What is truth? And if enough people believe it, can the power of collective belief create a truth from a lie? These are questions that you may well have asked yourself in the last two years, as you witness Trump’s rise to power in the US, or Brexit’s derailing of national rationality over here. The X-Files’ 11th season nodded to that idea of conspiracy, deceit and propaganda in its opening episode, but Episode 4 – The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat – tackles these issues head-on, and it’s an instant classic entry in the TV show’s history.
The episode is penned by Darin Morgan, which should tell you everything you need to know: the Emmy winner for Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, and the man behind Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster in Season 10, he’s one of the series’ best writers, capable of throwing genuinely mind-boggling curveballs at the screen with wit, depth and a total lack of reverence. Here, that curveball takes the form of Reggie, a man who asks to meet Mulder in a car park – the time-honoured sign of someone who is entirely stable and lucid. There, he claims he is being hunted and erased from society, asking for help from his old colleagues.
Wait, what? Yes, Reggie claims he used to work with Mulder and Scully back in their heyday. It’s a suggestion that he backs up with verbal evidence, as he refers to events in both Mulder and Scully’s childhoods – but we also discover that these events are actually incorrect memories held by each agent (one, a non-existent jelly flavour; the other, an imagined episode of The Twilight Zone). How is that possible? That would be The Mandela Effect, a real life phenomenon that sees groups of people incorrectly remember things as being true. Why? There are a number of factors, from shared pop culture influences or social reinforcements to – yes – fake news. If everyone thinks that an episode of The Twilight Zone existed called The Lost Martian, does that mean it actually does?
This is the kind of territory that politicians such as Vladimir Putin work in, as they sets up layers of false information and misleading suggestions to distract people from what is actually happen. And Marin is more than up to that task, building up his own undermining and reinforcing layers in each side of the fence. Is Reggie telling the truth or not? On the one hand, he seems to know a lot about The X-Files and Mulder and Scully acknowledge the existence of the Mandela Effect. On the other hand, he insists it’s actually called the Mengele Effect, and they can’t even agree on that.
The result is a gorgeously intricate, and hilariously silly, string of exchanges between the three characters, and David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson relish the chance to enjoy some top-notch dialogue after some ropy previous episodes. Brian Huskey as Reggie, meanwhile, is wonderfully convincing, but played just slightly off enough to stop you believing him fully. Morgan adds to the confusing post-modern doubts by cutting their conversations together with clips from old episodes of the series – with Reggie brilliantly, seamlessly inserted into the background, making amusing comments.
Is he actually a member of The X-Files or not? We won’t spoil the answer here, but much like Morgan’s Were-Monster episode, the actual solution is almost irrelevant: with Trump explicitly nodded to, as we hear of some aliens planning to build a wall to contain humanity, this is an episode that deliberately wallows in the uncertainty of conflicting evidence. There’s even some comfort to be found in the sea unknown: the notion that Mulder might be given all of the answers to evert mystery ever is almost as scary for Fox, as his purpose to find the truth out there would be taken away from him.
A clever meditation on the importance of facts and transparency, wrapped up in a comedy about someone who may or may not be crazy, The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat sits alongside The X-Files’ best episodes, upholding the show’s mythology while dismantling it entirely. “Our current President once said something very profound: nobody knows for sure,” observes one figure, late on. “What was he referring to?” asks Mulder. “What does it matter?” comes the reply.
Episode 4 of The X-Files Season 11 is available on My5 until 28th March 2018