherally related to aliens and magical bullshit. The nature of discernment, doubt, chaos and uncertainty was the show’s real concern – how through belief, in conspiracies or in God or in others, fear can be transcended. For a series about belief and doubt, at first the X-Files left little space for its audience to do either. The normal rhythm of an episode set up Mulder as believing something unbelievable, Scully disputing it, and the audience knowing that Mulder was right the whole time. How can an audience care about a character who is plainly and demonstrably wrongheaded each episode? Or a character is righteously right each episode? How can there be any real bond between characters who are not people but parts of the plot?
Only with the honest, flawed, and intricate emotional core that Scully gained in that exchange could the X-Files achieve that strange conflation of spiritualism and science that made the show successful. Letting her beliefs be ill-defined and human instead of reducing them to doctrine allowed the space for a single, convergent, and cooperative ideology to emerge. All things are equally likely to be true, yet not all things equally are. When it straddled the gulf between adventuresome science and cautious spirituality, the X-Files was beautiful.
Life is uncertain, inconsistent, chaotic and unpredictable. There are just too many unknowns – whether due to the sheer number of physical catalysts or the depth of intricacies inherent in occurrences – to be fully understood. What the X-Files recognized in this moment is that that’s not bad. It ran toward the uncertainty, not away from it. Love blossoms from the complex, not the simple. Two known quantities, when multiplied together, produce the same quotient every time. If those quantities fluctuate, if they’re liable to change at a whim, if their extent is too poorly understood – who knows what magnificent or terrible thing they’ll create? So, trash the cryptozoological malarky. The X-Fil’s epitaph should read as follows:
Fictional or actual, people are alloys. Contamination is strength.