Season 5, Episode 11: “Kill Switch”
Original Airdate: February 15, 1998
“Kill Switch” is an old story gussied up with new tech. Of course, the tech is from 1998, so the new tech is now not so new, so it’s good for the old story that it is an old story, because it’s a decent old story—ever heard the one about the machine that got smart and then got even? Written by cyberpunk godfathers William Gibson and Tom Maddox, “Kill Switch” is a fresh take on the show’s usual slime-and-evolution monster of the week, the rare one-off that doesn’t include a scene where Mulder refers to some wacky event that happened a century ago. Here is an X-File that doesn’t yet have a file.
There’s a man named Donald Gelman who could have been as big as Bill Gates but instead he took a walk in the mountains and never returned. The disappearance made him a folk hero (ever hear the one about the genius who walked away from a fortune?), but now he’s dead. Killed in a firefight that was engineered, apparently, by some artificial intelligence that Gelman has spent the last few decades developing. How the AI accomplished the firefight is clever, though ultimately a little problematic: it called a few sets of criminals and told each set that some guy who had wronged ’em was going to be at a diner at a time. They all showed up, then so did some U.S. Marshals, then everyone started shooting at each other and the guy in the corner with the laptop was caught in the crossfire.
Problematic because it means the AI is as smart as it is powerful—smart enough to know who all of these criminals hated, smart enough to make phone calls, smart enough to understand that the arrival of the marshals would throw a spark into the powder keg. It’s such a fun cold open that I hate to say a word against it, but when your AI is very clever it means you have to be triple-clever to beat it, and if you’re a single episode of television you have to be efficient on top of that. “Kill Switch” copes by building itself, well, a kill switch. Two, actually. There’s a literal kill switch—a virus that will kill the AI, contained on a disk salvaged from Gelman’s computer—and a structural one—apparently, despite the fact that the AI is livin’ large on the Internet, it still needs a hardware home base. One that apparently it built itself? Taking us from awesome! to seriously? in one fell swoop.
There is an upside, though. By early-on establishing a weapon and a goal, Gibson and Maddox give themselves room to focus less on the AI and more on Esther. Esther is a lady, and a hacker, and a vision in wish-fulfillment, nose piercing and black leather and raccoon eye makeup and she says “bite me” all the time. She and another guy, David, were working on the AI with Donald. Mulder and Scully find her working out of a shipping container, one that the AI blows up within moments of our agents’ arrival. The AI, she explains, is trying to prevent its own death, trying to stop the kill switch that Donald created. Like many an X-Files monster, the thing is just trying to survive.
But Esther! Esther is good. She’s a fantasy, for sure, (how the Lone Gunmen gawk at her!) but Kristen Lehman plays her with a wonderful combination of fierceness and vulnerability, a blend that plays particularly well off of the dubious Scully. Esther is in love with David and Esther is also in love with the AI, in love with the idea that consciousness can live online. In fact, she and David had been in the midst of a plan to upload themselves to the AI. It’s silly, but romantic. “Imagine being mingled so completely with another,” she tells Scully. “You no longer need your physical self. You’re one.”
The idea of uploading one’s self is, to me, the quaintest part of the episode. Sure the cell phones are funny-looking and lol the scene where they have to use the secret government directory of T3 lines to figure out where the AI might be hiding, but. Virtual reality, The Matrix, your body dies but your mind lives forever—this is nothing compared to the ways in which the Internet has actually infiltrated our lives and our consciousnesses. The rewiring is more insidious than that, leaving our minds in our bodies while mining our focus, our creativity, our time. There’s no need to live mingled with another when you can Follow, and Like. Esther doesn’t dwell on the advantages of leaving her body behind, focusing instead on the ways in which her plan would make her love more true. But would 2012 Esther feel the same way?
I know someone who wouldn’t, anyway. While Esther talks the talk, Mulder accidentally walks the walk, getting trapped by the AI while investigating one of those fancy T3 lines. The AI dumps him into a virtual world that seems partially drawn from Mulder’s own subconscious. He’s cared for by porn-ready nurses in skimpy outfits, nurses who demand to know the location of the kill switch. When that doesn’t work, the AI switches tactics and brings in a new fantasy: Virtual Scully, who beats up the nurses (with a roundhouse kick!) and yells at Mulder. But Mulder doesn’t give, and real Scully rescues him in time, dragging him out of the AI’s secret trailer hideaway while Esther types rapidly behind her.
Then boom goes the kill switch, right? But not. Esther stays behind, uploads herself, and then has the trailer destroyed via Defense Department satellite—either a clever way to win/win or a completely baffling way to do anything. Win/win: the bad AI is destroyed, Esther gets to live in the ether. Completely/baffling: except earlier she told Scully that she wanted to upload herself to the AI? But then she destroyed the AI? And also uploaded herself to it? I don’t know. Could have just been a longshot that paid off, and The X-Files is nothing if not bizarrely romantic. “Kill Switch” may not be as smart as I wish it were, but it has an earnestness to it, a streak of humanity running through its pixels. And that’s the part of technology that I like best of all.