Babylon 5: Z’ha’dum

b5This was always going to be the hardest episode for me to write about because I don’t think there’s any way to do it justice.  The episode is like getting the cover of the puzzle box so we finally see what we’ve been putting together all this time.  Anna, John’s wife, dead for 5 years, walks into his bedroom and offers to tell him “what it’s really all about.”  All he has to do is go with her.  Where?  “Where else?  To Z’Ha’Dum!”

But where do we start?  Do we talk about how much has lead up to this point?  Some examples are: Justin, the bushy-eyed old guy who talks with his hands a lot, tells John the same thing Sebastian told him: kill him and another rises to take his place.  John jumps from a height in the season 2 finale The Long Night.  He seem to like doing that.  The stories about the Shadows and the crew of the Icarus now all come together, and more impressively, the involvement of IPX, setup from the beginning of the series as a shady group of scientists, was involved from the start.  They knew about what happened on Mars, something we learned about this season.  Notice Justin’s reaction to the question “who are you?”  He’s not happy with it.  That’s the question Sebastian asks of John and Delenn in Comes the Inquisitor.  (A sort-of counterpoint to the Shadow question, “what do you want?”)  And what about his line about being a middle man.  (“The man in between is searching for you”, All Alone in the Night.)  Even G’Kar’s thermonuclear explosives are a throwback to the way John defeated the Minbari during the war.  And this just scratches the surface.  Like I said, we can see the puzzle we’ve been putting together.  There are others who have put together a list of how many episodes connect to this one, I am sure.  Suffice to say, there have been a lot.

Along with those things, there’s the phrase “the younger races”, used throughout the series referring to any race not Vorlon or Shadow.  Now, it’s interesting considering that when Justin and Anna are explaining things to John, it seems to come down to is parenting.  Didn’t see that coming!  This makes for a fairly compelling argument.  Yeah, it’s “gussied up a bit” for the scifi conflict, but as a parent, this is interesting. The Vorlon, Justin says, are like parents who wants everyone to play nice, by the rules; they are agents of order.  By contrast, the Shadows are agents of chaos who believe strength comes from conflict.  I find this such a compelling idea because my wife and I raise two boys and she Vorlons the hell out of them.  I Shadow them.  I mean, they’re boys, for Kosh’s sake!  They need to learn life skills.  And in the workforce, we grow more after mistakes than we do when we get it all right.  What about Jeff’s idea from season 1: the best way to get to know a guy is to get into a fight with him.  Strength does come from conflict; or at least growth does!   Does that mean I side with the Shadows?  Not necessarily.  They have merit to their thinking, absolutely, but when you look at it from a parental point of view, both attitudes have merits and the reality is that we go back and forth based on the needs of the situation.  These two races are a bit too militant.  It’s like the two agreed that they would represent a paradigm at all costs.  But that does create an interesting issue because it changes the “evil” Shadows to a race with different motivations; not wrong, just different.  They are making a stronger universe.  Chaos will bring strength.  So where do I fall in this?  Does Darwinism really beat a guided path forward?  Do I just want the “good guys” to win because I like the characters or is the belief (or as Justin refers to it, the dream) worth more than the characters themselves?

I found the acting in this story amazing.  The scenes with John and Delenn were intense.  From Anna’s arrival, letting John know that Delenn knew she was alive, there’s a tension that never lets up.  I think Boxleitner delivers his lines like a pro, using inflection to perfection.  His awareness that Delenn “couldn’t allow” him to know about Anna is a massive blow and one wonders if they can ever recover.  Based on the message he leaves a heart-broken Delenn, I think they still had a chance!   I also loved the interaction between John and Garibaldi.  They never felt as tight as Jeff and Michael were but they have an understanding.  I respect that.  Then there’s John’s real motivation for sacrificing himself; a thing Sebastian was looking for during his interrogation.  He remembers Delenn saying not to go to Z’Ha’Dum during his time jump forward in War Without End.  He posits that if he does go, sacrificing himself, maybe he can stop the devastation of Centuri Prime.  This is another good dilemma: in trying to prevent a bad future, did he, in fact, create it?  Based on his ending, one would have to think not because it would entail surviving a billion mile fall.  As the music gets completely awe-inspiring, John finds himself on a ledge and, with nowhere to go, arms the White Star to plummet down and destroy the Shadow city.  (Anna did say the Shadows believed if anything remotely Vorlon ever touched the planet, they would be destroyed.  She appears to be somewhat right!)  John hears the voice of Kosh, “Jump.  Jump, now!” and he leaps into the abyss.  Right behind him, the White Star falls and blows up.  And back on the station, the Shadow ships that had surrounded them, take off, while Susan realizes “he’s gone!”  Meanwhile, we learn later, even Mr. Garibaldi is gone… Next season is looking bleak!

Are there issues with the episode?  I didn’t like that they had to retcon Anna, since the original scene was played by a different woman.  I almost wish for the DVDs they remastered that one small scene from the earlier episode to make it match Boxleitner’s real life wife, Melissa Gilbert, but I guess it would have written that other actress out of the series and that wouldn’t be fair!  Barring that, when John is slowly reaching down with his left hand to get the gun off his leg, he stops to point at the back of his neck.  Risky move if he didn’t want that hand seen.  Not impossible that he’d have done it, but awkward.  The episode is a powerhouse and one I can watch over and over again.  I think I was really enjoying the series at this point but this finale solidified it!  Oh, there are a lot of good ones prior to this especially mid-season 3, but this one was insanely good.  The music was spot on too.  G’Kar ends the season with a marvelous speech but as we ponder the quote, I can’t help but wonder: is this the last we see of Sheridan?  Surely he couldn’t survive that fall and the nuclear blast?  And whatever happened to Mr. Garibaldi?

“G’Quan wrote: ‘There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.'”

Even in just a few lines, we’re reminded how awesome G’Kar is and I find his comments oddly reassuring even in our uncertain times.  Perhaps there’s something in it.  But for now, I am anxiously awaiting season 4.  ML

The view from across the pond:

We pick up where we left off at the end of the last episode, with the shock return of Sheridan’s wife. Bruce Boxleitner sells the emotion of that moment brilliantly, with his voice cracking a little as he says her name, and then the conflicting emotions: he has mourned her death and started to make a new life with Delenn, and is suspicious about whether it’s really Anna or not.

“All you have to do is come with me.”
“Where else? To Z’ha’dum.”

That moment surely should be sufficient for Sheridan to realise it’s not really his wife, especially as she is clearly talking to him in a manipulative way, but the desire to have her back is a strong one, and it takes medical evidence to tell him what he needs to know. Being Sheridan, he goes anyway, but at least he goes with his eyes open, and prepared.

After the brief distraction of Londo’s promotion (“It’s not a reward, it’s a leash.”), we finally reach the moment the series has been building to, Sheridan’s arrival on the home planet of the Shadows, who are not really called Shadows:

“Their actual name is 10,000 letters long.”

Doesn’t sound very convenient. That’s the kind of line sci-fi writers come up with because they think it’s all mysterious and cool, but in actual fact it’s just very silly. The Shadows don’t talk to Sheridan themselves, presumably because a CGI alien mouth speaking is beyond the abilities of 1990s sci-fi. Instead, they have a spokesman.

“I’m with them.”

Apparently the manipulation of humanity has gone both ways, with not just the Vorlon involved, and the “them” are the people who have decided what hemlines are in fashion, of all things. So, what, he’s a Kardashian?*

I’ve never been keen on the Von Daniken stuff that crops up all the time in sci-fi, with the course of the human race guided by aliens. It turns us into pawns on a chessboard and robs us of any real achievements. Although Doctor Who does a bit of that, I prefer its world view of an “indomitable” species. Ditto Star Trek. It’s also slightly lazy sci-fi. Writing about dawn-of-time aliens who have interfered with history isn’t exactly original or difficult for a writer. JMS does raise a fascinating point though:

“We never would have come this far if we hadn’t been at each other’s throats.”

That’s debatable. No, scratch that, it’s wrong. War creates progress in certain areas, generally the ability to kill each other more efficiently, and yes, there are occasional beneficial offshoots in terms of scientific progress, but war and instability overwhelmingly stalls progress as a whole. That’s why studies show that the greatest advancements today are coming from stable countries, not the war-torn or corrupt. It’s a simple matter of money. Yes, war can fund science, but the taxes that result from a stable and successful country can fund it much better. Some kind of a remark to that effect from Sheridan would have been useful, because the idea goes unchallenged and as a result we are sold rather a bleak view of human progress by JMS. Thankfully, actions speak louder than words, and there is not a single moment where Sheridan looks remotely convinced. Instead he blows himself up, and takes as much of Z’ha’dum with him as he can.

Can that be the end of Sheridan? It’s hard to see any way out for him, although we don’t know what was at the bottom of that pit, and Garibaldi’s heading for Z’ha’dum himself, like it or not. Somehow I doubt we’ve seen the last of the heroic captain.   RP

* I hope that joke works. I have no idea what they do at all, but I’m guessing the vapid hero-worship of these “celebrities” extends to fashion!

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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