With just three episodes left, The X-Files is fast approaching its series finale. Season 11 has been decidedly uneven, delivering both extreme letdowns and moments of pure brilliance. Last night’s “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” was admirable in that it took some stylistic risks – but its wanna-be Black Mirror-type story was too familiar to make a lasting impact.
A heavy-handed pre-credits scene lays out the (not especially original) themes to be explored in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” weaving the cautionary tale of a Twitter bot that starts off emulating a sweet teenage girl but eventually turns racist, hateful, and violent after learning how to “be human” from the alt-right trolls it interacts with online. Next, we see Scully and Mulder as the only customers at a sushi restaurant run entirely by robots, in a scene without any dialogue – a clever device that sets the edgy tone for the rest of the episode, but also double-triple underlines its concerns about how people don’t, you know, converse anymore.
Their meal is a disaster, but the mood shifts from snarky amusement to escalating horror once Mulder decides not to tip – reasonable, given both his messed-up dinner order (blobfish surprise?) and the total lack of service — and the AI that’s controlling not just the restaurant, but the entire “smart” world, decides to take revenge. This leads to both Scully and Mulder being terrorised after they part ways; Scully’s reckless, driverless car service, with its faux-friendly emoji interface, is particularly alarming. Once they’re home, the attacks increase. Mulder, the more lo-fi among the two, gets off pretty easy when he’s menaced by an aggressive fleet of drones. Scully (whose house is way nicer than Mulder’s, a fact he indignantly points out while we’re left to wonder if this is really the first time he’s been to her place?) sees her well-appointed smart home turn on her, in a nightmarish scene that’s straight out of Mr. Robot. Shit gets crazier and crazier until the agents are cornered by a scary robot enforcer, who forces Mulder to leave that goddamn tip or else.
That’s it. That’s basically it, aside from a scene at the end where Mulder and Scully put down their phones; sit down for a meal at an old-timey diner with folksy, flesh-and-blood servers; and clasp hands, because losing touch was their (and our) undoing in the first place. “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” comes from a pair of X-Files veterans who happen to be married: Kristen Cloke (who co-wrote with Shannon Hamblin, and guest-starred in a memorable season four episode, “The Field Where I Died”) and director Glen Morgan, an X-Files executive producer whose many other credits include season 11's VR-themed “This.”
The X-Files have offered multiple warnings about evil AI and technology out of control over the years, in episodes like season one’s “Ghost in the Machine” and season five’s “Kill Switch” (co-written by William Gibson); that’s to be expected from a show that so frequently overflows with tales of surveillance and paranoia. But the years between 2002, when the show wrapped up its ninth season, and 2016, when it made its return to the airwaves, were a crucial span that saw tech become more intertwined with day-to-day life than ever before. Naturally, pop culture has responded in kind, with projects like Black Mirror imagining all sorts of tech-based worst-case scenarios and wrapping them in scary, inventive, thought-provoking stories.
That second quality is what’s missing from “Rm9sbG93ZXJz.” Thank goodness The X-Files is still trying new things, even in its home stretch, but what’s new for The X-Files doesn’t always feel new to viewers who’ve kept up on contemporary scifi. That includes The X-Files itself. Compare this episode to “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” a few weeks back, a genius deconstruction of The X-Files as well as a searing takedown of our real-life “fake news” era. It was shocking, inspired, completely original, totally weird, and frequently hilarious. After that high mark, “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” feels way too familiar and predictable. Even the episode’s humour, which does its best to wink at current events and politics — Scully’s Uber from hell comes from a company called “Whipz;” Mulder’s uncooperative bank is called “Bigly Credit” — feels like dad-joke material. And while it’s fun to see Scully and Mulder doing battle with machines gone wild, the episode doesn’t break much new ground beyond that. People are letting machines take over more and more aspects of their lives? The world is becoming a cold, unfeeling place? Everyone interacts online way more than they do in person? Twitter is overrun with arseholes and we’re all doomed? You don’t say!
Frankly, Scully’s new helmet hair is far more concerning than her addition to texting.
Thank goodness, next week’s episode is about something old-school that never gets old: Witchcraft.