Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Classics: B5 4:1 - The Hour of the Wolf

Overall: 9.2

'Tis an episode that launches a thousand stories -- and all of those stories are pretty compelling, though the Centauri plot definitely rises above the rest.

Plot Synopsis:

The Lurker's Guide has a full summary here.

The Skinny:

Stephanie S.: As SABR Matt observes below, this is very much a transitional episode, but it's a transitional episode that is also a feature because each of the separate threads is interesting in its own way. I, of course, have a personal favorite plotline (I'll give you one guess), which I will be covering in exhaustive detail over the next six episodes, but I also want to discuss what happens to the Babylon 5 Alliance in this episode while Sheridan is hanging out in Sheol with Lorien because I do have a passing interest in that story as well.

So what shall we make of the League ambassadors' decision to pull back their support? Well, for one thing, they're not being entirely unreasonable. The leader of their infant Alliance is missing and presumed dead, and the fighting appears to have stopped. Their desire to circle the wagons around their respective homeworlds seems perfectly natural to me. (And that, by the way, is a sign of good writing.) But the League ambassadors' position is rooted in something even more philosophically (and politically) significant. Listen, for example, to what the Drazi ambassador declares: "You cannot win this war. You can only survive it." Somehow, along the way, these ambassadors have lost their faith in the possibility of total victory. How many times has this happened in the history of our nation -- in the history of the world?

With every ideological war, there has always been one faction that has urged a "stalemate" or "peaceful coexistence." There has always been one faction that has counseled against the "unreasonable" idea that certain ideologies must be utterly ground into dust because they fly in the face of our small-l liberal, Christian ideals. During the Cold War, for example, most western leaders treated the Soviet Union as a permanent fixture of world politics. While they did try to "restrain" this menace to free society, they certainly didn't act as if the USSR could actually be wiped off the map entirely. Then the supremely unreasonable (and hated among the aforementioned faction) Ronald Reagan came along demanding the complete defeat of the USSR (with the help of Thatcher of Britain and the soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II) -- and shortly after the end of his two-term presidency, the USSR was no more. If we can just summon the intestinal fortitude, I'm sure we can relegate radical Islamism to the same dustbin of history. Alas, those who prefer "coexistence" to victory still exist today, and they are still making our job a lot harder. But I'm digressing here. Suffice it to say that I find it quite fascinating indeed that JMS' heroes all stand on the side of the "unreasonable" leaders mentioned above when it comes to winning their own ideological war -- especially Delenn, who comes right out and declares it dishonorable (!) to expect anything less than an absolute triumph.

But now to one of my most favorite plotlines ever: I, Claudius Er, I mean the goings on in the Centauri royal palace, which trigger Londo's slow climb to redemption. As you know, Londo goes home and discovers that the young "puppet" now on the throne is completely nutty, dangerously crackers, and every other synonym for "mad" that you can devise. Cartagia is, in short, Caligula... IN SPACE! And by the way, Wortham Krimmer's performance is absolutely hilarious. I know, I know -- Cartagia's desire to nab a place in the Centauri pantheon by scrambling up a pyramid of dead bodies is frighteningly evil, but I can't help but laugh - a lot - at how deliberately over-the-top he is. Scenery chewing is not generally something we endorse, but in this case, because it is conscious, it works. (Damian London is also oddly effective as the twittering little Minister Virini.)

At any rate, it is an absolute stroke of genius that JMS should use a figure like Cartagia (and the Shadows' presence on Centauri Prime) to pull Londo into, at the very least, that grey area between light and dark. As I've observed in other reviews, Londo is a patriot first and foremost, so a threat to his own homeland would have to be the one thing that would wake him up. Also brilliant is how JMS brings Vir into the assassination conspiracy. Crucially, JMS hasn't forgotten the finality of Vir's last line in And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, and so he radically changes Londo's approach to his aide. In episodes past, Londo might've ordered Vir to help him, but here, Londo addresses Vir as a friend and an equal and appeals to Vir's love and his patriotism. Is it any wonder that Vir's affirmative response is so immediate and so passionate?

I love everything that happens with the Centauri over the next six episodes so very much that I'm tempted to spill the beans and discuss it all right now. But, of course, that would leave me with nothing to say in later reviews, so I shall end here and encourage you to tune in next week, at which point I will discuss the fabulous way G'Kar is brought into this mess.

SABR Matt: A few things of interest are developing here...
  • On Centauri Prime, Londo's comeuppance is beginning. He has no choice but to be involved in a very ugly, very dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Shadows and with a mad Emperor.
  • On B5, G'Kar finds meaning in a quest to repay his debt to Garibaldi...a little plot thread that feels more important because it's contrasted nicely with what Londo is doing elsewhere (as their characters go in different directions leading to the same end...a fascinating character portrait).
  • Delenn pleads to the race in whom she's placed all of her faith for decades to help her retrieve her love and they shoot her down in the most cruel way imaginable. This is the final straw...I never personally put much stock in the Vorlons as saviors even on first viewing, but this episode is the first to conclusively prove that the Vorlons are just as evil as the Shadows. In Z'ha'dum, you could dismiss the Vorlon side of the story as Shadow propaganda, but now, it's being corroborated.
What's impressive about all of this is that this episode is a set-up piece...we have to establish a new status quo before we plunge into war...we have to launch several threads at once and resolve none of them. It's a series of vignettes that don't go together unless you know what's coming down the line...but it still works! And it's still really well written and impactful. I don't even know how you DO that.

Writing: 9.5 / 9.5

Stephanie S.: If JMS can manage to impress me with scenes which have nothing to do with Londo, G'Kar, or Vir, that's a sign that he's written an excellent script.

SABR Matt: The foreshadowing and stirring of new (and continuing) threads is well worth the much going on and all of it is fascinating.

Acting: 9.0 / 9.0

Stephanie S.: Wortham Krimmer is an absolute scream, as I note above. Furlan, Katsulas, and Jurasik also turn in their usual fine work -- and we can already see Stephen Furst subtly transforming his portrayal of Vir into something that is still cute, but also more somber and adult. Definitely keep an eye on Furst for the next few weeks; his ability to hold his own amongst a cast of far more theatrical actors is actually pretty impressive.

SABR Matt: Mira Furlan is still en fuego and the players on Centauri Prime will delight you for the next six episodes.

Message: 9.0 / 9.0

JMS' refreshing disdain for half-measures and partial victories comes through loud and clear. See above.


BRAKIRI AMBASSADOR: (impatient) We have already discussed this.
IVANOVA: Yes, but we haven't finished discussing this.
BRAKIRI AMBASSADOR: And when are we to be 'finished'?
IVANOVA: As soon as you agree to my proposal. I told you this a half an hour ago. Look, if you're having a problem with comprehension, perhaps you can borrow the Gaim's translator.
(As you might expect, the League ambassadors are not exactly impressed with Ivanova's winning diplomacy, and they start muttering angrily amongst themselves.)
DELENN: Please! This is extremely important. Each of your governments signed the Babylon Treaty promising to keep ships here as part of the ongoing defense of Babylon 5.
LENNIER: The treaty also stipulated that all of us would work together as a unit against the Shadows. Why then have your governments recalled nearly all of your ships?
DRAZI AMBASSADOR: The war is over.
G'KAR: (joining in) It isn't over! There is a pause, yes, but that's all. They'll regroup soon, and then --
DRAZI AMBASSADOR: All the more reason to take advantage of the lull in combat -- to address our wounds and tighten our defenses around our homeworlds.
IVANOVA: By pulling our forces apart, you'll destroy the only chance we have of winning!
DRAZI AMBASSADOR: You cannot win this war, Commander. You can only survive it. And we intend to survive it. If the rumors are true --
IVANOVA: They may not be! We don't know what happened at Z'ha'dum! There have been reports of a thermonuclear detonation, but that's all. Look, if they've been hurt, then we need to press the advantage and hit them as hard as we can!
BRAKIRI AMBASSADOR: You cannot attack Z'ha'dum!
IVANOVA: Yes, we can! The captain showed us how. If he --
GAIM AMBASSADOR: Captain Sheridan is dead.
DELENN: You don't know that!
GAIM AMBASSADOR: No one returns from Z'ha'dum. If we go, we also will not return. That is real reason you wish us to go to Z'ha'dum. You wish to find your captain. You wish him to be alive. If we go, we will be buried alongside him. Our task is to serve our people. This must come first.
(The League ambassadors get up to leave.)
IVANOVA: Just a minute, this meeting is not over! I said --
DELENN: Let them go, Commander. Sheridan was willing to risk his life for their benefit. But they're afraid to act as honorably as he did. The shame is theirs. (The League ambassadors' position here is understandable, which is why this is a good scene.)

LONDO: Minister, I have met Cartagia three times before. Twice when he was an infant. He drooled most of the time. (The next statement is parenthetical.) I wonder if he has continued the habit. (Then he continues with his soon-to-be-proven-foolish dismissal.) And again when he was fifteen trying to peek up the dresses of some young women. I promise you, I will be just as impressed by him now as I was then, yes?
(The guards open the door to the throne room, and Londo and Virini enter and bow.)
CARTAGIA: Ah, Mollari! (The young emperor is primping in front of a mirror.) It's wonderful to see you again.
LONDO: And you, Majesty. I could swear you have not changed since the last few times I saw you.
CARTAGIA: Ah, you are of course too generous. So what do you think, Mollari? (He's referring to his hair.)
LONDO: It is, uh... short, Majesty. Shorter than is traditional for someone of your position.
CARTAGIA: Yes, yes. Decadent, isn't it? I find the shorter crest allows me to leave the palace - walk in places the nobility would never even think of being seen for the scandal. (He gasps in delight.) The things I have seen! (He grins.) As you can see, I've started quite the trend. It's become all the fashion in the court. Oh, I suppose there are those who might object, but they remain silent because the emperor is always right. Is he not, Mollari?
LONDO: That is our tradition. (ROTFL! I love how Londo says yes without actually saying yes. He is the lord and master of political games-playing.)

MORDEN: Hello, Mollari.
(A surprised Londo palms on a desk light.)
LONDO: Mr. Morden?
MORDEN: In the flesh. (At this point, Morden's face is revealed. His skin is blackened and peeling.) What's left of it. Sit. We have much to discuss.
LONDO: Mr. Morden, you are --
MORDEN: Unwell. My associates tell me I'll be better soon. I wasn't as near the - incident - as others.
LONDO: And Sheridan?
MORDEN: Which one? You know what they say: What goes up must come down. Seen one Sheridan, seen them all. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. (So yeah -- Morden's a little bit deranged here.)
LONDO: Shouldn't you be someplace where they can take care of you - your injuries?
MORDEN: Flesh is transitory, flesh is a prison, flesh is -- an instrument. Flesh can be replaced. And flesh does as it's told -- or they will become most annoyed.
LONDO: What are your doing here?
MORDEN: Cartagia told you to expect a visitor, did he not?
LONDO: He meant you?
MORDEN: What's left of me. I'm just a -- shadow of my former self. (He starts to peel burned flesh off of his hand.) The incident at Z'ha'dum has forced us to look for outside support sooner than we intended. My associates are planning to move some of their forces off Z'ha'dum to ensure their safety. (He drops pieces of skin on the floor.) In case certain parties decide to take advantage of the situation. They did it before a thousand years ago. Planted their ships like seeds all around the galaxy. In exchange for certain favors, Emperor Cartagia has agreed to loan us a small piece of Centauri Prime.
LONDO: No. He wouldn't. He couldn't. The Centaurum wouldn't stand for it.
MORDEN: The resolution passed quietly. Fourteen opposed it. No one has seen them since.
LONDO: He's mad!
MORDEN: If there's a madman on the throne, it's because you and Refa put him there. (Good point.) He's your responsibility, and you -- you are mine. Based on our warm relations of the past, my associates asked for you as our liaison to the royal court.
LONDO: I don't care. I won't do it!
MORDEN: Of course you will, Mollari. Because you're drawn to power. Because you're my friend. And because you're afraid of what someone else might do in your place.(You're hosed now, Londo.)

DELENN: The League is breaking up again - returning to their own worlds. The Alliance is fracturing. One word from you - from the Vorlon Empire - could help keep it all together. But you haven't come to our council meetings - haven't returned my calls. Why? (Ulkesh doesn't respond.) The stories we have heard about what happened at Z'ha'dum - are they true?
DELENN: And what do you intend to do about them?
ULKESH: Nothing.
DELENN: But if Sheridan is still alive -- if there's even a chance --
ULKESH: Irrelevant.
DELENN: Irrelevant? How could you say that? You know how much depends on him!
ULKESH: He has opened an unexpected door. We do now what must be done now. His purpose has been fulfilled.
DELENN: You have the power to send a force to investigate. If he's alive, he can be rescued.
ULKESH: No one returns from Z'ha'dum.
DELENN: That's what we thought about Anna Sheridan. You were wrong then. You could be wrong now. Are you afraid to admit that you're capable of another mistake? He's bled for you - worked for you, for me, for everyone here. If you turn away now - if you abandon him to die on Z'ha'dum - I will have no more respect left for you. Do you understand me?
ULKESH: Respect is irrelevant. (Wow.)

(In Garibaldi's quarters.)
G'KAR: I was studying this image. (He's referring to the Daffy Duck picture above Garibaldi's bed.) Is it one of his household gods?
ZACK: (laughing) No, that's Daffy -- yeah, well, I suppose in a way it is. It's sort of the Egyptian god of frustration. (LOL!)
G'KAR: (laughing himself) Most appropriate. Thank you. I came here to remind myself of his soul - his center - his shadrasha, we call it. It will help me.
ZACK: Help you what?
G'KAR: It takes a rare kind of wisdom to accept change and redemption in another. Many would refuse, seeing only what was, not what is. Mr. Garibaldi gave me that chance - and I must repay him. So I'm going after him, Mr. Allen. I don't where he is or where to start, but I'm going to find him and bring him back. (Awww.)

(Cartagia is watching the arrival of the Shadows from the throne room window.)
CARTAGIA: Magnificent, is it not?
LONDO: Come away from the window.
CARTAGIA: (excited) Oh, I've never seen anything so fantastic!
LONDO: I said, come away from the -- (Londo moves to grab Cartagia, but he is instantly stopped by a palace guard, who draws his blade and holds it against Londo's neck.)
CARTAGIA: You forget yourself, Mollari! An unhealthy mistake.
LONDO: What have you done?
CARTAGIA: (mocking) What have I done? I've done nothing! I've given them the island of Selini. It's barely inhabited - perfectly suited for their purposes. It's a temporary situation - shelter forces there until things calm down.
LONDO: Madness!
CARTAGIA: They are guests of the Centauri Republic.
LONDO: What did they give you?
CARTAGIA: Ah, it is strategically wise to form alliances that may prove useful -
LONDO: What did they give you?
CARTAGIA: The one thing I have ever wanted. Read the old books, Mollari. They speak of the ancient gods. They speak about them. Power - power beyond description.
LONDO: If their power is so great, why do they need to hide behind us? Hmm? They are using us as shields. When the war comes here, our people will die first!
CARTAGIA: Some are always sacrificed for the greater good.
LONDO: What greater good?
CARTAGIA: Mine, of course! Mollari -- I thought you of all people understood. The emperor is the soul of the people - the center of this Republic. This whole world may perish - but if the emperor goes on, we go on. The first emperors - the greatest of us - were themselves proclaimed deities by the ancient gods. In exchange for their loyalty, they became immortal - their names revered for generations to come - prayers offered up to them even in the temples today! And now - now these ancient gods have returned. Through them, I will become a god myself! That is my destiny. I've known it all my life. It is what I was born for. And when the time comes, the people will gladly lay down their lives so that I may be elevated to godhood! What are a few million lives compared to the glory of becoming a living god? (Horrified, Londo begins to back out of the room.) And when I become a god, I will forgive you your rudeness, Mollari. Then, my capacities will be infinite. (His tone darkens.) For now, I will simply try to forget it.
(Londo exits the throne room barely able to keep his equilibrium. Out in the hall, he runs into Virini.)
LONDO: He is insane. Great Maker forgive us all, he is mad! (Yeah, no kidding.)
VIRINI: It is not wise - (He looks over his shoulder.) - to say such things aloud, Londo. Others have said the same - and disappeared. They say there is a desk somewhere upon which he has their heads all arranged in a row. They say he speaks to them late at night. No - it-it is best to remain quiet, Londo. (Eeeeep.)

VIR: What's this all about?
LONDO: Emperor Cartagia is insane. He has made a deal with these Shadows, allowing them a base here in the belief that they will grant him godhood, like the emperors of old. He wants to be immortal - to be worshipped. And he doesn't care who else pays the price for his deification.
VIR: Does anyone else know about this?
LONDO: Vir, when you are mad, you say these things the way you and I talk about the weather. Of course the others know - but they are afraid to move against him. Whoever does so will almost certainly be killed.
VIR: Ah. That would be a drawback.
LONDO: These -- creatures must be driven away before it's too late. We must stop Cartagia, no matter the cost.
VIR: The cost? That would be the dying thing, right? (LOL. Vir is so cute here.)
LONDO: Vir - it is a terrible truth, but as one accumulates power, one loses friends. One only has those who wish to use you, and those you wish to use. And yet, through all of this, you have somehow managed to walk through the corridors of power and not be touched. I can only assume you have not been paying attention. (Actually, Vir has been paying a great deal of attention, but that's neither here nor there.) And still, the hideous truth is, you are the closest thing I have to a friend. I am as shocked and dismayed by this as you are, but there it is. I need a friend, Vir, and I need a patriot -- and you are both. Will you help me? Please?
VIR: If you had any doubt what my answer would be, would you've asked me to come this far?
LONDO: No. No, I wouldn't have. And now we must do everything we can to save our world. You and I, Vir, must kill Emperor Cartagia. (OMG!)

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