Despite an interlude that was truly a thing of beauty, “Babylon” is a bit too much of a mess to make good on the ideas it wants to tackle. Which is a problem because it’s trying to tackle some very heavy concepts. But then there’s drug use and the placebo effect… and doppelgängers? So it all kind of gets lost in translation.
There’s a terrorist attack in Texas at an art gallery, and two FBI agents come to consult Mulder and Scully on the case—the two agents, Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), bear a striking resemblance to Mulder and Scully themselves in both looks and philosophy. Miller believes that one of the bombers, who is currently in a coma, can be reached through some form of psychic means, while his partner believes it’s a waste of time. While they’re at the airport, Scully contacts Miller and offers to help him in Texas. Simultaneously and without her knowledge, Mulder contacts Einstein and offers to help on the case back at his office. He tells Einstein that he thinks he could contact the man by using magic mushrooms, which many users claim elevates them to another level of being. Scully tells Miller that she believes they can contact the man using a brain scanning device and getting him to answer yes-or-no questions. While Miller and Scully are trying to help him, some men come in claiming that they’re there to take over the case as Homeland Security, but they’re clearly civilians there to get retribution. Later on, a nurse tries to turn off the man’s life support equipment, convinced that all refuges are coming into the country to form terrorist groups.
Mulder arrives in Texas and Einstein gives him the mushrooms in capsule form. He takes one pill and has a vivid trip, line dancing with locals, envisioning Skinner and the Lone Gunman there with him in cowboy finery, then arriving at a BDSM scenario with Einistein, getting flayed by the Cigarette Smoking Man, and finally coming into contact with the bomber, who is being held in the arms of a woman. He wakes in the hospital, Skinner scolding him for being ridiculous and embarrassing the bureau, and Einstein insisting that she gave him a placebo. Mulder sees a woman outside the hospital fighting to be let in, and recognizes her from his trip as the woman holding the bomber. She turns out to be the bomber’s mother, and comes in to speak with her son Shiraz, saying that she knows he didn’t want to go through with the bombing because he’s been visiting her in her dreams and speaking to her. The equipment he’s hooked up to lights up the instant she begins talking to him, but he dies shortly after. Mulder remembers the words Shiraz said to him during his trip, and Miller translates them from Arabic to mean “Babylon Hotel.” The FBI raids the hotel and finds the rest of the terrorist cell. Later on, Scully comes to visit Mulder at home, and they ponder the extreme love and hate they encountered on this case, and how both sides seem to have an abundance of it. Mulder wonders how they can reconcile the too (and also how he tripped on a placebo), then begins to hear trumpets in the air….
Mulder’s trip is easily the best part of the episode, incorporating some superb music cues, one of the episode’s other strengths. You can tell David Duchovny is loving every minute, and getting to watch him line dance is definitely one of my all-time favorite X-Files moments. The appearance of the Lone Gunman makes the whole sequence, as does the CSM appearing while TOM WAITS is playing. It’s the apex of absurdity. If the episode had been more centered around that, around the idea of elevated consciousness in a drugged state, I’d have been all over this episode. Particularly because it’s not something that I’ve ever truly seen tackled in an X-Files type format. It’s good fodder for a show that deals in the paranormal.
But the problem is that this episode wants to be difficult and challenging, wants to be about something very complicated and near-impossible to talk about succinctly in this day and age… and distracts us by veering off into asides about magic mushrooms, then adds in a duo of lookalikes who could not be less interesting or less essential to the plot. It’s weird enough seeing Robbie Amell on the show if you watch The Flash or Arrow (which I do), but then you pair him with Lauren Ambrose—who I normally adore in everything—stuck playing a deeply unlikable version of Scully, as though someone who hated the character rewrote her for the modern era. And she’s a descendant of the Einstein. For some reason. To make dumb jokes. I actually dislike Agent Einstein more than I disliked Ambrose’s Jilly Kitzinger from Torchwood: Miracle Day, and you’re supposed to hate that character.
Ambrose and Amell have zero chemistry and exist primarily to facilitate whatever Mulder and Scully need to do, so… why are they here? Why do these characters need to exist in an episode that isn’t about them at all? It reads as though two entirely disparate episodes were forced into a Magic Bullet together for the sake of expediency. Never a good sign.
What you have when you remove the junior agents and the placebo trip is an episode that is attempting to address the issues of modern day terrorism on both sides of the equation. And the script is desperately trying give a balanced account, to show individual people rather than big scary groups, but the dichotomies as portrayed are too muddy to get anything valuable across to the audience. In fact, without that tag scene from Mulder and Scully to address “this week’s theme” the whole thing would be indiscernible in the extreme.
Shiraz begins as a character that the viewer can empathize with—he says his morning prayers, eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and encounters a round dose of racism on his way to pick up someone who appears to be a friend. Later on, his mother Noora explains that her son didn’t really want to bomb the gallery, that he told her in her dreams that he couldn’t go through with it once he saw the faces of the people he was about to kill. But the script never takes his story the extra needed step, never explains why a sweet-seeming young man got involved with a terrorist cell in the first place. So, in effect, it fails to show his side of things at all.
We have the rantings of two people on some news show, screaming at each other over and over about the attack on the gallery. The man involved makes it clear that the gallery was bombed for featuring a painting of Muhammad defecating, a fairly on-the-nose parallel to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. The man insists that terrorism is rising in America because Americans hate the groups of people that the terrorists herald from, while his female counterpoint shouts that he’s wrong. Again, no real effort is made to have a discussion around these opinions, they’re just thrown into the void and the audience is left to consider them.
The terrorist cell is shown on screen, and at least two of their members seem to be white men, though we can’t know anything about their true affiliations without any confirmation. There are the fake Homeland Security men who come in for a little revenge, then the nurse who believes that all the refuges and immigrants are coming to hurt Americans and take away their jobs. The HS guys are shown the door in short order, and Agent Einstein guides the nurse out for a talk, so the woman can ostensibly air her prejudices away from Mulder and the magic mushrooms. But Einstein offers no counterpoint in return, doing nothing about this woman who is responsible for Shiraz’s life. (Who, more to the point, tried to end his life right before she and Mulder entered the room.) At the very least, she should be letting someone at the front desk know that this particular nurse is likely not capable of giving Shiraz the care he requires.
What we get are talking points, various perspectives on terrorism with no real substance to the arguments. Whether a show like The X-Files should be making commentary on issues like this is neither here nor there—if you make the choice to do it, you have to actually say something. What we get instead is Mulder and Scully meandering in the field, wondering if humankind will succumb to hatred or love, and how to encourage one outcome over the other. It’s a good scene that would prove lovely in practically any other episode. But here, it just feels like a great big “….?”
(We’re also supposed to care a lot that Einstein seems to not hate Miller anymore. I really don’t care about that, though. Because I can’t figure out why she hates him so much in the first place.)
We can’t ruminate on the power of love and hate respectively without truly specific accounts of their roles in the world. So the lack of focus in “Babylon” becomes its breaking point. The episode has lofty goals, but achieves none of them.
Emmet Asher-Perrin is sad that Mulder’s amazing journey was plugged into an episode where it was anything but warranted. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.