I may sound like a fanboy in this regard, but the promise of a new Darin Morgan episode is the main reason I continue to support ‘The X Files’ still churning out new seasons so long into the show’s decline. However badly the rest of the season may go, Morgan’s work always stands apart.
In fact, the Darin Morgan-scripted episodes (season 2’s ‘Humbug’, season 3’s ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, ‘The War of the Coprophages’ and ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’, and season 10’s ‘Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-monster‘) almost seem to exist in their own pocket universe, connected to each other but insulated from the rest of whatever else is going on in ‘The X Files’. That’s especially true of these last couple, which feel as if Morgan hasn’t even watched the Chris Carter episodes around his, nor does he care. Normally, that would be a huge problem for a TV series with a continuing narrative, but when it comes to the convoluted mess that Carter has made of ‘The X Files’, it’s honestly the best approach a writer could take.
‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ opens with a very silly black-and-white prologue staged to look like an old episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, in which a man at a diner rants about a Martian invasion only to discover that he’s a Martian himself.
After returning home from a night of “squatchin” (hunting for Sasquatch), Mulder finds an X taped to his window, which is the old code for him to meet a mysterious conspiracy informer inside a parking garage. He goes to the rendezvous and finds a nervous bald man who says his name is Reggie (Brian Huskey from ‘Veep’ and a thousand other shows). Mulder doesn’t recognize him, but Reggie acts like they’re old friends and insists that their memories have been erased. Even for as much as Mulder loves a good conspiracy, this guy comes across as a fruitcake. Before vanishing, Reggie asks if Mulder remembers the first ‘Twilight Zone’ episode he ever saw, and then tells him that it doesn’t exist and never did.
Mulder becomes obsessed by this. A ‘Twilight Zone’ episode called ‘The Lost Martian’ is what sparked his interest in the paranormal in the first place (a flashback to young Mulder with adult Mulder’s head watching TV is just one of the episode’s hilarious throwaway gags), but he can’t find it in his DVD or tape collections, and reference guides make no mention of it. When Scully asks if he might have confused it with ‘The Outer Limits’, Mulder scoffs at her ignorance. As if he would ever confuse those two shows!
Reggie next approaches Scully in the same garage, and she has an even lower estimation of him than Mulder did. As proof that their memories have been tampered with, Reggie gives her a box of a Jell-O knockoff called “Goop-O” that Scully remembers fondly from her childhood but hadn’t been able to find in decades. Reggie runs when a pair of men enter the garage and stride toward them, and the three of them all disappear before Scully is even sure what’s happening.
Returning to the garage for a third night, Reggie meets “Foxy” and “Skulls” (as he keeps calling them) together and says that they’re experiencing the “Mengele Effect.” Scully asks if he means the Mandela Effect, in which groups of people claim to have clear memories of events (such as news reports that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s) that others remember differently and that contradict the actual historical record. Reggie insists that it’s called the Mengele Effect, due to Josef Mengele being captured living in the United States many years after World War II ended. He then spins a yarn about how their memories have been wiped to cover-up the fact that the U.S. military captured a live alien in 1983 (allegedly the real reason for the invasion of Grenada that year). He blames this on an elaborate government conspiracy. Mulder thinks it may be evidence of parallel universes. Scully thinks it’s just faulty memory. Reggie claims that the mastermind behind the whole scheme is a diabolical scientist named Dr. Thaddeus Q. They, a photo of whom looks like a still from a classic Vincent Price movie. At this point, Scully says she’s had enough. She’s out.
Reggie’s story gets even crazier. He now claims that he started the X Files, and the three of them had all worked together as partners for many years. The episode cuts to a hilarious montage of doctored clips inserting Reggie into famous scenes from the original show. Once again, Reggie runs away at the sight of two men he says are Dr. They’s henchmen. Mulder and Scully attempt to apprehend the men, who then pull their own FBI credentials and openly mock the notorious Fox Mulder for not being able crack such a simple case.
As Mulder sinks deeper into the abyss of Reggie’s conspiracy theory, he receives a phone call from none other than Dr. They asking him to meet. He goes to the arranged location and finds a weird old man (Stuart Margolin, two-time Emmy winner from ‘The Rockford Files’) who freely admits that everything Reggie said about him is true and scolds Mulder for taking so long to catch onto his existence. He says that he’s not afraid to reveal himself now or talk openly in public because nobody would believe him anyway. He talks about how the days of secrets and conspiracies are over and boasts that his latest scheme is “phony fake news,” i.e. telling something true but presenting it in such a way that people will assume it’s a lie. Mulder listens to all this and is himself left unsure whether to believe any of it. The guy seems crazy, right?
When Mulder returns to the office, Scully says that she’s found the answer. Reggie is one Reginal Murgatroyd, a low-level functionary who shuffled between jobs at numerous government agencies over the years, including Homeland Security and the CIA, until he eventually had a nervous breakdown and lost his marbles. He knows all about Mulder and Scully because he listened in on countless of their phone conversations via illegal wiretapping when he was with the NSA.
At this revelation, the two men who’d been chasing Reggie return, this time driving an old Cadillac ambulance and dressed as orderlies. One carries a straightjacket and the other a big butterfly net, like the classic cartoon image of men from the loony bin. They shrug and say that they’re just playing along with Reggie’s fantasy.
Reggie goes with the men willingly, but before he leaves, he tells Mulder and Scully about the last X Files case they supposedly worked together before their memories were erased. “We found the truth that’s out there,” he claims. This cuts to a wonderfully goofy flashback wherein the three of them witness a UFO landing. A big-headed alien wearing a sequined white Elvis cape descends an escalator and putters over them on a Segway scooter. The alien announces himself as a representative of the Intergalactic Union of Sentient Beings, and declares that, after careful examination, the rest of the universe wants nothing to do with Earth and will build a giant space wall to prevent us from ever leaving our solar system. (You better believe this is littered with quotes from our actual Commander-in-Chief talking about Mexico.) However, as a token of goodwill, the alien hands Mulder a book called ‘All the Answers’, which – as it says on the cover – contains the answers to everything, including every mystery Mulder ever investigated. Mulder is distraught, throws himself to the ground and throws a tantrum like a toddler. What purpose will he have in life if there are no mysteries left? Scully looks at Reggie and professes that she loves him.
As they listen to this ridiculous tale, Scully rolls her eyes. The men then put Reggie in the ambulance to haul him off to Spotnitz Sanitarium (an ‘X Files’ in-joke about producer Frank Spotnitz). As the ambulance leaves, Asst. Dir. Skinner enters the parking garage and asks, “Hey, where are they taking Reggie?”
Back at his home that night, Mulder is pleased to have found the ‘Lost Martian’ episode. Turns out Scully was right, or partially right. It wasn’t from ‘The Twilight Zone’, but from a short-lived knockoff called ‘The Dusky Realm’. Scully makes a big serving of Goop-O in the mold of a Sasquatch foot, but stops herself before taking a bite. She’s decided that she’d rather just remember how it was, rather than risk having that memory spoiled by actually revisiting it.
Initially, I half-feared that Darin Morgan wouldn’t be able to live up to his old work. I was then greatly relieved to find that this episode is another gem, easily the best thing we’ll see from ‘The X Files’ this season. Morgan truly operates on a much higher level than anything else on the show, and it’s very fortunate that Chris Carter is still capable of recognizing that and indulging him.
I’m not sure whether this is my favorite Morgan episode (I’ve only watched it once so far), but it’s another great one with terrific character work from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and many layers of story to unravel. I especially like the ending, which reads to me like Morgan is suggesting that even ‘The X Files’ itself is something best left in viewers’ fond memories, rather than be picked apart to scrutinize how much of it still holds up. I can sympathize with that.