I think this is the first episode of Babylon 5 that’s not lived up to my memories of it. I wouldn’t say the Suck Fairy’s done more than pop by it for a cup of tea, but the Meh Fairy seems to have settled in and put her feet up on the coffee table.
I’d remembered it as being an emotionally powerful journey, as Ivanova gradually came to terms with her father’s death and, to a certain extent, her own relationship with the religion of her childhood. It was interspersed with some pointless boxing subplot, but it was the sort of intense episode I wanted to deal with on its own, and maybe even hang some of my coalescing thoughts about religion and faith in the show off of.
But looking at it now, the Ivanova plot seems mechanical, while the fighting plot, for all of its own weaknesses, is a useful counterpoint to it. On the surface, the two of them are a meditation on the value of ritual; on a deeper level, they’re a compare-and-contrast study on friendship and influence.
It’s still not the intense story I remember from before, but there’s some food for thought here.
The episode opens with two men disembarking from the shuttle, talking to each other. One is a Classic Rabbi straight from Central Casting, a heavy, bearded man with a dark suit, a yarmulke, and an Eastern European accent. The other is broad-shouldered and muscular, even for the super-toned cast of this show.
Each of them has a friend on-station: Rabbi Koslov has known Ivanova since childhood, and Walker Smith is an old crony of Garibaldi’s. From this point on, the two stories run in parallel, with the usual layering of scenes to compare and contrast two subplots.
Rabbi Koslov has come to Babylon 5, ostensibly to give Ivanova her late father’s legacy. But what he really wants to do is help her to deal with her difficult relationship with him. Unfortunately, he goes about this in a deeply damaging way. Ivanova claims that one reason she did not go to the funeral or sit shiva for her father was lack of time off from work. Rabbi Koslov, showing less interpersonal perception than I would expect of a man whose job is people, takes this excuse at face value and sets out to solve it.
One of Ivanova’s problems with her father centers on control: she feels that he tried to run her life, and that one of the reasons he showed her too little love was that he disapproved of the choices she’d made. So when Koslov goes to Sinclair and arranges time off for her, she is furious. She stalks away from dinner with him.
In the meantime, Smith has been discussing his reasons with visiting Babylon 5 with Garibaldi. He was a professional boxer, but when he wouldn’t throw a title fight, the organizers framed him for drug use. He hears that there is an alien fight on the station—the Mutai—which no human has ever participated in. He wants to be the first to do so, in the hopes that the publicity will relaunch his career.
Smith goes to the dojo where participants in the Mutai practice, and makes an ass of himself, insulting the aliens and disrespecting what is for them an important ritual. The Muta-do, who runs whole thing, bans him from participating. Garibaldi is fine with this; he’s worried that Smith could be injured or killed in a fight with “no rounds, no rules, no gloves.”
Now both problems are set up; each character has a choice to make about a ritual. Neither is in the right state of mind to go through with it. Each gets a helpful intervention.
Caliban, one of the aliens from the dojo, takes Smith aside and offers to show him how to get into the Mutai, “but with respect. And it will require great courage.” Smith is keen, and goes off with Caliban.
Meanwhile, Sinclair summons Ivanova to his office. He offers condolences on her father’s death, and grants her indefinite leave to sit shiva. She refuses the leave. Sinclair emphasizes his professional and personal respect for her before trying to advise—but not compel—her:
Sinclair: You’re the best officer I’ve ever served with, Ivanova. I couldn’t run this station without you. But I also consider you a friend. And as your friend, I’m telling you, it does no good to bottle up your feelings. Your father’s dead. You need to express your grief or it’ll eat you up.
Ivanova: I appreciate your concern, Commander. And your friendship. But my feelings are my own, and how I display them, or not, is my choice. Now, if I may return to my duty?
Sinclair: Susan…before you make that choice, be sure you know what it is you’re really feeling.
Then focus shifts back to Smith. He’s got tickets for a Mutai fight that night, and wants Garibaldi to come with him. They go to the bout, which is as brutal as broadcast TV would let it be, I guess (which is to say, not very). There’s a phase in the ritual when the Muta-do throws open a challenge, and Smith takes it up. The fight is scheduled for three days hence. Both Garibaldi and the aliens watching the fight are angry at Smith: Garibaldi because he wants to protect his friend from injury, and the audience because they think this human is a disrespectful meddler.
Rabbi Koslov comes by Ivanova’s quarters to say goodbye and give her her father’s samovar, which is an heirloom from the days of the tsars. He asks again about sitting shiva, and Ivanova refuses. She explains the ways she felt that her father left her unloved, then blamed her for leaving him when she joined EarthForce. She is deeply upset, and unable to forgive. But then, when the rabbi is leaving the station, Ivanova remembers her father’s apology to her as he died. She decides to sit shiva after all.
Meanwhile, Smith is practicing for the fight under Caliban’s tutelage. Garibaldi and Caliban agree to stand as his seconds. Smith seems to have grasped a deeper meaning to the fight, and tries to explain it to his friend:
To be the best, you have to face the best. I could take Vesaro on crutches. But Gyor? He’s going to show me where my heart is. And maybe I’ll show him a little something, too.”
Ivanova goes to Sinclair and requests leave to sit shiva. Sinclair invites himself to it as a friend of the family, for which Ivanova is grateful.
The shiva scene is intercut with the fight; together they’re the climax of the episode. Ivanova tells a story from her adolescence, of a moment when she and her father were close. Meanwhile, Smith faces Gyor, the champion of the Mutai. The fight is closely balanced, and ends in a draw when neither participant can stand any more. Meanwhile Ivanova breaks into uncontrolled weeping after the mourning prayer.
The episode closes with both Rabbi Koslov and Walker Smith leaving the station, each with their own farewells from the people they leave behind.
On one level, this is an episode about rituals, about when they do and do not have value to us. Both Ivanova and Smith have to arrive at the right state of mind before they can participate in their very different rites. Smith is the less-prepared at the start of the episode, seeing the Mutai as less than a prize fight (because he cares what happens in a prize fight). Ivanova, at least, knows the value of sitting shiva—she simply does not want to go into that emotional territory.
There are other similarities as well: both Smith and Ivanova do these things in the presence of strangers, detached from all but one or two people whom they know and trust. (I get the feeling that Rabbi Koslov scraped together the other participants from the station’s Jewish community; none of them seemed at all close to Ivanova.) But most importantly in each case, when the participants are ready, the ritual is a profoundly transformative experience. Neither Ivanova nor Smith will be the same after that day. Old damage has been healed, and new possibilities opened up.
But there’s another facet to the episode that interests me. I don’t know that it’s intentional, but the episode is a philosophical statement about friendships, one we should think about as the series unfolds. What do the writers value in friendship?
If I may be permitted a brief digression: during my year abroad in Scotland, there was a time when I was dating N, a lovely fellow, while in love with someone else. (I am not proud of this.) The someone else, J, was gay. But he loved me back, and we wrestled for months with these complex and agonizing emotions, as only twenty year olds can.
Though N was a good guy, I did myself profound and unhelpful damage with him. Meanwhile, the product of all of the to-ing and fro-ing with J was the emotional readiness to form a lifelong bond, which I did shortly afterward. As J said once, “N is good to you, but he is not good for you. I, meanwhile, am not good to you, not at all. But I am clearly good for you. I only wish you could find someone who was both good to you and good for you.”*
Garibaldi tries to dissuade Smith from participating in the Mutai, because he’s concerned that his friend will get hurt. But the bout is a way out of a trap for Smith, not just professionally but personally. Garibaldi’s concern for his physical wellbeing isn’t, in the end, helpful. Garibaldi is good to Smith, but he is not good for him.
Rabbi Koslov, meanwhile, is so keen to get Ivanova to sit shiva for her father that he overrides the two things she values most: her privacy and her independence. Had she wanted Sinclair to know of her father’s death, she would have told him. And arranging time off for her behind her back is deeply creepy. But his intervention helps her in the end, opening up her friendship with Sinclair and forcing her to confront how much pain she’s in. Koslov is not good to Ivanova, but he is good for her.
And Sinclair? Although he’s cursed with a paternalistic voice, his intervention in Ivanova’s emotional life is explicitly based on his esteem for her. He advises her, but respects her agency and her emotional barriers. And when she needs him at the end of the shiva, he’s there. He’s both good to her and good for her.
(The other thing I noticed in this episode was Ivanova’s unfailing good manners. Even when she’s running away from the restaurant table in tears, she asks Rabbi Koslov to “please excuse” her. When she’s almost incoherently upset, she still thanks him for bringing the samovar. It’s a nice and telling piece of characterization; she’s clearly used formal manners as a shield until they have become second nature.)
* I did. And, Reader, I married him.
The next entry will look at Grail.
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Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.