Babylon 5 came about by working on two different ideas for series. One was a vast, galaxy-spanning, huge show following the rise and fall of empires. The other show in the back of my head was about a small space station, and people trapped in a tin can, as it were, having to deal with each other in a closed environment. Both far in the future. And I realized: no, these are the same story.
In many ways, my view of the season finale mirrors my feelings about the entire first season of Babylon 5. It has good bits, but it’s not on fire the way that later seasons are. The JMS quote above is a good explanation of the problem: it’s two shows at once, and it takes a while for them to grow into an organic whole.
This episode is particularly problematic. It’s supposed to carry a lot of emotional impact, but I found it mixed at best. It contains enormously significant events: the destruction of the Narn base in Quadrant 37 and the assassination of President Santiago. But they struck me as shallow, pointless, and rather grey. And it’s not that the show doesn’t try hard to sell them. Na’Toth’s shock and the bridge crew’s stunned silence are well-depicted. But I found it difficult to care and easy to be distracted by, for instance, the rather dated rendering of EarthForce One’s destruction.
But leaving aside the big historical happenings, there were smaller, interpersonal events that mattered more to me: Sinclair missing the chance to speak to Delenn before the cocoon is complete, Garibaldi’s shooting, Londo’s realization that he has betrayed principles he did not even know he had. This “second series” that JMS conceived of in his head carries the episode, where his attempt to give the epic the weight it needs fails.
A lot of the problem, of course, is that the plot has lost its suspense for me. I’ve seen the rest of the show, though I don’t recall all the details. I know that Garibaldi survives. I know that the guard who shot him stays in the security team like a worm in an apple. I know that all the menacing notes in Clarke’s initial speech really are flags of the bad times to come. I know what Delenn turns into.
What interested me about the episode, what worked for me, was not the points where the characters are left hanging off of a narrative cliff. It’s the moments where they have already lost their grip and fallen, watching the edge recede from their outstretched fingers, and are beginning to contemplate the ground that is rushing to meet them.
The obvious example of this, of course, is Londo. He is as he has been throughout the season: ambitious but frustrated, wryly aware of his own weaknesses, caught in what a human would call a mid-life crisis.
There comes a time when you look into the mirror, and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. Then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking into mirrors.
It is at this moment of weakness that Morden makes his offer: his “associates” will take care of Quadrant 37. All Londo has to do is take the credit and owe them a favor. Morden sells Londo on the plan with the line, “If it’s hopeless, then there’s no harm in trying, is there?” It’s the deal the devil always makes with the down and out.
Londo knows there’s something wrong even before Vir has called Centauri Prime with his message. He makes himself a drink, but then pours the glass back into the bottle. And when the truth comes out, he’s horrified, the way one is at one’s first grave sin.
Londo: What have you done?
Morden: Only what you asked me to do. You had a problem with Quadrant 37. We took care of it.
Londo: But you killed ten thousand Narn.
Morden: I didn’t know you cared. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million…what’s the difference? They’re Narns, Ambassador. Your sworn enemy.
Londo: I know, but…I didn’t think…I thought that you might find a way to protect our ships, or cripple their forces, not…
Morden: Ambassador, your name is being spoken at the highest levels of the Centauri government. They don’t know how you did it. They credit you with saving them embarrassment without creating another war in the process. They’ve noticed you, Ambassador, which was the point of the exercise. I hear they have great plans for you.
Londo: Yes, but ten thousand! In cold blood?
Morden: Ambassador, you’re a hero. Enjoy it. I’ll be around.
It’s touching that the next time we see Londo, he’s joining Ivanova to watch over Garibaldi’s surgery.
If you don’t mind, I would like to wait with you. He is an annoying man, but I would miss him if he…
That trailing-off is a telling delicacy. With a few more deaths under his belt, Londo will be able to finish the sentence. The second transgression is always easier than the first. And Morden knows this.
When the time is right Ambassador Mollari will do exactly as we wish.
Another turning point is G’Kar, whose stubbornness pushes Londo too far. Sinclair sees it happening, and tries to warn him:
I’ve had this feeling lately, that we’re standing at a crossroads. And I don’t like where we’re going. But there’s still time to choose another path. You can be part of that, G’Kar. Choose wisely. Not just for the Centauri, but for the good of your own people as well.
Of course, by this point in the episode, Londo has already accepted Morden’s help. I thought at first that it would have been subtly better plotting to have this scene come before the one in the labyrinth, as though G’Kar could somehow forestall Londo’s choice. That way Sinclair would have been telling the factual truth when he said there was still time to choose another path. But ordering the episode as he does, JMS makes Sinclair’s line resonate with a deeper truth: the path G’Kar must choose is not about the Narn base, but about how he will react to the provocations and stresses of the times to come.
That choice, G’Kar still has to make when Sinclair speaks to him. And although he has his great turning later on, his calm evaluation of the situation now, his ability to deduce the existence of the Shadows, is a turning point as well. (Contrast it to his uncontrolled fury over the G’Quan Eth plant, for instance.)
The third missed opportunity is the most obvious one: Sinclair is too late to hear what Delenn has to tell him. I don’t recall, in retrospect, that it mattered nearly as much as she implied:
We have lot to discuss. In coming to you, I’m putting both our lives at risk. There’s is much you should know.
But might-have-beens and missed opportunities are always painful, and mysteries always intriguing. And it’s interesting that, after all the times that JMS makes his characters into unconscious oracles, he leaves Delenn in doubt about her own destiny.
Lennier: Are you sure there’s no other way?
Delenn: What must happen will happen. Valen said this day would come. Who are we to stand in the way of prophecy?
Lennier: But what if you’re wrong?
Delenn: Then speak well of me when I’m gone.
A more self-certain character would not have said that last line.
One excellent exchange from the episode:
Londo: This is like being nibbled to death by, um…what are those Earth creatures called? Feathers. Long bill. Webbed feet. Go quack.
Londo: Cats. Like being nibbled to death by cats.
The next writeup will cover Points of Departure, the first episode in Season Two.