“The Long, Twilight Struggle” (season two, episode 20; originally aired 10/18/1995)
Babylon 5 understands tragedy. That’s the easiest way to explain what makes the series so fantastic when it’s at its best. Babylon 5 understands that tragedy is about all-too-human mistakes, driven by short-term emotions. It also understands the power of verbalizing tragedy, of the power of words to build powerful metaphors or descriptions. It is a Shakespearean tragedy, which is a loaded term given the degree of canonization attached to the name, but still effective at describing Babylon 5’s core elements of dramatic character development, monologues, and events gone wrong—on both a grand and personal level.
“The Long, Twilight Struggle” is Babylon 5’s most tragic episode. It’s also the series’ best episode. The story is properly epic: The Narn-Centauri War comes to its conclusion when the Shadows swing a critical battle. The character development involves Londo and G’Kar hitting their nadirs—Londo corrupted by darkness, G’Kar beaten and broken. The writing is top-notch, with Babylon 5’s normal speechiness fitting the gravitas of the situation perfectly, as does the actors’ scenery-chewing. A year or two ago, TV Club writers were given a few grading guidelines, which included the elimination of the “A+” as a general grade, with the only exception being TV Club Classic shows where the writer had seen the show before and was willing to elevate a single episode as its very best. Since seeing that, I knew that if I got to review Babylon 5, “The Long, Twilight Struggle” had to be the “A+” selection for Babylon 5.
Londo and G’Kar, the show’s two best characters, dominate “The Long, Twilight Struggle.” They have to, and they have to do it well, because the episode largely depicts the end of the Narn-Centauri War through a handful of conversations. Londo and Refa discuss the Centauri plans in the Centauri throne room, while G’Kar is briefed on the Narn all-in attack on a Centauri supply base to prevent the war from ending too quickly. G’Kar is told by a single liaison from his government that they are about to surrender. He goes to Sheridan, and asks for sanctuary on Babylon 5. All of these two-person scenes are critical, all of them have Londo and G’Kar in them, and Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas, as well as Bruce Boxleitner and guest stars William Forward and W. Morgan Sheppard nail every single one of them.
Those guest stars, plus John Schuck taking over as a younger Draal, illustrate one of the critical factors in Babylon 5’s success: Scenery chewing is awesome. Schuck beats everyone else in the episode at excessive theatrics, even Forward’s Refa, as he rolls every syllable and infuses every line with a pleasant pomposity. “You do not take custody of a planet, a planet takes custody of you.” When Babylon 5 main characters and guest stars go all-out, the show is usually at its best. This isn’t a coincidence, and it makes a certain kind of sense: Shakespearean storytelling works best with theatrical actors.
Another essential component in Babylon 5’s success is its music. Christopher Franke’s score becomes one of the dominant forces of the show during extended CGI sequences like the battle scene here. He builds the tension through rapid rhythm, indicates that something has gone wrong with atonal horns, and shows a last-ditch effort that barely scratches a Shadow ship with a slow set of crashes (which will become part of the third season’s theme, both musically and otherwise). The music that plays as Londo observes the illegal bombardment of Narn is very similar to that of the battle, which is another wise choice—the tension isn’t about who will win, but whether Londo still has a soul.
In the defining scene of “The Long, Twilight Struggle,” it appears that he’s lost that struggle for himself. A powerful, snarling Londo dictates what will happen on the newly conquered Narn homeworld, including the potential killing of 500 Narn to retaliate against the killing of any Centauri. Londo is pure ambition and cruelty here. He attempts to have G’Kar stripped of power and arrested, but Sheridan denies it. Even still, Londo revels in the moment of victory, demanding G’Kar be forced to leave the chamber: “Nevertheless at this moment, G’Kar is no longer an official representative of Narn and must be removed from this council.” “We will wait un—” “NOW!”
G’Kar responds with the best-read speech in all of Babylon 5:
“No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by the force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments, and tyrants, and armies can not stand. The Centauri learned this lesson once. We will teach it to them again. Though it may take a thousand years, we will be free. We will be free.”
The council scene is also noteworthy for fulfilling the promise of two previous episodes, particularly for Londo and G’Kar. “Midnight On The Firing Line” established both characters quite clearly: Londo was an irrelevant buffoon, unable to prevent even his family members from embarrassment or death. G’Kar was capricious, manic, conniving well beyond his reach because he, and his people had power. By the time of “The Coming Of Shadows,” the positions had changed. Londo was powerful there, the buffoonery largely gone. But in grabbing for relevance, both for himself and his people, he’d left his essential goodness behind.
G’Kar, on the other hand, was virtually unrecognizable from his villainous incarnation. The threat of the Shadows, and his time on the station, allowed him to shed that brash plotting, even as the confidence and power remained. At the end of “The Long, Twilight Struggle,” Londo has all the power, all the relevance, and has embraced, or at least acknowledged, his villainy. G’Kar, meanwhile, is broken, nearly pathetic. All he has left is a core decency that, back in the early days of the show, didn’t even exist. It’s a remarkable combination of interconnected character developments.
That moment among the council is not just a well-acted and well-written scene, but well-directed. John C. Flinn III gets credit for that, which doesn’t entirely fit with his other work on the series (which includes two of the show’s weakest episodes, “TKO” and “Grey 17 Is Missing”). For whatever reason, here his flourishes are excellent. The camera positioning in the council scene and in the Londo-Refa planning scene outside of the throne room is just slightly off, adding to the discomfort of the scenes. And the shot of Londo watching the bombardment of Narn is the defining image of Babylon 5.
“The Long, Twilight Struggle” is also smart about how it convinces its characters to progress. G’Sten’s attempt to convince G’Kar that the attack on Gorash VII is viable seems logical, but that sort of desperate single attempt to turn the tide almost never works, and usually indicates that the war is lost anyway. (It reminds me of the Confederate States of America’s plan in 1865, where Robert E. Lee was supposed to break free of Ulysses Grant, march into North Carolina to join with Joseph E. Johnston and destroy William Tecumseh Sherman, then march back to destroy Grant—all this when the South had never managed to destroy a Union army even when it had its own.)
Likewise, Londo’s ethical qualms about bringing in his allies for so overt an attack, followed by orbital asteroid bombardment of a highly-populated planet, are expertly manipulated away by Refa: “If you wish to aid our people, then how better to do so than to end this war quickly, gloriously, with a minimum of Centauri bloodshed.” Appeals to efficiency, patriotism, and even morality work on Londo, who is still, in a sense, the sad buffoon—just one with a nicer suit.
“The Long, Twilight Struggle” may be a superb tragedy, but part of its greatest strength is its positivity. This isn’t just a grim march to death and pain. It also has moments of beauty, hope, and strength. Draal says it explicitly: “And that in the long twilight struggle which lies ahead of us, there is the possibility of hope,” although the episode undercuts this by immediately cutting to the Shadow destruction of the Narn fleet. It does the same thing more effectively later, when Delenn and Garibaldi introduce Sheridan to the Rangers, and it’s finally his turn to make a speech. “There must be one fortress of light to stand against the darkness. That place is this place.”
The most important Babylon 5 episodes are almost always its best episodes. Raising the stakes, and bringing them to a satisfying conclusion, is remarkably difficult to do, but J. Michael Straczynski does it repeatedly. It’s never done better than in “The Long, Twilight Struggle,” where every component of the show works in support of an epic tragedy. It’s clearly the best episode of a stellar television show.
- “Hello, Captain. I do hope I’m not inconveniencing you. But I think we should talk.” Franke’s bouncy pop music during Draal’s introductions is kind of amazing, approaching the line of ridiculousness and then walking back from it.
- “There’s always hope. At least that’s what I tell myself when I wake in the middle of the night, the only sound I can hear, the beating of my own desperate heart.” I’m glad Sheppard got a do-over after the mediocre “Soul Hunter.”
- “In the final analysis, your work here could be more important than a fleet of ships.”
- Refa defends the use of mass drivers despite treaties against them. “Ink on a page!” God damn I love that line reading.
- “Come, Londo. Destiny awaits.” And another I love.
- “But your decisions have been wise, your decisions commendable, and your patience far more than mine would have been under similar circumstances.”
- “Zathras! Zathras!” A clue!
- “I have… an announcement to make.” “Fine.” Whatever repairs were made to Londo and Garibaldi’s relationship in “Acts Of Sacrifice” are gone.
- Here’s a Lego Babylon 5!
- What episode would you give the “A+” for the incontestable best episode to forBabylon 5? (The only other one I would consider is “Severed Dreams.”) And for that matter, what other “A+”s might you give for shows you’ve seen? I think I’d only do two others: Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “The Body” and The Wire’s “Middle Ground.” Maybe Battlestar Galactica’s “Exodus Part 2,” but I think I’d need a full rewatch to be sure.