You know, one of the toughest shows I’ve covered from a writing perspective has been Babylon 5. It’s still my top Science Fiction show but it’s one long epic which makes writing about it very challenging. Series that are individual stories or short series of 12 episodes are far easier to talk about. But when I sit to write these, I’ve found new things popping out at me at every turn. I watched season 4 in rapid succession but even then, certain things didn’t hit me. Like the opening of every episode this season so far; they all open with a Captains log (this time from the Captain himself). How had I missed that? And his opening comments give us a hint of what’s coming if we just remember back to season 1. Sheridan says “…the next few days will either mark the beginning of a new age….” What did season one open with, every episode? “It was the dawn of the third age of mankind…” Season one also offers us another hint. Sinclair was a fan of Tennyson and during the pilot, he quotes Ulysses. This episode ends with Sheridan referring to a note he found on his desk; the very quote Sinclair shared. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” As Sheridan is about to send his people into the “heart of the fire”, we know this is the last episode for mankind as we know it. A new age begins with the next episode. We’ve come to the end of that chapter. So what lies ahead when they go to Coriana VI and what will happen over the next season and a half?
You’re also probably tired of my line: “this is one of my favorite episodes” but I can’t help it. At least I’ve finally identified why! Two names: Sheridan and G’Kar. Any episode that focuses on them is bound to be good. Sheridan has a great moment with Susan as he sends her in search of more of the First Ones, this time with Lorien’s help. I think the moment where he thanks Susan for being a good friend really solidified his leadership style for me. He’s got a huge task ahead and he’s going to take a moment to share what he might never have the chance to share again. I do wonder about the wisdom of looking for more of the First Ones though. He’s already got his hands full with the “giants in the playground”, so adding more seems a dangerous choice. But I’m no captain. Speaking of that, in battle, I expect some really hard decisions need to be made and the scene with Ericsson (Walter White, before he was making meth) is a tense one. Sheridan is asking a man and his crew to die. I don’t pretend I’m happy with the decision but he makes a choice that will save millions, maybe billions, of lives. While the decision is not an easy one, he takes a moment to ask if Ericsson is married. I wonder how that would have changed things if he said he was. But Ericsson goes into the battle knowing he’s been given a literal suicide mission. It’s a moving scene and Bryan Cranston does a great job conveying the pain of that decision. Frankly, so does Boxleitner.
Londo has successfully lured Cartagia to Narn to execute G’Kar. I was reminded of King Kong (“Don’t be alarmed ladies and gentlemen! Those chains are made of chrome steel!”) when G’Kar is paraded in front of Cartagia. Cartagia had the chains reinforced and he laughs at G’Kar for trying to break them saying they are made of solid corillium. But G’Kar doesn’t know they were reinforced. He was told they were weakened, so he breaks them, and saves his people. He literally breaks the chains that bound him. Londo takes Cartagia away under the guise of protecting him but loses the poison he intends to use to end the life of an insane emperor. Thankfully its found by Vir who accidentally plunges it into Cartagia’s chest, killing him. The reign of the madman is over, Narn is free, and G’Kar can help rebuild.
As always, G’Kar shines. As Londo is talking to him, he asks if Londo knows he has an empty heart. “An empty eye sees through to an empty heart.” Katsulas again steals the scene. Vir helps with the only moment of levity in the episode when he’s joking with Londo over what Cartagia might say, coming up with “Kill Londo” before he realizes he’s just killed that moment of joy for them both. (Odd, as I type that, I’m reminded of Londo calling Vir a “moon-faced assassin of joy!” Apt, indeed!) I was also impressed by the conversation between Londo and Vir when Londo was trying to explain that the pain of the murder will never go away. I was impressed because I think he’s confessing to Vir that the murders of all those Narn lie heavily on his soul. He understands. But I have to come back to end on G’Kar. The “what have you endured” ending is amazing. The scene builds in a way that we think G’Kar might snap but instead he laughs. He walks off screen laughing for he knows he has endured more for his people than any could possibly imagine. And in so doing, he became their savior. At least he knows. No one else really needs to. But now the rebuild may still be in his hands.
An episode with G’Kar is always a good one. Add some good Sheridan stuff to it and the preparation for a battle and I’m all in. It’s the dawn of the third age of mankind, and the sun is about to rise. I’m tempted to start my day early. ML
The view from across the pond:
This is an episode about good people doing terrible things in the name of saving billions of lives. It’s a tough episode to watch.
Sheridan marshals his troops for a huge battle, but he needs to get the enemy to the right place. To do that he needs a man and his crew to go on a suicide mission.
“You’re not a married man are you Ericsson?”
I’m not sure if it’s casual xenophobia or not thinking about the “little people”, or simply clumsy writing, but Sheridan seems to give little thought for the Minbari under Ericsson’s command. Delenn needed to give him a slap for that. What about their families? They are mentioned, but dismissively. Sheridan is unwavering about what he has to do, and very stiff upper lip about it afterwards. I hope that the deed of sending a whole crew to their death will not get forgotten because if it doesn’t prey on his conscience in future episodes then it dehumanises him.
For an example of something similar done right, we have Vir, who is consumed by guilt after killing the Emperor. He’s a hero who has just saved the lives of everyone on his planet, but he’s a good man and he can’t see it like that.
“I close my eyes and I always see his face. Don’t you know that all I always wanted was a good job, a small title, nothing fancy, a wife I could love and maybe even one that could actually love someone like me. I never wanted to be here. I never wanted to know the things that I know, or to do… to do the things that I’ve done.”
There’s some superb dialogue writing from JMS this episode, especially G’Kar identifying Londo’s heart as empty and then Londo envying Vir, who has not abandoned his moral core. As Londo says, all he has left now is his honour, and the way he keeps his promise to G’Kar goes some way towards redeeming his character. I don’t think he can ever be truly redeemed in the eyes of the viewers after what he has done to the Narn, but it is clear to see that he has long since reached rock bottom and for the last few episodes has been on a trajectory towards being a better person. There is an interesting contrast in his acceptance of power while G’Kar rejects it, but somebody needs to step up and save Centauri Prime, while G’Kar refuses to replace one emperor with another, especially to rule over a people who want revenge.
“Where were you? What have you endured?”
What a stupid question. No wonder G’Kar just laughs at the idiot as he walks off bloody and battered, missing one of his eyes.
So this was a powerful episode, and gripping to watch. As is often the case, it felt like the script needed one more draft, which I think is a symptom of one person writing nearly everything, as I have mentioned before. The writing hierarchy on most series doesn’t work like this, and there’s a reason for that. It’s like JMS has a map in his head of what he wants to do with everyone, but doesn’t always have a way to get his pieces into the right positions on the board. The big flaw this week for me was the events that led to Vir killing Cartagia. I can overlook the confusion as to how G’Kar broke the chains, which the personal guard had supposedly replaced (did they betray him, or did he really break unweakened chains?), but the problem was Vir having to be the one to kill the emperor. There were enough conspirators for somebody else to step up, and nobody else would have had any qualms whatsoever about doing the deed, but worse than that it was clearly supposed to be Londo’s job. Yes, it went wrong and he dropped the syringe, but then he was in a one to one situation: no guards, just Cartagia. I was willing him to fight back, but he just didn’t really make an effort. This was supposed to be a man fighting not just for his own life but for the lives of everyone on his planet, for the very existence of the planet itself. With those stakes, Cartagia shouldn’t have stood a chance. Like G’Kar with his chains, Londo should have been a man possessed. So it was a surprise moment but one that didn’t quite work. The replica throne room also shouted out to the viewer as a budgetary exercise. Doctor Who viewers will recognise it as Cartagia’s Tobias Vaughn moment.
This was the episode where G’Kar’s part of the opening titles narration came true, and he took back his world. But as fireworks transitioned to a shot of an exploding planet, and G’Kar turned his back on a people hungry for revenge, it didn’t feel like a time for celebration. RP