“Babylon,” the fifth episode of X-Files current season, went to a very risky place, and it didn’t make it through unscathed. However, you could have seen that inevitable outcome coming over a year ago.
Flash back to January 2015, a time when the X-Files revival was just something fans dreamed about on the internet. When Gillian Anderson went on The Nerdist podcast to promote Hannibal, Chris Hardwick and pals couldn’t resist asking her about the chances of an X-Files revival. She opted to use them as an informal focus group, probing their nerdy brains for insight into the type of storylines fans would want from a new X-Files, “What do you think it should be? Should it be more like monster of the week stuff? Or should it be more like mythology stuff? Or more like current events stuff? Like, would we have to do an episode that involves terrorists?” Hardwick’s co-host Matt Mira instantly joked, “Fuck yeah you would. Maybe the aliens are terrorists!” which elicited a big laugh and apparent nod of approval from Anderson.
It was a fun, only semi-serious conversation to listen to, but it also made me feel a tad uneasy. The notion of an X-Files story cross-pollinating its alien-loving DNA with a real world threat like terrorism felt wrong, an obvious example of a fictional work crassly cheapening a genuine tragedy through ill-conceived fantastical explanation. Or, to put it more clearly, don’t make aliens the terrorists. That’s a really bad idea. Whenever you think it might be a good idea imagine Harrison Ford pointing his finger in your face, and you’ll feel properly shamed:
Written and directed by Chris Carter, the episode tells a fairly straightforward story about Muslim, suicide-bombing terrorists. As one of the suicide bombers we meet in the cold open barely clings to life in a hospital bed, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security search for the local terrorist cell to prevent future bombings. Mulder and Scully merely factor into the story as the kooks who think they have a way to communicate with the comatose bomber.
That’s a workable scenario. It respects the gravity of the situation while also giving both Mulder and Scully character specific-solutions to the problem. Mulder the believer has a far flung idea about dropping a special mushroom and gaining the ability to tap into our plane of universal existence where he can reach out to the bomber’s consciousness. Scully the skeptic has a science-based idea to employ a cutting edge protocol wherein they’ll use a electroencephalogram (EEG) test to monitor the electrical activity in the patient’s brain as he is read a series of yes/no questions.
Except, of course, Mulder and Scully are split up and paired off with two new characters, Agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), aka, X-Files: The Next Generation. Unfortunately, Carter fashioned Miller and Einstein as exact replicas of Mulder and Scully, right down to hair color, fashion sense, the gendered “he believes/she doesn’t” divide and even their refusal to ever use first names. As such, there was nothing new about either of them other than their age, and they paled in comparison to their obviously superior, older counterparts. Also, inserting the usually amusing narrative device of mirror characters like Miller and Einstein into a rather serious story line adds up to a tonally imbalanced episode.
That being said, there was a promising energy to their early scenes, with Scully recruiting Miller into her plan and Scully doing the same with Einstein. Miller’s excited acceptance of everything Scully said (e.g., “That is incredible. Why didn’t someone think of that?”) was comically contrasted by Einstein’s instant dismissal of Mulder’s apparent insanity (e.g., “Rest assured, Agent Mulder, when I walk out of here I will never again darken your basement door.”)
Beyond a sense of professional or personal jealousy, there’s little initial insight into why Einstein ultimately goes along with Mulder’s plan. We later learn she was actually dosing him with a placebo to make a point about the power of suggestion. Before we reach that point, Mulder experiences an extended mushroom trip sending him to Einstein’s dominatrix table, line-dancing in a hybrid honky tonk bar/strip club and staying afloat on a boat with the Cigarette Smoking Man and the bomber and his mother in a very Jesus/Mary pose.
The X-Files, more so than almost any other show, forever reserves the right to be weird (does a black & white modern Frankenstein at a Cher concert ring a bell?), and the sight of Duchovny staging his own version of a hip-hop music video with a country twist is vaguely amusing. However, it’s also off-putting. As ScreenRant argued:
“Generally, it’s good practice to leaven the somber proceedings of a storyline involving something as dire as terrorist bombings in an effort to keep the episode from being tonally one-note and overbearing. But there’s just something about the two extremes that, although Carter’s intentions seem clear and perhaps even appealing in their own way, just don’t add up to an entirely cohesive hour.”
Thus, Carter felt the need to spell everything out for us in the final scene. Mulder’s vision showed him the unconditional love a mother has for her son, and Scully’s experience with suspicious Department of Homeland Security nozzles (thank you for that word, Quantum Leap) and a vengeful nurse showed her unqualified hate. How to reconcile those two extremes of our nature is the question of our times, we are told.
More than that, the experience has caused Mulder to re-assess the nature of faith and the power of suggestion, finding discomfort in the power of hate but comfort in the power of, as he calls it, “mother love.” A mother wouldn’t raise her child to be a tool of hate, and perhaps in these complicated times the universal language we all need to agree upon is love, lest we remain forever scattered like the biblical residents around the Tower of Babel.
It is a message of love delivered by two people – Mulder and Scully, holding hands while enjoying a peaceful walk in the countryside – who are in love, as Einstein instantly concluded upon meeting them. These are also two people who effectively speak different languages, as indicated by their separate approaches to the case of the bomber, yet here they are middle-aged and at extreme ease with each other, forever seeing the world through the prism of parenthood due to their lost son William.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Earlier in the episode, the vengeful nurse leans into a rant about the various stresses terrorism and illegal immigration visit upon everyday society and the healthcare system, leading Einstein to comically pull things back in focus by acknowledging, “We’re not going to be able to fix that right now.”
That could be “Babylon’s” mantra since the resolution to the story is ill-explained and the commentary on the larger societal issue essentially amounts to a rendition of The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.” Chris Carter didn’t make the terrorists aliens nor did he pretend to have all the answers. However, he absolutely bit off too much, commenting on terrorism, love, hate, the nature of reality and power of suggestion while also introducing us to two characters seemingly created as a backdoor pilot for X-Files: The Next Generation. However, even if “Babylon” was a bit scattered and easily among the weakest of the new season it’s still refreshing to see X-Files stepping up to the plate and taking such big swings.
2. I suddenly want to know if anyone’s ever called our central duo “Mul-dawg and Scul-gal”
3. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to make Einstein the believer and Miller the skeptic?
4. Is Einstein’s name meant to be meta-joke about how Scully sometimes seemed like a genius in the original run of the show, what with her being an expert or at least remarkably familiar with just about everything in medicine and science?
5. Scully: “Nobody but the FBI’s most unwanted. I’ve been waiting 23 years to say that.” / Mulder: “How’d it feel?” / Scully: “Pretty good.”