There is no greater proof of the effectiveness of Babylon 5’s five-year story than its ending. Watching “Sleeping In Light” feels like the culmination and celebration of an entire, complete story, in a way that no other serialized dramatic finale has ever felt for me. This is the final episode, and that deserves to be treated as a ceremony. What makes it work is that Babylon 5 understands this; it’s not just ending a story, it’s ending a series.
The parallels between story and series are deliberate. “Sleeping In Light” is about the death of John Sheridan, 20 years after his partial resurrection—or reinvigorating—at the show’s mythological peak. Sheridan is dying, and we know he’s dying. Babylon 5 has a story with an ending, and we know it’s ending. As Sheridan says his final goodbyes, he visits the soon-to-decommissioned station. He wanders through the station, which is devoid of the extras and movement and noise and props that made them seem so vibrant. This isn’t just a goodbye to a thing within the setting of a TV series, it’s a goodbye to the set of the TV series itself, and all the people who made that work. Babylon 5 is ending, and Babylon 5 is empty.
And so we have a grand finale episode with a theme that speaks to both characters and audience: “It’s time to let go.” Letting go when you know that it’s time to do so is filled with joy and sadness and love and tenderness and tears, and Babylon 5 captures that. “We had our time, said what we wanted to say. Any more would just get in the way.”
Most serialized dramas don’t do anything like this. They’re not built for celebration. They want to tie up all the plot threads, and have an explosive climax, and say goodbye. They want to go big with their finales. (Babylon 5’s biggest confrontation is a dinner party.) Some of them still have time for a celebration. The drama series with my other favorite finale, Angel, works on thematic serialization over its final season, so while its finale includes a fair amount of story work, what makes it truly special are the scenes where it makes room for each character to say goodbye thematically. Alternately, there’s my least favorite finale, Battlestar Galactica, which tries to cram the climax and denouement of its plot, theme, major characters, mythology, and social implications into the same episode, and unsurprisingly completely collapses.
Other shows get saddled with weak final-season stories that they have to deal with. Both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Wire certainly end on high points, but their finales are weighed down by the clean-up required by difficult seasons. For all of Babylon 5’s struggles in its fifth season, that’s not an issue in “Sleeping In Light.” The show finished most of its dramatic storylines weeks ago, and this episode takes place decades after the main chronology. Behind-the-scenes, “Sleeping In Light” was shot as the potential end for season four (which means Ivanova is present, thank Kosh), so it’s not connected in any direct way to the events of the fifth season. This shows somewhat negatively at times, with the depiction of a tension between Sheridan and Garibaldi that never actually occurred in the fifth season.
Removing the focus on plot lets “Sleeping In Light” stay almost entirely on its characters, and goddamn is this refreshing. There’s more joy in hanging out with the six surviving characters at Sheridan’s final meal than there was in all the hangout moments in the fifth season combined, and I say this as a relative defender of season five. As they raise their glasses to their lost friends—our lost friends—well, that’s the first moment worth choking up to. Of course Londo, G’Kar, Marcus, and Lennier should be there, as well as Lyta and Zack. But in a sense, it’s better that they’re not. There is a celebratory aspect to this ceremony, but it can’t be a jubilee. The underlying tragedies add meaning.
And… okay, I’ve done my essay here, or about as much as I can do. I’ve made comparisons to other shows, I’ve discussed what makes “Sleeping In Light” work relatively to them, offered some general rules. Let’s talk about those choking up moments, because “Sleeping In Light” is nothing if not a glorious, elegant, manipulative, beautiful vehicle for leading us to those moments designed to make us sob.
Here’s the big one:
I mean, when I say that “Sleeping In Light” is manipulative, Christopher Franke’s music here is the height of that manipulation. Dead silence in the background of the entire scene, and then a brief touch, and a sudden swelling designed to act as a bittersweet release of tension—and holy shit does it work. This is the first episode directed by J. Michael Straczynski, and I think it shows in that there are several choices throughout, like this one, that might be sledgehammer-obvious in a way that more experienced directors might avoid, but are perfect here.
They’re perfect here because Babylon 5 has earned its manipulation. We’ve had 109 episodes of it character development, plot build-up, explosive release, and moments of transition as well as revelation. It has earned the right to cut through the artifice of its storytelling and directly connect how it feels with how we should be feeling. It’s not wrong.
And then this:
The destruction of Babylon 5 isn’t as directly manipulative as Sheridan’s death. In part, this is because it feels like an afterthought, only showing up halfway through the episode. The show itself also seemed ambivalent about the station. At the dramatic heights of its storytelling, in late season three and the entirety of season four, the characters were away from B5 as frequently as they were on-board. And yet they were there, and we were there, more than enough. There was a presence to the place, manifesting most in those deserted sets that Sheridan walked through, but also in the destruction.
Finally, the one that got me the most this time, well, that’s up at the top of the review, Delenn sitting in the sunrise, and Sheridan’s face appearing next to her. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the Sheridan/Delenn relationship, but in the last few episodes—when they’re not involved in a courtship or a crisis—they really make it work. There is a genuine sweetness at the core of their relationship, and there always has been, really, but it’s usually been masked. Gender-role comedy has gotten in the way, or pointless arguments about Lochley, or Minbari rituals for everything, or worst of all, the idea they they had some kind of romance for the ages.
No, what worked best about them was a gentle chemistry, mild teasing, simple smiles. As portrayed, you could see how they enjoyed each other’s presence. That felt like a real relationship, and having the loss of that manifest as Delenn’s morning ritual—and then seeing John appear. It got me. It got me bad.
I have a personal note to end this review, and these reviews, with.
If you had told me, 15 years ago, that I’d have the opportunity to be paid to review every single episode of Babylon 5 for The A.V. Club, I’d have considered that the culmination of a life’s dream. The show had just finished, and it had been my introduction to fandom and friends and television and analyses of serialized structure and all kinds of wonderful things that I’ve remained connected to ever since. B5, more than any other show, helped define how I thought about stories, which has become how I make my living.
Meanwhile, I’d discovered The Onion at my college, and with it, The A.V. Club, which seemed to me the perfect combination of intelligence and irony. I didn’t necessarily want to be a writer, but I did want to be in these pages, somehow, in some way (a friend of mine hoped his band would get in and get a negative review, because those were by far the most fun). I read the paper, then the site, every single week, back when it was only weekly. Then I read it daily. The week they turned on comments in 2005, I started posting, and a few years later, I interned in the Chicago office. Then when I was unemployed in the midst of the Great Recession, I got in touch with Keith, then Todd, and they got me going with TV Club and the rest of the site. Since then, The A.V. Club has been where I’ve written the most, and the largest part of my income as a freelance writer. This site, its community, and its writers have been a critical part of what essentially is my adult life.
As some of you know, I’ve recently taken a position as editor at the Game Of Thrones site Winter Is Coming. For the first time in those 15 years, I’m actually stepping back from The A.V. Club. After this review, I have no continuing obligations here. (I had three shows left; I’m not going to be continuing covering The Originals, doubt I’ll carry on with Black Sails, and don’t even know if Defiance is getting renewed.) This is bittersweet for me: For the first time in years I have a full-time job, but it does mean saying a partial goodbye to The A.V. Club.
If this goodbye is bittersweet, then, I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to go about it than by reviewing “Sleeping In Light,” the final, bittersweet episode of the most important television series in my early critical development. Being given a space to write about all 110 episodes, plus five movies, of a cult, pre-Sopranos series was a huge privilege, and I have to thank Todd, Erik, and Sonia, as well as all the other editors, for letting me continue despite understandably low traffic. Todd especially wanted to make spaces where he could let writers spend time on the shows they loved best and knew the most about.
This is not a full goodbye. There are no hard feelings involved; I just got a more stable job than freelancing. I will try to continue to pitch Inventory items, other articles, and sub in for other shows I watch, so my name will still be around, but I’m definitely going to be writing for The A.V. Club much, much less overall. I’m sad about that, but I’m happy about the new job, and I’m delighted to have had the chance to cover Babylon 5 with you all here at The A.V. Club.
I was going to put a poignant goodbye quote from Babylon 5 here, but instead, all I want to do is a silly meme. This is the purest expression of my state of mind right now.
- As much as I love “Sleeping In Light,” I have a few issues with it. The Lorien flashbacks at the beginning in particular feel overdone and out-of-place with the elegiac goodbye.
- While I focused my comparisons on serialized dramas here, it’s worth noting that non-serialized dramas, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, seem to have an easier time with their finales. Comedies, meanwhile, often aim themselves directly at it. Love those last four episodes of Arrested Development.
- Even knowing she’s coming, it’s hard not to cheer at Ivanova’s reappearance. “I feel like an old warhorse trotted out after a parade so all the kids can point and look.”
- I like how the show depicts Vir as a hedonistic, sex-loving Emperor but also gives the impression that he’s good at his job. This inverts the convention.
- Garibaldi’s kid does Garibaldi well: “Uh-huh. Talk is cheap. I’ll see you out on the court.”
- “Sometimes I look at her and I know exactly what she’s thinking. Sometimes, she’s a mystery to me.” I didn’t want to talk too much shit about season five, but man, where was this characterization all year? Sheridan was a stranger on his own series.
- “A toast. To absent friends, memory still bright.”
- “I’ve buried so many friends, Delenn. I’m beginning to resent it.” It feels really good to give Ivanova (and Claudia Christian) a meaningful resolution after the way she left the series.
- The lack of a Narn presence in this episode makes sense, with G’Kar never really getting a permanent sidekick, but it still feels oddly unbalanced for a show that loved to show the balance of its Human-Minbari-Centauri-Narn collection of major cultures.
- “Tomorrow is Sunday, Delenn, and I’m going out for a drive.”
- “We did everything we said we were gonna do, and nobody can take that away from us.”
- “There’s so much I don’t understand.” “As it should be.”
- The three reviews I’m proudest of: “Severed Dreams” and Babylon 5’s story structure; the start of season four and its place in the history of television serialization; and Sheridan, heroism, and burnout in “Z’ha’dum.”
- I found that ending quote: