I’m such a sucker for concept episodes, and “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is one of the niftiest experiments in The X-Files‘ long history. In a nutshell, it’s “Mulder and Scully vs. Modern Technology.” Horrible things happen with that modern technology, but the deadpan joy of the episode is how many of its horrors are depressingly everyday. Little sound effects blorp off smartphones. Pushy Push Notifications demand feedback. INCORRECT USERNAME OR PASSWORD declares one screen, and then there’s a TEXT MESSAGE ERROR.
The pre-credits sequence is an awkward kickoff: A twisted fairy tale of a Twitter Talkbot driven crazy by how humanity uses social media, the visuals onscreen suggesting a thankfully unmade Lawnmower Man sequel. But I was enraptured by the long sequence that began the episode proper. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) sit alone in a restaurant. No servers, no other patrons. They order sushi on a tablet-ish screen. They pull out their smartphones, Scully reading up on Elon Musk, Mulder playing a tapper game. Their food arrives, via some automated system. Scully’s food looks normal, and Mulder’s food looks like the only-just-dead carcass of the little-loved video game character Seaman.
Poor Mulder has to carry his food to the back room, where hardworking robots labeled something like “Kawasaki” endeavor only to serve him. He leaves them no tip, and that’s where the troubles begin.
There’s no dialogue at all during this first scene, except the high-tech restaurant’s infuriating “YUM!” button sound effect. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” period. Mulder and Scully talk more to robots than to each other: Automated helplines, voice-activated smartphones, a runaway robo-car. You call it a “silent” episode — Mulder gets in a good laughline about how Scully has a much better house than he does — but the format still recalls Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Chaplin’s mute Little Fellow got swallowed up by the machines of industry. Here, two noble FBI agents are reduced to postmodern Little Fellows by postmodern digitality, house-mapping roombas and automatic delivery drones. Call it Minimum Overdrive.
I know I had a goddamn conniption a few weeks back over “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat.” That episode gave me closure I’ll never get from a more conventional X-File. But tell the truth, I liked “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” more. As an absurdist filmmaking experiment, it’s more patient, humane, meticulous. Where “Forehead Sweat” was talky and purposefully anti-realistic, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is visual and too realistic. We’ve seen Mulder and Scully battle through so much, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt closer to their struggles. See! Heroic Fox Mulder struggle to use a roadmap when Fake Waze fails him. See! Heroic Dana Scully try to type the right passcode (QUEEQUEG!) into her miserable home security system.
Written by Shannon Hamblin and Kristen Cloke, directed by longtime X-Files producer Glen Morgan, it’s a boldly small-scale reconsideration of Mulder and Scully. Hamblin has worked with Morgan on the series Lore, and Cloke has worked with Morgan on raising their four children. (She’s also an actress in her own right, who appeared on the original run of The X-Files and was just in Lady Bird.) So there’s an endearingly handmade, family-store quality to the story the trio has come up with. It’s a simple joke — the machines are crazy, because we are crazy! — but the little details pile up. Scully runs out of “Rock it Like A Redhead” styling cream, throws it in the trash — and somehow her phone knows she needs more? Meanwhile, Mulder keeps asking his car stereo to play “Controversy” by Prince, and the stereo keeps playing “Teach Your Children.” “Doesn’t even sound like it!” Mulder says, talking to no one.
Elsewhere in the season, we’ve seen these two juggle conspiracies, pandemics, alien DNA kids, digital heaven. You feel the shameless peacockery of reboot logic: “Oh yeah, we’re covering the BIG stuff now!” Whereas this episode reminds you that everything about our weird modern life would’ve been a plot concept for The X-Files in the ’90s.
So how thrilling, to just follow Mulder and Scully through an almost-typical hour in our bizarre futuristic lives. There’s a big plot thing happening — the machines are mad because Mulder must literally pay — but the comic cleverness of “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is that it could almost be a normal day in the life for our two heroes.
Is it a high X-Files masterwork? Lemme think on that. I’m not sure if the “message” here quite carries. Artificial Intelligence has learned from us, and “We have to be better teachers,” Mulder concludes. Heavy, and heavyhanded. But so much of this sneakily horrific episode is lighthearted, cheerful even in the face of a machine-god dystopia. “I lost so many steps when we were in that warehouse,” Scully deadpans in the last scene, as if “Almost Getting Killed By Networked Robotic Sentience” is her daily exercise regimen.
I imagine this is the kind of episode that drives some X-Files viewers mad. But there’s a real thoughtfulness in how this episode deploys our two heroes, deeper than farce. By grounding them in familiar annoyances, they seem larger somehow. You think of how, with Twin Peaks, David Lynch and Mark Frost rebooted their own heroic FBI agent into just-left-of-normal everyday existence. Like Mulder and Scully here, Kyle MacLachlan’s Dougie was near mute, could be fascinated or perplexed by a world of glass doors and TV remotes.
“Choose Humanity Over Devices”: You get it. But the last scene takes that thudding point and makes it poetic. At a diner full of regular human people, Mulder thanks a waitress by name. The bill’s about $18.55; Mulder hesitates for just a moment, and sets down two twenties. The agents open up their smartphones. And then — they put their smartphones away! Scully takes Mulder’s hand. Credit Morgan for holding this last shot just long enough. You see Mulder and Scully, just the back of their heads, just two random people together. They don’t speak, but for once, the silence isn’t deafening.