X-Files mythology, TenThirteen Interviews Database, and more

11X04: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat

The X-Files Season 11 / Event Series 2: Introduction | 11X01: My Stuggle III | 11X02: This | 11X03: Plus One

Written & directed by Darin Morgan, who once more enjoys the complete freedom given to him by executive producers Carter & Glen Morgan to do a very personal episode full of his trademark quirks — such as multiple narratives, intellectual monologues about the nature of truth, mise en abyme (Mengele effect: a Mandela effect about the Mandela effect), recurring phrases (“wait, what?”). His most recent effort was 10X3: Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster, however Forehead Sweat has more in common with some of his best post-modern work, 3X20: Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ and its Millennium sequel 2×09: Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense.

“Oh, that’s so po-co.”

Reggie Something, in the classic (!) modernist approach, is another stand-in for the author, an insecure man making fun of the male lead’s all-American features and who manages to seduce the female lead. Forehead Sweat is a thematic sequel of the post-modern From Outer Space, for which countless academic analyses have been written. We are presented with stories that are accounts of what happened according to a point of view, but it is difficult to get to an objective truth. What happened here? Was Dr. They’s conspiracy so far-reaching that it convinced everyone of its non-existence? Was Reggie Mulder & Scully’s partner, making Scully’s findings of Reggie’s career planted information by Dr. They? Was Reggie and his sudden disappearances evidence of parallel universes? Was Reggie a disillusioned ex-NSA agent who was trying to find like minds? Was Reggie truly a mad individual, or just a good shaggy dog storyteller? If so, what to make of Skinner knowing him, with a final line “Where the hell are they taking Reggie?” that turns everything on its head once more? (reminiscent of From Outer Space‘s “Who, Lord Kinbote?“) We do not know what the truth is (although the crazy theory sounds more plausible).

This post-modern approach is reinforced with layers and layers of meta. The episode revisits The X-Files‘ past with alternative facts on its opening credits and best hits (all from the first four seasons, when Morgan was more or less close to the series), and has a very clear breaking the fourth wall modernist moment when the creation kills the author, with that alternate scene from 4X20: Small Potatoes! And with the excellent casting of Brian Huskey, who can’t think that the Reggie-Mulder-Scully partership wouldn’t work?

“Well, believe what you want to believe… that’s what everybody does nowadays anyway.”

Morgan built the Dr. They/Mandela effect conspiracy around his critique of the “alternative facts” phenomenon, taking multiple jabs at Trump’s administration and Trump himself, yet never naming him directly — too many jabs in fact, one wonders how this episode will be read in a few years in post-Trump years (certain details, like the alien’s absurd “bing bong” when he’s going up the stairs to his UFO is also a reference to Trump, something which is already receding in the wastebin of history given the man’s many absurdities since). This could be quite gratuitous, but the entire episode is thematically solid with extension of these ideas, from Dr. They’s 1984-like conspiracy to control the future by controlling the past to Mulder’s memories of the Twilight Zone.

Were-Monster already included reasons as to why The X-Files is passé today — mobile phones everywhere, exposed pranks that would have populated tabloid news as paranormal sightings. Forehead Sweat presents more socio-political reasons about why The X-Files‘ mythology, specifically, is irrelevant today: secrets hardly remain secret anymore and people are hardly interested in truth when they would rather have opinions. The X-Files‘ gold time was in that moment between the end of the Cold War and pre-9/11; conspiracy theories today are not cool, they are either legitimate social concerns or far-right agit-prop lunacies. Conspiracies cannot sustain themselves, conspirators would rather accuse the accusers (This tagline). Mulder’s chivalric and quixotic search for The Truth is just not that interesting or relevant anymore, people would just laugh at him like these peculiar Vancouver statues do — now, everybody knows their own truth and what everybody is asking for today is justice. Instead, today’s situation is more complex and wilder than in the 1990s. As even the Twilight Zone teaser says, “the world’s gone mad“!

Where the My Struggle episodes try very hard to continue the mythology to its bare-bones caricature villain extremes, Forehead Sweat pulls the rug under any fan of the mythology with an inconvenient version of the truth. Reggie-Mulder-Scully’s last case presents the reason why the aliens are more of a 90s phenomenon and “Why aren’t people getting probed by aliens anymore“. The aliens, that symbol of the unexplained, both menacing and fascinating, are presented as pretentious parrots of Trump’s hate speech and put Earth in quarantine — in a scene that turns on its head the optimistic offer of the aliens in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). They even present what Mulder, and by extension the show, actually fears most, “All the answers“, and suddenly life is not worth living. Having answers, especially answers one doesn’t like, really is the end of the X-Files.

“It’s time to face the facts, guys. This is the end of the X-Files.”

Because the other thing that Forehead Sweat manages to do is to make its own existence irrelevant. This is not just about Trump or post-truth, it is about post-X-Files: when Mulder frustratedly shouts “I was fighting the power and breaking conspiracies before you saw your first chemtrail, you punks” to younger FBI agents disappointed with this “legend“, one realizes how much time has passed. “The world’s gone mad” all right, but that’s also what an older person would say about the younger generation too.

When it presents us with a Twilight Zone teaser (shot where a memorable scene from From Outer Space was shot!), we reflect on The X-Files‘ place in history and popular culture. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The X-Files (1993-2002) are separated by a bit over one generation, and we are approaching that moment as much time will separate us from The X-Files‘ heyday, a moment when The X-Files will be fondly regarded as a memory of the past, remembered by many but seen by few. It is aware of the whole revival’s status as just icing on the cake.

When the episode shows young Mulder’s awe at discovering a Twilight Zone episode and then shows Mulder’s obsessiveness about it, it is of course the audience and its relationship with The X-Files that is mirrored here.

“It can’t be that good of an episode.” “It-It’s-it’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.”

Any fan can relate. Like Reggie, we have lived the past quarter of a century in company with these characters. Our memories of the show are very important to who we are — and the more time passes, the more this nostalgia becomes valuable and a fundamental part of ourselves. When these memories are either altered (Dr. They) or when we revisit them to find out they are not as we remembered them, it is our relationship with and understanding of the world that is changed. Scully’s solution is simple: let the past be the past. Don’t eat that goop-O/jell-O/madeleine de Proust.

“I want to remember how it was. I want to remember how it all was.”

In short, let the memories of the show intact and move on with your life. Darin Morgan is aware that it would be trivial to attempt to recapture lightning twice — either because he aware that the revival is not as good as the old series, or because our memories of the old series are such that we cannot be objective viewers to anything the revival might present to us. And so, The X-Files is just a TV show, remember it fondly, don’t try to tamper too much with it. It is an odd message to have while the showrunner says there are always more stories to tell, but Darin Morgan seems to be aware that this is the end. It is the kind of episode about memory and about the series itself that is only appropriate at the end, or in retrospect. Building sentimental ties to a TV show to make sense of the world is also the theme of 9X18: Sunshine Days — which was also, appropriately, a farewell to the series. However, this episode is, once more, an episode about the series instead of the series just trying to do a good episode, a self-awareness that was very noticeable and annoying in season 10; such episodes work only when they are exceptional, and season 11 as a whole might flow better after all, with its more numerous episodes.

The episode surely is not devoid of shortcomings. Most noticeably compared to masterworks like From Outer Space, once more there is no investigation, the “case” comes to them. There is not even an X-File or plot, arguably, just the musings of a mad man, and it would make little difference if the scene with Dr. They or the scene with the “last case” would come at any point in the episode. Some of the dialogue or jokes could have been trimmed (the Mandela effect explanations, the redacted letter), some/much of the Trump jokes could have been condensed or made more universal than direct Trump quotes (the wall speech). But most importantly, the enjoyment of this episode depends a lot on one’s taste of humor and tolerance for camp; the campiness is much, much more present in Darin Morgan-directed episodes than the one he just wrote for. He goes wild here, reusing 1950s/1960s pulp scifi aesthetics extensively, much, much more than with the references to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion in From Outer Space; this can be justified by this just being Reggie’s Twilight Zone-filled fantasies, but it is a lot to digest.

It might not be Darin Morgan’s best episode, but it is a very good one, and it is a thematically and emotionally appropriate episode for The X-Files final hurrah of a season.

Miscellaneous

  • Mulder did have a partner named Reggie in his first years at the FBI! Reggie Purdue met with his death in 1X15: Young at Heart and was named again only twice, in 4X08: Paper Hearts and 5X01: Unusual Suspects (the source of the clip here). Interestingly, Reggie Purdue does look a bit like Reggie Murgatroid!
  • The directing and the music editing has fun with setting up another conspiracy adventure, with rising tension and underground parking meetings, then cutting it short!
  • There are companies who are willing to pay anything […] Companies like G–” censored! A meta-joke similar to the cockroach crawling in front of the screen in 3X12: War of the Coprophages! Did Reggie mean GM? This would make it a Mandela effect on the Ford Pinto scandal in the late 1970s, about a cost-benefit analysis of replacing a fuel tank catching fire versus the social cost of injuries and deaths!
  • References: Shazaam/Kazaam and other Mandela effects; the US invasion of Grenada in 1983; Soy Bomb in a Bob Dylan concert in 1998 (on video!); safety ban of lawn darts; Grenada UFO stamps and the prime minister’s interest in the UFO phenomenon making its way to the UN.
  • The sequence of Reggie’s series of public sector jobs, with its similar cubicles and its gradual improvement of technology, will strike a chord with anybody that has an office job. Morgan uses the opportunity to drop jabs at the US’s awful foreign policy record, with torture of prisoners and gratuitous “collateral damage” drone strikes!
  • Dr. They’s crazy video and hidden past life in show business is very akin to Dr. Oonan Goopta from Doomsday Defense!
  • Is the ambulance from Ghostbusters (why?) from the same “Spotnitz Sanatorium” from Doomsday Defense? (and of course to Frank Spotnitz)
  • Darin Morgan seems to be making fun of or siding with the accusations of sexism in The X-Files: Reggie tells Pilot Scully “Move along, sugar boobs. This is the X-Files. No women allowed.” and present-day Scully, very relaxed, occupies Mulder‘s desk.
  • The aliens return the Voyager space probe with its gold record — see the teaser to 2X01: Little Green Men for the description of that historic mission!

  • No Darin Morgan is complete without an Alex Diakun appearance! (here the excellent Twilight Zone bartender/devil) We also have a cameo from Dan Zukovic, who was in Darin Morgan’s other Millennium episode, 2×21: Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me! (the Standards & Practices guy; here the no less excellent Twilight Zone bar client) We also see Bill Dow (the memorabilia store clerk), who we know better as Chuck Burks (introduced in 2X21: The Calusari, last seen in 8X12: Badlaa).
  • Some real Twilight Zone references: revealing who the alien is in a diner is the plot of Will The Real Martial Please Stand Up?; telepathic aliens giving humans a book with secrets (with a twist!) is the plot of To Serve Man.
  • “This Man” sighting: on Mulder’s “everything is connected” board.
  • Mark Snow is again recycling himself — but this time he goes along with Darin Morgan’s self-awareness that this is the end: the music at the end of the “last case” scene is from the end of I Want To Believe (track “Home Again”).

Tags:

6 Responses to “11X04: The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”

  1. Anna says:

    Thanks for the review.
    I loved this episode, after just one viewing I already place it in my top tens. After watching the episode I was thinking how great it would be if the mythology was resolved in episode 9 and then we had this episode as a send off to remind us one last time how things were. You are right that there was no investigation again (at least the procedural type of investigation) but i didn’t mind it this time because it had many theories trying to explain the x-file and that was what the series used to di at its best – offer us a lot of solutions and let us choose. Also, I think the episode does a much better job explaining to the audience why the mythology from s1-9 wouldn’t work anymore than all the mytharc episodes together (but I wish they had done a better job to move from the 90s alien paranoia to todays apathy in the aliens in the myth episodes). So far I think s11 is much better than s10 and as this season progress I can’t help feeling that the last season was useless.

    • orodromeus says:

      The Reggie-Mulder-Scully scenes were so full of interesting dialogue and were so well acted that they do serve the purpose of a plot, or what a procedural investigation would do. I do feel there’s something missing though, JCFOS managed better to merge the plot with post-modern themes of subjectivity of truth.
      Yes, the paranoia in ‘This’ and Dr. They’s speech here do a better job at covering mythology themes than the My Struggle episodes. Carter, take note! And I agree about s10, it’s as if it never happened in the minds of the writers too!

  2. Jason Thompson says:

    It is annoying that so many “x-files” are not truly x-file cases, but this was always true of the show. Even this season, of the first four episodes, only one has started with a case, “Plus One.” Interestingly, that one is probably the least consistent in terms of theme.

    MS3, This and Forehead all are all addressing this “po-co” problem. Whereas Dr. They claimed to help create this environment and seems more amused by it than anything, CSM looks to launch a disciplined attack on a lazy, decadent and ignorant post-truth world.

    There is also clearly a sense that this needs to be the end, a theme we can also take from “This,” with Scully literally turning the knobs to turn off the past.

    As for the aesthetics, I agree it’s largely due to Darin Morgan’s direction. Somehow Satan Got Behind me and Were Monster were his silliest episodes, but Forehead plays it straight more than Jose Chung or Humbug, which were both goofy screenplays. Those two just “looked” the same.

    I’m fairly encouraged by the consistency of this season, which we haven’t seen since S8.

    • orodromeus says:

      The “po-co”/Trump commentary and the time that has passed on are certainly the two themes of the season. The thematic direction is certainly tighter than s10, which is very much welcome, but the writing is of varying quality, from awkward name-dropping (MS3) to just stating the facts (This) to actually do a relevant analysis (Forehead).

      It is very noticeable that few episodes anymore are real investigations of cases. Fans are back for the characters as much as they are for the scary stories, which is only normal. I wouldn’t mind as much if they hadn’t placed them back at the FBI as if 20 years had not passed. Now at the FBI we expect them to investigate these cases (for some hazily defined personal motivations) and answer to Skinner (which they don’t seem to be doing), but that rarely happens.

  3. invisiblegardener says:

    I was SO into this episode until the stupid Trump-quoting alien speech. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but that was truly nonsensical in the mouth of an alien, even for the X-Files. Okay, so you didn’t like Voyager and are building a wall around the solar system. Makes sense. Now, who are these alleged rapists that we are sending into space (/beyond the solar system)? Mr. Morgan, we got the Trump joke as soon as you said wall. You REALLY didn’t need to beat it to death with dialogue that makes NO sense in-world. Effective satire requires more subtlety than this. Sigh, oh well, 95% great effort. The wacky episodes are still my favorites, and I’m still hopeful for the rest of S11.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.