Be advised: this will go into detail about various plot elements of the episode, and there will be SPOILERS. Trust no one.
Chris Carter is back in charge of the show for this, the penultimate episode of the new short revival season. Shifted slightly in the running order like all the instalments between the two mythology stories that top and tail the season, this one was originally placed fourth, so not as much of a shift as, say, Founder's Mutation. So how did the man who created the show do with his second episode writing and directing? Will there be as many links to the original run as in several of these other episodes? Let's dive in, shall we?
The episode kicks off with one of the more startling openings for an X-Files episode, calling to mind Fight The Future's terror threat. A young man in Southwest Texas we'll later come to know is called Shiraz (Artin John) is shown going about his daily routine – praying, eating and then driving to meet a friend. They exchange greetings before heading to an art gallery... And blowing it to smithereens. In one of the few truly effective and chilling sequences in this instalment, victims are shown stumbling out of the ruined building still on fire. It's unsettling and attention-getting, but unfortunately the kick-off to one of the more misjudged X-Files we've seen.
After the credits, Mulder and Scully are shown in their office, discussing a video report of people hearing what they think might be heavenly trumpets sounding. It's the kick-off for a typical discussion of faith and science between the pair, one interrupted by the arrival of young FBI agents Miller (Robbie Amell, veteran of The Flash), a wide-eyed believer in the Mulder mould and Einstein (Lauren Ambrose, late of Six Feet Under), who need their help with the aftermath of the bombing. A couple of cute callbacks aside (Scully has apparently been waiting 23 years to describe herself and Mulder as "the FBI's most unwanted", as he did in the pilot, and there's a mention of her physics thesis), it mostly feels like Carter really wanted to launch a backdoor pilot for an X-Files 2.0 here.
Turns out Shiraz survived the bombing... in a manner of speaking. He's in a vegetative state in a Texas hospital, as close to death as it's possible to be without tipping over the edge. Miller is hoping Mulder and Scully might have some way to contact the bomber using less conventional means... Einstein is strictly skeptical.
Neither seems to get what they want, so Miller and Einstein head to the airport to catch a flight to Texas. But Scully calls Miller, putting forward an idea she's had to contact the bomber, and Mulder rings Einstein with his own thesis. So she decides to stay, take the "crazy train" and hear him out, while Miller agrees to have Scully join him in Texas.
Turns out Scully's plan is rooted in science, trying something she wishes she'd thought of when her mother was in a coma a couple of episodes back. She's heard of research using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine in conjunction with basic questions to the patient, and monitoring the electromagnetic responses.
Mulder, on the other hand wants to do drugs. Specifically, after a long and faintly amusing diatribe to a frustrated Einstein about the weight of words and different planes of existence, he broaches his idea to take magic mushrooms, swing open the doors of his perception and contact the bomber that way. Einstein scoffs, but before you can say "mugwump" (a term meaning "a person who remains aloof or independent, especially from party politics", in case you were wondering), she's had a change of heart.
Turns out that's because she arrived in Texas to find Miller working with Scully on their idea. They've got the equipment, but their plan is temporarily derailed when a pair of Homeland Security agents try to take over the jurisdiction of the case. They seem suspicious, and Miller chases them out with his phone's camera.
When Mulder arrives in Texas, he's greeted by Einstein, who hands him two pills – presumably the magic mushrooms he's requested – that he wants her to supervise him taking in her capacity as a medical doctor.
Back at the hospital, the Homeland Security team clearly decided to up the stakes and a bomb threat has been called. As the place evacuates, a nurse approaches the bomber's bed and turns off his life support equipment. He doesn't die thanks to Einstein, who arrives with Mulder at the room in defiance of the warnings. The nurse spouts a lot of boilerplate anti-immigration rhetoric that has you wondering whether Carter used a sledge hammer to wedge it into the script.
While Einstein distracts the nurse, Mulder slips the pill into his mouth and then... Wanders off, which doesn't seem very professional. He's on a slightly clichéd drug trip that takes him wandering through the halls of the hospital, through the streets and to a country music bar, where he sees a version of AD Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) in a cowboy hat, and proceeds to line dance to Achy Breaky Heart. What is this, 1992 in drug trip times? Here's where the biggest wasted opportunity comes in. While we knew there would have to be some way to enable the promised return of the Lone Gunmen (Bruce Harwood's Tom Byers, Tom Braidwood's Frohike and Dean Haglund's Langly), who were apparently killed in the episode Jump The Shark from back in season nine, this is largely a waste of them. They have no dialogue and are only really briefly glimpsed sitting at a table with Mulder in the bar. It's nice to see them, but you can help wishing they had something to do.
Mulder's perspective changes again; he's on what looks like an alien table, but this time Einstein is here, wearing a slinky dominatrix outfit and demanding he give up his ludicrous ideas. Finally, he's on a strange metaphysical ship where William B. Davis' Cigarette Smoking Man is whipping hooded galley slaves and Shiraz is being cradled by an unknown (for now) woman. He whispers something to Mulder and we fade to black, only to fade up on a group of wannabe jihadis being instructed in the art of activating a suicide bomb. It's really not the easiest of transitions – we did warn you that the tone is all over the place here.
Miller and Scully are still trying their technique with the MRI machine and seem to be getting a response, especially when Miller speaks Arabic, which he handily picked up while serving in Iraq. Mulder, meanwhile, is waking from his overlong, strange trip to the sight of the real-world Skinner, who is none too happy at his actions. But then, when is he ever? Einstein reveals that she gave Mulder placebo pills, which makes him confused as to why he went on his metaphysical journey. The power of suggestion?
But things start to tie together when Mulder, who is now being wheeled out of the the hospital by Einstein, spots the woman from his trip. Turns out it's Noora (Nina Nayebi), Shiraz's mother. She emotionally tries to get through to her still-comatose son, but he dies. Mulder is struck by a revelation, and tries to recall what Shiraz spoke to him in the drug trip... Thanks to Deus Ex Miller, who translates the halting Arabic, the authorities are led to the hotel Babylon, where the jihadi recruits are praying. Armed soldiers burst in and round everyone up.
We intercut between footage on TV of the raid and Miller and Einstein talking about the case. It seems they've both been affected by their time with Mulder and Scully, and perhaps they could do their own investigations (coming this fall to a network near you)? Probably not. But Einstein does seem to have had her mind opened slightly.
It's even more contemplative back at Casa Del Mulder, where he's quietly listening to music when Scully drives up. Talk turns to the Tower of Babel and the power of words to share love or incite hate. You can see Carter reaching for his big theory here, but a little like the first episode, it's delivered in such a methodical way that it never feels natural. We end on Mulder seemingly hearing heavenly trumpeters as the camera zooms out... Way out to show the Earth in all its blue marble glory. Could those trumpets be a herald of things to come in next week's finale?
Given the varied quality of the episodes of this season, and the fact that the weakest seem to be coming from the man who spawned it all, it's even more disappointing to find this one such a let-down. Certainly, it has its moments, and it's fun to see mini-Mulder and semi-Scully interact with the originals. But compared to the light touch of, say, Darin Morgan, Carter just can't find the right balance here.
Suicide bombing is not a subject to be taken lightly, and while there is an argument that almost anything can fuel comedy, perhaps it would have been better off not trying to squash together plot lines that see horrific injuries with Mulder dancing in a cowboy hat. Amell and particularly Ambrose solider on with what they're given to do, but even though Duchovny usually steers into comedy, here he mostly just looks bemused. Sadly, not one we could recommend that highly to fans of the series or newbies, but perhaps we can hope that the show's creator will bring his best work to the big finish next week.