Or: How Fox Mulder learned to tip
Credit: Shane Harvey/FOX
S11 E7
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Hello! I am here to help. Did you know technology is dangerous?

That’s the premise of Black Mirror, and this tweet by noted luddite Elon Musk, and tonight’s episode of The X-Files, which is basically Black Mirror (unless it’s Mr. Robot). It’s also the message behind the not-exactly-classic season 1 X-Files episode “Ghost in the Machine,” an adorably of-its-time hour of technological fear mongering that screams 1993, or apparently 2018. In it, a murderous computer system takes control of a building — locking doors, staging electrocutions, manipulating phones, and remotely accessing files — to ensure its own survival. “Mulder, that level of artificial intelligence is decades away from being realized!” Scully scoffs, in shoulder pads. She doesn’t know she’s on a show with two and a half decades of staying power.

A quarter century later, The X-Files is circling back around to one of its earliest fears, one that felt outdated halfway through the show’s original run but has since been proven valid, if clichéd. (Like Mulder, The X-Files gives voice to conspiracies so paranoid they have to be true; this episode ends on a shout-out to the New York Times report on the Pentagon’s secret UFO investigations, an idea straight out of the pilot.) It’s not groundbreaking to suggest, as this story does, that we’re ceding our lives to our phones, but when you throw in packs of robot dogs and drones and ugh, those automated phone calls, the effect is still smothering. In an era one tweet away from nuclear war, when a TV show tells me computers are going to kill me, some primal part of me is going to nod along.

But it all adds up to an episode that doesn’t feel like most X-Files episodes, and I mean “feel” in a visceral sense — I was left cold by this one, in part for what it does right (I never want another notification from my phone) and in part for what it doesn’t. What this hour does well as a standalone story requires it to ignore the big picture of the show: It’s a Black Mirror-esque fable that has to take Mulder and Scully out of context in order to work. The effect is so disorienting that if I hadn’t seen promo shots from future episodes, I’d half expect Scully’s (very chic!) hair to be long again next week.

It doesn’t help that “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” — a mouthful of a title that decodes to “Followers” in Base64 — barely tries to justify its central gimmick: how light it is on dialogue. The beginning of the hour finds Mulder and Scully on a sushi date (the restaurant’s name, Forowā, also translates to “Followers”) with no other patrons and an all-robot staff. Rather than talk to each other, the partners swipe silently through a touchscreen menu, then turn to their phones like a couple of regular teenage stereotypes who just happen to be in their mid 50s, looking up only for a cute exchange in which Scully takes a picture of Mulder with his meal. (Art imitating life, or life imitating art?) It feels like the characters have been cast against type here, maybe intentionally; their legacy as self-described “old-school” investigators is at odds with their assigned role as People Who Spend All Their Time Looking at Screens. Just last month Mulder was rhapsodizing about a bran muffin in an internet cafe.

Now he’s traded bran for blobfish, which he did not order. Mulder, a bad tipper even when the order is correct (see for example: giving the pizza guy 2 cents in “Bad Blood”), responds by denying the robot chefs a tip, setting off a chain reaction of computerized rebellion that starts at the restaurant, which locks the partners inside the building and refuses to release Mulder’s credit card. And yet even after Scully has to use chopsticks to pry open the doors, she and Mulder are still in awe of the driverless car that arrives to pick her up. From the computerized chauffeur to Scully’s smart home, the partners’ willingness to trust machines seems out of step with what they know of surveillance.

Of course the machines betray them: Mulder’s GPS tries to divert him back to the restaurant and hijacks his music, playing “Teach Your Children,” a song about the generational divide, over Prince’s “Controversy” (we’re all just the same). Meanwhile, Scully’s ride drives dangerously over the speed limit. She’s at the end of her rope by the time she gets home, and she sends off the self-driving car with the Scully equivalent of Ross Geller’s friendly finger. Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny are a lot of fun in this hour, bringing out levels of Scully and Mulder we haven’t seen in years. It made me wish this episode had allowed them more time together and given them a more urgent reason to keep quiet. For two characters who always seem to be in the middle of an unspoken conversation, the concept has potential: What happens when the comfortable silence between them is weaponized against them?

Alas, the partners spend most of the episode in separate homes, where there’s no one else for them to talk to anyway. On that note, the show is painting its central duo in pointillism again: Scully is settled in a full-on smart house we’ve never seen before — it’s a stretch that she’d live there given that she once had to go on the run from the FBI, but kudos to writers Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin for painting a fuller picture of her life than the rest of the season has — and Mulder lampshades it with a joke about how nice her place is. What are we meant to make of how many prisms this season has viewed their relationship through? “This Man” is back tonight, hanging on a wall, destabilizing reality. It’s like we’re being taunted.

Mulder can relate. He tosses around a baseball while on hold with Bigly Credit, which keeps hanging up on him. His attempt to unwind with an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man — the story of a man “enhanced” by bionic implants, human becoming machine for better or for worse — is interrupted by a nosy drone, which he knocks to the ground with a baseball bat and shrugs off as the toy of a punk kid. But then more drones arrive: bigger ones at first, then a swarm of bug-like, neon miniatures that light up the house in a neat, if not exactly threatening, visual. Mulder takes off. (Next: DJ Roomba’s Revenge)

As for Scully, her smart house keeps setting off alarms, rejecting her security code (her birthday, 0223), and telling her she wasn’t born where she knows she was born. It’s like watching computers strip Scully of herself; there’s more than one way to steal an identity. Her password is Queequeg, the dog she named after the Moby-Dick harpoonist in season 3 — a reminder that she took another dog from a crime scene last season and gave him another Melville-inspired name, but we haven’t seen Daggoo since. Fittingly for such an impersonal hour, the closest Scully gets to a pet tonight is the Roomba-like Zuemz she receives via — what else? — a drone. The robotic vacuum gets aggressive when she refuses to rate it on her phone, and it doesn’t appreciate Scully’s attempt to toss it in the trash.

Do our electronics need approval this much? This episode envisions robots not as empty, indifferent machines but as needy little things with desires that mimic our own: money, attention, being liked on the internet. The fear of being replaced by something impersonal has become the fear that it isn’t impersonal at all. (Every app or device in this episode has a “z” somewhere in its name; if you code “z” in Base64, you get “ego=.”) Throughout the hour, Mulder gets notifications asking — warning — him to tip the restaurant before time runs out, conflating one definition of tip (helpful feedback) with another (money). Like a kind of prosperity gospel, the robots codify value in terms of wealth; when Scully’s car service asks for a rating, her options are Poor, Middle Class, Rich, and Ballin.

By the time Mulder makes it to Scully’s place, the robots are in the middle of an uprising that sets the house ablaze just as Scully shatters her locked sliding glass door with a fireplace poker. She and Mulder dive to the ground just in time. Naturally, their phones refuse to call 911, Mulder’s car won’t open, and the neighbor’s security camera erases Mulder and Scully from its feed, so they’re on their own. The agents take off on foot toward some nearby warehouses and ditch any device that can be used to track them, including a “personal massager” the Zuemz unearthed from beneath Scully’s bed. Mulder points, amused, and Scully rolls her eyes: an unspoken conversation about what happens when they don’t live together.

As soon as the partners make it inside a warehouse, their night stumbles into the Black Mirror episode it’s been running parallel to all along: last season’s “Metalhead,” which, interestingly enough, was originally intended to be totally free of dialogue. That “Metalhead” aired after “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” had already been filmed only makes the similarities eerier, as if each independent vision of the future confirms the other. On Black Mirror, a woman’s warehouse encounter with a deadly robot dog kicks off a frantic game of cat (dog?) and mouse in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Here, a pack of robot dogs edge Mulder and Scully into a room where they’re fired on by bullets and eventually cornered by a more humanoid robot, which offers Mulder his phone and a deadline: just 10 seconds left to leave a tip. (I love that Mulder being a bad tipper literally almost kills him.) Wincing like it pains him, Mulder tips the bare minimum of 10 percent with one second to go.

His phone celebrates like he just won the lottery. “We learn from you,” declares the push notification, prompting Mulder to distill the moral of the episode into a complete sentence: “We have to be better teachers.” To whom? This episode’s prologue looks back on that Twitter bot who mimicked our language and learned only hatred. It would be impossible to set a better example for artificial intelligence without also being nicer to each other. But boiling that idea down to “tip your robots” doesn’t help it come across as a noble imperative, especially when the robots are such authoritarians. (Next: Saved by the diner)

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Mulder’s call to action is corrupted by real-world events. As of two weeks ago, in some American circles, to teach is to be prepared to take up arms. This is not context the show intended to grapple with, but it didn’t intend to mirror a particular Black Mirror episode either, and yet here it is, somehow predicting the future and falling behind it at the same time. A parking ticket on Mulder’s car gives the date as June 13, 2018, a near future that’s both unfamiliar and already quaint. Robot dogs can open doors now, and education is violence. The world is moving faster than The X-Files can air.

“Rm9sbG93ZXJz” paints humans as the teachers to our robot students. It debuts in a world that flips that model on its head, as the President of the United States calls for a kind of mechanized teacher: a twisted, bionic human on a shoestring salary. Reality beat this hour to the bleak idea that we’re all just here to breed more cogs in a dehumanizing machine. Are the “followers” of the episode’s title the robots that learn from our example, or are they us, following brands online and giving the bulk of our attention to our phones? If the answer is “both,” then we’re all just going in circles, like a phone repeating a recording of our name but never patching us through.

In that sense, the low stakes in the first half of this episode work — even if they don’t do the silent gimmick any favors — to build a creeping sense that we’re already trapped by our devices because we want to be. This season is interested in the problems created by our complacency: in relationships (“Plus One”), politics (“The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”), war (“Kitten”), and now technology. Our willingness to adapt to the latest thing will be our undoing. The little neon drones don’t look threatening at all! And when Mulder and Scully do fight back, they pay a price for the mistakes of others, even mechanized others — Mulder loses his credit card; Scully is charged a fee because her house alarm goes off. Technology is the new conspiratorial Syndicate, controlling us all from behind closed doors.

On a show that gravitates toward the fantastic, that’s a grim suggestion: We’re no longer ruled by the unknowable. The closest thing we have to mystery now was created in a lab. Not for the first time this season, The X-Files wants to know how Mulder and Scully can function in a world like this, and up until the last scene, it feels like the point is that they can’t. Mulder, whose system of justice depends on accountability, declines to tip for bad service but finds that negative feedback is no longer welcome; in 2018, all criticism is an attack. Scully, prone to taking in strays, adopts a robot vacuum and it blows up her home. Two suits from the ‘90s try to adapt and it nearly destroys them. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” might make more sense as a standalone hour of television than it does as an episode of The X-Files, but its effect is also heightened by the way it warps the world of the show. Did the experiment work for you? I have a feeling mileage is going to vary on this one.

The hour ends with a return to the familiar: Mulder and Scully in a bustling diner after a case. It’s almost too folksy (“Take your time,” a waitress soothes. “No hurry here”), but it’s a relief just the same. Mulder puts down two $20 bills on an $18.15 tab, and even allowing for change, that’s more of a tip than we’ve ever seen him leave. Elements of the rest of the episode still sneak into the picture — phones still buzz, the Nighthawks spoof on the wall replaces people with robots — but they’re drowned out by people choosing to exist together. Scully took back her electronics, but not all of them, if you catch her drift. (Her home exploded. It’s not like she’s living there.) Just as she’s about to get sucked back into her screen, Scully puts down her phone and sets her hand on Mulder’s, and Mulder puts down his phone and squeezes back. A human follows another human’s lead for once, and the camera lingers on their backs until silence is comfortable again.

Open files:

  • As you probably expected, the opening credits tag “VGhlIFRydXRoIGlzIE91dCBUaGVyZQ=” is Base64 for “The Truth Is Out There.”
  • A blobfish popped up on Mulder’s conspiracy board in “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.”
  • Email from Harry Reid: “NYT knows about Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. If they find you…DENY EVERYTHING.” Subject line: “UFOs.”
  • “Tell me how I can make your ride more enjoyable.” “Be quiet.”
  • “This is the living Fox Mulder!”
  • “How do you get ‘Teach Your Children’ from ‘Controversy’? It’s not even — it doesn’t even sound like it.”

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