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)