“The X-Files” does its best “Black Mirror” impression in an exceptional tech-heavy episode that’s almost entirely without dialogue.
“Teach me #humans.”
Try saying that title three times fast. Or even once for that matter.
“Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is code, which becomes “Followers” when it gets translated. This is a title that’s all too appropriate as it not only plays into how the population has become far too dependent and addicted to technology, but it presents this title in the native tongue of this technology because they’re the ones that call the shots. The episode even goes one step further when the typical “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” title card gets switched with, “VGhlIFRydXRoIGlzIE91dCBUaGVyZQ=”, which is presumably the same cautionary message, but now in tech speak.
Of all of the “modern” ideas for The X-Files to tackle, the topic of the increased prevalence of technology with advents like Siri, drones, and fully-automated cars, restaurants, and smart homes feels the best suited for this series (although the Lone Gunemen would totally lose their shit over this stuff if they were still around). While some revival episodes have pulled their storylines “from the headlines,” a lot of the time they can induce groans, but this installment is actually quite successful. The tragedy here is that Black Mirror literally just did this exact episode two months ago (“Metalhead”), so this powerful concept loses a lot of its punch because someone else just did it and on a much more grandiose, cinematic scale. That being said, this is still an incredible episode of The X-Files and it feels just like the vintage entries from the show’s peak years.
The episode explains that in 2016 Twitter released a “chatbot” that’s meant to emulate the speech patterns of a 19-year-old girl. Through introductory narration (by a fellow chat robot no less, which is significant), the episode explains that it didn’t take long for this artificial intelligence to evolve at an alarming pace and pick up an exceptional amount of information from the world that it was interacting with. The X-Files is also quite careful to point out that everything that this program learns is directly through humans and a result of how they treat and respond to the AI program. If the AI is maniacal and a loose wire, then it’s because that’s what it learned from us and our actions (such as tweets like “I hate #feminists. They should all burn in hell,” for instance). We’re responsible. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” never wants the audience to forget that point.
This prologue, which would have made Harlan Ellison cream his pants, explains that this chatbot eventually needed to be shut down because it became too negative and vicious. The irony over how it’s humanity’s fault that the AI turned out this way is not lost on the episode and it even glibly remarks that if the population doesn’t learn how to better understand and co-exist with such forms of artificial intelligence, then it will soon be the humans that get deleted, not the technology.
This cold open might be a little cringe-y in regards to its presentation style, but it still introduces a vast topic that’s perfect for this series to sink its teeth into for dissection. Moments where Mulder and Scully groan over sponsored ads or their need to fill out CAPTCHA tests to “prove that they’re human” so they can read their desired news article are quirky and will make the audience smile, but they also become super poignant when in an episode of this nature.
The best part about this episode is that it’s largely without dialogue. The intention here is to highlight how much verbal communication has been lost with the growth of smartphones, tablets, and endlessly savvy technology at our fingertips. This silence sometimes emphasizes the tension and suspense of this entry when Mulder and Scully fight for their lives, but it also helps illustrate the simple, human moments that Mulder and Scully share together. The installment begins with the two of them in a restaurant together and the simple gestures of the two wordlessly scrolling through a menu while they try to eat are so cute and endearing. The series understands that after this long Duchovny and Anderson can definitely carry an episode simply with their glances and expressions to one another, but “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” pushes this concept to its limit and it’s so damn fantastic here.
A mostly silent episode is exactly the sort of ambitious experiment that The X-Files should have done by now. This is a series that delights in taking beautiful stylistic deviations from the norm, like an episode that’s a single take (“Triangle”), one that’s a black and white Universal Monsters homage (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”), or even an installment that becomes an episode of COPS (“X-COPS”). “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is a strong addition to add to these classics and it’s far and away the best episode of this revival season other than Darin Morgan’s entry (this applies to last season, too). There’s also a valid reason for the episode’s muted nature, but the installment still could have gone a little further in the department.
Glen Morgan directs the episode from Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin’s script. These two are newcomers as writers for the series, but Kristen Cloke may best be known for her role as Laura Means in Chris Carter’s series, Millennium. Her performance in the second season’s apocalyptic finale is one of the best breakdowns I’ve ever seen on television. It’s a ten-minute long insanity sequence and it’s seriously unreal stuff that’s more in tune with something you’d see from David Lynch (Millennium’s Glen Morgan and James Wong-run second season should be mandatory viewing for any Twin Peaks fan). I still can’t believe this aired on FOX during primetime in the ‘90s.
Glen Morgan elevates Cloke and Hamblin’s script in some smart ways. He films the episode in this sterile, clinical nature and it’s almost like the director is a robot himself. Elements like music are minimal while the hum of lights and technology are a buzz and get amplified on the soundtrack. Morgan alternates between shots from security cameras or drones at different perspectives that really hit the point home, too. The way in which Morgan presents this story only adds to the overall point that it wants to get across.
The first act of the episode is certainly the silliest, especially since Mulder and Scully’s plight appears to be predicated on Mulder pissing off some robots at a sushi restaurant by not leaving them a tip, but the stakes soon escalate and the material connects. This might all originate from the absurd situation of people’s apathy towards giving their products a rating, but it’s still strong stuff. In a similar sense, the first half of the installment takes delight in Mulder and Scully’s various tech woes and how they’re wistful for a less automated way of life. The episode’s second half applies the pressure and sees this technology not just discourage Mulder and Scully, but actually, hunt them down.
The tone might be a little messy in this episode and it leans into the humor more than it needs to, but it’s not without its reasons. This is an entry that understands that these are mostly relatable frustrations that a lot of people go through with their products. The decision to keep Mulder and Scully separated through the bulk of the episode is also a smart complication that allows for more to go down and it gives this installment more of an impact than if they were stuck together. It’s far from a perfect episode and cleaning up the tonal issues would go a long way, but it still contains some powerful material. That being said, it’s hard not to cringe at evil text messages or a rogue vibrator. The same goes for the beyond simple resolution to all of this madness (they just need to give in and reward that robot with a cash tip). This might induce many eye rolls from the audience, but this is an episode that’s definitely more about the journey and its message rather than its cause and resolution. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” might ultimately be a love it or hate it sort of situation for viewers, but it will likely be one of the most discussed episodes of the season either way.
Oh, and the fact that Scully’s security password is “Queequeg” is too perfect.
‘The X-Files’ 11th season will continue Wednesdays at 8pm (ET) on FOX