Oh, God, no. No X-Files, no. I’ve been a sturdy defender of Chris Carter for weeks now, ready to take to the mat any criticism levied at his totally satisfying 10th-season premiere, ready to apologize for his humdrum direction and lack of any discernible grace—and this is how I’m rewarded? This is what my loyalty and steadfastness deserves? The Lumineers? Ho hey: This episode got real bad in a hurry.
I’m generally willing to excuse the way in which Carter has a tendency to erect big cases around even bigger straight-from-the-headlines fodder, because even though the writer-director rarely makes any useful statement about such ideas—or expresses much in the way of tastefulness or delicacy—you have to give him credit for anchoring his high concept plotting in the realm of real world events. I mean, the whole bombing beginning of the Fight the Future film, so purposefully reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bombings, would never sit well with anxious post-9/11 audiences, but I also mean: There was no real reason to allude to the bombings in the first place. Partly because Carter never seemed to realize that to tie such tragedy to an actual major government conspiracy was a pretty irresponsible plot device, and partly because he seemed to want to make a point, but only got as far as implying one, which, as far as the audience was concerned, was that such a tragedy was a government conspiracy, which surely couldn’t have been his point—right?
“Babylon” begins with a terrorist bombing. We follow the perpetrator (Artin John) as he goes about his mundane Muslim morning: He prays, he makes what looks to be a jelly sandwich, he drives around his Texan town suffering the typical glances and blatant racism most Muslims have come to expect in a country where Donald Trump is a viable leader. And then he meets up with a friend, a fellow Muslim, and together they walk into an art gallery and blow themselves up.
Carter’s intent makes ostensible sense. He wants us to relate to this man we later come to know as Shiraz before he transforms him into a monster. But the details we’re offered—especially in contrast to the thin caricatures of those racist Texans who harass Shiraz and who later in the episode complain about immigration in xenophobic tones—are only functional. In other words, Carter works in ideas, not stories. Fully formed ideas, sure, and well thought out, as the whole mythology of the show has proven, but there’s nothing unique to them. We get to know Shiraz as an ordinary person—so ordinary, in fact, that his suicide bombing is the only distinct thing about him. Carter doesn’t seem to understand that, when it comes to storytelling, there is a very broad difference between seeing the Other as human being and relating to the Other as one.
Which would maybe be too critical of the show’s creator were the episode not trying so fervently to get to the root of what it is that causes people to commit such heinous, evil acts. It’s a question on Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) minds when they’re contacted by agents Miller and Einstein (Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose, respectively), who are so obviously a mini-Mulder and mini-Scully that Carter has the characters comment on the similarity more than once, because Carter believes that nothing is true until it’s been uttered aloud at least twice.
This is also a concept Mulder brings up to steel-faced Doctor/Skeptic Agent Einstein (who admits the icon is a distant cousin, because everyone is thinking it), convincing Scully Jr. that words are powerful, weighty things, able—should that power be harnessed properly—to actually change the fabric of reality. Somehow Mulder parlays this explanation into a suggestion: As a doctor, Agent Einstein will legally administer psilocybin to Mulder, who in a mental state where the boundaries between the physical and spiritual world have been eroded, will “talk” to the comatose Shiraz, who survived the blast but is on the verge of death. What this has to do with the power of words isn’t really made clear, but it does offer a chance for Mulder to do some serious drugs, which he seems to be pretty stoked on. Einstein asks Mulder why he wouldn’t just have Scully administer the drugs, to which Mulder responds that he doesn’t want to trigger Scully, what with the recent loss of her mother. I also think that Mulder secretly doesn’t want Scully to scold him for finding an excuse to trip balls on the government’s dime.
Meanwhile, Scully and Miller attempt their own methods to try to communicate with the near-dead terrorist, hoping that through studying his encephelograms they can translate brain waves to a “yes” or “no” dialogue, thereby figuring out who may be behind any further terrorist bombings. There method is of course much slower and less fun than Mulder’s, but in both scenarios the young agents are able to prove their mettle to their well-regarded seniors. Similarly, Ammell and Ambrose prove themselves capable of taking up the reins of a younger X-Files generation, should it ever come to that.
Mulder’s spirit quest is an exceptionally goofy sequence in an otherwise self-serious episode, and even though we get some hallucinated cameos from the Lone Gunman—and even though Mulder imagines that he has some redonkulously huge rings that spell out “MUSH” on one hand and “ROOM” on the other, which is just so awesome—the whole affair feels like we’re watching Hillary Clinton do the Nae Nae on Ellen: It’s a joke that’s more desperate than funny. Mulder’s oneiric fit ends on a vision of an apocalyptic River Styx, his boat piloted by a whip-wielding Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), which is an evocative set piece, but it all feels so uncharacteristically unearned that the shift in tones and visual language is mostly jarring.
Of course, both Mulder’s trip and Scully’s brain wave idea end up contributing to the four agents being able to suss out the location of the terrorist cell from the dying Shariz, which then leads to a slow-motion montage of agents storming the shitty hotel where the stereotypical terrorists are all learning how to blow themselves up. This is markedly fine: Carter goes out of his way to have all of the characters comment on how not all Muslims are terrorists, eventually attempting to paint Shiraz as an innocent boy caught up in an all-consuming ideology. None of this is accomplished with any measure of moral grey, Carter never really demonstrating he’s given serious thought to the incredibly complicated issues he’s confronting, but at least he’s not advocating blind patriotism on a show about governmental law enforcement.
But then there are the Lumineers. Then there is “Hey Ho” soundtracking “Babylon”’s final five minutes as Scully visits Mulder at his unibomber-y cabin, and together they walk hand in hand discussing no less than why terrorists are terrorists. Words have weight, humans are contradictory, God is unknowable, and so on: Their conversation is a mess of preposterous line-reads, capped inexplicably by an epic zoom-out, the final shot of which is the whole Planet Earth. And the final sound before cutting to credits? That of a Lumineer saying either “hey” or “ho”—I can’t remember. It’s dumb; it doesn’t matter. None of this matters.
Maybe you like the Lumineers. Maybe you don’t think that having “Hey Ho” wring all melodramatic weight from a scene of Mulder and Scully emotionally reconnecting after so long is heavy-handed, or cheesy, or just pretty stupid. Maybe you found Mulder square-dancing to Billy Ray Cyrus a bold move on Carter’s part. Still, after three episodes of intimacy and tender honesty dealing with Mulder’s and Scully’s lives apart from each other and apart from the X-Files—three episodes of frank depictions of beloved characters dealing with loss and trauma and failure and obsession—“Babylon” is an ultimately clumsy stumble from greatness. You are my struggle, Chris Carter. Stop doing this to me.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. He’s been to at least one X-Files convention, no more than five. You can follow him on Twitter.