The X-Files Review: Technology Is Dangerous!

(Episode 11.07)

TV Reviews The X-Files
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<i>The X-Files</i> Review: Technology Is Dangerous!

Save the exclamation “yum!” and not counting the cold open — which offers a slightly fabricated account of Microsoft’s Tay, the artificial intelligence bot taken down within 16 hours of her emergence on Twitter because she was so thoroughly corrupted by Internet trolls — “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is, for its first ten delightful minutes, without dialogue. Ironically, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” has a lot to say, even if you can easily figure out what it has to say long before you realize what director Glen Morgan and writers Kristen Cloke (whose credits are mostly in acting, including the tear-jerking X-Files episode “The Field Where I Died”) and Shannon Hamblin (who’s worked with Morgan on Lore) are up to. Within those first ten minutes, the underwater episode of Bojack Horseman comes to mind. Within those first ten minutes, we remember why The X-Files can feel so special.

Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are maybe on a date, maybe just hanging out, but definitely in a part of Washington D.C. they don’t recognize. Alone in a sushi restaurant decorated with a sterile aesthetic cribbed from Blade Runner 2049 and Ex Machina, the agents sit at a bar, waiting, as we do, for something to happen. Increasingly unnerved by the restaurant’s total lack of staff, Mulder and Scully steal a few glances, alluding to 11 seasons’ worth of intimacy between the two—before a touch screen menu appears. They order some nigiri, a special or three (Mulder seems hungry), and then settle in to keep waiting. To kill time, they dick around on their phones, their backs slightly turned to one another, and in the silence the episode screams its message: Technology, right?! One only needs to go into public to witness similar alienation, so the point isn’t exactly revelatory, though there is a subtle pang of familiarity in watching Mulder and Scully be regular human friends.

With perhaps an imagined “ding!” on behalf of the viewer’s inculcated lifetime of watching self-governed robots on TV and in the movies crank out factory-line products, the food slides out from a hatch in the bar: first Scully’s appetizing, modest selection of raw fish-rice bundles, and then Mulder’s order, which isn’t what he actually ordered, but a gray, glistening mound of Mitch McConnell-looking sea creature called a blobfish. Incensed, despite Scully getting a pretty big kick out of it, Mulder takes the tray to the restaurant’s backroom, discovering a WALL-E and some Star Wars droids fiddling with and buzzing around bins of iced fish. The robots stop, turn their “eyes” to him and breathlessly stare as the man backs slowly out of the room.

Here the episode’s conceit doesn’t so much wear thin as just throw up its shoulders and settle in for 35 minutes of shrugging. Why Mulder doesn’t attempt to communicate with the robots, to determine whether they respond to voice activation or are connected to some sort of human-managed call center or something, makes little sense, not because we can’t suspend our disbelief, but because the idea of the episode begins to usurp the coherency and well-constructed world of the episode. As maybe the season’s first true Monster of the Week chapter — not really connected in any way to the latent plots unfolding over these ten episodes, besides maybe, if one feels obliged to connect them, via the idea of artificial intelligence pointing to the fate of Digital Langley in “This” — “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” must do the legwork with which a mythology episode doesn’t really need to be concerned.

Unfortunately, questions become plot holes, which become narrative quandaries holding up the episode’s otherwise brisk pace. Why are Mulder and Scully here? Why aren’t there other customers? Did an artificial intelligence build this whole restaurant? If so, did it lure the agents to it because of their reputation? Why does Scully call a rideshare if Mulder drove them there? Did Mulder drive them there? Why didn’t Mulder drive them there?

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Prompted to tip the “staff” upon going to pay, having completely avoided eating the blobfish, Mulder rightfully declines even a 10% tip, which in turn causes his card to get stuck in the bar’s card reader. Fed up with the whole experience, Mulder does what we all do in similar circumstances: He slams his fist against the machine. When the machine asks him not to do that, he responds by punching it again. Alarms blare, the restaurant goes on lockdown, and though the agents find a way out, we know exactly where this is going. Just save yourself some grief and tip the fucking robots, Mulder.

Skynet-type hijinks ensue: Scully almost dies in that aforementioned rideshare, which is a self-driving car; Mulder wants to listen to Prince’s “Controversy,” but his music library mysteriously disappears and his car’s GPS takes him back to the sushi bar, where he’s encouraged to tip the robots; Scully finally makes it back to her house, only to have her Smart Home system turn on her; and Mulder is attacked by an adorable swarm of drones in between bouts of waiting next to the phone while he tries to cancel his card with “Bigly Credit” (cough). All of this—Scully’s beautifully technologically advanced domicile, the abundance of self-driving cars, the fact that Mulder doesn’t know his way around a city he’s lived most of his adult life—comes as a disorienting surprise, so much so that one of the funniest jokes of the season so far comes from Mulder showing up at Scully’s post-drone strike to comment, “How is your house so much nicer than mine?” Good question, Mulder, now just tip the fucking robots already.

As much a spiritual sequel to the first season’s “Ghost in the Machine” as it is to the (peak X-Files) sixth season’s “The Ghosts Who Stole Christmas,” “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” coasts on well-oiled charm long enough to distract from the fact that it doesn’t make any sense, or that previous high-concept, bottle-esque episodes at least had some sort of motivation for Mulder and Scully to show up in the first place. This sushi restaurant isn’t an X-File; why should we buy the magnitude of this episode’s ideas when it all feels so short-sighted? Again: Why didn’t Mulder just drive Scully home?

Eventually, the characters talk, as implied by mentioning Mulder’s jealousy regarding his dumpy old unabomber cabin compared to Scully’s mansion, though they continue to, for the most part, communicate through each other’s names. Anderson can convey quite a lot in simply screaming, “Mulder!” and before more dialogue makes its way into the mix, the idea that a whole episode could exist by subsisting on the two agents saying all they need to say through two surnames is an exciting subtextual exploration of both the legacy of 11 years’ worth of hearing the partners call out for one another, as well as the shorthand they’ve developed for whatever close relationship they have, this life they share that’s something more than a marriage, that, after so many seasons of sexual tension and fan ’shipping, has become an ineffable thing of its own. Instead, there is more dialogue, and the episode ends on a shot of Mulder and Scully sharing an affectionate moment, finally bridging that alienation and looking up from their phones to make a connection, not mitigated by technology, with a fellow physical person. Had “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” insisted on carrying its clever concept all the way through, that moment could have spoken for itself. In this reality, on this timeline, that’s not the case, and we’re left to realize that, like much of this 11th season, for all The X-Files thinks it has to say about what The X-Files is in 2018, it isn’t communicating anything we haven’t already heard.

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.