It wasn’t necessarily a coincidence that the final season of The X-Files began the same autumn that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred. Granted, the show, then its ninth season, was suffering from fatigue, the departure of one of its leads, the imminent departure of the other, and a replacement cast that just wasn’t up to filling the shoes of the originals while chasing an ongoing story with diminishing results and becoming increasingly more convoluted, but really it was 9/11. It was fascinating then this week to see Mulder and Scully do something the real-life FBI is tasked to do, track down terrorists of the Muslim extremist variety.
There is an X-Files bend, of course, if not several, but first a note about tone: “Babylon” was tone deaf. Written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, “Babylon” dared to make this second-to-last X-Files an overstuffed ode to the show’s dynamic and enchanting central partnership with a backdoor pilot for X-Files: The Next Generation that also sees Mulder stop a terrorist attack by tripping balls on ‘shrooms. Somewhere, Jack Bauer’s probably regretting all that killing, stealing, torturing, beating, yelling, stabbing, shooting, and decapitating he did to keep America safe for eight and a half seasons on 24, when you could have just taken drugs to get answers. Probably not, though.
It’s worth noting that I admire Carter’s ambition with this episode, clearly it was a tapas of various ideas he had for The X-Files revival but lacked the time or extra episodes to execute. A great deal of it, I’ll say, works on its own, but starting the episode with a perhaps unintentional homage to the 1998 Edward Zwick drama The Siege, does not so easily flow into a Fringe-esque flirtation with talking to the dead through science, followed by an American Crime-like sermonizing on American/Muslim relations, and capped off with an obvious Twin Peaks-inspired country dance sequence to “Achy Breaky Heart.” Carter did it, I’m just saying it was not an easy ride.
“Babylon” introduced us to Agents Miller and Einstein played by Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose. They’re basically the new versions of Mulder and Scully, and the script isn’t shy about pointing out the similarities; he’s a criminal profiler with an interest in the paranormal, and she’s a medical doctor with a rigid demand for evidence-based crime solving. They’re like Mulder and Scully in every way, except that he’s boyishly naive, and she has zero tolerance for paranormal yackity schmackity. There’s been scuttlebutt that Miller and Einstein could be the basis for a new X-Files series, but the characters seem like an Edgar Wright parody version of the show rather than a serious attempt at spin-off. On top of it all, the duo was light on the one end; Ambrose knocked it out of the park while Robbie affirmed his status as the lesser Amell.
On the other hand, maybe Ambrose got the benefit of working across from David Duchovny as Mulder, who went to new extremes to test his theories on the supernatural. It’s almost amazing that Mulder had never considered before using mind-altering substances to get a handle on some of the stuff he was seeing and investigating, but better late than never I suppose. Between that, and Scully and Miller’s attempt to use an EKG to read the thoughts of the surviving terrorist from a suicide attack on a Texas art gallery, I was half expecting Agent Dunham, and Peter and Walter Bishop to roll up with some ideas of their own. I suppose its only fair given the influence of The X-Files on Fringe.
That brings us to Mulder’s bad trip (or was it?). Einstein procures (or does she?) samples of the trippy-making mushrooms so that Mulder can ascertain from the ether – or wherever – where the other potential suicide bombers were. The elaborate line dance number was followed by drinks with the Lone Gunman and Skinner before smash cutting to what I think was supposed to be the boat on the River Styx with Cancer Man as Charon the ferryman, where Mulder gets his vital clue. Yeah, they brought back Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood, and Dean Haglund for a cameo where they don’t say anything and they’re barely recognizable under pulsating red lights and jumpcuts. On the bright side, logistically speaking, the Lone Gunman didn’t cheat death.
Let’s get serious though because the scenario that the case of the week presented here is not outside the realm of possibility. It’s worth noting that there was a Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas last year shortly after the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and that extremists with guns showed up to make a statement only to be stopped by private security hired for the event. The idea of a suicide bomber walking into an art gallery where Muhammad-inspired art is on display is not The X-Files most out there idea, but Carter seems incapable of contextualizing that real world danger in the X-Files universe.
Of course we must appreciate that in the United States right now, there is an overly simplistic viewpoint that anyone brown-skinned is bad, in fact there’s a presidential candidate that has made that notion central to his platform, but does that opinion extend through the body of the FBI? Does it make sense that the agency charged with investigating and preventing terrorist attacks would devolve into neanderthals eager to torture and kill the sole perpetrator? And in what universe does a nurse walk into a patient’s room and pull the plug, even if he’s an accused terrorist?
Carter might think he was being edgy, or that he was accentuating the dedication of Mulder, Scully, Miller and Einstein to get to the bottom of things by having the other agents focused on retribution, but it all came off as creepy. I expected there to be something else afoot with all these guys eager to drag the terrorist Shiraz away to a black site (or the after life), but not only was Scully’s “not all Muslims are bad” speech pretty much on the nose, it’s hard not to get the feeling that Carter was constructing a reason to say it by having her fellow agents blood lusty. I get the impression that Carter felt he had something important to contribute to the conversation, and its the creator’s prerogative to use his creation as he sees fit, but perhaps the ideas underlining the suicide bomber story got lost amongst all the other demands of the episode.
Despite the lack of balance, “Babylon” had high-energy and a sense of ambition that perhaps the series limited running time was working against. If there had been more than six episodes to play with, more air could have been given to Carter’s X-Files view of fighting terror on the homefront, or had a proper adventure with Miller and Einstein that allowed them to be developed further, but instead this penultimate episode of the series will be more memorable for Mulder in a cowboy hat than saying anything poignant about American foreign policy. No one was ever going to conflate The X-Files for Homeland, but it was a noble attempt to ground the show in a reality it tries to run away from on a weekly basis.
Next week: The Season Finale. (Or is that Series Finale?) And, oh yeah, back to that convoluted mythology.