I can honestly say that up until the fourth season of Babylon 5, I had never seen a writer or showrunner end a years-long story arc as quickly and as satisfyingly as the Shadow War arc. Aside from the Earth Alliance Civil War arc, the Shadow War was the defining storyline from the 13th episode of the first season to this point, with twists and turns that were unexpected and, in some cases, deeply nightmarish. The following two episodes I’m covering in this essay, “The Long Night” and “Into The Fire”, bring to a close the main storyline of the series in a way I didn’t expect when I first watched the show but have come to appreciate each time I see it.
Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the episodes in question.
With the Vorlons on the prowl annihilating entire worlds, it was only a matter of time before the Shadows retaliated in kind. Rumor has it that Harlan Ellison, a writer of great skill and a frequent contributor to Babylon 5 over the years, came up with the Shadow’s planet killer design. This lends further credence to my notion that the late Harlan Ellison had some frighteningly bad nightmares in his life. Instead of the surgical destruction of the Vorlon Planet Killer, the Shadow’s Death Cloud encircles an entire planet, raining down thousands of thermonuclear missiles that burrow into a planet until it reaches the core and then detonates. We are shown a glimpse of this during the episode and it is nightmare fuel personified. Picture the old new reel footage of atomic bomb testing from the 1950s and now picture that occurring multiple times per second deep beneath the crust of the Earth. As “gods of chaos”, the Shadows’ preferred method for killing an entire world matches their modus operandi to a tee: chaos and disorder reigns while the planet is slowly torn apart from the inside out.
The major story arc of the episode is the trial of G’Kar on Narn and the culmination of the assassination plot Londo Mollari has initiated to remove the mad Emperor Cartagia from the throne of the Centauri Republic. Londo’s past mistakes are what has led to this moment, specifically his alliance with Lord Refa, a Centauri noble that saw to the death of the previous Prime Minister after the last Centauri Emperor died on Babylon 5. It was through Mollari and Refa’s political machinations that Cartagia came to the throne, so it is only fitting that Londo be the one to remove him. Londo arranges for the chains binding G’Kar to be weakened, given the Narn a better chance of breaking free, provided that G’Kar not attack the Emperor directly. To facilitate the assassination, Londo arranges for Vir to obtain a bejeweled tool with a needle hidden inside. The needle holds a dose of neurotoxin powerful enough to stop both of Cartagia’s hearts, provided he gets stabbed directly in his chest.
The trial commences and Cartagia uses this opportunity to grandstand for the captive Narn audience. I’ve mentioned this before in my previous essays but Wortham Krimmer played the hell out of Cartagia during this short run on the series. The way Krimmer is able to fluidly move through emotions as Cartagia bounces from giddy childishness to ruthless depravity is quite good. Cartagia reveals to Londo that he had the chains replaced since they looked too weak, which could jeopardize Londo’s plan. But G’Kar proves up to the task, breaking his chains and assaulting the Centauri guards to create the ruckus Londo needs to whisk Cartagia away. But it isn’t Londo that stabs Cartagia. Rather, it is meek, quiet Vir that deals the killing blow to the Mad Emperor.
Stephen Furst’s performance as Vir is one of the best character arcs that occurred over the course of the show’s five-year run. Starting out as a mild, put-upon attaché, Vir grew before our eyes as a principled but tortured character. Vir stood out as Londo’s conscience, warning Mollari every step of the way as he descended into his dark alliance with Morden and the Shadows. When Vir saw an opportunity to save several hundred Narns from the Centauri occupation, he took it, and then refused to back down when Londo upbraided him for it. The scene that follows where Vir drinks himself into a stupor is fitting for someone who still retained his innocence, despite constantly finding himself in some truly dark situations. Furst and Peter Jurasik are magnificent together in the scene. Londo keeps his word to G’Kar, convincing the members of his government present on Narn to abandon all of the Narn colonies and their homeworld. In the process, he is nominated to the office of Prime Minister, since there is no immediate successor to Cartagia’s throne. Londo is visibly disturbed by this promotion but takes it in stride in his efforts to save Centauri Prime.
A more telling scene is the one that follows after that when G’Kar finds some of his people trashing the mock Centauri throne room, celebrating as the Centauri leave. Their jubilation is misplaced, thinking that they won over their long-time enemies through strength of arms. G’Kar admonishes them, proving once again that he is also not the same character we met at the beginning of the series. When one of the Narns suggests that G’Kar become their ruler in order to strike back at the Centauri, G’Kar loses his temper, proclaiming that he did not throw down one dictator in order to become one himself. When the same Narn questions what G’Kar endured while the people of Narn suffered under the occupation, G’Kar can only stare at them with his one remaining eye and laugh bitterly at the insinuation.
The episode’s ending is set in motion when Sheridan asks a White Star commander named Ericsson (played by Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad in one his early TV roles) to give up his life and the lives of his crew to protect a message from the Shadows indicating his forces are opening a new base on Coriana 6, a planet that has been targeted for destruction by the Vorlons. Sheridan hopes to bring the two forces together in a direct conflict, which they have both been avoiding up to this point. When the episode ends, Sheridan leads a massive fleet into hyperspace to stand against two of the oldest species in the galaxy in the hopes of ending this war before there isn’t anyone left standing.
This leads to “Into The Fire” and this is one of the most impactful episodes during the show’s run. I’ve used the term “wham episode” before and this one certainly qualifies because it changes the landscape of the series from this point forward. Before I get into the actual meat of the plot, there’s a quiet scene near the beginning of the episode that I find to be one of the more profound passages written by Straczynski during the show. Before entering into this final battle, Lorien and Ivanova have been scouring the galaxy looking for the last of the First Ones. Once they have found all of the remaining First Ones, they return to Babylon 5 to resupply before going on to Coriana 6. Lorien talks with Ivanova, stating obviously that Susan is someone who refuses to listen to her heart, preferring her intellect. The perspective of someone who has seen a million years pass is a strange one to write from but Lorien gently chides Ivanova for not embracing the illusions of love lasting forever. As Lorien puts it, “only those who’s lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal.” It’s one of the scenes from this show that has stuck with me over the years.
On Centauri Prime, the now Prime Minister Londo Mollari begins making preparations to remove the Shadows from his world in the hopes of staving off the imminent Vorlon fleet. Londo receives devastating news after meeting with several of the other ministers, discovering that Morden (instead of Refa as Londo had been led to believe) was responsible for the death of Adira Tyree, Londo’s lover who was poisoned back in Season Three. Realizing he’d been played by Morden, Londo’s rage boils over and he (justifiably) takes it out on Morden and the Shadows. When Morden refuses to communicate with the Shadows to leave Centauri Prime willingly, Londo has the island where their fleet is stored destroyed with fusion bombs (powerful nuclear devices). Morden’s last words to Mollari are that the Shadows’ allies will make sure Centauri Prime pays the price for Londo’s actions, which Londo unwisely scoffs away. When we see Morden again, his head is on a pike in the gardens of the Palace, just as Vir had stated he wanted to see back in the second season. And just as Vir promised that he would, he gives the severed head of the Shadows’ puppet a cute wave.
Just when it feels like Londo has achieved the impossible, the Vorlon fleet arrives and prepares to destroy the planet. Even though the Shadows are gone and Morden is dead, Londo remains on the planet. Having been so closely tied to the Shadows for nearly three years, the Vorlons still consider Centauri Prime tainted by the Shadows’ influence. Londo vehemently begs Vir to kill him, in the hopes that by doing so, the Vorlons will spare his world. Thankfully, Vir doesn’t have to as the Vorlons leave due to events happening elsewhere in the galaxy.
Which leads me to the real meat of the episode, the finale of the Shadow War. Sheridan arranged for both the Vorlon and Shadow fleets to meet at the planet Coriana 6, home to more than six billion sentient beings that were forced to house a Shadow base. The battle itself is breathtakingly large in scale, the largest yet for the series. But this is not a battle that Sheridan can win through force of arms and he knows that. He was hoping to force the two sides of the conflict to interact with him, using Lorien as a psychic conduit to show everyone in the fleet the real scope of the Vorlons and Shadows manipulations of the rest of the galaxy’s inhabitants.
What follows is a philosophical discussion where Sheridan and Delenn are forced into a psychic blank space. Sheridan is confronted by the Vorlons, Delenn by the Shadows. Each of the old guardians attempts to win them over to their side of thinking. As Sheridan points out, the Vorlons and the Shadows have always had the technology to destroy one another, as proved by their use of planet-killing weapons. But instead of striking at each other directly, they’ve used the younger races as pawns in a galactic chess game. The Shadows use sentient beings as the central processing unit for their organic ships, stripping away every piece of individuality until they are little more than mindless slaves. The Vorlons manipulated the younger races into seeing them as celestial beings, as well as creating telepaths by biologically engineering the trait in hundreds of races. Delenn puts it bluntly to the Shadows: their war is not about territory but about ideology. The Shadows and Vorlons are forcing the younger races of the galaxy to decide which is the right path to fulfill their potential: war and chaos versus order and obedience.
Through Lorien’s ability to broadcast the standoff to the rest of the fleet, the younger races reject the Shadows and Vorlons entirely. Sheridan calls them out further by saying that the Vorlons and Shadows are known for asking one question over and over again: “Who are you” (for the Vorlons) and “What do you want” (for the Shadows). But neither of the elder races can answer their own question anymore. Delenn admonishes them harshly, stating that they can wipe out every race that lives now and every race that follows until the two elders are all alone in the Universe. They will have failed in their role as shepherds and guardians. Sheridan’s defiant “Get the hell outta of our galaxy!” is one of my favorite moments in the series. It comes off as hammy to some but I dig it completely.
The Shadows and Vorlons depart from the galaxy, with Lorien and the remaining First Ones leaving as well to whatever lies beyond the rim of known space. When Delenn and Sheridan return to Babylon 5, Sheridan muses that they’ve entered a new age, one where the younger races can decide for themselves how to find their way between order and chaos. Ultimately, that was what the Shadow War was focused on. Instead of territories, resources, and conquest, the Shadow War was predicated on two intractable sides deciding that their way was the only way for the younger races to come into their own. For some, it may not feel like a fitting end of the arc but I found it to be perfectly in-line with what Straczynski had been laying down from the beginning of the series: free will is the driving engine in our growth as a species. Without the ability to chart our own destiny, we are at the whims of those more powerful than us. The ending of the Shadow War arc is a reminder that humanity has the ability to ascend beyond petty differences and find a way to exist where we all can prosper.
The following essays covering Season Four will be a bit shorter, since I’ll be compacting episodes down in the lead up to the ending of the Earth Alliance Civil War that caps off the end of the season.
Until then, Faith Manages.