“Babylon” opens with a young man praying to Allah. It’s a peaceful, lovely sequence which only becomes disturbing in context. If we’d never seen a TV show before, or watched a modern action movie, we might be forgiven for assuming the man we are seeing is about to be the victim of a monster of the week. Or, if we’re familiar with The X-Files, maybe we’d assume he’s about to make a horrible mistake that turns him into a monster. Technically, this is what happens, but at the end of the cold open, the young man becomes a monster of a familiar sort: a suicide bomber who blows up a museum with a fellow believer. It’s a sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place on 24.
That’s unfortunate. Even putting the young man (whose name is Shiraz) and his fate aside, this is a messy, conflicted episode, one full of ambition and inspired strangeness, and not all the pieces fit together neatly. Shiraz’s presence and the threat of a terrorist cell complicates things in a way Chris Carter’s script never earns. He tries to be as sympathetic as possible to Shiraz, and paints the locals and Homeland officers around him as hateful creeps in their own right, but it’s hard to shake the fact that we never dig much deeper than “some artist made an offensive painting, ka-boom.” The real world relevance of these issues (and the never more than skin-deep portrayal of Muslims here) makes them distracting in a way the episode can’t account for. Carter wants the power of the imagery without respecting the cost, and it’s a nearly fatal misstep.
Thankfully things get more interesting once Shiraz fades into the background. He’s more or less the MacGuffin for this story; the only survivor of the bombing, he’s left in a vegetative state, and it’s up to Mulder, Scully, and two new FBI pals to make contact and find out the location of the cell that enabled him. This is a ridiculous premise (I assume detective work is still possible on this show?), but to its credit, “Babylon” never really pretends otherwise. One of Carter’s strengths as a writer, the strength that’s arguably made this whole show possible, is his ability to write absolute bullshit with a straight face. And then keep on writing it, with such conviction that you start to doubt yourself for doubting him.
Throwing a wrench into the usual Mulder/Scully dynamic are two new FBI agents who serve as younger versions of our heroes, right down to the hair color. There’s Agent Miller (Robbie Arnell), a firm believe in the occult and other-worldly; and there’s Agent Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), who is a scientist. This isn’t the first time the show has tried out some doppelgangers, but if these two are supposed to be potential spin-off material, I’m not seeing it. Miller is a bland hunk of amiable nothing, and Ambrose is aggressively annoyed by everything, to the point where her scenes became something of a drag to watch. I’m not really sure why these two were involved. Maybe to suggest that the questions of faith and skepticism are cyclical, and that Mulder and Scully are simply an iteration of an on-going struggle? Or maybe Carter was just being whimsical.
That last isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, because “Babylon” gets crazy whimsical as it goes along, and the episode is all the better for it. What starts as a seemingly serious look at serious things takes a left turn into Whacky Land when Mulder does mushrooms (or does he?) and trips balls. Nothing else in the hour really prepares you for the sight of Duchovny line-dancing, or Lauren Ambrose in fetish gear, or a quick glimpse of the Lone Gunmen in cowboy hats. (Skinner’s there too!) Then Mulder finds himself on a boat full of hooded oarsmen (and women?) being whipped by the Cigarette Smoking Man, and Shiraz is lying in his mother’s arms in the back of the boat. It’s bizarre.
The closest reference point I can think of in Carter’s work is “Post-Modern Prometheus,” as that’s one of the rare times Carter went aggressively batshit, embracing the absurdity with a passion that no other writer on his staff can really match. Sure, he ties everything together at the end with a speech about belief, and it sort of works, but it doesn’t really justify anything. This is quirkiness without restraint or common sense, surreality that lacks the necessary grounding of nightmare to keep it from camp. And that’s not really a bad thing? I dunno. I’m not sure this one actually holds together, but it made me laugh a lot, and it certainly wasn’t boring.
There’s a geniality running behind everything too. Carter pushes hard into sympathizing with a man who willingly blew up a group of strangers because of his beliefs (or maybe he didn’t; according to his mother, Shiraz didn’t set off his vest); he was led astray by his faith, as it’s so easy to do. Mulder goes on a wild trip, but his visions came out of a placebo. (Actually, I’m not sure about this, was Einstein just lying to protect herself?) Wanting to believe is maybe the most powerful drug there is, and it can work chaos or miracles, or something in between. At its best, “Babylon” is somewhere in between those two poles. I’m not sure if it works, and I don’t even know if it was coherent, but it sure was something, wasn’t it?
- I love the easy camaraderie between Mulder and Scully now. They’re just so comfortably aware of each other and what they represent; I forgot to mention this last week, but Mulder comforting Scully in her grief was one of the best parts of that episode, and their time together is the single best argument for bringing this show back.
- Scully: “Nobody but the FBI’s most unwanted! I’ve been waiting 23 years to say that.” Mulder: “How’d it feel?” Scully: “Pretty good.”
- Mulder accuses Einstein of being a “Mugwump.” I’m just going to assume he’s referring to Naked Lunch.
- The line-dancing is set to “Achy-Breaky Heart.” Words fail me.
- On the plus side, Mulder’s vision of the whipping Cigarette Smoking Man is set to Tom Waits’ “Misery Is The River Of The World,” so that’s okay.
- “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” -Einstein (literally!)
- Okay, was I mishearing or did the suspicious Homeland Security guys briefly speak to each other in Arabic? I honestly don’t know if I missed something.
- If that’s all we get of the Lone Gunmen this season, I will be sad.
- In their first scene together, Mulder shows Scully video of people hearing phantom trumpets. They talk about god. And at the end of the episode, Mulder hears the trumpets himself. Also, he thinks mothers can fix everything.