A Darin Morgan episode of The X-Files is an event, and tonight was no exception, as I’ll explain — with spoilers for it, followed by a conversation with Morgan himself — just as soon as I have a Mengele Effect about the Mandela Effect…
“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” was only the seventh X-Files script with Morgan’s name on it, which is half of his total TV output in a career dating back to the mid-‘90s. He is not prolific, but when he writes — particularly when he writes episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,’” which are as much commentary on the series as they are great episodes of it — it’s with a level of artistry and thought to which few other TV writers can aspire. (Across the whole run of the original series, Vince Gilligan was the only guy in Morgan’s neighborhood.)
“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” fit the mold of Morgan’s most famous ‘90s installments, as well as “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” the primary highlight of the 2016 season. It initially feels like a parody of the show — our first glimpse of Fox Mulder is him wearing a Bigfoot costume, and much of the hour is told from the point of view of Reggie (Brian Huskey), who claims to be the forgotten third member of the team, with Huskey inserted in deliberately clumsy fashion into old episode footage — but it’s really a tragedy, in this case commenting on an America where conspiracy theories have a very different connotation from Mulder’s heyday, and where the President of the United Stated has no qualms about openly feuding with the FBI or telling obvious lies in public.
By the time Mulder has gotten to know the episode’s villain, Dr. They (played by Emmy-winning Rockford Files alum Stuart Margolin), it’s enough to leave him and the audience wondering what the point of the X-Files — both the FBI unit and the show itself — is in 2018. It’s funny, it’s sad, and in its homage to Mulder’s love of The Twilight Zone, it’s also profoundly sweet.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Morgan about the inspiration for the episode, why he still finds writing scripts so difficult after all these years, whether he thinks his episodes fit into the continuity of the series, and more.
Do you remember the first Twilight Zone episode that you saw?
Yeah, I do. And I actually rewatched it this weekend, for some strange reason. It was ”The Jungle,” which isn’t really all that great of one, but that was the first one I ever saw.
The series as a whole clearly made an impression on you. Were you a big fan of it back then?
Oh yeah, Twilight Zone was my X-Files. The way some people regard The X-Files, that’s how I felt about The Twilight Zone.
Had you thought about integrating the two shows before now?
No, I hadn’t. One of the reasons Rod Serling created it was because of stuff he was writing for other shows had political messages that were being censored, and so he figured if he did a sci-fi show, he could get away with some of his more political stories without being censored. And because I was doing more political stuff in this one, it sort of makes sense to pay tribute to that show while I was doing a similar thing.
Your episode is definitely the most political of the ones I’ve seen from this season, but there are a number of references laced throughout some of the others about President Trump’s problems with the FBI and other things going on. When you guys got back together again to do this batch, how much did you wind up talking about the current political landscape in America?
Well, we talked about it a lot when we weren’t working on stories, and some of the stories have it, some of them don’t. My own personal feeling was if we’re gonna do these episodes again, we kind of have to. The last revival, we came back and I was looking back on the show, what it all meant, and being kind of reflective. For me the only reason to do it this time is to make some comment as to what’s going on currently. The whole idea that I felt, you have a series whose whole premise is “the truth is out there.” Current president, his relationship with the truth is a bit iffy, at best. That needed to be addressed in some way. I went full-bore for that. Everybody else, did whatever they wanted to.
The episode in general, and particularly the scene with Stuart Margolin, makes a pretty strong argument for the idea that Fox Mulder’s time has passed, if you have people in power like Donald Trump who have no problem with just lying out in the open, not apologizing for the things they do, not even bothering to conceal things. How do you feel about that? Is there a role for a guy like Mulder anymore in popular culture?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. If Mulder found whatever the truth is out there, and if it wasn’t in accord with whatever Trump’s political stance is, would anyone believe it? You know what I’m saying? We’re in a state now where if it’s not in agreement with your political position, people just refuse to believe it. I don’t know where we go from here. I never quite understood what exactly the specific truth that Mulder was looking for, but like I said, if he did find it, I don’t know what he would do with it now. What would you do with it? Where would you go?
There’s a really striking line at one point in the episode where Mulder says he’s lost his taste for conspiracies ever since the birther stuff. The whole idea of conspiracy theories really has a different connotation and feeling to it now versus in 1994.
Yeah. I hadn’t done a conspiracy episode yet. Now’s a good time. Back in the day, Mulder was considered crazy, and now he’s quite sane in comparison to a lot of the people he would either work for, or alternately, the president. It sounds funny, but it’s true. Mulder would never believe that… jeez, just take your pickof any of the current conspiracy theories that are out there, whether it’s Ted Cruz’s father, or the tragedy in Newtown was a false flag operation, all that stupid shit. Mulder would never buy into that. But people do. What’s a guy like Mulder supposed to do?
Your episode for the previous season was something you’d written years ago for The Night Stalker, and rewrote. This, you had to write from whole cloth for this season. How different of an experience was it to be conjuring up an entirely brand new X-Files story and material for Mulder and Scully all these years later?
It really wasn’t all that much different, to be honest with you. It’s always hard. I don’t know why. Just adapting an old story, I had to adapt it and it’s still difficult. It was difficult back in the day, it’s difficult now. I don’t know why. I know the stories, don’t seem like they should be that difficult, or they should take that long. There’s just lot of things you have to deal with, in terms of a standalone episode for a series like this. It’s just always difficult. It’s not just me, every writer who’s worked on the show has never had an easy time of it. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it is. There wasn’t that much difference between old episodes and this one, had equal amounts of problems.
What was the toughest thing to crack in this one?
Oh, boy. Nothing leaps out. I had certain problems with building up to the Dr. They scene, ’cause you think that’s gonna be easy, and then you get there and you go, “How the hell am I gonna explain what he’s doing? In four pages?” That seems kind of hard. Good question, but it’s all merged together. For the longest time, I didn’t know what the teaser was gonna be. I had no idea what I was gonna do for the teaser. I was halfway through writing it at least, when I go, “Oh, no. It’s a Twilight Zone episode.” Once I figured it out, that’s easy, it was easy writing it. But for the longest time, I didn’t have any idea what I was gonna have the teaser be.
A lot of your episodes have a very different feeling from what the show usually does. I’ve always wondered whether you view something like this, like “Jose Chung,” like “Clyde Bruckman,” as existing within the continuity of the rest of the series. Like, if you were to go up to Fox Mulder or Dana Scully during the event of any other episode and say “Hey, remember that time Clyde Bruckman showed up?” Would they remember it? Is that something you’ve ever thought about or discussed with Chris or anybody else?
I’ve never discussed it. My own personal feeling is that, yeah, of course it’s part of the show. It’s part of the tapestry. I know that some people think that my episodes are parodies of the show, or just sort of comic relief. I don’t feel that that’s their role. I feel it’s part of the show, it’s one aspect of the show. I’m sticking to it.
I don’t know how you could look at these and say they’re just comic relief. They’re funny, but they’re also very tragic.
Yeah, true. But some people just regard them as filler, or palate cleansers, or just a breath of fresh air before you get into the more serious episodes. Just how some fans look at them. There’s nothing I can do.
I’m curious: You did, early on, write a few slightly more traditional X-Files episodes, but at what point did you start looking at the show in a way where you see, oh, it’s a vehicle, like, this is the kind of story I want to tell in the world of the X-Files?
Well, I think I’ve always done that. The things that I will point out, your previous question was that my episodes are very different from the normal, or average, episode, which I understand and agree with. But I feel that each one of my episodes are very different from each other in both tone, just how they’re done. I feel like each one has been my attempt to go, “Okay, I want to do a story about this, and then whatever that story is kinda dictates how you tell it. “Clyde Bruckman” is a story about a guy whose life is kind of consumed with death. Although it’s a comedy, it has that more somber, depressing tone, I guess, whereas “Were-Monster” or even this one is a bit sillier, I guess you could say. That’s just the nature of the story you’re telling, kinda dictates how you’re telling it.
To me, that was always the best thing about working on the show. You didn’t have to do an episode that was exactly like all the other ones. I know it drives current viewers crazy, because everything is serialized now and everyone expects each episode to be, other than the plot twists, to be exactly the same as the preceding episode. I watch those kind of shows, I understand why people like them, I watch them too. But in terms of writing, that kind of stuff drives me crazy.
So to your mind, it’s all part of the same continuity and I love that about it, but that means, for instance, in Clyde Bruckman, you tease the idea that Scully is immortal. Was that something you were expecting either yourself or Chris to ever have to pay off at some point in the run of the show?
No. Not at all. I wrote it as a joke line. A way for that character to be friendly to Scully. I believe it was Vince Gilligan who wrangled that idea to do an episode after I was gone about a guy who lives forever or something. Pass it along to Scully or something. That’s one of the weird things about working on a TV show. After you leave, or you can still be there, the story goes off on ways that you don’t control. You just have to accept that. I used to use an analogy that they could have established that Mulder was actually a serial killer. People would go back and look at each previous episode in the past, they would find things that seemed like they were clues to that. It would completely change the nature of the episode, even though while we were doing them we had no intention that Mulder would one day be revealed to be a serial killer or something. It’s just a weird part of being on a television staff. A story, as it continues, can change, and you have no control over that.
So if there’s another iteration at some point and someone says, “I’m gonna do an episode that Reggie is in,” that’s just something you have to let go of?
Yeah, what are you gonna do? What am I gonna do about it? Beat you up? You know what I mean? It’s not my show, and if someone wants to take something and go off on it, what can you do?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.