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.
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.
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
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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?
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?
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
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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
Labels: science fiction, TV, X-files, X-files season 11