Have you tried turning it off and on again?
Mulder’s former partner (heyyyy), Jerry Lamana, approaches Mulder and Scully about a case Lamana’s working on: Benjamin Drake, the CEO of a major software company, Eurisko, died when he was electrocuted after trying to open one of the company’s doors with his electronic key. Lamana suspects murder most foul, and the evidence suggests that someone hacked the COS security system and electrocuted Drake remotely. Yikes. Mulder constructs a rough criminal profile of the culprit being a “sociopathic game-playing recluse.” Lamana, hard up for a victory after a humiliating, career-damaging fuckup, swiftly steals Mulder’s notes and presents it as his own work. All signs point to recently fired founder Brad Wilczek, who argued pretty vigorously with Drake immediately prior to Drake’s death, and who is essentially the only person capable of accessing the COS, since he built it. Other suspects include the sentient COS itself, since Drake wanted to disable it because it caused a huge financial loss to the company. So basically it’s your standard “wait, did this artificial intelligence contrive to murder a human in order to preserve its own ‘life,’ such as it is?” plotline. And the answer to that question is “yes.”
Let’s Get Serious For a Second
“Ghost in the Machine” serves the same function for Mulder that “Squeeze” served for Scully. Just as Scully confronted the career path she might have had, in the form of school chum and asshat ladder-climber Tom Colton, the re-entrance of Lamana into Mulder’s life signals a similar coming-to-terms. Mulder was once a brilliant (if eccentric) criminologist; he has all the natural aptitude at psychological profiling that a grunt like Lamana lacks. But Mulder doesn’t have Lamana’s conventionality and utter disinterest in the paranormal. Despite Lamana’s technical incompetence, he presents a more appealing figure to his superiors. Because even if Spooky Mulder can construct an insightful criminal profile, who wants to listen to that lunatic?
But this — again like Scully and Colton — is where Lamana’s and Mulder’s goals diverge. Lamana craves a “win,” enough to steal Mulder’s notes, and enough to tail Brad Wilczek to Eurisko, wanting to catch him red-handed, rather than just arresting him on the “ample” evidence the bureau already has. Lamana doesn’t want to be metaphorically consigned to the basement, the way Mulder literally has. But Mulder seems to take a perverse pride in his outlaw status. (“Jerry wanted the 5th floor….I was gunning for a basement office with no heat or windows.”) Pinning some indirect blame for Samantha’s abduction on the government’s persistent cover-up of alien life is a way of shifting blame from his younger self, the boy who couldn’t move to save his sister. His bosses may be the thorn in his side, but his fight to expose them is the only thing keeping him from sliding into spiritual torpor. Martyrdom is what revs his engine. It’s a subtextual stretch, but one could even argue that Mulder might’ve left his notes out with the hope that something might happen to them. In fact, the entire X-Files project, overseen and manipulated by hostile forces, could be read as a way, not to uncover the truth, but to sustain and validate Mulder’s sense that he is not and never will be in control. Nothing could’ve saved Samantha, least of all her helpless brother, if the villainous Powers That Be commanded otherwise. So where Lamana desires victory, Mulder — in some sense — desires failure.
The specter of failure is mirrored in Mulder’s “scruffy mind”-ed counterpart in this episode: Brad Wilczek. Wilczek is, like Mulder, a man whose idiosyncratic genius is considered a liability. Like Lamana, Benjamin Drake, the clean-cut but ill-fated CEO, is an easier sell to company shareholders. For Drake, the financial bottom-line is the only bottom-line; there’s no need to indulge in theories or ideas that are unprofitable, no matter how inspired they may be. So the episode starts with a failure — Drake booting Wilczek from Eurisko with the intention to shut down Wilczek’s baby, the sinister COS. While the COS emerges victorious in its effort to sustain its life, it has little to do with Wilczek, who remains in exile. And when Mulder and Scully arrive at the Wilczek manse, they are greeted with the detached, weary irony of someone whose brain has already calculated all possibilities: “What took you guys so long?” Wilczek is guileless about his intellect and his ability, and appealingly cheeky about his position as a terminal outsider in a business inhospitable to unconventional thinking. Sound like anyone we know? But as much of a genius as Wilczek is, he does fail. He has foreseen all possibilities but one: that his artificial intelligence has become sentient.
This failure continues when he can no longer access the COS remotely. Every access code he inputs is met with “access denied.” This is probably a particularly bitter pill when one considers that, for the scruffy minds of the world, access is denied almost everywhere. Now even his own creation, the fruit of his scruffy-minded brilliance, is done with Brad Wilczek. But it doesn’t end there. It concludes tragically, as Wilczek takes off to Eurisko to disable the COS, but is again rendered helpless as Lamana, trapped in an elevator, plummets to his death. When Wilczek creates the virus that will attenuate the COS, one wonders if he, like Mulder, hungers for failure. Could a man extraordinary enough to create an artificial intelligence that ceased being “artificial” ever be anything other than a fringe-dweller to a bunch of decidely non-scruffy suits? The COS’ boggling “life” is brilliant success wrapped up in failure, and Wilczek cannot keep himself from claiming responsibility for its crimes. So Wilczek goes to prison, alone with his failures and his genius.
But the government, in the form of undercover security operatives, secures the “dead” COS, hoping to profit from its superior technology, the way they’ve profited from Mulder’s stellar profiling. In both cases, of Mulder and Wilczek, the government keeps the men at arm’s length: one in prison, one in the basement. But the labors and the failures of these men, keep them — and the government — rolling along in exquisite agon.
- Even if Drake felt that COS, as a security program, wasn’t profitable, why would he want to shut it down in his own building? He owns the program. What kind of costs would necessitate shutting down a major security system?
- Scully uses a computer spectrogram to match Brad Wilczek’s voice to a voice on a recorded phone call Benjamin Drake received moments before his death and, while there’s some voice manipulation, “he can’t change his speech patterns,” says Mulder. “Which means he was the one who killed Drake,” Scully concludes, because evidence? Whoa there, Scully, whoa. This is based on motive and a similar voice recording? You want to prosecute based on this? “He had the motive and the means…and now we have the physical evidence.” Then she takes a red marker and CIRCLES ON THE ACTUAL SCREEN the matching voices (except it seems like she’s circling two points on the same audio file? Great directing).
- When we return to the Wilczek lair at night and Brad is hunched over his computer, the glass panels that earlier seemed to be covering the water beneath his floor (eccentric millionaire alert!) have been pulled back. Because it is definitely a genius thing to have your very expensive computer equipment balanced precariously over water.
- When Wilczek tries to hack into the COS remotely, the screen shows a long, quick string of access codes entered and denied, the speed of which suggests that Wilczek should be running a program that’s entering all these codes…but he’s typing frantically? And then, in spite of every rejected code being hit with its own individual “access denied” response, it seems like the COS arbitrarily cuts him off trying with two huge bars that appear on his screen reading “access denied.” Let’s try to get #inaccurateportrayalofcomputingontelevision to trend, you guys.
- Lamana follows Wilczek to Eurisko instead of just arresting him at his home. Why does he try to complicate things? You need this win. You have a warrant. ARREST HIM.
- Does the COS have a plug? UNPLUG IT.
- Deep Throat meets with Mulder and one of the first things he says is that Mulder has compromised their arrangement by contacting him. …How did he contact you, guy? Did you give the most passionate agent in the bureau, the one with nothing to lose, your home phone number? And then tell him not to call you? Is there a Rules-style book for government insiders because I think DT is a Rules-man?
Next: “Ice” — Mulder and Scully in the arctic, doing some vaguely John Carpenter-ish. YES.