“Confessions And Lamentations” (season two, episode 18; originally aired 5/25/1995)
I've described Babylon 5 as a transitional series many times over the course of these reviews, usually to help explain why it's relatively old-fashioned. For example, last week, Sheridan had the opportunity to turn into an anti-hero, that most notable construct of the “Quality TV” era, but he pulled back by the end of the episode. But here, in “Confessions And Lamentations,” the good guys fail, and it's an utterly irreversible failure. “The Markab are, for all intents and purposes, a dead race.”
The frequency and scope of the main characters' failure aligns Babylon 5 with several of the prime examples of recent Quality TV. The most famous of those, The Wire, depended on constant, repetitive failure to hammer home its themes. Or there's Angel, which was built on the idea that true and lasting success was impossible for the characters, yet virtue in them trying anyway. Babylon 5's approach to failure is different from those, closer to the idea that “the night is always darkest before the dawn.” But for the purposes of drama, the possibility of failure is critical. It means that the show's stories have a full range of possible outcomes, which is good for a show's ability to both surprise as well as showcase a variety of different story types.
What makes the events “Confessions And Lamentations” a particularly interesting failure is that this is a standalone episode. It's not about the Shadow War or fascism on Earth or telepaths or any of the long-standing storylines. It's a case of the week episode that just happens to wipe out the Markab, the second-most common of the League races (after the Drazi). Babylon 5's actually been slyly bringing the Markab to the fore in the past few episodes—one of the alien masks in the gift shop was a Markab, and the dead pilot in “Knives” was deliberately announced as Markab. They've always been around, usually in the background. And now they're not anymore.
With a story like this, the episode could easily turn laughable or mawkish, which would render it ineffective. And early on, this seems like a distinct possibility. The Minbari dinner ritual is utterly laughable, and not necessarily in the intended comic fashion, while Franklin's early interactions with the Markab doctor are stilted.
But as the stakes of the episode rise, the awkwardness dissipates enough that the story holds its power. Much credit should go to Richard Biggs as Dr. Franklin, who I don't think I've praised much in this space. Franklin is often the odd man out of the main cast, off doing his own thing with occasionally advice given to the other characters. So when he and his job, are the dramatic focus, Biggs finally gets the chance to chew some scenery like the others, and he delivers—his “It means we have more information than we have five minutes ago!” speech to the frightened Medlab staff when the plague jumps species is certainly the best thing he's done on the show so far and possibly his best in the entire series.
Long-term, the most important aspect of “Confessions And Lamentations” comes from Delenn. Ever since her transformation, she's clearly been lost at a personal level (though quite happy to deliver an expository monologue when called upon). In “Confessions” she surrenders those feelings. She gives away the feeling of being “all alone in a crowd” and embraces service to the point of giving up her life, as she goes into the Markab quarantine in order to minister to the afflicted, with no knowledge of whether that would be a death sentence for herself as well as Lennier. It's only by surrendering to the needs of the moment, instead of worrying about the perceptions of others in the past and future, that Delenn remembers to become herself again.
The climax of the episode is Delenn's “silent scream” in Sheridan's arms, one of Babylon 5's most iconic images. Delenn surrendered, lost, survived, and still has loyalty and love. (It's quite clear, at this point, that her relationship with Sheridan is romantic.) And it is the moment that makes a risky episode a clear success.
- “The food must be sanctified during the 15 stages of preparation.” I swear this is just Delenn trolling Sheridan.
- Speaking of big character changes, Delenn has finally switched to bangs. It is 100% terminal. (I am really, really not a fan of this decision.)
- “I did not know that similarity was required for compassion.”
- Franklin has mentioned taking stims before, but this is the first time we've seen it directly.
- “That does seem to be the rule. Analyze the situation, and choose the solution that makes the least sense.” Jim Norton eventually turns the Markab doctor, Lazarenn, into an excellent sympathetic guest star.
- “Faith manages.” This is the second child to have a major roles in a Babylon 5 episode. This is the second child to die in a Babylon 5 episode.
- I mentioned that there isn't a direct connection to the Shadows, but this may not be entirely true. Lazarenn's statement that it had been “centuries” since the plague's first appearance may correspond to the last Shadow War. And eliminating a moderate galactic power with a single disease does seem to fit with their new, more subtle plans.
“Divided Loyalties” (season two, episode 19; originally aired 10/11/1995)
Of the four major characters who get dumped from Babylon 5, only Andrea Thompson actually gets a full goodbye episode. Na'Toth is slowly eliminated over the course of the season, while Sinclair and the later departure get the boot between seasons. Perhaps it's that Andrea Thompson took the lead in leaving, while the others were surprises or came from the producers/executives. Her public explanations as to why she left seemed legitimate—I can't find them now, unfortunately, but I recall an interview where she said she got frustrated at how few episodes she appeared in, and how often she was asked to play essentially a damsel-in-distress. I specifically remember her saying that, when she read the script for “Divided Loyalties,” she thought “finally! A role with some meat on it!”
That Thompson might have felt ill-served as Talia is understandable, but somewhat shortsighted, as her replacement as the resident telepath has some of the most badass scenes in the series. All of the characters have arcs; Talia's story may have been too slow-burning. Both her gift from Ironheart and her relationship with Ivanova had been unspoken for far too long.
Talia may be lucky to get a goodbye episode, but it's clearly a ramshackle affair. The main plot, with the return of Lyta Alexander, the telepath from the pilot movie, who has news of a traitor probably isn't quite enough to sustain a whole episode as it is. There's an entire middle section where Lyta runs away and then comes back, with no real drama to it, for example. But there's no b-plot to the episode. As such, it's the weakest of this great run of episodes that close out the second season. Even still, there's enough natural drama to the premise it that it succeeds.
The main thing that allows the natural drama to work is the focus on Ivanova. Like Franklin, her character's arc has largely been buried, especially this season. Where Sheridan and Delenn's relationship has proceeded on-screen at a glacial pace, Talia and Ivanova's relationship has apparently been progressing even slower, until it's suddenly sped up in this episode. The portrayal of a lesbian sexual relationship in 1995 was fairly controversial, and it shows in how “Divided Loyalties” dances around the subject.
Still, the text is reasonably clear about what happened. The two haven't slept together before, as Ivanova offering Talia a place to sleep is treated as a major step forward. But they do have a physical relationship at that point, as Talia reaches across the shared bed to try to find Ivanova. Whether they actually kissed on camera, in the moment where Talia reaches to touch Ivanova's face, and Susan appears to lean in, was a subject of great debate in the fan community (JMS always insisted that no kiss was edited out). Regardless, we get to see a level of personal, emotionally intimate connection from Thompson and Claudia Christian that hasn't really been part of either's portrayal this season.
Part of the reason that there's so much focus on Ivanova is that everything in the episode seems to indicate that she's the mole, not Talia. She is forced to confess her deepest secret—that she's a latent telepath—and she's the last to undergo the test to trigger the Control personality. I honestly can't remember if that felt likely at the time, but every time I've seen the episode since, the Ivanova misdirection seems remarkably transparent. Talia's reveal as Control and her subsequent scenery-chewing are fun, totally lacking in subtlety, and leave some confusing foreshadowing around. Babylon 5, ladies and gentlemen!
- “And I often learn things about my world before I'm told what I need to know, and know more.” Between this and the dinner from the previous episode, Minbari culture looks ridiculous, unsustainable, and like it exists only as a comparison to the awesomely rambunctious human culture.
- “Big, honkin massive trees” says Sheridan, while holding his penis and looking at Garibaldi.
- “I mean all you had to do what admit that you were wrong and I was right, and everything would have been fine.”
- “Motorbutt? I don't think I like the sound of that.” Ahhh! Minbari humor! Run away!
- “Ambassador, I think I'm just about in every kind of trouble there is.” I didn't spend much time talking about Pat Tallman as Lyta, because we'll get many more chances to do so later, happily. I really like her as a character, and the actress often justifies that.
- “I let myself in. You should change your lock code more often.” My girlfriend declared that this was very Veronica Mars of Ivanova. And now I'm smiling thinking about Veronica Ivanova.
NEXT WEEK: “The Long Twilight Struggle” is my favorite Babylon 5 episode, and it's getting a week on its own. Because it's amazing.