“I’ve stumbled on the conspiracy to end all conspiracies,” says the guy, and even though he’s arguably right, it’s also funny, because we’ve heard this before. At the heart of most of Darin Morgan’s writing for The X-Files is a man rolling his eyes through tears, and “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat” is no exception. It’s goofy as hell, maybe even goofier than “Mulder And Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” and if there’s any conclusion to draw between the two episodes it’s that things are terrible, but maybe that’s okay. Or if it isn’t okay, it’s at least hilarious. There’s a little pathos by the end of the hour, and a little death, but the tears have mostly dried up. In a straighter faced version of this story, Reggie Something’s fate would be, if not horrifying, than at least tragic. Here, what can you do, really, but shrug and hope he was grateful for the exercise.
It’s episodes like this when I most miss trading back and forth with Tam Van Der Werff on the series proper. Because he got this kind of thing; he wrote maybe a billion words on “Jose Chung’s ‘From Other Space’” and “Post-Modern Prometheus” (in which Chris Cardinal did his best Darin Morgan impression, with fascinating results), and I’m sure if you pressed him he could write a billion more. Whereas I’m stumped. When I review, I usually fall back on character and story, but I’m not sure trying to understand Reggie Something’s “motivations” or how Dr. They’s plans figure into the larger mythology is really going to capture anything. It’s comedy, and comedy is a pain in the ass to critique, but it’s also comedy that’s centered on a theme, and that makes it somehow worse.
I know, I know. Cry me a river, etc. But this is a weird job, and one of the ways it’s weird is watching something that is exceptionally good, knowing it’s exceptionally good, and also knowing that pretty much anything you have to say about it is behind the point. I’m not going to do a listicle of all the references here (there are several, although Morgan’s script does a perfectly fine job of pointing them out; I was impressed with myself for catching the “Soy Bomb” nod about five minutes before Mulder explained it), and I’m not sure a deep tissue textual analysis is going to improve anyone’s appreciation for a thing that is silly, playful, and often weirdly familiar.
Here’s something: I could’ve sworn it was called 3-2-1 Jell-O. I’m not even joking here. Mulder has his “The Lost Martian” missing Twilight Zone, and Scully has “Goop-O A-B-C,” a knock off of a Jell-O product that she remembers eating as a girl. When Mulder says “Jell-O 1-2-3,” I legitimately thought it was a gag—a joke buried inside a joke, to refuse you the comfort of being sure about anything. (This is part of the reason Morgan’s work is often so funny; there are great punchlines, but so much of the time is spent in this heightened state of nervy uncertainty that everything becomes hilarious.) And yet when I looked it up after watching the episode, I discovered I’d misremembered.
It’s more than a little suspicious that I’d experience the Mandela effect while watching an episode about the Mandela effect, but really, that’s the point: misremembering the past is a universal experience, because human memory is influenced by factors like emotion and ego which are largely beyond our control. The true novelty of this age isn’t that we disagree on minutiae; it’s how the Internet had made those disagreements into potential weapons. As we struggle to maintain our sense of self in a sea of information and disparate identity, we cling to the only real evidence we have of our own existence—our idea of what happened, and how events, even the smallest ones, have shaped us. No, “3-2-1 Jell-O” didn’t make me the man I am today, but that one small mistake leaves me vulnerable to the predations of anyone looking to dispute me on a larger point. If I can get something so simple wrong, what does that mean about anything I say? And if I’m vulnerable, shouldn’t I defend myself—and in that defense, insist that my own version of events is correct, and that the world is wrong?
This is, in part, the subject of “Forehead Sweat.” Morgan, clever bastard that he is, uses that subject as an excuse to go all out, suggesting an alternate timeline for the series in which Mulder and Scully were actually working alongside Reggie Something the whole time. The episode’s comic highlight gives us a glimpse of what that must of been like, shoe-horning Reggie into some of the show’s most iconic entries (as well as a few not so great ones). The screeners have been watching for these reviews have been full of unfinished f/x work, and this episode is no exception; but I really hope the montage you get is as awkwardly sloppy as the one I saw. The crummy effects really add to the hilarity of the whole thing.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Morgan episode if this was only about misremembering our past. Reggie Something has a theory that the Mengele Effect was created by Dr. They, a mad scientist hellbent on manipulating the minds of America for his own fell purposes, and before the episode’s over, Dr. They has made contact with Mulder in the flesh. He’s creepy looking but cheerful, and entirely open about his contributions to society. He’s even responsible for a YouTube video detailing his plans. Why not? As he explains to Mulder, the whole search for “the Truth” has come and gone. What evidence could Mulder uncover that would even matter anymore? Who’s left to care?
It’s a bleak worldview that calls back to the season’s central theme: can the X-Files even exist at this point? It seems entirely possible for some race from beyond the stars to find us, make contact, and then disappear into the ether without leaving much more of an impression than your average viral tweet. (In fact, wasn’t there something suspicious, like, a month ago? Something about alloys. It all moves so fast now.) The truly dark heart of all conspiracy stories is the unspoken admission that the most likely answer is: nothing at all. A search for deeper meaning and hidden secrets requires some sort of basic universal standard, a currency we can all agree still has value. Without that, it’s just tap-dancing on the Titania until the icy water swallows us whole.
“Forehead Sweat” doesn’t shy away from this, but then, the fundamental absurdity that drives the show has been a concern of Morgan’s from the start. Again and again he reminds us: no matter what we say, we never want all the answers. The climax of the episode has Reggie retelling his final case with Mulder and Scully, and it’s about as clear as Morgan ever gets: an alien on a Segway whose coming was foretold tells our heroes that the universe has decided it wants no contact with humanity; they’re building a wall (get it? Get it?), and leaving us forever. But before they go, they have one final gift: a book the explains everything. Even sasquatch.
Can you imagine anything more horrible? Thankfully, we don’t end there. After a cameo of Skinner seems to at least confirm that Randy Something was a presence at the Bureau, Mulder and Scully go back to Mulder’s house, where Mulder finally tracks down “The Lost Martian” (it was from a knock off series) and Scully makes some goo. The two settle in to enjoy a little piece of her childhood, but she ultimately decides not to indulge. “I want to remember how it was,” she says. “I want to remember how it all was.”
It is a surprisingly heartfelt moment in a charming but light-on-its-feet hour. And since Scully is always the sensible one in Morgan episodes, it’s as close as “Forehead Sweat” gets to a moral. Maybe the Berenstein Bears and Shazam and all of it is just the way we try to hold on to what we know is forever slipping away from us; because if we can take back this one little piece of our past, if we can push back logic and time and just manage to be right about this one little thing, then we can believe our lives are more than just impressions on the closed eyelids of the universe.
Seriously though, 3-2-1 Jell-O just sounds better.
- At the beginning of the episode (after the delightful left field cold open), Mulder comes back home from a busy day of “‘squatchin’.”
- “They’d kill us if they had the chance.” -Reggie (A reference to The Conversation?)
- Reggie’s played by Brian Huskey, who does an excellent job of keeping the character on the right side of twerpily endearing. (Stuart Margolin is also quite good as Dr. They.)
- “Confuse The Twilight Zone with The Outer Limits? Do you even know me?” -Mulder
- Okay, the flashback with adult Mulder’s head superimposed on a child’s body was a bit much.
- At the the junk shop where Reggie first learns about the Amygdala Effect, there’s a Nixon campaign poster I desperately wish was real. (“They Can’t Lick Our Dick!”) I mean, it can’t be real, but I also am not going to Google it? (I have been informed that this was, in fact, a real campaign slogan, and I have never been more proud to be an American.)
- Mulder stans very hard for a parallel universe theory.
- “Guys, if this turns out to be killer cats, I’m going to be very disappointed.” We all were, Remmie. We all were.
- Dr. They attributes a George Orwell quote to Orson Welles. If someone else had mentioned Mark Twain (or Morgan Freeman) we could’ve had a hat trip.
- “Believe what you want to believe. That’s what everyone does now anyways.” -Dr. They
- There are no mistakes in this review.