“Interludes And Examinations” (season three, episode 15; originally aired 5/6/1996)
Who says Babylon 5 doesn't have a sense of humor? Here's a show that takes one of its most important episodes—he turning point of its grand mythology when the heroes switch from reacting to acting—and titles it “Interludes And Examinations.” Okay, it's not an especially funny joke, but it's some kind of joke nonetheless. The most dramatic event of the supposed “Interludes” is the death of the Vorlon ambassador. Kosh has been around events, influencing and the younger races of the galaxy into doing his will against the Shadows. We see him portrayed as a good guy fairly uncritically. He's stubborn, and he pisses Sheridan off, sure, but he still supposedly does the right thing in the end. But is he a hero?
That the Shadows deserve to be defended against is pretty evident, so Kosh is clearly on the right side there. The issue is how he goes about it. At this point in the series, almost everything we've seen of the Vorlons coincides with what we've seen of Kosh—he directly represents them. He apparently has had a hand in everything they've done. And everything the Vorlons have done, with perhaps the exception of protecting their homeworld violently, seems to be about defeating the Shadows.
That includes generations of manipulation. Kosh, outside of his encounter suit, takes on the appearance of an angel. As Delenn explained, the myths that made angels appear to be good were seeded into all the younger races in order to make sure that the Vorlons were viewed positively when the time came. Thus the Vorlons have removed the younger races' agency in order to make them more pliable for the upcoming war. That's certainly discomfiting, but it's also justifiable, according to what we've seen—an early scene in “Interludes” shows just how petty the younger races can be; the Brakiri are weak because they've been fighting their neighbors while the Gaim think they can put their heads down and survive the Shadows. It's only by working together that the younger races can hope to defeat the Shadows.
It's that international, or interstellar, alliance that seems to be the point. Kosh isn't doing what he's doing in order to turn the younger races into weapons to defeat the Shadows for the Vorlons. The alliance would need to exist in order for the younger races to not need the Vorlons at all. Kosh wants Sheridan to lead, he doesn't want to lead himself. But the question that Babylon 5 doesn't answer is “Why?” The implication that Kosh gives is that the Vorlons aren't ready to face the Shadows directly, or are too weak. “But there are still few of us. We are not prepared. This is not our fight. It is yours.” But the Vorlons are, for all intents and purposes, magic at this point. They can call in a task force of enough ships to defeat the Shadows at a moment's notice, after all.
I bring this all up not because I think that all of Kosh's actions need to be scrutinized and analyzed from an in-universe perspective (although that's certainly doable) but rather because I think that the show's treatment of Kosh mirrors how Babylon 5 perceives itself. In fact, I think you could, quite easily, conceive of a version of Babylon 5 where Kosh is the protagonist, carefully laying the groundwork for the set of alliances that can eventually defeat his enemies.
Thus Kosh's willingness, or unwillingness, to deal with his general ends-justify-the-means philosophy mirror's the show's willingness to do so. The narrative that he wants to portray is that of the wise, Merlin-type figure, who has made some hard choices but is generally, ah, on the side of angels. The narrative that the show wants to portray is that Kosh is a Merlin-style figure, and that an epic story demands that the mentor-figure be removed or killed at a critical juncture. But both are manipulations. Kosh seems that way to the characters in the show because he's literally programmed people, indirectly by the multitudes, or directly with individuals like G'Kar. Babylon 5 portrays Kosh as seeming in that fashion by having angelic music play when he's on-screen, by having the worst thing he's ever shown doing be getting angry at Sheridan for being demanding, and by having him appear as Sheridan's always positively-depicted father when he dies, apologizing. “Nah, it had to be done. Don't…blame yourself for what happened later.”
In other words, Kosh can be portrayed and viewed as heroic because the idea that the ends justify the means is never fully examined. The morally dubious “ends” aren't really depicted, except in the broadest strokes, like the generations of genetic manipulation, or as fait accompli, like the Narn oppression. Babylon 5 never examines the practicality behind the “ends” of Vorlon power—they're just powerful enough to strike when needed, because the story calls upon them to do so to create the start of an interstellar alliance, therefore justifying all of Kosh's manipulations. Ambassador Kosh is the hero of Babylon 5 as it wants to portray itself. But it's not entirely successful at making that seem like a wise idea.
“Interludes And Examinations” is the first episode to really strike that dissonant chord, one that will become an increasingly dominant aspect of the series moving forward. The heroes will go on to fulfill Kosh's vision, and because they are heroes, it will always be seen as heroic, even as a critical examination of their actions and motives may make that an arguable, even controversial proposition.
Issues with the overarching themes and characterizations aside, “Interludes And Examinations” is a fantastic episode. The core of it is the tense scene where Sheridan confronts Kosh, demanding that the Vorlons join the war against the Shadows. Bruce Boxleitner plays this scene so well that it's easy to forget that he's acting against a giant puppet. I remembered his anger and his resolve, but what struck me about it this time around what how remarkably well Boxleitner added vulnerability to his lines. His voice cracks with desperation, anxiety, and even betrayal as the scene progresses, and that “encounter-suited butts” line even works.
The episode's title may feel deceptive in retrospect, but it's actually a surprisingly accurate depiction of what it's like to watch. Unlike almost every other major episode of Babylon 5 so far, “Interludes” feels slower, smaller, and more personal, in an entirely good way. This probably has a lot to do with the intensely character-based stims plotline Dr. Franklin is going through. This isn't a surprising storyline—it's been coming for a season, if not longer—and I'm not sure that any of its scenes in this episode are especially excellent. But it keeps the whole thing grounded and almost somewhat naturalistic, a phrase that's almost never possible to apply to Babylon 5.
Londo's storyline keeps the episode anchored to character in a different way. Awaiting the return of Adira, his dancer lover from a (not very good) earlier episode, he wants to avoid galactic politics and pain and sorrow. This is told primarily through over-the-top statements (“Gods, Vir, I feel happy. I'd almost forgotten what it was like!”) and flashbacks of that true love. Of course it will end in pain, but it also effectively balances out the epic other side of the plot, while still being related via Mr. Morden.
The more times I watch “Interludes And Examinations,” the more interesting I find it. Sometimes that's due to its quality, sometimes due to its place within Babylon 5's overarching structure. It's one of the show's most critical episodes, in multiple senses of the term.
- A few later revelations will alter how we perceive the relationship between Kosh and the Vorlons, and the Vorlons and the rest of the galaxy, but I think that the relationship between Kosh and the characters (and audience) remains as I've described it. Feel free to agree or disagree in comments….
- A bit of direct serialization: visually, this episode starts immediately where “Ship Of Tears” left off.
- “We carved up the galaxy, you and I.” If you ever say something like this, that's probably not a good sign. Of anything.
- “I think you are using us as, shall we say, agents of chaos?”
- “Every time someone says we're becoming a paperless society, we get 10 more forms to fill out!”
- “And if those samples show what I think they show, Stephen can kiss the rest of his career goodbye. I am trying to help him.” GEE, GARIBALDI, YOU DON'T THINK THE WHOLE SECESSION THING MIGHT HAVE CHANGED HIS CAREER TRAJECTORY?
- “You can never go wrong with garters. Enh. You might.”
- “Impudent!” “Disobedient!” “Up yours!”
- “You do not understand. But you will.”
- “As long as you're here, I'll always be here.”
- “Give me this and the safety of my people. Give me that and let the galaxy burn. I do not care anymore.”