The X-Files S11E04 “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”
Director: Darin Morgan
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi
Writer: Darin Morgan
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
I want to remember how it was.
I knew this was an episode written by Darin Morgan. There were high expectations and expected it to be very good. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” still blew those expectations out of the water.
Darin Morgan wrote four scripts for the original series — with a story credit on a fifth — and one script for the first revival season. If I made a list of the top 10 episodes of The X-Files (which I might don’t tempt me) at least two of them would make it and they would all make my top 20. Morgan’s stories twist the series norms so much that they almost break. He ends up illuminating what makes the series special while simultaneously parodying and dissecting the types of stories that are told. His scripts aren’t just “goofy” or “meta,” although they’re usually that. They say something about the state of the show. The state of the genre. And, thanks to the latest episode at least, the state of the world.
The cold open is a black and white snippet of an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Lost Martian.” Which, of course, doesn’t exist. (Insha: He’s right. It doesn’t.) When Mulder (David Duchovny) is summoned to a surreptitious meeting with the titularly forehead besweated Reggie (Brian Huskey). He’s told that their memories can’t be trusted. Beloved childhood snacks and television episodes aren’t just fuzzy and half-remembered, they don’t exist anymore. He brings Scully (Gillian Anderson) into it. The episode spends a long, entertaining segment discussing the Mandela Effect — or the Mengele Effect, as Reggie remembers it — and how controlling the past means someone could control the future.
After a few ideas are batted around, including Mulder’s insistence that it’s a parallel reality and Scully relying on Occam’s Razor — Ozzie’s Razor, according to Reggie — to conclude it’s simple misremembering. Eventually, Mulder concludes that the nefarious Dr. They (Stuart Margolin) is able to alter people’s memories. Hell, Dr. They even admits it when he meets with Mulder. Because, in the world of a Trump presidency and fake news, what does it even matter anymore?
The episode’s finale is an all-timer. There’s a biting montage of Reggie’s government jobs — including casually waterboarding with the CIA and casually eavesdropping on Mulder and Scully with the NSA — and then a sequence of what Reggie believes happened before their minds were wiped. An alien shows up, riding a scooter with The Jetsons car sound effect, and delivers an extremely Trumpian speech about not wanting humanity to spread out into the Universe. Then, of course, Reggie gets taken away by workers at the asylum from which he escaped.
Darin Morgan constantly messes with the idea of what an episode of The X-Files has to be. His first script, “Humbug,” is a seemingly standard Monster-of-the-Week episode that makes carnival and sideshow performers the victims and is packed full of heart. His take on War of the Worlds, “War of the Coprophages,” involves Scully correctly science-ing everything that happens in the episode. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” is about a creature realizing how awful humanity can be. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” are two of the greatest television episodes of all time while also stretching and questioning — “Jose Chung’s” especially — what an episode of The X-Files truly means.
One of the larger takeaways from “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is how Morgan seems to view Mulder. He’s always written the character in a way that I can only describe as sympathetic disdain. He understands the character, but he seems to believe Mulder is one bad day away from cracking completely and becoming a serial killer. This wasn’t as evident in last season’s “Were-Monster” and there’s a complete one-eighty here. Morgan feels bad for Mulder. In a world that believes in such bankrupt and artless conspiracies like birtherism or Pizzagate, what is an old school conspiracy theorist like Mulder supposed to do?
The most interesting and heartfelt scene of the episode happens at the end. It’s a wonderful moment between Mulder and Scully. As Scully is about to taste an off-brand Jell-O she realizes that memories, as distorted or rose-tinted as they can be, are important. They made us who we are. As fun as it can be to go back, it’ll never be the same.
And, really, it never should be the same.
Verdict: Watch this episode! If you’re a fan of the original series and Season 10 left you cold, at least tune in for this episode. It’s one of the best episodes The X-Files has ever produced. Gillian Anderson constantly brings her A-game, but you can tell when David Duchovny isn’t into it. This isn’t a surprise since he bailed on the show earlier than she did. However, any episode that seems to challenge or amuse him brings out the best in him. This is easily the best we’ve seen from him since, like, Season 6 of the original series.
Not only does “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” include one of the hardest laughs I’ve had watching this show, but it also makes a statement on the revival as a whole. Not only does it question the point of bringing The X-Files back in the 2010’s it actually answers it. Two new Darin Morgan episodes. That’s reason in and of itself to bring the show back.