X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the X-Files television series.
Some late-night chatter overheard at a diner: “The world’s gone mad…” says Martin (Dan Zukovic), a man of wild stare and clammy brow. “…because Martians have invaded, but nobody seems to care!” The eatery’s owner, Buddy (Alex Diakun), tries to calm the guy down with a bit of coffee and straight talk, but Martin—convinced that these extraterrestrial invaders are using some kind of mind-erasing laser gun—isn’t having it. His paranoia is soon proven true, since Martin turns out to be one of the bulbous-headed, multi-appendage aliens and Buddy is actually Satan himself. (What a twist!) But just before the big reveal, a fearful Martin points down the counter, right at the camera—at us, the audience, watching. “There! I just saw one!” he says, “Outside through that window!” Buddy corrects him: “Hey, Mister. That ain’t a window. That’s a mirror.” Window or mirror? Extension or reflection? And whatever the reality may be, who’s looking in on or at who?
Darin Morgan, the writer-director of the fourth episode of The X-Files’ 11th season—which bears the hilariously cumbersome title “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”—makes such synapse-stoking headiness look easy. But it surely isn’t, and his intermittent contributions to a series soon to number 217 installments, 2 movies and all manner of spinoff material suggest as much. Besides this latest episode, Morgan’s prior efforts (most of them masterful, at worst merely great) still number in the single digits: a story credit (“Blood”) and one script (“Humbug”) in Season 2, three scripts (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”; “War of the Coprophages”; “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”) in Season 3, one script/directorial effort (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”) in Season 10. And there are his brief stints as a story editor (for the third season), as an uncredited rewriter (notably of a momentous conversation scene in Season 3’s Loch Ness Monster-inspired “Quagmire”) and as an actor (he played both the parasitic Flukeman in Season 2’s “The Host” and the shape-shifting, Dana Scully-seducing janitor Eddie Van Blundht in Season 4’s “Small Potatoes”).
The quality of Morgan’s work is so high—his teleplays especially, so rich are they in humor, wordplay, themes, et cetera—that it can at times cast an unfairly harsh light on his colleagues. Series creator and showrunner Chris Carter, in particular, has come in for some dragging whenever venturing into Morgan-esque comedy + pathos territory, as with Season 3’s “Syzygy” or Season 5’s “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” both very good episodes that lack in comparison because you can sense a certain amount of effort that in Morgan’s writing comes off as innate. Genius, which we might define as the work of appearing to do no work, is rare by nature, though we crave it (to witness it and/or to possess it) as if it was a common as opposed to an anomalous trait.
Better to let that knack (and how to get it) fall where it may and focus on something more tangible. On Sasquatch hunting, perhaps—which is what FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), decked out in grassy camouflage, has been doing to distract himself from a world gone mad. “I had to get out to nature,” he says via phone to partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), “where it’s simple and uncomplicated.” Yet complications ensue after he notices a masking tape “X” on his window, a secret signal that, in the past, would lead to a rendezvous with the government informant Mr. X (Steven Williams), but which now brings him to a parking garage where a bespectacled weirdo named Reggie Something (Brian Huskey) awaits.
“Something”—not his real last name, though an appropriate cognomen for a guy who’d gladly shrug his identity away if it helped make his crazy tale, which unfolds over several scenes with both Mulder and Scully acting as screwball comic foils, any more believable. The short of it is not too far removed from that opening diner scene (minus the literal devil): “They” are using a mind-altering technique on “us,” which makes humanity misremember the past. The truth of the present thus becomes that much more malleable; everyone lives, despite their personal certainties, in perpetual states of “maybe” and “perhaps.” Mulder identifies this as an example of The Mandela Effect, so named because of the large number of people who believe Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s rather than while a free man in 2013. Reggie, however, insists it’s called The Mengele Effect, so named for Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and his own indistinct fate. Additionally, “They” turns out to be not many people, but a single person—Dr. Thaddeus Q. They (Stuart Margolin, best known for his long-running stint as Angel Martin on The Rockford Files, less so for his top-drawer direction of The Facts of Life Down Under), a goofy-looking, mischievous shadow-figure who appears to have his hand in everything from NASA space missions to a ripoff of that Sinbad genie movie Shazaam.
Actually, I mean a ripoff of that Shaquille O’Neal genie movie Kazaam. There is no Shazaam—maybe? Perhaps? “What does it matter?” asks Dr. They when Mulder finally meets him in “Forehead Sweat’s” pivotal scene. He’s actually referring to something purportedly said by our current commander-in-chief: “Nobody knows for sure.” The Donald hangs over and in this episode more than most (his inauguration, it’s finally proven in an Adam Curtis-like Internet video that Reggie shows to the agents, was attended by “hundreds of millions”), but he’s again more symptom than disease. “Believe what you want to believe,” says Dr. They to Mulder, “that’s what everybody does nowadays anyway.” Twist that thought a certain way and he might be asking Mulder (and those of us willing to ponder it) what we see when we look in a mirror or out of a window. And by that rationale, can our sense of self and our sense of the world really be trusted?
Maybe the problem is that we’re confusing the mirror for the window and vice-versa. The fact that Mulder and Dr. They are discussing these provocative ideas among the fourteen statues that make up the “A-maze-ing Laughter” exhibit in Vancouver’s Morton Park adds another complicating layer. These bronze behemoths, each in a petrified state of hysterics, were conceived by the Beijing-based artist Yue Minjun as exaggerated self-portraits, and fall under the movement known as Cynical Realism, a response to the Chinese government’s oppressive approaches to aesthetic expression. Yet they’ve paradoxically brought such joy to a populace an ocean away that they’ve been made a permanent fixture of the Vancouver cityscape. (As, in slight parallel, this Canadian metropolis has so lovingly stood-in on The X-Files for a variety of American locales.) Pain in one place begets gaiety in another, and even a calcified smile has the power to counteract, if not necessarily defeat, the despots.
Morgan’s humor is itself a rectifying tool, though it is always and ever undergirded by a deep sadness for things lost and potential not realized. “So that’s the truth?” asks Mulder near episode’s end. “We’re not alone in the universe, but nobody likes us?” It’s a testament to Morgan’s talents that he makes the gloom of that statement hit as hard as it does, all while surrounding it with a gut-bustingly overwrought Mulder tantrum as well as a telepathic, Segway-riding extraterrestrial (a seeming cross between The Great Gazoo and the evolved humanoid from The Outer Limits episode “The Sixth Finger”) who wears a bejeweled Elvis cape and speaks in literal Trumpisms.
I could also mention how multiple characters scream “Wait, what?!?” throughout the episode until this ridiculous expression of surprise takes on a kind of piteous grandeur. (What better words to utter should the doomsday clock ever truly hit midnight?) Or I could note how the incorporation of Reggie into old X-Files footage begins on a lightly droll note (putting his wisecracking self in everything from first-season classic “Tooms” to the much-maligned killer kitties installment “Teso dos Bichos”) and ends on a momentously morbid one (having Reggie shoot Morgan himself in the climax of “Small Potatoes”—character nonchalantly slaughtering creator). The temptation with Morgan episodes, really, is just to list every single highlight, to acknowledge and preserve the ingenuity (to keep it present) rather than let it fade like “The Lost Martian,” the Twilight Zone installment (about two guys named Martin and Buddy holed up in a diner during an extraterrestrial invasion) that Mulder insists exists despite all evidence to the contrary.
“I want to remember how it was,” says Scully in the final scene as she readies and then refuses to eat a scoop of three-layered gelatin (a Jell-O knock-off named Goop-O A•B•C) that is effectively her Proustian madeleine. “I want to remember how it all was.” But without the help. Without the intermediary assistance of an object or a person that (maybe, perhaps) holds the key to whatever vague truth she seeks. (And as The X-Files in toto continues to ask, what would you even do with that truth if you got it?)
Look in a mirror, see an alien (the stranger always staring back). Look out a window, see the world (and its chaotic evolution). Scream. Laugh. Whatever’s appropriate. The only certainty is that one day there will be nothing left to see.
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• The restaurant in the teaser should look familiar to X-Files fans. It’s the same one from the sequence in the Darin Morgan-penned third season episode “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” in which Mulder either interrogates a soldier or eats an entire sweet potato pie, depending on whose point-of-view you believe.
• Martin and Buddy are played by X-Files alums Dan Zukovic and Alex Diakun. Zukovic was in Season 4’s “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man,” as a government agent who tasks the young CSM with assassinating John F. Kennedy, and he also appears in Morgan’s two spectacular installments (“Jose Chung’s ‘Doomsday Defense’” and “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me”) of X-Files’ sister series Millennium as a wacky cult leader and a self-destructive network censor. Diakun, whose appearance here seems modeled on a certain devilish character from the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Hollow Man,” has had small but memorable roles in every one of Morgan’s X-Files episodes aside from “War of the Coprophages.” He and Zukovic also shared screen-space on Millennium in “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me,” though Diakun appeared there in digital form as a demonic embodiment of the dancing baby from Ally McBeal. So this is their first flesh-and-blood onscreen appearance together in Chris Carter/Darin Morgan world.
• A little more on Zukovic, who I think someone once described (and maybe this is my own Mandela/Mengele effect in action) as the unholy offspring of David Byrne and Beaker from the Muppets. In addition to acting, he’s made a career as a punkish independent filmmaker, with three shorts and three features to his name. I’d highly recommend checking out his rabble-rousing The Last Big Thing (1996), which is available on DVD and some streaming sites. It’s a low-budget, end-of-culture satire/romance that has as many ideas-per-minute as a Darin Morgan script. It features Mark Ruffalo in an early role (his supporting appearance is how the film tends to be marketed nowadays). And it’s extremely funny (in admittedly abrasive ways). I’m still not able to shake how Zukovic’s character, Simon Geist (as in zeit-), heckles a mediocre stand-up comic as if it was the sole way to stave off the apocalypse.
• In Reggie's first scene, he’s eating sunflower seeds (Mulder’s snack food of choice). Unless they’re pistachios (just to futz with fans’ memories).
• Speaking of futzing with memories, the X-Files office has been reorganized in this episode (at least I think it has—I see what you’re doing, Morgan). The “I Want to Believe” poster is in a different spot, as is Mulder’s desk, as is the fact that Scully is sitting behind that desk. (The fact that she’s never had one is a big sticking point in X-Files fandom; it was even referenced in the Season 4 episode “Never Again.”)
• At one point, Reggie goes to a memorabilia shop to check on his memories about a Dr. Seuss-like author, Dr. Wuzzle. (Was his name spelled with two Z’s or two S’s?) The proprietor of the establishment, Pangborn, is played by Bill Dow, a recurring actor on The X-Files, usually in the role of Mulder’s former-hippie scientist buddy Chuck Burks. He’s played different characters, too—a dad in Season 1’s “The Jersey Devil” and a doomed doctor in Season 3’s “War of the Coprophages.” The fact that here he’s playing someone who most X-Philes will remember as someone else more than fits with Morgan’s thematic aims.
• In retrospect, one of the most impressive things about “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” is how it seems to anticipate some of the turns in the series’ mythology (specifically about the military’s involvement in alien abductions), though Morgan has admitted that he rarely keeps up with that side of the show’s narrative. I nonetheless wonder if all the explicit talk in “Forehead Sweat” of “parallel universes” (an uproarious running gag) and Dr. They’s out-of-nowhere comment to Mulder (“You’re dead!”—a delayed bit of merriment, that) is Morgan having fun with where I’ve speculated this season may ultimately go?
• It turns out that Reggie’s full name is Reginald Murgatroid. As in “Heavens to Murgatroid!” (Alternately, “Murgatroyd,” because of course there are two possible spellings.) That’s the catchphrase of Hanna-Barbera’s anthropomorphic pink mountain lion character Snagglepuss. Good referential company to both the alien who I noted above recalls The Great Gazoo from Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones and to the goofy sound effect of that alien’s Segway, which was used on many a Hanna-Barbera cartoon show. Though I also recall its presence on Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1970s series Lidsville, as the sound effect for the hat-transport flown by Merlo the Magician—played by Charles Nelson Reilly, who, no coincidence, guest-starred in two Darin Morgan episodes (one X-Files, one Millennium) as the puckish, pessimistic writer Jose Chung. A Lidsville clip is even used in that Millennium episode as a way of filling in Chung’s backstory.
• Reggie appeared very briefly in episode two of this season, the Glen Morgan written and directed “This,” in the scene where Mulder and Scully comb through the digitized X-Files. And here’s a list of every episode altered to include him in “Forehead Sweat”:
- Season 5’s “Unusual Suspects” (which allows for an archival appearance by the two other Lone Gunmen, John Byers [Bruce Harwood] and Melvin Frohike [Tom Braidwood], after a real one by Richard Langly [Dean Haglund] in "This").
- The series “Pilot” (in which Reggie cheekily tells Scully that there are “no women allowed” in the X-Files, a reference to the writers' room controversy from last year).
- Season 1’s “Tooms”
- Season 3’s “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”
- Season 3’s “Teso dos Bichos”
- Season 4’s “Home”
- Season 5’s “Small Potatoes”
• More in-jokes (and no doubt I've missed a few): “This Man” appears again on Mulder’s conspira-wall, on which he attempts to connect that enduring Internet meme/Season 11 running gag to Ted Cruz, Bob Dylan, and the Eels song “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb,” among other things. Then there’s the ambulance that comes to take Reggie to the madhouse, which hails from the “Spotnitz Sanitarium,” named for former X-Files co-executive producer Frank Spotnitz. And composer Mark Snow’s soaring romance theme (titled “Home Again”) from the second movie, The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008), is used to comically counterpoint Mulder, Scully and Reggie’s discovery of “All The Answers.”
• Mulder and Scully’s boss, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), only appears toward the end of the episode, but his goofy walk and single indignant line of dialogue (“Where the hell are they taking Reggie?!?”) are more than worth the wait.
• Like Scully, I too have no idea why the U.S. invaded Grenada. Or maybe I just remember it that way.