“Knives” (season two, episode 16; originally aired 5/17/1995)
The second season of Babylon 5 divides nicely into thematic thirds. The first inconsistent but increasingly confident third was largely foreshadowing, where “something bad is coming,” either from Earth or an ancient galactic evil, was repeated from episode to episode. That bad thing, the Narn-Centauri War, arrived in the conveniently-titled “The Coming Of Shadows.” This transitioned into the middle section of the season, filled with solid but unspectacular episodes that maintained that rising feeling of danger and tragedy.
“Knives” is the last of the this middle string of episodes, and arguably the weakest. It feels, overall, like an episode designed to grab the viewer’s attention and give them things to think about for future episodes. Franklin says he knows a good Markab doctor? That’s going to come into play, as will his theory that beings of pure energy could exist. Remember Babylon 4? You should, ’cause that’s a good thing to keep in mind in general. And the most important reminder: Sheridan’s wife Anna died while exploring aboard the worst-named ship in history, the Icarus.
The last of those is the great irony of “Knives”: The episode is supposed to function of a reminder of Anna Sheridan’s death, but it was aired and sequenced on the DVDs in the incorrect order. Watch this before “In The Shadow Of Z’ha’dum” and it prompts an “Oh, right, Anna, that’s important to Sheridan” reaction. Watch it after, and it’s more like “Duh-doi, we just saw an entire episode on this, you don’t need to spell it out for us again.” It just adds to the feeling that Sheridan’s half of the plot is rather trifling in this episode.
On the other side of the episode, Londo has a story that’s conceptually the opposite of Sheridan’s—personal, affecting, built from the good facets of serialization instead of merely referencing the past. An old friend, Urza Jaddo, visits Babylon 5 apparently to catch up with Londo. But his real goal is to to confront Londo about his enemies, the faction led by Lord Refa, and force Londo fight a duel to the death that will end with Londo having to protect Jaddo’s family.
It’s a direct way to show the cost of Londo’s newfound political power, but I’m not sure it’s all that effective. In “Acts Of Sacrifice” we saw the personal cost to Londo on a smaller scale which tied directly into the character’s history, whereas here it goes too big, perhaps. Part of the issue is Carmen Argenziano’s depiction of Urza: He goes over-the-top—as Peter Jurasik does with Londo—but without the humor or the chance to demonstrate real pathos. It’s not exactly bad, but it does feel like like a missed opportunity.
“Knives” would be almost completely forgettable but for one important piece of behind-the-scenes trivia: This is the last-ever episode of Babylon 5 written by someone who isn’t J. Michael Straczynski, save for a lone Neil Gaiman episode in the fifth season. This coincides with a strong upswing in consistency: From here until the end of the season four, give or take a handful of episodes, Babylon 5 is a great, often classic television show. And “Knives”? Well, “Knives” is trivia.
“In The Shadow Of Z’ha’dum” (season two, episode 17; originally aired 5/10/1995)
The term “mythology” has a television-centric definition nowadays, thanks primarily to Chris Carter’s use of the term to describe major episodes of The X-Files. It can be a somewhat difficult concept to define; my working definition of mythology is: “Powerful external forces of a show’s universe that affect the main characters initially without their knowledge or ability to affect them in return.” It’s a definition that, I hope, manages to encompass things like The X-Files conspiracy as well as aliens, but also more prosaic storylines, like The Wire’s entrenched political interests that prevent legitimate change in Baltimore.
Babylon 5 has mythology according to this definition. The most overt aspect of it is the return of the Shadows, the now-named ancient evil whose rise has dominated much of this season. I would also add the internal politics of the four major humanoid races: Minbari, Narn, Centauri, and especially human. But I would also hasten to add that Babylon 5’s mythology, more than any other show I love, is also Mythology as a general concept. Other shows may have references to old gods, ancient wars, and battling philosophies, but Babylon 5 starts from that point underneath it all, and slowly builds to a series of revelations about how those gods interact with its humans—and then the humans deal directly with the gods.
“In The Shadow Of Z’ha’dum” is the most mythological episode of Babylon 5. Its climax is a monolgue of exposition, with Delenn finally revealing the show’s structure to Sheridan, acting as audience surrogate, finally learning what external forces are affecting the show’s characters. That makes it the transition to the final third of the season: First the Shadows arrive, then we learn what they are, which sets us up for a potentially dramatic end to the season. For first-time viewers, if it seems like I’m building the last six episodes of the season up, I am. This is my favorite set of episodes in the show’s run.
Beyond the mystery of who Morden is, the tension in “Shadow” comes from Babylon 5’s relationship to classical liberalism. Babylon 5, like most science fiction of the era, tends to support the ideals of the United States Constitution and other similar documents. In this case, Sheridan discovers that Morden was aboard the Icarus and detains him indefinitely, as the station staff grows increasingly unhappy with his flouting of the laws, demanding that people be charged to be held. (It’s almost painfully idealistic to watch this now, 12 years into a War on Terror that has demolished such civil liberties.)
This is especially interesting because it pushes Babylon 5 to the brink of modern “quality TV.” It turns Sheridan into an antihero for three-quarters of the episode, where his personal drive gets in the way of everyone else’s code of ethics. “I do understand, Commander. I know how I look, and I know how I sound. But I have to do this!” And then it pulls back, and presses a reset button on the characterization, if not the plot. The critical difference between Babylon 5 and, say, Battlestar Galactica, is that the latter made it possible for its main characters to turn dark, illegal, or at least have their actions remembered in the future. This isn’t to say that BSG is necessarily superior, but rather that this is another case of Babylon 5 being a transitional series in the history of television.
If there’s one thing that prevents “In The Shadow Of Z’ha’dum” from being a top-tier B5 episode, it’s an over-reliance on monologues. Babylon 5 has always indulged in the form, but in this episode, it seems like the only way that characters communicate. Not that any of them are bad, per se: Vir’s speech to Morden at the start is probably Babylon 5’s single most memorable moment. (I know I’m unlikely to ever have it exit my memory.) But there are just so many monologues. Franklin talks about seeing God in his dying patients’ eyes. Delenn explains the show’s mythology. Sheridan tells Zack Allan about Churchill at Coventry. And so on and so on.
One of the most interesting of the monologues comes from a one-off guest star, Alex Hyde-White, playing a representative of Earth’s new Ministry of Peace. “Or Minipax, as we like to call it around the office,” he says. Despite the obscenely obvious reference to Orwell’s 1984, I actually found his pitch for the Nightwatch fascinating. When he says “We cannot hope to make peace with other civilizations until we have made peace with ourselves,” he’s not just bullshitting. He’s also setting up a challenge to the ideals of classical liberalism, which hold that internal forces motivating people are less relevant than external laws and rights which guide the behavior of them and their governments. It’s also a religious concept, presented with secular terminology that frames it as a political religion, always a dangerous concept. He seems to be a true believer, as well, which makes me wish that he came back to defend that point of view in the future, instead of increasingly cartoonish Earth representatives—I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that the organization deliberately utilizing Orwellian language isn’t what it seems, but the black armbands are a clear giveaway even without knowledge of future events.
“In The Shadow Of Z’Ha’dum” is like that overall: There are a bunch of really good ideas that it can’t quite commit to fully, and a bunch of dramatic events conveyed entirely through speeches. It’s still a fine episode, but largely for the promise of future greatness.
- “You know, Vir, you have what the Earthers call ‘a negative personality.’” “No I don’t!”
- “Knowledge is a basic tool of politics. Mine is considerable.” Who even says that?
- “You cannot build an empire based on slaughter and deceit.” Actually, I’m pretty certain, historically speaking, that’s exactly how you build an empire.
- “I have made many choices lately, Vir. And today, for the first time, I start to wonder if they were not the right choices…Right or wrong, I must follow the path to its end.” Londo fascinatingly admits that his “I have no choice!” from “The Coming Of Shadows” was false, but continues by saying that now he has no choice.
- Antihero: “Because by God when I’m done with you, you will wish you had died on the Icarus.”
- “We’re holding him in… protective custody.” “Protection from what?” “I haven’t decided yet.”
- “Come, Captain. The greatest nightmare of our time is waiting for you.” Delenn can be a wee bit dramatic.
- Speaking of Delenn, her hair has finally switched from “wonderful” to “possessed by the horrible bangs she unfortunately has for the remainder of the show’s run.”
- Speaking of extremely memorable lines: “That is why Kosh cannot leave his encounter suit. He would be recognized.” “Recognized? By whom?” “Everyone.”
- “Fifty extra credits a week to walk around, do what I do anyway? Why not, hey?” What could go wrong, increasingly important side character Zack Allan?
- “If you go to Z’Ha’dum, you will die.” “Then I die. But I will not go down easily, and I will not go down alone.”