The X-Files recap: Babylon
Mulder and Scully meet their mirror twins in a trippy, funny, God-fearing hour
A story about the conflict between binary relationships of all sorts — religion and science, secular and sacred, Mulder and Scully — “Babylon” opened with an act of devotion and a statement of faith. Shiraz, a young Muslim man living in southwest Texas, unrolled a prayer mat in his home, went to his knees, and declared the greatness of his god. Of the five prayers of the salah, I’m guessing this was the noon prayer, the Zuhr, because afterward, Shiraz went to the kitchen and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. What person in their right mind eats PB&J any other time than lunchtime? He gave thanks and gulped it down with a glass of milk. He looked out the window. It was a day like many other days, except it wasn’t.
Shiraz got in his car and went for a drive with the windows rolled down. Stopped at a traffic light, he saw two women wearing cowboy hats crossing the road. He smiled the smile that young men sometimes give when they see attractive women. The ladies gave him a cool look in return. A truck blasting a Western tune pulled up. The driver flashed him hate eyes. One of the women traveling with him said, “Looks like we got a visitor! A little brownie!” Shiraz rolled up the window and shut them out. He drove.
Shiraz pulled into the parking lot of a motor inn and warmly greeted another man about the same age. They disappeared into a room. Friends? Family? Lovers? The next thing we saw was Shiraz and the other man in the car and parking in front of an art gallery. A banner was printed with the word ZIGGURAT. This was either the name of the gallery or the title of an exhibition. This word had loaded meaning in an episode called “Babylon.” Ziggurats, large stepped structures, were temples and hubs of civic life in ancient cultures. One of Babylon’s most notorious ziggurats was the Tower of Babel. According to The Bible, God was so provoked by what the structure represented — a self-glorifying expression of rebellious mankind’s pride and power — that he took harsh, dramatic action against his creation. (There are many other views on/stories about the Tower of Babel, too. There’s even a theory that the Tower of Babel was a nuclear-powered spaceship. Now there’s an X-File. Can you imagine Ancient Mulder and Ancient Scully investigating that case?)
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Throughout this entire opening sequence, I was muttering a little prayer myself. Please don’t be terrorists, please don’t be terrorists, please don’t be terrorists…This being American television, we too often see Muslims portrayed as terrorists, or we see them used to make the point that the vast, overwhelming majority of them — pretty much all of them — are not terrorists. The first is a tired and gross stereotype. The second is an always useful reminder but still a stereotype. Can’t a Muslim guy just be a guy? A really interesting guy? Or even a really interesting boring guy. Like a guy who goes to art galleries with a friend, lover, kissing cousin, or whatever?
But no, Shiraz and his companion are terrorists, the kind willing to blow themselves up for a cause. The shot was a shocker. The camera stayed locked in place as we watched them enter the gallery whlie other unsuspecting art patrons arrive. The explosion that followed after a cruel beat made me jump. Those on the street that weren’t immediately killed scrambled about on fire. It was a staggering visual and the most provocative shot of the night…that is, after the spectacle of David Duchovny doing the Cowboy Boogie. Still, I wasn’t ignited. I was bothered by the inevitable choice of a Muslim Suicide Bomber. Given the clumsy treatment of political themes in earlier episodes (the 9/11 nonsense in the premiere, Mulder’s “Obamacare” crack in “Founder’s Mutation”), I didn’t trust that “Babylon” could do right by its delicate subject matter. I braced for the worst.
And by the end of the hour, I was mostly delighted by the episode X-Files creator Chris Carter had given us. While no great treatise on contemporary attitudes about religious extremism, terrorism, or even xenophobia (the lamest characterizations in the episode actually belonged to cut-out racists bent on bloody vengeance against Shiraz), and while tonally eclectic to a fault, “Babylon” managed to survive its flaws and even thrive because of them. It was a thoughtful examination of tough spiritual ideas and a welcome interrogation of Mulder’s most peculiar belief, his (alleged) atheism. It was entertaining thanks to its most surprising quality, a wonderful sense of humor almost Darin Morgan-esque that expressed itself most fully in another binary equation: FBI agents Miller and Einstein, transparent, younger, and winsome doppelgangers for Mulder and Scully. Well played by Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose, Miller and Einstein mirrored our heroes in many ways, from their contrasting worldviews to their simmering romantic chemistry. The dynamic was hilariously reflexive. Everything Mulder and Scully said about their counterparts said something about them and vise versa. Observing Miller and Einstein’s rapport, Scully recognized a familiar intimacy. “She calls him ‘Miller,’” she noted with a knowing smirk. “Hmm.” Similarly, this was Einstein’s theory for why Scully — doctor, scientist, avatar of reason — would ruin her career by working disreputable cases with “woo-woo” Mulder: “She’s clearly in love with him! Nothing else would explain it!” It wasn’t clear if Miller could take the hint. So Mulder.
NEXT: Scully fulfills a dream: “Nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted!”
We found Mulder and Scully in the basement office (after 23 years, Scully still doesn’t have her name on the door; rude!) debating a peculiar phenomenon. Mulder had become obsessed with reports from around the world — Belarus, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Ukraine — of people hearing the sound of horns emanating from unknown origin. (A real thing!) “Ear-witnesses,” Mulder punned, who had caught wind of “the trumpet of God” — a possible early warning sign of the end times, per Revelation 8:2. It’s one of several bits of Biblical business that has been fascinating Mulder of late. Among others: Dem damn apples on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — the forbidden fruit that tempted Adam and Eve to sin, bringing death into the world.
While Scully was a Catholic, she was also a scientist. She chalked up “the trumpet of God” to the power of suggestion, and she challenged Mulder’s eschatological fretting and scriptural analysis. Interpretations of apocalyptic prophecies have been failing for centuries, she reminded Mulder. She also argued that things like Adam’s reported 932-year life span “didn’t literally happen.” What puzzled Scully most about Mulder’s interest was that he was interested at all. Despite Mulder’s passion for the exotic and esoteric, he’s always been oddly cynical about God. Why the sudden openness to divine possibilities?
The episode was less about answering the question and more about letting the question frame Mulder’s actions. Here’s what I considered as the story unfolded. 1) The primary theme of the revival has been ‘Mulder and Scully at middle age.’ Among the stuff we start to really sweat during this perilous passage: mortality, death, and what comes next. Mulder, it seems, is no exception. 2) Mulder’s interest in alternative perspectives, often heretical to both science and religion, has often been as irreverent as it’s been sincere. Recalling that Mulder has been marked by inexplicable catastrophe and wrongdoing (Samantha, UFO conspiracy, etc.), perhaps we should consider the notion that Mulder’s righteous contrarianism and furious pursuit of occult truth — of forbidden knowledge — are pathological expressions of a soul royally irked at a big old invisible sky bully that would allow suffering and evil to flourish. Mulder really wants to believe in God, but he’s denying him out of spite. 3) After all these years, Scully’s worldview is rubbing off on Mulder, or maybe breaking down his own worldview in a profound way. He’s letting it happen, too, because he’s moved by and trusts Scully’s honest, questioning faith, integrity and grace. The X-Files: a prescription for effective lifestyle evangelism in the postmodern age. Put another way: 3b) Mulder loooooves Scully. So much that he’s willing to convert to her way of seeing things.
There was a knock on the door. ”Nobody down here but the FBI’s most unwanted!” quipped Scully, using the line Mulder used on her when they first met back in the pilot. “I’ve been waiting 23 years just to say that.” Mulder: “How did it feel?” Scully: “Pretty good.” Me: Chortling. After a dubious and ponderous beginning, “Babylon” had suddenly elevated by lightening up. And it was about to go next level.
Enter Special Agents Miller and Einstein. The latter’s name immediately intrigued both Mulder and Scully. “I claim a distant relation,” replied Einstein. Given the delightfully caustic sense of humor Ambrose gave the character, it was difficult to tell if Einstein was serious or kidding, perhaps in a I-get-that-a-lot-shut-the-hell-up kinda way. Mulder noted that Scully had written her dissertation on Einstein’s twin paradox — Carter’s organic way of making sure we got the whole doppelganger thing but also a clever way of reinforcing the themes of time and age at play in the revival.
Miller, Mulder fanboy (the X-Files would be his “dream assignment,” he’d later say), explained he and Einstein were investigating the bombing of the gallery in Texas. They were trying to ascertain if the terrorists had accomplices that might be plotting another attack. It turned out that Shiraz had survived the explosion, but he was in a persistent vegetative state. (The visual of his dented head: gruesome.) Miller wanted to know if maybe the X-Files had a record of someone who knew how to parlay with the near-dead. Last week, Mulder declared himself a death bed dark wizard, a necromancer, a coma whisperer — but he was joking. “No one I would waste your time on,” said Mulder, amused and flattered by Miller’s request and respect. Einstein sighed some relief. “Woo-woo” averted! Miller left his card, just in case something came to mind, and the pair of twins parted company.
Writing these words, it hits me that Miller and Einstein weren’t just Mulder and Scully doppelgangers but their beautifully blended children. Einstein: Mom’s skepticism; Dad’s irreverence. Miller: Dad’s far-out imagination; Mom’s soberness. In a season that has doted on parenthood, this reading makes a certain kind of sense…
Then again, maybe Carter was going for another kind of implicit analog: marriage. More specifically: graying spouses cheating on each other with hot young numbers. While waiting to catch a flight to Texas, Einstein got a call from Mulder. He said he had an idea for interviewing Shiraz using an unconventional technique, but he needed her Scully-esque help. He didn’t want to involve the real Scully because he worried the nature of his plan would trigger her still-fresh grief about her mother and her inability to get closure with her before she died. Einstein balked at Mulder’s request, but after he shamed her by suggesting her skepticism could cost more lives, she huffed away from her partner to “catch the crazy train.” Miller might have protested more, but then his phone rang. It was Scully, calling from what looked like a hotel room and asking Miller if he was interested in hooking up…to test her own experimental idea for discoursing with Shiraz. Miller was game. With that, the mate-swapping adultery was on. “Babylon” was basically “The X-Files does Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”
NEXT: Mulder’s Magical Mushroom Mystery Tour
Scully’s scheme was inspired by the real-life work of Dr. Adrian Owen. The neuroscientist experimented with using an MRI machine to communicate with a patient who’d been in a coma for five years. Scully wondered if perhaps they could try something similar with Shiraz using an electro-encephalogram. Miller: That’s genius, Work Mom Work Mistress Agent Scully! Mulder was wrong to want to shield Scully from work that might push on her bruises. On the contrary, Scully told Miller she was motivated to engage this possibly painful experience in order to redeem a missed opportunity, to find some healing. Scully’s idea didn’t save the day, but she and Miller did succeed in keeping Shiraz safe from threats, including some vengeful government agents and a racist nurse with immigrant issues.
Mulder had a more far-out proposal for interrogating Shiraz. His logic rested on a set of crazily connected poetic and pseudoscientific ideas. It kinda went like this: If ideas like hate and faith and love and forgiveness can move people with their figurative weight, then perhaps they possess literal weight, too, which means that the mind is a living thing with mass. Maybe. So what if I sent my mind into another plane of consciousness and mingled with Shiraz’s mind and asked him some questions, which I would accomplish by ingesting a controlled substance. Translation: Mulder wanted Einstein to hook him up with some ‘shrooms.
Einstein was ready to call bulls— on any idea Mulder had for her from the second she walked in the door. Mulder matched her arrogance with his own and told her to sit down and shut up and hear him out. (He would later pay for being such an ass.) She did as she was told, but really, she didn’t: Unlike Miller and Scully, a portrait of competing worldviews working collaboratively and creatively, with openness and humility, to solve problems, Mulder and Einstein provided a portrait of competing worldviews forever at loggerheads, working against each other. Einstein rejected Mulder’s theory of mass consciousness and his ambition to “shed” his body and “touch the face of God.” “When I stand on the scale and think of ice cream my ass doesn’t grow,” she said, adding that ideas don’t kill people, people kill people. (The latter perspective embellished a secondary set of concerns pertaining to the inciting nature of art. If I was piecing things together correctly, the attack on the “Ziggurat” exhibition was executed in retaliation against an editorial cartoon depicting “Muhammad sitting on a toilet defecating radical Islamic terrorism,” according to a TV talking head debating the limits of free speech with another TV talking head. Here, “Babylon” was drawing upon the Jyllands-Posten controversy of 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015.)
Einstein stormed out of Mulder’s office and zipped to Texas. Upon arriving, she spied her partner hanging with Scully as they were trying to get a rise out of Shiraz. Feeling betrayed and scorned and just plain pissed, Einstein embarked on a rash and bitter reprisal designed to make an ideological point. (How terrible — or terrorist — of her.) She called Mulder and arranged a Texas rendezvous. She gave him drugs that she said were mushrooms and told him to knock himself out. Liar. The pills were niacin. That damn siren Einstein had wooed Mulder to Texas to crash him on the rocks of her severe POV.
But something strangely ironic happened when Mulder swallowed Einstein’s jagged little pill. Spooky went trippin’! We saw him amble down the halls of the hospital and down the street into oncoming traffic, drawing alarmed stares and eliciting angry honks. He looked groovy. He felt groovy. High flyin’ Mulder landed at a country-Western bar. He tossed his jacket and hit the dance floor. He boogied, Batusied, thrusted, and flipped. The ladies — most of them older — went wild. After a wardrobe change (a Harley-Davidson T-shirt; a pair of bedazzled fist-covering rings, one that read MUSH and one that read SHROOMS), Mulder pounded Fireball with a trio of dead friends, the Lone Gunmen (a sweet, inspired homage), and ogled a squad of women clad in cut-offs shake their badonkadonks. All for you, Mulder! All for you! The lecherous redneck hoedown came to a crashing halt when Mulder was beamed aboard shadowy starship and strapped to a crimson table and whipped by Einstein in dominatrix gear, punishing him for his noxious devotion to the cult of “Woo-Woo” crazy. It was 50 shades of nightmare. Or a Pitbull rap. Then the scene shifted to something darker. Mulder found himself on a boat traversing dark seas, rowed by men in black death shrouds, whipped by the Cigarette Smoking Man. The gravelly voice of Tom Waits sang “Misery Is the River of the World.” Joining on the trip was Shiraz laying across the lap of his mother — a Christ/Mary Pietà pose. Suddenly remembering what this entire journey into the underworld/subconscious was all about, Mulder approached Shiraz and drew close to him. The young man whispered a word into his ear…
NEXT: Mulder’s trip as Mulder critique. Plus: Trumpets!
Mulder woke up. He was back in the hospital, but this time as a patient. He had Walter Skinner in his face, rebuking him like a mad prophet. He told Mulder that he’d been found at a local bar blitzed out of his gourd and scaring some old ladies with erratic behavior. The twist, though, was that Mulder hadn’t been blitzed at all. Einstein showed up to tell Mulder that he was under the influence of only himself, stoned on the power of suggestion. Maybe I’m projecting — power of suggestion! — but I detected subversion correlations here. Mulder’s trip was a heroic fantasy that took him into the afterlife to party with fellow travelers and women set aside for his pleasure. But then the fantasy blows up on him — it reveals itself to be just that, a fantasy — and Mulder is plunged into his construct of hell. I contend that this funny business was meant to echo the Homeland Security goon who referenced the idea of heavenly reward of houris and jinn given to Muslim martyrs. You can look at this sequence a lot of different ways (or not at all), but I submit that one of them is a critique of Mulder’s extremism, narcissism, and self-glorifying, delusional immortality project, or what Ernest Becker would call “a denial of death.” Am I saying Mulder = Terrorist? Well, he did scare some old ladies.
Of course, Carter couldn’t completely blow up Mulder. He’s a hero, after all. A flawed, sometimes misguided hero, but a hero. Just as he was about to concede that his vision was self-generated dada, Mulder recognized a woman outside the hospital, a woman he had never seen before — not on this corporeal plane of existence. It was the woman from the boat — Shiraz’s mother. She explained to Mulder, Scully, Einstein, and Miller that she’d been communicating with her son in her dreams. He’d been telling her that he didn’t activate his bomb vest, that once he got inside the Ziggurat exhibition, he had a change of heart. He couldn’t kill all those innocent people. His mother had taught him better than that. (Or so mom wanted to believe.) Unfortunately, his friend followed through with the plan, and so flawed, misguided Shiraz suffered the consequences for a heroic turn made too late. But Mulder still had a chance to make a difference. He took the presence of Shiraz’s mother as a sign that his vision had some meaning to it. If only he could remember those words Shiraz had whispered is his ear…
It was an Arabic phrase. Miller — who did some time in Iraq — could translate: “Babylon Hotel.” It was the place where Shiraz met his friend at the start of the episode. The FBI raided the joint just in time to stop a terror cell armed to the teeth and prepping another attack.
In the first epilogue, Einstein let her hair down (literally: she unfastened the ponytail and let her crimson Scully-esque locks flow) and processed the strange denouement with her partner, Miller. “Remarkably, I did nothing, and remarkably, it worked.” How to explain Mulder’s epiphany? She couldn’t. “The mysterious: the true source of all art and science,” she said, paraphrasing* her “distant relative.” And to some degree, she now agreed with Mulder. “I’ve come to believe words do have weight and power to move people…to do the most psychotic things.” She smiled. So did Miller. Sparks. Here’s hoping we see these two again in another revival.
*“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
In the second epilogue, Scully drove to Mulder’s little house on the prairie and interrupted an easy listening reverie (“Ho Hey” by The Lumineers) so they could process the “Babylon” adventure. He welcomed the opportunity. “Walk with me, Scully,” he said, taking her hand. The dialogue that followed was somewhat overwritten, but Duchovny and Anderson worked their magic and made it sound casual and intimate. Mulder revealed that he’d been thinking a lot about God — specifically “the angry God of the Bible, Tower of Babel, Babylon” who “scattered people violently” and “punished people for their hubris.” He asked: “What is this god saying? Worship me in my great anger?” He resented a god that revealed itself in language that moved people to such hate that they would kill by killing themselves. But he wondered if there was proof of a better god, something he called “mother love.” He saw this proof in Shiraz’s mother, and I suspect he sees that proof in Scully. Sentimental? Sure. But Mulder believed in it. Or wanted to.
Scully restated Mulder’s ideas by offering a different interpretation of the Tower of Babel. What if God wasn’t punishing mankind by scrambling their language and scattering them across the globe? Perhaps he was giving them a challenge: to find “the common language again,” to come together and create a society organized around better ideals and loftier purpose than self-glorification. “Maybe that’s God’s will,” she said. Mulder said what would really be helpful is if this god — an actor who has seemingly abandoned the stage — would clarify these things for us directly. Scully suggested that maybe he is. Right now. Perhaps his communication is “beyond words,” that we could hear him if we emulated the prophets, if we “open our hearts and truly listen.” Mulder exhaled deeply and closed his eyes and titled his face toward the sun. He was joking — Scully laughed — but then he heard something. Something only he could hear. A trumpet echoing from the heavens. A sign of the apocalypse that could only mean one thing…
The end of The X-Files revival is near.
See you next week for the finale. Until then, hit the comments with your thoughts or reach out on Twitter @EWDocJensen.