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The X-Files season 11 is better at being Black Mirror than Black Mirror is

A terrific, nearly silent episode questions how we’re going to teach computers good manners.

The X-Files
Mulder and Scully just wanted some sushi, and now they have to deal with the robot apocalypse.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 25 through March 3 is “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” the seventh episode of the 11th season of Fox’s The X-Files. (You can watch the episode on Hulu.)

Recently, YouTube essayist Big Joel tried to pin down just what happened to Black Mirror between its first two seasons, when it was produced for the UK’s Channel 4, and the second two seasons, when it was produced for Netflix. Beyond the obvious explanations — the series is now producing twice as many episodes, for instance — Joel zeroes in on something at the core of the series that I haven’t seen articulated quite as well.

For those who don’t want to spend 15 minutes watching a video essay, the central thesis here is that early in Black Mirror’s run, its episodes (especially its best ones) tended to center on basic human problems or needs that we attempt to solve using technology, only to learn that technology can never quite fill in the gaps of a major loss, or in our own memories — at least not in the way we’d like.

Now, the show increasingly seems to be about pursuing current ideas in technology to their absurdist ends — as in the “social media-governed society” third season episode “Nosedive” or the “helicopter parenting run wild” fourth season episode “Arkangel” — in ways occasionally powerful and too often nonsensical.

I’m not as down on Black Mirror as Big Joel (though I’d certainly describe its fourth season as its weakest), but I do, at times, miss the approach of the first two seasons, where episode ideas seemed to start with “What if humans...” instead of “What if technology...”

Fortunately for all of us, just such a show is unspooling over on, of all things, The X-Files.

In season 11, The X-Files is slowly confronting how much of what it used to scare us with is now just our reality

The X-Files
Mulder and Scully hide from the robots.

One of the most common jokes to make about the 2010s’ slow spiral into what feels like chaos has been that it feels like we’re all living in a Black Mirror episode. And sure! That’s a feeling I’ve had. But what’s been fascinating to watch in The X-Files’ 11th season is the show’s attempts to cope with the fact that the things it used to use as far-fetched scenarios, designed to scare viewers, have moved closer and closer to reality.

The 11th season’s other standouts — the second episode, “This,” and the fourth episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” — have leaned into the idea that our own reality is falling apart. Those with the means to do so are abandoning it entirely, with a plan to move into the cloud, as we saw in “This.” The rest of us have to struggle with the fact that too many of our fellow humans believe in an entirely different reality from the rest of us, as expressed first hilariously and then poignantly in “Forehead Sweat.” And, the series hints, this is only going to get worse.

The X-Files, famously, is a series with an alien conspiracy somewhere near its center, but the 11th season has largely set that to the side. Indeed, in the season premiere, one character admits that the aliens have lost interest in us; we’ve screwed up our planet so badly that they’ve moved on to other targets. We’re left to slowly spiral toward some inevitable dark end.

Thus, every episode this season has been, on some level, about the coming obsolescence of humanity. This theme has been expressed clumsily, and deftly, but it’s been there, somewhere, in every episode. And yet the season doesn’t feel pessimistic, somehow. Indeed, what’s made this the show’s best season since its eighth (which aired all the way back in the 2000-’01 TV season) is the way it suggests that even as the forces of the universe are aligned against you, the mere existence of human ingenuity and connection is worth fighting for.

The X-Files has always been a series about how little the machinations of any individual human matter in the face of the massive institutions and structures designed to make the universe run to their own tunes. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) uncover bits and pieces of the truth, but it never matters. The conspiracy is always so many steps ahead of them as to effectively be omnipotent. Could that get a little ridiculous? Sure. But at its best, it made the show feel more real than a lot of series that didn’t feature aliens.

But season 11 has shifted to focus more on the idea that, sure, it might not matter what two human beings do in the face of so much arrayed against them, but the act of trying is ultimately the important thing. The episodes directly dealing with the alien conspiracy in this revival of the show (which began with season 10 in 2016) have all been called “My Struggle,” and that emphasis on struggle is what has made this season so potent.

And in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” the season’s focus on our responsibilities to each other gains another dimension. We have, as it turns out, a responsibility to the mechanical intelligences that could well replace us.

“Rm9sbG93ZXJz” is the series’ most Black Mirror-esque episode yet

The X-Files
Here we are at the robot factory again.

“Rm9sbG93ZXJz,” which means “followers” in Base64 (referring both to the episode’s winking nods toward Twitter and the army of drones that ends up following Mulder and Scully around on one long night in suburban DC), has gained attention mostly for the fact that it features barely any spoken dialogue. Even before Mulder and Scully are being stalked by sentient machines, they’re barely talking to each other, engrossed in their screens.

What’s refreshing here is that the episode isn’t trying to suggest that our addiction to our phones is going to be our downfall, or anything like that. When Mulder and Scully are just enjoying sushi and their push alerts in companionable silence, it doesn’t feel like the setup for a darkly horrific episode but, instead, a typical night out on the town for the duo.

No, the message about technology that the episode plays around with is very Black Mirror seasons one and two: In our push to move so many of our interactions online, we’ve abandoned so many of our manners in the process. Mulder and Scully find themselves pursued by the drones not because artificial intelligence is coming to kill us all but because Mulder doesn’t tip a team of robotic sushi chefs after they deliver him the wrong order.

It’s a scenario far closer to how AI might eventually exterminate us. Understanding only a small facet of human interaction, it can’t comprehend when we break from that programming and do something else; and thus, it makes a decision that seems logical to it and horrifying to us, like turning all of our smart devices and other robotic pals against a pair of bad tippers.

The episode opens with a riff on the time in 2016 when Microsoft uploaded an AI chatbot to Twitter and it was quickly turned into a racist via its interactions with real human Twitter users. It closes with Mulder, having successfully subdued the mechanized threat by tipping the robotic sushi chefs 10 percent (the bare minimum), muttering, “We’ve gotta be better teachers.”

The implication is clear: By moving so much of our life online and abandoning certain codes of etiquette that served us so well in face-to-face interactions, we’re inadvertently teaching our potential successors all the wrong lessons. (Or, as the CSNY song that keeps popping up throughout the hour warns, “Teach your children well.”)

It’s, honestly, a better Black Mirror episode than anything in that series’ fourth season. Here’s a very human need — our desire to make life as efficient and automated as possible — coupled with something lost (manners!) and a technological response that turns out to only make things worse. It even concludes with a nicely Black Mirror-style image of Mulder looking over the recent New York Times report about aliens on his phone in a very old-fashioned, human-operated diner, before he and Scully hold hands and lean against each other. We can teach our machines a lot, but how can we teach them kindness and empathy? Not even Mulder and Scully know.

But the episode is also a great X-Files episode. It’s the first written by Kristen Cloke and Shannon Hamblin, and it’s one of the few X-Files episodes ever written by women, period. Cloke and Hamblin have a lot of fun with, for instance, playing up the difference between the houses of Mulder (who lives out in the middle of nowhere in an old farmhouse) and Scully (who lives in a sleekly ultra-modern space), and they also get a lot of mileage out of just how perfectly Duchovny and Anderson play off each other at this point.

Yet “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” finally succeeds because it fully explores that gap between order and chaos, between the idea that our machines might finally create utopia and our new knowledge that our machines, built by us, are only as effective as we are. Everything is spiraling toward something on The X-Files, but if we realize our trajectory in time, we might still find ourselves taking an old friend’s hand in a diner somewhere, chuckling about how we somehow survived the night.

The X-Files airs Wednesdays at 8 pm Eastern on Fox. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

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