Babylon 5: Passing Through Gethsemane

b5I don’t know what it is about Brad Dourif but I’ve always liked him.  Maybe it’s his insane eyes that makes him a fun actor to watch but seeing him in Babylon 5 was a selling point.  But he’s this nice monk, a gentle fellow who makes origami.  Those crazy eyes are not utilized like they should be.  Damn it.  That’s some poor casting if you ask me!  Passing Through Gethsemane is a pseudo-sequel to last season’s A Quality of MercyWe’re back to the “humane” punishment that is the mind wipe, also known as the death of personality.  Back in our review of season 1, I shared some thoughts about this “humane” way of handling bad people.  One of my concerns was, how do families of the victims feel when they see the person who murdered their loved one, walking about freely?  Also, what happens if the old personality reasserts itself.  This episode offers us a chance to explore those darker elements and in doing so, marks JMS as a brilliant storyteller, as he loops in ideas from more than a season back.  This was part of his plan all along; to tell a novel in televised format.

Like many B5 episodes, we do have an A and a B plot.  Due to my love of science fiction, the B plot, that of Lyta Alexander, is utterly intriguing to me.  Why was she selected to work with the Vorlon?  What was she up to while on their homeworld?  What’s been done to her, beyond her gills?  (Note when she first steps out of the Vorlon ship, she has this odd top on that completely hides her neck… should have realized something was up!)  And why did the Vorlon wait until she was almost dead to rescue her?  (This last one I have a pet theory about that took many viewings to develop.  My first thought was obvious: they did not want her to see them approach.  But that makes no sense.  She’s seen what they look like and their ships, while odd, have been seen before.  But this year, after working on my write up for All Alone in the Night, I realized that Kosh said of Sheridan that his mind had to be in the right state to communicate with him.  Ironically, that state was out cold.  Ironically, so is Lyta’s!  So, that’s my theory and it does one other great thing: illustrates how good JMS’s storytelling style is!  This is my fourth time viewing it and I’m only just thinking about it now!)   Most of the B plot centers around her making her way through the station, renewing acquaintances, but when she gets to Londo, we have a fantastic scene that defies the norm.  In a scene like this, the “Londo” of the story would threaten the “Lyta” of the story with exposing her secret and she would acquiesce to the demands of the “Londo”.  Not so here!  Our actual Lyta turns on our actual Londo and threatens him right back, promising to plant a nightmare so deep in his mind that no one could ever find or remove it.  “Fine!  And keep your threats to yourself,” says Londo, realizing he’s been beaten.

Speaking of beaten… our A plot centers around the kindly Brother Edward, played by Brad Dourif.  Edward is being tortured.  Someone on the station is upset because they recognize the face of a killer in the kindly brother.  Due to my love of a good philosophical discussion, this plot kept me on edge.  How would Straczynski convince me that one path was the right path?  The answer is, he doesn’t try; he allows the viewer to make up their mind.  But he gives us a tough sell.  When Edward realizes he’s got the “soul of a killer”, he accepts the punishment that’s waiting for him.  He heads into his “garden of Gethsemane” to accept that punishment.  But throughout the episode, we’ve come to really like the very kind Brother Edward.  In the short time we’ve gotten to know him, his kindness and his gentle ways have lead us to really appreciate this man.  He can’t be a bad guy and if he is, surely we can forgive the horrible acts because of the person he has become?  No?  I don’t want anything bad to befall this guy!

CRASH!  Plots A and B collide!  Having a hyper powerful telepath on your side is a good thing especially when dealing with overconfident Centauri telepaths.  With Lyta’s non-Psi-Corp-regulated powers, she easily gets the location of where Edward is being held.  Alas, they get there too late.  Edward is breathing his last breaths.  Before dying he tells his mentor, Brother Theo, that he always wondered if he’d have the courage to stay in the Garden of Gethsemane, and now he knows.  He tells them to forgive his killer.  And he passes.  Malcolm, the man who killed Edward, is proud of what he did, and doesn’t try to deny it and his sentence is passed.

The episode ends with Sheridan talking to Brother Theo.  “Where does revenge end and justice begin,” he asks.  “Forgiveness is a hard thing, isn’t it?”  As he says this, the man who killed Edward comes out, now a priest ready to serve.  Brother Malcolm is a new man.  He has undergone the death of personality.  And we suddenly realize that the poor Brother Edward was just like Malcolm; he was a horrible murderer that we would have hated as much as we dislike Malcolm now.  Should we forgive Malcolm?  Just because we know Malcolm’s a killer, he seems like the easier guy to hate, but he killed one man! Edward killed many!  Yet I know I found it harder to like Malcolm.  And I found myself able to see past the horrible act that Edward committed.  What does this say of me?!  Does that mean I could like a killer just because s/he didn’t kill someone I know?  Surely not… No!  I was sold a fiction and I bought into it… that’s all.  But it’s a hard pill to swallow.

And then it hits me.  The crazy eyes of Brad Dourif were not miscast!  He was perfectly cast. So was Robert Keith as Malcolm, a man whose eyes are almost as manic as Dourif’s!  They both played the same role, offering us different perspectives.  And I found that utterly engrossing.  There are a handful of other details that warrant mention: Valen is described by Lennier as a Minbari not born of Minbari.  Can this be an allusion to the Vorlon, capable of looking like a Minbari?  (This episode is heavily Vorlon-centric!)  Also, IPX (AKA: Interstellar Planetary Expeditions) sponsors ISN, the news network.  That’s far more interesting when you consider Infection (season 1 episode focusing on bioweapons) and And Now For a Word (the news broadcast episode).  They clearly have an agenda!  Just some things to ponder.

I was ready for the war business to ramp up a bit, but hit me with a deeply philosophical idea and I can put aside some preconceptions.   This episode is a lesson in forgiveness.  I was no more prepared to forgive Malcolm than Sheridan was, but I was glad to see Sheridan get past his own prejudice and shake the man’s hand. Could I have done it?  Would I have had the courage to shake his hand, even after what he’d done?  I’d like to think so.  But I sure hope I never have to find out!   ML

The view from across the pond:

If Brad Dourif is in the cast of a television programme you’re guaranteed a good episode. I mean absolutely guaranteed. The man is incapable of appearing in something that is not utterly brilliant, and even JMS couldn’t mess this one up. If Dourif’s in the cast you can also be fairly confident that the character he is playing will have some kind of a dark secret. Brother Edward was never going to be just a nice chap. You don’t hire Brad Dourif to play a monk unless there’s some kind of a twist to his character.

Around the ten minute mark I typed into my notes, “split personality because he’s a mind-wiped criminal” and then spent most of the episode congratulating myself about being right about that. Although I wasn’t wrong, the laugh was on me in the end because it turned out that the voices and writing on the wall were not just all in his head, and I never saw that coming. Just when I was patting myself on the back for being one step ahead of the episode, it turns out I was one step behind. I have to admit that was some great writing.

Great writing, but not perfect though. Lyta’s visit was presumably a prelude to something happening in future, but as far as this episode was concerned her visit to the station was a little too convenient. I’ve mentioned before that the Psi Corps rules limiting telepaths made it pointless having one in the main cast, as she was unable to function the way a telepath would normally function within the narrative unless she broke those rules. After two seasons the resident telepath is gone, so when one is needed another just pops up for a week and then goes, which is almost as clumsy as what was happening before with Talia. I do prefer Lyta to Talia though, and loved the way she held her own against Londo this week.

I also had to laugh at Edward/Charles trying to get information from the station computer about his crimes, and getting this answer back:

“Time required for comprehensive analysis: four hours.”

Just type it into Google, old chap. Technology has clearly taken a backward step in the future. But I’m picking holes in what was actually a great episode. When the mind wiping method of dealing with criminals was first mentioned I flagged it up as a pretty hideous future development, a way to execute people without it feeling quite so much like an execution, but an execution nonetheless. Worst still, it is a form of execution that leaves the murderer’s lobotomised body wandering around to cause additional distress to the victims, however much the authorities try to keep them far apart from each other. This episode attempts to address the ethics behind the idea, which needed to be done. Using Christian forgiveness as a means to explore the idea is fascinating, and inevitably results in the episode reaching no real conclusions about it at all, instead giving us more questions than answers.

“How can I confess my sins to God if I don’t even know what they are.”

If anything, the episode leans towards validating the method of punishment, with Edward/Charles’s killer starting his new life and Brother Theo successfully challenging Sheridan’s reservations about that and showing him the contradiction in his belief in forgiveness and his unwillingness to shake hands with the mind-wiped killer. In the end he manages to shake hands, with a grimace on his face, which is one reason why I say the episode erred on the side of validating the mind-wiping. It was uncomfortable to watch, and I would have rather seen Sheridan simply turn his back and walk away. At least we would have been a step closer to the episode having something better to say about its subject matter, and coming down more firmly on the side of the mind-wiping being a terrible form of punishment. In the end, what needed to be explored was the delusion of mind-wiping somehow being better than execution. I would like to see B5 return to the subject again in future, and explore it more fully.

“Where does revenge end and justice begin?”

Too many questions. Not enough answers. So far that sums up B5 rather well.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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