The X-Files S11E04 Recap: 'The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat'

In some parallel universe, one identical or maybe nearly identical to ours, Darin Morgan is the one showrunning the later seasons of The X-Files, not Chris Carter. Every episode is like ”Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” and last night’s tremendous ”The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, and we don’t have to worry about an out-of-touch, disorganized writer/director ruining something we all hold so dear. Morgan’s version of the show is meta, self-aware, adapted to the present-day, post-post-truth-and-fact reality of the trump era. It’s relevant, it has something to say, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously because it knows that in this world, where everyone and their uncle has watched Youtube videos about conspiracy theories, a show about the one dude who holds the key to all the answers just doesn’t work anymore.

In “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, the younger Morgan brother attempts to show us what his updated version of The X-Files would look like, after Carter himself made (and arguably fumbled) some similar attempts with more serious episodes earlier in the seasons. The episode attempts to paint Fox Mulder in a completely new light (finishing the job that “Were-Monster” started), to redefine what a conspiracy means for this world in 2018, and it does both of these things with a panache and flair that is desperately needed on The X-Files, even if many might argue that the campier, hokier episodes of the show were never their favourites.

Personally, I think any current or future version of The X-Files needs to be exactly this. It needs to be funny, it can’t take itself too seriously, and it needs to acknowledge that, after over 200 episodes and 11 seasons, there is no path forward with the continuity that makes any semblance of sense, so why not have as much fun with the format as possible while David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are still game for it?

In “Forehead Sweat”, Mulder and Scully are confronted with the possibility that their reality, their memories, have been altered by some sort of outside force, scrubbed of the existence of one Reggie “Something” (later revealed to be named “Reggie Murgatroyd”), a man who claims to be a third original partner on the X-Files, Mulder’s partner from even before Scully arrived on the scene. Reggie recounts a history where he was always with Mulder and Scully throughout their entire saga, through a montage that inserts the character (played by the pitch-perfect Brian Huskey in what could go down as an all-time great single-episode character for the show) into well-known scenes from the show’s run. Reggie claims that he’s stumbled onto a conspiracy to end all conspiracies, a wide-reaching cover-up that alters people’s memories on the whims of whoever is willing to pay up.

When confronted with the idea of who might be behind such a conspiracy, Reggie namedrops a “Dr. They” (portrayed brilliantly by the legendary Stuart Margolin), a government brain scientist who developed memory-altering technology, which Reggie claims he discovered while working on the island of Grenada, where Dr. They was covering up an alien conspiracy.

Tying all of this up is the idea of the Mingle Effect Mandela Effect, a well-known meme/phenomenon where large swathes of people experience false memories, where they recall something differently than what is true. Some famous examples including the spelling of The Berenstain Bears, confusing the 1996 Shaq genie movie Kazaam with a nonexistent Sinbad movie called “Shazaam”, and the titular case of Nelson Mandela, who many believe died in prison in the 80s and not in 2013. All of these and more are mentioned in the show, and the meme is the perfect subject for a current version of The X-Files to tackle. Not only that, but it’s tied into the trump post-truth realities of today so perfectly that it actually made me giddy while watching the episode.

There’s a nauseating, confusing whirlwind that comes with this episode. Its face value conclusion is that Reggie is actually a crazy person; a burned out government employee who had a nervous breakdown and created a false reality for himself where he was part of Mulder and Scully’s adventures, based on illegal surveillance he did while at the NSA. But there are a few wrenches thrown into those works. First, Skinner recognizes Reggie after he’s taken away, implying that, in some capacity, he did spend time working for the FBI. Second, Mulder actually meets the famous Dr. They, who shames Mulder for never uncovering his conspiracies and reveling in how he’s been hiding in plain sight and how this new post-truth reality suits the whims of people like him.

Like any good X-Files episode, it leaves things up to interpretation. Maybe there’s an aura of truth to the insanity that Reggie is spewing. Maybe he actually is just a crazy person who happened to stumble on a few nuggets of information, and confused Skinner by hanging out around the office for a few weeks. We’ll never actually know. But the true merit of this episode isn’t the possibility that this show’s reality has been retroactively modified, or that it’s somehow become tangled with some parallel dimension. It’s the meta-narrative of what it has to say about the show, and how it twists the concept so a guy like Fox Mulder can exist in a world where people like that don’t really exist anymore, and where people more out there than he ever was have nationally syndicated radio shows.

“Forehead Sweat”, along with “Were-Monster”, are the mid-life existential crises of an aging FBI agent and the aging writers that are trying to keep him relevant. They publicly posit the question of whether or not any of this matters anymore, they tongue-in-cheekily have something to say about the current state of affairs in the United States, and they do it with a style that most other writers only wish they could pull off. “Forehead Sweat” is a visually stunning episode with perfect set choices, hilarious montages and flashbacks, and more one-liners than you can shake a stick at. The weird statues in the park where Mulder meets Dr. They, the props in the store that Reggie visits, the adult Mulder head on the kid’s body, the knock-off Twilight Zone episode, it’s all just so great, and so delightful at a time where it’s truly unclear whether this show has these kinds of episodes left in the tank.

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is a perfect episode of nu-X-Files, and it gets 10 Cryptozoological simian-like humanoids with enormous feet out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • Candidate for TV moment of the year is Reggie talking about companies that pay to have their shoddy products scrubbed from existence and it cutting out after he starts saying a company that starts with a G.
  • Another is that alien talking about building a wall/keeping rapists out/says “bing! Bing! Bong!”
  • The immediate rejection of parallel universes is also pretty great when you consider that Darin Morgan consulted on Fringe
  • The first time we see Mulder in this episode, he’s a gillie suit and off the grid all day because he was “squatchin’, just to get away from the madness.” Scully tells him over the phone, “I think you just like saying squatchin’.”
  • Mulder: “Did I ever tell you about the time I found a Sasquatch print? It was 35 years ago in the banks of the Mogoagogo river in beautiful British Columbia...”
  • Mulder: “Confuse the twilight zone with the outer limits? Do you even know me!?”
  • Mulder on Jell-O: “When it cools it forms three different layers with three different textures all from the same mix? How has this never been an X-File?”
  • Mulder: “That’s some Jell-O.”
  • Scully/Mulder: “But what if I don’t remember either movie?” “You win!”
  • Reggie: “See? You’re having a Mingle Effect about the Mandela Effect.”
  • Reggie: “We’re not gonna do this parallel universe sci fi gobbledygook, nerdboy, so just drop it.”
  • Reggie: “Move along sugar boobs. This is the x files. No women allowed.”
  • ”Guys, if this turns out to be killer cats, I’m going to be very disappointed.”