Finally, JMS is back and we’re into the real arc of the series. I’ve been waiting for this and for our views from the Junkyard, it’s felt like it took so long to get here. But we are here now so let’s dive in. There is so much to say, that I don’t know if I could do this episode justice. Suffice to say, it was nominated for awards and rightfully so.
I’ve read a lot about B5 over the years and there were two things that stood out to me about this episode in particular. The first was that JMS wanted to give us the feeling of war; specifically “how did we get into this”. The Coming of Shadows does that beautifully. And this is another great example of how Babylon 5 was 20 years ahead of its time, specifically with regard to binge-viewing. This series benefits from back to back episode viewing. The idea of waiting seasons just means we could forget things. It’s essentially the little brush strokes that create the masterpiece anyway, and this series has them aplenty, but the broken viewing runs the risk of losing that. Lucky for me, I’ve watched this show all the way through 4 times. So let’s talk about how this series pulls some really amazing things that, previously, could only happen in books.
To illustrate that whole “how did we get here”, we see that the war is really kicking off because the Centauri attack Quadrant 14 in Narn occupied space. Attentive viewers will recall the first episode, Midnight on the Firing Line, which was about the Narn attack on the Centauri kicking off retaliation and starting this back-and-forth that ultimately leads us to The Coming of Shadows. This has been setup since episode one! Recall too that G’Kar and Londo share a drink in that episode before the discovery of the attack. We see the dark mirror version of that here, with G’Kar chasing down Londo to offer him a drink to toast the health of his emperor. This, after Franklin delivered the message that the Centauri emperor was sorry for the atrocities done to the Narn, is a bitter pill to swallow, indeed! There’s more! Sinclair tells Garibaldi to “stay close to the Vorlon and watch out for shadows”. How does he know the Vorlon is important? Let’s go back one episode further than Midnight, to the pilot, The Gathering where Delenn gives him all the information the Minbari have on the Vorlon. (Recall too that his greeting to her in that episode, “hello, old friend”, is the same greeting he uses for Michael!) What did the Minbari have on the Vorlon and what did Delenn share? Does this perhaps tie in with why Sinclair was recalled to Minbar in the first place? Sinclair is building up a group of fighters, the Rangers, but where is his information coming from? What does he expect, and more importantly, why?
Speaking of the Vorlon, the Centauri emperor wants to see one and, as luck would have it, Kosh appears. The emperor asks Kosh, ambiguously, “how does this all end?” The only words Kosh speaks in this episode is “In fire!” It’s cryptic in the way Kosh has always been but it makes one wonder, what is he talking about? Does he mean the war between Narn and Centauri? It does not seem likely if we go by the dream Londo has; a dream also shown for the first time all the way back at the start of the series. What can we learn from that? Londo sees a hand reaching out from the sun. In The Geometry of Shadows, Elric told Londo that he sees “a great hand reaching out among the stars”. Londo sees it too. We then see Londo watching as spider-like ships fly above him across a beautiful blue sky. Londo is then crowned and we see him as an old man (with a cough) in a deserted throne room. And then we see a rather evil looking G’Kar, bandage across his left eye, as he and Londo choke each other… to death?” No sign of fire there. What we do get instead is another reference to the older Londo, first seen in Babylon Squared where he has Delenn and Sheridan held captive. Oh yeah, remember I mentioned that there were two things that stood out to me about this episode? We see G’Kar is smart, but he’s not wise in this story. It’s an important distinction. Franklin even hints that G’Kar’s lack of understanding about the emperor is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all. But I recall reading that JMS actively chose the left eye for G’Kar’s patch because of Odin who, according to legend, gave up his left eye for wisdom. What does that tell us about G’Kar of the future? Perhaps nothing… but that seems unlikely.
“The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us …and our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between.” What does the future hold? Does Kosh know? Will it all end in fire? We are left in a terrible in-between, but if nothing else, this episode kicks things up a notch… or 5. And we only have 3 more non-JMS episodes to go before we get into a run of over 2 seasons of his episodes. I am extremely excited to follow it through again! ML
The view from across the pond:
Now that’s more like it. No Talia this week, no silly B-plots, just a straight-up focus on a big story. It’s a really big story, too, and what the episode does with G’Kar and Londo is enormously clever and actually extremely difficult for a writer to pull off successfully.
First of all we are taken to a place where we are on the side of the Centauri. The emperor is clearly a good man who is trying to do his best and make a difference. He wants to apologise for the actions of his people. G’Kar’s reaction to that news shows the power of an apology for healing wounds. How many conflicts are extended unnecessarily because nobody will swallow their pride and say sorry?
Before G’Kar finds out about that, he’s all set to assassinate the emperor, and it’s actually really shocking. I don’t think my reactions as a viewer are especially unusual, and I have come to like G’Kar as a character very much. Seeing him writing his will and taking full responsibility for what he plans to do, stab the emperor with a knife, is hard to take. He knows it will effectively be the end of his life as well, one way or the other:
“For the first time in my life the path is clear.”
Then we get to the really clever bit, where JMS pulls a complete 180 on us, and he does it by doing something very specific with G’Kar. There’s a law of comedy that if you shock or offend tastes, but do it twice and go big with it, the horror turns into laughter. Unless people are actively trying to be offended or upset, this nearly always works because we recognise the absurdity, but there’s a skill to it and it’s not easy to get it right. JMS gets it spot on with G’Kar. Following the emperor’s slow motion power walk, and slow motion collapse, G’Kar is furious about not getting the chance to kill him before he dies a natural death:
“All they have to do is prop him up for two minutes, and I’ll…”
We’ve transitioned seamlessly from being shocked by his intentions to laughing at them. It’s a genius move, and in the meantime we’re travelling in the opposite direction with Londo and the Centauri, with Londo deliberately starting a war and using the Shadows to do so.
It’s an acting masterclass. Look at the expression on Londo’s face when G’Kar is buying him a drink and raising a toast to the Centauri emperor. He is utterly haunted. Then we have G’Kar’s near- mental breakdown, quite understandable in the circumstances. Vir is also becoming a much more interesting character, no longer just a comedy sidekick. When the three aides were originally introduced (Vir, Lennier and Na’Toth) I mentioned how they functioned simply as somebody for the ambassadors to explain the plot to. Vir has risen above that. He’s now the voice of the viewer, challenging Londo.
It was great to see a little cameo appearance from the much missed Sinclair, for the purposes of introducing the Rangers, an interesting development. Less interesting was Mr Riddles himself, delivering his latest bit of pointless doom-mongering:
“How will this end?”
Was it really worth him going to the infirmary just to say those two words? That guy really gets a kick out of being enigmatic. I was also not entirely sold on the meeting of diplomats at the end. Sheridan achieved something by securing the release of the colony survivors, who would otherwise have become slaves, but I find it odd that any civilised society, which the Earth of the future is presumably supposed to be, would not have sided with the victims against the aggressors much more strongly. After all, there are no shades of grey here. Whether or not they had help isn’t really relevant. The Centauri have just destroyed a colony world, unprovoked. When G’Kar announces, gravely and quietly, that war has been declared, it’s no surprise at all. We have a clear killer/victim situation and it’s baffling that the other major powers would not immediately move to side with the victims. Never once does anyone suggest that the Centauri might like to give back the planet they have just occupied, for a start. I hope that will be addressed in future episodes, or else we are watching a series that sells us a morally bankrupt future where one power can attack another unprovoked and all the others just stand by and watch. Then again, Franklin once again makes me despair for the future of humanity:
“Look what just walked in.”
Not “what”. Who. RP