Ostensibly, this is an episode where Things Are Revealed1. I recall it being very effective at the time.
But watching it again, knowing most of its secrets already, I found this episode interesting in other ways. For me, Babylon 5 is less engaging because of its great cosmic events than it is for the profound and powerful transformations of the various characters against that backdrop. The show spent the first season establishing their various personalities. Now we get to see them start to change.
The obvious transformation is Delenn: she emerges from her cocoon partway through the episode. It’s a slow reveal. First she hides under a blanket, then we see enough of her that we can tell she’s either grown scales or ended up covered in a layer of crackling blue something-or-other. What am I? What am I?, she croaks2.
Only later do we get to see what she is: herself, but with hair3. She explains that she has become more human:
Ambassador Sinclair has been allowed to live on my world as an act of good faith, to create a greater understanding between Minbari and humans4. In return, I have undergone this change, with the blessings of my government, so that I may become a bridge between our worlds, in the hope that we will never know war between us again.
What surprised me about that speech is how blatantly she lies in it. Although the Grey Council’s voted to allow her to return to the station in Babylon Squared, they didn’t exactly “bless” her transformation. We’ve known for some time that she will deceive to further her own ends (for instance, in the theft of the body in Legacies), but this is the first time we’ve seen her saying something we already know to be untrue. It’s as though another aspect of her transformation into something more human is that now we can read her better.
While Delenn has finished her transition, Londo’s is just beginning to get underway. It’s not a physical change, of course, but when he accepted Morden’s help in the matter of Quadrant 37, he began a journey of self-corruption. This episode sees him travel a few more steps on that road.
One betrayal is obvious: he tells Morden about the warship the Narn are sending to Z’ha’dum. The Shadows, warned, destroy it in a way that can be mistaken for an accident. And when G’Kar wonders aloud whether the plan to investigate the Rim world was leaked, Londo stays silent and lets Sheridan deflect the accusation.
But the signs of his gradual corruption are deeper than that. In his conversation with Morden in the garden 6, the person so recently horrified by the murder of ten thousand beings sounds the killers’ agent out about further “demonstrations”. Then he laughingly suggests eliminating the Narn homeworld. He may have been kidding, and he may be horrified when Morden’s reply is, “one thing at a time”, but he did bring it up. That’s a significant barrier between him and genocide come down: talking is a step closer to doing.
And an even more significant change in Londo is what we don’t see. Where is he as Garibaldi recovers? Only two episodes ago, he kept vigil in the hospital as the security chief hovered between life and death. Now his friend (of sorts) is awake again, and he’s nowhere nearby. The old jovial Londo, convivial mooch and ironic confidant—the Dionysus of Babylon 5—is passing away.
I miss him already.
But just as Londo goes further in his descent into the darkness, so G’Kar has started on his way up. His arc is probably my favorite thread in the larger story of Babylon 5. And it really begins here, with an unexpected and unacknowledged gift: insight. Among all of the smart, experienced politicians and soldiers in the story, he’s the only one who puts the available evidence together and comes to the correct conclusion.
When you told me about the destruction of our base in Quadrant 37, I knew that only a major power could attempt an assault of that magnitude. But none of the governments here could have done it, which left only two possibilities: a new race, or an old race.
As a Narn, and an overtly religious one, he has information that members of other species don’t. This allows him to investigate further:
G’Quan spoke of a great war, long ago, against an enemy so terrible it nearly overwhelmed the stars themselves. G’Quan said that before that enemy was thrown down, it dwelled in a system at the rim of known space. I searched for days, going from one system to another. There, on dark, deserted worlds, where there should be no life, where no living thing has walked in over a thousand years, something is moving, gathering its forces, quietly, quietly, hoping to go unnoticed. We must warn the others, Na’Toth. After a thousand years, the darkness has come again.
What’s interesting about G’Kar in this episode is that everything of substance that he says is true. All of his assertions, his suppositions, and even his off-the-cuff guesses: the old enemy of G’Quan’s day has come again and is based on Z’ha’dum. The ship sent to investigate was destroyed during the brief communications loss after coming out of hyperspace. The secret of its mission was compromised by a member of the Babylon 5 council.
And all of their races do indeed stand on the brink of extinction.
It’s tempting, seeing everyone around him disbelieving everything he says, to compare G’Kar to Cassandra. But that analogy falls down over the longer arc of the series. He is not cursed to tell the truth and be ignored forever, much less to die at the hands of a deranged axe murderer (not onscreen, certainly).
For me, G’Kar is much more like Thomas the Rhymer. You know the story? After a kiss on Eildon Hill, Thomas is taken to Faerie by the Queen of Elfland. He serves her there for seven years, and is given a rather ambiguous reward:
Then they came on to a garden green
And she pulled an apple frae a tree.
Take this for thy wages, True Thomas.
It will give the tongue that can never lie.
G’Kar is gone for much less time than Thomas, and has a rather less pleasant time of it. But he, too, encounters something outside of the ordinary, and returns with much the same gift.
I have looked into the darkness, Na’Toth. You cannot do that and ever be quite the same again.
Not all of the significant arc threads in this episode are transformations, of course. Garibaldi remains essentially unchanged as he regains consciousness7 and finds out who shot him. Jack, his trusted aide, has been a mole for a long time. He parting salute and comment link him to Bester and PsiCorps, but their sinister nature isn’t new either. And Clark, co-opting the evidence and hiding the miscreant, isn’t engaging in his first malfeasance.
Nor is Sheridan shown as changing. We’re still being introduced to him, and this time we find out about his personal life. These first two episodes have been his own small Season One. Unfortunately, they have the same leaden dialog and contrived plotting that made those episodes such a slog.
It is useful to know that Anna Sheridan’s ship was lost while on an archaeological expedition to the Rim, and that Sheridan misses her terribly. Although it has a slight flavor of “Stuffed Into the Fridge”8 right now, this piece of backstory will be relevant later.
What’s not useful is the way that the matter is revealed in fits and starts, with long pauses between. Were Sheridan my brother, telling me about his persistent feeling of guilt for having canceled a visit with his wife and failed to tell her he loved her, I wouldn’t let him stew a day or two. I’d immediately give him a verbal summary of her last message to me and dig out the data crystal later.
(Of course, I wouldn’t let anyone who used phrases like “love knows no bounds” marry my brother. Not even my best friend. Assuming I kept her as a friend after finding out that she talked like one of those greeting cards inscribed exclusively in foil-stamped script fonts.)
- Thus the name, of course.
- Note the repetition for emphasis, which is one of JMS’ unfortunate scripting tics.
- I don’t know why, but watching this, I spent a bemused moment wondering what Londo thought of the transformation. For him, the new Delenn is probably much more alien (and less attractive) than the old one. A female with hair?
- Of course, Sinclair is not the first human to go to Minbar to create a greater understanding between the two species5
- Oh, hush, don’t involve time travel and transformation of bodies yet. You know what I mean.
- So many of the conversations between those two take place in the garden. I suppose it was that or be shown eating apple pie.
- With the marvelously appropriate first comment to Franklin: “What’s up, Doc?”
- TVTropes link. If you’re susceptible to that variety of clicktrance, consider yourself warned.
The next writeup will cover The Geometry of Shadows
That is an excellent, excellent description of Anna’s message. I also grind my teeth at the As You Know, Bob discussion of her death. Surely they’ve mentioned these events to one another a time or two?
I really am several episodes behind in my own rewatch now, and must catch up. Especially because I remember dimly that I had much rage for how Garibaldi’s betrayal plot was being played out; maybe because in general, I find betrayal of a protagonist an uncomfortable trope? (Or maybe it’s the undiscovered betrayal that ends up getting to me. That’s a much rarer phenomenon in fiction.) It’ll be interesting to rewatch, knowing what I do now.
I kept being distracted by the way Delenn’s hair interacts with the bony crest along the back of her head. How does that work? If some strands come loose (as they surely must from time to time) how does she stuff them back under it?
That’s driven me nuts for years.
According to the things I’ve read elseweb, the bony crest is now only attached at the temples, so she should be able to tuck the hair under it. If that’s the case, all I can say is that her hair doesn’t frizz half so much as mine does; that sounds like a recipe for a halo of split ends and broken bits.
My tentative conclusion is that this is science fiction, and if I am expected to swallow hyperspace and near-universal bipedalism in aliens, it’s unsporting of me to gag at the hair thing.
Still though, think of the alternative: space mullet.
I thought for years that the bony crest had become just a relatively thin band–that the part visible above the hair was all there was anymore. That would be a lot easier to keep neat than having her hair flow through the full thing.
Maybe Delenn’s head bone is hinged at the temples.
You can either get a flip-top head bone…
D’oh! #8 is not translation-agency spam but rather me hitting Post before filling out the blanks properly.
The discussion of Anna Sheridan always struck me as being huge and clunky and out of place in the midst of the rest of the Season 2 opening stuff, which was either refreshingly direct about summing up backstory for the enw captain and new viewer (Ivanova’s recap for Sheridan in the last episode), or refreshingly willing to assume that the viewer already knows or else can glean if from context.
I’d have been more willing to let go the question of how Delenn’s hair and crest worked if, in a few episodes, we didn’t show her having to deal with other problems with it.
(I was always under the impression Centauri women deliberately shaved their heads, not that they were born bald. I can’t recall now if that’s because we do see some with at least a bit of hair tied in back, or if that’s a humanist assumption on my part.)
10: You’re right about the Centauri women. It’s confirmed later this season; the Centauri are peacocks.
Marc Mielke @11: What, because they’re lek breeders?
I have to agree that G’Kar’s development throughout the series is one of the most interesting ones, though I’ll include Londo in that. Might also have to do with them being portrayed by the best actors in the series…
What fascinates me about Londo is that his is a compelling tale of how a little bit of greed and a little bit of cowardice and a little bit of wanting to believe in something despite the evidence can turn you into a force for evil (for lack of a better description). I’ve never got the impression that Londo is a bad person at all; at worst he’s too weak to be a a good choice for the position he’s put into. And that’s just fine as long as things go well for him.
G’Kar’s development is pretty much the polar opposite, so you all but have to consider them together.
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