Spoiler alert: This recap contains plot details for the fifth episode of “The X-Files,” titled “Babylon.”
Combining a dull terrorism investigation with leaden comedy, faux spirituality and an ill-advised honky-tonk dance sequence, Monday’s fifth episode of “The X-Files” reboot is arguably one of the most misguided entries in the series’ history. Not since Kathy Griffin guest-starred in the notoriously unfunny seventh season episode “Fight Club” has the show missed the mark this far in terms of tone and style.
Written and directed by Chris Carter, the episode – titled “Babylon” – begins with a young Muslim man’s afternoon prayer. In case we’re not sure that this is meant to be suspicious, the ominous music, moody shadows and low-angle framing lets us know from the very first second that he’s up to no good.
On his way to meet a friend at a Southwest Texas motel, the young man — whose name we’ll learn is Shiraz — pauses at a stoplight next to a pickup truck filled with lazy cliches. The cowboy-hatted driver (drinking a beer at the wheel, naturally) smirks at Shiraz, while his two bubble-headed female passengers giggle cruelly.
“Looks like we got a visitor,” one woman says.
“A little brownie,” the other replies.
“Are we in the wrong country?” the driver asks.
You get the impression that Chris Carter might be trying to tell us something.
After picking up his friend, Shiraz drives to a nearby art gallery, which he proceeds to blow up in a violent act of terror. The image of flaming victims running from the wreckage is genuinely shocking, and recalls the 1998 film “The X-Files: Fight the Future,” which began with a terrorist attack that was deliberately reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bombing.
The next day at their FBI office, Mulder and Scully meet Special Agents Miller and Einstein, a pair of young recruits who are assigned to the Texas bombing, and who bear an obvious resemblance to our heroes.
Longtime fans know that “The X-Files” has featured mirror-images of Mulder and Scully many times before. From Gary Shandling and Téa Leoni playing them in an episode titled “Hollywood A.D.” to a pair of identical twins in the aforementioned “Fight Club,” the theme of doppelgängers is nothing new to the series.
But Carter’s stiff direction and on-the-nose dialogue makes this latest version feel painfully contrived.
Part of the problem is that Miller and Einstein simply aren’t very interesting. Though we’re supposed to see them as alternate versions of Mulder and Scully, the similarity is disappointingly shallow.
The reason for their visit doesn’t make much sense either.
Apparently Shiraz is still alive, though in a vegetative state, and Miller wants to find a way to communicate with him. So he needs Mulder’s advice? Basically, it’s just an excuse to bring the four characters together so we can chuckle at how alike they are. But after the brutal opening sequence, this light-hearted meta-comedy feels awkward at best.
At this point, Carter reshuffles the deck, pairing Scully with Miller, and Mulder with Einstein, because how else is he going to continue making the same point over and over again?
In Texas, Scully tells Miller that she knows a way to communicate with Shiraz using “a rather novel, but not untested protocol.” Sadly, her intriguing method involves nothing more than putting a few wires on Shiraz’s head and starring intently at an EEG monitor.
Meanwhile, Mulder questions Einstein about the nature of reality and perception. “Do you believe that thoughts have mass? That ideas such as faith and forgiveness have weight?” he asks, sounding like a freshman college student who’s just discovered Carlos Castaneda.
There’s something weirdly off-putting about Mulder’s dialogue here; a pompous, condescending quality to his spiel about hallucinogenic mushrooms and their ability to expand consciousness. It’s hard to believe this is the same character who was so charming in the whimsical third episode of the reboot.
Ultimately, Mulder’s plan is as ludicrous as Scully’s is boring. He wants to take magic mushrooms, sit in Shiraz’s hospital room and wait for something interesting to happen.
Which, coincidentally, is exactly what we’ve been doing for most of this episode.
The magic mushrooms eventually lead to what might be the most embarrassing sequence in X-Files history. High on hallucinogens (which are actually placebos — don’t ask), Mulder wanders around in a blissed-out stupor, only to end up at a honky-tonk bar where he dances to “Achy Breaky Heart” while Skinner and the Lone Gunman cheer him on from the crowd.
If this was written to be funny, something got seriously lost in translation from page to screen.
Morphing from the honky-tonk bar to a dominatrix sex-fantasy involving Agent Einstein to a bizarre metaphysical dream featuring the Cigarette Smoking Man, Mulder’s mushroom trip drags on for so long that it starts to feel like an episode of “Californication.”
As if this clash of tones wasn’t strange enough, Carter repeatedly cuts to scenes of a menacingly-bearded Islamic terrorist building bombs in a creepy workshop somewhere in Texas.
Luckily, the solution to the case (if you can call it that) is finally discovered in Mulder’s subconscious.
During his drug trip, Shiraz whispered something to Mulder in Arabic, which Agent Miller conveniently translates. This deus ex machina leads the FBI to the nearby Babylon Motel, where the remaining members of the terrorist cell are swiftly arrested. In terms of detective work, this absurd denouement makes Agent Cooper hurling rocks at glass bottles in “Twin Peaks” look positively Sherlock Holmesian.
With the bad guys in custody, Miller and Einstein head home. Though Einstein congratulates her partner on solving the case, he modestly claims that he didn’t really do anything.
“Nothing but take down a terrorist cell ready to kill untold numbers,” she replies proudly.
But the sad truth is, he’s absolutely right. He didn’t do anything. And neither, really, did Mulder or Scully. The whole thing just wrapped itself up as if by magic.
The episode ends with Mulder and Scully discussing God’s will. What does he want? What do his words mean? Why do people put on suicide vests and blow up art galleries? Whatever happened to the flukeman?
Seriously… that guy was awesome.
“Maybe we should do like the prophets and open our hearts and truly listen,” Scully says, apparently having just binge-watched the first three seasons of “Touched by an Angel.”
And with that, the camera zooms off into outer space, “Men in Black”-style, while The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” song brings this penultimate installment to a merciful end.