In a world riddled with thousands of angry voices shouting over each other, how do we rise above the cacophony and try to listen? How do we overcome the hatred that cripples and divides society? How do we erase the image of New England-bred, Oxford-educated Fox Mulder sporting brass knuckles while re-enacting the video for “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” that’s now burned into our bleeding retinas?
These are the questions that “Babylon,” Monday’s penultimate episode of “The X-Files” revival mini-series, attempts to answer — with limited degrees of success. Penned by series creator Chris Carter, the episode leans heavily on religious imagery, invoking the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as a parable for our times. For a show ostensibly about aliens and other spooky phenomena, “The X-Files” never shied away from exploring religious themes during the course of its original nine seasons and two feature films. Indeed, its mantra of “I want to believe” — emblazoned on Mulder’s iconic UFO poster — is as much about the existence of the divine as it is about alien life, according to Carter.
“Science is a search for gods and a search for truths,” Carter said in an interview with International Business Times. “While Mulder hasn’t been a believer in God or in any particular denomination, he believes there’s a greater mystery out there. So that’s where the show begins, and the episode ‘Babylon’ uses that opposition to a storytelling advantage.”
“Babylon” starts with the image of a young Muslim in Texas saying the Islamic prayer of Salat (depicted in an eye-rollingly clumsy fashion). After scarfing down a sandwich, the young man, who we later learn is named Shiraz, drives to meet a friend. On the way, he encounters some stereotypical xenophobic Texans who make nasty comments while they’re stopped at a red light — a suggestion from Carter that perhaps the situation is more complex than it seems. Next, we see the two young men arrive at an art gallery (winkingly named Ziggurat), say a quick prayer together in Arabic and ultimately enter the gallery to blow it to smithereens.
Carter says the idea for the episode came to him when he started reading about mothers of suicide bombers who claimed that their children were martyrs.
“It felt like an opposition of the heart. These mothers who believe their children are becoming murderers in service to a god they have to have faith in — it felt like a conflict between being human and believing in God. I thought that was an interesting starting point to the story,” he said.
Shiraz actually survives the bombing and is now in a coma, and it’s up to the FBI to figure out where his evil co-conspirators are hiding and what attacks they’ve got planned next. Enter two young agents, Miller (played by Robbie Amell) and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose), doppelgangers meant to represent versions of Mulder and Scully from their younger days. Miller believes the young man in a coma may have intel on a sleeper terrorist cell — and can Agents Mulder and Scully assist in communicating with him in his vegetative state so they can figure out where that cell is and save lives?
From there, Mulder and Scully’s paths diverge. Scully teams with Miller to pursue a (loosely) scientific method that involves reading the bomber’s brain waves. Mulder, of course, opts for a slightly more, um, unorthodox scheme — convincing the skeptical Agent Einstein to administer hallucination-inducing mushrooms that will allow him to trip his way through communicating with the bomber on some higher plane of existence. Hey, it’s “The X-Files.” Weirder things have happened, right?
Perhaps not. Mulder’s mushroom trip is one of the more bizarre sequences to occur on a show that once featured a giant, genetic mutant flatworm that killed humans by stalking through the New Jersey sewer system. It’s also incongruous in tone with an episode that is supposed to be tackling sober themes. And the second-hand embarrassment you suffer from watching Mulder in this hallucination is enough to make you long for your own illegal substance to dull the pain.
The hallucination starts with Mulder line dancing in a country bar (aside: why does all domestic terrorism on “The X-Files” occur in the Lone Star State?), continues with the aforementioned demeaning-to-women “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” number and ends in a shadowy underworld, where Tom Waits’ “Misery Is the River of the World” plays on. Mulder is being rowed in a boat by faceless men, where he encounters Shiraz in the arms of a woman clad in white. Their figures call up one of the most iconic images in Christianity — that of the Pietà, the sorrowful Virgin Mary cradling the crucified body of Christ in her arms. In his hallucination (which we later learn was the result of a placebo effect — Agent Einstein swapped the magic mushrooms for some niacin tablets), Mulder tries to communicate with Shiraz, to no avail, before ultimately snapping out of the trip.
What was Carter trying to accomplish by recreating the Pietà image with a suicide bomber?
“The truth is, the Pietà, or Mary holding her slain son, is not an image that is referenced in the Bible. It’s a much more universal image than just a Christian one,” he said.
That image, he says, represents what he calls “mother love.”
“I believe there is no stronger force on earth than mother love. That bond is almost superhuman,” said Carter. “Mother love is a common and even universal language that transcends race, culture and borders. It is the language even God couldn't destroy.”
It’s this love and common language, Carter posits, that’s needed for us to regain some sense of humanity in these tumultuous times. In addition to Mulder’s and Scully’s separate efforts to communicate with the suicide bomber, the episode attempts to highlight (through a series of exaggerated caricatures) the misunderstandings that plague contemporary society. Cable news hosts shout over one another, various characters speak in outrageous, overtly xenophobic terms about Muslims, and there are several attempts on Shiraz’s life in attempt for revenge. Carter’s message? No one can find a common language of understanding, especially when our own prejudices get in the way.
“It all goes back to the story of the Tower of Babel,” said Carter, referring to the biblical tale in which the descendants of Noah all spoke a single language. Out of hubris, they decided to build a city with a ziggurat, or tower, that would reach the heavens, thus becoming godlike themselves. God, displeased with their arrogance, thwarted their plans by giving them different languages to speak and spreading the people all over the world.
“God scattered everyone, never to speak a common language. We’re living in the shadow of that parable. And that’s why I wanted love and the attempt to understand versus the lack of attempting to understand to be brought into relief,” said Carter. “Our society is afraid of the other. It’s a common human fear that will never go away. We’re still living in a kind of Babylon.”
It’s unfortunate, then, that Carter’s noble message of transcending our fears of the other backfires spectacularly in an hour of television that manages to traffic in tired and dangerous stereotypes, especially of Muslims, whose beliefs and practices are shown only in the most ominous and reductive ways.
After he comes down from his trip, Mulder recognizes a woman trying to get into the hospital where the suicide bomber is being held as the Mary figure from his hallucination. It turns out Noora is the bomber’s mother, and she knows from her dreams and prayers that her beloved son didn’t have the heart to go through with the bombing — he chickened out at the last minute because his heart wouldn’t let him take innocent lives, she says. She didn’t raise him to worship Allah through death.
It’s a nice if somewhat condescending sentiment, and we can overlook the bizarre clothing used to denote her “Muslim-ness.” Noora wears a long white tunic that doesn’t look like any ethnic clothing representative of any particular Muslim culture — in fact, we never learn where this family is from at all. In this universe, the world’s vastly diverse population of Muslims is reduced to a monolithic symbol. It doesn't matter that Muslims don't all speak Arabic.
It’s far more difficult to overlook, however, how the episode depicts the bogeyman of Muslim terrorists and, if we're being honest, Muslims themselves. Mulder finally figures out what Shiraz was saying to him in his hallucination — he was pointing him to a motel with the name Babylon, allowing the feds to bust the terrorists and save the day. Of course, the terrorists are shown as nefarious brown men with long beards, holed up in motels building bombs, while saying Islamic prayers in congregation and shouting “Allahu Akbar.” It's such a cartoonish portrayal that it’s practically gone out of vogue from even the most tone-deaf of modern media.
Never mind that such sleeper cells full of ominous, foreign men isn’t how extremism has manifested itself in the United States. Or that it’s been shown that many terrorists have a flimsy grasp on their so-called religion themselves — as evidenced by the jihadists who bought “Islam for Dummies” before carrying out acts of terror. Or that the Quran doesn’t actually call for “death to infidels” (which Scully utters in the episode — a tragic occurrence when the usually brilliant scientist and medical doctor is forced to speak nonsense). Or that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America are highly assimilated, educated, productive members of society. No, “Babylon” ignores all that, abandoning any hope of demonstrating the complexity that seems to be Carter's intent. Instead, it feeds right into a stereotypical demonization of Muslims, their beliefs and rituals.
And that’s a problem, because the only time we see Muslims on television or film, whether they’re performing the ordinary daily prayers practiced by 1.6 billion Muslims around the world or just behaving in otherwise “Muslim-y” ways, is when they’re about to blow people up. It’s a shame that Carter doesn’t seem to understand that the honest and fair depiction of minorities in popular culture matters — particularly from a pop culture giant like “The X-Files” — and it’s precisely this kind of bungling portrayal that serves to perpetuate the fear and mistrust he says he decries.
But this is “The X-Files,” after all, and we can’t let some clumsy bigotry get in the way of Mulder inching closer to important truths. In the aftermath of the events of “Babylon,” he and Scully meet to discuss what they experienced. Carter says the scene demonstrates how “Mulder’s beliefs have been tested — and Mulder and Scully have a very intimate, frank and loving discussion about what they experienced.”
Mulder and Scully discuss the intentions of an angry God, Carter’s idea of “mother love” and the notion that finding a common language is humanity’s only hope. Does that “mother love” also have to do with the other overarching theme running throughout this miniseries — of the son that Mulder and Scully, who were once lovers, gave up?
Carter is circumspect: “Scully is dealing with motherhood on two fronts in this short series — with the loss of her mother and the loss of her child. It’s what draws her into the case with Miller, as a search for not only answers but meaning,” said Carter. “William [their son] is consciously or unconsciously in her every thought and action, whether in mother love or in guilt. Work, as we saw in episode 4, is taking action that helps her — and could lead to a reunion with her abandoned child.”
Throughout this six-episode run, we’re supposed to believe that Mulder and Scully are no longer in a relationship. But Carter wants fans to know that the duo’s “love is as strong as ever. Their paths have diverged, and they’re both looking for any reason to come back together — to reunite. But there are forces of reality at work against them.”
So is the final scene of “Babylon” — in which Mulder and Scully hold hands and discuss God's will — an affirmation that Mulder and Scully are reconnecting? It’s not exactly the romantic reunion fans were hoping for, though David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson sell it, as usual. But Carter insists that it’s a watershed moment.
“When we see Mulder and Scully walk off that porch, it’s a huge moment in the series overall. It’s an expression of the love and respect Mulder and Scully have for one another,” said Carter. (OK, but would it have killed you to give the ’shippers one little kiss?)
The last thing we see during that “huge moment” in “Babylon” is Mulder hearing the call of otherworldly trumpets from high above — a phenomenon he described to Scully at the beginning of the episode, which some have linked to the seven trumpets from the Book of Revelation, a call heralding end times. Could that be setting something up for the finale next week? A harbinger from God of a pending alien invasion, perhaps?
“Mulder’s revelation may not be a revelation at all. It may be the placebo still in effect,” said Carter. But, as usual, he leaves us with more questions than answers: “Get ready for the finale. Put your seat belts on, because it’s a big one.”