The second season kicks into gear in the series' famous Hugo Award Winning episode.
A visit to the station by the aged, ailing Centauri emperor sparks plots by both G'Kar and Londo. For Londo and his ally, the duplicitous Lord Refa, the visit is an opportunity to publicly position themselves to succeed the dying old emperor and seize power. For G'Kar, the visit is even more meaningful. A chance to avenge the suffering of his people by making a public gesture of his own: an assassination!
Before either plan can take effect, the emperor collapses outside his own reception. With Refa's rivals positioning themselves, and the old man clearly about to die at any minute, Londo makes a desperate deal with the devil to take control... leading to consequences that can only end one way: "In fire."
Meanwhile, a mysterious visitor insists on an audience with Security Chief Garibaldi, carrying a message that brings signs and portents of a great darkness, about to fall upon them all.
The Coming of Shadows is the episode that provides the title for Babylon 5's second season. It is also one of the series' most acclaimed episodes, a Hugo Award Winner that remains a fan favorite.
It is easy to see why it holds this position. Up to this point, the second season of Babylon 5 was good television, but honestly not measuring up to the highest points of Season One. Too many episodes in the early second season seemed a bit lightweight, or overburdened with subplots. A couple of them honestly seemed to be just placeholders, filling up a slot in the airing order while adding little dimension to the characters or universe. Certainly out of the first eight episodes of Season Two, I couldn't find anything that even approached the quality of And the Sky Full of Stars, The Parliament of Dreams, Midnight on the Firing Line, or Mind War (all of which were among the first eight of Season One... though in fairness, early Season Two doesn't see anything as weak as Infection or Soul Hunter, either). It's been less uneven than Season One, with fewer stumbles and false steps... but despite this, something about the early second season has seemed diminished.
The Coming of Shadows is a nearly perfect episode. It doesn't quite pack the wallop of Chrysalis, but it has much of that same feeling to it. From the very first moments, there is something about this episode - in the music, in the set design, in the performances - that tips the viewer off that this one is important, somehow. Even before the genuinely monumental events of the second half of the episode take place, there's an extra layer in the atmosphere that makes one sit up and take notice.
Much of this has to do with the performance of Turhan Bey as the Centauri emperor. Bey delivers a fine rendering of a genuinely good man, full of regret for his past, who has too late decided to do something that will make a difference. When G'Kar hears the true nature of the Emperor's gesture, the Narn Ambassador's reaction shows that the old man's instincts were right. His journey could have made a tremendous difference, had it been made even one year earlier. But the old man has made the classic old man's error: he waited too long. Despite his strength of will, his fragile body was not up to the task.
There are many wonderful scenes in this episode, too many to list them all. A great one occurs early in the episode. The quiet conversation between Sheridan and the emperor. The emperor asks Sheridan of his life, of his choices, and of his regrets. Sheridan, still a relatively shallow man at this point, can only give fairly glib and facile answers. He has not yet been tested enough to have regrets.
On a second viewing of the series, this scene marks a turning point for Sheridan. It is not quite the last hour of Sheridan's innocence. However, Captain Happy's clock is ticking. Though Sheridan may believe he has made real choices to get where he is, to an extent he is in the same position as the emperor when he was younger: following the role society has set for him, doing what he is supposed to do, and rarely if ever considering that there might be an alternative. By the end of the season, Sheridan will begin to make some real choices. As of this point, I get the feeling that he has mostly just followed the path set for him.
The acting in this episode is strong across the board. However, the top acting honors have to belong to Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik, both of whom exceed even the high standards the series had already led viewers to expect of them.
Jurasik delivers a Londo as equally full of guilt and regret as he is of ambition. This is the episode when Londo finally commits to his path. The events of Chrysalis may have set him on his current road; but since nobody knew Londo had ordered the attack in that episode, he could still have turned away. Here, Londo finally seals his own fate, when he arranged with Refa and Morden to make a very public demonstration. Londo wears a stricken expression three times in this episode: once when he tells Vir that he is fully aware of the enormity of this decision; once when an enthusiastic G'Kar buys him a drink, and he truly realizes that he has destroyed a chance for enduring peace; and finally, when he relates the dying emperor's message to him and realizes that there may be no chance of forgiveness for what he's done. The giddy drunk who collapsed on the tabletop in Parliament of Dreams is now gone forever.
As good as Jurasik is, Katsulas is even better. G'Kar is taken through a range of emotions in this episode. The opening sees him glowering in anger and outrage. Then we see him delirious with joy at the discovery that there are good men among the Centauri (something G'Kar had previously considered impossible). Still later, he is violent with grief and rage. And when that fire has burned itself out, in his final scene in the council chambers, we are left with a grimly resolute figure. Katsulas is mesmerizing in every frame, and his delivery of the "We are at war" speech might just be the high point of the episode... indeed, it's probably one of the high points of the entire series.
You can visibly see Boxleitner raise his game in his scenes with Katsulas, as well. This is almost certainly Boxleitner's best episode to date, in terms of his performance. But it's in his two major scenes opposite G'Kar where Boxleitner's "A" game really shows. The opening scene sees the innocent Sheridan of the first eight episodes. He is fairly open, eager, and enthusiastic, and just as readily prone to annoyance. The slight grin Boxleitner gives as he begins to get annoyed with G'Kar (on the line "Have I suddenly gone invisible here?"), before starting to raise his voice, is brilliantly revealing. Sheridan is an emotional man, equally quick to feel irritation or happiness, and not one to smother himself under a diplomatic facade. Certainly, one can imagine that scene playing out very differently with Sinclair - Sinclair would conveyed the same decision to G'Kar, but he certainly would not have told the Ambassador to "stick his fingers in his ears and hum real loud."
Boxleitner is even better in the climactic confrontation with a murderous G'Kar, outside Londo's quarters. Rising to compete with Katsulas' primal howls, Boxleitner shows real screen presence and sincerity as Sheridan confronts the Narn Ambassador with the simple reality of his situation, speaking calmly yet firmly until G'Kar finally takes out his fury on the station walls. It's been said that actors feed off each other's performances. If so, Katsulas appears to have delivered Boxleitner with a banquet, resulting in the richest performance by "the new guy" yet.
Of course, any review of this episode is incomplete without mentioning the cameo appearance by "the old guy." Sinclair's message offers viewers their first glimpse of the series' original lead since Chrysalis, in the form of a message to Garibaldi. This was one of J. Michael Straczynski's master strokes in papering over the gaps caused by the cast change. It showed great foresight to film that brief piece with Michael O'Hare before the actor's return to New York. Even more important, it showed intelligence and restraint to hold it back until this episode.
Many producers would probably have felt the need to move up the message to an early episode, to quiet viewer rumblings (and a look at the message boards from late 1994/early 1995 shows that there were quite a few rumblings at first). After all, the basic subplot of the Ranger giving Garibaldi a message could have been dropped into almost any episode. But Straczynski had patience, to two good effects. Boxleitner had a chance to grow into the role before having to "compete" with his predecessor; and Sinclair's reappearance was held back for a true event episode, to excellent effect.
The message itself is a strong piece. By the end of Season One, O'Hare had long since found the character of Sinclair, and most of the early weak spots in his performance had evaporated by season's end. He obviously still had a good grasp of the character when this piece was shot. This is a Sinclair who has slightly changed since we have last seen him (which is appropriate to the context). His hair is a little longer, his look a little less militaristic. He speaks with a dark undercurrent to his words, and with the thoughtful control and precision of a man who is choosing every word with the utmost care. O'Hare's gravely voice lends itself well to such portents, and the intercutting between his message and Sheridan's confrontation of G'Kar does more to contrast the differences between the two commanders (emotional vs. reserved, open vs. closed, instinctive vs. thoughtful) than a thousand or more words on paper could ever do.
Why did the Centauri emperor leave his trusted advisor on Centauri Prime? Just to provide an easy target for Refa's thugs at the episode's end? I can't really come up with a good explanation for that. A minor niggle, and not one that particularly bothered me, but it's honestly the only nit I can find to pick here.
and deserving of every honor given to it. Though I'm honestly stymied as to why this episode didn't get a commentary track on the DVD set.