“And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” (season three, episode 20; originally aired 10/7/1996)
It's not just competence that Babylon 5 has, now that it's finishing its third season. It's also style. The climactic scene of “And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” is easily the show's most stylish so far, depicting the brutal but justified murder of Lord Refa by a gang of righteously angry Narns as a gospel singer joyously belts out the song from the episode's title. It's a bizarre combination on the surface, in that the levity of the singing on the station (look how awkward Lennier is!) doesn't match the violence of Refa's death.
In the continuing discussions of Babylon 5 as a transitional television series, I've usually focused on how it's relatively old-fashioned, especially in episodic form, as a method of explaining why it can occasionally be difficult if you're coming to it from more modern shows. But in this case, Babylon 5 was ahead of its time; “And The Rock…” is a firm step forward. The sort of ironic juxtaposition as it appears in this episode has become a hallmark of “quality television” series, particularly when it comes to violence. Babylon 5's transitional science fiction cousin, The X-Files, had a similar violence/music juxtaposition in its supremely creepy episode “Home”— which aired the same week as “And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” in the United States.
On the other hand, the connection between the music and the action isn't just irony. They go together quite well thematically. The gospel song is about the inability of evil to get away from the justice of a vengeful God, it is Old Testament in its assertions of power and righteousness. Meanwhile, the assassination Londo orders against Refa is similar: Refa is evil, we know Refa is evil, and the Narns know Refa is evil. Londo brings Old Testament “fire and brimstone” down upon him for it, and the Narns do because Refa had brought near-literal fire and brimstone to their planet.
To see righteous punishment served, even if it is extra-judicial and by the fiat of the show's heroes, is joyous in a certain sense. Indeed, two of my favorite television episodes just this year did something similar, with Raylan Givens taking out an assassin next to badass guitar music in Justified's “Outlaw” and Dany surprising a nasty bunch of slavers in Game Of Thrones' “And Now His Watch Is Ended.” Writing this out seems odd and mildly disturbing to me, as though I have a character flaw that demands visual proof of fictional crimes punished. And yet I can't deny the power of the viewing. For whatever reasons, scenes like Refa's death work extremely well.
The methods by which Londo contrives to have Refa assassinated comprise the bulk of “And The Rock….” Babylon 5 plays an interesting formal game here, too, in that it doesn't actually show what Londo is up to. Until G'Kar pulls Londo's hologram out, everything seems to be proceeding linearly. Londo decides to have G'Kar assassinated in order to win a political struggle at home, he manipulates Vir into joining him, then Refa gets the information from Vir and wins the race to get to G'Kar first. But there's a secret game we don't see—and cleverly, the show doesn't actually use the necessary words other than Londo's initial manipulation. Both he and G'Kar never actually say that G'Kar is there to rescue Na'Toth, or that the goal is G'Kar's death. Normally I dislike it when shows withhold information and secret motivation from the viewers just to portray a twist later, but in this case, it works because the initial misdirection seems so plausible. Peter Jurasik's vicious, apparently evil monologue to force Vir to help him also sells the concept. Londo has been that cruel before, and his apparent turn back toward the light hasn't gone so far that we don't think he couldn't do it again.
There's one slight flaw in this, though. While the twist, when it arrives, is a damn effective example of how to do a twist, the secrecy means that we don't actually see Londo and G'Kar interact directly. If you, like me, consider their relationship to be the very best part of the show, missing this turning point, when they become allies of convenience after being blood enemies, is a disappointment. I want to see the conversation where Londo goes to G'Kar and tells him that he wants to make a deal. I want to know how Mollari got his foot in that door, and then how he sealed the deal. Is the twist being a surprise worth it? I'm not sure, for first-time viewers, and every time after my disappointment grows.
In terms of things “And The Rock…” actually does that are disappointing, it falls back on odd gender stereotypes that Babylon 5 usually avoids. First, there's Vir's description of Na'Toth: “Remember G'kar's aide, Na'Toth?” “Remember? I still have the claw marks!” Sure, it's a bit amusing, but the idea that a strong-minded female character has “claws” falls into stereotypes about how women fight. Then there's Delenn, dragging Sheridan out of the War Room using wife banter that wouldn't be out of place in a 1950s sitcom. “Yes, John, of course, John, whatever you say, John.” Finally, Sheridan gets a monologue from the guest star, a Baptist preacher, about how you know when someone you love is there to share responsibility. But the example he uses is about how his future wife would come over and clean his apartment for him. Individually, these scenes wouldn't really jump out as anything other than mildly weird, but all together, it has “And The Rock…” tell an oddly old-fashioned gender story.
It's a pity that Refa won't be around to devour scenery, and then use the bones of the background extras to floss with. But even though he's the first of our four major antagonists to receive his comeuppance, he gets it in such style that I can't complain. “And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” may, as a full episode, be slightly below Babylon 5's pantheon, but it does have one of the very best scenes in the show's history.
- Speaking of style, and that great scene: The moment where Londo's hologram waves his arm, it goes through Refa, and William Forward flinches is one of my absolute favorites.
- “I'm sure that will be a great comfort to their grief-stricken family when a Shadow agent cuts them up into spare body parts.” G'Kar doesn't play fair with Ivanova.
- “Well that's what I thought when I came across 'crotchety.' This cannot be a real word, I said.”
- Continuing previous discussions of what a rebooted, more complex Babylon 5 might look like: What exactly are Refa and Londo competing over in the Centauri royal court?
- Although he's mostly in Vengeance G'Kar over the course of the episode, there's still some Wise G'Kar. “This isn't gonna be easy.” “Nothing worthwhile ever is.”
- “When God comes knocking on your door, you won't need me or anyone else to tell you what that sound is.”
- “Leave his face and head intact. It will be needed later, for identification.” Holy. Shit.
“Shadow Dancing” (season three, episode 21; originally aired 10/14/1996)
This week's two episodes are mirror images in certain ways. Both of them involve major resolutions to ongoing plot threads, and both weave major events outside the station together with characterization events on the station as they reach their conclusions. But where “And The Rock…” was built around a mystery and a twist, “Shadow Dancing” involves a straight-up toe-to-toe battle, with Sheridan's alliance taking on the Shadows in the biggest battle of the war.
The battle in “Shadow Dancing” may be the best and most complete space battle in science fiction television history. To be fair, that looks like a more extreme statement than it actually is. Most other science fiction shows, like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, have tended to have their battles at a much smaller scale, ship-to-ship. “Shadow Dancing” involves dozens of ships, from multiple different races, in a massive engagement. And it works, despite the limitations of the era's CGI, despite the limitations of episodic, commercial television. We get a complete battle, strategy, tactics, and personality.
The tactical considerations are what separate the battle in “Shadow Dancing” from most others. From the command center where Sheridan and Delenn observe the fight, we can get a decent picture of what's going on in the fight. Sheridan uses his medium-sized ships, like the Drazi Sunhawks and the White Stars, as his main advantage over the Shadows—they, alongside the telepaths, can pin down and even destroy Shadow Battlecrabs. The Shadows respond by attempting to surround the Drazi ships; Sheridan sends a Minbari cruiser in to stop that from happening. The cruiser is destroyed, but the Drazi survive, and eventually the alliance presses its tactical advantage into victory, although at a heavy cost. We don't get a full visual of what's happening—I'm filling in a few blanks—but there is an overall story here that's easy to fill in, and one that's rare to see on television.
Meanwhile, two personal stories are interspersed, to give them momentum. Ivanova and Marcus are on the original White Star, acting as scouts for the fleet. In order to maintain surprise, they have to engage a Shadow vessel, which damages their ship just in time for the battle to start. So they're in danger, from before the battle proper even begins until the very end. I don't think any of us would expect Ivanova and Marcus to die at the same point together, but instead it provides a crucial different perspective to the battle. Sheridan and Delenn can make calm decisions while seeing everything, Ivanova and Marcus are in the shit, and just trying to survive. Focusing on other one-off characters in the thick of the fight wouldn't work half so well as having those two scrambling and avoiding catastrophic damage.
At the same time, on the station itself, Franklin's “walkabout” has come to its climax, as he gets stabbed trying to help a lurker, and is left to die in Babylon 5's version of an alley. And then he sees himself, and himself isn't particularly happy about Franklin's life. To be honest, I had forgotten many of the precise details of this scene last week when I criticized the walkabout idea, and it seems quite clear that JMS was also skeptical of the concept, even though he himself included it. “What a bunch of self-indulgent mealy-mouthed Foundationist CRAP!” Regardless, it manifests as a well-done scene where Richard Biggs acts against himself, dying Franklin against righteously angry Franklin. I don't know that any of the other human actors could actually have pulled this off; Biggs has a subtle versatility. I think the battle might have been more exposed as not being visually as tactical as the dialogue proclaimed, were it not for the distraction provided by Franklin coming to terms with himself.
And then “Shadow Dancing” gets weird. On the heels of its remarkably successful early climax, it decides to have a long, pointless scene where Sheridan tries to tell Ivanova and Delenn about his old Kosh-induced, semi-prophetic dream. The scene comes across more like a fan discussion of the dream shoehorned into a critical episode than anything else; nothing from the discussion seems relevant aside from just mentioning that maybe some stuff had happened/would happen and Kosh would know about it. Fortunately, it's swept under the rug by the episode's cliffhanger: Anna Sheridan, long presumed dead, shows up on Babylon 5 apparently as the Shadows' response to their defeat. And that's a fine way to prepare to close out a rather eventful season.
- Given how much Sheridan/Sinclair have always wanted to protect Ivanova, it seems odd/overly narratively convenient that Sheridan would put her in harm's way with a 50/50 chance of survival.
- “My words are inadequate to the burden in my heart.” Oh Marcus, you're such a nice guy.
- “Well. Who wants to live forever?” “I do, actually!” But lines like that'll redeem you in a hurry.
- “What do you want? What could you possibly want?” I've heard that question before.
- “And what are you?” “Alive. Everything else is negotiable.”
Next Week: Just the season finale, “Z'Ha'Dum.”