Friday, January 05, 2007

Babylon 5: 'Divided Loyalties' and 'The Long, Twilight Struggle' (2x19 &2x20)

With these two episodes, it is on. 'Divided Loyalties' has some issues, but is still the best Psi Corps episode yet and, as seems to happen increasingly frequently, I've got to cede the title of best episode yet to 'Twilight Struggle,' which is unlike anything I've ever seen on TV before, or in any other medium for that matter.

The first crucial thread of 'Divided Loyalties' is the return of Lyta Alexander, the telepath from the pilot. I assumed she was dumped due to poor acting, like a couple of others from that episode. However, she's pretty good here, and this is a perfect point to reintroduce her character into the series, with the Vorlons becoming critical to fighting the Shadow War. Lyta brings news of a traitor, sending Babylon 5 into chaos.

This is a densely packed episode. Seeing as its apparently her last episode on the series, Talia and Ivanova's relationship progresses forward quickly, confirming what I'd suspected earlier, that there was something going on between them. Talia has a pretty smooth game, using that air duct problem as the perfect excuse to get closer to Ivanova. I like the dynamic between the two of them, and it would have been interesting to see that relationship move forward. So far, we haven't seen any of the main characters involved in a relationship and it could certainly add another layer to the show.

But, instead of that, we find out that Talia is the traitor. My major issue with this revelation is that it plays out too fast, she wanders in, gets scanned and all of a sudden everything's changed and she's leaving the station. Considering her prominent role in the series to date, a slightly longer farewell would have been nice. Now, it's possible she may return, as they flashback to here, Kosh does have some kind of record of her personality. But, if they were going to try to bring her back, you'd think they'd keep her on the station, not send her off to Psi Corps. I do like the final scene with Talia and Ivanova, with Talia mocking Ivanova's emotional outreach to the old Talia. The story isn't perfectly handled, but it's still very good.

My favorite part of this episode was actually the end, where Lyta goes to see Kosh again. The opening scene, where the guy collapses in the sewer just abused the smoke machine, but here it worked better. Lyta does remember what she saw in Kosh, and it seems to be something so powerful, just returning to that moment gives her peace. The song his mind sings to her is a nice tie in with the ship singing the Doctor to sleep a few episodes ago. She asks him to show her his mind again, he complies and we get a closeup on her eye as she cries. It's one of the show's best visual moments and an unexpected, but perfect, moment to go to credits on.

I've got to see if there's some followup on what happened to Talia, but right now, I feel like everything went down a bit too quickly. I was reading and saw there was some behind the scenes tumult prompting Andrea Thompson to leave the show, but even so, this one deserved a bit more time to breathe. Still, I'm assuming she'll be replaced on the station by Lyta, and she was quite good in this episode, I'm eager to see how she develops.

I thought that was a good episode, but after seeing 'The Long, Twilight Struggle' it feels like a mere diversion. This episode is simultaneously the show's biggest, with two massive space battles and multi-planet spanning action, and its most emotionally focused, as the radically divergent arcs of G'Kar and Londo continue to play out.

The episode starts with Londo on Centauri Prime, being asked to use his Shadow allies, just one more time. This has happened before, and as before, Londo reluctantly agrees, even though recent events have shown that he has no reason to trust Refa. He feels that he has started down a path and must see his destiny through to its end. While he has done some awful, awful things in the past, this act goes beyond that, turning him into a genocial mass murderer. After 'The Coming of Shadows,' I thought Londo had gone as far as he could go, but this took everything to another level.

It's tough to watch as the Narns arrange the military operation that will bring about their own destruction. JMS likes to give his characters the chance to avert their destinies, G'Kar finds out the Centauri know about their planned attack, and he tries to get his government to turn back, but they, like Londo, feel that they have started down a path and must see things through. G'Kar has moved beyond this kind of thinking, he's become more rational, but he can't convince his people to do the smart thing and protect the homeworld. By giving characters foreknowledge of what will happen, JMS actually gives them more agency. They are not victims of plot manipulations, rather, they are shown a potential future and are given the chance to turn back or keep going. Unfortunately, everyone seems to keep going.

The Shadows once again rout a Narn force. The effects here are fantastic, and the Shadows remain a powerful visual. It's tough to watch them tear through the Narn ships. When the guy decided to turn back, I was like "Ok, that's smart," but then the Shadows break out the hyperspace destroying weapon and all the Narn are killed. That moment was just harrowing, the whole sequence is very powerful. Beyond any future narrative purpose, the jump destroying weapons fit in perfectly with the theme. In both Londo and the General's case, they're given the chance to turn back, but cross the point of no return. The General comes to his senses, but it's too late, he cannot escape the fate he has chosen.

This segues into another dazzling space battle, as the Centauri bombard the Narn homeworld. This sequence is also deeply powerful, playing on our own fears about weapons of mass destruction. The Centauri have clearly crossed a line that civilized people should not cross. Their leaders are only concerned with conquering territory and trying to achieve a semblance of this mythologized Centauri empire. Londo standing on the deck, watching the battle is one of the best images the show has presented so far.

In this episode, we see two Londos. In private, he is deeply conflicted about what he's done, arguing with Refa, only grudgingly agreeing to use the Shadows. He never saw the consequences of his actions firsthand until now and I think that destruction deeply distrubs him. He's a fundamentally moral person, but has gotten caught up in this web of bad decisions that pushed him over the line. In that moment, he knows it and dreads the eventual consequences of his actions.

However, when we see him in public, he is fiercer and more in command than ever. Londo dreamt of becoming Emperor, and now he is aware of just how much power is potentially at his command. In the Council scene, any vestige of the fun loving guy of the first season is gone, when he yells at Delenn and Sheridan, we see only a monster.

Concurrent with Londo's rise is G'Kar's fall. It's been heartbreaking to watch his journey over the course of this season, as every thing goes wrong for him. It all began in 'Revelations,' when he realized that Londo may have collaborated with the Shadows in destroying the Narn colony. From there, it's gotten worse, he is powerless to stop the Narn from attacking the Centauri supply lines and can't even go to Narn to die with his people. Instead, he is forced to seek sanctuary from Babylon 5.

The scene in the council meeting is just devestating as we watch this once proud man reduced to absolute nothing. He sits hunched over, just taking whatever Londo tells him. In this episode, the show goes incredibly dark, not only is the entire Narn homeworld conquered, the Centauri force upon them an incredibly strict peace treaty that leaves them with no agency at all. I was shocked by how bad things got here, I criticized the show early on for its sitcom like happy endings. That has totally changed, I've never seen a show follow through on the consequences of developments like this one has. There is no status quo, characters are constantly changing and the situation is constantly getting worse. The worse things get, the more satisfying the eventual victory is. Because the show has gone to such a dark place, it means that any small victory will have huge meaning. That's what made the miniseries and New Caprica arcs of Battlestar Galactica so powerful, and here, we seem to headed for something that will dwarf even those fantastic stories.

G'Kar's defiant speech to Londo gives us at least a measure of consolation. He walks out of the room proud, even though he is powerless, he has the desire for freedom and that will fuel him long after Molari's lust for power burns out. That scene is incendiary, G'Kar and Londo were great together back in the comedy days of season one, now there's so much between them, you can't help but think of Londo's dream and the inevitable end for these two.

G'Kar's final scene with Sheridan reminds us of how close the Centauri and Narn came to peace. He remembers a moment when he saw Londo as an ally, and again we're aware of the disastrous effects of Londo's choices. Each time he is given a chance to draw the line and save lives, and each time he fails to do so. Of course, G'Kar is the one with the most information on the Shadows and is already suspicious of Londo. Connecting Londo to the Shadows could lead to the downfall of the Centauri Republic and help the Narn regain agency over their homeworld.

Elsewhere, we get further development of the Sheridan/Delenn relationship. Before, I was wondering if it was just me seeing something there, but it's pretty clearly in play, Sheridan is aware of Delenn's feelings and he's unsure how he feels about it. I thought I caught a little twitch on Delenn's part when Draal mentioned Sheridan's wife, that could cause some major complication down the line. I wasn't thrilled to see Draal return, but the trip down to Epsilon 3 was entertaining, and the weapons he offers will likely enable Babylon 5 to be the center of the defense against the Shadows. With the two of them, I also really like the opening scene of 'Loyalties,' where we find out Delenn eagerly awaits the Minbari gossip column. Her adoption of human characteristics has been fascinating to watch.

This episode was packed with stuff. I didn't even mention the Rangers, who seem to have a critical role to play. The most intriguing part about that is the fact that Kosh openly supports them. His neutrality is dissipating in light of the imminent start of the war. Things end with an inspirational speech, and the knowledge that within two episodes, the great war will come upon us all.

Just when I think the show can't go darker, or get better, it drops another masterpiece. I can't wait to see how this season resolves itself and then move on to season three: Point of No Return.


Keith G said...

Andrea Thompson wanted more episodes focused around her character. JMS wouldn't budge. Thompson left and JMS wrote her out.

As originally planned, Laurel Takashima (from the pilot) would have been Control. If Thompson had stayed, Talia's personality would have been restored with the data crystal that Kosh has. But she never returned.

However, Talia is not forgotten.

"The Long, Twilight Struggle" is so brilliant. I'm not really sure what else to say. You covered everything pretty well.

Enjoy the final two episodes of the season.

Keith G said...

One thing I wanted to say, before you get to it:

Watch the opening credits of Season Three very closely

That is all.

Antimatter said...

I'm enjoying reading these reviews; I'm not always in complete agreement, but your thoughts on the show are insightful. You've also picked up on a lot of elements early on, nice going!

TLTS is a brilliant episode, and G'kar's fall is truly moving. Expect more good stuff in Season 3. I commented way back when you started watching about the effects, I'm glad you're enjoying them now! There're are some stunning sequences in Season 3 as well.

Havremunken said...

The Long, Twilight Struggle is the episode where I finally realized that yup, this is my favourite TV show, ever. And it just keeps getting better. You have wonderful times ahead of you, and it seems like you are going to enjoy them as much as the rest of us have. :)

Angie said...

"I was shocked by how bad things got here, I criticized the show early on for its sitcom like happy endings. That has totally changed, I've never seen a show follow through on the consequences of developments like this one has."

Exactly. And that's one of the reasons why I love this show so much. Yes, they kill the President. Yes, war breaks out between the Narn and the Centauri. Yes, they bombard Narn. Yes, ... And that's why when I read your complaint about happy endings earlier on I didn't write anything, but only thought 'you just wait and see' *g*

If I wasn't doing a rerun anyway, your reviews would make me start one right away.

Anonymous said...

reading your reviews has become a ritual for me, Patrick. I'm really jealous of you, because you are getting to see this show fresh for the first time...and I basically know it all by heart now, so I can't watch it with the same wonder and excitement anymore. still, it makes me want to do a re-watch soon!

THe next episode might seem like a small relenting of progress, even though it's one of my favorites. The season finale will knock your socks off, though. Enjoy!
-Keith Masaru

Patrick said...

Laurel had probably the worst acting of the pilot, so it's probably for the best she got bumped out. I could definitely see why Andrea Thompson would be frustrated, certainly in season one she didn't have much to do, though there was a good run for her at the start of season two. But, everything compresses when you watch the show on DVD, and you don't really notice when someone doesn't appear for five or six episodes.

And, the show is just great at this point. I'm really eager to see where things go in season three, when, presumably, the war with the Shadows will break out in full.

Jacob said...

Episodes like this late-season 2 run highlight, for me, why B5 is still relevant television: while perenially hampered by budget shortcomings, less-than-stellar acting, and JMS's very...theatrical dialogue, it's also one of the only shows to ever really make good on its serial-drama promises.

The elephant graveyard of TV is littered with shows that teased, teased, teased and then never satisfactorily delivered - either killed before their time like "Twin Peaks", or lobotomised like "Alias", or dwindling in relevance as it becomes increasingly obvious that the entire enterprise was a tease and there was never a plan to begin with ("Lost" and sometimes, I fear, "Galactica").

But it's not just serials that tend to end badly; even more episodic or formula dramas, or shows that rely on year-to-year plotting rather than an overall plan, eventually pass their sell-by date - I give you exhibit A, "Sopranos", which with each season I feel progressively less inclined to soldier through.

It's the sad nature of American TV that we like to keep the wheels spinning as long as possible, so when shows end, it's almost always on an off note, with half the cast gone and the scripts at a creative dead end - so when Roseanne realizes it was all a dream, or the autistic kid picks up the snowglobe, it feels more like a grubby mercy killing than a dignified, satisfying leavetaking.

"B5" is going to have its ups and downs over the next three seasons, and there are awkward patches (like this Talia episode) where they have to hurriedly paper over a backstage development to the detriment of the organic flow of the story, but the story does ultimately make the traverse from A all the way to the Z that was planned all along. It's a shame that, even though today's shows are immeasurably slicker in terms of production values and acting and so on, nobody seems to have picked up and run with the storytelling ball from where JMS left it.

Patrick said...

Jacob, I would definitely agree. It's really frustrating to watch a show like Battlestar, which is frequently great, but clearly has no overall narrative arc in mind. Both Battlestar and Alias did some crazy stuff, but always returned to the same status quo, and after a while, that got tiring. The thing TV can give you that movies can't is forward progress through a characters' life over a sustained period of time, I would say beyond even the action and storytelling stuff, the greatest achievement of Buffy is in giving us characters who go through realistic, interesting changes over seven years of their life.

That's the only show I think can compete with B5 in terms of a coherent overall narrative arc. Ideally, you should be able to break a show's run into a three act structure. Buffy could and I'm assuming at the end, you can do the same for B5.

I totally agree that it's a mistake not to learn from JMS did. Because the show is clearly going somewhere, even weaker episodes have something to contribute, and you rarely get the sense that something is just a filler episode. He's setting out to tell a story with each season, while a show like Lost just seems to be trying to fill 22 episodes.

However, I have to disagree with you on The Sopranos. It might have drifted a bit narratively, but it's still very focused thematically on the essential questions raised earlier in the series, and it's the rare show where I feel like each detail was specifically chosen, each moment having more meaning than just the need to do another hour. In that respect, it's a lot like B5.

I do agree with you about B5's flaws though. I mentioned it in one of the previous posts, but I think JMS really needed a great director partner to aid in both the visual side of things, but also the performances. Some of the people are brilliant every week, notably the guys playing Londo and G'Kar, and the human actors are pretty solid, but a lot of the background players just aren't very good and that takes you out of the universe.

Still, I'd rather have a situation like this than something like Rescue Me, where the acting is all fantastic, the production top notch, but the story a succession of repeating soap opera tropes. B5 is unlike anything I've seen before, and that's a relief in a time where shows have higher production values and more serialization, but frequently lack overall narrative direction.

Angie said...

"while perenially hampered by budget shortcomings, less-than-stellar acting, and JMS's very...theatrical dialogue [...]"

I just wanted to add that I love the theatrical dialogues JMS tends to do. And I know for a fact I'm not the only one. YMMV, of course.

As for the acting I've got to agree with Patrick. Some of the guest stars make you cringe, but most of the main cast is very good right up to brilliant.

JimK said...

Choices and consequences- a JMS theme. Every time you used the words in this review, I said 'yes! big picture is starting to reveal itself.'

Pat Tallman- evidently there was some contract kerfuffle between pilot and series. I think it was in a scriptbook that JMS said that he wrote specifically for her. So he was aware of her acting abilities.

Johnny Sekka- Also hired on rep, I believe. But very ill at time of shooting. They realized he couldn't stand up to the rigors of production. He died recently after a long illness.

Rangers- LOTR- book version

Going to get the script books? Full of factoids in JMS essays, some I haven't seen on the web, like:

The shadow ship's skin? A dog's nose, digitally scanned.

Patrick said...

I was on the site for the script books and it looks like there's a ton of great stuff in there, but they are a bit pricey. I'll have to see just how good the rest of the series is. The thing I'm most curious about is the outline for the whole series with Sinclair as Captain the whole time.

Vargen said...

About Laurel Takashima. I don't know what part of her acting you didn't like, but this from JMS might explain some of it:

"One of the biggest changes is the one least immediately apparent. After we finished the original pilot, some folks at WB felt that Laurel was too...strong. They will rarely put it in terms quite as blatant as that, but that was the message...she was "unlikeable, unsympathetic, harsh." Meaning some of the guys felt she was too strong, let's cut to the chase, okay?

They wanted her to loop her lines, soften their (her) delivery. I fought this tooth and nail. I fought this until finally I was pulled aside and it was communicated to me that B5 was, after all, still an unknown property, could be a big failure, and if we ever wanted to see this thing on the air, we'd accommodate this note (which was, I have to admit on balance, one of the few they had). The advice was, in essence, "Pick your battles."

So, reluctantly, I let it get looped by Tamlyn."

Patrick said...

I think JMS is deluding himself when he equates "unlikeable, unsympathetic, harsh." with too strong. She delivered her lines like a robot reading off cue cards, there was no humanity in there at all. Now, maybe the character was meant to be so strong that she spoke without traditional human inflection, but it didn't play that way, it just felt like really bad acting, someone reading the lines without passion or intonation. I'm not sure when JMS said that quote, but clearly he had issues with her performance as well, or else he wouldn't have recast the role for the series. Claudia Christian found a better balance between strength and humanity.