“War Without End” (season three, episodes 16 and 17; originally aired 5/13/1996 and 5/20/1996)
“He is the closed circle.”
This is how Jeffrey Sinclair, the returning hero of Babylon 5, is described by the only character to know what his destiny is at the start of “War Without End.” It’s a reference to his place in time, as the character from the present who goes back to change time, which always happens, no deviations.
The “closed circle” also applies to the episode as a whole, however. Back in the first season, Babylon 5 suddenly and amazingly increased its stakes with “Babylon Squared,” an episode that screamed “THIS SHOW IS GOING PLACES! PAY ATTENTION!” At some point, the huge amounts of time-travel-based foreshadowing used in the season-one episode had to have a payoff. That’s what “War Without End” is for—resolving what came before.
Part of that payoff is the mystery of Commander Sinclair, which was most expressly detailed in “Babylon Squared,” when he was told “you have… a destiny!”—a destiny in which he is referred to as “The One.” But, as a closing montage makes clear, there were several other moments where this was foreshadowed in the first season. We needed a resolution for Sinclair at a grand plot level, but also in terms of smaller plot bits. Of course, it was good for him at a character level as well—perhaps my favorite moment in the two-parter is when Sheridan is zapped away from the crew, and Sinclair immediately moves into the leadership role in the most literal possible fashion, by sitting in the captain’s chair of the White Star.
There’s just one slight problem: All of these resolutions aren’t terribly interesting. “Babylon Squared” was the middle part of an epic story we had no idea was headed in that direction. “War Without End” fills that part of the story in, with a lot of explanation at the start, the flip side of the middle, which shows how Babylon 4 got to be in its crisis mode, and then more explanation at the end. In other words, “War Without End” falls victim to what The A.V. Club’s Todd Vanderwerff recently described as “the clockwork universe” problem. Almost everything in “War Without End” exists to resolve what came before in “Babylon Squared,” which itself exists, at a literal level, to create the mysteries that needed resolution.
To be fair, part of the issue is the way we watch television now. When “War Without End” first aired, it was a ridiculously exciting and momentous moment for the show. Finally Sinclair was back! Finally we’d find out what happened to Babylon 4! Two of the show’s greatest mysteries, the sources of years of anticipatory speculation, a rare two-part episode—it had to be good and important (and it was).
But time has been unkind to that kind of anticipation. If this is your first time, you’re probably watching at a quicker pace than a season per year, so the amount of anticipation is much lower. Or if you, like me, are re-watching, you know what’s going to happen, and the big surprise, that Sinclair travels back in time to become the Minbari prophet Valen, is a huge part of the point of the episode.
This is a large part of the reason why I have an aversion to time travel and certain kinds of alternate-dimension plotlines. The focus on causality, on why different events lead to certain outcomes, means that the events themselves—the plot—is heightened to the point of taking over the narrative as a whole. And if that time-travel story is serialized over multiple installments of a story, then it demands constant consideration for the plot. That time-travel plot itself then becomes its own motive—the characters steal Babylon 4 because they know they have to do that, because they’d already done it. Thus only the action matters, not who’s doing it or why they’re doing it. So if, instead of watching the episode, you were to tell someone “Sinclair guest stars, and joins the B5 crew as they steal Babylon 4 and send it back in time to win the last Shadow War, with Sinclair becoming Valen” you’d have almost the entire episode covered.
But then there’s Londo.
“Almost” is the key word in my criticisms of how “War Without End” fits together too nicely, how it lacks characterization, how it’s too much of a closed circle. That “almost” exists entirely because of the episode’s flash-forward scenes, where an aged Londo, as the Centauri Emperor, has captured Sheridan and lambasts him for not winning the peace after the Shadow War (“But you did not think to clean up your mess!”). That failure has led to some kind of fiery tragedy on Centauri Prime. But then there’s a twist: Londo is under the control of a creature he calls a “Keeper,” and, after he drinks enough to put it to sleep, he frees Delenn and Sheridan, then calls a one-eyed G’Kar (“old friend”) for some unfinished business, as the two fulfill the prophecy from the show’s first episode and strangle each other to death.
On the surface, this seems like a fantastic move for the series. First, it resolves another great mystery of Babylon 5, that of how and why G’Kar and Londo killed one another. We never had any context beyond that the two were representatives of races that hated one another, and built a personal animosity as well. So the reveal that it was actually a mercy killing serves as a perfect twist—it shows that there’s still more information to come, and it doesn’t contradict anything we’ve been told before. Second, by adding new mysteries about what happens after the war, it makes it clear that Babylon 5 isn’t just the story of an epic war between good and evil, but a constant process of trying to make the universe a better place (an interview with A Song Of Ice And Fire author George R.R. Martin indicates his interest in “what happens after the war” as well.) Thus the flash-forward also introduces a level of dynamism to the episode that was otherwise lacking; it’s an interesting open circle instead of a dull closed circle Third, it’s also really fun to see an exotic alternate timeline.
But beyond the fun foray into “What if?”—with the characters getting aging makeup and different costumes—there’s a definite element of attachment to the real characters. John and Delenn, in a long relationship with a son; Londo and G’Kar, meeting their sympathetic ends; Vir, taking the crown because he’s the last man standing. And the last thing that makes this part of the episode great? It’s about Londo. Of course it’s more interesting than what the Humans and Minbari are doing.
I don’t want to say that “War Without End” is a bad episode. It’s not, at all. It is, for the most part, a fine and necessary episode. It’s only when it aims for more that “War Without End” gets great.
- Donna Bowman’s piece on Breaking Bad’s structure and plot versus character is a great way to understand some of my misgivings about “War Without End,” in a different show’s context. And no, I wasn’t asked to write about Breaking Bad for Breaking Bad Week. I do, however, believe that it, more than any other show, seems to encourage critics to discuss structure to a degree that I haven’t seen since Babylon 5. The two shows are, above all, concerned with telling a consistent, coherent single story across dozens of episodes and multiple years. And they go about in totally different fashions.
- “Never lets you finish a sentence, does it?” Some of the banter between Sinclair and the others is forced, but I quite like this one.
- Another winning aspect of the episode: Ivanova’s running commentary about the absurdity of it all. “I’ll be in the car.” and “Great, doesn’t anything come under warranty anymore?”
- Zathras is about 67 percent good, 33 percent annoying. This is good. “Yes, yes, Zathras is used to being beast of burden to other people’s needs. Very sad life. Probably will have very sad death. At least there is symmetry.”
- Sinclair has a less positive ratio, to be honest. It’s hard not to notice his odd blinking, especially after the recent revelation that the late Michael O’Hare left the show in order to deal with paranoia, likely with medication. He’s much better in the second episode; taking action suits O’Hare much better than conversation or monologues here, which is oddly the opposite of how he was much of the time in the first season.
- Delenn gets her own attempts to deal with the future history. First: “John, listen to me. Do not go to Z’ha’dum. Do you understand? Do not go to Z’ha’dum!” Then she drops a SNOW GLOBE, that great symbol of symbolism.
- “You are finite. Zathras is finite. This is… wrong tool.”
- I really love how the Minbari ships have a different design in the past.
NEXT WEEK: I’m on vacation. See you after that with “Walkabout” and “Grey 17 Is Missing.” I’m sure you’ll have something to say about the latter of those.