1 February 2018

The X-Files: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat (Spoiler Review)

"The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" is the fourth episode of the eleventh season of The X-Files. Written and directed by Darin Morgan, it’s the first comedy of this season, and in a typical Darin Morgan fashion, it's deep, existential, and very, very funny.

The episode centers around Reggie Something, a mysterious man who reaches out to Scully and Mulder claiming that he was once part of the X-files, and that the three of them used to be partners. The reason the agents don't remember any of it is because their memories have been tampered with by the mysterious Doctor They. Reggie claims that this Cold War scientist is behind the so-called Mandela Effect, and is responsible for people remembering certain parts of history wrong. But now that Reggie has uncovered this conspiracy, They has retaliated by erasing everyone's memories of Reggie, making him a walking example of the Mandela Effect. His proof? The first episode of The Twilight Zone that Mulder ever saw, that doesn’t actually exist.

After doing some research, Scully finds out that Reggie is a disgruntled NSA operative who has been wiretapping Scully and Mulder's phones and eavesdropping on their private conversations. In his fragile and disillusioned state, Reggie has convinced himself that he was once an important part of a team of special agents who have devoted their lives to finding the Truth and fighting evil. And the lost Twilight Zone episode? Turns out, it was an episode of a different show and Mulder just got those two mixed up.

During the show's original run, Morgan wrote four episodes, three of which were comedies. These episodes are some of the best in the whole  show, and "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" - Morgan's only dramatic episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. It has become somewhat of a fad to say that Darin Morgan episodes are great, which they are. But given how there has been a certain backlash against his two latest creations, "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" and "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster", I feel that we need to have a conversation about what it is that makes Morgan's stories stand out in the X-Files lore.

Because Morgan has written mostly comedies, it's easy to say that it's the humour that makes his episodes so different from the more serious and scary ones. But while humour is an essential component of these episodes, it's certainly not all there is. Morgan's approach has always been to subvert the X-Files formula and to deconstruct the characters.

"Mulder at the beginning was cast as a kind of mythological hero on a quest for the truth, but I noticed things that made him rather foolish, and we all started having fun pointing out Mulder’s flaws. I think that actually deepened his character and saved him from being a cartoon guy on a vision quest. You understand that he is trying to find his sister and fighting the powers that be, yet he is still human and does a lot of stupid things. And then Scully—you could make fun of her because she hung around Mulder for so long." (Morgan to Entertainment Weekly)

The prime example of Morgan's love for subversion is "Jose Chung's From Outer Space", in which we follow the recounts of various unreliable narrators. It's an episode that pokes fun at the alien abduction trope which is basically the show's calling card, and does it in a way that is consistent with the atmosphere and philosophy of The X-Files.

"The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" is very reminiscent of that episode in that it too satirizes popular urban legends and employs the unreliable narrator trope. Here, it's the Mandela Effect that is being satirized. The Mandela Effect is the term for when large groups of people remember something - a historical event, or a physical detail incorrectly. The term refers to the fact that many people remember Nelson Mandela dying in the 1980's when he, in fact, died in 2013.

Reggie - himself a parody of an internet conspiracy theorist is convinced that the Mandela Effect is a result of the government's attempt to manipulate people's memories. We have been here before. In my review of "My Struggle III", I touched on the notion that the truth is defined by people with a specific agenda and the means to enforce this agenda. On The X-Files, the powers that be (be it the government or the aliens) have always tampered with their victims' memories. In this parody, the malevolent and omnipotent "they" have taken the shape of a whimsical Cold War scientist.

In the season four episode, "Demons", Mulder underwent hypnotherapy to help him remember the night his sister was abducted and may have had false memories implanted in his head. This, and many other instances show that memory is not a reliable source of information for our heroes. Nor is it one in real life. As Dr. David Ludden of Psychology Todays puts it:

"We’d like to think of memory as a record of our past. However, record-keeping isn’t part of our memory’s job description. Instead, it’s charged with helping us predict the future to guide behavior, and to this end it selectively stores bits and pieces of our experience that might come in handy. Our memories simply aren’t concerned with historical accuracy, and any bits of information acquired later that may help with future predictions get woven into the fabric of memory as though they’d always been there."

The truth is that our memories, however vivid, are always coloured by our emotions. This is illustrated cleverly in a hilarious shot of an eight-year-old Mulder watching that lost episode of the (not) Twilight Zone with Duchovny's head CGI:d on the child actor's body. It's not the eight-year-old Mulder that is remembering that event, but the man he's grown up to be. 

The Mandela Effect as a concept seems to be tailor made for a show like The X-Files. But this episode isn't (just) about the Mandela Effect. Rather, Morgan utilizes one of the most popular internet conspiracy theories to comment on things like Trump administration’s relationship with the news media, and how Internet shapes our perception of reality. Whether or not there is one objective reality, people still believe what they want to believe. The truth may very well be out there, but what's the point of looking for it if people won't believe you anyway?

When Mulder finally meets the mysterious Doctor They (whoever he is), the two of them have a conversation that informs the purpose of this episode. The cynical scientist says that there is no need for the government (or any agent) to try and cover up their secrets, because nobody cares anymore. He calls Mulder obsolete. Mulder has dedicated his life to uncover conspiracies, and we have now reached a time when people don't care if the conspiracies get uncovered. What exactly is the "truth"? And does it matter?

Is Doctor They right? Has our Internet culture with its Wikileaks, its "alternative facts", and the oversaturation of half-assed conspiracy theories, in fact rendered Mulder's work irrelevant? Is Mulder a post-modern Don Quixote, out on a quest nobody is interested in?

When The X-Files returned to the small screen in 2016, there was this idea that the show had to prove itself and convince us that the revival wasn't just a way to capitalize on the nostalgia. That there were more stories to tell, and that the characters still had something to say about life, the Universe, and everything. In an interview with Den of Geek, when asked if he was inspired by the fans' mixed reactions to season ten, Morgan said:

"More the thing was you get criticism when you bring something back and people say “why?” or “let it rest.” I thought for this episode at least, the current political climate gave it a reason for doing this episode. It wasn’t just an act of pure nostalgia."

We saw in season ten the first careful steps towards that social commentary and satire. This season, the writers aren’t pulling any punches, showing that their characters do have something to say about the world they still live in.

"The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" is the most meta, self-parodying, self-deconstructing episode of The X-Files since "Hollywood A.D." (written by David Duchovny). This is satire at its best. I read a few interviews with Darin Morgan, and my takeaway is that he doesn't want to pander to the fandom, he just wants to tell the stories he thinks are important to the show, to deconstruct the characters and to look at them from different perspectives.

I know some fans hated this episode (just like they hated the "Were-Monster") with the motivation that The X-Files "didn’t use to have comedies". A curious statement given how some of the most well-received episodes in the original show were comedies.

The tonal shifts between a dark and gory episode like say, "Home Again", and a laugh out loud comedy like the “Were-Monster” doesn't break the overall tonal continuity of the show. Real life isn't just drama, or just comedy. It's both. Even some of the darkest X-Files have had bits of comedy woven throughout, mostly by the virtue of Mulder's dry humour, and the skeptic/believer routine that he and Scully do. The comedy in a show as dark and violent as The X-Files helps it to not drown in its self-seriousness.

And in the case of the stories written by Darin Morgan or David Duchovny, the humour is employed to tell something more about the characters and discuss pretty heavy themes without getting too preachy or heavy-handed. "Hollywood A.D." is a hilarious and fluffy piece of fan service on Duchovny's part, but it also gives us a chance to think about how we will be remembered after we die, and the legacy we leave behind. How will Mulder and Scully be remembered after the horrible campy movie that A.D. Skinner co-produced?

Which brings us back to the "Forehead Sweat", and the ending which gave me the biggest case of the feels this season. The last two scenes are basically the creators talking directly to the fans. It’s a thank you and a goodbye. This kind of (almost) fourth wall breaking is only possible in an episode as meta as this one. An episode that for all intents and purposes may not have taken place. This whole story could have been one of Reggie's fantasies. No matter how this season will end, I consider "Forehead Sweat" to be the show's "emotional finale". It's that proper sendoff that we didn't get when the show was first cancelled in 2002.

This review is already turning out way longer than expected, and I haven't even begun listing all the Easter eggs and homages woven throughout this episode. Like the orderlies taking Reggie to Spotnitz Sanitarium - a nod Frank Spotnitz, one of the show's old producers; or a guest appearance by actor Bill Dow, who had a recurring part in the original show. One of my favourite parts of this episode is the homage to The Twilight Zone, and classic sci fi television in general.  

This may be one of the most ambitious episodes of The X-Files to date. It just has so much to say about politics, Internet culture, and about the show itself. And I have to praise Morgan for once again giving us an episode that delivers. And it’s refreshing to see an X-File that doesn’t have a paranormal explanation for once.

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