If nothing else, “Babylon” will go down in television history as the episode of The X-Files in which Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) got high on placebo mushrooms, donned a white cowboy hat, and line-danced to “Achy Breaky Heart” in a Texas bar. There’s no returning from a sequence like that, as series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed, seems to be doubling down on the show’s current position in pop culture as a nostalgic time warp.
If this scene appeared in a Darin Morgan-penned episode, one might assume this cheekiness to be intentionally achieved, but Carter is generally not known for his sense of humor, and Mulder’s hallucination uncomfortably cohabitates within an earnest and preachy story of a Muslim terrorist. One can’t say that Carter isn’t ambitious: “Babylon” isn’t the act of a revered TV maestro phoning 45 minutes of genre programming in, but rather a jumble of barely compatible ideas that remain unshaped and un-reconciled by the end credits. This is probably partially the point, as Carter seems to enjoy the splatter-paint process of going wherever his imagination takes him, whether it includes an elaborately long Billy Ray Cyrus-inspired dance number that segues into an ironic celebration of Trace Adkins’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” an irreverent dominatrix encounter, a surprisingly intense religious vision of a Muslim cradled by his mother aboard a boat in the ocean, or a pair of young Mulder and Scully doppelgangers.
Like “My Struggle,” which Carter also wrote and directed, “Babylon” highlights an enduring irony of The X-Files: Its creator is one of its least confident handlers. He appears to wield an unusually porous kind of influence over his series, embracing the distinctive voices of the people collaborating on each individual episode, resulting in a franchise that’s always been highly variable and inconsistent. What Carter created, and what he’s re-approximated this season in abbreviated extremis, is an anthology series within a master-arc cocoon, featuring recurring characters who are capable of shifting personalities to reflect the concerns of the guest writers and directors. Carter’s disinterest in establishing a house voice for his series speaks of enormous confidence, though it often backfires when he directly grasps the reins.
“My Struggle” was merely dull, while “Babylon” is tone deaf in a memorable what-the-hell-were-they-thinking sort of way. The Mulder-goes-honky-tonking bit is the cherry on the figurative sundae—the scene people will almost certainly mention before elaborating on their general bafflement with the episode, which mixes the free-associative with the trite. It’s an embarrassing sequence, though Duchovny survives by owning it. The actor’s moves are gracefully stiff, which is a contradiction that allows for hokey ah-fuck-it coolness. And Duchovny’s peculiar approach to his role this season, best described as a distanced affection for his landmark character that manifests itself as loving, occasionally poignant, highly quotation-marked shtick, informs the sequence with something nearly autumnal, suggesting that Mulder is entering a midlife crisis, which complements his blossoming attempts throughout the season to care less about the X-Files.
Mulder’s über-broad barroom-cowboy routine is—perhaps purposefully—jarring, cropping up in the middle of a narrative that attempts to wrestle with America’s fraught relationship with Muslim culture. The opening of the episode pivots on a provocative misdirection, following Shiraz (Artin John), a young Muslim man, as he goes about his morning routine, which includes traditional prayer and, later, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—rituals that embody his mixing of Muslim and American practices. Later, after driving into a southwestern Texas town, he is casually shot disgusted looks by white Americans who appear to assume that all Muslims are killers.
Which is to say that we are primed to assume that a corrective is arriving, and that a point will be made about Shiraz as representative of another side of Muslim culture. But, no: He’s a terrorist, who blows up an art gallery with another cohort. It’s a resonant opening, with a ghoulish punchline, and all the more notable for not including a supernatural hook. It takes a while for us to understand why this bombing, which Shiraz survives as a bedridden vegetable, should fall under the rubric of the X-Files.
The answer to that question is arbitrary, overly theoretical, and emotionally thin. Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are drawn into the bombing investigation by younger F.B.I. agents, Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) and Miller (Robbie Amell), who have a professional relationship mirroring Mulder and Scully’s at the beginning of the series. Einstein is the humorless pragmatist, while Miller is open and curious about the paranormal, longing to join the X-Files. Mulder pairs with Einstein, and Scully with Miller, enacting some generational variations on familiar odd-couple routines. Mulder believes that he might be able to mentally communicate with the all-but-dead Shiraz, discerning more details about a terrorist cell, if he takes a powerful mushroom that might expand his mind’s telekinetic receptors. Einstein goes along with this out of jealousy over Miller and Scully’s partnership, which is fueled by Scully’s desire to right a regret she has over her mother’s recent death.
This scenario, which might fold concerns of infrastructural stability, religious identity, and tolerance into a multi-generational parody of The X-Files, with a twist of romantic tension for sexy diversion, goes utterly nowhere, as Carter hops from one whim to another. True, Mulder’s “Achy Breaky Heart” farrago segues into a startling vision of Shiraz as a Christ figure on his mother’s (Nina Nayebi) lap, but such nightmarish imagery is nulled by Carter’s endless speechifying, including the sort of unconvincingly “relevant” talk show facsimiles that drove “My Struggle.” The final few minutes, in particular, might be a new low point for The X-Files, in which Mulder and Scully hold hands on the former’s property, trading a series of platitudes that are intended to tie all the episode’s various conceits and sketches together, as the Lumineers’s “Ho Hey” provides banal rom-com uplift on the soundtrack. Meanings of the word “Babylon” are pondered, from the bibilical to the literal to the figurative, but the episode reduces itself to a naïve fortune cookie bromide along the lines of “Kindness, pass it on.”
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