Babylon 5: The Quality of Mercy

Mal: But it ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.
River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.
Mal: Love. You can know all the math in the ‘Verse, but take a boat in the air you don’t love and she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down. Tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her home.

Love isn’t how you feel. It’s what you do.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeline L’Engle

Love is a difficult word, whether it’s applied to ships or to people. Taken at face value, it’s too big, too intimate, and too demanding. So we narrow it down, corral it into specific contexts so that we can tame it and make it safe. If love is only about romance, or if it’s just that gooey thing some Christians say before they hate the sin, then it won’t cost us too much.

But though we hide from it, love is part of how people interact. The work of love, the contribution of one’s time and energy for the good of others, goes on all the time. Sadly, so does its opposite, the soaking-up and stealing of that energy by people with no intention of recompense. This episode is a good example. It’s about people who define themselves by what they give, those who are characterized by what they take, and what happens when the two collide. And it’s about the subtle, ephemeral alliance of the generous that makes Babylon 5, or any community, work. Makes it home.

Structurally, it’s a classic A/B plot episode. There’s a main, serious thread and a minor, humorous one. In this case, they don’t cross over or mirror one another structurally. But they’re both about giving and taking, generosity and selfishness, and the unexpected things that happen when you cross those streams.

The major storyline is a studied contrast between a healer and a killer. The healer in question is former doctor Laura Rosen, who is running an unlicensed clinic in Downbelow with the assistance of her daughter Janice. The clinic comes to Dr. Franklin’s attention because it’s drawing patients from his equally off-the-books operation. Rosen is using an unknown alien device1 to cure a variety of ills. Franklin suspects that she’s a fraud, in business for whatever she can get from her patients. His first guess is money, but she doesn’t have specific prices for her treatments. Because she lets people pay “whatever they can afford” into a donation box by the door, she doesn’t even use social pressure to increase her income.

Having eliminated a financial motive, he investigates further. He still suspects that, under the guise of giving them health, Rosen is taking something from her patients. Janice’s story about how her mother lost her medical license after becoming addicted to stims seems like a good lead. He doesn’t think Rosen is still taking the drugs, but he knows they were merely a tool to further her real addiction: the feeling of making people better. It’s a hunger that he shares2, so he knows the signs.

Although he understands Rosen’s desire to heal people, he’s still concerned that her patients won’t seek proper care while she’s treating them with the alien device. And no amount of sympathy for her position will excuse that for him. Getting her fix of feeling like a healer at the expense of others’ wellbeing is still a form of exploitation. It’s only when he reviews her patients’ files and sees that they are really being cured that he begins to treat her not as a threat, but as a colleague. Then he scans her as she uses the machine, and confirms that she’s giving her own “life energy”3 to cure her patients4.

The episode spends less time establishing that her counterweight in the plot is as much a taker as she is a giver. Karl Edward Mueller is convicted of three murders, but Garibaldi suspects that he’s guilty of more than that. And Talia confirms it, finding that he treasures the memories of many more victims in his mind. In a context where the only thing of real value we have to give one another is ourselves, a multiple murderer is the ultimate thief.

The penalty for murder is the “death of personality”, where the killer is mindwiped and given a new persona that will happily spend his life “serving the community [he] damaged with [his] crimes.” It’s a creepy way of turning a taker into a giver, but the episode presents it as an improvement on execution.5 Mueller, faced with this sentence, escapes custody. But he’s shot as he does, and winds up Downbelow looking for treatment. Naturally, he finds his way to Rosen’s clinic and takes Janice hostage.

So what happens when the ultimate taker meets the selfless giver? She treats him, until she realizes that Mueller will kill her, her daughter, and Dr. Franklin as soon as he’s cured. Then she reverses the polarity of the alien machine to take all of Mueller’s life force into herself. It kills him, and cures the chronic illness she was dying of. But it destroys her, too:

I’ve taken a life, in direct violation of my oath as a doctor. I’m free of pain. I’m free from Lake’s Syndrome. They say I may live another 20 or 30 years. But I do so at the expense of a man’s life. No, Doctor, I’m not all right. I may never be all right again.

The minor plot is another transformative collision between a giver and a taker. Despite his generosity in a few earlier episodes, Londo really does see most interactions in terms of what he can get out of them. He fastens onto Lennier, both because his homeworld has ordered him to “forge good relations” with possible allies, and because he thinks he can cadge drinks off of him for a few days. Londo is an experienced mooch, and continually uses the language of a giver to mask how much he’s imposing on his companion.

Lennier: I am not sure this is a good idea.
Londo: Nonsense! I’m perfectly happy to inconvenience myself for your benefit.
Lennier: But Ambassador, this place…
Londo: Amazing, yes? Here, my friend, you will see the heart and soul of Babylon 5. Also its spleen, its kidneys…a veritable parade of internal organs.6

Lennier is, of course, the perfect patsy, transparent as window glass and trusting everyone to be the same. Londo takes advantage first of his credit chit, then of his mastery of probability in “the ultimate means of interstellar understanding”: poker. And when Londo’s cheating gets them both into a fight, Lenneir turns out to be an impressive martial artist as well.

But this encounter is, in its lightweight way, a turning point as well. Simple, honest Lennier takes the blame for the bar fight, lying to shield Londo.

I was unfamiliar with the rules of conduct in these places, and through error, created offense. Through offense, I created the incident.

This generosity, which is not the gormless vulnerability of a naïf, but rather the chosen action of a controlled man, breaks through Londo’s cynicism.

Londo: Why?
Lennier: In Minbari culture, we are taught that it is an honor to help another to save face.
Londo: But Delenn…
Lennier: Will know better, but will not enquire out of respect. Good day, Ambassador.
Londo: Lennier. Thank you. If you ever need anything from me…

(Although Lennier seems to claim an explanation for Londo’s tentacles as his reward7, it’s clear that both of them regard it as a greater, more durable obligation, as much the product of camaraderie as a debt.)

In addition to the two storylines, this episode also has a couple of smaller interactions that are worth highlighting. They give us a glimpse of the community of givers whose generosity with each other, more than rules or duty, makes the station run.

In the opening scene, Ivanova tracks Dr. Franklin to his clinic and takes him to task, not for starting it, but for doing so without telling her about it.

Look, I don’t mind if you bend the rules a little, Doctor. You know I bend a few myself. But I do like to be informed. If I’m going to share in the blame, I’d at least like to share in the fun.

Franklin immediately gets her washing her hands and rolling up her sleeves to help with the clinic work. She protests, but with a smile, and yields with what looks like real pleasure.

And during the discussion of Mueller’s sentence, Talia indicates that the telepath’s role in the death of personality is painful and taxing.

There’s a lot of demand [for telepaths trained for criminal cases], but not much motivation. It’s stressful. We burn out fast.

Both the Ombuds and Sinclair respect that. The Ombuds’ demeanor as he asks if he can “count on” Talia is that of a man asking a difficult favor of a respected colleague, not one giving an order. And his trust and esteem are clearly part of what makes her accept the job.

This episode isn’t one of the dramatic ones. Characters don’t willingly risk their lives for one another, or make great sacrifices and world-changing choices. (That will come.) But the very ordinariness of the situation places a greater value on the mutual respect and generosity that holds the community that runs the station together. Because it’s the quiet times, the undramatic moments when people act without momentum or endorphins, that truly test their ability to give of themselves reliably and consistently. That’s when the Babylon 5 crew—and all of us—do love.

– o0o –

The episode also includes a couple of funny lines I have to quote, even if they aren’t about the work of love:

Lennier: My people do not react well at all to alcohol. Even a small quantity causes psychotic impulses and violent, homicidal rages.

Sinclair: I’m still waiting for an explanation.
Londo: I am prepared to give you one, Commander, as soon as the room stops spinning.
Sinclair: This station creates gravity by rotation. It never stops spinning.
Londo: You begin to see my problem, hm?

  1. Like so many alien devices in science fiction, it turns out to be a variety of Metaphor Concretizer.
  2. Later in the series, he gets to share the stim addiction too.
  3. Whatever that is. We find out later that it’s made up of tendrils of white light.
  4. See? Metaphor Concretizer.
  5. The episode was partly intended to provoke discussion about the death penalty. I’m happy to host such a discussion, even though I was more interested in writing about something else.
  6. OK, I should have cut that quote down to just what proved my point. But I love that line.
  7. “I am going to take a vow of silence about this whole conversation.”

The next writeup will cover Chrysalis, the last episode in Season One.

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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8 Responses to Babylon 5: The Quality of Mercy

  1. PrivateIron says:

    Londo’s ahem appendage looks a lot like the mind sucker monster from an earlier episode. A further layer to his neurosis during that crisis?

  2. PrivateIron @1:

    You’re right. And it would certainly explain why the Centauri are so very freaked out by the critters.

  3. Abi @2: wow, a literalization of the Penisauruses from Flesh Gordon? Creepy.

    This episode led directly to the excellent Bob Kanefsky parody, Six Transit Genitalia Centauri, which is funnier if you know the tune but still hilarious as poetry, and contains much fanon as well as canon.

  4. Fade Manley says:

    I haven’t gotten to this episode on the rewatch yet–must correct that!–but it’s one of the ones I remember clearly. Mostly because I love Lennier to pieces, but also because the machine was sitting there being Hello I’m A Metaphor! in a way that I found more interesting than annoying. (I’m usually not a big fan of blatant Metaphor Machines, because I keep getting distracted from the science by the neon sign over fiction, but this one mostly worked for me. Until it came back later, dammit, but I’m not sure if I should go into that here, because it’s very spoiler territory for season 4.)

    Anyway. Where I was going with the digression on the machine, honest, is that it’s an interesting little take on the difference between personal love and general love, to draw a clumsy distinction. On a personal level, Janice’s killing of that man was an act of love: love for her daughter, for herself, against a threatening force. It was right. And yet, she quite honestly has a love for humanity in the abstract, and in the less abstract representation of individuals. Even monstrous people are still people, and so she set one love against another, and one had to give in.

    Which means you’re broken, either way, given a choice like that. Knowing that the bad option you picked was the “better” and “moral” and “justified” one doesn’t keep it from being a bad option. I didn’t quite understand that, the first time I watched this episode. I had a vague sort of sense that, yes, a doctor would be upset at having killed someone, but wasn’t she overreacting a bit? She’d made the right choice! Everything turned out better for everyone!

    …except, really, it was a betrayal. Having to choose between one love and another still means you’ve broken something, whichever you pick. I just didn’t get at the time that respect for humanity-in-the-abstract really did mean respecting it in every individual representation, however horrible the individual was. That’s the sort of thing I’m getting better at thinking about as I get older. (Alas, it makes moral quandaries harder to solve, not easier. Alas for the razor-sharp clarity of youth…)

  5. Fade @4:

    I think she feels bad not just because she killed Mueller, but because at the moment she did so, she hated him. Also, because he died suffering all the symptoms of her Lake’s Syndrome. So she remembers both inflicting a disease on someone and being happy that she did so.

    It’s a grief that won’t leave her, either, because every day that she feels healthy and whole, she’ll remember that it’s because she betrayed her principles and killed a man with her disease.

    In time, perhaps, she’ll come to see the cost to herself as another form of sacrifice, and come full circle. Better that she take this damage than that her daughter and Dr. Franklin die. But redemption through some other great discovery would be easier.

    (And I adore Lennier too, which is why all the episodes with him make me so sad. Speaking of betrayal of principles and a quest for redemption.)

  6. Fade Manley says:

    Abi @5: In time, perhaps, she’ll come to see the cost to herself as another form of sacrifice, and come full circle.

    …huh. Now that’s a concept I need to think about for a bit. It’s not quite the same as the shorthand that’s sometimes used in fiction where the protagonist does some necessary evil, and then feels guilty about it, and the narrative implies that means it’s okay: they’ve felt guilty, so there, that’s punishment enough, scales are balanced again. “Another form of sacrifice” is a different sort of idea about how to deal with choosing between two bad options, and I’m not quite sure how, yet. But it is different, and not just in phrasing.

  7. Fade @6:

    You’re right, it’s not the same as a protagonist’s guilt paying for their crime.

    I was thinking that the loss of her honor, of that piece her nature as a healer, was another form of giving. It was another kind of life force she donated to others. Instead of giving physical health to help them, she gave mental health.

    That can be a black hole in real life, of course; there’s always more demand for our energies than there are spoons to fill it. (I am ironically aware of the emotional drain I’m being on Twitter about N2S and the timing of this comment.)

    But I think for a character who does give of themselves as part of their self-definition, there’s an interesting plot opportunity in sacrificing one’s self-identity for others. A bit circular, perhaps, but one could do some powerful plotting with it.

  8. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: 1×21 "The Quality of Mercy" | ***Dave Does the Blog

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