With each new season of The X-Files, the episode I’m most excited about is the one written by Darin Morgan. In the past, his episodes have been odd, funny, and profound, telling the more unusual X-files stories through quirk and parody. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” definitely fits the Darin Morgan mold and is easily the best episode of this new season. I’m not sure where it fits into the cannon of The X-Files, or even the cannon of Darin Morgan-written episodes, but the episode hits themes relevant to today, unlike the universality of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” or “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Whether that ultimately deters it from being great remains to be seen, but I certainly had a fun time watching it.
Like “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” deals with lost memories, but not through hypnosis. It’s the loss of collective memories, the objects, television shows and food that we remember fondly, but only seem to exist in our memories. The Mandela Effect, or is it actually the Mengele Effect, means one’s recollections of something aren’t quite in line with recollections of the majority, so named because of the reported death of Nelson Mandela in the 1980s when he actually died in 2013. In Mulder’s case, his favorite episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Lost Martian,” no longer exists.
“Forehead Sweat” actually opens with a scene from the episode — a guy walks into a diner, terrified of the Martians he’s been seeing on the street. He keeps pointing out the window whenever he sees one, trying to prove it to the guy behind the counter. But the guy behind the counter tells him that’s not a window, but a mirror. The paranoid guy walks up to the mirror/window and sees a martian looking back at him. Also, the diner guy is a martian. The episode is only important because it’s the first episode of Twilight Zone that Mulder saw. But it seems it no longer exists, not on the internet, episode guides, nor on any tapes he’s been rifling through. For Scully, it’s a box of jello called Goop-O, a desert her mother used to make for any kind of holiday gathering. Though she remembers it fondly, she hasn’t been able to find it in stores, and when she asks other people, they think she’s maybe confusing it with a different brand of jello of a similar name. (Sort of like the real Mandela Effect where people seem to remember a movie called “Shazam” starring Sinbad as a genie, and are adamant they are not confusing it with the movie Kazaam staring Shaquille O’Neal as a genie, something that’s referenced by Mulder.)
Since this is The X-Files, the Mandela Effect must be real, right? According to Reggie Something (Brian Huskey), it is, although he’s sure it’s called the Mengele Effect and tells Mulder he’s probably just having a Mengele Effect about the Mandela Effect, and “they” are attempting to erase Reggie from the collective memories of those who knew him best. He refers to Mulder and Scully as “Muldy” and “Sculls,” as if he knows them personally. Turns out, he does. He’s been their partner since 1993. Cue a montage of old scenes of X-Files episodes in which Reggie is inserted into X-Files history like he’s Forest Gump. Mulder thinks maybe Reggie really was their partner, but in a different universe. The idea of it being parallel universes is a successful gag that runs through the episode, despite being a real theory about where the Mandela Effect comes from. A lot of the conversations between Mulder, Scully, and Reggie occur in the parking garage of FBI headquarters, a callback to Mulder’s many secretive meetings with Deep Throat and Mr. X. In fact, we’re in the parking garage so much that it almost feels like a bottle episode, but we spend enough time in other places that it’s just shy of being one.
“Forehead Sweat” ventures into politics with wild abandon, making blantant references to Donald Trump that pretty much solidifies the episode as a relic of its time. But the idea that someone’s deliberately messing with people’s minds plays into today’s politics really well. When Mulder questions Reggie about who “they” is, Reggie has an answer. He talks of a Dr. They who ran tests on a martian in Granada before the government stole the alien away. Since then, Dr. They has been crafting the art of making people forget he existed, while also helping big companies erase their mistakes with certain products (so if something is recalled because of health effects, Dr. They would make society forget the recall). This plays into the fake news rhetoric Trump has been touting since the election. If no one can decide what’s real and what’s fake, then what the hell are we even fighting about anymore? Dr. They explains to Mulder objective truth no longer exists, not when certain people control the narrative.
But in the end, Reggie is just an escaped mental patient, someone who created this false fantasy of working for the greater good alongside the best FBI team. It’s theorized he went mad after a series of boring government jobs. There’s a delightful sequence of the various jobs Reggie held, all told in the space of the same cubicle. It should be noted Darin Morgan also directed the episode, the cubicle montage being one of the better parts in terms of Morgan’s directing. In true X-Files form, there’s just a hint at the end that makes us wonder, though. As Reggie is being loaded into the ambulance, Skinner walks into the parking garage, sees Reggie being taken away, and asks Mulder and Scully, “Where the hell are they taking Reggie?” Was Reggie really there the whole time? Probably not, but that’s what’s great about The X-Files. We never really know. In a final flashback of Reggie, Mulder, and Scully’s last case, an alien dressed like Elvis and quoting Donald Trump (“Earthlings, we’ve decided we want no further contact with your species. We will build a wall…”) hands Mulder a book that “has all the answers.” In a fit of despair, Mulder collapses to the ground, lamenting that his search for the truth is worthless now.
In a way, the episode is a reflection on The X-Files itself. We’ll never have “all the answers.” There will always be more truths to unfold, more conspiracies to investigate, if that’s your sort of thing. There will always be more X-files, even if there’s no more X-Files. In that regard, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is universal, in that we trust our memories to hold our own truth. Like Scully says, “I want to remember how it was.”
- The episode that opens “Forehead Sweat” turns out to actually be from an off-brand Twilight Zone episode of a show I can’t remember the name of. Mulder gets it confused with the actual Twilight Zone episode “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”
- “Believe what you want to believe. That’s what everybody does nowadays anyways.”
- Because I have to…”We are building a wall. … We can’t allow your kind to infiltrate the rest of the cosmos. You’re not sending us your best people. You’re bringing drugs, you’re bringing crime, you’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But we have no choice, believe me. For although the rest of the galaxies all have their share of these problems, we fear you could infect the rest with the one trait that is unique to earthlings: You lie.”