Note: 4x22 Spoilers in here as well
After starting stronger than any other Babylon 5 season, the middle chunk of season four had a lot of issues. For a while, the show lacked any sort of urgency, the threat of Clark was still out there, but it wasn’t immediate, and with the character arcs generally on hold, that meant wheel spinning. But, after Sheridan’s declaration that it was on at the end of ‘Moments of Transition,’ things kicked into high gear, and the five episode run from ‘The Face of the Enemy’ to ‘Rising Star is easily the best sustained storytelling in the show’s run. After going through most of season four at a three of four episode a week pace, I went through six episodes in one day. That’s testament to the sheer cliffhanger addictiveness of this run.
‘The Exercise of Vital Powers’ did a good job of setting up the stakes for Garibaldi’s betrayal of Sheridan. There’s a lot of time spend building up Edgars and his agenda, and by the end, you can clearly see why he’s doing what he’s doing. The idea that corporations are the real power, and outlast the transient government is one with a lot of relevance for our world today. Bush may leave the White House, but Halliburton is still going to be around, and they’ll continue to exert their influence.
And, I think his fear of the Psi-Corps is perfectly understandable. We go into X-Men territory, literally referencing Homo Superior. If there really were telepaths, I wouldn’t want them going around without controls, and Edgars needs to create a mutually assured destruction scenario, where any attempt by them to take power would lead to their own deaths. Judging from the season finale, telepaths will remain a major issue, and cause Sheridan problems, and I’d imagine there will be forces out there seeking to revive Edgars’ plans. The world JMS has created is closer to what I imagine it’d actually be like if an evolved humanity did emerge. The X-Men may protest the Mutant Registration Act, but if someone with the power of a Xavier emerged who wasn’t willing to limit his powers and use them for good, he could destroy our entire society. The uneasy relationship between normals and the Psi Corps is perfectly understandable.
There’s a bunch of setup here, which culminates in ‘The Face of the Enemy,’ where Garibaldi calls Sheridan down to Mars and allows him to be captured. It’s a wonderfully tense setup, with Sheridan deciding to go even though everyone around him, and we the viewers, are aware that something’s not right. He walks into the bar and right from the beginning, it’s clear that something’s different. For one, this is the first rock song ever heard on the show. One of the reasons I have issue with period pieces and sci-fi films is that they can’t use contemporary music. While I love a good score, most composed stuff winds up receding into the background, serving as punctuation rather than a valid source of pleasure in and of itself. When you pick the right song to go with a scene, it can create a moment of pure film magic. I don’t know what the song in the bar scene was, but its air of menace and driving beat made the scene something special.
Stylistically, this sequence was unlike anything else the show has ever done. After it finished, I declared it the best scene in the entire series. That may have been a bit overzealous, I’d still give the edge to Londo watching Narn getting invaded in ‘The Long Twilight Struggle,’ but in terms of film technique, this is working on a whole different level. The strobe light as Sheridan is attacked was a fantastic start, then they drop in the still frames, color corrected to an odd texture, on top of that there’s the swinging light and jump cuts on Garibaldi, putting him alternately in light and darkness. The sequence goes on for a while, and like a nasty guitar solo at a concert, you just don’t want it to stop. I feel like Babylon 5 is a band that plays a tight set, sticks to the songs and delivers them well, in this moment they turned into a ridiculous jam band and cut loose for the first time. It’s great to see, and makes what could have been a fairly standard capture into a total immersion in pain. Just last post, I remarked that JMS had a lot of trouble showing characters in pain, this scene made up for those failures.
Watching the sequence reminded me of watching ‘Restless’ or ‘The Body’ on Buffy, this is a moment that’s just so far beyond the rest of the series in terms of technique, it can’t help but make you wonder what could have been if every scene was given the care and attention this one received, the effort to use all the techniques that film has to offer in service of telling the story. On a television schedule, it’s basically impossible to do that, most films don’t even come close, but it shows what you’re capable of doing with enough effort and consideration. Considering there’s so many different directors passing through, you’d think they could each bring something special, but it seems that the job of a director on a TV show is just to maintain a consistent style with what’s come before, not do their own thing. Doing their own thing could lead to a final arc of The Invisibles style artistic disjunction, but it could also lead to a much more exciting, visually dynamic world.
Anyway, I’m glad to have the scene, it’s a masterpiece and I hope we see more like it again. Having heard about Edgars’ plan, Garibaldi goes out and meets up with Bester, who debriefs him. When he first returned to the station, I was pretty clear that Garibaldi had undergone some kind of psychic manipulation, but as time passed, that kind of receded and I began to think that maybe he’d just changed. The resolution of his Judas arc is troubling for me because I think it erases everything that made his character interesting and more complex this season by basically hitting the reset button and returning him to his pre-season four incarnation.
I liked the idea that someone in Sheridan’s crew was skeptical about what he’s doing, and was offering a voice of opposition. JMS did a good job of making his grievances believable, though I did question whether even a disgruntled Garibaldi would set Sheridan up in the way he did. But, watching him there under the swinging light, I saw a guy who was resigned to playing out a role he didn’t necessarily relish. He didn’t consciously want Sheridan gone, but it had to be done, and he had no choice but to just sit back and watch it happen.
Now, there is an attempt to preserve some of Garibaldi’s agency, when Bester points out that they only brought out what was already there. I don’t have an issue with him being programmed, what I have an issue with is the way all that’s happened to him is just erased when Bester snaps him out of the program. It would have been much more interesting to have everything that happened be the result of them heightening what was already there, depriving him the chance to return to easy obedience. It would have been more interesting to see him continue his independence and maybe come to fight for what’s right on his own, rather than just snap back to his old persona. I know there was a ton of stuff going on, but he seems to get accepted back into the circle really easily. At least Sheridan should have had some issue, particularly since Garibaldi also put his father in danger. Now, maybe this will come up next season, but the flash forward in ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars’ indicates that Garibaldi is back as chief of security, working with Sheridan.
Ultimately, I feel like the choice to reset was an attempt to have it both ways. The character goes down a dark path and betrays the crew, but he can easily come back at the end. It’s like what would have happened in the original ending of the Dark Phoenix saga, blame the Phoenix for the crimes and let Jean off, ignoring the collateral damage of the planet she destroyed. It’s a cowardly move on a show that prides itself on making characters face the consequences of their actions.
But, regardless of this, having Sheridan get captured raises the bar on things so much, after that happened, I wasn’t going to stop watching until the story was over. This is the moment when the war with Clark gets personal, when we feel what he’s doing and share the rage the other characters feel at Earthgov. After the crazy bar sequence, we get another experimental thing, with the one set, play like ‘Intersections in Real Time.’ I admire the boldness of the episode, and think it does its job, but it’s exhausting to watch. Because we’re confined to one location, with all the scenes playing out in basically real time, we’re feeling the same thing as Sheridan, the frustration and imprisonment.
It reminds me a lot of the interrogation sequence in V For Vendetta, the way Alan Moore totally deconstructs Evie’s mind, until she has no concept of outside reality, just what lies inside the room. Sheridan’s interrogator is a seemingly nice guy, never lying to him, but that niceness becomes even more obnoxious than a ‘bad cop’ approach would be. Sheridan hates bureaucracy, so this kind of ‘just doing my job’ guy would be his worst enemy.
I feel like the episode has about 35 minutes of content, and suffers from the stretching. A lot of experimental episodes like this almost, but don’t quite make it, that’s what makes them simultaneously rewarding and frustrating. I love that they did something different, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sustained interrogation scene on TV, but I’m not sure I’d want to watch it again. JMS clearly has a major hatred of Orwellian style government persuasive techniques, and both this and ‘Illusion of Truth’ do a good job of showing the way that image can be distorted to serve a specific purpose. The episode with the Drazi is a fantastic example, giving Sheridan the illusion of victory than cruelly taking it from him at episode’s end. I always love this kind of mindfucking, and the ending really sold the extent of Sheridan’s torment.
This episodes ties in nicely with the scene 500 years in the future in ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ in which Sheridan’s image is literally reprogrammed to discourage the resistance. They couldn’t change the real Sheridan, but once he’s gone, they still want to harness the power of his image to serve their agenda.
Moving on to ‘Between the Darkness and the Light.’ Back on Babylon 5, a place we barely visit during this run of episodes, there’s the wonderful scene where Londo and G’Kar convene the League of Non-Aligned Worlds to go to war to help Sheridan. I love the way those two grew closer over this run of episodes, but more on that later. The significance of this scene is that it’s evidence of Sheridan’s dream in action, he has shown them the value of cooperation, the way that humans can be the glue to unite them all, and now they will go to war for him. It’s the perfect embodiment of the series’ central theme, the fact that the various races are more powerful together than apart, united they can make a better world. Rather than struggle with a corrupt Earth, they will liberate it and ensure that the galaxy is safe for peace.
Concurrent with this, there’s the Franklin/Lyta Mars plotline. Lyta has shown evidence of her vast psychic power by speaking with the Shadow telepaths, and that sets her off on the mission with Franklin to aid the Mars resistance. I like the tension that her presence with the resistance produces, particularly the awkwardness between her, Stephen and Number One. Even though I complained about the ease of Garibaldi’s redemption, I felt like his return to the resistance was suitably contested, he earned the return, and I particularly like the way he was able to use his notoriety to aid them in capturing Sheridan.
I really liked their mission to the bunker, they pulled off the exterior Mars scenes pretty well. That said, the acting on their contact in the bunker totally killed it for me everytime she was on. She was just so bad, it’s baffling to me that they wouldn’t do another take and try to get a better delivery. I’m sure there were a ton of things to consider in the episode, but that doesn’t mean you can forget about the little details.
The payoff the Shadow telepaths was good, particularly the scene in which Lyta brought them to life, nicely edited with the dissolves connecting her to them. I loved the way they had those shifting boxes of colored light on them. There was one shot with a woman who looked like Pris from Blade Runner that absolutely owned. Lyta brings back the black eyes, and a psychic talent that is so powerful, she must eventually suffer for it. If the history of genre fiction tells me anything, it’s that red haired women with vast psychic power whose eyes go black will eventually turn dark. Will she follow the path of Willow and Jean Grey next season?
Up on the ships, Ivanova leads her crew into battle against the hybrid Shadow Destroyers. These ships looked great, and I like the way shadow technology remains in the universe even after they’ve moved on, a reminder that wars may end, but darkness always remains. We see that again in the 2762 sequence in ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ forces analogous to Clark rise again and finally do scorch the Earth.
But, before that, we get the climactic battle between the Earth ships and Sheridan’s forces. The effects here are top notch, and the forces at work in the battle are clearly laid out. There’s a lot of ships, but we’re always aware of the stakes, particularly once we get down to the defense grid. The moment where the Agamemnon goes through the cloud of fire is the visual highlight of the battle. I don’t have too much to say about this other than it was cool and successfully wrapped up the Earth War storyline. I’m not sure that Clark would have killed himself, but I think it was necessary to bring about resolution, so I don’t really mind it. The fact that he wanted to take the whole Earth down with him is the perfect testament to the failures of his rule.
While the big battle was great, what really had me hooked was what was going on with Marcus and Ivanova. Back in the bedroom of the White Star, the place where all romantic connections happen, Ivanova reveals that she knew what Marcus told her in Minbari, then leaves the room. It was likely this statement that killed him because it gave him hope, but perhaps he’d rather have died with that hope than lived without it. Either way, things go awry when Ivanova is wounded and sent back to Babylon 5.
The more I watch of the show, the more it becomes clear that very few things in the first season happened without a larger reason. The healing machine was an alright standalone episode, but that episode was critical to earning the moment we get at the end of this episode. From the moment Lennier hesitated, I knew where we were headed, and in this case, I think that’s good writing. There’s an inherent tension once we know what Marcus could do, wondering whether he will do it.
The close of ‘Endgame’ is an absolutely heartbreaking moment, as Marcus tells Ivanova, “I love you.” This is the first time he’s outright expressed his feelings to her, but it’s only as he’s slipping away. At this point, I ran over to my shelf, got the last disc and put it in, then began ‘Rising Star.’ By this point, I needed to see the resolution of this story, there was no more waiting.
Throughout my reviews of the series, I’ve criticized JMS for not giving Ivanova much to do, and I know Claudia Christian said the same thing. For most of season four, she’s just sort of been there, but in this episode, she finally gets a powerful, emotional scene, and her final moments on the station are her best in the entire series. Right from his first appearance, JMS set up a potential Ivanova/Marcus relationship, and continued to hint at it as things went along, but it never paid off. I found this frustrating, I think he’s a great character, and I wanted to see him achieve his goals.
But, it just never happened, and in her last scene, Ivanova talks about this exact fact, the frustration that she feels at not having been able to open herself up to him. I was seriously close to crying here, and I usually don’t get that way with movies or TV. He had this total devotion to her and she couldn’t even let him know that she appreciated it. He sacrificed his life for her, and she didn’t even give him the slightest affection. It causes painful guilt, and that guilt will presumably haunt her for the rest of her life.
The final thing Ivanova says is that “All love is unrequited love,” a fine message for Valentine’s Day. I think it’s true in some sense, at least for these characters. As she and Stephen speak, JMS turns what I’d consider one of the series’ faults into an advantage. Rather than just being unemotional characters, we see that they each have deep emotions, but guard them zealously, not opening themselves up to potential love. I love the way they each speak about their own experience, but ultimately say the same things, ending with Ivanova collapsing in tears in Stephen’s arms, totally overwhelmed by the depth of what Marcus did for her. The only other things in the series that hit me this hard on an emotional level were the massive acts of destruction perpetrated by the Shadows, this is the first one that worked on a personal level.
The other scene that’s just devastating in this episode is Lennier and Delenn’s conversation. Lennier mentioned way back that he was in love with Delenn, but like Marcus, he is unable to pursue it. Delenn seems totally clueless about this, and gives him a touch on the cheek that seems to break his heart. We stay on him while Delenn walks away, lingering on the pain in his face, such a contrast to her joy. Without going deep into things, let’s just say that all this sadness of unrequited love hit home for me now.
Anyway, it’s the sign of a great work when it can bounce seamlessly from tears to laughter, and that’s what we get when Londo and G’Kar walk towards the shuttle together and discuss each other’s sexual prowess. The two of them have been through so much and emerge here at the end as friends. Back in ‘War Without End II,’ G’Kar called Londo “old friend,” and it’s clear not that wasn’t a sarcastic thing, by this point, they really are friends. They work together to build the new Alliance, and as the episode ends, are just hanging out together, enjoying each other’s company.
It’s been a long road for these two, and I feel like the détente was earned. They’re both aware of just how strong and willful the other is, and ultimately that makes them respect each other. Now, the impression I got is that when this episode was filmed, it was meant to be the second last of the series. For Londo and G’Kar, it plays that way. What I’m left wondering is where they’ll go next season, will there be a new source of tension between them or will they just stay aligned? While it probably makes sense to bring some tension back, I really don’t want that, I don’t want to see them opposed to each other again.
The other major revelation here is that Londo has been named Emperor. He knows that this will eventually bring his death, and that’s why he’s so subdued. It’s a piece that was going to fall into place eventually and now it’s come. I’m curious how this will play in season five. Now that the Alliance exists, it would make sense for him to be on Babylon 5 sometimes, but I’d assume he’d spend most of his time on Centauri. I’d imagine we’ll see the Drakh invasion at some point during the season, and presumably Londo’s possession by the keeper.
I loved this episode, but I do felt they went to the ISN broadcasts a couple too many times. I understand the need to convey exposition, but using ISN doesn’t give us any sort of emotional impact, it’s just pure infodump, and I think there would be more effective ways of letting us know what we need to.
Sheridan finds himself subject to Earth law again, and that initially poses a problem. I like the reversal when, after resigning, he reveals that he’s now president of the Alliance, and even more powerful than Earth’s own president. The Alliance is the final realization of the dream of Babylon 5, it is a legitimate hope for peace, and will live on long after the station is gone.
Sheridan and Delenn get a nice resolution, particularly in the scene with Sheridan’s father, where we see that Delenn has been accepted as part of the family. The final image of them lying in bed together is very sweet, and captures the thematic journey of the series, the union of human and alien in pursuit of peace. Sheridan and Delenn are the living incarnation of that dream, that’s why they are the thematic centerpiece of this season.
If this was the end of the series, I think it’d be a perfectly fine place to stop. Some of the supporting cast isn’t particularly resolved, but all the major people have a fitting end to their arcs. Garibaldi finally gets together with Lise, giving him a second chance at the happiness he lost back on Mars. It remains ambiguous whether he’ll return to Babylon 5, considering there’s another season, he definitely will, if there wasn’t, I’m not so sure.
Ivanova leaves the station, unable to deal with the issues surrounding her resurrection. Now, this is motivated by Claudia Christian leaving the show, but I think it still works. However, much like with Andrea Thompson’s departure, I feel like we needed another scene, a final conversation with Ivanova and Sheridan, to give the character closure. I suppose her breakdown to Stephen does that, but seeing a more sober Ivanova resigning her commission would have been fitting.
Stephen, Zack and Lyta would remain uncertain, but they were always on the periphery, all the critical plot and thematic work is done. The war is over, and even though there will be more struggles, things look good for the future. A major question I have is was the whole five year plan used by this point? Is the fifth season new stuff, or is it unused threads?
So, while I did have some issues, this run of episodes was overwhelming in its impact. When you’re watching a great show at its height, you enter a kind of trance, unable to do anything but watch more episodes. Buffy reached this point a lot, as did Six Feet Under, and B5 reached it here. I had no choice but to watch to this point, a line was crossed and I had to go until resolution. It’s epic, really powerful television, unlike anything else I’d seen, and for the first time, JMS also nailed the human component as well, giving us some excruciatingly emotional drama along the way. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t talk about, and I’ll cover some of it when I write up ‘Deconstruction of Falling Stars,’ an odd, but riveting season finale. That’s up next.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Note: 4x22 Spoilers in here as well