The X-Files have been reopened. Join special agents Susan Stover and Peter Counter as they pick apart the adventures of Mulder and Scully, episode by episode, desperately trying to believe while trusting no one.
Words and ideas have weight. Like the memory of sucking on a lemon, linguistics conjure up tangible feelings and marked emotions. “Babylon” operates under this thesis, espousing the power of language. The first language we hear is Arabic, with a young Muslim man praying to Allah. We watch as he makes a PB&J sandwich, encounters unfriendly stares from white Texans, and finally arrives at his destination to embrace his friend. “God hears the one who praises him,” not dissimilar to Christian sentiments, “May God be with you” or “Jesus loves you.” He and his friend enter a crowded building, seconds later we see it explode: bodies of half-alive and certainly almost dead run every which way engulfed in flames.
If words have meaning and weight, then what are we to glean from this episode? Instead of monsters and apparitions, The X-Files decides to go after the deep-rooted fears the West harbours against the Middle East. The boogey man is religious extremism, preying on the already too real and tangible hatred and misunderstanding that creates an “us vs. them” warlike mentality. But don’t worry Fox and Dana are going to fix all of this, all they need is magic mushrooms and music from The Lumineers.
Like the ghost of that lemon puckering your lips, “Babylon” leaves a bitter memory.
The Book of the Dead
Peter: The story of “Babylon” fits into one of the old X-Files episode types: a non-supernatural FBI investigation solved via the agents’ spooky methods. After the big cold-open explosion, one for the bombing suspects is left in a coma. Teaming up with a couple of new, strangely familiar agents (young doppelgangers of our basement dwelling protagonists) who have been assigned to the case, Mulder and Scully use science and psychedelic drugs to foil a second terrorist attack. There’s tragedy, comedy, some special guest cameos, and a whole lot of gross exploitation.
Susan: Miller (young Mulder) seeks out Mulder and Scully’s assistance so they can commune with the man responsible for the bombing who has had half his brains blown away. Scully would usually be like “This is bullshit” but this is a personal quest for her. She was unable to get the answers she needed from her mother who lay in a coma, and she plays with the mysterious coin necklace Margaret left her when she calls Miller to find out if there are ways to get a “Yes” or “No” answers from the patient like some kind of organic Ouija board.
Peter: Before we get into the woo woo fun of psychedelic trips on the river Styx and body double co-workers though, let’s talk about the episode’s big problem. There are two terrorist suicide bombings on American soil in “Babylon,” and the first one — the successful one that ends the lives of innocents in an art gallery named Ziggurat — lays the foundation for the episode’s hypocritical grandstanding. The premise of this very special episode of The X-Files requires the viewer to accept an alternate reality in which “unassimilated” Muslim communities in Texas are forming active terrorist cells and successfully obliterating populated public spaces with ham-fisted names like Babylon. “Babylon” asks us to consider real US citizens and accept that their faith makes them dangerous.
Let’s be clear here: this is not happening in the United States. The very fact that fake bombings can be shown on TV alongside stock footage of the September 11 terrorist attacks goes to show how far from reality this portrayal of radical Muslim America actually is. The United States is safer now than it has ever been from the kinds of terrorism depicted in “Babylon” — so safe that they haven’t had a repeat suicide bombing since 9/11, which happened about nine months before the The X-Files originally went off the air.
When we came back from the first commercial break and saw Agent Mulder presenting ear witness testimony that the apocalyptic trumpets of heaven’s angels sounded before the explosion, I gave the Chris Carter (who penned the episode) the benefit of the doubt. Oh! I thought, Carter wants me to assume he’s ignorant in order to tell a larger parable about the evil of racial profiling. Maybe this is finally the one where the agents bust God.
After all, there were a lot of ways Carter could write his way out of the egregious self-contradiction at the episode’s core. We never saw the paper terrorists in the cold open strap on vests, or even detonate them. When we saw the second paper terrorist in a shelter, building what looked like a bomb, there was a chance it could have been a clock, or he could have been, uh… under the influence of some sort of supernatural Kilgrave-like influence a la original series highlights “Kitsunegari” and “Pusher.”
But no. straw men, all of them. Cut out pictures of modern xenophobia represented without a single quantum particle’s worth of irony. Flimsy writing, elevated to faux-relevance thanks to the exploitative images of real people dying displayed on in-show TV sets. If “Babylon” is to be recommended to any audience for any purpose, it should be to teach media studies students how propaganda works in prime time television. Susan, I’m sad.
Susan: I know Peter, I know that you wanted the narrative to be flipped so bad. I sat watching you doe-eyed and hopeful, while I crossed my arms and cringed cynically while commercial break after commercial break brought us no closer to any sort of dynamic portrayal of Muslims on TV.
I will take a second to play devil’s advocate: there are religious extremists of all nationalities and creeds in this world. It is a subject that is ripe for discussion and art is the way to do it. But not like this. After apparently “speaking” to the bomber in a coma, Mulder ushers in the young man’s mother, and the “power” of a mother’s love is supposed to give us some insight this this young man isn’t just a monster. The words from the man are the location of the next bombing, which is supposed to absolve him, and mean the he’s sorry now? (?!)
However, this attempt to even out the narrative is unsuccessful. The extremist men are one-dimensional; we are never privy to their motivations, other than their religious affirmations. Their hate is tied directly to their religion with no other contributing factors. There could have been a discussion about how Dana’s Scully’s own religious inclinations has been and continues to be used to spread hate, violence, and terror around the globe. But nope, we just started gabbing about angel’s trumpets. The tower of Babel continues to divide us all.
Peter: Angels’ trumpets and the magical effects of placebo pills. I think if I worked for the FBI, I would feel slighted by this episode too. The Bureau seems to have no idea, even after a decade and a half of fighting this supposed enemy, what motivates them. America’s federal law enforcement agency is so out of their depth on this case they take a chance on Mulder’s vague remembrance of a self-induced hallucination. Also: you can cite the Bible all you want, but we have Google Translate now. The FBI has had time to learn Arabic.
Peter: For all the hatred “Babylon” spewed into The X-Files canon, it wasn’t without its singular moments of fun. Agents Miller and Einstein, the younger doppelgangers of Mulder and Scully respectively, offer a fun conceit to a terrible case of the week. I found Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) particularly endearing as the mirror version of Scully. Combined with the interesting choice to set most scenes in places of transition (airports, hospitals, the river Styx), I think a better version of “Babylon” could have functioned as a backdoor pilot to a full fledged series reboot starring the hot young doubles. Since they are actual copies of Mulder and Scully they already have a leg up on the infamously unloved Reyes and Doggett in terms of fan acceptance.
Susan: Given that Albert Einstein’s twin paradox is what Scully studied in school, it’s kind of a delightful moment to see the foursome stand and examine one another, even work together and not really understand they’re, like, the same people.
And with the same people, come the same dynamics. Well, almost. Scully takes the young Miller (Robbie Amell) under her wing. She’s gentle with him not prodding or arguing the way she does with Mulder, but rather she seems somewhat amused by this younger iteration of her partner. “I believe that you believe,” she softly coos. Mulder and Einstein (Scully) have a different encounter with young Einstein saying everything short of “Are you fucking crazy?” when Mulder suggests he “administer” magic mushrooms to him so he can “talk” to the brain dead bomber to find out what happened.
First question: Why does Mulder need to be “administer” mushies? I have “administered” such substances on my own, and it’s like not hard guy. And OF COURSE she gets him a placebo because where the hell is she going to get capsules of magic mushrooms on such short notice?
Second question: When Mulder is “tripping” he has a fantasy about Einstein as a dominatrix because you now Mulder’s a DAWG. But why put that in there and not have the same heat between Miller and Scully? Instead she’s kind of motherly as opposed to wanting to hit that.
Third question: Would you not freak the fuck out if they all had a foursome? I know, I am a pervert and this isn’t a real critique of the show, but I mean if they’re going to bring up thought experiments, then SO AM I.
Peter: Honestly, by the end of the episode I wouldn’t have blinked if Mulder was like, “So there’s this ancient Tibetan belief that if four people who really sync-up personality-wise achieve orgasm simultaneously that they can see the multi-branched stream of time and forever craft their own destinies.” Stay tuned for our Mul/Scul/Mil/Ein erotic fan fic.
Susan: The safe word is always “Skinner.”
Tower of Hatred
Peter: The final scene in “Babylon” plays like an epilogue. Fox and Dana walk through the field near Mulder’s mystery shack and pop-philosophize on why all the paper terrorists are leaping forth from the shadows and blowing up buildings. Ideology, absent mothers, communication issues — it all goes back to that angry old testament God who scattered us for trying to know him better; who gave us language so that we would hate one another.
Susan: The same God that gave us, “Ho-Hey” to underscore this moment.
Peter: Ha! Yes. The God who on the eighth day created The Lumineers so that they might underscore the out-of-touch preaching of the man who made The X-Files.
Set aside the big ol’ folk rock message-hammer “Babylon” is bludgeoning us with, and what you have is a remarkable instance of either ignorance or lethargy. After nearly an hour of a television show asking us to hate an already wrongfully maligned minority (not just in the US but all over the world), Dana Scully, the show’s appointed voice of reason, says multiple times that we all need to stop hating other people.
The message in those words on face value is, obviously, virtuous. But given the context of the episode it is a self-indictment. Mulder and Scully’s dialogue wraps the show around on itself so its conclusion can better eat its beginning. When the camera pans out Men in Black-style, to show the one world we all call home yet still fight over because of the evil power of miscommunication, I’m surprised we didn’t see a great big apocalyptic ouroboros in the form of Chris Carter eating his own xenophobic feet.
-Under The Tin Foil Hat-
Dead Gunmen Walking
Peter: Mulder is ostensibly still under the impression that the Lone Gunmen are dead and buried in Arlington Cemetery after their early 2000s demise in “Jump The Shark.” Still, they show up in his faux-mushroom trip during which he only encountered other living spirits. I really hope this means we get a proper return of the tabloid-ers of truth in next week’s finale.
Susan: That would be cool. Also we got a shot of the Smoking Man. What ever happened to him? He had his “I’ll get you Inspector Gadget” moment in the first episode, but we’re still due for another appearance.
Motherfucking Mommy Issues
Susan: I am so fucking exhausted with every single fucking episode of this fucking show having something to do with motherhood or parenthood and then the camera panning to fucking Dana Scully. Show us fucking William already or I am going to fucking freak the fuck out.
Peter: Do you think William is a terrorist suicide bomber because he doesn’t know his mom? Quick! Administer me some shrooms and we can find out before next Monday!
Susan: I belong to you, you belong to me, in my sweet HOOOOOMMMEEE.
The Other Other Agents
Peter: Annabeth Gish was confirmed as reprising the role of Monica Reyes in the revival, so with only one episode left we know it’s going to be next week’s “My Struggle II.” We haven’t seen her since she was left in the original series finale facing off against the notoriously difficult to enunciate super soldier Knowle Rohrer (Adam Baldwin). Doggett will not be back next week, as Robert Patrick was likely already booked for the actually-even-worse-than-this Scorpion.