X-Files Recap is a weekly column by Keith Uhlich covering Chris Carter's 10-episode continuation of the X-Files television series.
This one’s a keeper. The latest X-Files episode—titled “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” (Base64 code for “Followers”), directed by series executive producer Glen Morgan, and co-written by Shannon Hamblin and Morgan’s wife Kristen Cloke—begins with a story surrounding the story. An unseen narrator tells us that an artificially intelligent Talkbot was released on Twitter in 2016. Meant to mimic the half-formed mind and naïve locutions of a teenage girl, it quickly adapted its replies to all responses and retweets, thinking (or perhaps “thinking”) more and more for itself. The problem was that the bot mirrored the worst of us rather than the best of us, promoting half-assed conspiracy theories and spouting racist rhetoric, among many bad virtual behaviors. Its knowledge became, like so many of those who live the majority of their lives online, stagnant and destructive, self-fulfilling and self-devouring.
It took an actual human, at the behest of a corporation (which is a person too, natch), to shut down the experiment, deleting the bot and her online history in one fell swoop. (How often we purge so as to ideally, ignorantly forget.) “Humans must take care in teaching A.I.,” says the narrator, summing things up, “or one day, we will be the ones deleted.” A tried-and-true cautionary fable, with one little hiccup. The teller of this particular tale, as indicated by its mechanized inflections, is also a bot, one casually passing itself off as human. Does the moral of the story still hold when the raconteur behind it is an automaton? Or are meaning and meaningfulness negated, becoming voided particles in a virtual purgatory where Man, in the ultimate debasement, is nothing more than an eternal echo?
A decline of another sort: The relationship between FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), which is so second nature at this point that words have become superfluous. The entire first act of “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” passes by without a syllable spoken between the two, just grunts, giggles and goofy gestures as they engage in a tech-heavy date night at a Washington D.C. sushi establishment named Forowā (or “Follower” in Japanese). Morgan and cinematographer Craig Wrobleski’s compositions—spare and antiseptic, cut together by editor Eleanor Infante with staccato precision—evoke Edward Hopper’s famed painting “Nighthawks” as updated for the virtual age. (A parody version of Hopper’s canvas, featuring spacemen and robots in place of people, appears late in the episode.)
Mulder and Scully are Forowā’s only customers, as they are, until the last few moments, the only human characters in this installment. But where is their humanity? As evidenced here, it’s been engulfed by distraction and rote familiarity. They place their order on one touchscreen and immediately turn toward others (their smartphones), browsing the news or playing diverting games, the buzzing silences filled mostly by electronic chimes from notifications on which the pair quickly swipe left. It’s a slow march toward the inevitable, brightened up only after Mulder’s “special” appears and it’s an inedible blobfish, which occasions a rare, resounding snicker from Scully that seems slightly more akin to the actress playing her.
As in the teaser sequence (a tale told by a vidiot?), Morgan and his performers revel in contradiction. The sleek production design is as alluring as it is off-putting. Mulder and Scully seem equally themselves and like entertainers playing characters. Their pantomime of a years-long relationship so familiar it has bred proportionate parts adoration and contempt is as analogous to Duchovny and Anderson as it is to the fictional counterparts we know so well. The whole episode is a high-wire balancing act, which becomes more apparent when watched minus the commercial breaks that disrupt the narrative propulsion.
What are Mulder and Scully (and we alongside them) racing toward? To separation and reunification, though not necessarily any lasting revelation. The X-Files has frequently been at its most vital with the agents apart from each other, and that’s certainly the case once the second act begins and Scully speaks the first line of dialogue. “Mulder,” she blurts out as the driverless car she’s ordered via app whisks (or Whipz, per the company name) her home, leaving her partner to pursue his own wayward path through a mutually robotic nightmare.
“Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is an Aesop’s fable (cheeky moral: Always tip your Uber driver!) conceived and adeptly executed as a breathlessly extended setpiece. It’s Hitchcock gone hi-tech, the homage especially evident in a scene in which multiple mini-drones stalk Mulder like the Master of Suspense’s iconic avian antagonists from The Birds (1963). Scully has it no easier. Her automated residence—the first we’ve seen of it, and so ridiculously upscale that it inspires a memorably mordant Mulder quip (“Why is your house so much nicer than mine?”)—rebels against her, to ultimately explosive ends. The inspired score by Mark Snow, all low-pitched mono-tonal hum, blends near-imperceptibly with the wall-to-wall industrial sound design, particularly expert here in a series already known for pushing the technological envelope.
Once reunited, our intrepid agents take refuge in a nearby warehouse where they clash with a small army of robots, dodge hails of bullets manufactured by a sentient 3-D printer, and finally, with plenty of reluctance, give a delayed gratuity (10%, the bare minimum) that turns the malevolent red-eyed machines docile. All our android overlords wanted was a reward, even if the services they rendered were subpar. Sounds more than human after all—acknowledge our effort even though we fail to deliver.
“We have to be better teachers,” sighs Mulder once the situation is defused—an adage both everything and nothing, best applied in a vacuum, and delivered by Duchovny with a sarcasm-tinged earnestness that perfectly encapsulates the episode’s weird, wonderful tone. Preferable, in any case, to be out among the mess of mankind, where Mulder and Scully find themselves in the closing scene at a hole-in-the-wall diner. Even though the unearthly hum of electronics has been replaced by the clatter of dishes and the lively murmurs of persons with a pulse, the pair once again repeat their tech-distracted miming. It’s tough to tear yourself away from your toys. (Scully will surely never get over the loss of the “personal massager”—network-TV-speak for “vibrator”—that functions as a hilarious running gag.)
Is it the fact that humanity is in evidence all around her that finally inspires Scully to put down the phone, lean toward Mulder, and take hold of his hand? An action that he gently and, in keeping with “Rm9sbG93ZXJz’s” paucity of dialogue, silently returns? It’s a most personable and pleasing gesture (for X-Files shippers, especially), though given the paradoxical qualities of everything that’s preceded, it feels like a kindness performed within a cyber-enhanced maelstrom. What’s the point? But maybe that’s exactly the point.
We have to be better teachers. But do we ever really learn?
MUSINGS OF A NON-CIGARETTE-SMOKING FAN
• It’s great to have Cloke back in The X-Files fold. She appeared onscreen as Mulder’s “soulmate” in the divisive Season 4 installment “The Field Where I Died” (count me among the fans of both her and the episode). And she was similarly excellent on the Morgan and James Wong-shepherded second season of Millennium as Lara Means, partner to serial killer hunter/end-times-obsessive Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). She’s also appeared in several of her husband’s other series and movies—Space: Above and Beyond, Final Destination (which gets a funny shout-out here via Mulder’s navigational app) and the 2006 remake of Black Christmas, among others. One other rewarding way I found to read “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” was as a dialogue between spouses, Cloke’s writing lovingly informing Morgan’s directing and vice-versa.
• Scully’s emergency password for her alarm system is “Queequeg,” the name of the harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (a Scully family favorite), as well as of the Pomeranian she had throughout much of the series' third season. Sadly, Queequeg became a meal for the monster of the week in the episode “Quagmire.” R.I.P. little buddy. Also, whatever happened to Dagoo, the replacement canine Scully took home in last season’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”? Even Kristen Cloke doesn’t know.
• Let’s talk some other weirdness: Scully has cut her hair, something Mulder never acknowledges. But perhaps stranger is that this particular styling seems very close to how she looked in the series’ pilot episode, from the length to the location of the part. This puts me in speculative mode again because I’ve been wondering if this season is somehow going to come full circle back to Mulder and Scully’s first meeting, though in simulacrum form. (See several of my prior recaps where I’ve pondered whether this entire year might be a parallel existence/death-throes reverie.) It could of course be nothing more than an aesthetic choice, but it’s fun to contemplate. Thumbs up, too, to the name of Scully’s styling cream, Rock It Like A Redhead.
• A last bit of hypothetical cogitating: What do we make of the moment where Mulder and Scully are knocking at a neighbor’s door and we see the pair captured on security camera? One second they’re there, and the next they glitch out and vanish. It could be the vengeful A.I.s screwing with the tech, or maybe something larger—confirmation, perhaps, that Mulder and Scully are quite literally not of this or any other world?
• It wouldn’t be a Morgan episode without an inspired music cue. Here it’s Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children” from their 1970 album Déjà Vu (1970)—an apropos, and possibly prescient needle-drop given lyrics like “They seek the truth before they can die.” The song plays in musak form in the Forowā restaurant. I'll admit to feeling sorry for Mulder that his car’s voice-controlled radio puts on this tune instead of Prince’s “Controversy,” though his frustration is quite uproarious. Who’d have thought I needed Duchovny to speak-sing the purple one quite so much?
• Another "This Man" sighting: on the board behind Mulder and Scully in the office where they face off with the bullet-making 3D printer.
• The opening credits tagline is “VGhlIFRydXRoIGlzIE91dCBUaGVyZQ=” which is Base64 code for “The Truth is Out There.”