“It’s not me! It’s the world! The world has gone mad!”
There have been several back and forth opinions regarding the latest season of TheX-Files as to whether or not the show has too often tried to layer its fantastical stories with too much overt American political commentary. ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ will definitively put that argument to bed – not only is Season 11 now almost certainly going to be the final run of this iconic show, Darin Morgan’s comedic entry is a pointed response to the Trump, Fake News, Post-Truth era. It is also, as you may expect from the man, a minor work of brilliance.
Darin Morgan’s comedy episodes have become their own sub-genre within The X-Files since very early on in the second and third seasons, delivering gems such as ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ or ‘Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space”, episodes which took the essential concept of Chris Carter’s series–two FBI agents investigate the paranormal–and inverted it into a comedic romp filled with one-liners, flashback gags and histrionic, heightened levels of reality. Some have argued The X-Files was so successful precisely because each writer brought a different canonical sensibility to the series – Carter’s arch grasp of symbolic theme, Glen Morgan & James Wong’s fusion of pulp and thriller stylistics, or Vince Gilligan’s blue-collar horror tales, but Darin Morgan’s stand out the most for being almost non-canonical, a pocket universe of wry, format-breaking, ‘meta’ stories which shine an alternative light on The X-Files and prove, without a shadow of a doubt, it has a remarkable elasticity of tone.
Season 10 wasn’t just a revival for The X-Files but of Morgan’s comedic outings, having not written anything for the show since the third season (though he did guest act in Season Four’s ‘Small Potatoes’). ‘Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster’ felt more akin to episodes of his such as ‘Humbug’ or ‘War of the Coprophages’, taking a monster of the week traditional X-Files narrative and twisting it into his own inverted concoction. Though Season 10 had several episodes with flaws, Morgan’s stood out as roughly on a par with many of his older scripts and a reminder of just what the show, and especially David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson, could do with a script which sends up their characters and archetypes.
‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ doesn’t miss a beat in conforming to the Morgan tropes, except in this instance he takes a swipe at the pervasive ‘mythology’ which has existed at the core of Carter’s series from the beginning, in his own unique way. If this newest episode resembles anything, it’s his near-masterpiece ‘Jose Chung’ (his complete masterpiece remains ‘Clyde Bruckman’), in how it deals with aliens, UFO lore, and the subjective nature of memory, whether real or implanted; in some senses, this could almost be a companion piece, if not quite a sequel. We sadly don’t have Charles Nelson Reilly with us anymore to make that a possibility.
Morgan has always been interested in the subjective nature of reality, in the veracity of what we understand and know to be real. ‘Humbug’ had characters with alternate viewpoints on the nature of the monster plaguing its circus, ‘War of the Coprophages’ played with mass hysteria and the effects on small-town America of invasion fears, and ‘Jose Chung’ actively saw teenagers having their memories ‘stolen’ either by nefarious government forces or strange alien beings. Morgan’s alternative view on The X-Files has consistently played with truth, indeed it’s almost as if his scripts, if you look at them in the context of a thematic story across almost 25 years, have been questioning exactly what ‘the Truth’ is, and what it means to seek it.
His latest, perhaps his final X-Files script, feels like the answer to that bigger question, or his own answer – the Truth is not one literal, tangible ‘thing’. It is malleable, open to interpretation, and ultimately doesn’t even matter. Chris Carter’s idea of Truth has always been about the journey, what lies within – Morgan literally has Mulder handed the Truth in a book by an alien and he screams, collapses and refuses to believe it’s that simple, and that attainable. Morgan’s Truth is whatever you want it to be.
That of course tracks with the social and political pulse of our age. Carter’s fascination in reviving The X-Files has been about big government, deep state and the removal of rights and liberties from the individual – even to the point he has recast his own mythology to disclude alien life from the conversation. Glen Morgan’s approach (he being Darin’s brother) was an anxiety about the technological corruption of our hearts & minds in tune with the corporate stripmining of national security.
Darin Morgan’s interest lies in the causal factors which have directly emerged from this post-millennial anxiety; the confusion of truth and reality, a game show host President, a rising tide of nationalistic thought which reconceptualises history into a narrative which fits the future different social groups wish to create; Morgan’s script is filled with events and references which question the singular nature of a primary Truth, a linear progression of fact in people’s lives, and leaps off the real life ‘Mandela Effect’ phenomenon in order to provide a backbone to these ideas. What is reality? What is Truth? Do they matter? Though through a comic lens which owes as much to 1950’s B-movies as The X-Files, Morgan is pondering the big questions in the kind of subversively overt way he did in some of his greatest scripts during the 1990’s.
If ‘Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster’ felt more like a love letter to the adventures of our two protagonists, ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ is Morgan’s goodbye to characters who defined the work he will possibly best be remembered for. Morgan’s scripts have been legendary since the 90’s and if Season 11 so far has nostalgically looked back at the series’ prime years, Morgan himself seems to be reflecting on his own journey to this point. ‘This’ ruminated on how the early days were simpler times in terms of conspiracy and truth, ‘Plus One’ reminded us of the bond between our central duo as it crosses borders between platonic and romantic, and ‘Forehead Sweat’ wants us to *remember* the best days, the days we wouldn’t want to forget or do any differently.
The very fact Morgan’s story is all about a man at the centre of the Mandela Effect who tries to convince Mulder & Scully (or Foxy & Scullz) that he created the X-Files and was a key part of their journey, underscores how subjective memory can rewrite history in the minds of those who misremember, and even misremember the simplest things. Scully at the end tells Mulder, in a scene which honestly could adequately serve as a final scene for the entire show, that she just wants to “remember”. She speaks for the audience in that statement.
With all of these ideas loading the script, you might be forgiven for thinking his comedy heavy, but it’s as light and knowingly over the top as all Morgan’s tales tend to be – quick to lampoon, with no target left off the table. Morgan delights, as ever, in allowing Duchovny to portray a particularly egocentric and impassioned Mulder (or, sorry, FOX FREAKIN’ MULDER, DAMNIT!!) who is as ready to indulge crazy theories as Scully is on standby to debunk them (always with more of a savage level of common sense scorn than in typical episodes of the show). Given all the debate recently about whether Season 11 is in a parallel universe, which I wrote about previously, it was particularly enjoyable to see Morgan heap plenty of ridicule on the very idea Reggie’s subjective experiences of a past our heroes can’t remember is evidence of an alternative reality.
Unless Carter is being deliberately crafty with our expectations, this could put the alternate reality theory out to pasture. Morgan seems to believe it’s too obvious an answer for subjective truth, for the creation of false narrative, and is far more interested in the power of memory and it’s ultimate effect not just on the mind, but on Americans themselves. How else to characterise the oddball Dr. They? Himself an inversion of the age-old concept of ‘them’, an undefinable powerful force coming to subjugate or control. They’s diatribe to Mulder about his work and the meaning of Truth and memory is arguably Morgan’s philosophy – the world is so complicated, confused and unknowable, the Truth is an impossible target to aim for. His nihilism in the face of hope is almost Lovecraftian, if Lovecraft had ever demonstrated a sense of humour.
Is the episode too political? Undoubtedly for some. Morgan pushes his luck in having the all-knowing telepathic alien being recite the same xenophobic words as Donald Trump, and talk about building invisible walls in space to keep humanity out of a universal family, but it’s funny and strikes a deep anxietal chord about the fate of America as applicable to a possible fate of our world. Morgan’s timeline doesn’t include us creating a Star Trek Federation of united planets in common cause to better the galaxy. Remember those old episodes of Trek shows where the Starfleet officers meet those hostile, small-minded, ignorant races? That’s who we’re more likely to be in Morgan’s eyes, not Gene Roddenberry’s progressive utopia. Morgan may be mocking the idea of alien interlopers but by characterising *us* as the aliens, he pulls even more sharply into focus his anxietal philosophy about where our own Truth may be taking us. That crashed, destroyed Voyager probe is more than a little symbolic, as much as it’s also an X-Files in-joke, it asks – what are we striving for? What world are we living in? Do we even know? Do we even by this point *care*?
If this is to be Darin Morgan’s final piece of work for The X-Files, it’s not just fitting but enormously in tune with his concerns about where we’re headed not just as a country but as a race. ‘The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat’ more keenly wears the politics of its writer on its sleeve, nor does it perhaps have the sheer amount of belly laughs in some of his earlier, classic episodes, but there is a sprinkling of nostalgic magic over this episode. Not just for the inserted flashes back to episodes of yore, or the rather specific dry and self-effacing tone of Morgan’s writing, nor the angle and ridicule of the Trumpocalypse in which we’re currently living, but mainly because it’s a creative saying goodbye to something he loves. That’s both touching and, if not meant in the Trump sense, sad.
Darin, we will never forget…