The most interesting thing happens in this, the 20th episode of season 4 of Babylon 5. The battle to take back Earth is resolved.
This is another edge-of-the-seat episode. Marcus is on the White Star, mourning the inevitable loss of Ivanova, who was mortally injured in the last episode. Garibaldi, Stephen, Lyta and Number 1 are on Mars helping to load up the Shadow-enhanced telepaths to use in the final assault. And Sheridan is about to lead the final strike on Earth. It’s exciting, tense, and damned good storytelling.
JMS still manages to have a little fun even during this supremely tense episode and I respect that. Humor has its place as long as it’s not overshadowing the story. I enjoyed the Snow White nicknames of the group, especially making Garibaldi “Grumpy”. Garibaldi’s confusion about longitude and latitude also made me laugh. But the best laugh I had was from Marcus. When he mentions that there might be something on the station to help Susan, Lennier’s “no” is too quick and too certain for his liking. “That was fast! Hit by divine revelation, were we?” I laughed out loud, because Marcus delivers the line with such venom.
As it should be, the humor is sprinkled on very lightly because this is not a funny episode. It’s the end of a battle: a battle to take back what was lost and to bring back decency and ethics to a world gone mad. This leads to another of John Sheridan’s great speeches. This series has a surprising number of outstanding speeches but this one resonates more now than ever before:
This is Captain John Sheridan. We are here on the authority of a multi-planetary force, that can no longer stand by and watch one of their greatest allies falling into darkness and despair. We are here on behalf of the thousands of civilians murdered under orders from the current administration, who have no one else to speak for them, and on behalf of the EarthForce units that have joined us to oppose the tyranny that has darkened Earth, ever since President Santiago was assassinated three years ago. We are here to place President Clark under arrest, to disband Nightwatch, and return our government to the hands of her people. We know that many in the government have wanted to act, but have been intimidated by threats of retaliation against your families, your friends. You are not alone anymore. We call upon you to rise up and do what’s right! We have drawn their forces away from Earth and disabled them. The time to act is now! This is not the voice of treason. These are your sons, your daughters, whose loyalties have never wavered, whose beliefs in this alliance has forced us to take extraordinary means! For justice, for peace, for the future…we have come home!
Those last words are the hope that Babylon 5 was all about: the last, best hope. Sure, it’s one of the biggest quotes, but the irony is that this episode has another at the extreme end of the spectrum, between Sheridan and Delenn. A total of seven words:
John: “Delenn, we need you!”
Delenn: “We are there!”
And for at least the second time, Delenn comes in to help John win the day. (Though I still prefer her last entry to the quote list when she comes to John’s aid!)
Getting ISN back as a real news station was nice. The propaganda machine generated by Clark is finally able to be shut down. Clark himself, ever the coward, commits suicide rather than face up to his actions. He leaves a message about a scorched earth hidden in a message about ordinary man’s ascension. Is this something similar to Cartagia’s belief in ascension or more likely a reference to destroying a world where ordinary man is a dying breed, being replaced by Telepaths? I’m not sure we need to know. Clark is gone, and sanity can return to Earth. “Welcome home, John!”
The episode has one more thing to discuss: Marcus. Marcus pulls up records in the hopes of finding something that might save Susan. 6 records are found, and he starts watching them; we need only 3 to find the right stuff. The first is a reference to the singer, Cailyn James, he fell in love with in Walkabout. He comes to another referring to Marcus sustaining severe injuries. Then he comes to the reference to the healing machine, first introduced at the tail end of Season 1 in The Quality of Mercy. On it’s own, the final reference is the one to be interested in because he finds a way of saving Susan and from a writing perspective, we applaud JMS for setting that up 3 seasons earlier. But it might escape our notice just how good the writing is at this point and it’s this sort of thing that made me a fan because Straczynski writes for those fans who enjoy thinking about what they are watching and that is extemely rewarding. See, that first entry has to do with a woman Franklin loved. Marcus is searching for a way to save the woman he loves. The most likely reason for the second recording is the episode Neroon nearly kills Marcus; an episode where Marcus was willing to lay down his life for a woman (Delenn). The final entry gives him his answer. Rewarding indeed! We are left on a small cliffhanger: the war is over, but is this the end for Marcus too? Will he save Susan and die in the process, or will someone get there to save him before it’s too late? His final words, “I love you” as he fades to sleep over Susan’s body will make this a long week indeed! ML
The view from across the pond:
The title of this episode is a term that generally refers to the final stages of a game of chess, when few pieces are remaining on the board. One of those pieces, standing between Sheridan and the liberation of Earth, is his old Academy teacher, General Robert Lefcourt. He is unmoving in his belief that following orders is the only thing that matters for a soldier, and the absurdity of that position is made clear by his speech to his troops:
“You are to forget that these people were once friends, associates and fellow officers.”
If that order isn’t a problem, then the words “soldier” and “human” become mutually exclusive. But despite that there are no defections during this episode until Clark himself is dead. Sheridan doesn’t need them in the end, because he has an “ace in the hole”. That ace is Lyta, who activates the Shadow-modified telepaths, and JMS remains true to his shades-of-grey approach to a war story right to the end. Sheridan has always been a flawed hero (the only interesting kind), and here he does something that is morally questionable: uses people as weapons. It is Franklin who has to answer that moral question on behalf of Sheridan, and he does it well. Without the resources available on Earth, those telepaths are doomed, so they are fighting for their lives without knowing it. But importantly that line of thinking only works when you consider them as a race, or a collective. They might save more of their “people” but they certainly aren’t going to save themselves. Once they are “activated” on those ships there’s only one way to stop them. Either those ships are going to be destroyed, or the crews of the ships are going to find a way to kill the telepaths. So on an individual level they are being turned into weapons, with certain death ahead of them… unless they can avoid destruction and kill everyone on board, in which case Sheridan has created another, potentially even more deadly problem. He might just have created the Borg. Other than that, I just can’t reach a definitive conclusion on the issue, and that means it’s a powerful moral dilemma. The biggest ethical issues never have easy answers.
One thing’s for sure, this was an incredibly exciting episode. It was certainly the most exciting episode of Babylon 5 so far, and one of the most exciting episodes of any sci-fi series, full stop. You know how you get to the final few minutes of an episode and everything kicks off and accelerates towards an exciting conclusion? This was an entire episode of that. It was incredibly fast-moving. It was clearly the big finale to a long-running story, but oddly we are on episode 20, with two still to go. Then again, JMS never has paced his seasons in any kind of a traditional pattern. Earlier this series we had a similar big moment with the conclusion of the Shadow War, in episode 6 of all places.
But what a final battle this was. The insane dictator turning his weapons on his own planet was not something I saw coming, and it cranked up the tension to eleven. The resolution was poetic. Firstly the League ships came to the rescue of Earth, those aliens feared so much by the xenophobic humans who supported Clark’s regime. There is a beautiful symmetry in how the whole story of Babylon 5 can be traced back to the Minbari war (although it was generally shown to us in flashback), with the Minbari fleet threatening to attack Earth, and in the end the Minbari do turn up at Earth… to save the planet. Then we had Sheridan’s life being saved by his old teacher, who had only changed sides when the regime issuing his orders no longer existed, rendering those orders irrelevant. I loved Sheridan’s little dig at Lefcourt about that:
“Well my apologies General. We were only doing our jobs.”
And then, like all the best writers, JMS takes a big exciting storyline and then boils it down to an emotional, personal level: the ISN reporter returning to work, and Marcus quietly giving his life for the woman he loves. After nearly four whole seasons I finally understand why JMS is considered such a genius. But for the second time this season I find myself asking the question: where can he possibly go from here? RP