Babylon 5: In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum

b5Where do you start with In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum?  Do you start with the title, a title so clever it has the enemy name and homeworld roped into one?  Do I talk about the sheer impact this episode has on the series and how many episodes tie into it to some extent from season 1 all the way to the present?

Let me say, this is where JMS starts the heavy work: he’s now in charge of the show until the end, barring one episode.  No one else will write anything after this until season 5.  (Actually, let me clarify one thing: Knives, the next episode, was supposed to come before this, so if we’re technically talking broadcast order, there are 2 episodes left not written by Straczynski, but Knives is not a “big” episode.  Everything else from here on out, is!)  So it’s time to tell us about the Shadows.  Delenn says “We have no other name for them… The last Great War against the Shadows was ten thousand years ago. It was the last time the ancients walked openly among us. The Shadows were only defeated, not destroyed. A thousand years ago, the Shadows returned to their places of power, rebuilt them, and began to stretch forth their hand.”  Is this the great hand reaching out among the stars that Elric really saw?  She continues, “…before they could strike, they were defeated by an alliance of worlds, including the Minbari and the few remaining First Ones who had not yet passed beyond the veil. When they had finished, the First Ones went away. All but one.”  Let’s break that down a bit.  How were they defeated back then?  Why don’t the Alliance worlds have record of how to defeat them, so they can do that again?  Moving on, Sheridan is confused and asks about this “one” that’s left.  We discover that it is Roger’s favorite, Mr. Riddles himself, Kosh.  This leads to the revelation of why he has to remain in his encounter suit: “he would be recognized… by everyone”.  But that leaves us with one great big stinking question: how would anyone recognize him from so far back that no one would have been alive to recognize him?  At least some mysteries will have to remain a little longer; that answer will not be forthcoming.  But to trade off, we get an answer to a question that has been pending since last season’s finale, Chrysalis: what was the question Delenn asked Kosh when Sinclair was still on the station.  “Have the Shadows returned to Z’Ha’Dum?”  Ominously, we’ve known since then, the answer was “yes”.

While I’m reminded of Gandalf talking to Frodo in Lord of the Rings, with the return of the Shadows, there’s elements of The Prisoner and 1984 as well.  The Ministry of Peace, with all of its Orwellian connotations is beginning its campaign of fearmongering, turning people against one another.  Who will report who?  Zack, ever-likable, but slightly dimwitted for my taste, is willing to join up for the extra $50 per paycheck it will give him but this is bound to have consequences.  One could be inclined to wonder why JMS thinks that by the future, we would not have learned from our mistakes, but then, look at the world we inhabit today?  If 2259 has us wearing black armbands, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fact is, those armbands are very militant (unless you’re mourning the passing of Superman), and the message is clear to the viewer: this is a means of turning people on one another.  (Incidentally, also in the Trivia section of Amazon Prime’s viewing page, The Ministry of Peace isn’t just “Orwellian”, as in “reminiscent of George Orwell”. It actually was from 1984!  Some things I do forget!)

While all of this is going on, Sheridan learns that Mr. Morden was on the ship with Anna Sheridan.  As we might imagine, he’s not happy about that and wants to know what really happened.  What is Morden up to?  Why is he alive and Anna, dead?  Morden isn’t particularly well liked either, considering even Vir wants him dead!  This episode has such an incredible moment from the typically quiet Vir, that it deserves mention.  Morden asks Vir what he wants, the infamous question he asks everyone.  Vir’s answer is full of wisdom: “I want to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next 10 generations that some favors come at too high a price.  I would look up into your lifeless eyes and wave, like this…” (he then demonstrates the wave).  Vir is rarely depicted as a particularly strong character, but this scene is magnificent and adds dimension and strength to a quiet character.  (Remember G’Kar’s, “No one here is exactly what he appears!”)  As for Sheridan, his anger makes him dangerous; not just to Morden, but to the cause he and Delenn are fighting for.  By being too pushy with Morden, he risks tipping his hand.  While he eventually is convinced to release Morden, it leads him to talk to Kosh about changing their deal.  He no longer wants to understand Kosh; he wants to know how to fight the Shadows.  The ending dialogue is surprising because Kosh answers a question directly: “If you go to Z’ha’dum, you will die”, he says.  Sheridan’s reply is acceptance; he needs to understand what happened to his wife.  “Then I die.  But I will not go down easily and I will not go down alone.  You will teach me?”  “Yes!”  (Take that, Roger – he answered a direct question!)

Tensions are mounting elsewhere too.  Franklin is using stims again; we saw where that lead before.  Surely he can’t keep falling into bad habits over and over.  Garibaldi flips out over Sheridan’s illegal hold on Morden.  Though we get a decent resolution to this at the end of the episode, the pattern has been set: Michael and John do not see eye to eye.  John may have apologized to Michael, but they are both headstrong men and things may escalate again.  And that will launch us into the final 6 episodes of the season.  The tension behind this episode has revved us and we can only wait to see where we go from here… ML

The view from across the pond:

Now this is more like it. Much more like it. But before we get to the blisteringly good stuff, we have some merely very good stuff to look at, and that’s Sheridan’s capture of Morden, when he learns that he was on the Icarus when it exploded and yet still lives. What follows is a personal vendetta due to Sheridan’s wife also being on the Icarus, and some fabulous acting from Bruce Boxleitner. He can certainly pull off steely determination.

Sheridan’s use of the “letter of the law to defeat the spirit of the law”, as Delenn sharply points out, with the excuse that Morden is officially dead and therefore has no rights, is very clever, but what we have here is a question of whether the ends justify the means. I’m not sure what follows is particularly coherent in terms of the characterisation of the main characters. Garibaldi becomes a jobsworth for a week, which doesn’t quite sit right, although his resignation is powerful stuff. Also possibly becoming a different kind of character for a week compared to what has already been established is Franklin.

“Just for a second you see God reflected in their eyes.”

His speech about dying patients is a magnificent bit of writing, but his beliefs are hard to square with the Season One version of Franklin, whose respect for the religious beliefs of patients’ families only went as far as pretending to respect them in order to get what he wants, and then riding roughshod all over them when that failed. It’s not quite a contradiction, but it’s an awkward fit. The only person who seems to be entirely in character is Ivanova, who continues to be my favourite crewmember at the moment.

As for the generally hideous Talia, Sheridan’s manipulation of her is very clever (and why not make use of a member of a group who are the ultimate example of sticking to the rules only when it suits them?), and earns him a slap (which apparently actually connected). I see we still have those double standards in the future where a woman can slap a man and that’s fine. I wonder what would happen with Sheridan if that scene happened in reverse. Interestingly, I don’t see women slapping men without repercussions on TV dramas much nowadays, if at all, but it used to be commonplace. We appear to have evolved more in 20 years than B5 thought we would in 250.

Then we get to the really good stuff, with Delenn and Kosh revealing the truth… well, with Delenn revealing the truth and Kosh throwing in one or two dramatic words.

“The Shadows were old when even the Ancients were young.”

And now I know why Mike loves this series, if this is a taste of things to come. It couldn’t be more Lovecraftian: races from millions of years ago coming back. I loved the revelation that Kosh is a “First One”, and the shocked acting from Boxleitner is another moment that makes up the tour de force that is his performance this week. Sheridan then has to face another ends-justify-the-means dilemma, in one of the most thematically coherent episodes B5 has offered us so far.

Sheridan’s anecdote about Churchill is again brilliantly acted, but it bugs me because it didn’t actually happen and I do dislike the propagation of fake history. The story he’s peddling was asserted in a 1974 book, but was discredited relatively swiftly, and disproved when the original decrypted messages were made public in 1996. Churchill never knew that Coventry was going to be the target of the bombing raid, and therefore never had an opportunity to evacuate the city. Whatever look in Churchill’s eyes Sheridan saw on the newsreels, it was simply the look of a man who was walking among the dead.

But despite (or because of) Sheridan’s warped interpretation of history, he makes the decision he thinks is best, and lets Morden go, following a chilling moment where the Shadows who accompany him are rendered visible. Oddly he fails to confide in Garibaldi, which leaves him in a rather foolish position of having knowledge vital to the survival of humanity (including how to actually see the Shadows) which he’s not sharing with anyone. Instead he heads off for another chat with Kosh, who is all about the small talk as usual:

“If you go to Z’ha’dum you will die.”

B5 just got interesting.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Babylon 5, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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