Babylon 5: Spider in the Web

Remember back in Mind War, when G’Kar was playing Mysterious Soothsayer to Catherine Sakai?

Let me pass on to you the one thing I’ve learned about this place. No one here is exactly what he appears.

This is another one of the episodes where we catch glimpses of that. To a certain extent, it has to be. We’ve had five episodes to get used to Captain Sheridan’s surface character. It’s time to hint that there’s someone a bit more interesting under the bluff and slightly cuddly exterior.

First, we’re reminded that, although his appointment was not as much of a thorn in EarthGov’s side as Sinclair’s was, he’s not a pushover for whatever agenda his superiors on Earth want him to pursue. In this case, he refuses to eavesdrop on the negotiations between FutureCorp and the Mars provisional government.

With all due respect, Senator, my duties as commander of B5 don’t include spying on civilians.

Then we get a glimpse of Sheridan the Explorer and Meeter-of-Aliens. This scene rang almost entirely false to me: it neither advances the plot nor adds to the texture of the world. The first contact story he tells Ivanova is the sort of basic background on the TiKar that she should already know. And when he describes his time inside their ship, his narrative subsides into verbal mush:

It was incredible. I’d never seen so much space on a starship. And the TiKar themselves are so unlike any other alien species we’d encountered. I spent two days with them, and what I learned in that time made me realize just how wondrous this galaxy of ours really is.

But the real revelation about Sheridan, the genuine unsuspected depth, comes in pursuit of the main plot. He’s the one who has a lead about the Lazarus project, EarthForce’s cyborg-building initiative. It’s his information, covertly obtained, that allows them understand what Horn is, and angle the deflectors recalibrate the station’s sensors to detect the eranium crystal’s emissions1. But why does Sheridan have this information? As he tells, Garibaldi,

Some people collect coins, or art. I collect secrets: black projects, conspiracies, secret organizations. They fascinate me.

Of course, it’s a trope in these sorts of stories that characters will have all kinds of unlikely and useful hobbies. One never knows whether a preteen girl trapped in the out-of-control dinosaur zoo will have Linux skills, but in cinema, that’s the way to bet. Likewise, Sheridan’s conspiracy-collection hobby turns out to be just the thing for the problem at hand. (It will come in useful in the future, too.)

Is it enough depth to make us trust him, as a narrator and as a strong character? Probably.

On a lesser scale, we get to see more complexity in a couple of other long-running characters: Garibaldi and Talia Winters.

As the season has gone on, Garibaldi’s habit of turning up just in time to escort Talia in the lift has become steadily more annoying for her2. She’s always passed it off rather than confronting it directly. But in this episode, she simply does not have the spoons to pretend that it’s not a problem.

Talia: Mr Garibaldi, Taro Isogi was like a father to me. I loved him as a client, and as a mentor, and as a friend. And now he’s dead. You’ll forgive me if I’m not in the mood for your usual badinage.
Garibaldi: You’re right. It’s a bad time for you. I’m being a yutz.
Talia: Apology accepted.
Garibaldi: Could you at least tell me what badinage means?
Talia: (slightly hysterical laughter)
Garibaldi: My pop always said that laughter’s better than pills for what ails you.
Talia: I think he was right.

Garibaldi presents himself very much as the stereotypical working-class guy who usually does end up in security. But his response to her request to drop the flirtation is swift and complete, with no entitlement or sullenness. He’s able to turn it into a joke on himself—a kindly thing—in short order. And although he then does end up drinking tea with Talia, he’s doing it for the pleasure of her conversation, not to put the moves on her.

(It’s possible that Garibaldi isn’t so much revealing hidden depths as conforming to a slightly different stereotype than the one I read him as. But in my universe, nice guys don’t stalk.)

Talia also reveals a good deal of complexity as the story unfolds. Her loyalties have always been finely balanced between PsiCorps and the people around her on Babylon 5: she defied the Corps over Jason Ironheart, but urged Alisa Beldon to join them. The anecdote she tells Garibaldi over tea serves two plot purposes (as well as balancing his own stories about his father):

Talia: I never really knew my father. Or my mother. I was raised by PsiCorps from the time I was five. Of course, there was Abby…
Garibaldi: Abby?
Talia: She was my support during my first year at the Center. When telepaths first come, they’re assigned a senior telepath to guide them through the early stages of the program. The first day, I was crying all the time. I was scared and confused and hurting. And then Abby came. She held me for a very long time, never saying a word. I didn’t know it then, but she was scanning me, ever so gently. And little by little, the pain and fear and confusion melted, and all that was left was this warm, safe place in my mind. It was wonderful. But the next year, Abby was assigned to another newcomer.

Leaving aside the rampant creeps that that anecdote gives me as a parent, it tells us something about what telepaths mean when they use the word “scanning”; clearly it’s not as read-only a procedure as the name implies. This is useful for understanding the Lazarus procedure described in the next scene.

It also prepares us for the fact that Talia, no matter how much she seems to be working for the good of the station and her clients, will be as reluctant to expose the failings of PsiCorps as the rest of the crew would be to embarrass their own parents. And, indeed, she makes just that choice, hiding the fact that she saw a PsiCop in Horn’s memory of his conversion to a cyborg.3.

Both of the introduced characters who have significant screen time turn out to be complex as well. Angela Carter is neither the entirely-clean politician she first appears to be, nor the fanatic that her MarsFirst! background would suggest. She’s someone who has grown and learned over time, and promises to continue doing so. One can see why Bureau 13 would want to use Horn to damage her politically. Meanwhile, in this company of the naturally multilayered, Horn himself seems almost straightforward: a single-minded man with a single-minded evil riding him.

Only the walk-ons are simple. Senator Vordreau embodies callous utilitarianism in the passive voice:

These are volatile times, Captain. Practicality is more important than principles if lives are to be saved.

Taro Isogi displays a martyr’s optimism:

Mars could be the beginning of a whole new life for the human species. As it was meant to be.

And, of course, the unknown PsiCop wallows in acquisitive evil:

All ours…

If there’s a deeper point to this episode, it’s not just that EarthGov has a spider in its web. It’s that all of the characters do too, one way or another. Some of them are monsters, and some of them are harmless, or even useful. But there are secrets in the shadows, everywhere we look, even when the people themselves don’t realize it.

Sheridan: “Tell me, what do you think of her?
Ivanova: Ms Winters? I think she’s an interesting person.
Sheridan: You’ve never described anybody that way.4
Ivanova: I mean, I don’t really know her that well. I mean, we’ve chatted from time to time. And she’s…interesting.

  1. It bemuses me that the computer can tell Sheridan which quarters the crystal emissions have been found in—Red 7, Suite 15—but he has to remember for himself who is staying there. Like the idea that the stolen plans of the Death Star can be retrieved when they’ve been electronically copied, it’s one of those hints that the script was written before a fundamental watershed in our thinking about pervasive data.5
  2. And, by the way, to me too. I think this is another example of how Babylon 5 is the future of a different time. I find Garibaldi’s behavior sufficiently creepy that I’ve been struggling to see him as a good guy. I can’t picture that a writer now would consider his behavior toward Talia a mere personal quirk.
  3. Mind you, if any member of an organization I was loyal to were to mug, grimace and gloat in her evil the way the PsiCop did, I’d keep it pretty quiet too. Not so much for the wickedness as for the tackiness.
  4. The more I think about this conversation, the more I think this reaction is intentionally marked. And the more I adore the show, stalking tolerance notwithstanding.
  5. And then there’s the hardware. Angela Carter’s compact computer in a suitcase. The inch-thick tablet computer Sheridan puts aside when Garibaldi arrives at his quarters to hear about Project Lazarus.

The next writeup will cover Soul Mates

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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24 Responses to Babylon 5: Spider in the Web

  1. fadeaccompli says:

    Peculiarly, I find this is an episode I don’t even remember watching, though I’ve seen this season at least twice. Which makes reading the commentary on it fascinating; it’s like hearing about a missing episode I never got to see.

    PsiCorp always gave me the screaming heebiejeebies. Which, upon consideration, was actually a neat trick, in that what was always scary was not “telepaths exist”, or even “telepaths could do unethical things,” but “the organization designed to Protect Everyone From Telepaths is being horrible to them and to us in the name of Helping Everyone.” It’s always the supposedly altruistic evil that ends up being scariest.

  2. Serge Broom says:

    I’m glad to see that N2S is back in action, Abi,

  3. Serge Broom says:

    About Garibaldi and quirks and humor that wouldn’t fly today… In 1978’s “Superman”, Perry White’s response to Lois Lane’s article about a serial killer is that there’s only one ‘P’ in ‘rapist’. Ouch.

  4. Mary Aileen says:

    fadeaccompli (1): I had the same reaction you did to PsiCorp. That reaction may be part of the reason that the existence of telepaths doesn’t seem as scary: their vulnerability, their victimization, makes them more sympathetic than they would otherwise be.

  5. Serge @2:

    Thanks. I suspect that this is going to be a seasonal blog; I only seem to have energy and creativity enough to do these writeups in the light months. Oh, the joys of SAD.

    Mary Aileen & fadeaccompli:

    I think the reason telepaths didn’t give me the willies when I first watched B5 was that Talia was so nakedly human and vulnerable. Yes, self-possessed, beautifully groomed, and rather alarmingly thin, but vulnerable at the same time. I think it was her voice as much as anything else.

  6. Syd says:

    Ahhhh…just when I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll drop a comment on the [ML] OT about how much I enjoyed abi’s B5 write-ups and how much I’m looking forward to the next one (O hint that is subtle as a shovel)”, here one is! I understand why they will most likely be seasonal, and shall enjoy them in their time.

    Thank you. 🙂

  7. Sylviah says:

    I just want to say how glad I am that you’re continuing this. (Longtime lurker both here and on ML.)

  8. Lenora Rose says:

    Glad to see this is back, too. I’ve crept onward into season 3 (it’s occasional nursing viewing, mostly with the sound mid-low and captions on so Joseph doesn’t watch.) but I’m still looking forward to your comments. There are definitely little things that irritate me more now (the stalker thing I could pass off as a joke, even though I knew someone who stalked), as well as things that hold up,

    Spider in the Web is the only episode to name the other conspirators (Psicorps et. al.) anything, one of the mildly irritating dropped threads of the show.

    Soul mates plays even more with the stalkery Garibaldi/Talia thing.

  9. JM says:

    Yay, B5 writeups are back! I’m glad some of your spoons have returned to you, Abi.

  10. Paul A. says:

    That first contact scene dropped me right out of the story. He spent two days on the ship, seeing things that changed his whole world view, and he can’t come up with even one detail?

  11. cmdrkoenig says:

    First, really glad these reviews are back! Thanks!

    Re Garibaldi’s stalking, whether or not it’s creepy, I’m not sure it’s strictly believable. What guy would stalk a girl that could (directly) read his thoughts? Aren’t telepaths supposed to make the mundanes in this universe uneasy? I mean, sure, they SAY they’re not scanning you, but …

  12. cmdrkoenig @11

    At least once, he uses the fact that she was a telepath to leer at her in his mind, knowing she’ll pick it up. I don’t know if he’s stalking with intent—I don’t know what he would do if she turned to him and said, “Yes, actually.”

    But it still creeps me out, whatever degree of purpose it entails. I suspect I’m more representative of women now than women at the time that the show came out. Social mores have changed (in a way I appreciate, as a woman).

    Like the technology, and the pervasive data, and the hairstyles, and the off-duty clothing, this is another sign that we’re looking at the future of our past, not our present.

  13. Also, more generally, thank you everyone for the positive reaction to getting back to this series. Much appreciated.

  14. Nix says:

    I actually kind of believe the stalking, because Garibaldi lives and breathes security and, as we learn later, is so paranoid about losing control that when he does lose control, he turns to drink. I suspect Garibaldi stalks *everyone* but simply has not noticed that this doesn’t work as a romantic tactic. (Ivanova has information acquisition down pat. He should learn from her.)

    “Practicality is more important than principles if lives are to be saved” is both a sensible attitude in real life when dealing with rational opponents and a sort of twisted inverse of G’Kar’s revelation later in the plot: “… for some must be sacrificed if all are to be saved.” (Because, of course, none of the three major antagonists of seasons 2 to 4 are sane in any real sense: they’re all ideological crazies driven by principle to the exclusion of all else.)

    JMS seemed to forget about at least one spider in this web: the trojan built into the station’s computers. If it is removed, nobody ever mentions it, even after the station turns against Earth. It seems it was so secret that nobody on Earth dared use it (implausible). Of course he also forgot about the entire secret agency that was controlling it. I think we are forced to conclude that this episode is noncanonical, since JMS seems to have forgotten its existence when plotting later episodes.

  15. Nix @14:

    I suspect Garibaldi stalks *everyone* but simply has not noticed that this doesn’t work as a romantic tactic.

    You know, that makes an awful lot of sense. I think I’ll fold that information into my opinion of him. I’ve been really struggling to like him after realizing how creepifying I find the whole thing in the elevators.

    JMS seemed to forget about at least one spider in this web: the trojan built into the station’s computers.

    If you mean the way that Horn makes a call that seems to fail, but then is connected to “Thirteen”, I assumed that was an interrupt further downstream: not a trojan in the station software, but one in the comm net that it connects to.

  16. Nix says:

    Regarding Garibaldi’s stalking behaviour… look at how he interacts with other people. They *all* get stalked. Even new commanders: he looks up their personal info even before they come aboard. For everyone else, he has the security cams, so one assumes that he could stalk everyone without them ever knowing, but he’s very much a hands-on ground-pounder still and apparently prefers to stalk people he thinks he might need to know (or come to care about) in person. i.e., he’s at least a bit of a control freak, a perfect mindset for Security. (Though personally I prefer Miles Vorkosigan’s style of hyperactive control-freakery!)

    Your explanation of the failing call is sensible: I simply assumed that intercepting a failing call had to be done in the station’s exchange, but it could perfectly well be something upstream of that.

  17. Marc G. says:

    Regarding the disappearance of Bureau 13, there was actually a copyright issue with the name, which JMS only discovered after this episode aired. I’m guessing he didn’t feel like he could just change the name, so the whole plot point was dropped.

  18. Serge Broom says:

    Didn’t Bureau 13 first show up on Star Trek’s “Deep Space Nine”?

  19. RogerBW says:

    Probably used first in Stalking the Night Fantastic (RPG published in 1983). JMS claims to have come up with it independently, but to have decided to abandon the name once he was told about the RPG.

  20. Paul A. says:

    Serge, the group in DS9 was “Section 31”.

  21. Serge Broom says:

    Oops… At least I had the numbers right, if not their order.

  22. Lylassandra says:

    It’s interesting to me how our analysis of Garibaldi’s stalking actually intersects with the discussion of (the lack of) pervasive data on the show. In season 1 they set up a lot of character development (and foreshadowing) with Garibaldi tracking down Lise during the Mars riots. But the bombshell she drops on him is both an anachronism and out of character. There’s no way Garibaldi wouldn’t have kept up with her enough to know that she’d married– and while it was barely plausible then, it smacks of the ridiculous now, in the Age of Facebook.

    And his stalking Talia… I’d be actually interested to see JMS rewrite that in terms of fourquare, et al. Would Garibaldi still do it? (Assuming Talia’s a user, of course.) Is his motivation to show off that he can find her, or is he doing the can-I-carry-your-books routine? Would she find it as creepy?

    Now I’m off to ponder what a telepath would do with Facebook..

  23. brjun says:

    Woah! Just wanted to say — thanks for resuming these write ups, however infrequently. I thought that they were done forever, checked back by accident and was pleasantly surprised. Thank you!

    On the topic of minor future-of-the-past differences, the analog-style static on the TVs amuses me every time. We have tried to justify it with ‘future technology will revert to analog’ but it is still hilarious.

  24. Pingback: B5 Rewatch: S2E06 "A Spider in the Web" | ***Dave Does the Blog

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