“Z’ha’dum” (season three, episode 22; originally aired 10/28/1996)
I never loved Captain Sheridan before this.
Being the hero of a pre-Sopranos show is a thankless job. You have to be perfect. Anything less than perfection is failure. But not being allowed to fail makes you inhuman. I’m not sure how many fans of Babylon 5 identify with Sheridan, or fans of other shows with their traditional heroes. They were rocks to be relied on, every other character was fire, or water, or air—something mutable. And who believes they’re the rock? Who doesn’t believe that they’re in a constant state of anxiety or crisis, or at least ready for a change? I don’t know about you all, but I would have serious misgivings about anyone who didn’t consider their life at some kind of crossroads, even if it was a rather long and apparently uneventful crossroads. We’re the heroes of our own stories, yes, but we’re also protagonists, and protagonists without internal dilemmas are boring.
Sheridan has an internal struggle. Even since his arrival on the show and the station, he has sought meaning. This hasn’t always been apparent—he has to be the apparent rock, after all—but it has been there. This may have been part of the show, but often, neither that search nor that meaning has been apparent. In the first few episodes when he joined, the search was a superficial matter of location. He believed he was a starship captain, but he was close-to-grounded on a space station. He also had to come to terms with his wife’s death, that his idea of a personal life was gone. He was forced to be his job again, and his job as leader of the station was, well, unexpected.
So Sheridan searched for meaning. In “A Spider In The Web” he tells Garibaldi that he “collects secrets.” But Sheridan rarely seems like a man who collects secrets for their own sake. He may not have wanted something out of those secrets at the time. But they always had the potential to be used, for good, as Sheridan was of course a hero. And that time came quickly, as he was recruited into a conspiracy against his own government, which occasionally called upon him to take certain actions. It wasn’t quite a life filled with meaning—too much reaction, very little action—but it was something.
The turning point for John Sheridan was the episode “In The Shadow Of Z’Ha’Dum.” Here, Sheridan’s lack of meaning turns poisonous. His need to know what happened to his wife, to his personal life, to his existence apart from his uniform, became toxic and destructive. His meaning became Mr. Morden, in ways that threatened to twist into something nasty. Delenn and Kosh, recognizing this, did not merely give him information that would lead to Morden’s release. They gave him, the Starkiller, the war hero, a genius in times of crisis, a new meaning. His life was no longer reaction after “In The Shadow Of Z’Ha’Dum.” It was action, which escalated with his connection to the Rangers a few episodes later, and the acquisition of the White Star in the third season premiere.
Sheridan having meaning is one of the dominant, under-spoken aspects of season three. He’s willing to duck his own government to take on the Shadows on the White Star, even when that becomes everything short of treachery. Then he takes that step in “Severed Dreams.” At that point, Sheridan has so fully embraced his new meaning that it literally changes how he looks. Yes, he gets a new uniform, but everyone else does as well. Sheridan changes his hair. That long, getting-close-to-a-mullet ’do? That’s a sign of freedom. That’s a sign that Sheridan’s meaning has started to dominate his own life, but also that Sheridan has started to dominate the meaning. He doesn’t need to have a military haircut to be a military leader.
Then his ex-wife shows up, and shatters that meaning.
Here’s why I have come to love Sheridan: Because he is me. Well, our personalities are different, and of course our circumstances are very different. But who hasn’t sought out meaning? After I graduated from college, like many people, I floated around from job to job. Some were good, some weren’t, but none were permanent careers to gain stability from, let alone meaning. In my least meaningful period—Chicago, in the winter, with seasonal affective disorder and an inane job I can barely even describe—I did anything I could to find meaning. Initially this was throwing myself into World Of Warcraft, where effort led invariably to success, and teamwork, no matter how difficult, was rewarded.
Still, as meaning goes, being a raider in WOW is difficult to maintain if you’re presented with anything else. I was, and shifted my priorities. In the summer of 2007, as I was interning for The A.V. Club, I received news that my alma mater, Antioch College, was being closed by its corporate owners. Initially I did little more than react—reminisce, feel bad, try to move on. But then a friend of mine gave me a gentle shove to go the annual reunion, wisely timed for the week after the closure announcement. I went. I got information as to why the closure happened, and managed to put it together with everything else that had gone on and create an analysis of what had gone wrong and why. Then I started acting on that knowledge. I even became a bit of a leader. And suddenly my life had meaning.
It remains difficult to describe just how activated I was during that year of meaning. I was always thinking about Antioch, planning about Antioch, leading, following, brainstorming, arguing, writing. Like Sheridan, I found love along the way. But also like Sheridan, I found exhaustion, crankiness, grouchiness. There comes a point, after months of being so suffused with meaning, being so much the embodiment of ideals, that something breaks. Something has to break. How it breaks may be unpredictable, it may be nasty, or it may even be relatively imperceptible. Had something gone differently, maybe I would have stayed, become increasingly exhausted, and simply become a bitter shell. But I left, theoretically at the height of my influence, yet believing that I couldn’t have done anything more to prepare for the future. All I had was a single gesture of ending, and the hope that an ending for me wasn’t an ending of what I’d worked for.
This may sounds self-aggrandizing. It possibly is, but that may not make it false. That’s what makes it appealing. That sort of personal appeal is also part of Sheridan’s story in “Z’ha’dum.” The Shadow agent called Justin tells Sheridan “You’re what they call a nexus.” He appeals to Sheridan’s sense of heroism, telling him that whichever way he goes he will be followed. Justin appeals to my sense of heroism, that I’ve been the hero of the story, and he can recognize it. He’s attempting to convert Sheridan’s sense of meaning, change it from Team Vorlon to Team Shadow, while leaving it intact.
Where’s he’s mistaken is in believing that meaning is still there. Sheridan is no longer defined by the meaning that drove him. He’s burned out. John’s disdain for the proceedings during Justin’s pitch is apparent. Yes, he knows that it’s a trap, but he feels he has to go anyway, to create an ending with a gesture. A few button-presses on his link is the physical gesture, followed by a massive nuclear strike in the apparent heart of evil. Sheridan leaves a goodbye message demonstrating that he has every expectation of death. He avoids the burnout of excessive meaning by literally burning everything out, including perhaps himself. Captain Sheridan embodies the dream of meaning through the third season, and in finishing it, he maintains the perception of himself as a hero both to the universe and perhaps to himself. That’s the dream. It’s not always easy to achieve.
There isn’t much to “Z’ha’dum” outside of Sheridan’s characterization and his decisions, but that’s not a bad thing. After the grand scale of “Shadow Dancing,” keeping the finale intensely personal makes sense, both in terms of general episodic pacing as well as ensuring the finale has a scope that makes it feel worthy of ending such a momentous season.
Two scenes in particular stand out. The first is the big confrontation, where Sheridan meets the representatives of the Shadows and hears their case. Structurally, Justin’s a little odd—out of nowhere, suddenly there’s an apparently major character delivering the response to arguably the show’s biggest remaining mystery, what the Shadows want: “It’s really simple. You bring two sides together, they fight. A lot of them die. But those who survive are stronger. Smarter. And better.” (turns out it’s shitty Social Darwinism, like many cartoon villains and also Republicans).
While Justin’s pitch may not be terribly strong on the merits, the way he makes the pitch is. His slightly off, wild gesticulation gives him a vague inhumanity. But that’s nothing compared to Anna Sheridan’s lines, in which she shows straight-up cruelty. It’s not so much that she’s inhuman at that point (though that certainly comes later), but that she doesn’t seem like the kind of person that John Sheridan could ever fall in love with. Just look at the sneer on her face.
And then there’s Morden, who, in explaining the Shadows’ philosophy, finally becomes animated. He breaks his facade for once, revealing that he, perhaps, is the only of the three who is still human—he’s just horrible. In a sense, this is the only scene in “Z’ha’dum” that matters. As long as everything leading up to it is competent, then the episode will succeed or fail based on the Shadow pitch, and Sheridan’s reaction. It doesn’t fail.
But what makes “Z’ha’dum” surprisingly special overall is G’Kar’s final monologue.
“It was the end of the Earth Year 2260, and the war had paused, suddenly, and unexpectedly. All around us it was as if the universe was holding its breath, waiting. All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation. This had the feeling of both. G’Quan wrote, ‘There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way.’ The war we fight is not against powers or principalities. It is against chaos. And despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope. The death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future. Or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born… in pain.”
Babylon 5 is never grander than it is in this moment. And no other show even begins to compare with Babylon 5 when it gets into full operatic/tragic/epic mode. I don’t know if having an effective five-year plan is what makes moments like these possible, or if it’s merely a function of how J. Michael Straczynski writes, but it’s a truly special, possibly unique moment in television history. The show takes a step back and turns into pure rhetoric, bordering on poetry, about itself. It is a moment of revelation.
- Anna tempts Sheridan with exposition. “Don’t you want to know what it’s all about? What it’s really all about?”
- G’kar has memorized Ivanova’s great lines. “Then as you so concisely say… boom.”
- “You and Kosh. ‘You’ couldn’t allow it.” Part of Sheridan’s seizing, and rejection, of meaning is that he comes to fully understand how much power he did, and didn’t have.
- “Oh, gods, Vir. I have been promoted.”
- “That’s a very dramatic name, but not a very descriptive one.” Anna mocks the “Shadows” term used by the good guys.
- “I’m… with them. Same group. Different department.”
- Of course, an amusing cause of Sheridan’s shift in motivations is that he misreads his premonition of the future: “I began to wonder. What if that future happened because I listened to your warning, and didn’t go to Z’ha’dum? What if I could prevent the fall of Centauri Prime and end the Shadow War by going there?”
- “But once you’ve been inside one of those ships for a while, you’re never… quite… whole again. YOU DO WHAT YOU’RE TOLD.”
- “She can never come back. But I can love you as well as she did.” Melissa Gilbert’s sexy stumble-walk as she says this is pretty amazing.
- “Jump. Jump! Now!” demands Kosh.
With the end of this season of classic reviews, and the start of the fall season of new television, TV Club Classic reviews of Babylon 5 are going into hiatus. I wish I could say when they might return, but I’m not even sure if they will at this point. If this is indeed the end, it’s been a pleasure discussing such a personally formative, professionally fascinating series with you all. And if everything is set, and I see you in the next month or two with new reviews… then we’ll talk about the weather.