We’re living in the future now, when things are supposed to be easier. And they are, they are. Most of us carry small computers with us everywhere we go, machines that can play music, games, order a pizza or check on the weather or even occasionally make phone calls, and it’s only getting better. Right? Right. But I visit the AV Club every day and I still get that damn ad for the newsletter about half the time. Other sites still insist on emailing me customer service surveys like the act of purchasing enters me 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 them to. We forgot the goddamn clutter of it all, the rush of electronic ephemera that blocks the expected rhythms of life. We forgot that you can’t ever entirely evolve away from bullshit.

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That’s bad. But what if it’s worse? What if all that bullshit was its own kind of conspiracy, one guided not by selfish men in dark rooms but a developing electronic consciousness learning what it means to be alive by watching us? That’s the premise behind the awkwardly named “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, (the name decodes to “Followers” in Base64) a standalone X-Files that has Mulder and Scully facing down the irritating inadequacies of modern life—inadequacies which grow in pitch and number until they take a sharp turn towards the sinister. It’s a terrific, funny, eerie hour, a sharp blend of physical comedy and menace that serves as an excellent reminder of the show’s flexibility.

The format alone is enough to impress. After a cold open narrated by an almost human computer voice explaining 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, 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 here, 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 whole season—the idea that whatever is wrong with the world today, it’s gone far beyond governments and conspiracies. We’ve already had a storyline about evil cabals using technology to advance their aims, but this is 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?

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That’s a fair bit to unpack, but the genius of the episode is in how it presents its thesis straight up, and then doesn’t strive to belabor it. There is no exposition in this hour, outside that cold open, and there’s no real breathing room. It’s just a rhythmic build towards inevitable chaos, and what makes it such a joy to watch is in how well that build is managed, how unforced it moves from one point to the next, each escalation at once absurd and immediately recognizable. Mulder orders sushi; he gets a funny looking fish; and when he goes to complain, he finds 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. And things simply move out from there.

It 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 a barely disguised threat. The stakes eventually become absurd, 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 fit your needs 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. Like when you do a search for underwear online and all of a sudden every site you visit is plagued with ads for jockey shorts and bras. Sure, 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, an Everyman and Everywoman struggling against a cybernetic tide. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is a perfect example of how the X-Files’ approach to standalones (limited recurring characters, and a lot of leeway 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 of its leads. A series like Black Mirror could pull off this premise, but it would lack that extra zing of affection we get out of watching Duchovny and Anderson put through their paces. Scully is more or less in “straight woman” mode here, 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 in his own time; now that he seems to have lived past obvious usefulness, his frustration and humor go a long way towards smoothing over the rough patches of the show’s return.

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One of my biggest hopes for the X-Files reboot was that the writers room would bring in some new voices; Kristen Cloke is a familiar name (she starred in Space: Above and Beyond, and is married to Glenn Morgan, who directed the episode), but this is the first time she and co-writer Shannon Hamblin (Morgan’s former writing assistant) have written for the show, and the result is unexpected and rather wonderful. The new seasons have had good, even great, episodes before, but this is the first of the bunch to feel legitimately new, and not just a rehash or (delightful) deconstruction of what we’ve seen before. With the season well past the halfway mark, I’m sure we’ll get back to the not-terrible-but-also-not-great mythology soon enough. But it’s nice to have something this old still be capable of something so new.

Stray observations

  • The gags about Scully’s “personal massager” were cute.
  • Nice use of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children.”
  • Normally the whole “put your phones down and talk to each other” lesson is a cliche, but I think this episode earned that ending. Our pre-existing affection for Mulder and Scully gives it a nice warmth as well.
  • Scully’s home alarm password is “Queequeg.” Aw.
  • “Why’s your house so much nicer than mine?” -Mulder

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