Shane Harvey/FOX
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January 24, 2018 at 09:15 PM EST

“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is the best X-Files episode so far this season. It’s a mess, no doubt, built on a self-destructing narrative. I understand if you hate it. I loved it, but it has problems. More than anything: It is a lot. There are fantasies, flashbacks that never were, metafiction, the argument that reality itself is metafiction, the phrase “phony fake news.” It is sort of a clip show, and sort of a parody, an attempt toward Trumpian art, and — maybe — a final statement.

The episode’s written by Darin Morgan, whose previous scripts pushed the show to its own outer limits of comedy and tragedy, surrealism, cockroaches, and Alex Trebek. “Forehead Sweat” breaks through the last Great Barrier of sanity. You think of that old Warner Bros. cartoon, where Daffy Duck runs into white space and begs the animator to paint him a background. Or—more recent, less classy, much weirder—you think of the end of The Hills, when it turned out the fake real people were really fake all along.

There’s a scene where Mulder meets the most evil man in the world, creator of the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. They have a long conversation about the nature of everything. Our hero declares, uneasy, that there is “still an objective truth, an objective reality.” Sure, but also: They’re walking through an outdoor art installation, statues of men whose silent laughter seems to taunt Mulder. This Yue Minjun sculpture series is called A-maze-ing Laughter, and it’s in Vancouver. X-Files has mostly shot in Vancouver, of course, but usually the show hides that reality, filming on nondescript street corners, repeating that establishing shot of FBI HQ. So this obvious location shooting feels like a wink from Morgan, who also directed this episode. You halfway expect Mulder to look around, eyes wide open for the first time: “Dear god, I’m in Canada!”

The tone is set by the prologue. It’s a scene from “The Lost Martian,” a Twilight Zone episode that Mulder remembers the way Proust remembered Aunt Léonie’s spongecake. We see a guy tell a bartender that aliens have already invaded. The guy sees a Martian outside a window; he points toward the window, to us, through the fourth wall. But the window is a mirror. And when the guy looks in the mirror…he sees an alien! Or maybe it’s not a mirror, and did I mention the bartender was an alien, too? Cut to Fox Mulder, eight years old, a moment of epiphany: “Now I get it!”

“The Lost Martian” matters to Mulder. But it’s not important because it’s important. “It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone,” he tries to explain, a legendary TV character worshipping legendary TV. And now “The Lost Martian” has gone missing, like it never happened, canceled from history. Mulder checks the internet, scans through his DVD boxed set, pages through his episode guidebooks. This is a quest through bygone ages of fandom: You imagine Mulder clicking through wikias, grabbing DVDs off a dusty bookshelf, pulling guidebooks out of boxes no next of kin will ever bother opening. His final recourse is digging through his own videotapes, a personal archive leftover from the ancient period when everyone wasn’t an archivist.

This quest begins with a mystery man. Reggie Something (Brian Huskey) meets Mulder in a parking lot. This is a double reference, of course: Mulder used to meet shadowy informants like Steven Williams’ Mr. X in a parking lot, because the creators of X-Files were obsessed with Watergate the way modern TV creators are obsessed with OJ, and Watergate informant Deep Throat met journalist Bob Woodward in a parking lot. Reggie tells Mulder a strange story about erased memories. And he seems to know Mulder, well enough to tell him his favorite Twilight Zone episode never existed.

He knows Scully, too. Enough to call her “Sculls,” enough to give her an old snack from long-ago, something called a Goop-O. “I have such wonderful memories associated with it,” says Scully. “I remember family vacations over the summer holidays, and Fourth of July, fireworks, America, God, love.” Gillian Anderson reads those words like she’s scenesetting the great American novel, and David Duchovny cuts her off with perfect snarky wonder: “That’s some Jello!”

“Forehead Sweat” has big ambitions. It wants to talk about the Mandela Effect, the theory that mass misremembrance is proof of some existential conspiracy. And it wants to talk about alternate realities, a science-fiction concept gone so mainstream that it’s peddled by bloated reactionary gasbags and dramedy billboards and every fan theory about every TV show. “Forehead Sweat” is so specific in its politics that it features a Martian direct-quoting Donald Trump, and so absurd in its politics that Martian Donald rides a Segway.

Like Morgan’s splendidly goofball 2016 outing “Mulder and Scully and the Were-Monster,” this episode takes a tough look at Mulder’s legacy, which doubles for the very explicit legacy of The X-Files. At one point, our sly Fox declares that the world has simply become too crazy for his, ahem, “conspiratorial powers.” Scully has her own theory about that. “Maybe you’ve just lost your taste for it,” she says, “especially after all this birther stuff.” That’s right: The Big Man in the White House got there because he peddled his own conspiracy theory. Mulder = Trump: Discuss? But why take things so seriously? Morgan has a fascinating perspective on the show’s resident paranoiac. He pushes Mulder’s renegade-believer act to the point of spaghetti-western absurdity—I could hear Duchovny say the word “Squatchin’ ” all day—and yet there is something quite sad in the silliness. At one point, insulted by some young feds, he positively squeals with declining self-regard:

Do you know who I am? I’m Fox Mulder! I was fighting the power and breaking conspiracies before you saw your first chemtrail, you punks! I’m Fox Freaking Mulder, you punks! I’m Fox Mulder! Fox Mulder!

This is the “I’m the Goddamn Batman!” of X-Files, except definitely funny and unquestionably sad. I cherish Morgan’s cockeyed vision of what this show can be, admire how he can make Mulder seem so much weirder than usual and so terribly human. His peacocking is egotistical (FOX FREAKING MULDER) but also sounds like the chestbeating of a dying animal. Credit to Duchovny, for really going for it. (Credit, too, to Chris Carter, the producer who still sees something marvelously essential in the Darin Morgan version of X-Files.)

All this in one episode— plus, a brief chronicle of the downward moral spiral of the federal government in the past few decades, told via montage within a single office cubicle? Witness poor everydud Reggie descending through recent history, from cheerful Postal Service employee to bored “enhanced interrogation” waterboarding torturer to drone pilot accidentally blowing up another wedding. That’s some Jello!

Morgan is a brilliant writer. He has the peculiar ability to craft what you might call “bleak introspective philosophical spoofs,” a subgenre peculiar to Thomas Pynchon novels and Rick & Morty and a couple episodes of Atlanta. His X-Files corpus constitutes a strange miniseries, the tones silly but incisive but heartfelt, self-parody-as-criticism-as-tragedy. This is only his sixth X-Files script. But he also carries one earlier “story by” credit. And he played two monsters of weeks past, fearsome Flukeman and shapeshifting Eddie Van Blundht. By my fake math, that makes “Forehead Sweat” Darin Morgan’s eighth-and-a-half episode, the same number that led Federico Fellini to title his autobiographical 8 1/2.

And, if you’ll indulge overthinking, this episode has trace elements of autobiography. Morgan’s actually onscreen for a moment, in a phony flashback. We see Mulder transform into Eddie, an actual moment from “Small Potatoes.” But this memory has been Forrest Gump‘d, and Reggie shoots Eddie. Is this an act of self-immolation? Reggie himself feels like a Darin Morgan analogue. He claims he’s always been a part of the team, that he actually created the X-Files. In another memory—fake?—we see Scully arrive in the X-Files office for the first time. It’s the pilot episode, 1993, so Mulder’s there…but so is Reggie. “Move along, sugarboobs!” he says. “This is the X-Files! No women allowed!” This is a half-funny line that feels all-the-way true, given Anderson’s own complaints about the show’s all-male writing staff.

I admire the spirit, self-reflective, self-recriminating. But as a director, Morgan’s choices are strange, even bland. There are nifty visual ideas—that cubicle montage!—but too much of “Forehead Sweat” is one long conversation between Mulder, Scully, and Reggie, standing stolid inside a parking lot. That garage gets so much attention that this could almost be a bottle episode, except for the montages that play out over long walls of exposition. (This was a minor problem with “Were-Monster,” too, which became a long Rhys Darby narration for most of its middle act.)

You have to remember that, on top of every other reason to love it, The X-Files used to look [screamingly desperate Duchovny voice] freaking COOL. Shadows sliced by flashlight beams; budgets big enough to build convincing weekly Thing From Another World riffs. Morgan’s finest episode, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” was directed by Rob Bowman, one of the series’ stable of steady pros. And so part of the gag was how “Jose Chung’s” mostly looked like a regular eerie mythology episode. So the dissonance was mindbending when, say, Jesse Ventura showed up, or the foulmouthed local lawman kept saying “Bleep!”

This decade’s X-Files can’t match the original show’s visual flair. Actually, this current season just looks stale, especially next to all the smallscreen visual experimentation that the original X-Files helped to influence. That Mr. Robot “single-shot” episode came almost 20 years after Chris Carter did his own long-take wonder, “Triangle.” But Mr. Robot pushed the form forward, achieving a new pinnacle of breathtaking realtime-thriller imagination. Meanwhile, Carter opened this season with narratin’ Mulder on a never-ending drive somewhere important.

Morgan’s flat staging gives “Forehead Sweat” its own peculiar magic, though. The strange men who keep appearing to chase Reggie aren’t remotely scary. The long conversation feels leisurely: You feel you’re watching Mulder, Scully, and Reggie talk about an X-Files episode, like they’re the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000.  And in the climax of the episode, Reggie conjures up a false(?) memory of the team’s final case. The scene is clearly synthetic—surf-rock soundtrack, rear-projection driving, convertible red as Mulder’s speedo once was. But it’s exactly as synthetic as the rest of the episode. They spend so long in that damned garage that you feel you’re watching actors on a stage, complete with distant police-siren sound effects.

The problems of 2018 X-Files are all over this episode. There’s not enough Scully, and even within the goofery, there’s a feeling of the Mulder legend being printed. Those nefarious young feds insult him by saying: “You start out a rebel, but then you get fat, and the next thing you know, you’re Deep State. Sad!” Again with the presidential tweet-quoting, ho ho. But something that’s bothered me this season: Was Mulder ever actually a rebel?

Here’s a second-generation federal agent twice over—his supposed father and his actual biological father were both members of the world-devouring conspiracy. Oh, the FBI gave Mulder a crappy office, sure, but those travel expenses, that badge opening every door! The phrase “cult hit” gets tossed around with the show, but it was also just an actual hit—a big hit, huge— earning more than 20 million viewers at its peak. This is a larger conversation, I guess, one we’ll be addressing in the next couple years as the network that shares Mulder’s first name works out a post-Disney future. (Will history recall Fox as a bold outlier, or the cultural tip of Rupert Murdoch’s spear?)

There’s a version of The X-Files that reckons with that legacy, connecting the dots between Mulder’s renegade act and the cheap conspiracy cynicism of today. “Forehead Sweat” comes closer than the revival ever has. Witness Stuart Margolin as “Dr. They,” the man behind the curtain. Except there’s no curtain. He’s in the phone book, if anyone still knew how to use a phone book. Dr. They is technically a mad scientist who invented “a ray of some kind” to change people’s memories. Is this science-fiction? Or just typical propaganda: Is his “ray of some kind” like Ted Stevens’ “series of tubes,” the very internet itself? Dr. They is a YouTuber, just like Logan Paul. (The first comment under his YouTube video: “I think the editing could have been a little tighter.”) And his greatest trick was convincing the world that his existence was too unbelievable to believe, just like the Devil and Logan Paul.

He quotes Trump, too: “Nobody knows for sure,” a line that needs no context because it could fit into any context. You can plumb the depths of “Forehead Sweat” for political relevance, but I loved how Morgan used Trump as a metaphor, a way of rethinking The X-Files. And ending it? Reggie’s tale of the team’s final mission has so many symbols of a fading generation, of cultural memory that only time will erase. A Voyager space probe brought home, like the one in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. A great big alien ship rising into the sky, its exhaust lighting up the face of staring humans, like the earthlings left behind in Close Encounters of the Third King and E.T. That red convertible, straight out of American Graffiti, the ’70s myth of the ’60s. And the Martian Donald wore Elvis’ old cape. (Theory: He was Elvis?) The alien even handed Mulder a book with all the answers—even the truth about Bigfoot, the first urban legend everyone learns about the remaining un-urban America.

This is my X-Files series finale. Not the last episode I’ll ever watch: I’m in for this season, and maybe there will be more. Maybe someday the Disney subsidiary that America will become can open up a whole X-Files Land, converting a whole neighborhood of Washington DC into a facsimile of Vancouver pretending to be DC. But after an awful 2002 series finale, a listless 2008 movie, and now a couple seasons of strange alien-baby-obsessed meandering, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” feels like the strange, awkward, transcendent ending I always wanted for the show. It takes me back to my memory of my first X-Files episode, the one where the green flies attack the lumberjacks, the dark forest, the couch in my pal’s living room, a Friday night sleepover, pizza delivery, Sega Genesis, ToeJam & Earl, Friday nights, Saturday mornings, youth, America!

I loved The X-Files and remembered loving some episodes especially, like Carter’s own black-and-white “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” In memory that episode was everything I admired about the show, everything I believed television could accomplish. I remembered specifically how Cher had a cameo, as herself, in the wonderful and romantic final scene. When I rewatched it again a couple years ago, it was like someone refilmed a fake version of “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” like Netflix edited the episode or rewrote new bad scenes. Still funny, sure, but wait, was the episode always about forced impregnation, isn’t this a rather tone-deaf treatment of this material, did I just not notice this when I was younger, did I really not care? At least there was still Cher at the end, except it wasn’t Cher, just some body double, and actually I guess that last scene never happened at all, it was an illusion.

Where was I? Oh, so “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” final thoughts: The editing really could have been a little tighter. But I loved this episode’s screwball spirit, the way it chewed up its own scenery. I loved the hat-tip to The Twilight Zone—and the hat-tip to the knockoff shows that followed The Twilight Zone, a proud legacy from Outer Limits to X-Files itself to Black Mirror and beyond. I will ponder this episode’s deeper meanings forever. I already want to argue about its place in the canon. Having proved decisively that everything Reggie said was a lie, the episode threw a final wrench in its own fake reality. Reggie’s carried away to the Spotnitz Sanitarium, tied up in the back of a crazyhouse ambulance. Mitch Pileggi’s crusty Director Skinner walks into the parking lot as he’s driven away. “Where the hell they taking Reggie?” he asks, the last man on Earth who remembers the man who wasn’t there.

And that ending: Tears! Mulder solves the episode’s first and most important mystery. The missing Twilight Zone wasn’t a Twilight Zone at all. “The Lost Martian” was an episode of Dusky Realm, some knockoff so lost to history that CBS won’t even reboot it. (Further referentiality here, wheels within wheels within worlds: Carter created a shortlived series called Harsh Realm, about a digital alternate reality.) Mulder watches the episode, which come to think of it isn’t good at all. The tape collapses when Mulder ejects it from his VCR. Soon the VCR will break down, too, and will our children remember videotapes, and will anyone remember Blu-Rays?

But the final lines belong to Scully: The voice of reason, and we need her now more than ever. She cooks up her own private Proustian spongecake, a Goop-o shaped like a sasquatch foot. But she can’t bring herself to actually eat this fantasy fruit. “I want to remember how it was,” she says. “I want to remember how it all was.”

It’s a happy line, a sad one, thought-provoking, ambiguous, conclusive. Optimistic read: She doesn’t want the thing, she wants her happy memory of how the thing seemed to be, because those happy memories make the world more magical than our world ever was.

Pessimistic read: In an episode so focused on the imperfection of memory, is this a moment of sad realization, not waving but drowning, a way of saying “I want to remember, but will I? And for how long?”

Deep, series-wrapping read: Is the line “I want to remember” a requiem for the show’s eternal tagline “I want to believe”? A way of suggesting that belief in The X-Files itself is just a kind of memory now, nostalgia for a show that was a time that ended long ago?

Morgan’s camera rises up from the couch to the night sky. We see the stars. Or rather, we see the light from distant stars, a visual echo from a light source centuries past. We’ll never see the stars up close, but they do exist. And Mulder and Scully still exist, real as any fake memory. Their truth is out there, where it never was and ever shall be.

The X-Files airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

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