This is the end of Babylon 5. Well, not really, there are still two episodes left in the fourth season, and that surprise fifth season as well. But this is the end of the major arcs. All the major alien races have had their internal politics resolved; the grand mythology of the Shadow War is complete. The story that Babylon 5 wanted to go out on; the climax it wanted freshest in the memory, was the end of the Earth Civil War.
Here’s the problem with that: Earth doesn’t have a villain. Earth never had a villain. Sure, President Clarke has been a conceptual villain, but he’s only had a handful of scenes—one welcoming Sheridan to Babylon 5, and the one Ivanova digs up where he admits to the assassination of his predecessor. Both the scenes are on video, so Clark doesn’t have a physical presence, either. Compare this to the show’s other big villains, and the problem is easy to see. Lord Refa symbolized the corruption of the Centauri and Londo’s personal corruption as well, and William Forward devoured scenery better than almost anyone except John Vickery’s Neroon, who filled a similar role for the Minbari. Ed Wasser’s Morden gave a charmingly skeezy face to the Shadows, who otherwise would have been almost impossible to care about. And Walter Koenig’s Bester, while ostensibly Earth-based, was much involved in the currently-finished telepath arc than as a major player in EarthGov’s decision-making.
Indeed, with Bester’s removal from the main thrust of the storyline, the lack of a villain becomes even more prominent. This, I think, is the main goal of “Intersections In Real Time.” With Bester removed from the story, we have no real connection to Earth and its supposed evil. Every ship’s captain that we’ve seen has been conflicted and potentially swayed. No character has stood up said “this is what the fascist Earth means!” in the same way that every previous major political antagonist has had a character as a personification. “Intersections” makes this attempt, with Sheridan’s interrogator.
The interrogator is named “William,” according to the credits, although I far prefer his nameless state. Played by character actor Raye Birk, the interrogator is an ideal representation of the Hannah Arendt’s influential conception of fascism. He is the embodiment of Arendt’s “banality of evil.” With a mildly friendly exterior—which is easily broken by any resistance—he claims to be a friend who never lies, but resorts to physical torture almost immediately, and to lies as a basic reflex.
But I think what makes Birk’s portrayal so effective is that he’s allowed to crack. (“Now it’s not the same as breaking you, but I’m told that...as of this morning...it’s an acceptable solution.”) At the moments of the greatest lies, the interrogator halts, speaks weakly, can’t quite bring himself to give the complete lie. In one sense, this is a fairly normal (for Babylon 5) lack of subtlety, where not even the embodiment of “the system” can believe in that system.
On the other hand, I think it’s an interesting, and perhaps unintentional, critique of that idea of fascism. In temporarily breaking in emotion—but never actually breaking in action—the interrogator creates a question: is he supposed to be taken at face value as the embodiment of banality who can’t maintain that and thus deserves some measure of sympathy, or are those moments of artificial weakness designed to imbue the watcher with a sense of sympathy and exploit that for all it’s worth? It’s sort of a Schrodinger’s cat situation—until we know for sure, and we may never know for sure, we may as well believe both sides. The interrogator is both a human being who happens to be good at a very distasteful job in service of the state, and he’s also a vile pawn who’s given himself over to fascism and is willing to act the part to the hilt.
This ambiguity serves the character well in terms of debating the nature of fascism, but it may work too well. The interrogator is an embodiment of those ideas of fascism: he’s from Nazi Germany; he’s from 1984; he’s from The Prisoner; but, and this is where Babylon 5 falls down, he’s not from President Clark’s Earth. All of those other villains I mentioned at the start of the review? They were characters first, with individual characteristics and rivalries and so on. The interrogator? He’s nothing, but he’s deliberately nothing. As such, he’s an idea more than a villain, and as much as I can admire JMS’ confrontation of those certain ideals, I’m not sure that he actually serves the story of Babylon 5 particularly well other than giving us certainty of Sheridan’s, well, certainty.
This makes “Intersections In Real Time” an episode that focuses on an ostensible portrayal of villainy (“If anything, they’ll encourage you to travel, so that more people can see you as a symbol of the preeminent truth of our time: that you cannot beat the system”) without actually depicting the manifestation of that villainy. Or, to put it simply: the interrogator is meant to represent “the system” but the particulars of Clark’s takeover—an assassination less than three years before—makes the idea that “the system” is to blame for the overreach of an ambitious political leader seem ridiculous. President Clark is the Earth equivalent of Lord Refa, a man whose ambitions can take advantage local chaos. But the show has never made it clear that Clark is the system himself, and attempting to do now, at this late date, cannot succeed.
If there is an attachment to the grand themes of Babylon 5, it’s a subtle one, rarely directly expressed by the show. Babylon 5 is a show that relies on its characters having agency. When they believe they have free will, they act as good people, even heroes. It’s when they pretend that they have no choice that they turn into villains—which literally happened to Londo, yelling “I have no choice!” in “The Coming Of Shadows.” The interrogator’s role, across the course of the episode, is an attempt to make Sheridan believe that he—like everyone else—doesn’t have a choice. (“I’m here to do a job, nothing more. You are a name, a file, a case number. I have no desire to inflict pain, but I will do so, when and as it is required. The level of discomfort you feel will be entirely up to you.”) But Sheridan, in true existentialist fashion, always chooses. And most of the time, he chooses a rejection of the terms. The interrogator, on the other hand, surrenders. He’s always been a prisoner. “I’m...sorry they had to do that. But as I told you, it’s not my choice.”
Yet even if it can’t entirely succeed at pulling the entire season together, “Intersections In Real Time” works remarkably well on its own, as a short play about the torture of a science fiction prisoner. Birk and Boxleitner work well off one another, and the apparent release of tension of the ending, only to be revealed to be more of the same, is exactly the sort of thing that should work in this sort of story. And it does work. It just doesn’t connect well enough to Babylon 5 as a whole to make the Earth Civil War seem deeper—and the initial plan, of this being the fourth season finale, seems so risky as to be implausible.
The lack of effective villains continues throughout the next two episodes, hampering the supposed climax of the entire series. “Between The Darkness And The Light” struggles with this in two respects. First, Garibaldi, who’s been an apparent-but-obviously-not-really villain all season finally has his manipulation made public, as he runs into the Mars Resistance, Lyta, and Franklin. Here he tells them that his mind was toyed with by Bester, and here Lyta checks it out, and yep, they believe him. From here on out—other than an occasional throwaway line—Garibaldi is part of the crew again. Any questioning that had ever been done is tossed by the wayside.
Indeed, the next two episodes go out of their way to re-establish Garibaldi as funny and good more than anything else, like when he teases Lyta about being a “good liar” or sets the codenames up as “Grumpy to Sleepy, Sneezy and Doc.” The problem with that is that we’ve spent so much time worrying about Garibaldi that immediately taking him back—even if it’s technically accurate and the right thing to do—feels wrong. This is a problem with mind control as a plot device, and it will always be a problem with using that shortcut as a plot device. Perhaps with a full fourth and fifth season, B5 could have made it work, but given the reliance on it with the Drakh Keepers and Garibaldi, I think mind control, sadly, was in B5 to stay in a negative way.
Second, the climax of “Between The Darkness And The Light” focuses on a thoroughly uninspiring antagonist in the commander of the fleet of Earth’s “advanced destroyers.” Here we have the supposed embodiment of everything that’s gone wrong on Earth, with the scientific advancement of the “advancement” being Shadow technology, which is as evil as evil gets on Babylon 5. Yet it just appears out of nowhere, turns into a briefly tough fight, and is gone just as quickly. there’s no particular process there, nor an effect. The visuals of the Shadow tech are supposed to be sufficient.
Now, I don’t want to over-criticize B5 here. These are good episodes, perhaps as consistently competent as the show ever gets, and they succeed at raising the stakes and conveying the story in the proper fashion. But without that villain, without that clarity of just how EarthGov has been ruined, they’re a mild—a very mild—disappointment.
“Endgame” succeeds at demonstrating exactly why these episodes work more than not working, because it manages to tap into the archetypes that the season has been pointing toward. This is Earth. And Earth is, at this point, America, or some amalgamation of America with the idea of “Western civilization” in all its modern best and worst forms. Babylon 5 wants to present the idea of EarthGov as theoretically the best that its viewers and their systems can manage, and it does so, but it also indicates just how fragile those concepts and ideals are. And we see that when we see Clark turn the orbital defense system against the shape of those continents.
“Endgame” shows that in just a handful of images: The political and her handful of troops, marching on Clark’s office. The Agamemnon blasting through the debris of the potential Earth bombardment, rising like a phoenix. And the one that got me, the ISN reporter who’d been the face of the network since the show started, reappearing and being overcome by emotion on the set, grateful for her freedom. I’ve been cynical about Babylon 5’s ability to discuss the media with any honesty before, but this moment, investing that single character with the idea of the legitimacy and having her emotions overwhelm her, presents the symbolic importance of Sheridan’s campaign more than anything else has done.
And this is okay. This is good, even. The fourth season of Babylon 5 aims for competence and consistency more than any of the other seasons, and it relies on getting the symbolism of the massive events of the season right to have any power, and dammit, those things do have power. It may struggle with the details, but Babylon 5 gets the core of its story right, and at the climax, that’s the most important thing.
“Intersections In Real Time”
- “You can’t have a corned beef sandwich for breakfast!”
- “A soldier accepts that the face of truth changes on a daily basis.” JMS has it in for a certain form of postmodernism, which we’ll talk about more next time.
- “No, YOU have no rights! There’s no courtroom here, captain, no tribunals, no attorneys, no justice, no mercy, no fairness, no hope, no last-minute escape. You will walk through that door when you confess and not one second before!” This is possibly the finest monologue of a monologue-heavy trilogy of episodes.
“Between The Darkness And The Light”
- “Yeah, and a dog ate your homework.” I like Number One and I don’t even care.
- “What if it was of your people. Wouldn’t you want to hear him out?” “No.” Again.
- “But now, the Humans are the glue that holds us together.” Obviously, there’s not a huge amount for the non-Humans to do in these episodes, but as far as redemption for the petty concerns of Londo and G’Kar previously goes, this works.
- Lyta comedy, though? That doesn’t work.
- “I don’t want TV. It’s an cultural wasteland filled with inappropriate metaphors and an unrealistic portrayal of life created by the liberal media elite.”
- “Who am I? I am Susan Ivanova. Commander. Daughter of Andrej and Sophie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengeance, and the boot that is gonna kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart. I am death incarnate. And the last living thing that you are ever going to see. God sent me.”
- Sheridan’s teacher doesn’t have a strong enough role this week to make an impression, but I feel like watching “In The Beginning,” which is on the schedule for the next time around, really fleshes him out well.
- “I don’t win this war they’re dead either way. Now they’re fighting for Earth just as we are, they just don’t know they’re doing it.” The teepsicles get their climax. Is this enough, given the amount of buildup they’ve received? I’m not so sure.
- “For justice. For peace. For the future! We. Have. Come. Home.” Okay, Sheridan’s monologue is pretty awesome too.
- “All power to engines. Give me ramming speed.” And then the Apollo jumps in, and things get emotional even though I know this is just plot stuff and CGI but damn, the timing and direction is just perfect.
- I...don’t know what to say about Ivanova and Marcus here. He’s the ultimate white knight. He gets to give himself to pure love without actually having to put himself out there into the messiness of real people and relationships. I don’t know if that’s what’s intended but I know that I’ve never been able to take it totally seriously because it’s such a nerdy boy thing to do.
Next week, on Babylon 5: We’re going to discuss B5 mythologizing itself with the final two episodes of season four, the premiere of season five, and the TV movie “In The Beginning.”