Intersections in Real Time may be one of the hardest Babylon 5 episodes to watch. It’s gritty, dark and entirely devoted to beating Sheridan down and making him crack. The residents of the Village could have learned something from Clark’s people. Or perhaps Sheridan learned a thing or two from #6. (There have been enough Prisoner references throughout the series to make me wonder! Even the ominously titled Room 17 is probably a mixed reference between George Orwell’s Room 101, with a reference to the 17 episodes of The Prisoner; a show about a man who spends almost every episode being tortured.) The difference here is that Clark, presumably, has telepaths in his side, so I don’t fully understand why he doesn’t utilize them. Maybe they are not willing to break the law even for the president and he may not have enough power over them to force the issue. Whatever the case is, this is a powerful episode and it never lets up.
It’s hard not to equate this to The Prisoner. The interrogator might as well be #2 considering he will be replaced by a “new #2”. However, he seems a far more effective one than those of the Village. He uses time of day to throw Sheridan off his game. He uses pain givers, last seen in season 1’s Deathwalker to hurt John just because of a contradiction. He messes with Sheridan with food, tempting him after days of not eating, only to poison him just enough to keep him throwing up all night. He taunts John with news of his father. He forces a Drazi to confess in front of the captain, then appears to murder him. Later, the same Drazi smiles at Sheridan after being dressed as an executioner. This “#2” uses hours of rhetoric, played over and over to get into Sheridan’s head. The new #2 arrives at the end to start the cycle all over again. We are truly being given intersections in real time – uninterrupted glimpses of what Sheridan has to endure, without hope of escape. #6 held out. How does John do it?
I think a big part of it is his attitude and it’s what keeps me watching every time. He puts his ideas into words quite well. “You just have to say ‘no I won’t’ one more time than they say ‘yes you will.’” I love that idea. I can’t imagine being able to stay as strong as Sheridan does, but I’d like to imagine that I’d remember this line and maybe I could hold out! “If just one person refuses to bow down, refuses to give in…” Sheridan realizes he may die, but he keeps that belief against his captors. When asked, “But can you win”, he replies evenly, “every time I say no!” And even though we know he does not escape, we feel a sense of hope. He finds hope by imagining Delenn, his love. And he finds hope in fighting back. A great character!
Considering how relevant these last few episodes are, I figured I’d point out the one thing that struck me as believable in our real world. When Sheridan is hearing about his crimes, a “Senator Ross Fowler” is mentioned. The Interrogator says that the senator has nothing to do with Sheridan but the president has found him to be an annoyance, so why not frame him too. Wow… does that sound familiar? Moving on. I do love the philosophy about truth being subjective, and how a soldier accepts that the face of truth changes on a daily basis. Sheridan knows the words are being manipulated and the ideas are being skewed even though he’s being tortured. Here again, even though the interrogator makes sense, Sheridan knows that following orders does not mean doing so blindly. He will not give in! And I love that he won’t accept “the preeminent truth of our time: you cannot beat the system.” Because in the end, that’s what makes the episode. He stands strong against his captors and he beats them every time he says no, just one more time than they can say yes. ML
The view from across the pond:
When the Shadow War came to an end I suggested that whatever followed was inevitably going to be an anticlimax, and for about eight episodes that was exactly what happened. Over the last few episodes that just changed. I didn’t think that anything could top the drama of that war against a near-omnipotent foe, but I am glad to say that I was wrong about that, and that’s because I forgot about one important fact when it comes to drama. If you can’t top a big exciting story about a super-powered enemy with an even bigger story about an even more super-powered enemy, there is something else you can do instead. You can make it more personal.
This episode is a strong contender for the best episode of B5 ever made, but I use the word “best” with some trepidation. It is an utterly magnificent piece of work from all involved, but I wouldn’t describe it us enjoyable viewing as such. Seeing Sheridan tortured so effectively is fascinating, but not exactly fun.
It is an incredibly clever episode though, from a writer who thoroughly understands his subject matter. These are real world techniques: breaking down the body before breaking down the mind; the acceptance of small lies before bigger lies can be accepted; the recorded message that plays all night; time of day disorientation. All nasty stuff. The priority for the interrogator is not to discover information, although that is a factor, but to break Sheridan’s spirit to the point where he will make a full confession and become a broken man who can be used as an example.
I love an experimental episode of a long-running series, something that breaks the mould. This being virtually a two-hander certainly did that, with each scene in the episode an “intersection in real time” as the title suggests. Time passes between each scene, but apart from that there is no cutting; we are in real time for each individual scene. This was obviously going to live or die on the quality of the acting far more than any other episode. Bruce Boxleitner’s ability to come up with the goods was surely never in doubt, but the performance that really blew me away was Bruce Gray as the nameless interrogator. He does an amazing job, but of course a lot of the credit for his success has to go to JMS and also whoever did the casting. He looks like he might be an accountant or a clerk in another life. As JMS once said in an interview, he’s the “banal face of evil”. The following quote is from The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5:
“You look at most of the guys who ran Treblinka, or Bergen-Belsen, and they’re largely ordinary looking guys, who could be accountants or repair men or car salesmen. They’re us…and this was designed to remind us of that. The evil, mustache-twirling villain is too easy, and too far from the truth of it.”
Undoubtedly this is the key factor that makes this episode so great: the ability of somebody who is superficially just a boring everyman to do great evil, and to do so with shockingly clever manipulation. He had me fooled too. When it looked like the interrogator was trying to save Sheridan’s life and was moved by his failure to comply and what that meant for Sheridan, I believed it. The guy’s voice was cracking a little bit, as if he realised he had actually failed to save this man’s life. I bought it, and yet it was all a performance. Sheridan was never heading for an execution. Room 17 was simply another interrogation room, with another interrogator to take over the job. I didn’t see the Drazi’s part in the scheme coming either. Impressive… but I question the point of it.
I don’t pretend to know much about how this kind of thing would work in real life, but where do they go from here? Apart from there being no chance of winning his trust any more with the interrogator’s “honesty”, surely what has happened would give Sheridan hope, strengthen his resolve, and make him dig his heels in more than ever? If he wasn’t sure of one important fact before, now he must be in little doubt: his captors really don’t want to kill him. RP