This is the end of Babylon 5.
Every so often I talk to people who watched Babylon 5 when it aired, and they remember the story as the Shadow War. Sure, they might also remember that some things happened after, but they all get lumped into “barely canon Season 5” as opposed to “essential parts of the show.” These two episodes, are seemingly the ending.
According to most currently popular storytelling forms, these people shouldn't be wrong. The end of the biggest part of the mythology should also serve the climax of the entire series. Battlestar Galactica beats the evil Cylons and finds Earth and finds out what it all means. Buffy The Vampire Slayer defeats the First Evil and comes to terms with her lovers and sets up a new generation of Slayers. Doesn't have to be TV, either. In Mass Effect, Shepard wins the war with the Reapers and confronts the Illusive Man and finds out what it all means.
This may be the defining characteristic of Babylon 5, the thing that sets it apart from all these other serialized stories: it's not afraid to get smaller. All these other serialized stories believe that the best way to tell their story is to combine their character arcs with their mystery arcs with their mythological arcs, and have those all occur at the last point possible. We, the audience, go into the finale or last scenes of a Battlestar Galactica or a Mass Effect needing to know why everything is the way it is, and our heroes to be heroic, and have the universe come to satisfactory resting point. With these huge, often contradictory impulses, is it any wonder that these finales end up, well, “controversial” or just plain terrible?
So what makes Babylon 5 special, at the macro level, is that it understands this. It separates its huge character moments from its major revelations and especially from its grand confrontations. There's not much character-building in these two episodes, not compared to Delenn being destroyed and reforged in “Confessions And Lamentations” followed by “Comes The Inquisitor.” There are actions taken that will have repercussions, yes, but they progress naturally from the characters as we already know them. And yes, there are revelations, but the revelations are small-scale, about why the Vorlons and the Shadows have been behaving the way they have been in this fourth season, more than This Is Why The Universe Is The Way It Is.
This is what gives “Into The Fire,” the final episode of the Shadow War, ostensibly the reason for Babylon 5's existence, the chance to be satisfactory. And “satisfactory” is apparently rare. Those three examples I gave earlier? Well, Buffy's finale was satisfactory in that it was “the best possible after a shitty season,” but Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica's finales are some of my least favorite chunks of storytelling, er, ever. And I never made it this far, but reading Todd and Zack's review of the final episode of The X-Files makes me delighted that I never did. Not only did Carter and company try to include character, mythology, and mystery, but they also had to reintroduce Mulder to the story. No wonder it was a mess.
Thus “Into The Fire” is satisfactory. It ends the Shadow War. It does it without breaking anything. The themes of Babylon 5 remain intact: good leaders unify diverse groups, redemption is possible but not without consequence. The characters remain intact, in fact, their agency remains the heart of the episode, from Sheridan allowing Ivanova to join the battle against his impulse to protect her, to Londo achieving as full a redemption as he possibly can when he demands Vir kill him, to, of course, Delenn and Sheridan demanding that they and all of the younger races have agency, against the will of the Vorlons and the Shadows. There may be a god-in-the-box in the literal sense, thanks to Lorien's presence, but no higher power interrupts these characters' ability to be themselves.
And yet “Into The Fire” rarely rises above not-screwing-it-up. Forget being a classic episode on the level of “The Long Twilight Struggle” or “Severed Dreams,” “Into The Fire” struggles to have great scenes or moments, a bit of a problem for such an important episode. Sheridan's “NOW GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR GALAXY!” does end up being memorable, but that's partially because of its prominent placement in the season five intro. But the biggest things, the space battle with the Vorlons and the Shadows and the budding Interstellar Alliance doesn't have much momentum. And Delenn and Sheridan finally arguing the Shadows and Vorlons into submission is, like too much of the episode, functional without being surprising. (With one major exception, covered below)
There’s another formal reason that “Into The Fire” feels less momentous than it should. Between the third and fourth season, the special effects company for the show got changed, and I think that had negative effects on the space battles. The ships and their movement feel more stilted in this season, and the dynamic chaos of a battle like the one in “Shadow Dancing” seems far away from this battle that takes place more in metaphor than on-screen.
Sure, this was a bit of a disappointment at the time. Babylon 5 does have a great track record of having its most important episodes be its best, but that's not the case here. But in retrospect, seeing how many serialized stories have failed at the final hurdle, or worse, I'm not disappointed anymore. Being serviceable is impressive on its own.
Of course, it also helps that this isn't the end. Even at the time, “Into The Fire” was known to not be the end, and the at least sixteen episodes in front of it promised more time to take care of what was ignored in favor of a massive galactic conflagration. We'll see the political and personal fallout of this war, and we'll also see most of the storylines that were left undiscussed. It's a promise that can be made simply from its position in the season, especially when combined with Babylon 5's general success at maintaining major stories that it had introduced.
But what most saves “Into The Fire,” and “The Long Night,” and really all six of these early season four episodes, is a point of structure. As serialized as they may be, they still fit into the traditional television format of having an A-plot and a B-plot. And, as is also traditional, the A-plot may exist for heroes to be heroic, and the B-plot exists to add personality to the proceedings. So while Sheridan, Delenn, and the rest of the heroes are confronting impossible odds with resolute jaws, Londo, G’Kar, and Vir are facing political and personal challenges that are far more interesting
Part of that is that, well, I was going to say that they have more interesting villains, but really they have villains at all. Emperor Cartagia’s manic intelligence is at its strongest in “The Long Night” (“Remember what you see here for it is the stuff of legend”), and his characterization/portrayal is never clearer than in the scenes with the jester. Cartagia defuses a tense situation with humor—the humor of near genocide against his own people, yes, but humor nonetheless—and follows that up with petty vindictiveness.
Meanwhile, that one fantastic scene from “Into The Fire” occurs when Babylon 5’s biggest villain, Mr. Morden, finally has his secrets and his bluffs exposed, as Londo coolly destroys his entire persona in a few short minutes. “So what are you gonna do, Mollari? Blow up the island?” “Actually...now that you mention it....” It’s hardly a new opinion to suggest that Londo and G’Kar are the best parts of the show, but it’s really on display here. They have the high drama, entertaining interplay, and moments of excellence like G’Kar cackling his way out of being named leader of Narn.
It is the supposed B-story that holds these episodes together. The universe may burn, ideologies may be exposed, and aliens who totally aren’t Gandalf may turn into giant orbs of light, but as long as the best characters have their own, human stories, and as long as there’s a promise that these stories can continue to exist on Babylon 5, “Into The Fire” isn’t the end. It’s a necessary step in continuing a story. If only more serialized speculative fiction understood how this worked.
- “There is no choice!” cries Londo, arguing for Cartagia’s assassination. This is the consistent cry of the tragic villain, as Londo was, as he argued a season ago and beyond at his darkest. Interesting to hear him use it again here, when he’s on the side of light.
- “My eye...offended him. Doesn't matter. I can see things now that were invisible to me before. An empty eye sees through to an empty heart.”
- Walter White shows up! It’s...not all that exciting. There’s only a line reading or two where you can even see the hint of what Cranston could do on screen; if he weren’t the star of two later long-running shows, his appearance would be totally unremarkable.
- “You would tell the stars to darken on a whim??”
- The best character moment in both episodes: Londo tells Vir “I was not kind to you.”
- Delenn realizes that the Vorlons and the Shadows are in it as a sport, with thousand-year seasons. “After all, if you destroy the Vorlons, they'll never see that you were right, and they were wrong.”
- So I’m writing a book about Mass Effect, in theory, and have been working on the chapter on the ending for months, continually finding new lenses with which to declare it terrible. So I’m watching Delenn and Sheridan being given the chance to actually reject the options the genocidal maniacs put in front of them as the “only” options and I just get annoyed, once again, that a game so dependent on letting the main character argue against authority totally forgets that at the point when it needs it most. I mean, look at these:
- “You're like a couple of parents arguing in front of their kids. Manipulating them, trying to get them to choose sides....But what if the right choice is not to choose at all?” “What if we simply walk away?”
- “It's over because WE'VE DECIDED IT'S OVER. NOW GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR GALAXY”
- “Will you...come with us?” And then there’s this, indicating, properly, the utter patheticness that undergirded the pseudo-gods all along.
- We finally find out what the “Third Age” is. And it’s kinda boring. Unmanipulated, manipulated, now free? That’s it?
- “The Long Night” plus “The Long Twilight Struggle” plus “The Long Dark”? Sometimes I think JMS is worse at headlines than I am.
Reminder that the schedule is different this time around. In two weeks, 4/25, I will be covering episodes 7-9 of the fourth season, as well as the TV movie “Thirdspace.”