“You suck, Mr. Phone.” — Fox Mulder
The machines rise up against Mulder and Scully in an episode that also revisits Mulder’s tendency to be a very bad tipper.
Radhika: Before we dive into this week’s discussion, I’d like to start with some shameless self promotion for a podcast Max and I had the honor to be guests on recently — the Not Another X-Files Podcast Podcast! We chatted with the hosts before tonight’s episode aired, but you can mosey on over here to listen to us talk about Season 11, the X-Files’ past and what we hope for in the future. (That is, if you’re interested in experiencing our thoughts outside a written medium).
Now with that out of the way, let’s talk about “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” — which translates to “Followers” in base64. It’s a concept that isn’t particularly new, exploring how dangerous machines might be to us humans, and The X-files has certainly tried to explore it in the past (starting with the less successful “Ghost in the Machine” and also including the flawed but much more enjoyable “Kill Switch”). In an era with shows like Black Mirror and Mr. Robot, this episode isn’t necessarily doing something new. But it managed to feel fresh and different and still appropriate for The X-Files and for that reason, I found it to be one of the more exciting episodes we’ve had this season.
This episode is quiet — with little dialogue and barely any people in it aside from Mulder and Scully. We first find our heroes sitting in a machine-run sushi restaurant, quietly tapping away at phones and electronic menus to order meals, and Mulder winds up the recipient of an unappetizing blobfish, which he clearly did not order. Mulder pays via the automated system, opting not to leave a tip, and our agents go on their merry way (not without almost getting trapped in the restaurant). Scully takes a self-driving car — an unpleasant experience — home to her modern, smart technology powered house (which we haven’t seen before) and Mulder eventually makes it back to his place after a series of electronic misadventures of his own.
But the machines aren’t done with Mulder and Scully just yet — events escalate with them being harassed by drones, robot vacuums and more — and by the time our favorite FBI agents unite again, Scully’s house is on fire. The two end up in a warehouse where Mulder is eventually given his phone by a robot with a prompt saying he has seconds to tip the restaurant before it’s too late. He settles for a 10 percent tip and the machine uprising seems to subside. The episode concludes with the two agents in a bustling diner filled with humans, though still tapping away at their phones before Scully puts hers down with a knowing smile, placing her hand over Mulder’s and choosing human connection instead.
The episode makes a lot of the commentary that other TV shows do and observations a lot of us make on our own. I , like many, use a smartphone and the other day, I found myself grumbling about the fact that both my Chromecast and wireless printer don’t seem to be connecting to my wireless router. But I am also personally creeped out by the presence of too many smart devices. (I’ve avoided a smart speaker and opt to do a lot of things old-school style instead of relying on machines all the time). “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” written by some new writers — Kristen Cloke, who once acted in the abysmal “The Field Where I Died” and Shannon Hamblin — does a lot to drive home how creepy these machines can be. That doesn’t make watching it any less enjoyable.
And of course, I can’t help loving that this all comes down to the tiny character detail that Fox Mulder is a bad tipper, even if he was right not to tip in this instance.
In fact, the episode was full of fun little references, such as Scully’s “Queequeg” password and other types of delightful details, such as the fact that Scully has a “personal massager.” Despite the fact that the two characters didn’t talk much and barely interacted with each other, it was fun to see them continually fleshed out in an episode otherwise so focused on technology. The story wound up keeping my attention and I’m glad to see that The X-Files can still pull off a self-contained Monster of the Week episode like this in this day and age.
Max: Let us get some of the criticism of this episode out of the way. In the intervening years between the original run and the revival, have countless shows pointed out the perils of technology and our over-reliance on it? Sure. Have those shows done this sort of commentary better? Possibly. But for my money — like Radhika — I enjoyed this episode and really got a kick out of all the sight gags as our heroes were bombarded by what is commonly referred to as the “Internet of Things.” The episode even opens with a description of a Twitter bot that was supposed to grow smarter by interacting with humans using the service, but ended up highlighting the worst parts of humanity with racist and sexist language. This actually happened back in 2016 when Microsoft unleashed its bot called Tay and its creators were shocked at what happened next.
Artificial intelligence and research into the phenomenon has grown in leaps and bounds since “Ghost in the Machine” first aired, so it’s nice to see Mulder and Scully on the receiving end of what is unquestionably a more formidable foe in the variously networked devices and drones whose only desire is to make life easier for us carbon-based lifeforms. If anything, it seems like this technology is following its remit perhaps a bit too well, like a neurotic butler who is always asking what they can do for you. And that is the double-edged sword really that this episode is pointing out. The so-called wizards of Silicon Valley envisioned a great society of open information and convenience based on the parsing of large data sets, but what actually occurs in practice is a Kafkaesque nightmare of mixed signals and an abundance of digital noise.
Not that Radhika and I are hardcore Luddites in the quest to obliterate the contemporary technological order; rather I think we — and the episode itself — believe that the human touch is paramount above all else. It was a wonderful gesture to have Mulder and Scully hold each other’s hands in the diner, taking in all that has happened and getting back to the things that matter in life.
Radhika spoke of the extended sequences where our heroes didn’t talk much at all and the episode let the visuals do their thing, and I just wanted to say that I genuinely loved the way things seemed like they happened in this surrealistic remove, and Scully taking a picture on her phone of Mulder and his dinner is as adorable as her reactions to the automated taxi are hilarious. I also was tickled by the references to Edward Hopper’s classic painting “Nighthawks” that bookended the episode, a painting that spoke to the disconnection between people as much as this episode did.
Overall, I say “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” was a real pleasure to watch, and I would definitely slot this into a rotation of episodes to watch when I’m in the mood for some X-Files.
Traditionally, the credits end on a shot with the words “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.” However, in some instances new text emerges.
The tagline has changed more this season than it ever has before and this week was no different — or was it? Seemingly gobbledygook, it turns out that “VGhlIFRydXRoIGlzIE91dCBUaGVyZQ=” actually does in fact translate to “The Truth Is Out There.” A little gimmicky, but right on message.