Ostensibly, this is a “story arc” episode, where the consequences of past choices come back to haunt the crew of Babylon 5. Having sent Bester about his business in Mind War, reinterpreted the Rush Act in By Any Means Necessary, and—as Garibaldi says—rewritten the rulebook repeatedly in recent episodes, Sinclair has powerful enemies looking for revenge. This is when they try to take it, in the form of that kind of grubby political assassination that disguises itself as a routine enquiry.
Multiple threads from previous episodes all come together in the plot. The investigator, Ari Ben Zayn, turns out to subscribe to the same theory of secret Minbari allegiance that Knight One and Knight Two did in And the Sky Full of Stars. Sinclair is questioned about the Raghesh 3 incident from Midnight on the Firing Line, the Deathwalker affair, and the sabotage in Survivors as well as the way he ended the strike in By Any Means Necessary. It looks like all the chickens are coming home to roost.
But I wasn’t impressed with this episode in that context. It’s not so much that the attempt to unseat Sinclair fails. The real problem is that there are no new threads leading forward into the next conflict. None of the recurring characters changes, in position or in personality, because of the events that occur. Everyone is right where they were when the action started. The command crew keep their positions. EarthGov remains divided about Babylon 5 and the aliens. Bester still lurks in the shadows. Life goes on.
Having said that, I think this episode did have a number of thematic and character-related aspects that are worth dwelling on.
I’m not going to do a detailed plot summary here. The short version is that an EarthForce officer, Colonel Ari Ben Zayn, and Harriman Grey, his PsiCorps adjunct, are sent to Babylon 5 to investigate Sinclair’s command history and check the crew’s loyalty to EarthForce. It becomes clear that they are actually on a witch hunt, instigated by Bester and by Sinclair’s enemies in EarthGov, and intend to use Grey to probe for evidence. Ivanova, refusing to be scanned, considers resigning her commission. Sinclair challenges PsiCorps’ involvement in the investigation and, when that doesn’t work, gets Grey to scan Ben Zayn as well. Grey, seeing that the investigation is not an honest one, takes the Babylon 5 crew’s side, and the mission is shut down. In the meantime, Lennier helps Garibaldi to build a 1990’s motorcycle.
The most interesting thing to me is what we see of Ivanova in the story. This is when her profound weaknesses as an officer come to the fore. She’s many things: a competent leader, a good fighter pilot, a dedicated administrator, and a fiercely loyal team player. But she’s really not a people person, and that costs the command crew in this episode. Harriman Grey does everything but fall at her feet in an ecstasy of puppy love, but she can’t see past her own fear and anger to the opportunity that presents. It would have been trivially easy for her to turn him against Ben Zayn before events escalated, but she leaves that kind of thing to Sinclair. This draws out and intensifies the conflict, which, though good television, is bad command tactics.
This is also the episode where Ivanova breaks, in the sense that Garibaldi broke in Survivors—and the way she did not in TKO. And there’s material for some interesting comparison between the two characters in the way this plays out.
Their breakpoints are the same: the loss of their careers. Garibaldi was framed for sabotage and stripped of his position. Ivanova sees the choice between allowing herself to be psionically scanned and resigning her commission, and for her there is no choice. Sinclair manages to talk her down once, but she’s quick to despair again:
Ivanova: I won’t submit to a scan.
Garibaldi: He’ll charge you with insubordination.
Ivanova: And I’ll be replaced, and dishonorably discharged. It’s a very Russian ending. I should have expected it.
Both of them turn to drink when everything seems hopeless. Now, alcohol is an interesting revealer of personality, both in real life and in fiction. And the two of them come out very differently when they’ve had a few. Garibaldi, who’s kind of a professional misanthrope, turns out to be a chummy drunk. And that rings true, because there are scenes when he’s sober that expose his friendly side as well (for instance, inviting Delenn over for popcorn and cartoons). But the veritas of vino yields no equivalent warmth in Ivanova; it merely moves her self-defensive aggression1 from the verbal to the physical.
The episode also gives some insight into how she’s become who she is. She describes being raised by a telepath:
You can’t imagine what it’s like. To share your own mother’s love for you? To feel it in your thoughts? No one’s ever been that close to me, Commander.
Before PsiCorps intervened, Ivanova’s mother created an experience of love that no non-telepath3 could reproduce. Even leaving aside the side-effects of the psi-suppression drugs, her mother’s suicide, her brother’s death and her father’s failures of affection, Susan Ivanova was destined be lonely. What kind of romantic relationship could stand up to the memory of feeling unconditional love inside her own head?
When I first watched Babylon 5, I wanted to grow up to be like Ivanova. I still admire her passion and her strength of character, but seeing this episode again causes me to reconsider that ambition.
Ivanova’s failings are highlit by the fact that her antagonist, Harriman Grey, is interesting and well-drawn. He’s a powerful reminder that the best plots are not created by setting good against evil, but by setting it against another, different good. Because despite being a member of an unsavory organization and the tool of unscrupulous men, Grey is unambiguously good, as earnest and as honest as the hero of a Heinlein juvenile. And despite Ivanova’s violently expressed dislike of him (“I’ll twist your head off and use it as a chamber pot!”), he repeatedly tries to reconcile her to being scanned rather than throw her career away.
In the end, it’s Grey who tilts the balance of the conflict. My favorite moment in the entire episode is a brief shot of him sitting, hand against his temple, watching Sinclair goad Ben Zayn into revealing the real motivation behind the investigation. And once he reads Ben Zayn, he doesn’t hesitate to choose sides: he accuses his commander of lying, calls his ambition “filthy”, and uses psionic power as a weapon against him.
In contrast to the collision between Ivanova and Grey, the conflict between Sinclair and Ben Zayn is much more crudely drawn. Ben Zayn is a strawman authoritarian, a caricature of military command. He tests people like an enemy (offering Garibaldi a drink) and barks orders at the bridge crew. He uses words like “sack time” and demands prompt responses and short sleep. One can’t picture him dealing sympathetically with a subrdinate’s refusal to be scanned.
Sinclair, meanwhile, continues to be wise, controlled and clever. First he tries his usual tactic, making an end-run around rules that get in his way by quoting a different, more useful rule. But when that fails, he becomes the personified contrast to Ben Zayn’s authoritarian approach, a kind of canonical collborative leader. Because if the essence of authoritarianism is an expectation of unquestioning obedience from subordinates, then its opposite is an encouragement of independent action by them. And that’s what Sinclair does with Grey: he essentially steals him from Ben Zayn’s command, encourages him to consider both sides of the conflict equally, and lets him make his own choice. Of course, Sinclair is then proved right and Ben Zayn not just wrong but crazy.
This cartoonish clash between insane ambition and measured cooperation underlines my growing problem with Sinclair as a character. He simply does not make mistakes, get things wrong, or doubt himself. His reaction to the investigation is typical: he has no fear that Ben Zayn will find any instances of bad judgement, fleeting inattention, or simple human error. Everything he does has been perfect and is defensible. It’s of a piece with his unfailing wisdom and compassion in interpersonal matters, all delivered in a soothing and avuncular voice.
See, I’m doing a busy and complicated job right now, though it’s several orders of magnitude less judgemental and all-consuming than Sinclair’s. And I know I’m doing well at it. But I also know that if someone came looking at my work in detail, they’d find plenty of places where I dropped the ball, or prioritized the wrong thing, or simply made a mistake. In the light of that, Sinclair’s confidence that his successes aren’t similarly granular strikes me as either glib or deluded. In any case, it undermines the already fragile realism of his character.
I’m not sure if Sinclair is a Gary Stu or simply cardboard. I don’t know enough about JMS to tell. What I do know is that I am increasingly treating him as part of the set or the setting rather than a real character in his own right. At this point, he’s as reliable, as unchanging, and as predictable as the computer on the Enterprise.
This doesn’t damage his value to the greater plot. The mystery around his time in Minbari custody is interesting for what it will reveal about them, even if I don’t expect it to make him one whit more fallible. But it disappoints me. I wanted to be interested in Sinclair as well as the other characters.
So in the end, I found this episode deeply unsatisfying. The realistic characterization showed me that my favorite character isn’t the person I thought she was, and the unrealistic characterization finally damaged my suspension of disbelief to the point where I had to find a workaround. And the plot gets under my skin, too: surely Ben Zayn knew that the Minbari would not accept him as a substitute for Sinclair. Absent actual detachment from consensus reality, how could he seriously discount the probability that they would unseat him from his newly stolen command?
Although I had a mixed reaction to the main plot, I did find the motorcycle subplot adorable. Lennier’s deep geekery is a treasure and a delight4, from his research into the history of the vehicle (“sexual prowess and rebellion…?”) to his use of “domo arigato” after spending too long reading the Japanese manual. Even the inevitable “old stuff that’s contemporaneous with the show’s production date” trope5 doesn’t diminish the charm.
- I’m not, by the way, disputing that Ivanova is provoked in the bar brawl. There are significant, gendered 2 differences in the ways the people around the two characters act in the two episodes, and that does influence their behavior. But a sober Ivanova can cut someone dead by counting; violence is clearly a choice.
- I’m not digging far into the ways in which Ivanova’s characterization is tied to her gender because it’s handled well. She’s emotional about being scanned, but none of her colleagues lose respect for her for the way she expresses it. And she’s violent when she’s physically confronted, but she’s by no means out of control when Garibaldi confronts her.
Ivanova: Are you going to arrest me, Garibaldi?
Garibaldi: No way. I want to live to see the future. I just want to talk with you. And reason with you. Recite a few choice passages from my favorite reading for as long as it takes.
Ivanova: You don’t play fair. I surrender.
- I’ll be watching some of the later events with Talia Winters with new eyes.
- I really must get over the pain I feel every time Lennier charms me. I wish I could forget that closed door.
- Gary Seven to the blue courtesy phone, please
The next entry will discuss Legacies
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Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.