“The Coming Of Shadows” (season two, episode nine; originally aired 2/1/1994)
“The Coming Of Shadows” is the defining episode of Babylon 5. It’s not necessarily the best—although it’s in that discussion—but it is the episode that demonstrates what Babylon 5 attempts to do, what it’s capable of doing, its best characters at their best, its plot at its most eventful, and its themes writ large. Along the way it shatters the status quo, making it unclear where the show’s arc will proceed from here. It would be a lot of fun, it it weren’t built on tragedy.
The episode opens on Centauri Prime, where Emperor Turhan has decided to travel to Babylon 5 over the objections of his prime minister. After the show spent the entire first season tied to the station itself, Babylon 5 has started to show happenings elsewhere in the universe: on Mars in a few recent episodes, and here, on an alien world, in the seat of power. This isn’t just because the budget has increased, either—the scope of Babylon 5 is expansing, as the events of “The Coming Of Shadows” demonstrate, and the effects of actions taken on the station are manifesting outside the station.
The emperor is motivated to give a speech on Babylon 5, and the first third of the episode moves swiftly to show how everyone plans to react to this. For tension’s sake, the subject of Turhan’s speech is kept secret from the viewer. Meanwhile, Londo and his conservative ally, Refa, want to use the visit to their advantage. Refa gives Londo a prepared speech—“I’ve had experts in psycholinguistics working on it for weeks. It’s perfect”—indicating that he’s leaving nothing to chance. Londo and Vir are less certain. “This conversation. Makes you uncomfortable?” “Yes. Yes it does.” “Then for once, we have something in common.”
G’Kar, too, believes he’s leaving nothing to chance. Initially he protests on the grounds that the emperor’s family committed crimes against sentients on Narn. Sheridan notes that the current emperor wasn’t involved, to which G’Kar replies, with perhaps my favorite line reading in the entire series, “A technicality!” With protest failing, G’Kar makes a more active plan: assassinating the emperor. He, like Refa, is certain. “For the first time in my life, the path is clear.”
This section of the episode moves too quickly, to be honest, which is a problem for some of Babylon 5’s most eventful episodes—“Signs And Portents” suffered slightly from this, as well as season three’s “Messages From Earth.” The show can be so appropriately slow, and almost always considerate of new viewers, that when it throws the shackles off and assumes high audience interest from the start, it’s a little disorienting.
The tension building up to the Emperor’s speech is a trick, however. On his way to the reception, Turhan’s health fails, and he collapses. Even more surprising: He reveals that his speech was intended for G’Kar. The Centauri Emperor wanted to find a Narn and apologize for the brutal oppression his people had engaged in. As Refa and G’Kar had been so certain of what they had to do, Turhan was trying to make a difficult decision. As he told Sheridan, “It has occurred to me that I have never had a choice in anything.”
Turhan’s wisdom in seeing opportunity to do good where none had existed is directly contrasted with Londo’s tragic mistake. With the throne about to be vacant, Refa tells Londo that their faction needs help in ensuring they can take the throne. But they need a symbol, and Londo is prepared to give them one—by using Mr. Morden and his allies to start a war with the Narn. Vir tries to talk him out of it: “Londo, don’t do this!” “I have no choice!”
The theme of choice, of free will, of making the decision to do evil, is one of the most common and fruitful in serialized, dramatic television. The Sopranos is built around the idea that Tony Soprano might be a good guy with a job that forces him to do evil, but at every opportunity to do better, he failes. The Wire’scharacters famously followed family, orders, a code of masculinity, anything that would give them a way to avoid doing the right thing. On Angel you could always tell when something was going horribly wrong, because a character would grimace and say “I didn’t have a choice.” I think the only times that line is ever uttered on television is when the character actually does have a choice, and they’re doing the wrong thing. That’s clearly the case with Londo here.
But it doesn’t quite ring true. Certainly we’ve seen Londo wish for the glory of the Centauri Republic, and he’s manipulated events to save face in the past. But deliberately triggering a shooting war? It goes enough against the good we’ve seen in Londo in the past season and a half, as well as the semi-respect he’s developed with G’Kar, that I feel like slightly more turmoil would have been appropriate.
The decision does lead to two sequences which show off how Babylon 5’s deliberately planned structure makes it so powerful. Following Londo’s choice for war, and G’Kar’s discovery of the emperor’s apology plan, the show engages in a textbook example of dramatic irony. G’Kar grabs Londo to buy him a drink in celebration of potential friendship, while Londo squirms, knowing he’s set up a war. The Narn-Centauri conflict is generally the most interesting aspect of Babylon 5, and these are its two best characters. All that history gives the scene a strength that overpowers its total lack of subtlety and slightly misplaced slapstick as G’Kar grabs Londo.
It also leads directly into the most impressive structural moment of the episode, when G’Kar, discovering Londo’s betrayal, seeks out Londo to kill him, and is talked down by Sheridan. It’s a near-mirror image of a scene from the first episode, when Sinclair faces down an angry Londo Mollari and talks the Centauri down. The differences show much has changed: then, the Narn were ascendant, bullying their way across the galaxy, while the Centuari lost face at every turn. Then, Londo was a sad buffoon, while G’Kar was a capricious villain. Then, the show would find a way for the good guys to win and maintain peace. Now, the Centauri and Londo are the villains. And now, one of the final scenes of the episode is a crushed G’Kar declaring to the council “Our hope for peace is over. We are now at war. We are now at war.”
And speaking of Sinclair, he makes his return here, if only on a recorded video sent to Garibaldi and Delenn. His initial disappearance from the show certainly seemed like he was shoved out based on behind-the-scenes politicking. But there was too much baggage for his character, particularly the vision of the future in “Babylon Squared,” to disappear entirely, and bringing him back indicates that the show hasn’t forgotten its promises. There’s not much plot content to his reappearance—he introduces a paramilitary group he’s in charge of called Rangers—but emotionally, it gives some hope and recognition to an otherwise dark episode.
There’s a common term for a television show which makes a change and gets significantly better: “Growing the beard,” a reference to William Riker’s changed appearance in the improved second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.It’s partially appropriate for Babylon 5 in its second season, but “The Coming Of Shadows” marks an even more marked improvement. It’s the specific episode where a fairly interesting show does something so unexpected and powerful that the show has the potential to be great. It’s when the show “Fucks the vampire.” This is the episode that shifted the potential range of quality for every single episode from bad-to-great to okay-to-awesome. This is the episode when Babylon 5 became worthy of being called a classic.
- “The Coming Of Shadows” was the first of two Babylon 5 episodes to with the Hugo forBest Dramatic Presentation.
- “G’Kar. Don’t do something we’ll both regret.” “It’s too late for that, Captain. Too late by far.”
- Conceptually I like the idea of Babylon 5 going to different places, but the framing shots of the buildings the events take place in look absolutely terrible a lot of the time.
- “By this time tomorrow we will be at war with the Narn. May the Great Maker forgive me.”
- “Hello old friend.”
- “How will this end?” “In fire.” Kosh, always the life of the party. Although Sinclair does tell Garibaldi to stay close to the Vorlon.
- Londo describes the emperor’s dying words publicly: “He said, ‘Continue. Take my people back to the stars.’” And privately: “He said that we are both damned.” “Well. It’s a small enough price to pay for immortality,” Refa replies.
- Neither the emperor nor the prime minister’s names are given in this episode, but later episodes named them Turhan and Malachai—the actors’ respective first names. Cute, and actually pretty effective.
- Why is G’Kar’s ringing “A technicality!” not a two-second YouTube video I can quickly link to during online arguments?