I have not been overly impressed with the X-Files revival that started in 2016—and to be honest the bookend episodes of Season 10, “My Struggle” and “My Struggle II” seemed to pretty much have a massive boner for the talking points of the same contemporary fringe conspiracy culture that got Donald Trump elected. (See: their Alex Jones analogue Tad O’Malley)
But with “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat,” The X-Files just wants to let you know: They are done with that shit.
The episode, written & directed by probably one of the best of the X-Files creative team over the years, Darin Morgan, pours gasoline all over that Conspiracy Culture, sets it on fire, and then stabs it repeatedly as it burns. And then crushes the little ashes with its index finger.
It opens with a black & white episode of what looks like the Twilight Zone, featuring a paranoid man in a diner who believes he’s seen an alien through the window. The man is told by the sinister-looking cook behind the counter that it is not a window but a mirror—the implication being that what the paranoid man is really seeing is himself.
If the symbolism seems slightly heavy-handed—the man was xenophobic, but his fears were of himself all along!—well, it gets better: the cook takes off his cap and turns out to be Satan. Could this be a foreshadowing of what is to come???
This is not to knock the episode, which was one of the most enjoyable of the new run. But “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat” is pretty much a stage play dramatizing the Conspiracy Culture that became so mainstream and politically weaponized over the last several years…and it just is what it is.
We next see Mulder, who is wearing a moss suit, come back from “sasquatch hunting.” The implication is clear, as he sighs about not having fun anymore with all the worrying over the past year and the nation going “insane”—he misses the “good old days” of “cool” Conspiracy Culture,” the days not so much of the X-Files “mythology” episodes but that of the “monster-of-the-week.”
Remember when The X-Files were fun? Remember when this was all fun and not so goddamned real and terrifying?
He’s contacted—via the classic X-Files “X” on his window,—by a nervous man called “Reggie Something” who claims that the Twilight Zone episode in question, “The Lost Martian,” doesn’t exist…that it was a victim of some type of conspiracy that erases real events or objects or people from the current day. Mulder, in a panic, digs though his pathetic collection of old VHS tapes to find the episode.
Scully is next contacted by Reggie, who gives her a box of a Jello-like treat called “Goop-o.” Goop-o, too, was “erased.”
What follows is a long discussion by Reggie, Mulder, and Scully about what exactly has happened here. And so we are introduced to the 3 different types of perspectives on anomalous phenomena:
Reggie is a Literalist Conspiracy Theorist: He “reads” the anomalies as literal, factual conspiracies carried out in real time by the nefarious forces (corporations, government, and etc.). It’s his belief that the things are being erased by something called “The Mengele Effect” (keep this Nazi connection in mind for later), used by the Baddies to distract the public and make them forget about various malfeasances.
Mulder is a Playful Conspiracy Theorist: He also acknowledges the existence of the anomalies, but is willing to ascribe more “fuzzy” or fantastic explanations for them…often with a sense of wonder & sometimes playfulness. And so he believes more in the “Mandela Effect” proper, that maybe there is some parallel world thing going on…maybe. Or maybe something else. Who knows?
Scully is a Skeptic: She questions the veracity of anomalies—and even when acknowledging them, believes there is a rational explanation for them.
Reggie himself claims to have been convinced of the “Mengele Effect” when spotting the Berenstain Bears-type book written by a “Dr. Wuzzle”—whom he originally believed was spelled “Dr. Wussle” (or maybe that’s the other way around). Going to a memorabilia shop to find out more, he spots a cartoon drawn by Wuzzle showing America and Nazi Germany as allies.
Further, Reggie claims to have been present at the 1980s invasion of Grenada, which he claims was an alien cover-up (and his related story of the UFO stamp is based on a “real” conspiracy theory). There is also some alien telepathy going on, reminding one of the Shaver Mystery and so many more like it.
Finally, Reggie says he “invented” the X-Files, triggering off a montage of clips from the original show with him inserted within, Forrest Gump-like. The Conspiracy, getting wise to Reggie, then “erased” him from the memories of everyone (Anybody who follows Rick and Morty will see some parallels between this and the character of Mr. Poopy Butthole, who supposedly had a long history on the show but was similarly “edited out”).
At this point, Mulder goes full “Pepe Silvia,” with his wall of pictures and headlines connected with string. He admits that he might have “lost the plot”—and that the world has just gotten too crazy for a person like him—a classic “Nineties Cool Conspiracy Theorist” (you know, somebody Richard Linklater would embrace) to be effective anymore.
Who is behind this plot? “Doctor They,” a sort of Dr. Mabuse-meets-Doctor Who individual who learned memory manipulation techniques while working at NASA (an MKUltra riff). Doctor They confronts Mulder in the midst of giant sculptures that all look like trolls laughing. He admits that he puts out “Phony Fake News”—presenting on the Internet the Truth in such a way that nobody believes it anymore.
“Your time has passed,” Doctor They cackles at Mulder. People in power used to do anything to cover up their misdeeds, he explains, but now they just “sow the seeds of uncertainty” as to what is real at all. That we are in a “post-coverup, post-conspiracy” age…#PoCo.
Doctor They mentions Holocaust revisionism, which he also claims to have had a hand in. And so now it all pulls together…the “Mengele Effect,” the Nazi Dr. Wuzzle art, and this. The fact is, some contemporary popular conspiracy theories contain a fair bit of xenophobia, including a hatred for Jews, LGBT, Muslims, and other groups. This has skyrocketed over the last 5 years, and has pushed a lot of people away from this conspiracy subculture—leaving the most hardcore Believers behind and increasingly without alternate points of view getting in the way. Far from hyperbole about Justin Timberlake or anyone else “killing” the “fun” Conspiracy Culture of the 1990s (and of The X-Files in its prime), the fact is, this fever-pitch level of xenophobia dealt it the final blow.
The Doctor is also explicitly connected with Donald Trump, wearing a red MAGA hat and
quoting the President, “Nobody knows for sure…” (meaning, basically, that he can say *anything* but can also weasel out of providing proof). They is basically Trump’s propaganda minister.
Reggie is also revealed to have been a frustrated DoD/NSA/CIA worker who had a nervous breakdown when he realized the government was not the heroic organization he thought it was. Like Edward Snowden he stole intercepted classified information…to create a massive fan-fiction where he was working in the X-Files along Mulder and Scully.
He’s taken away in a straightjacket, but not before one final fantasy: the trio are confronted by an alien who gives back the Voyager golden record and tells them that humans are to be contained from the rest of the universe by a “wall”—basically, going into another Trumpian riff.
Mulder is given a book by the alien called “All The Answers”…and “It’s the end of the X-Files.
Basically, you could have just ended the series with the last scene of Scully and Mulder reminiscing about “the good old days”…the actors almost breaking character and seeming to recognize that even though they’ve got some more episodes left in the season…this really is The End Of The X-Files.
Is Conspiracy Culture as we knew it—at least from back in the 1990s—dead? Perhaps. But real conspiracies still exist. For instance, there was a conspiracy on the part of the sugar companies to push fat as a bigger health risk. There was a passive conspiracy among several groups to keep Dr. Larry Nassar in practice treating young gymnasts, despite the many many accusations against him. And there might be more conspiracies—real conspiracies—left to discover and prove. But conspiracies seem to be a part of human nature. It can be as simple as two people deciding to keep information from a third for personal gain.
Also: the nature of reality, as increasingly proven by physicists and even astronomers, is PRETTY GODDAMN WEIRD. If you add that layer on top of everything else…parallel universes (or little green men, for that matter) don’t sound *that* insane.
But even I am not so naive as to think that this “fuzzy,” perhaps even “playful” view can’t also be “weaponized” to suit one political agenda or another. Is the answer, then, to have one “official” view on everything? To say that everything within this “box” is Pure Fact, and not tolerate any other views for fear the worst of propagandizers will exploit things again? Cannot this “Pure Fact Box” itself be corrupted by various interests?
This is why sometimes it’s better to just forget about everything for a while and just track Bigfoot.