Lots of arc-building in this latest installment, as alliances are made and secrets revealed.
As the inevitable war against the Shadows looms nearer, Delenn and Sheridan decide it is time to take a risk and start contacting the remaining First Ones, to enlist their aid in the coming conflict. To assist with this, Draal invites Sheridan to Epsilon 3 to use the Great Machine to locate them.
But Sheridan is delayed by the arrival of Julie Musante, the station's newly-assigned Political Officer. Musante's job is to "advise" Sheridan in order to get him to make his decisions in such a way as to avoid embarrassing political officials back on Earth. Needless to say, Sheridan is not pleased.
With no way to free himself of Musante without arousing suspicion, Sheridan sends Ivanova to the planet in his stead. Draal plugs Susan into the machine, where she quickly finds Sigma 957 - the planet where Sinclair's fiancee, Catherine Sakai, had a close encounter two years previously - and identifies the Walker of Sigma 957 as one of the First Ones.
Susan also finds one additional piece of information: a transmission from 2258, in which then Vice-President Clark is seen discussing the assassination of President Luis Santiago. It's the evidence Sheridan has been looking for. And Draal assures Susan that he can record it...
If A Day in the Strife followed up on lots of ongoing character threads, then this episode is very much focused on ongoing plot threads. Much continuity is woven together from past episodes, and even more is stitched into place for future episodes. The Walker from Sigma 957 is brought back. The explosion of Earthforce One at the jumpgate on Io is replayed, with yet more information given to the viewer (recognize the voice on the other end of Clark's conversation?). Night Watch continues to expand its sphere of influence, and civil liberties become ever more tenuous.
The attitude of the Musante character is probably best seen in her dinner scene with Sheridan. She tries to explain to Sheridan how problems are being "redefined" back home. There is no unemployment. The government has promised everyone a job who wants one; therefore, anyone without a job clearly doesn't want one. There is no homeless problem; there are "displaced persons," but they are mostly insane anyway. There is no crime; there are incidents, but they are caused by people who are insane, and facilities are being set up to weed them out of the population. The Earth is all "shiny, happy people" - and those who aren't shiny and happy are obviously disloyal troublemakers.
The idea of the Musante character is quite entertaining. Here is the latest face of the increasingly fascistic Clark administration: a vacuous, shallow, blonde bimbo. Her way of trying to get Sheridan to cooperate is to remove her clothes and offer herself to him. As Ivanova observes to Sheridan, "You are about to go where everyone has gone before."
The Musante scenes don't quite work for me, but the episode's other plot threads do much to compensate. This episode continues to develop Zack Allen's dilemma. Zack has clearly come to realize that his association with Night Watch is not as harmless as he first believed. But he doesn't see a clear way out, and he finds himself walking a tightrope between serving Night Watch and remaining loyal to Garibaldi. Garibaldi's increasing distrust of Zack seems likely to push Zack off the tightrope, onto the wrong side of the line. Zack is clearly increasingly uncomfortable with Night Watch's demands. However, he is also frustrated by Garibaldi's lack of trust or empathy - frustration which leads him to unintentionally reveal some potentially very harmful information to Musante.
Zack isn't the only one frustrated by distrust and exclusion. G'Kar may have been stripped of his rank, but he remains a formidable presence. His role in this episode recalls his role in last season's Soul Mates, where G'Kar spoke of his determination to solve any puzzles that came his way. G'Kar sees a puzzle now, in the increasing "sudden unavailability" of Sheridan, Delenn, and Ivanova. He has heard of the Rangers, described to him sometimes as human and sometimes as Minbari. Given that the conflict between those two races is still fairly recent, with deep resentment remaining, he knows how unlikely such an alliance is. He also knows of the Shadows. As he tells Delenn, he will figure out the answers to this puzzle (such an intelligent man certainly should - he has most of the pieces). And by episode's end, he will act to end this exclusion in an extremely entertaining closing scene.
The most interesting thread of the episode is Susan's. After too many episodes that have used her as either a plot device or a source of exposition, it is good to see an episode that lets her use her own initiative. Her mixed exhilaration and near-panic when "traveling the path" in the Great Machine is convincing (and the special effects here are quite nifty). The scenes in the Great Machine continue to tease the Plot Thread That Had to Be Dropped, as Draal observes that a normal human should not have been able to pick up the Clark transmission that Susan discovers. It is a great pity that Claudia Christian didn't stay for the full haul. I would really have liked to have seen the payoff of Susan's latent telepathy, which was obviously intended for Season Five. Ah, well...
This episode also introduces the character of Marcus. Yes, I said introduces - Matters of Honor brought us a Generic Ranger named Marcus who happened to be played by Jason Carter. Here, the actual character emerges. Here is where Marcus begins to play. When Susan takes the White Star to Sigma 957, Marcus tags along as translator - "unless there's a Human/Minbari Dictionary lying about," he offers. Forget the (rather generic) moment of compassion the two shared in Matters of Honor. This is the real beginning of their relationship. Marcus teases her throughout the trip, laughing at her inability to relax, making fun of her insistent pacing, offering to help convince the Walker by putting "a bucket on (his) head and impersonating the Vorlon God Buji."
In other words, Marcus is a goofball, a man who hides his own personal pain by playing the role of Class Clown. His goofy, extroverted humor makes an enjoyable contrast against Susan's sardonic, cynical humor. Though I quite enjoyed the Susan/Talia relationship (and wish more could have been done with it), I far prefer the Susan/Marcus relationship, simply because these two really do feel like they belong together. Their scenes end up being an unexpected highlight of this episode.
One problem with episodes that are virtually "pure arc" is that they don't really have much story of their own. This will become increasingly the case as the series moves into its climactic seasons, but it is an adjustment from most of the earlier episodes, which generally offered at least one self-contained plot thread.
I'm afraid my issue with John Schuck's portrayal of Draal continues to plague me. He's too hale, too hearty, too prone to laugh and joke. The Draal of A Voice in the Wilderness was so much more thoughtful. I found Louis Turenne's Draal delightful and intriguing. Schuck's Draal… not so much. He comes across less like a scholar, and more like a loud drunk at a frat party he's too old to really attend, suddenly given the powers of a God (how's that for a scary thought?)
Even weaker than Schuck - whose performance is at least good enough on its own terms, and mainly jars with memories of his predecessor - is the performance of Shari Sattuck as Musante. She seems to just be reciting her lines, with little thought going into her delivery. She is reasonably OK when trying to seduce Sheridan in his quarters. But her attempts to be stern and vindictive during the Night Watch meeting fall horribly flat. The fault is not in the writing; I like the idea of the most sinister Night Watch meeting yet being held by an attractive young woman. The problem is that this particular attractive young woman: a) isn't a very good actress, at least not here; and b) isn't really all that attractive, certainly not to the extent that the reactions of Zack and Sheridan seem to indicate.
In my review of Passing Through Gethsemane, I observed that a truly great guest performance can buoy an episode. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true - a weak guest performance can harm an episode. I'm afraid my low opinion of Sattuck's work in a key role here costs this episode at least one point.