Chrysalis. The word itself denotes a momentous change. When the caterpillar crawls into its chrysalis, it will never be a caterpillar again. Its entire world changes at the end of a day that was probably much like any other day up to that point.
December 30, 2258. It's a day much like any other for the assembled ambassadors at the day's council meeting. G'Kar and Londo are arguing over yet another unprovoked Narn attack over newly-disputed territory. The Narns are trying to claim more previously neutral space from the Centauri. Londo is blustering for all he's worth, and fooling nobody into thinking that the Centauri will do anything but give in, while everyone in the room other than G'Kar and Londo look utterly bored and fed up with the entire Narn/Centauri situation.
Sinclair, ever the diplomat, goes to G'Kar's quarters that night in an attempt to convince the Narn ambassador to see reason. "Give the Centauri room to maneuver," he pleads, appealing to G'kar's sense of duty for his own people. He predicts that the Narns' continued and escalating aggression will eventually prove their downfall, and tells the ambassador that they are "at a crossroads," and that there is still time to turn from the path they have begun.
Sinclair's predictions are uncannily accurate (though between Signs & Portents and Babylon Squared, I suppose he's had warnings enough), save for one thing he doesn't know: time has already run out. Londo's friend, Mr. Morden, has returned to the station. Morden has heard of the Centauri predicament, and offers Londo a solution that will turn the entire Narn/Centauri conflict on its head.
Meanwhile, Garibaldi investigates the death of an informant from Down Below, a man who was killed when he discovered something unspeakable. Garibaldi's search leads him to a man named Deveraux, who warns the security chief that this matter is "too big" for him to handle. Deveraux underestimates Garibaldi's persistence, of course, and the security chief does get to the bottom of the plot. However, Garibaldi makes one mistake - just one, but one that will have devastating consequences.
In the calm before the storm, Sinclair had proposed to Catherine Sakai. He, Catherine, Garibaldi, and Susan Ivanova gathered for a last, happy moment in a restaurant on-station, and made plans for the future. One day later, on January 1, 2259, Sinclair sits with Catherine once again. This time, he is alone, looking utterly defeated as he makes a final, devastatingly accurate observation.
"Nothing's the same anymore."
Season One of Babylon 5 ends with far more than a simple "bang." The description, "bang" doesn't do justice to it, nor does J. Michael Straczynski's preferred term of "wham!" I would say Susan Ivanova's favorite Season One descriptor comes to mind as the word best suited to this episode. To quote, word-for-word, her explanation to Londo in A Voice in the Wilderness, this episode is less "bang" and more "Boom! Boom-boom-boom! Boom!"
Everything about this episode works. The dramatic structure is absolutely perfect. The opening act teases that something significant is going to happen, and we sense almost instantly that this teaser is not going to be as neatly wrapped up as previous ones. It's hard to say why such a sense of doom hangs over the episode, even from the beginning. There's nothing particularly unusual about the events in the teaser. Londo and G'Kar are at each other's throats... again. Garibaldi is determined to find who killed a friend. There's nothing set up in the opening Act that calls out for the episode to be any more momentous than, say, Survivors.
And yet there is an instant sense that everything this time is just a little bit bigger, and just a little bit more important, than anything we have seen before. A lot of it has to do with the pacing. Director Janet Greek spends much of the opening Act lingering on the slower beats in Straczynski's script. The scene where Sinclair proposes to Catherine unfolds very gradually, and bespeaks two people who have become comfortable in things as they are. The dinner scene with Sinclair, Garibaldi, Catherine, and Susan also is given enough time to stand out as important. Greek and Straczynski make sure that we see these characters happy and relaxed, in a way we haven't seen them relaxed too often in the season. In drama, when you see characters that happy and complacent, you just know a 2 x 4 is about to whack them upside the head (figuratively speaking).
Sinclair's speech to G'Kar about "being at a crossroads" is a particularly memorable moment. Sinclair is insisting to G'Kar that there is still time to fix things. He has seen the future they are moving toward. The Lady Ladira showed him one horrible vision of it in Signs & Portents, and he saw an even more vivid and terrible vision in his flash-forward in Babylon Squared. But Lady Ladira also gave him hope, telling him that this future could be averted. Sinclair has already made it his purpose to avert the visions he saw, and here he strives very hard to connect to the intelligent and reasonable being beneath G'Kar's bitterness. It is obvious from G'Kar's reactions that the words strike home. Unfortunately, the conversation comes too late, because unbeknownst to either of them, Londo is about to make the very worst deal of his life.
Londo's interactions with Morden were a highlight of Signs & Portents earlier in the season. Here, we get much more of this interaction, and it is even more revealing. Their conversations occur in a garden, a garden that we first see laid out like a maze... or perhaps a labyrinth, with a hidden center. The garden setting itself is telling. Morden is the snake in the grass, and the words he hisses in Londo's ear will destroy the (relative) Eden that the characters have enjoyed for the past two years.
Londo's characterization is beautifully handled in these scenes. Even in the first scene, it is clear that he is not entirely comfortable with Morden's deal. He shows his intelligence when he stops to ask Morden what the price of his "help" will be; Londo knows full well that there will be a price, and that the price - despite Morden's bland assurances - will quite certainly be a steep one. The impression I get watching is that some time passes between Morden's offer and Londo's return to his quarters, indicating that Londo carefully pondered the offer, and gave serious consideration to turning it down. Had G'Kar been a little less antagonistic... had his own nephew not been trotted out in front of a camera by the Narns as a prize... had the Centauri's resolve in the face of Narn aggression been just a little less weak, leaving Londo feeling just a little less desperate... then some of the most momentous events of the next four seasons simply would not have occurred.
The scene in Londo's quarters, when he has Vir send Morden's message, is also revealing. Londo is not triumphant, he is not happy. He speaks to Vir quite gravely, a man aware that he is doing something that will come back to haunt him. As Vir starts to send the message, Londo pauses to pour himself a drink. It's a gesture that has been almost automatic for Londo throughout the season. This time, however, he pauses and then pours it back. Londo the cheerful drunk, the Londo who considered it his burden in life to "spread joy throughout the station" - that Londo begins to die here. It is Peter Jurasik's best performance in the first season... and given that Jurasik has been pretty much the standout of every episode not entitled Grail thus far, that is saying something.
Chrysalis also features Jerry Doyle's strongest Season One performance. Garibaldi has been consistently seen through the season as being like a dog with a bone when something gets under his skin. His description of the dead informant's background - "just starting to get it together" - makes it clear that Garibaldi felt a kinship with this man, a fact which certainly fuels the security chief's drive in finding the killer. To Garibaldi's credit, the episode sees him at his best as an investigator. He gets an important nudge from a lurker in Down Below (a man we will see again), but he follows the clues he is left with confidence, he deals with Deveraux extremely well, and when he finds the physical evidence, he reaches all of the right conclusions.
At this point, Garibaldi is the one at the crossroads. When he contacts Sinclair on his link, he still has the opportunity to stave off some of the more traumatic events of the rest of the series. But that's when he makes his mistake. Actually, he probably makes two. First, he refuses to talk to Sinclair on his link. Second, he forgets to heed some excellent advice he was given earlier in the season. And as a result... everything changes.
Finally, Sinclair puts the last nail in the coffin of his position as commander of Babylon 5 when he refuses to simply back off when speaking with the Senator at the end. Sinclair uses poor judgment in this scene; once it became clear that the senator was not listening, he should have realized immediately that she was hiding something and/or in league with someone, and he should have gotten out of that conversation as fast as possible and waited to contact Senator Hidoshi or someone else, someone who he trusted. By allowing his anger and worry to override his common sense, he clearly set himself up as a threat to the new administration.
Yet again, I am forced to admit that - given the events of this episode, and given that Sinclair had made enemies of people tied to Vice President Clark throughout Season One - that it honestly makes more story sense for Sinclair to be removed at this point than for him to be left in place. Seriously... if you were Clark, wouldn't you have him "promoted" out of the way and replaced with someone who would be ostensibly more controllable? I certainly would.
That's not to say that I like this particular change. I don't. I find Sinclair a fascinatingly complex character, and after an admittedly shaky start, O'Hare has been delivering increasingly strong performances throughout the latter half of the season. However, I have to admit that the character's replacement makes perfect sense within the story.
The episode itself is flawless, or close enough to it as to make no difference. But I must say that I think the Catherine Sakai character was severely underused throughout the season. After a strong introduction in Parliament of Dreams and Mind War, the character vanished completely from the scene, not resurfacing again until this appearance. In my opinion, we needed at least two more episodes featuring Catherine, if only to keep her prominent in the audience's mind. The underuse of Catherine is an even greater pity given that, in my opinion at least, Julia Nickson was extremely good in the role, and had genuinely strong screen chemistry with Michael O'Hare. The Sinclair/Sakai romance was probably the most convincingly-written and acted romance of the entire 5 year series, and I wish we had gotten to see a little more of it. Not really a flaw with this episode - more a quibble that I have with the season as a whole.
I just recently realized that I had reviewed every episode of Season One without mentioning the credits sequence. Given that every season of Babylon 5 had its own, unique version of the opening credits, I feel I must say something about them.
The Season One credits do a fine job reflecting the mood of the season. The opening shots of the "clip montage" seem to show the station being build, before transitioning to shots of the various ambassadors interacting. The tone of the season is set: this is still a fairly new station, still finding its feet and working out the kinks in its operations throughout the year. The music, when it comes up, is very strong and hopeful. The station is the "last, best hope for peace." And 2258 is the only year of the series' run where the characters can actually believe that a lasting peace is possible, before the approaching darkness swallows them.
This is also the only credits sequence with no "glory shots" of the actors. The names of the cast run against a background of space. It's a simpler effect than some of the more complex sequences later, but I have to admit it has a certain appeal. There's something classy - even cinematic - about a credits sequence where we are allowed to see the actors' names against a background, without having the actor's face plastered up in front of us.
It's far from my favorite credits sequence of the five, but it's far from my least favorite either. I'd rate Season One's credit sequence firmly and exactly in the middle of the Babylon 5 title sequences.
Overall: Chrysalis is an excellent episode, the ultimate "wham!" (or "boom!") episode, and also the final word on transitional episodes... because after this one, nothing on the show will ever be the same again.
(and if I allowed myself to go off-scale, I would probably give it an "11")