Babylon 5: Convictions

b5I’ll be the first to admit that seasons 3 and 4 of Babylon 5 are the most incredible seasons of the show.  It’s at the heart of everything that has happened and will happen.  Powerhouse writing!  When I watch this show, I keep a notebook at hand for things I want to mention on our blog.  Now, I liked this episode, but I had precisely this written down: .  No, that wasn’t a mistake.  I actually had nothing at all on the page when I was done.  And I ask myself: why?  We’re in JMS-land, where Straczynski is exclusively the writer of the story.  Why didn’t I find something to talk about?  Did I not like this one?

No, that wasn’t it.  This was the episode of “the elevator”.  Oh, you’ll remember it when it happens.  Let’s rewind.  I’m very good with titles because with most shows, the title tells you what you need to know about the episode you’re watching.  But, though they are changing more since binge viewing has become a thing, when Babylon 5 came out, we were not getting one-off episodes of a show.  We were getting 22-part chapters of a visual book.  This means, chapter titles did not always tell you all of what was going to happen in an hour long episode and sometimes episodes blur together.  How does convictions tell you what’s to come?  It sounds like we’re going to deal with a religious episode and when Brother Theo arrives, it seems guaranteed.  Or when Lennier lies to make a mouthy drunkard go away but is, moments later, caught in an explosion, one wonders if his convictions will be challenged.  But that’s all setup.  It’s setup for a bomber and for Ivanova to question if Free Mars or Home Guard are behind it.  But for fans of the show, the most impressive part of the episode takes place after Londo is forced to enter an elevator with G’Kar and they are trapped together after an explosion.  This becomes a character piece about these two men.  G’Kar hates Londo and his people.  He could kill Londo at any point.  But they are trapped and are basically being cooked alive inside a metal oven.  G’Kar can withstand it better than Londo can, but things are looking bad for both of them.

As usually Katsulas gives a stunning performance.  Just a look from those demented red eyes as he glares at Londo, almost at peace with his impending death, is a performance worth talking about.  But it’s not just his dark side that Andreas sells so well.  Watch him arguing with Garibaldi as they walk through the station.  As he misjudges where Garibaldi is going and has to run after him, or moments later when he takes his eyes off Garibaldi for a second, he turns to see he’s talking to himself.  He sells comedy as easily as rage.  This is an actor of fantastic range and it’s a tragic loss that he’s gone.  Londo, meanwhile, manages to convey some genuine feeling for Lennier, who has been the only person to save his life.  As he sits with Lennier, one remembers that Londo was not always the bad guy.  We liked him once.  He was the comic relief.  Like real life, these characters are complex and have many sides.  And I love that.  I love that there’s not a bad guy, per se, just differences of opinion.  (I find myself writing that twice today about two different shows, ironically!)  The episode ends with these two great characters lying on the floor of the elevator calling each other names.  Back and forth: bastard, monster, fanatic, murderer… It’s comical and yet there’s sincerity behind their words.  A stunning performance, and the title should have been “The Elevator”, and we’d never forget.

Although in fairness, that says nothing of the actual problem the station is facing: there’s a bomber on the loose.  Londo and G’Kar are just victims of the bomber.  Which brings us to another great performance by Patrick Kilpatrick, a veteran bad guy.  I’ve seen him in a number of things and when you’re good at a role, why not stick with it.  For his visit to B5, we have him threatening to blow up the station.  We know it’ll survive, but the tension mounts and when we get a slow motion scene of him releasing the dead-man’s switch, we wonder if the station will suffer casualties.  Kilpatrick plays the maniac to perfection, as he sweats and panics while taunting Sheridan with his presumed power.  He is a fun villain to watch and that makes it more rewarding when Sheridan beats him.

Why didn’t I have anything written down when I was done with this episode?  Because I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.  And because I’m still in awe of the acting of Katsulas and Jurasik.   And the season is just getting started… ML

The view from across the pond:

“We touch to share your blessing.”

I think we’ve all heard that chat up line before. I suppose if I had to pinpoint why Babylon 5 has been such a disappointment so far it would be the very thing that a lot of people praise the series for: it’s nearly all written by the same person. Unfortunately that person simply doesn’t seem to be a very good writer so far. One question all writers should ask themselves is “why am I writing this?”. There has to be a point to what you are doing. Not for the first time we have an episode that is functionally a whodunit, but misses the point of a whodunit altogether by introducing both the killer and the killer’s motive at the moment of final confrontation rather than integrating both throughout the episode in a way that is (not easily) guessable. Whodunits follow a pattern for a reason, and without that you have television viewing as spectacle without the need to engage the brain. I felt like a vegetable watching this for most of the episode. No grey matter required.

What we were left with was a triumph of style over substance with some impressive bangs and flashes, and mercifully a brilliantly acted killer. Patrick Kilpatrick, a man with more Patricks in his name than anyone surely needs, saves this episode single-handedly. He does crazy and dangerous compellingly, and is very scary as Robert Carlson. Unless I missed something, his motive was simply the fact that everything in his life has gone wrong, which is also very scary, despite being somewhat lacking in whodunit terms.

So apart from a stellar acting performance at the end, there was little point to the main plot, which rumbled along slowly and went nowhere but the inevitable – through some obligatory stunt glass. The subplot with the religious group was so boring that I have absolutely nothing to say about it. The subplot with Lennier was also relatively pointless. It was pretty obvious he wasn’t going to be written out just two episodes into the series, so there was no real sense of jeopardy, and there was no need to drive the point home that he is a good man almost to a fault, because we already know that. It might have been justified by Londo being touched by having his life saved by somebody else for the first time, which fits in rather well with his search for a genuine friend in the last series, but it never really went anywhere and lacked a scene with Londo visiting Lennier after he wakes up, which should have been the coda to the episode. That lovely little speech Lennier gives about sacrificing the present for the future should have been within earshot of Londo at the very least, and then you have a point to the whole thing.  Londo would have realised that Lennier saved him because his beliefs compel him to, and for no other reason.  Without that, it was just another scriptwriting blind alley.

But there was one thing JMS did get right this week: G’Kar and Londo trapped in a lift.

“We must work together.”
.”What do you mean, no?”

One again this illustrated for me how JMS never quite realised (so far) the good bits and the bad bits about his show, constantly failing to capitalise on the good stuff. At any given moment, if G’Kar is on the screen the series bursts into life. This was the only part of the episode that had a point to it, and the only part that was entertaining beyond (a) spectacle or (b) an actor doing creepy well. It should have been a much stronger focus of the episode.

“As the humans say, up yours, die.”

What we have here is a glorious subversion of the Locked in a Room trope. Television dramas are full of this trope, especially sci-fi, because it’s a great tool for the writer. Force two characters to be together in this way and you force conflict (and often resolution), especially if the characters are avoiding each other or something of that nature. The way it usually pans out is that the two trapped characters have to work together to escape, and form a bond or resolve a conflict in the process.

What’s so fabulous about this is that it takes the trope and then has one of the characters laugh through it all and completely refuse to play his role, delighting in the humour of it all along the way.

“Can anyone hear us?”
“I hear you!”

It illustrates the depth of his hatred for Londo. There will be no reconciliation here. G’Kar wants to live, but he wants to see Londo die more. Man, he’s a great character. I promised Mike that I would watch every episode of Babylon 5 and by now I think I would have to admit to sticking with it merely to fulfil a promise, if it wasn’t for G’Kar. As long as he’s in it, I’m a willing viewer.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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