Written and directed by boundary-pushing fan favourite Darin Morgan, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” has a rip-roaring time taking the Trump administration – already the subject of some unsubtle digs this season – to task. But it also has great fun turning some of The X-Files‘ classic touchstones inside out.
All images: Shane Harvey/FOX
The fact that “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is so fast-moving and entertaining is pretty incredible, considering how talky it is, and the fact that probably 80 per cent of it takes place in an FBI parking garage. There, a nervous man named Reggie (Brian Huskey of Veep and People of Earth) lurks at all hours, popping out to jabber at “Foxy” and “Sculls” about “the conspiracy to end all conspiracies”. Essentially, he believes that the Mandela Effect, the internet-spawned phenomenon whereby masses of people share the same incorrect memory, is actually a plot to manipulate memories launched by the US government. Adding to the malevolence of this idea, Reggie keeps referring to it as “the Mengele Effect”, attributing it to a widely-believed falsehood about the notorious Nazi, rather than the South African freedom fighter… which is sort of a Mandela Effect within the Mandela Effect. Mulder, of course, is inclined to suspect that parallel universes are the cause.
There’s a lot more to “Forehead Sweat” than that – aliens are involved, of course, as is a master manipulator literally named “Dr They” (played with jovial zeal by The Rockford Files‘ Stuart Margolin). Plus, we get the sight of Mulder returning from an evening of Bigfoot-hunting (or, ah, “Squatchin'”); a junk shop with a “political shame” section; and a murder-by-lawn-dart that’s never really investigated or explained. In fact, a lot is left unexplained as the chockablock episode progresses at its breakneck pace, but somehow its teetering construction ends up being part of its appeal. You can’t look away or you’ll miss something hilarious.
Also key is the episode’s enthusiastic embrace of multimedia. Its pre-credits scene is a black-and-white segment from Mulder’s beloved sci-fi TV show from when he was a child, with li’l Mulder freakishly depicted as a kid with adult Mulder’s face. (His favourite episode is about aliens with memory-wiping technology, as it happens.) “Forehead Sweat” is stuffed with similarly bizarre moments, winks and asides inserted into the action, including a “jump cut” perfectly timed to obscure the name of a big company Reggie claims is involved in perpetuating the “Mengele Effect”. But its best creative meander is when it inserts Reggie into a series of vintage X-Files episodes, as well as the show’s iconic opening credits, illustrating the character’s faux (or are they?) memories of being an FBI agent, and affording some in-jokes for fans of Morgan’s past work on the show. At last, that Grenada reference in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” paid off!
And since this is a Morgan-conceived episode, deeper themes soon surface amid the nuttiness. Last season’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” cleverly flipped the expected man-becomes-a-monster narrative; meeting the title creature also renewed Mulder’s belief in the unexplained after a crisis of faith and a lot of fumbling involving his mobile phone camera. In “Forehead Sweat”, Mulder comes face-to-face with young-gun FBI agents with the gall to think they’re spookier than he is – and indeed, when he meets the mysterious Dr They, the older man bluntly informs him that his time has passed.
People in power no longer think they can keep their secrets, and are therefore no longer interested in doing whatever they can to protect themselves. We’re in a “post cover-up, post conspiracy age,” he tells Mulder, reminding him that “the public no longer knows what’s meant by ‘the truth’. No one can tell the difference anymore between what’s real and what’s fake.” That goes for an online video styled as a Dr They exposé (self-made, as it turns out, as deliberately “phony fake news” – real facts presented in such a way that nobody would believe any of it), as well as his parting words to Mulder: “Nobody knows for sure,” which he attributes to the current president. Regarding what? Well, “what does it matter?” (Trump is never named, but Dr They is definitely seen wearing a MAGA hat at one point.)
The spectre of the Trump administration looms throughout “Forehead Sweat”, even beyond Dr They’s canny take on the current age of carefully curated disinformation. There are more subtle jabs, such as when Scully drily references the all-too-recent “birther” conspiracy movement. And then there’s the almost painfully overt moment when an alien informs Reggie, Scully and Mulder – former FBI teammates, at least in Reggie’s apparently mixed-up mind – that intergalactic beings are planning to “build a wall” so that vile, lying Earthlings can’t explore beyond their solar system and contaminate what’s out there.
Truth and memory don’t always align, even without Dr They-style meddling. The episode constantly toys with the show’s long-held idea that “the truth is out there”, especially once the alien gives Mulder a book titled All the Answers (again, as Reggie recalls it), which resolves every X-Files case well beyond the existence of extraterrestrials. But there’s also a deep nostalgia for earlier times, be they childhood (as with Mulder’s TV show and Scully’s “Goop-o” gelatin); the X-Files‘ 1990s heyday; or even simply anything prior to the Trumpian hellscape we’re now living in.
There’s a protectiveness and a realisation of how powerful those kinds of memories can be. “I want to remember how it was,” Scully decides, placing her spoon back down before ruining the memory of how Goop-o (recently rediscovered, thanks to Reggie) tasted when she was a kid. It’s a funny moment, considering the bright-red, wriggly dessert is shaped like Mulder’s cast of a Sasquatch footprint. But it’s a poignant and oddly universal one, too – and it helps ensure that “Forehead Sweat” will be on any list of the greatest X-Files episodes of all time.