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The question of how to bring about the end of a years-long story arc is one that J. Michael Straczynski had to answer when Season Four of Babylon 5 began shooting. The meta-plot of the series, The Shadow War, had been up and running since the halfway point of the Season One. By the beginning of the fourth season, the war had been an ongoing for nearly a year in story. The two episodes I’ll be covering in this essay focus on the end of The Shadow War and how that leads into the next phase of the story.
Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read if you haven’t watched these episodes.
Picking up where I left off, the two episodes that move The Shadow War story arc forward are “The Summoning” and “Falling Toward Apotheosis”. The episodes move at a near frenzy, packing supremely satisfying character moments that have been earned over the course of the series to this point. All of the actors bring their A-Game to these episodes, fulfilling the story requirements with gusto and only a slight bit of theatrics.
“The Summoning” picks up shortly after the events of “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi”. As Delenn coordinates the assault on the Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum, Susan Ivanova decides to go out and search for more of The First Ones, the oldest space-faring species that exist in the galaxy. The Ranger Marcus, who has been holding an unrequited love for Ivanova, is sent along with her, ostensibly because Ivanova hasn’t quite picked the Minbari language well enough to command the crew of the White Star on her own. We also find out that Zack Allen (portrayed by the late Jeff Conaway) has picked up a potential lead on Garibaldi’s whereabouts, so he sets out to follow up on it. And last but not least, Londo and Vir continue to make preparations to remove the mad Emperor Cartagia from the throne of the Centauri Republic.
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in the episode.
Garibaldi is found by Zack but not before some kind of program activates which awakens him from an induced slumber. The ship carrying Garibaldi’s life pod destroys itself before releasing Garibaldi, ensuring that no one is left to question regarding the Security Chief’s whereabouts since the end of Season Three. When he awakens in Medlab, Garibaldi has brief flashes of his experiences on the ship but nothing concrete enough to explain where he’s been or what happened to him. Given the current state of affairs, no one presses too hard for details. It’s a testament to Straczynski as a writer that he sets up this thread so early in the season knowing that it’ll be several hours later in the season that we’ll receive answers.
The scenes on Centauri Prime hammer home the level of depravity Cartagia is capable of. Up to this point, we’ve seen him casually explain how he wants to sacrifice the whole of Centauri Prime to achieve godhood. In this episode, we see him in the aftermath of a torture session with G’Kar, the former Narn ambassador who was captured by the Centauri in the previous episode. Watching Cartagia show his extreme exacerbation at the Narn’s stubborn refusal to scream for him is like watching a child throw a tantrum when their favorite toy does work the way they want it to. Even Vir, who up to this point has been hesitant to go forward with the assassination plot, is driven to fully embrace the idea of killing the Emperor.
Londo and G’Kar’s scenes in this episode are some of the best written between the two. There has always been animosity between them but now, there is a greater amount of focus on their similarities and their differences. G’Kar and Londo are both patriots, both striving to do right by their people. Their methods and the choices they make are what separates the two men, as is often the case in life. While Londo has never cared for G’Kar, he is beginning to grudgingly respect his old adversary, even bringing himself to a sort of empathy for the Narn’s plight. When G’Kar finally gives in and screams during a despicable torture sequence, you can feel the heart of the proud warrior breaking.
Back on the station, a crowd has gathered, led by members of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds that oppose Delenn’s plan to attack the Shadows. In the middle of a riot brewing during that confrontation, a mysterious ship arrives on the station. Onboard is Sheridan, revived from his death on Z’ha’dum, thanks to Lorien, an ancient alien that claims to be the first sentient being in the galaxy. Sheridan’s speech rallies the League Worlds together, proving that he is the nexus point the Shadows feared he would be.
But all does not end well for this episode. During her travels searching for the First Ones, Ivanova and Marcus find a pocket of hyperspace where a massive Vorlon fleet is hiding. The fleet’s centerpiece is a massive ship, larger even than the Babylon 5 station. We learn that this fleet exited hyperspace near a planet where the Shadows have one of their bases. The entire planet is wiped out, showing once and for all that the Vorlons are not the “good guys” in this war. Straczynski has been hinting at this reveal for much of the third season, breaking the mystique of the Vorlons through the actions of both Kosh and his replacement, Ulkesh.
The following episode “Falling Toward Apotheosis” serves as both a bridge to the final steps of the Shadow War and setting the table for one of the biggest set pieces in the series. The Vorlons are on the rampage, destroying entire planets where the Shadows have influence. Sheridan’s return from the dead has turned him into a messianic figure, with Lorien always by his side providing advice. On Centauri Prime, Cartagia outlines his plans to use the presence of the Shadows to provoke the Vorlons to destroy the planet, ensuring his ascension to godhood in a moment of fire and death on a massive scale.
Straczynski also begins laying the groundwork for Garibaldi’s story arc for the season in this episode. Already an acerbic character, Garibaldi becomes even more suspicious and prickly, seemingly in a bad mood constantly. It’s explained away as him just recovering from his still-unknown ordeal after disappearing from the station. It’s a credit to Straczynski that he’s able to throw out these breadcrumbs to the audience without giving them the full meal. Garibaldi’s new demeanor is on display fully when Sheridan asks his Chief of Security to insist the Vorlon Ambassador Ulkesh removes himself from the station.
This leads to a confrontation with the new Vorlon Ambassador, which has been brewing since the reveal of what the Vorlon’s consider their solution to the Shadow problem. In the denouement of the previous episode Sheridan outlined what the nature of the conflict between the two boiled down to: the Vorlons and Shadows both stayed behind after the rest of The First Ones left the galaxy to act as guardians and shepherds for the younger races. At some point in the past, what started as a disagreement over methods turned into covert hostility. Sheridan’s ploy to attack Ulkesh and remove him from the station results in one of the more harrowing moments in the series as we finally get to see what a Vorlon looks like outside of its encounter suit. Instead of the winged being of light we saw Kosh show in the season two finale, we get an energy being that resembles a cephalopod. While the CGI is dated at this point, it is still a deeply disturbing image of a millennia-old being that is enraged.
The fight against Ulkesh ends when the remaining spark of Kosh inside Sheridan comes out, battling it’s fellow Vorlon until the pair escape to Ulkesh’s ship and it explodes, killing both in the process. Sheridan is gravely wounded in the exchange, which allows us to see how Lorien brought Sheridan back from the dead on Z’ha’dum. We learn later that Lorien used his own lifeforce to replenish Sheridan’s, but it is not an infinite resource. Barring injury or illness, Sheridan’s lifespan has been drastically reduced to a mere twenty years.
The moment where we as the audience learn this is another of Straczynski’s masterstrokes as a writer: consequences. It would have been an easy out for him to let Sheridan survive Z’ha’dum without major repercussions. But doing so would have betrayed all the warning signs he’d posted about Sheridan dying if he went to the Shadow homeworld. As a burgeoning writer, I’ve taken to heart the lesson shown in Sheridan’s journey over the course of the third and fourth seasons: if you set up consequences for your characters, make them mean something, otherwise there’s no point in setting them up in the first place.
The episode ends on a heart-breaking note. Earlier in the episode, Londo reached out Sheridan to confirm the Vorlons are making their way to Centauri Prime. In a desperate gambit to save his world, Londo convinces Cartagia to travel to Narn for the trial and execution of G’Kar. By feigning to want his Emperor’s majesty and wisdom to be seen by all of Narn, Londo manipulates Cartagia into agreeing, removing him from the safety of the Imperial Palace, which makes the young Emperor far more vulnerable to assassination. As they are preparing to leave, Cartagia comments that he doesn’t like the way G’Kar is looking at him, so he whimsically orders one of the Narn’s eyes to be plucked out. The vision of Londo’s future where a one-eyed G’Kar strangles the live out of him takes root in this moment, revealing that Londo’s future is about to be set in stone.
The following essay will cover the last two episodes in the finale of the Shadow War arc. As it should be apparent at this stage, I greatly love Babylon 5, even if some of the episodes are not up to the quality of others. The first six episodes of season four are among the best the series had produced up to this point and much of that falls on the shoulders of both Straczynski and his cast of actors. It’s one thing to have a brilliant script. It’s another thing entirely to have those words brought to life so effectively. Babylon 5 is a testament to the creators and actors who brought it to life so vividly that it is still a beloved series nearly thirty years later.