Alsdkjfladkfjlaskdjlkasdjf. THIS EPISODE. This episode is totally in my top three for this series. And no, it's not just because I'm madly in love with Vir, although that's definitely a big part of the overwhelming, fire-of-a-thousand-suns, I-want-to-shout-it-from-the-mountaintop LOVE I harbor for how JMS decided to end Cartagia's mercifully brief reign. Seriously: Best. Twist. EVAR.
The Lurker's Guide has a full summary here.
JMS claims that the urge to make Vir the assassin in this episode came to him literally a page before he actually wrote the scene, but I suspect it was kicking around in his subconscious long before that. Otherwise, he would not have penned what turned out to be the ultimate example of a set-up line. "Everyone knows," Londo confidently declares to Vir early in the episode, "that you are incapable of doing anything really dangerous or subversive." Indeed.
I think the fans sometimes misunderstand Vir's role in this episode. It is occasionally said, for example, that Vir kills Cartagia inadvertently -- that he just happens to pick up Londo's weapon and then just happens to blunder into the target. But the text makes it pretty clear that this interpretation is incorrect. JMS makes a big show of explaining how the poison needle works for a reason: to establish that it can only be used deliberately. No -- Vir had to consciously pull the trigger and then consciously plunge it into the right anatomical spot. He is no accidental assassin.
It is also said that Vir gets plastered afterwards because he is so broken up at the thought of taking another life, but I don't think that quite gets to the root of it because he did in fact agree that Cartagia had to die during The Summoning -- and in next week's episode, he's not at all bothered when Mr. Morden's head finally ends up on a pike in the royal courtyard. Though there is in fact a world of difference between accepting killing in the abstract and perpetrating it yourself, I think what really bothers Vir in the aftermath of Cartagia's death is the long-range significance of that fateful moment. Notice that when Vir finally breaks down and confesses his feelings to Londo, he doesn't really focus on how it felt terrible to deliver the killing blow -- and he certainly doesn't dispute Londo's insistence that the assassination was necessary. Instead, he talks about his simple childhood dreams -- his desire to live a quiet, humble life as a minor government functionary. And why should that be on his mind? Because he knows that such a life of serene obscurity has been rendered impossible. By assassinating Cartagia, Vir has taken up a mantle of supreme responsibility. He is now, like it or not, the savior of his people, and he's not sure he can live up to that role. As the Shakepearean bon mot puts it, some are born great, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
JMS says that as soon as Vir whispered in his ear, he knew the change had perfect symmetry. Well, he's right. As it turns out, Londo will always be incapable of rescuing his people from their morass. All he can do is hold the line for a time and hope that Vir, his certain successor, can come through. Put the novels (which are based on outlines written by JMS and are therefore semi-canonical) beside this episode, and you instantly see the similarities; in both cases, Londo makes decisions that are genuinely honorable, but he does so to set the stage for Vir. Vir is the future of the Centauri Republic, and Londo too begins to understand that here.
At the same time, Londo also stops to mourn the gradual loss of Vir's innocence in a scene that is both seminal and profoundly beautiful thanks in large part to the strength of the acting. As SABR Matt might say, Stephen Furst is "en fuego" in this episode, putting on what has to be his finest performance of all time. Everything Furst does - from his nervous, giddy laughter before Cartagia's assassination to his tearful sorrow afterwards - is emotionally pitch-perfect. And when Londo is called upon to console his friend, Peter Jurasik rises to the occasion with his own regretful delivery. On the whole, if Londo and Vir don't break your heart in this episode, then you are obviously not paying attention.
Londo and Vir aren't the only characters who stand out in this episode, however. G'Kar also finishes his Christ-like journey in a scene that is visually reminiscent of the Passion and gets what he wants - the liberation of Narn - because he took the risk of trusting Londo's sense of honor and because he was willing to empty himself completely and submit to Cartagia's torture and humiliation.
Unfortunately, G'Kar's countrymen fail to understand how their victory was accomplished. In a scene that (I think deliberately) mirrors an earlier exchange between Londo and his people, G'Kar's fellow Narn declare their intention to elevate G'Kar to the status of dictator so that he may lead them in a retaliatory battle against the Centauri. Crucially, G'Kar rather forcefully declines the offer, which reinforces the Christological dimension of his narrative. You see, in first century Judea, there were many Jews who believed that the Messiah would be a great political figure who would drive the Romans from the Jewish homeland through force of arms. What a disappointment it was to them when Jesus refused to assume that role! As a matter of fact, not only did Jesus fail to embrace the cause of the Jewish Zealots, but he even counseled his followers to submit to Roman authority when he taught them to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." Moreover, Christ and his Apostles repeatedly taught that weakness was the way to true strength. In like fashion, G'Kar urges his people to "turn the other cheek" and allow the Centauri to fly to their doom on their own steam.
For me, Babylon 5 becomes The Londo, G'Kar, & Vir Show in this episode. There are important things that take place back at the station - Sheridan sends Ivanova out with Lorien to find the remaining First Ones and gives a Ranger a suicide mission to lure the Shadows to Coriana VI so that the Vorlons and the Shadows can finally be confronted in One Last Battle - but in all honesty, the Centauri/Narn plot is filled with so much concentrated awesome that I forget about the station plot entirely.
Again, this episode features The Most Brilliant Twist Ever, so I can forgive it (for the most part) for its on-the-nose dialogue.
As I remark above, Stephen Furst puts on the performance of his life, and Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas are equally perfect in their roles. Maybe there were flaws in the acting here and there, but I honestly didn't notice any.
The Christian undertones in G'Kar's plot are especially noteworthy. See above.
LONDO: G'Kar -- Great Maker! Your eye! Cartagia?
G'KAR: My eye offended him. Doesn't matter. I can see things now that were invisible to me before. An empty eye sees through to an empty heart.
LONDO: There wasn't a problem? You weren't seen?
VIR: I don't think so. I kept checking, but as far as I could tell, nobody was even trying to follow me --
LONDO: That is why I sent you. Everyone knows that you are incapable of doing anything really dangerous or subversive. (OMG!)
LONDO: How fast does the poison work?
VIR: Very quickly. He said almost instantaneously.
LONDO: Almost? And how fast is almost? Time enough for him to stagger back into the main room and cry out, 'Londo killed me!' Hmm? Or maybe just enough time for him to say, 'Londo killed --argh!'
VIR: (giddy) And then maybe he won't even get that out. Maybe he'll just go, 'Lon --argh!' Or maybe he'll just be totally delirious and say everything backwards and be like, 'Kill Londo! Argh!' (And at that, the laughter stops. I guess it just gets a little too real for the both of them. LOL!)
VIR: (slurring his words) I was toasting Emperor Cartagia. And since he wasn't here, I drank for him. And then, I couldn't be rude, so I had to drink with him. So first it was me drinking for him - (He drinks.) - and then him drinking for me - (He takes another drink.) - and then I kinda got into this kinda cycle. And then here comes Cartagia, his glass broke -- or maybe it was my glass. Would you like some? Because you know what, I think this is Cartagia's glass afterall, so it would be quite appropriate, don't you think?
LONDO: You're drunk.
VIR: Absolut -- positive -- oh, you betcha. I figured it always worked for you, Londo. Let me -- let me ask you something. (He places his hand on Londo's shoulder and leans on him.) How much more before I can look in the mirror and not see myself? Because I keep looking, and I'm always there. And right now, I don't want to see me.
LONDO: (jerking himself away) You're behaving like a fool! You did what was necessary. You saved the lives of millions of our people. He had to be stopped. He --
VIR: Don't you understand? I've never done anything like this before! I close my eyes and I always see his face! (He sits down on the couch, crying.) Don't you know that all I ever wanted was just a good job -- a small title -- nothing fancy -- a wife I could love -- maybe even one who could actually love someone like me. I never wanted to be here. I never wanted to know the things that I know or to do -- to do the things that I've done.
LONDO: (sorrowfully) I know. I know, Vir. I never wanted you in that hole. I never wanted you to -- (He trails off.) I remember when you first arrived on Babylon 5. You were so -- full of life. Innocent. I was not kind to you. I treated you poorly. I think that I did that because I was envious of you. Envious that you had come so far and were still -- innocent, in your way. You still believed. I, on the other hand -- (He takes a deep breath.) I cannot tell you that your pain will ever go away. I cannot tell you that you will ever forget his face. I can only tell you that it was necessary. You may have helped to save our people. You did a hard thing. But you still have your heart, and your heart is a good one. You would not be in such great pain otherwise. It means there is still hope for you. And for that, I find I still envy you.
(Outside, the Narn have begun to launch fireworks. The lights play across Vir's face.)
VIR: What's that?
(Londo goes to the window and looks out.)
LONDO: Fireworks. Yes, they have learned that we are leaving and that soon, Narn will be free. For my part, good riddance. It was always more trouble than it was worth. I'm sure it will cause me problems back home, but I gave G'Kar my word. Set them free in exchange for his help. I will keep my promises. My honor is all I have left. (This is one of my most favorite scenes ever. EVER. OMG!)
(G'Kar enters the throne room on Narn and discovers his countrymen tearing it apart.)
G'KAR: Why are you celebrating?
G'LORN: We drove them away. They knew they could not enslave us forever, and we drove them off through strength.
G'KAR: Is that what you think? Try to understand: the strength that defeated the Centauri is not through weapons or arms!
G'LORN: G'Kar -- you are tired. You are hurt. You're not seeing this as we do.
G'KAR: I see, G'Lorn. I see better than you can imagine.
G'LORN: When you've rested, we will thank you properly, as is your right. There will be celebrations in the street, G'Kar. Your name will be a blessing to any who speak it. And then -- and then, G'Kar, you will lead us against our oppressors. You will be the instrument of our vengeance. With you directing us, we will finally destroy the Centauri.
G'KAR: You have just tossed someone off that throne. Would you put another in his place so quickly? The Kha'Ri spoke with many equal voices, not the voice of a single leader.
G'LORN: We need strength to lead us -- fire to forge us. We saw that in the Centauri -- learned that from them.
G'KAR: Then you have learned the wrong lessons. I will not take the throne. If the Kha'Ri is restored, I will take my place among them, but that's all. I did not fight to remove one dictator just to become another myself!
G'LORN: But the Centauri --
G'KAR: ARE A LOST PEOPLE! They are to be pitied. They are already on a course for self-destruction. They do not need help from us. We need to redress our wounds, help our people, rebuild our cities --
G'LORN: We must strike back!
G'KAR: (simply) No.
(G'Kar starts to leave.)
G'LORN: I never thought you a coward, G'Kar! We suffered and died during their occupation. Where were you? What have you endured?
(G'Kar turns, and G'Lorn shrinks a bit when he sees the look on G'Kar's face.)
G'KAR: What have I endured? (And then G'Kar starts to laugh the laugh of the exhausted hero who can't even believe what he's hearing. GREAT scene.)