Some excellent material in the beginning and end, but the middle of this season feels anticlimactic.
*** SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED WATCHING SEASON 4***
The Shadow War
I enjoyed much of the plot for Season 4. That said, it’s definitely anticlimactic, especially given the extensive foreshadowing and buildup during the previous three seasons. I realize that my opinion is probably in the minority as many fans consider Season 4 to be the peak of the series. As such, in this review I’ll probably focus more on what didn’t work for me rather than what did because that will probably require more explanation.
As I noted in my review of Season 3, Babylon 5 has not done a very good job at showing the urgency of war. The war itself is told largely through exposition and CGI rather than drama or emotion. None of the episodes take place on the “frontlines.” We never see any victims of the war. The good guys never lose a single battle. None of the major characters die or even lose loved ones. That said, there is one episode that forces Captain Sheridan to make a tough decision, and it works reasonably well. In “The Long Night,” Sheridan has to order Ranger Commander Ericsson (an excellent cameo by Bryan Cranston) on a suicide mission to leak falsified information to the Shadows. At the end of the episode, we see Sheridan sitting at his desk listening to Ericsson’s final message, bearing an unknowable guilt. I just wish there were more moments like that.
The other major problem with the Shadow War is that it ends rather abruptly eight episodes into Season 4. Remember, the first season and a half at least were dedicated to setting up this war. The first few seasons kept emphasizing that the Shadows were an “ancient enemy,” an implacable foe, and that the heroes needed time to prepare carefully. Yet, in “Into the Fire,” Sheridan just needs to outwit the Vorlons and Shadows and ends the war with a monologue. I admit that perhaps my perceptions might have been different had I watched the show on a weekly basis as it aired rather than binge watching in a few days. After all, 8 weeks is longer than 8 hours.
I had mixed feelings about the resolution of the war. On the one hand, I love the twist that the competition between the Vorlons and Shadows is essentially a battle of philosophies. The two races compete for followers and refuse to attack each other directly. The Vorlons believe in order and stability, whereas the Shadows believe that competition fuels progress (an extreme form of social Darwinism). Unfortunately, this revelation is played as a plot twist rather than something integral to the story of the characters. Sheridan is the only main character directly confronted with this philosophical choice in Season 3’s “Z’ha’dum,” but essentially sidesteps the choice by nuking the Shadow base. By contrast, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I’d imagine an entire scene in a conference room in which the characters debate the pros and cons of the Vorlon and Shadow philosophies (Odo would feel a kinship to the Vorlons, while Worf would probably sympathize with the Shadows). Ultimately, I think the revelation would have worked better had it come earlier in the war to allow it to actually affect or influence the characters.
The other problem with the twist is that it’s not entirely consistent with the rest of the story. On the one hand, it’s implemented brilliantly when it comes to the Centauri and Minbari. The Minbari have obviously been allied to the Vorlons for over a thousand years. Minbari society is founded upon the principles of order and has a strict caste system that has remained the same for generations. It’s a beautiful culture, but one that has stagnated. By contrast, the Centauri alliance with the Shadows is the natural culmination of Centauri history. In Season 1, we learn that the Centauri killed off another species on their world and occupied the Narn homeworld. After Londo allies with Mr. Morden, the Centauri begin an aggressive campaign of conquest across the galaxy, with the purpose of showing that they are the stronger race.
The Shadows have also apparently allied with President Clark’s regime on Earth. However, that regime has been the epitome of order and stability – Vorlon ideals. Earth propaganda makes a point of denying poverty, crime, or any other conflict. Earth becomes more isolationist rather than expansionist under Clark. So what were the Shadows doing on Earth?
The Liberation of Earth
After the Shadow War, most of Season 4 focuses on Babylon 5’s attempt to liberate Earth. I enjoyed this story, but it initially feels rather anticlimactic after the heights of the Shadow War or the Narn-Centauri conflict. I think a big part of the problem is that we as viewers have no emotional connection to Earth. Yes, Earth is “home,” but it’s not treated as such. The only time the viewer sees Earth is when we catch a glimpse behind the scenes of Clark’s regime (usually some anonymous official making sinister pronouncements). The problems and abuses of the Clark regime are all told to the viewer through exposition, making them rather abstract. Clark and his minions come across as moustache-twirling evil, killing innocent civilians, creating a Ministry of Peace, etc. For a show that thrives in moral ambiguity, I found the black and white nature of the conflict disappointing.
I actually think there was a missed opportunity in Season 3’s “Voices of Authority” to add more complexity to the Clark regime. An attractive female political officer, Julie Musante, was assigned to Babylon 5 and tried to put a positive spin on Earth’s government. It was an interesting take because she was not the expected face of an evil dictatorial regime. Unfortunately, her role was played mostly for laughs (including an awkward scene in which she tries to seduce Sheridan) and leaves the station by the end of the episode.
Moreover, none of the main characters actually has any emotional connection to Earth. From what I recall, neither Garibaldi nor Ivonova have family on Earth. We never hear about Dr. Franklin’s family, which is shocking given that his father was a general in Earth Force. I found myself caring much more about the brewing civil war on Minbar because both Delenn and Lennier had such a personal stake in the outcome.
During the last third of Season 4, the episodes “Intersections In Real Time” and “Between the Darkness and the Light” suddenly raised the stakes. First, Sheridan was kidnapped and tortured by Earth Force special agents. Second, Ivonova was morally wounded during a fight against an Earth destroyer. Seeing our main heroes suffer gave them – and us as viewers – a more personal stake in the battle. Moreover, these episodes helped show – as opposed to merely telling – viewers why Clark’s regime was so horrible. After these episodes, the Liberation of Earth became a rousing crusade with a satisfying emotional payoff.
I hesitate to simply gush about Londo Mollari and G’Kar, but their relationship in Season 4 is simply some of the best character development I’ve ever seen on television. Actors Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas continue to steal the show. Their characters have both suffered so much, but in very different ways. At the beginning of the season, each is imprisoned – G’Kar in an actual Centauri prison and Londo in the political intrigue of the Centauri court – but only Londo actually feels imprisoned. G’Kar manages to maintain his dignity in the most undignified circumstances. G’Kar’s defiance of the Centauri emperor are gut-wrenching. For his part, Londo wants to find redemption but isn’t really sure how.
In Season 4, Susan Ivonova went from a likeable character to an emotionally complex one. Gone is the flippant young woman we knew in Season 2. Perhaps the most revealing indication of her growth comes from what she doesn’t say. On her deathbed, she does not make any sarcastic quips about how her pessimism is always justified. In fact, her concern is for Sheridan as she tells him not to carry the guilt of her death. It’s as moving a moment as any in this show. It’s not clear if her near-death experience and Marcus’ sacrifice give her life new meaning or force her to look for meaning. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get the opportunity to grow in Season 5, and so her story feels unfinished. I appreciate at least that the “Rising Star” episode took the time to explain what happened to her and why, but I still can’t help but feel that her departure from Babylon 5 should have been a bigger deal.
Unfortunately, Garibaldi suddenly begins acting like he has a bad case of PMS. He is moody and irrational. There are hints that he was captured and programed to act as a spy for Psy-Corps, but it’s not entirely clear. I’ve been very vocal about the fact that I think the character needed a stronger arc, but this just isn’t an effective way to do it. Garibaldi’s change came about because of a plot twist, not because the character developed or changed. We’ve seen Garibaldi survive much worse with little to no change in character (for example, at the end of Season 1 when he was shot in the back by his own officer).
Characters are at their most interesting when confronted with difficult moral choices. We learn much more by seeing how a character responds to a a choice between two evils than hours of exposition about that character’s backstory. Moreover, in making that choice, the character owns the consequences. That’s why removing Garibaldi’s moral agency through telepathic manipulation is so damaging to the character’s arc this season. As of “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?,” Garibaldi was effectively turned into a plot device and no longer had any real motivations. It’s also a Reset Button™ because Garibaldi’s abhorrent behavior does not end up impacting his relationship with the rest of the characters; he was a Psy-Corps, so all is apparently forgiven.
Throughout the season, Garibaldi constantly complains that Sheridan returned from Z’ha’dum with delusions of grandeur. On the surface, this could have been a fascinating plot twist. Imagine if Sheridan had come back with a Lawrence of Arabia complex, who after returning from his debriefing with General Allenby saw himself as crucial to the Arab Revolt. It actually could have made for a fascinating clash of personalities between the “messianic” Sheridan and the “everyman” Garibaldi. However, if anything, Sheridan seems more reasonable and a peace with himself in Season 4 than at any other point in the show. Ultimately, Garibaldi is just wrong about Sheridan and raises his concerns in the most obnoxious way possible.
If Season 4 is supposed to be the season of payoffs, it certainly doesn’t fail, but it also doesn’t entirely succeed. There are some great ideas embedded in the Shadow War, but the plot was abandoned just as it was becoming interesting. I understand that Straczynski had not yet secured a commitment for Season 5, so I can sympathize with the inclination to wrap up the story. However, cancellation is always a risk for any TV show. Given the number of filler episodes in the previous seasons I can’t help but think the story would have benefited from less foreshadowing, or simply removing the Psy-Corps/Garibaldi arc this season. Despite its problems, the beginning and end of Season 4 are about as epic as sci-fi television gets.
My journey through Baylon 5 continues next week with Season 5…