“Chrysalis” (season one, episode 22; originally aired 10/3/1994)
“Nothing’s the same anymore.”
Massive changes are common in season finales. There are few better ways to maintain interest in a show over a several-month period than to keep fans wanting to know what happens next. Cliffhangers offer a temporary jolt, but they’re too easily spotted by savvy audiences. Changing the rules that the show had operated on, on the other hand, suggests that the entire next season will be different and unpredictable. It won’t be the same anymore.
President Santiago hasn’t been a major force on Babylon 5, with his name mentioned a few times and one episode built around a speech of his on the station. So his assassination is not, on its face, a major event for the Babylon 5 universe. But on a social level, it’s powerful. Most televised science fiction is built on modern conceptions of political order. EarthForce isn’t so different from the United States military which isn’t so different from the Colonial Armed Forces. Even Star Trek’s Federation uses easily understandable American military-style ranks and designations. It’s not just military, either, it’s politics as a whole. The way normal citizens conduct their political actions on these shows is consistent with contemporary understandings of politics. The election shown earlier on Babylon 5 seemed to be an essentially American election. This is convenient for the shows themselves, of course, as they don’t have to explain electoral intricacies. On the other hand, it leads to absurdities like the nonsensically Americanized, electoral college-style election in Battlestar Galactica, but Babylon 5 doesn’t have the society-shattering premise that BSG did.
Given all that, the assassination of the president taps into the viewers’ understandings of the show’s universe. When “Chrysalis” aired, little more than 30 years had passed since John F. Kennedy’s death, one of the most powerful cultural touchstones in media history. In 2012, it’s easier to read the killing of Santiago as a September 11th-like event for the characters, but regardless of which national tragedy it reminds you of, it’s deliberately evocative.
More importantly, the Santiago assassination is also effectively evocative. Babylon 5 has never been better at building momentum than it is at the climax of “Chrysalis.” It starts with the music, which I don’t think I’ve discussed in a while in this space. Christopher Franke’s New Age flourishes can be a little bit dubious at times, especially early in the series, but here, he drives the action as Garibaldi crawls toward the elevator, then talks to Sinclair in MedLab, followed by the desperate attempts to hail the doomed EarthForce One. The actors, writing, scope, and particularly the ISN broadcast are all on-point here, as well. We get the feeling, as we should, that this is monumental. That nothing will be the same anymore. Santiago is just a name as a person—but as a symbol, he’s powerful.
The drama leading to the death of Santiago may not even be the best part of “Chrysalis,” either. The episode marks the return of the mysterious Morden from “Signs And Portents,” as he forms a more direct alliance with Londo Mollari. Morden’s charm, smarm, and danger are all evident once again in his scenes with Londo (and it’s always nice to see Ed Wasser’s name in the credits), but it’s different this time. He’s not killing cartoon villains to aid the friendly Ambassador Mollari. He’s ordering the deaths of thousands of Narn based on a vaguely worded favor to Londo. “I didn’t know you cared,” he hisses at Londo's misgivings, as it becomes quite apparent that this partnership is bad news for the galaxy, even as it seems like good news for Londo. “They’ve noticed you, ambassador, which was the point of the exercise.”
And then there’s Delenn, whose actions give the episode its title. She’s desperate to get information—from Kosh—but also to give it, to Sinclair. She succeeds in the former, although we can see exactly what she sees when Kosh comes out of his encounter suit. The latter is a failure, though, as Sinclair arrives in her quarters too late to learn what she wanted to tell him. Delenn is literally, physically changing, with no clue as to what she’s changing into.
One of the most impressive things about “Chrysalis” is the way it manages to feel like a circle completed. There are so many resolutions to the themes of the season, from the incessant Narn-Centauri bickering we saw in “Midnight On The Firing Line” to the meaning of the block puzzle Delenn’s been building for the bulk of the season. There’s also Sinclair proposing marriage to Catherine Sakai, and Garibaldi’s lack of heed paid to previous warnings to watch his back. For the first time in “Chrysalis” we can see the advantages of J. Michael Straczynski’s long-term planning. The structure of season was sound; individual components were remembered and formed the structure of a larger plot. It’s just a glimpse right now, and it’s conceivable that the show could walk this back, or never mention it again, but the promise of serialization is unavoidable.
And, at this point, nearly 20 years after “Chrysalis” first aired, it’s worth noting that “Nothing’s the same anymore” is a promise fulfilled. It’s no secret that Michael O’Hare left the show after the first season (and, sadly, his over-awkward monologue proposing marriage is a pretty decent signifier as to why: “Look, do you wanna get married or don’t you?”). A viewer today—unless they’re surprisingly well-insulated—will almost certainly know that a new captain arrives next season. That means an inherently new dynamic, beyond serialization. Babylon 5 is guaranteed to be a different show in season two.
The events of “Chrysalis” imply that it’ll be a better show, too. It’s one thing to have serialization, but still another to have serialization where the heroes have a chance to lose. Babylon 5 has featured less-than-ideal outcomes before, but they haven’t happened in such major situations. Every great TV show needs to have a sucker punch, a moment where you realize that the characters aren’t all good, either in effectiveness or morality. This isn’t Babylon 5’s biggest sucker punch—though that’s not far away—but showing the characters trying, and utterly failing, to save the head of their government indicates that Babylon 5 is playing for keeps.
The chief complaint that potential Babylon 5 viewers have—and probably the show’s single biggest weakness overall—is that the first season starts too slow and awkwardly. “Chrysalis” takes those complaints and shatters them. We’re starting to see here what the show is capable of, and it’s close to its very best here. This isn’t to say that Babylon 5 is all better than this moving forward, but more that the series doesn’t need excuses made for it from here on out.
- “Like being nibbled to death by cats.” A few moments of levity in an otherwise tense episode.
- “There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all you will ever be.” Watching the full first season in a relatively condensed fashion makes you realize how much the Londo-is-funny-but-has-regrets idea gets hammered home. It’s usually done well, of course, and possibly never better than here when it needs to be most important.
- Between Babylon 5, Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, and, of course, The Sopranos, there’s a great thesis in the idea of favors as currency on television.
- “Ten thousand of our best warriors, dead. As if some great hand reached out of the sky.”
- The traitor who shoots Garibaldi in the back is a character without much of a history on the show, although we’ve seen him here and there. This is unfortunate, and largely an issue of recasting. It seems likely that Laurel Takashima, who was dumped after the pilot, would have been the shooter, something theoretically far more affecting.
- “And so it begins…” Kosh, the Narrator.
- “He is an annoying man, but, I would miss him, if he were to…” And after Londo appears to sell his soul, he stops and demonstrates that such transactions are not so black and white.
Next time: We’re taking a short break and letting the new television season have a chance to breathe. Season-two coverage will be begin in November. It starts a little slow compared to “Chrysalis” and “Babylon Squared,” but builds momentum like very few shows then or now. Tell your friends!