“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is maybe the first episode of The X-Files to ever clearly ask: Is this thing even good anymore?
I ask myself the same every week—not pejoratively, but with a warmed-over, lifelong curiosity beaten, at this point passively, into my skull, once an obsession and now something I accept, like cleaning the garage, or celebrating Valentine’s Day. Chris Carter and crew—one of whom, Darin Morgan, helmed this episode—have used this 11th season to pry apart the tropes that defined the show (and all of the shows in its wake) while also redefining what the show is even supposed to be anymore, which amounts to both a celebration of and justification for itself. As much fun as that sounds.
Still, Carter obviously aspires to grander plots and loftier thematic complexity, a comment, maybe, on the ways in which he commented on even older plots in last season’s arc, asserting that the vast government conspiracy Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) had been chasing throughout the ’90s was only a ruse meant to be an increasingly convoluted mish-mash of derivative sci-fi hooey to distract from and obfuscate the harsher truth, that the real threat to our existence was ourselves. And also the government. Mostly the government. By refocusing the UFO narrative—the colonization of the planet; the warring alien factions; the race to develop alien-human hybrids to resist that colonization—back on Earth, Carter literally rebooted the series.
If the 11th season has felt like a reboot of a reboot, it must be because whatever sleight of hand the showrunner’s attempting to pull, it’s only so far manifested as starkly uneven episodes that appear to either be patiently cohering into a bigger statement about serialized TV and our culture of nostalgia, or toying purposelessly with our fandom for no greater purpose than that they think that’s what we want. The writers all decided—workshopped and planned and considered and revised—to frame the season so far as either the reality to the dream of the 10th season finale, or the dream of a mother sent to her by her psychic, dreamscape-hurdling son, in which the mother lives out the rest of her days as she would have wanted to: solving paranormal cases with her emotionally distant lover whose father raped her “with science.”
“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” falls cleanly in line with the first three episodes of the season thus far, playing whack-a-Schrödinger’s-mole with notions of doubles and alternate timelines and oneiric realities, but anchors itself to the core relationship between the two lead agents. Darin Morgan mounts his episode around their shared memories—a bond born from years of unique experience weathered together—but then pretty deftly disassembles whatever romantic ideals we still held about that bond as viewers who’ve spent countless hours there with them. What if the show was never as good a thing as we remember the thing being?
After a hardy bout of ’squatching, Mulder detects the masking tape “X” plastered to his windowpane, a symbol which once meant he had to immediately meet the appropriately named Mr. X (Steven Williams) in some dank parking garage. Surprised, Mulder goes to their old meeting place, this time confronted by “Reggie… Something” (Brian Huskey), who claims, after numerous rendezvous attempts involving Scully and always abruptly ended by the emergence of sinister-seeming bureaucrats, he’s being erased from the collective human memory by a malevolent global force led by the technology of the nefarious Dr. They (Stuart Margolin), who resembles Abe Vigoda after out-patient eye surgery. Inevitably, Reggie reveals that he started the X-Files, and has been partners with Mulder and Scully since the beginning, going on all those wacky adventures with them, friends forever—but he’d been completely erased from their brains. Morgan alludes to the Mandela Effect to wonder if peak Nostalgia TV just means eventually rebooting our memories.
Like his work on last year’s “Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster”—as well as on the heart-melting “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”—the standard for every neo-X-Files episode to meet is set, then re-set, then re-set again by Morgan. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” is visually playful, hilarious, dumb, witty, hammy, a tad overshot and ultimately poignant, a sly reference to Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and a killer Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) one-liner rounding out the assurance that this The X-Files is what it should be in 2018—that sometimes it’s OK to dream.
When Reggie begins reminiscing about his favorite cases tackled by the sides of his favorite agents, Morgan offers us Gump-like re-imaginings, and in each case, briefly, the Reggie version could be better than the Reggie-less original. Retconning Reggie into The X-Files probably wouldn’t pan out, but that urge—to revisit what we, what I, once loved with new perspectives and tastes—is what has allowed the show to endure, its now obsolete brand of serialized TV, mixing Monster-of-the-Week stand-alones with broader stories, an itch Morgan slaps at, slipping only at the end of the episode to over-explain itself—and punch up on the #FakeNews Trump references—and swoon too hard around obnoxiously loud set dressing and aesthetics. Maybe it’s a symptom of overcompensation, of fear, of the reluctance to believe that The X-Files can still be what it once was.
What if it can’t? That’s a healthy question to ask every week.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention. You can follow him on Twitter.