There’s a refrain threading itself through this week’s episode of The X-Files, so subtle and so ordinary you could almost miss it: “Wait, what?” It’s the sound of having the floor pulled out from under you, often, and not just before commercial breaks: You’re about to be taken away. You’re about to have your memories, as you know them, taken away from you. You’re an alien; maybe everyone is. Your waiter’s name is not Buddy.
“Wait, what?” is the sound of every episode written by Darin Morgan, but especially this one. In both style and theme, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” feels like a follow-up to season 3’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” the last episode Morgan wrote for the original series. “Jose Chung’s” is another story about memory manipulation, punctuated by its own repeated refrain: “I know how crazy this is going to sound, but…” That’s what everyone says when they encounter aliens, or believe they have, and have to tell their story while also standing critically just a little outside it. “Wait, what?” is what you get when 22 years have passed and no one thinks about how mad they sound anymore because the world’s gone madder.
It’s remarkable that Mulder and Scully are still capable of feeling shock — not because they spend their 9-5 with the paranormal, but because they live in America in 2018. We find Mulder stomping through the door to the house in a terrifically breathable ghillie suit after a long day of Squatchin’, an endeavor that was less about hunting for Bigfoot than it was about communing with nature (less about the truth, in other words, than how he feels while searching for it). “Seems this past year all I’ve done is watch the news and worry that the country’s gone insane,” he tells Scully. She’s been calling him all day; she wants to make sure they’re still on for dinner tomorrow. At least one relationship is getting better while the world falls apart.
But Mulder spots an X taped to the window: his secret rendezvous signal, a call for help since the early days. He follows it to a parking garage, where the man waiting for him has been eating sunflower seeds (his secret rendezvous snack) to pass the time. The man (a terrific Brian Huskey) leads with Scully’s favorite greeting: “Mulder, it’s me.” This mystery man speaks our language — the language of someone familiar with The X-Files — and he piques Mulder’s interest by engaging with the TV fan in him. The first episode of The Twilight Zone Mulder ever saw? According to this guy, it doesn’t exist.
That’s a slap in the face to Mulder, but it’s a bit of a jolt for the audience too, given that we’ve already seen that episode in a spoof-y cold open: man in diner is convinced Martians are invading; man learns he is a Martian; man behind the counter cackles and removes soda jerk hat, revealing horns. “The Lost Martian” doesn’t exist, not really (or does it?!), but its most obvious Twilight Zone inspiration is “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, and not just because the alien has so many arms. Rod Serling tells us the only thing harder than finding a needle in a haystack is finding a Martian in a diner. Darin Morgan goes a step further: The only thing harder than finding a Martian in a diner is accepting that you are one. The Martian of The Twilight Zone knows exactly what trouble he’s causing; the Martian of The X-Files, of America in 2018, blames his troubles on everyone else. “I know you think I’m crazy, but” — but! he says — “it’s not me. It’s the world.” But of course it’s him. He thinks he’s looking through a window at everyone else when he’s actually looking in the mirror.
This is the episode of television that changed young Mulder, made him the man he is today. We see him in flashback, 8 years old but with present-day Mulder’s head cartoonishly pasted over the boy’s body. It’s an absurd sight gag, but it’s also a nod to the way this “memory” is shaped more by Mulder’s adult mind than it is by the facts. Mulder is determined to prove “The Lost Martian” exists, tearing through piles of VHS tapes while Scully taps her foot and begs to go to dinner. “It can’t be that good of an episode!” she argues. But this isn’t about the quality of the episode. It’s about how Mulder felt while watching it. Nothing can be that great until nostalgia makes it great.
And no one is immune to nostalgia. After appealing to Mulder by handing him something to search for, our mystery man appeals to Scully by handing her evidence: Goop-O A-B-C, a Jell-O 1-2-3 doppelgänger she remembers fondly from her childhood but can never find in stores. Color both agents intrigued. They meet the man in the parking garage; he tells them his name is Reggie…Something. He claims he’s being erased by a program that’s currently being used to manipulate memories at a massive scale — the same program responsible for the Mandela Effect, which you may recognize as the disagreement your high school classmates keep having on Facebook regarding the proper spelling of The Berenstain Bears. Reggie believes there’s someone out there making people forget when companies’ products explode on impact (in a brilliant bit of editing, the episode “skips” when Reggie lists the companies) and making it possible to deny even our most shameful history. It’s no coincidence that he calls the phenomenon “the Mengele Effect,” evoking a historical monster who escaped the consequences of his actions. (Next: Return of the killer cats)
Mulder sees Reggie making his own excuses and calls him out: “You keep on referring to this omnipresent, mysterious ‘they’ to give intentionality to random events or external explanations for psychological ones.” (That window is a mirror, Mulder.) So Reggie names his scapegoat: an actual man named Dr. They, a neuroscientist who erases minds. Mulder dismisses the idea — until They gives him a call. Mulder’s distressed skepticism reminded me of Darin Morgan’s most recent episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” in which our doubting middle-aged believer met a were-lizard and had his faith restored. For Morgan, it was a surprisingly concrete conclusion: Beneath all the chaos, there is a tangible truth out there, and you can shake its hand.
As handshakes go, Dr. They’s is less reassuring. The good doctor (Stuart Margolin) is an engaging old man — non-threatening, aside from the eerie red rings around his eyes that hide his face like a TOP SECRET stamp — and you like him until you remember that’s part of the problem. He monologues to Mulder about truth in the era of “fake news,” a catchphrase that was also dropped in the season premiere but is put to better, more upsetting use here. When no one knows what the truth means, no one cares if it gets out, rendering Mulder and his quest for the truth obsolete. “Your time has passed,” They argues — commenting on a character who was conceived in a different political climate, “a time when people of power thought that they could keep their secrets secret and were willing to do anything to keep it that way.” What’s a show about conspiracy theories to do in a world where proving them true or false changes nothing?
Even now, Mulder, Scully, and Reggie are debating whose theory is most palatable, as if that has any bearing on reality. Mulder can’t get behind the idea of someone out there erasing memories with a “hypno-ray gun” — Reggie never mentioned the ray gun though; Mulder probably got the idea from “The Lost Martian” — so he poses a parallel-universe theory. Scully and Reggie both think that’s bunk. Parallel universes do exist in the world of The X-Files, according to season 9’s “4-D,” but Scully was third-wheeling Doggett and Reyes at the time like their own personal Reggie, so she wouldn’t know; she doesn’t remember it. How does Reggie’s alternate X-Files history account for the Doggett-Reyes years, anyway? There doesn’t seem to be room for them in his version of events. Some fans can probably relate. When it comes to the TV shows we love, we might all be Dr. They.
Reggie definitely is. He claims he started the X-Files unit, and Mulder and Scully were his partners until They made them forget. Wait, what? We’re treated to new opening credits in the middle of the episode, set to a low-budget a capella version of the theme song. The tagline is skeptical, as if written by Dr. They: “The truth is out there?” Scenes from the original series play out with Reggie included: He buys the I Want to Believe poster (Mulder did talk to a Reggie on the phone in “Unusual Suspects” — his old ASAC, we thought). He greets Scully in the pilot: “Move along, sugar boobs. This is the X-Files. No women allowed.” He perks up when Clyde Bruckman (another Darin Morgan original) mentions the invasion of Grenada; Reggie remembers the invasion as a coverup of a U.F.O. crash. He complains about the widely mocked case in season 3 flop “Teso Dos Bichos.” Reggie is a gatekeeper, an internet commenter, a self-insert. He’s also Darin Morgan’s dark doppelgänger: The final scene in this retconned X-Files is from season 4’s “Small Potatoes,” in which Morgan played a shape-shifting sad sack. He nearly kissed Scully while wearing Mulder’s face. Here, she’s saved not by the real Mulder but by Reggie, who breaks in and shoots the imposter as soon as he looks like himself again. And so Darin Morgan was shot in his own episode.
Scully counters that story with research: Reggie (birth name: Reginald Murgatroyd) had a nervous breakdown about a year ago and has been in a mental institution ever since. His earlier history includes some time in the military — he was hit on the head with a shovel during the invasion of Grenada — and stints at various federal agencies, all of which are represented here by the same sad cubicle. Waterboarding for the CIA? Cubicle. Business as usual. While working for Witness Protection, we see Reggie give a mobster a new identity; that mobster was also in Dr. They’s dark web video, smiling proudly as one of his “mysterious clients.” Maybe Reggie was everything he imagined Dr. They to be — a government figure controlling what the public knows — and he couldn’t handle it.
But Reggie’s time at the NSA introduced him (via an illegal wiretap on Scully and Mulder’s phone, because the government’s gotta government) to a pair of agents who hadn’t been corrupted. “You escaped into a fantasy where you imagined that you joined a team that still did what America was meant to do,” Mulder concludes. “Fight for truth and justice.” No one mythologizes the legacy of Mulder and Scully better than Mulder and Scully do. (Catch Mulder earlier, yelling at young agents who dared question his legacy: “I’m Fox Freakin’ Mulder, you punks!”) As a doctor emerges from an old-school ambulance and fits Reggie with a straitjacket (at Reggie’s request; he likes the classics), Mulder pays him one last courtesy and asks about the fabled “last case” the three of them worked together. “We found the truth that’s out there,” Reggie declares. Oh, is that all? (Next: It’s a cookbook)
In an hour full of exaggerated visuals, Mulder, Scully, and Reggie’s last case takes on the aesthetic of another lost Twilight Zone episode. This time, they’re pulling from “To Serve Man,” in which aliens looked and dressed almost exactly like the alien who emerges from a spaceship and greets the X-Files trio…on a scooter. He’s here to cut off contact with mankind; he’s even crashed the Voyager back to Earth, sending our “music sampler” with it, like an ex returning a mix tape. We are never, ever, ever getting back together. But this breakup is less Taylor Swift and more Trump — the aliens are building a wall around the solar system so our oh-so-human tendency to lie doesn’t start an epidemic among more advanced races. The references get plainer: We’re bringing drugs, the alien says. We’re bringing crime. Some of us are good people. Mainly Scully.
I didn’t love those lines at first; they’re about as subtle as an anvil, and quoting Trump directly doesn’t feel like the freshest take on the state of America. But the commentary is meant to be broad; this is a Twilight Zone spoof times 10, hammering home what we never seem to learn. In “To Serve Man,” an alien race wins over humankind with promises of peace and prosperity, and everyone walks willingly aboard their spaceships like lambs to slaughter, which they are. The lesson — that we’ll all be undone by how easily we adjust to a new normal — was relevant when the episode aired in 1962, and it’s relevant here, as this green Trump-alien gives us a taste of our own medicine. History repeats itself, maybe because we keep trying to rewrite it rather than face it. (See also: the 1940s political cartoon Reggie found by his favorite children’s book author, poking holes in the same “America First” slogan that Trump has brought to a resurgence.)
Before the alien leaves, he gives Mulder a book with “All the Answers” on the cover; he calls it a gift, but it feels like a death (it’s a COOKBOOK). Mulder never wanted the answers as much as he wanted the search for them. What’s the point of the X-Files now? Reggie offers his take: “Maybe the point wasn’t to find the truth but to find each other, for no matter where we go in our lives we will always have the memories of our time together, and no one can take those away — or alter them in such a way to make us doubt that they actually happened.” The wording is comedically cheesy, but the sentiment is vintage Darin Morgan. As Jose Chung told us, it’s a “rare and lucky” thing to find meaning in others.
Of course, Reggie is telling this story in a straitjacket, and those of us with our own warm memories of a two-person X-Files unit — Scully and Mulder and no one else — have already found our meaning there. It’s easy to want to dismiss Reggie’s story. Mulder promises they’ll visit Spotnitz Sanitarium (a shout-out to former executive producer Frank Spotnitz); Reggie laughs, “No you won’t!” But just when it seems like we’ve got a handle on the objective truth, Skinner shows up and peers curiously into the ambulance: “Where the hell are they taking Reggie?” Wait. What?
Is Reggie’s story true? There are holes in it — it can’t account for William, for example. (But there are holes in William’s story as we know it, too. Every writer of this show is Dr. They.) The bigger question: Would it matter if Reggie’s story were true? There’s a level of this script that feels like it’s tearing down the myth of The X-Files, as is Darin Morgan’s way; David Duchovny once said it “always felt like he was trying to destroy the show.” Everything we remember about the series — everything Fox Freakin’ Mulder and Dana Freakin’ Scully have become all too aware of — could be wrong, and if we never let go and look up from our piles of VHS tapes, we could miss the person right in front of us asking us to dinner. But there’s still a lot of love in the details here for the aspects of The X-Files that stick. Mulder was changed by his Twilight Zone experience even if the episode wasn’t that good, and even if it wasn’t a Twilight Zone episode at all.
Mulder said once, in black-and-white episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (another story that was more of a fable than an episode of the show), that all legends are “true in the sense that they’re believed to be true.” Scully scoffed then, but she was two years past telling Clyde Bruckman that she didn’t want to hear her fate; she knew from Moby-Dick that some prophecies are self-fulfilling. Sometimes the truth bends around our words, and not the other way around. “This Man” makes another cameo tonight, this time on Mulder’s conspiracy wall: a fake face that people now probably really dream about. Does it even matter that he began as a hoax?
The power of memory is a danger to the capital-T Truth; the power of memory is a saving grace for art. Mulder finally finds and watches “The Lost Martian,” accepts that it was actually from a Twilight Zone knockoff, and loses it all over again (not in his memory, but in reality) when the tape gets damaged. Meanwhile, Scully’s in the kitchen with her Mandela Effect, setting some Goop-O A-B-C in Mulder’s Bigfoot mold. She takes a seat beside him, hands him a spoon, and prepares to dive in — only to pause, overcome by something serious and maybe even a little sad, and put down the spoon. “I want to remember how it was,” she says. “I want to remember how it all was.” The camera pans up and fades to stars, like the ending of Mulder’s knockoff show, which wasn’t exactly what he thought it was, but at least it was real.
That malfunctioning VCR had to intervene to let Mulder move forward, but Scully does it on her own. She honors her past by not trying to recapture it; it can never live up to what she’s built it up to be. If that’s Morgan’s self-deprecating take on the futility of bringing back The X-Files, the quality of this episode alone should prove him wrong. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” holds up against his best. But there’s a difference between empty nostalgia and a story with life still in it. Maybe it’s just important to be choosy about which memories are worth bringing into the present. Scully and Mulder leave Goop-O in the past, look up from the VHS tapes, and face each other.