Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book Monsters of the Week: The Complete Critical Companion to The X-Files written by Zack Handlen and Todd VanDerWerff, out on October 16th.
Excerpt by Zack Handlen
We’re living in the future now, when things are supposed to be easier. And, for the most part, they are. Most of us carry small computers everywhere we go—machines that can play music, order a pizza, check weather, and even make phone calls. And it’s only getting better. Right? Right. But websites still insist on emailing us customer service surveys as if the act of purchasing something online enters us into some weird, mandatory mentorship program. The tomorrow we were promised was a pristine utopia of a convenience-enhanced world, and we got some of that. But we forgot that systems don’t always work the way we expect or want them to. We forgot the clutter of it all, the rush of electronic ephemera that blocks the rhythms of everyday life. We forgot that you can’t ever entirely evolve away from junk mail.
That’s bad. But what if it was worse? What if all that junk was its own kind of conspiracy, one guided not by selfish men in dark rooms but by a developing electronic consciousness learning what it means to be alive by watching us? That’s the premise behind the clumsily named “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” a stand-alone X-Files that has Mulder and Scully facing the irritating inadequacies of modern life—inadequacies that grow in pitch and number until they take a sharp turn toward the sinister. It’s a terrific, funny, and eerie hour, a sharp blend of physical comedy and menace that serves as an excellent reminder of the show’s in nite exibility.
The format alone is enough to impress. After a cold open, narrated by an almost human computer voice, explains the fate of an AI Twitter account that learned a bit too well from its followers (thus establishing the theme that will tie the whole episode together), we pick up with Mulder and Scully sitting together in a Washington, D.C., sushi bar. The place is upscale, sleek, gorgeous, futuristic, and, apart from our heroes, completely empty. That emptiness sets the tone that will run through the hour to come; Scully and Mulder are the only major characters in the episode, and, until the final few minutes, the only people we actually see. But they aren’t alone, not even when they’re separated. At least, not exactly.
There’s no real plot here, just a series of escalating incidents that plays out a bit like a silent film comedy. No one meets Mulder in a shadowy basement to explain how an evil government project has spun out of control. Instead, the episode foregrounds an idea that’s been lurking at the margins for the duration of the season: Whatever is wrong with the world today has gone far beyond governments and conspiracies. We’ve already had a story line about evil cabals using technology to advance their aims in “This” (S11E2), but “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” focuses on something more universal, and harder to dispute. Things happen so fast now, and so much of what happens goes on in places we can’t see or touch or even begin to understand. The constant rush of information makes it nearly impossible to grasp what really matters, and so we are reduced to reacting on the strength of our nerve endings. We snap, we get righteous, we rant, we rave. But what’s watching us? And what sort of lessons is it learning?
That’s a fair bit to unpack, but the genius of the episode is in how baldly it presents its thesis at the outset, and then doesn’t strive to belabor it. There is no exposition in this hour, save that cold open, and there’s no real breathing room. It’s just a rhythmic build toward inevitable chaos. What makes it such a joy to watch is in how well that build is managed, how unforcedly it moves from one point to the next, each escalation at once absurd and immediately recognizable. Mulder orders sushi; he gets an inedible-looking blobfish; when he goes to complain, he nds a backroom full of robots just anthropomorphic enough to be threatening. He refuses to leave a tip, and the machines won’t accept his decision. Hilarity, and fear by turns, ensues.
This plot setup works because it’s silly and over the top and yet also strangely plausible. The constant phone notifications demanding you rate this or that; the automated operators who patiently refuse to understand what you’re saying; the friendly symbols and language that double as barely disguised threats. The stakes eventually become absurdly high, but the route taken to get there is built of steps most of us can recognize. It captures the queasy, anonymous intimacy of all these apps and downloads and unseen minds—that feeling that something is tailoring itself to t your needs (whether you like it or not) without ever revealing its own intentions. At one point, Scully runs out of Rock It Like a Redhead styling cream, and the instant she throws the empty tube into the wastebasket, a message on her phone pops up telling her she should buy more. It’s funny, sure, but also unsettlingly reminiscent of when you do a search for underwear online and all of a sudden every site you visit is plagued with ads for briefs and bras. Yes, it’s all just algorithms, but to what end? Is capitalism the goal or simply the means, with some larger, infinitely weirder purpose lurking behind the code?
Mulder and Scully are largely hapless throughout this entry, an everyman and everywoman struggling against a cybernetic tide. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is a perfect example of how The X-Files’ approach to stand-alones (with its limited recurring characters, self-contained plots, and versatility when it comes to style and tone) allows it an anthology-style range, while at the same time ensuring our emotional investment thanks to the continuity and comforting presence of its leads. There’s a zing of affection inherent in watching Duchovny and Anderson get put through their paces. Scully is the straight woman here just struggling to keep her head above water, but Mulder’s “kids-get-off-my-lawn” vibe is both a smart fit for the show’s current direction and a believable development for his character. He was a man apart even when he was firmly in his own time; now that he seems to have lived past his obvious usefulness, his frustration and humor go a long way toward smoothing over the rougher patches of the show’s return.
One of my biggest hopes for The X-Files revival was that the writers room would bring in some new voices. Kristen Cloke is a familiar name for any die-hard fan, but this is the first time she and cowriter Shannon Hamblin have written for the show, and the result is unexpected and rather wonderful. Seasons Ten and Eleven have good—even great—episodes, but this is the first in the lineup that feels legitimately fresh, and not just a rehash or a (delightful) deconstruction of what we’ve seen in the past. With Season Eleven now well past the halfway mark, we’re bound to return to the not-terrible-but-also-not-great mythology soon enough (as we always do). But it sure feels nice to have something this old still be capable of finding such new devices.
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