Getting Back Together with the X: Reactions to the X-Files Miniseries – Episode 5, “Babylon”

thexfilesAlmost 14 years after it ended its original run, The X-Files is returning to the small screen with a six-episode miniseries this winter. To welcome it back, Jeff and I will be writing responses to each episode. Here’s the hook: Jeff is a pretty hardcore X-Files fan and I haven’t seen a single episode of the show. How we’ll respond is anyone’s guess, but as always: The Truth Is Out There.

This post covers the fifth episode of the miniseries, “Babylon.” It contains spoilers for this episode as well as the entire original run of The X-Files.

Oh man, Jeff. I don’t even know where to start with this one. “Babylon” starts serenely with some morning prayers, but takes a dark turn as as the camera reveals a refrigerator covered in Osama bin Laden pictures and a suicide bombing at an art gallery. The rest of the episode was mostly just weird. “Babylon” didn’t impress me during my first viewing, but its problems mostly faded over time. Now, the fun stuff is almost all I remember.

The key word there was “almost.” The episode’s handling of terrorism managed a certain level of even-handedness, but only because it was so shallow. It felt like Agents Einstein and Miller presented each side’s talking points solely so the episode could move on to other matters. I don’t blame the show for wanting to avoid discussing terrorism, but then they maybe could have not done a terrorist attack. I think we are well past the point of using using Radical/Fundamentalist/Takfiri Islamic terrorism as a plot point.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h01m03s100Thankfully, “Babylon” corrected all it’s other errors by the end of the episode. The bomb that took out the art gallery was big and concussive enough to blow apart the building and knock bystanders off their feet, yet incendiary enough to set gallery-goers on fire and small enough to allow those flaming people to run outside. It’s my review and I’ll be a little bitch about this if I want to. However, the mother’s claims that her son didn’t have the “nerve” to detonate his vest brought my disbelief concerning his injuries down to a suspendable level.

“Babylon” even brought me around on all the cynical conspiracy garbage this season. Previous episodes have hammered at the military-industrial complex, big business, corporate farming, and selfish bureaucrats. Here, it was an awful Crossfire knockoff featuring a liberal and a conservative yelling ideological platitudes at each other. It was a parody of our political dialogue right now, if such a thing is still possible. It ran the risk of seeming ham-fisted, but it felt like an appropriate level of earnestness for an episode as goofy as “Babylon.”

The X-Files writers this season haven’t been suggesting real conspiracies as much as they have been using the show’s conspiratorial tendencies to highlight ills in our present society. In hindsight, I probably should have realized this a long time ago. If your reaction is “No shit, dumbfuck,” first, that was hurtful. Second, I’m not into conspiracy stuff at any level. I guess I just needed a few episodes to figure out the genre.

As for the rest of the episode, it was just downright fun. The musical montages were good and we got guest spots from SG-1’s Colonel Reynolds and Continuum’s Kellog and Ann Sadler. Fun fact: The actress who played Nurse Bigot played Alec Sadler’s mom on Continuum. Continuum’s future/older version of Alec Sadler was played by the Cigarette Smoking Man.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h37m46s513Elsewhere, Mulder and Scully got an assist from their doppelgangers, Agents Miller and Einstein. It was fun to see the different combinations of those four interact, although I probably would have appreciated it more if I better understood the Mulder-Scully relationship. Still, I’m a little confused as to why, on a show built on Mulder and Scully’s partnership, the miniseries has worked so hard to keep them apart. Isn’t the idea of having a partner that you do stuff together? Why are they always off doing their own things?

Of course, the highlight of the episode was Mulder tripping serious balls. At first, I was a little disappointed that Duchovny didn’t go nuts, but there’s something wonderful about high as fuck Mulder being exactly the same as normal Mulder. Mulder is just super unflappable, as long as he isn’t struggling with a his smartphone. That whole sequence was shot masterfully too. And giving Mulder two jewel-studded brass knuckles, one spelling “MUSH” and the other spelling “ROOM” was “GOLD.”

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h24m10s157The biggest compliment I can give “Babylon” was that a ridiculous Mulder mushroom trip existed in the same episode as a terrorist attack and it generally worked. I would never have expected the show that dealt so clumsily with homelessness the week before to pull that off, but it did. “Babylon” isn’t perfect and it doesn’t come close to “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” but it was a nice little feather in Season 10’s cap.

Watching Farscape has sort of inoculated me against dramatic weirdness, but what about you, Jeff? What did you think of “Babylon?” Was it too weird or just weird enough? Are there original run episodes you can compare this to?

I’m going to say it. This was definitely the worst episode of the miniseries for me. Do we really need another show about radical Islamic terrorists blowing themselves up and taking a bunch of other people with them? Even if we do, does something like this have a place in The X-Files? Do we really need rednecks talking about a “little brownie,” Homeland Security agents with clear racial biases, and the aforementioned “Nurse Bigot” and her rhetoric spouting ways? I don’t think so.

Also, we got Mulder on a mushroom trip.

That was my biggest problem with this episode, the tonal imbalance. You say it worked having the terrorism and tripping in the same episode. I say it didn’t. You mention that the terrorism debate in the episode is so shallow, with everyone using surface-level talking points and incendiary phrases like “they’re taking all of our jobs,” “their one goal is to destroy America,” “not all Muslims are bad” and “they only hate us because we hate them.” That robs the terrorism part of the story of any weight it wants to have.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h25m30s943Our friend Zach has often talked about Season 6 of 24 featuring Tom Maddox and Karen Hayes understanding politics at the level of a middle-schooler. That’s sort of what this feels like. It almost seems as if “Let’s put a radical Islamic terrorist suicide bombing in an episode to give it an air of importance and topicality!” was a primary intention of the episode, which proceeded to populate its guest-cast ranks with stock anti-Muslim cartoons who could be objectively wrong, particularly when stacked up against our heroes.

The X-Files isn’t the first show to fail to “handle with care” topics as sensitive as Islamic radicals and treatment of Muslims in America, but I wish Chris Carter hadn’t decided to give it a shot. After all, even if Shiraz the-reluctant-terrorist turns out to have a heart of gold, there are still a dozen other “non-assimilated Muslims” at Hotel Babylon ready to do what he couldn’t. And I’m really not sure what that means, or what to think about it. Of course, these shades of gray are where we live, but that almost feels like giving the episode too much credit.

Now for the mushroom trip. That was 4 minutes of weird fun which stands pretty well on its own. It even has a very creatively realized scene on a boat in the sky with Cigarette Smoking Man and a Muslim Pieta. Even so, it’s tonally inconsistent and bordering on inappropriate. Carter wants this to be a serious episode about terrorism where we learn that “we’re not so different, you and I,” but he also wants it to be one of his classic weirdo episodes too. I think the trip undermines any opportunity for us to invest seriously in the (already shallow) terrorist plot.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h23m20s350Of course, maybe I’m taking it too seriously, or maybe I’m misguided in thinking Chris Carter wants us to take at least one part of the episode seriously. Maybe it’s all meant to be a lark for him. I didn’t watch 9 seasons peppered with Mulder or Scully narration filled with Carter’s purple and often pretentious prose to believe he doesn’t want us to take him at his word, however. I think Carter hits a lot of wrong notes in one part of the episode, and hits mostly right notes in another, except it’s a completely different song.

Strangely, this episode was better on a second viewing. I don’t know if it’s because the initial surprise at its tonal problems was gone, or if I was paying more attention and it was better, or what, but I liked it more. The trip is pretty great, even if it’s hard to tell that all three of the Lone Gunmen are there. Agents Miller and Einstein are completely unnecessary, in my mind, but there’s still some fun to be had in separating Mulder and Scully and then pairing them so readily with their younger opposites. Even the opening and closing bits, with Mulder and Scully each speaking the other’s language (Babel reference intended) support this miniseries as an exploration of the growth and acceptance these two characters have experienced over 23 years together. These two work well together, which is why your question about separating them is a fair one, and one that might explain the fluctuations in quality of this miniseries.

vlcsnap-2016-03-27-12h01m53s401Was this episode too weird? No, the weirdness was appreciated. However, I don’t think know if Carter achieved what he intended with the juxtaposition of a mushroom trip and a suicide bombing. Can I compare this to an original run episode? Not really. I don’t recall an episode that tried to be so directly topical and wound up treating the subject matter so awkwardly. Also, the mushroom trip and musical montage was pretty unique, even by The X-Files’ standards. I might have a little more to say in the Xuestions and Xnswers section below.

Quick Hits
Patches: Imagine this premise on a miniseries revival of 24. What happens to Jack Bauer on his interrogative mushroom trip?
Jeff: Considering that Jack kills everyone when he’s not tripping, I think maybe he just can’t stop laughing. Maybe he gets in a pillow fight with Habib Marwan or plays Marco Polo with Abu Fayed, Syed Ali and the Drazen family or sings karaoke with Stephen Saunders and Nina Myers.

Jeff: You’ve seen 5 episodes of The X-Files. Would you watch a spinoff series starring Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose as Miller and Einstein?
Patches: Maybe in a vacuum, but when I could just go back and watch The X-Files from the beginning? Probably not.

Patches: Do you think Einstein actually administered a placebo or is she just covering her ass?
Jeff: It’s unclear, which is part of the fun. I like to think she was just covering her ass, as Mulder somehow taught her to loosen up a little. However, she probably wouldn’t have been playing so loose when she acquired the pills. Also, Mulder would totally do all of that stuff on his own, without the aid of Hallucinogenic drugs.

Jeff: Mulder’s trip in this episode, or Carrie Mathison’s trip on the season 4 Homeland episode “Redux” (which is also the name of a Season 5 episode of The X-Files)?
Patches: Toss up. Claire Dames is certainly easier on the eyes, and more importantly, is an A+ actor. Mulder, however, had MUSH and ROOM. If Homeland would have given Carrie a gold-plated handgun and custom grillz, it’s “Redux” in a walk.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h23m43s490Patches: Real talk: “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” needs to be fired into the sun, and Trace Adkins along with for writing it. Do you have any songs you genuinely hate?
Jeff: Probably not. There are certain genres that I’m not into, but I don’t know that I hate anything. I’m not a fan of Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling” but Gladstone at has covered that. I also lose a little respect for, but take pleasure in discovering, songs that sound exactly like other songs. One example of a song I dislike is Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.” Not only does it sully the reputations of  “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Werewolves of London,” but it also includes the lyrics “we were trying different things/and we were smoking funny things” to which I always append the follow-up “and we were having the audacity to rhyme ‘things’ with ‘things.’” Also, there’s shit like this.

Jeff: We’ve talked about Truck Nutz before, which also made a brief cameo in this episode. Is there any other accessory, vehicular or otherwise, that you would like to see happen? Alternatively, would any other objects or articles of clothing strongly benefit from a Nutz add-on?
Patches: I’m the guy that gets pissed off at all bumper stickers, so I pretty much don’t want to see any accessories. Since “Babylon” was going nutz on Texan stereotypes, however, I think we could have spruced up that pickup truck a little more. Maybe a Confederate flag flying unironically next to the American flag. The cowboy driver has the Gadsden flag tattooed on his arm. The truck also has a cattle skull on the grill. As for your other question, how about this?

Xuestions and Xnswers
(Where Patches asks why things are the way they are and Jeff pretends he knows a lot)

Patches: Is the Miller-Einstein relationship anything like Mulder and Scully’s back in the day? Did anything about the Miller-Scully or Mulder-Einstein interactions harken to back in the day?
Jeff: Like this episode, I think it was mostly superficial. They look like them. Miller is “out there”/open-minded while Einstein is a “woman of science”/skeptic. The nice thing about Mulder and Scully is we got to watch them grow. Miller and Einstein already have a relationship, and we only get 1.5 scenes with just the two of them. I think it’s just a cute/fun thing Carter is trying to do.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h18m01s429Patches: When I Googled “Mulder Mushroom” to find pictures of those bedazzled brass knuckles, some really weird pictures of green melting heads came up. What’s up with that?
Jeff: I’m guessing you mean something like this? It’s from the Season 6 episode “Field Trip,” where Mulder and Scully encounter fungal spores which cause them to hallucinate separately, and then together. It’s a fun little episode, though not really a funny one, playing with multiple points of view and imagined realities.

Patches: AVClub said that this wasn’t the first time The X-Files featured Mulder & Scully doppelgangers. Was this episode any different from the previous ones in that respect?
Jeff: Yes, it was different. The two major doppelganger episodes that I recall both come in Season 7, the last Mulder-ful season. “Hollywood A.D.” features Duchovny’s then-wife Tea Leoni and (the coincidentally, recently-deceased Garry Shandling) as themselves playing the parts of Scully and Mulder in a Hollywood adaptation of an X-File. It was (obviously) a comedy episode, written and directed by Duchovny. “Fight Club” the next episode to air, actually, features a set of separated-at-birth twins played by Kathy Griffin, who unwittingly incite violence when they cross paths. It also includes look-alikes for Mulder and Scully (who were actually played by Duchovny’s stunt double and Mitch Pileggi’s wife). It is generally considered one of the worst episodes of the series.

Patches: Did The X-Files take on current events in the original run the way they seem to be doing in this miniseries?
Jeff: Not really, that I remember. Oddly enough, we go to Season 7 to find a few that might fit the bill: “Brand X” has to do with the corrupt cigarette industry. “First Person Shooter” is about virtual reality video games. “Millennium” is about the new millennium and is also a pseudo-finale to another, previously-canceled Chris Carter series, Millennium. Otherwise, The X-Files dealt with real-world subjects or paranormal phenomena (the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, bigfoot, faith healers, ESP, etc…) but didn’t tend to rip things from the headlines.

vlcsnap-2016-03-26-17h24m37s404Patches: In our off-post discussions, you mentioned “Chris Carter episodes.” Is there something special or different about episodes when he takes the wheel himself?
Jeff: I’ve already touched on this a little bit. First, for mid-to-late-run mythology episodes that he wrote (but didn’t necessarily direct) he likes to include these long monologues for Mulder or Scully which are packed with overly-flowery language, akin to the opening monologue of “My Struggle” but less recappy. His directorial efforts, which are actually rather few, especially when you take out mythology episodes, tend toward the weird, gimmicky and pseudo-comic. There probably aren’t enough examples to really justify my calling “Chris Carter Episodes” a thing, but I’ll mention two here.

-Season 5’s “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is shot in black and white and feels like a mix of film noir with 1930’s Universal horror movies. Central to the plot is rape (via artificial insemination, but still…) which the episode tends to gloss over to get to the funnies (kind of like “Babylon” actually). It’s troubling when you think about it, but it’s also a classic and well-loved episode. Thankfully, the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff has expertly unpacked it. It also features Jerry Springer and a Cher concert.

-Season 9’s “Improbable” features Burt Reynolds as God. Yep. He plays checkers with our characters and the episode ends with two Italian guys lip syncing a song at a crowded street festival. The camera zooms out to reveal Burt Reynolds’ face in the city lights, much like “Babylon” zooms out to show Earth. It’s weird.

Carter also wrote and directed the stellar Season 6 episode “Triangle,” which I’ve probably mentioned before and the same season’s unique Christmas episode “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” featuring Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin teaching Mulder and Scully about love in a haunted house. He wrote S3’s “Syzygy,” which is the funniest non-Darin Morgan episode in the first 4 seasons. On the flip, he’s responsible for directing or writing duds like S7’s “First Person Shooter” and “Fight Club,” and S1’s “The Jersey Devil” and “Space.”

I don’t know if any of that answers your question.

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