The X-Files: “Babylon” is a confused mess only salvaged by some great Scully/Mulder stuff

“Babylon” almost works, but gets bogged down in its own self-importance. It’s got a message of some kind, about terrorism and faith and the cyclical nature of the universe or something, but it’s senselessly garbled by mixed messaging.

The episode opens with a too-long sequence of a young Muslim man praying, being harassed by rednecks, meeting a friend, and then walking into an art gallery right before the place explodes. We later learn that the two men were suicide bombers who decided to attack the gallery because it was displaying art that they considered sacrilegious. Here’s the thing, though. That revelation feels almost like a betrayal by the time it comes. The first young man, Shiraz, is definitely humanized in the episode’s prologue, and that introduction that heavily suggests to the viewer that we’re about to get a very different story than what is delivered. Furthermore, there’s such a slyness to the way these scenes are filmed that there’s no way this misdirection is unintentional.

Unfortunately, this humanization of Shiraz doesn’t actually work the way I think it’s intended to, even taking into account his mother, Noora’s, insistence that Shiraz never detonated his bomb. Instead, it serves to make the act of terrorism feel even more cold and calculated than if Shiraz had been shown more stereotypically, and it’s not entirely redeemed by the fact that Shiraz is able to mystically—by way of Mulder’s symbolism-laden trip—give the FBI intelligence that helps them root out the rest of the terror cell. In the greater context of the episode, the introductory scenes meant to show us Shiraz as a person turn out to not actually give us very much information about him at all, and in light of his participation in a suicide attack, the veneer of normalcy we’re shown turns out to be very thin.

Even the nods to the hatred and discrimination faced by American Muslims don’t really land properly. The truck full of rednecks mocking Shiraz in the episode opening isn’t specific or unpleasant enough to act as a motive for Shiraz to decide to participate in a suicide bombing. Although many American Muslims deal with that kind of casual hatred and racism daily, it’s shown here as a singular occurrence and not as a very serious event. The idea of anti-Muslim bigotry is supported later in the episode by the ravings of the racist nurse who literally tries to murder Shiraz by turning off his life support, but even this is portrayed more as the aberrant, irrational behavior of an individual rather than a systematic problem that has serious negative impact on the day to day lives of millions of people. Every other character in the episode is shown as at least somewhat sympathetic towards Shiraz—at least recognizing what happened to him as a tragedy—and just genuinely concerned about stopping terrorism, which of course is a laudable goal, but it sets up a self-serving dichotomy where any white viewer who manages to go through life without actively trying to murder or harass Muslims can identify with the “good guys” and feel a little self-righteous about not being one of those bigots who are shown as a minority.

And, frankly, none of this even matters that much, since Shiraz and his terrorist friends aren’t motivated by some high-minded anti-racist ideals. It’s explicitly stated in the episode that this terrorist attack was directly in response to the art gallery displaying sacrilegious art. By removing any guesswork or speculation regarding the terrorists’ motive, the show actually cuts itself off from the avenue it seems to be trying to take by highlighting the unreasonably bigotry of some white Americans as a counterpoint to the unreasonable actions of Shiraz’s terror cell. I get where they were going with these ideas, but the execution is just off, especially when these themes have to share space and time with Mulder and Scully and their respective journeys.

This week, Mulder and Scully are joined by a pair of doppelgangers, Agents Miller and Einstein, who were moderately amusing in scene released in a preview clip last week but who otherwise drag the episode down. Miller is young, handsome, and enthusiastic, but he seems slightly stupid and doesn’t actually have much to do in the episode. Einstein makes more of an impression, but this is mostly because she’s so entirely humorless that it’s actually kind of impressive. While this pair is supposed to be younger versions of Mulder and Scully, I don’t remember Mulder ever being so credulous or Scully ever being so dour. I guess there’s some kind of joke here, but it stopped being funny, or even very entertaining, very early on.

The saving grace of the episode is Mulder and Scully themselves. Looking back on my decades-long love for this show, I have to admit that it’s mostly because of these characters, who are far more memorable than any of the various cases or plots they’ve been involved in. Like the previous nine seasons of The X-Files, Season Ten functions best as a character study, and as with the first four episodes, the best moments of “Babylon” are when Mulder and Scully are together, from Scully’s cheerful “Only the FBI’s most unwanted!” to their final scene of the episode as the hold hands and talk outside the house they once shared. All the years of will-they-or-won’t-they waffling in their relationship has finally matured into a deep, if somewhat ambiguous, intimacy, and their comfort with and love for each other is really beautiful to see. The show might struggle in every other area, but not in this most important one.

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