As a fan of Babylon 5, it makes sense that I would praise the series, but if there is one episode I could convince people to watch, especially during 2020, it would be this one. Londo says, “it’s been a hard year” and 2020 certainly lives up to that description. And while I am loath to turn a great episode into a commentary about reality, I do think there are valuable messages here that are critically important to the year in which we are living. Typically, any scene with Londo and G’Kar just steals the show, but this episode is so powerful in its own rights, it actually runs hot the whole time and even our standard scene-thieves can’t make off with this episode on their own. There isn’t a wasted moment. And if I need to sell it even more, every season has a season-spanning title; this season is called No Surrender, No Retreat.
The lightest moment of the episode is Vir offering Garibaldi information he was not entitled to. While my first thought was “loose lips sink ships”, I realized it had a function, but it took me until Londo was speaking to G’Kar to pick up on it. Londo says, “All I ever wanted is what was right for my world… I’m a patriot!” It struck me that that’s what the whole episode is about: patriotism. Garibaldi is going to fight for his world, but not the way Sheridan is. Londo rightly explains that he was fighting for his world even though he made terrible mistakes, and he recognizes that G’Kar gave up his pride, dignity and his eye for his own people as well. Sheridan is going against Earth because he realizes that those in charge are issuing illegal orders which, “in the final analysis” is against those he swore to protect. He operates under a sense of patriotism based on rights, legality and, above all, ethics. Ironically, those fighting against him are all of the mindset that they too are fighting for their people but Sheridan’s message outweighs their beliefs and some of those involved begin to recognize their mistake.
Sheridan’s strategy involves identifying allies by those who are firing on civilian targets. In a way, he’s identifying who the “good guys” are. But that’s the clever thing: there are no “bad guys” with exception of President Clark; the man behind the illegal orders. Everyone believes they are doing the right thing. Londo again drives this home when speaking to G’Kar. He says he never expected that he could “become the enemy” and asks if he even understands “who the enemy is.” That’s the problem with blind patriotism: everyone is convinced of their own rightness that they lose sight of what they are fighting for. Sheridan looks not at the order but the established rules of engagement and articles of war as a guideline and evaluates the actions of those in power based on those guidelines. He realizes that Clark’s institutions like Nightwatch, the Ministry of Peace and the Minitry of Truth are symbols of a dictatorship, not a democracy and he opposes the ideology. Those who were following Clark argue, “it’s not the role of the military to make policy,” which may be true but Sheridan counters that it is the role of the military to protect against threats both foreign and domestic. This is as relevant now in our real world as it is in Babylon 5’s fiction. Once again, Londo says it: he may not know who the enemy is, but he knows who his friends are. That’s what Sheridan establishes through an incredible episode. And I love Mackey’s handshake when Sheridan gains an ally. (Watch it: it’s a great, big, open handed handshake of glee!)
A few subtle touches complete an amazing episode. When Londo goes to see G’Kar, G’Kar makes him ring his bell a few times before allowing him access. The dialogue is, as expected, amazing. Londo is the one to call out how they fall into familiar patterns and every moment is a dialogue triumph. I did pick up on G’Kar’s description of his own eye: “It sees,” he says. (Remember the prophesy…) And I love the parallel to Delenn’s words referring to humans as the race that builds communities; Londo toasts the humans for that very thing. And when G’Kar does come around, as we knew he would because ultimately, he sees the wisdom of Londo’s words, it’s a stunning moment. He’ll sign the declaration to support Sheridan with his sworn enemy… but not on the same page!
This episode is a highlight of a season and should be required viewing in schools today. I was amazed while re-watching it for this write-up how much resonated and how real it felt. I may not believe in turning a blog into a personal political forum, so instead I offer this episode as evidence to those who want to apply their minds. Watch it and consider its merits and implications, both in the fiction and in our reality. Truly, a fantastic episode. ML
The view from across the pond:
Babylon 5 has been limping along with a succession of boring or mediocre episodes since the end of the Shadow War, but I’m very happy that I stuck with it because things really kicked back into gear this week. It’s a little troubling that I have only really loved this series when it has been a war story, but I think that is a reflection of the writing, not my own entertainment preferences. In fact, I generally dislike war stories, so I think it is just a case of JMS being really good at this kind of thing and really bad at the peacetime episodes.
I have been grumbling for some time that the civil war, when it finally comes, was surely going to be an anticlimax in comparison to the Shadow War. I am delighted to say that I was entirely wrong about that, at least on first impressions. The reason for that is quite clear: this war might not be such a deadly one, against an all-powerful foe like the Shadows, but what it lacks in terror it more than makes up for in moral ambiguity. Sci-fi wars are nearly always the good guys against the bad guys, and so far B5 has not been much of an exception. But this is different. This is Sheridan and his band of revolutionary good guys vs a complex mix of Earth forces. At the top of the tree is an obvious moustache-twirler bad guy. We don’t get to see him and we don’t need to. The WW2 comparisons are blatant. In the mix, and we are yet to see how this will play out, is Psi Corps. Then we have the ordinary soldiers, some of whom are loyal to Clark and agree with him, some of whom disagree with his policies but are just following orders or are afraid of the consequences of disobedience, and some of whom are ready and waiting to defect.
So the big battle is exciting, but what is even more exciting is the question of how the enemy will react. Sheridan doesn’t have a faceless monster to fight. He has a collection of individuals, and his recognition of that is what makes him a genius of a commander and it’s surely the one thing that’s going to win him this war. He’s not there to destroy the enemy. He’s there to win them over to his cause. It’s a recruitment drive masquerading as a liberation.
We had a fascinating range of reactions to the situation. Sheridan’s old friend was the easiest nut to crack, initially disobeying orders to open communications, as if he wanted Sheridan to give him a reason to defect. Sheridan was happy to oblige with a rousing speech about soldiers not being machines. The strength of this episode was the moral decisions that the troops face on an individual level. The phrase “just following orders” has always sickened me, so I was delighted to see JMS offering us a view of the future where the soldiers think for themselves. And to be clear, not one person in this episode acted out of loyalty to Clark. Everyone was acting either (a) in their own interests or (b) in order to do what they believed was right. At one end of the scale we had the Scrubs captain who was one of those revolting “just following orders” soldiers, and Commander Philby who was willing to betray MacDougan to get into the captain’s chair. At the other end there was MacDougan who was willing to change sides for his beliefs, and Commander Levitt who wanted to save the lives of the crew of her ship. Their post-battle decisions on whether to support Sheridan, and to what extent, were a realistic range of human reactions to a difficult situation. A lesser writer would have shown all the captains won over by Sheridan as a group, but the human race is not a hive mind.
All that by itself would have made this a great episode, but the icing on the cake was Londo’s attempt at some form of reconciliation with G’Kar. Even before Londo entered the room it was already an electrifying moment, with G’Kar humbling his old foe by making him wait. It put me in mind of CJ from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (if you haven’t seen it you’ve missed one of the greatest comedy series ever made): “One, two, three, four, keep them waiting at the door. Five, six, seven, eight, always pays to make them wait… nine, ten… come in!” Then we get Londo trying to apologise without going so far as to say the word “sorry”, and then proposing a joint action in support of Sheridan:
“For the first time in a hundred years we have something in common beyond hatred. I find that most extraordinary, and so a drink to the humans, and to the bridge that they created between us, in the hope for a better future for both our worlds.”
It was a rousing speech, and a brilliant piece of writing because everything was leading us towards expecting this to be the big moment of truce between the two old enemies: the writing, the music, everything. G’Kar’s silent refusal to drink was a stunning subversion of expectations and a real left-field moment, and he said more with his expression than Londo said with his carefully-crafted words of hope. But eventually G’Kar did agree to the joint statement and that is because he has always been somebody who puts the good of his people above his own feelings, and this was the right thing for all concerned. In the end this episode was about patriotism: not in itself a force for good or evil, but something that can be used as an excuse for both. RP