Well, here’s a weird one.
It’s my suspicion that “Babylon,” the fifth installment of the new X-Files mini-series, will be widely despised. I can’t say that any revulsion is unjustified, since writer-director Chris Carter goes out of his way to prod and provoke. On first glance, I found the whole affair aggressively unpleasant, but a second viewing snapped me around to overwhelmed admiration. The truth is surely somewhere in between.
“How to reconcile the two — the extremes of our nature?” special agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) muses toward episode’s end. “That’s the question,” his partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) responds. “Maybe the question of our times.” Let’s look for some answers.
If I were to try and summarize this strange beast, it would be something like, “A screwball comedy about getting inside the head of a Muslim suicide bomber.” The bomber’s name is Shiraz (Artin John), and he’s the focus of the episode’s teaser sequence, which is key to decoding much of what follows. We see Shiraz at morning prayer, calm and serene. He walks to his kitchen and makes a sandwich, blessing the food before he takes a bite. Music starts to play — Arabic lyrics set to a dubstep beat. Then Shiraz is in his car, driving along a road in “Southwest Texas,” the music still playing and, seemingly, centering him. (Pay special attention to how the characters in this episode use music to focus and/or distract themselves.)
At a traffic stop, two attractive women walk past Shiraz’s vehicle. He smiles at them. Then he turns to his right: A guy and two girls — an all-American trio in every way — are eyeing him disdainfully from their car. The music changes to some brash country, and Shiraz rolls up his windows as the three hiss racist insults at him. He eventually arrives at his destination, a motel where he affectionately greets another young Muslim man (Johnny Ghorbani).
The two of them are then back in Shiraz’s car, driving up to the Ziggurat art gallery. (A ziggurat is a towering structure, basically a terraced pyramid, that originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The mythical Tower of Babel is thought, by some, to be one.) Shiraz and his friend join hands and say one more prayer before walking into the gallery. A few seconds elapse. The building explodes — with a bit of dodgy digital effects that nonetheless pack a potent punch. And then, chaos ensues.
There’s nothing funny about what happens in this sequence. If anything, Carter goes out of his way to merely present the facts of the situation. The beauty of prayer. The horror of racism. The calming quality of music. The terror of lives suddenly snuffed out. Can anything truly good come from all of this?
Cut to Mulder and Scully’s basement office, where the agents are embroiled in debate over footage of people reacting to some kind of sound from the skies. “Music as if from the heavens themselves,” Mulder says. “Since when do you believe in God?” the ever-skeptical Scully asks. “It’s not important what I believe. It’s important what they believe,” he replies, referring to these so-called “ear-witnesses,” while also baldly stating one of the episode’s themes.
Their dialogue is even more didactic than usual for Carter, who tends to use Mulder and Scully as mouthpieces, at times at the expense of their characters. I’m still grappling with his approach in “Babylon,” though I think the way both characters talk through the episode’s grand themes ultimately makes sense, given how the story is concerned with people who use words to bridge the gulfs that divide them.
A knock at the door interrupts Mulder and Scully’s heady discussion. “Anyone down here?” someone asks. “Nobody but the FBI’s most unwanted!” Scully replies, in a funny callback to Mulder’s first words to her 23 years earlier. (The look of shock and delight on Mulder’s face is sublime.) And into the office walk another pair of Carter mouthpieces, Agents Miller (Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose).
For Mulder and Scully, it’s like looking into a mirror at younger, fresher-faced versions of themselves, though the blocking of the scene wittily sets each character diagonally across from their counterpart. It quickly emerges that Miller is the believer of the two, and Einstein, who “claim[s] a distant relation” to the scientist of the same name, is the skeptic. They’ve been assigned the Texas bombing case — the Ziggurat gallery was destroyed because it showcased offensive artwork featuring Muhammad — and are flying down to see if a larger terror cell is involved. Miraculously, Shiraz survived the attack, and is lying in a hospital bed in a vegetative state. Miller, seemingly starstruck at being in Mulder and Scully’s presence, is convinced there must be an X-Files-type way to question the bomber. Einstein thinks it’s all a waste of time and makes sure to voice her displeasure between eye rolls.
The breathless rhythm of the dialogue is important here. There are few pauses between the four agents as they lob words at each other like doubles tennis pros. It’s dizzying and consciously artificial, chaotic yet controlled. Even Mark Snow’s antic score seems infected by the overall sense of mischief. Almost every scene that doesn’t include Shiraz has this same oddball tone, and I think Carter is attempting a comically tinged portrayal of the unruliness that comes from tragedy. Your mileage certainly will vary as to how successful that attempt is.
“I’m catching the crazy train,” Einstein says at one point, which is an understatement given everything that follows. The new agents each pair up with one of the old ones to pursue a different investigative tactic. Scully, still reeling from the recent death of her mother, partners with Miller to try and reach Shiraz through scientific means — using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to register answers to simple “yes” or “no” questions. And Mulder teams up with Einstein, who is envious at Miller’s partnering with Scully, to try a more unconventional communicative method that involves a mushroom-derived hallucinogen.
There have been plenty of strange set pieces on The X-Files, but few quite so bizarre as “Babylon’s” centerpiece, in which Mulder goes on his very own magical mystery tour. In the moment, it reminded me of Homer’s drug trip in the Simpsons episode “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer.” Just replace Johnny Cash’s “Space Coyote” with a whip-cracking Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), mocking Mulder with promises of “the truth.” And toss in a bit of line-dancing (and somersaults!) to Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” while you’re at it.
You’ll either laugh, or stare at the screen in goggle-eyed disbelief. But there is method to the madness, as Mulder descends the depths of his subconscious (agent Einstein even makes an appearance as a dominatrix with a riding crop) until he reaches that empathetic place where Shiraz can be reached. It’s quite a vision: a boat rowed through the clouds by hooded, Death-like figures. Tom Waits growling on the soundtrack. And there at the bow, Shiraz is held by his mother, Noora (Nina Nayebi), in a position resembling the Christian Pietà. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Carter based this potentially incendiary tableau on Samuel Aranda’s World Press award-winning photograph “Muslim Pietà” from 2011.)
Shiraz whispers something to Mulder, but when the agent wakes up back in the real world, a disapproving Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) standing over him, he can only remember that the words he heard were in Arabic. Einstein also informs Mulder that the “drugs” she gave him were actually a placebo, so it was the “power of suggestion” that actually pushed Mulder into his hallucinatory state.
Scully and Miller’s investigation, meanwhile, has yielded some results. Shiraz is clearly responding to the EEG, though establishing a baseline to judge the substance of his reactions will take more time than is ideal. Miller and Scully are also working against a number of other inhibiting factors, mainly people — some who claim to work for government agencies — whose own racism and hunger for retribution blind them not only to Shiraz’s potential usefulness, but also to his humanity.
The case starts to come together when Mulder spots Noora outside the hospital. Remembering her from his dream, he escorts her upstairs to Shiraz’s room. The touching scene that ensues (“This is not how I raised you, to worship Allah through death,” she says before Shiraz finally succumbs to his injuries) stokes Mulder’s memory. “He spoke to me,” Mulder says, before sounding out the Arabic words that Shiraz said to him. Agent Miller translates: “Babylon … the hotel.”
That’s the missing piece, and a SWAT team is soon at the hotel where Shiraz met his compatriot in the opening sequence. The rest of the terrorist cell is arrested. Time for a dual, verbose summary. First, agents Miller and Einstein, both clearly exhausted from these strange events, try to ponder their place in it all. The key line: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” Einstein says, “The source of all true art and science.” Miller seems stunned. “That’s beautiful, Einstein,” he says. “Yes … Einstein,” she replies sarcastically. “That’s who said it, Miller.” A quote of a quote that still strangely resonates, much like this doppelgänger Mulder and Scully.
And what of our indomitable original agents? They meet on the porch of Mulder’s isolated house, also in a reflective sort of mood. “Talk to me, Mulder,” Scully says. “Walk with me, Scully,” he eventually replies, taking her hand as they amble along a nearby path. Their conversation touches on a number of subjects: the angry God of the Bible and the Koran; the tower of Babel “scattering people violently so as never to speak a common language”; the power of words to drive men to kill each other; and the necessity of a motherly perspective. “A child is not a tool to spread hatred,” Scully muses. Her own son, William, is clearly on her mind.
It’s a lot of talk, all of it circling around a point that can’t quite be expressed. “Maybe it’s beyond words,” Scully says. “Maybe we should do like the prophets and open our hearts and truly listen.” Mulder, slightly mockingly, raises his arms toward the heavens. Heralding trumpets suddenly sound in the sky. Mulder hears them; Scully does not. Still the two of them stand, for the moment, on common ground.
Musings of a Non-Cigarette-Smoking Fan:
- “Babylon” is sure to draw criticism for its use of the Lone Gunmen (Bruce Harwood, Dean Haglund, and Tom Braidwood) as silent extras in Mulder’s drug trip. As a fan, I felt disappointed that they’re little more than a sight gag, though a big part of that is how their return was teased for months. The result is comparatively meager to the hype. (Admittedly, I did laugh out loud when Frohike gawked at a woman.) Speaking from a critic’s perspective, the trio’s inclusion in the scene makes sense. They’re the allies whose presence helps Mulder go deeper into his mind than he might otherwise want. So I accept what we’ve got, while still feeling slightly let down. More footage was reportedly shot with the Lone Gunmen, so maybe that will end up on the Blu-ray as deleted scenes.
- I’m particularly enamored of the way Carter shows several background characters staring at enormous television screens, as they beam upsetting images of terrorist acts out into the world. He even includes a pair of warring pundits (Garry Chalk and Marci T. House), who endlessly argue their perspectives without making any salient points.
- Thanks to Shazam, I was able to identify most of the songs used in this episode. The one I couldn’t exactly determine plays in Shiraz’s car during the teaser, right before he stops at the traffic light. The lyrics are, I believe, some variation of “Sajila Salim” (this is most common Westernized spelling I could find), and a sample of the song appears in “Muzungu” by Hangar-7-Sound. If anyone knows the track specifically, mention it in the comments below, or reach out to me on Twitter.
- The other eight songs are:
- “My Give a Damn’s Busted,” by Jo Dee Messina. Plays on the car radio of the three all-American Texans who torment Shiraz.
- “Tonight’s Lovely,” by Hussein Al A’dhami. Plays on Shiraz’s car radio as he and his compatriot drive up to Ziggurat art gallery.
- “Somethin’ Bad,” by Miranda Lambert, featuring Carrie Underwood. Plays at the start of Mulder’s drug trip as he high-fives his way through the hospital.
- “Achy Breaky Heart,” by Billy Ray Cyrus. Plays when Mulder line-dances (and somersaults!) at the nightclub.
- “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” by Trace Adkins. Plays when Mulder sits at the nightclub table with Skinner and the Lone Gunmen.
- “Misery Is the River of the World,” by Tom Waits. Plays when Mulder meets Shiraz on the boat suspended in the sky.
- “Secret Heart,” by Ron Sexsmith. Plays on Miller’s iPod toward the end of the episode, when he’s at the airport.
- “Ho Hey,” by The Lumineers. Plays just before Mulder and Scully’s final walk-and-talk, and then again as the camera zooms away from the agents to view Earth from space.