May 1, 2018
The X-Files: Deep Thoughts (S10 E5 Recap)
There must be a word specific to series episodes that are so bold and overly ambitious in what they think they can pull off that they wind up running over the edge of a cliff Wyle E Coyote-style, and hanging in the air before they remember the existence of gravity, and fall with a thud. Babylon, number five out of six of The New X-Files, doesn’t just plummet, it lands so hard it bounces back up before hitting the earth again, and again.
We begin with a young Muslim man on his prayer rug. The subtitles were a nice reminder that the word Allah, simply means God – the same one that the other monotheists worship. After prayer he has some milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s the type of meal a kid would eat, and he looks like he could be in a boy band. At home, I was praying too. “Dear God in Heaven,” I exclaimed, “Please make me wrong about where I think this is going.”
The story is set in Texas – home to a couple or real life incidents that this feels way too close for comfort to. Shiraz – our Muslim of the week and not a ubiquitous wine – gets in his car. Some rowdy white people in a truck make ugly racist, xenophobic remarks – because this episode traffics in the ugly. He picks up another young brown man. They drive to an art gallery. We’ll find out later the gallery featured derogatory depictions of Muhammad. They go inside and before you can say “Allahu Akbar” or maybe directly afterward, everything blows up and we see figures on fire running out.
If I wanted ripped from the headlines, I’d be watching whatever Law and Order iteration remains. We watch The X-Files, for the weird, the paranormal, the conspiracies that are patently ridiculous. We watch to honor the memory of Kolchak, the Night Stalker and Rod Serling. We do not watch The X-Files because we want Homeland with even more stereotyping and less authenticity. The introduction of something so real and complex into the Xverse, is something the episode never recovers from, and it’s not the only miss.
Early on I was still praying for a reprieve. “Please tell me,” I asked the Powers that Be, “that this turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. Or please make Shiraz the fall guy for the larger all-encompassing mother of all conspiracies outlined in the first episode of the season, which we never really got back to.”
Then we’re in Mulder’s office, where he and Scully are talking about God. There’s a video running of some new phenomenon, that’s maybe overtaken alien abduction in popularity, whereby people believe they hear a trumpet sound from the heavens – or rather some do. Others don’t because God works in mysterious ways. This leads Scully and Mulder to ponder the nature of belief. Subtle, this episode is not. Also for a scientist and an Oxford scholar with a doctorate in psychology, their discourse is amazingly accessible. There’s a knock on the door, and a second later someone asks if anyone is there, to which Scully replies, “Nobody but the FBI’s most unwanted,” a line Mulder says in the pilot, and then in a bit of extra-self-referential meta, the kind that “Season 10” revels in, Scully jokes that she’s waited twenty-three years to say that. In walks goofiness in the form of a pair of young FBI agents who are themselves a reference to the younger Mulder and Scully. He’s Miller, a blandly tall, dark and handsome type, who wants to believe. She’s Einstein, a petite red-headed skeptic with a medical degree, and distant relation to the scientist of the same name – the one that Scully wrote her thesis on. Aside from age, how are these couples different? Miller lacks Mulder’s cool edge of detachment and irony, and Einstein is annoying, and smug. Plus there’s zero chemistry between them.
They’re involved with the terror case, you know, the type of thing that real FBI agents might be looking into. It was Miller’s idea to see Mulder because he wants to figure out a way to “contact” the only “survivor” of the attack, one of the perpetrators, identity unknown (Shiraz) who’s in a persistent vegetative state. There’s chatter about more attacks, and maybe Shiraz has the information that could stop it. Miller thinks that if anyone would know some way to go beyond the known and get into the head of someone hovering between this world and the next, it would be Mulder. But neither Mulder nor Scully can come up with anything, so their younger sort-of-selves, leave. But later Mulder reaches out to Einstein with an idea, and Scully reaches out to Miller, and of course in true television fashion, neither tells the other for reasons that don’t really make sense.
Mulder’s idea is that he can take magic mushrooms administered under the supervision of medical doctor Einstein, and this will allow him to telepathically connect with Shiraz. Why mushrooms and not some other trippy natural substance like Ibogaine or ayuahuasca? Probably because The X-Files did an ayuahusca episode its third season, and CSI did Ibogaine. Also magic mushrooms are totally retro and therefore funnier. Is Einstein skeptical the way Scully is/was skeptical? Nope. Einstein’s pissy about the whole thing the way a ‘tween might be when her parents still insist there’s a Santa Claus. She rejects his offer.
Scully’s idea is more “science” based, something about research (and her own personal experience) showing that people in comas can understand and react with brain waves to simple questions. They might be able to get some yes/no answers using an EEG. Scully while eager to help is cautious. Miller totally wants to believe it will work.
But what is the purpose of these two distorted carbon copies? Their presence might have gone over better in a lighter episode, but here it feels like they just threw in everything but the kitchen sink – terrorism, fanaticism, God, what Stephen Colbert calls “the Big Questions” – and then they threw in the kitchen sink. Perhaps show runner Chris Carter was making a commentary on all the Mulder/Scully based dyads and proving that even if you gave them some of the same physical characteristics, you still wouldn’t have the magic.
Scully and Miller get to the patient, but they’re soon interrupted by two alleged Homeland Security agents who want them to leave. Why wouldn’t they want the FBI to do everything possible to get information that could maybe stop another attack? One of them leans in and says something in Arabic to the other. Huh? Are they really part of a larger conspiracy? Was that supposed to be a “stage whisper” that Miller and Scully weren’t supposed to be able to hear? Miller says they’re there for “retribution” and tries to take a photo of them, which scares them off. They leave. If anyone can explain this sequence to your humble recapper, feel free to do so in the comments below. Who were those guys?
Then Einstein arrives and is kept out of the room by a couple of other men in suits. (FBI? Local cops? Homeland Security? Who knows?) She sees that Miller is with Scully, and for some reason this prompts her to get Mulder involved and try his idea even though she thinks he’s a crank, and she hasn’t even bothered to find out what Scully has in mind, or maybe talk to her partner like a partner would in real life. Also she’s now “anticipating” that Mulder will, after all, be able to communicate with the unconscious terrorist. I must have missed the part where she explains why she totally changed her mind.
There’s an “anonymous threat” called in to the hospital. and another FBI agent wants to clear Miller and Scully out. He’s talking about the local “large unassimilated Muslim community” and “their hero Ossama Bin Laden” and he’s sounding a lot like Donald Trump recalling “the thousands of Muslims celebrating 911 in Jersey City.” Can anyone really imagine an FBI agent talking that way… out loud? Apprently, Chris Carter, show runner and the writer of the episode can, but he might want to get out more. The evacuation does get Scully and Miller out of the room, so a nurse can start to unplug Shiraz from life support. But she’s interrupted by Einstein, who apparently isn’t going to let a bomb threat scare her away. The nurse turns the machines back on and Einstein doesn’t notice. The nurse starts talking about some “research” she did and how the UN is behind everything. Maybe it would have made more sense if the nurse had turned out to be a fan of the now disappeared talk show host from episode one, and a true believer in false flag operations.
How exactly are we supposed to take everyone’s being out to kill poor mortally wounded Shiraz? Are we supposed to be sympathetic now toward the sap, he of the big puppy-dog eyes, the cutest martyr since Dzhokhar Tsaernaev?
Mulder, who’s taken his dose, sits down by Shiraz’s bedside, but soon walks away, first into a the hospital corridor and then into the world at large. His trip features line dancing to Achy Breaky Heart, a Pulp Fiction dance reference, and a blink and you miss it cameo by the Lone Gunmen and Skinner. The Lone Gunmen appearance has been teased for months, but will fans be satisfied with two seconds and no dialogue? I think not. Then there’s what looks like the wackiest cultural appropriation music video ever with a bunch of big-ass white girls in short shorts twerking to country music.
This is followed by a sequence with agent Einstein in fetish gear, as though it were 1993 and no young female character could be introduced without some kind of contrivance to show us her body (and yes I’m talking to you pilot episode in which Scully comes to Mulder’s hotel room to show him a couple of mysterious bumps on her butt, which turn out to be mosquito bites, and oh my God they were doing it all along, weren’t they?)
After that Duchovny is bare-chested, and he might maybe want to redeem that pilates gift certificate. He’s on a boat with the The Cigarette Smoking man as a whip-wielding Charon. Then we see a wounded Shiraz being cradled by an older woman, Pieta style, and he whispers something to Mulder. And sure recounted now that sequence feels pretty awesome, but five minutes of awesome does not a coherent narrative make.
The next day, Scully and Miller are back trying to read Shiraz’s brainwaves. Mulder wakes up in another room of the hospital. Skinner is there for real and not as a hallucination. He flew in because he had a contract to appear on a minimum number of episodes, and also because doesn’t your boss fly thousands of miles just to tell you that you screwed up? Einstein it turns out never gave him magic mushrooms. All he took was niacin. It was a placebo, the power of suggestion – ironically proving Mulder’s earlier point that “words have weight.” But what was Einstein’s point? If she was sure the mushrooms wouldn’t work and not ever planning to give them to him, why did she get him to fly out? Mulder tells them he talked to the terrorist, but he can’t tell them what he said because he said it in Arabic. As he’s being wheeled out of the hospital, Mulder sees the woman who was holding Shiraz in his vision. He brings her to Shiraz’s room. According to the EEG readings, he can hear her. She’s had her own vision, and tells them her son did not go through with the bombing, but she can’t tell them who filled his head with these “horrible ideas.” In that sense it’s not so different from last week’s episode in which an artist’s anger, led to his thoughts manifesting in the world as a creature. Shiraz, and others like him, did not actually have their own agency. It was others who “filled” their heads with bad ideas. Shiraz dies before he can “tell” them anything, and also maybe he died for all of our sins, so maybe he really does get to go heaven with all those virgins after all. But Mulder insists that Shiraz did try to tell him something, and with Miller’s encouragement he begins to remember his words, which Miller translates as Babylon Hotel. That’s where some traveling evil doer is recruiting the locals, and we see a SWAT team rushing in. Thank goodness they saved those innocent young men with no agency of their own from being exposed to hateful words.
Miller and Einstein are at the airport. Her hair is down making her look more Scully like than before. She admits to learning a lesson – that Mulder was right and words do have weight.
Mulder back in his isolated home discovers a couple of love bites – from his fetish-trip version of Einstein, proving that Einstein was wrong when she said that thinking of ice-cream wouldn’t make her ass grow, and maybe wishing makes it so, and thoughts and actions are the same and…. don’t try thinking too hard about any of this because that may lead you to kill your television.
Scully shows up and he talks about his trip. He saw unqualified love. She saw hate. And this leads to their taking a walk and talking about the angry god of the bible and the Koran. What has Mulder learned? Mother love rocks, and “those boys” are just subject to the power of suggestion. Does that mean we just need to lock up the leaders and the followers get a get out of Gitmo free card? But how can we know the answers to the BIG QUESTIONS when God “is absent from the stage”? It’s Scully, the mystical skeptic who says they need to “open their hearts and truly listen,” that’s when Mulder hears the trumpets, which may be a mass hallucination or God, or maybe if we all believe in God there’s not difference because belief manifests as reality or something, so click your heels and you were there too.
Hubris! That’s the word I was trying to think of for when your artistic reach so exceeds your grasp that it’s embarrassing. Hubris, indeed.