An episode that is largely a standalone, but is still quite powerful as it puts several of the regulars through hell on the way to an ending that was anything but formulaic.
Four Markhab have died on the station, all of natural causes. This raises Dr. Franklin's suspicions, and he insists on an autopsy of the latest victim. The anomalies he finds in the autopsy raise several flags... and his worst fears are confirmed when a Markhab passenger ship is found by Lieutenant Keffer, with everyone aboard already dead.
A plague has spread throughout the Markhab homeworld. Now Markhab fleeing their world are spreading that plague to every Markhab colony... including Babylon 5. As Stephen races to find a cure, and some indication as to whether the disease can spread to other races, Security Chief Garibaldi has his hands full enforcing a quarantine of the station and preventing violence against the Markhab.
Stephen's efforts to contain the disease are further complicated by the Markhab themselves, who believe that the plague is a judgment from God, and that anyone who contracts the disease is inherently impure. As the remaining Markhab are moral, they are surely immune from the disease. And they intend to prove it, by isolating themselves in a separate quarantine, inside the station.
A quarantine that Stephen knows will only spread the disease that much faster...
Richard Biggs was really wonderful in the role of Dr. Stephen Franklin, wasn't he? Somehow, on first viewing, Stephen never stood out to me that much. On second viewing, I find myself appreciating his characterization far more. He's a very stable presence most of the time, but he can crank up the intensity when it's called for. Also, the character is never entirely still. He's always searching for something, some kind of answer. Thinking back on the last episode, it even fits with his religious beliefs. Everything is a puzzle to Dr. Franklin, an enigma demanding a solution, and he will drive himself past the breaking point to find whatever answer he may be looking for.
In the last episode, Stephen told Sheridan that doctors, like captains, cannot fix everything. This episode brings home that while Stephen can say those words, he cannot make himself believe them. From the moment the Markhab epidemic hits, he is working full-tilt to find a way to "fix it." As in Believers, he's quite willing to be surly, alienating, and morally condescending in the process of seeking his answers.
Actually, this episode has much in common with Believers. In both episodes, Dr. Franklin finds himself pitted against a medical puzzle - one that he is ultimately up to solving - only to find his efforts frustrated at every turn by the religion of the species in question. The Markhab insistence on considering their plague to be a moral judgment puts many hurdles in Stephen's way. An entire year has been lost even as the episode opens, simply because the Markhab have refused to admit to the plague's existence. Stephen's attempts to test the Markhab population to find a test subject result in the Markhab removing themselves to a quarantine area, which only spreads the disease faster. Ultimately, even though Stephen finds a medical answer to the conundrum, he is faced with the same reality he was confronted with in Believers: that sometimes, just knowing the medical answer is not enough to "fix everything."
There's excellent character continuity for Stephen throughout this episode. He was already driving himself past the point of exhaustion caring for the wounded Narn refugees during In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum. Faced with a full-blown plague in this episode, Stephen has to push himself even further, leading to more stim use. He is quicker to lash out at those around him. When he finally loses his temper, alone in his lab after the death of another patient, you can see the seeds of his eventual breakdown being sowed.
In Believers, he found some comfort in his thoughtful conversations with Sinclair and with Dr. Hernandez. In this episode, though, Stephen does not find any comfort. As he sits down for a drink (alone) at a bar, he hears the bartender and the patrons making jokes about the recent epidemic, reducing the plague to a punch line and squeezing in some additional xenophobia against the Vorlons. "Nothing changes," Stephen grunts bitterly, leaving the bar as the screen fades to black. The episode not only puts him through hell... to a certain extent, it leaves him there to stew about it afterwards.
Stephen's not the only character severely tried in this episode. Delenn and Lennier are also strongly affected. When the Markhab quarantine themselves, Delenn insists on going into the quarantine area to provide comfort, according to her beliefs. At first, she seems up to the task, successfully comforting the sick and helping a lost Markhab child find her mother. But then, in one shot, she - and the audience - realize that Delenn's getting more than she bargained for. After reuniting the girl with her mother, Delenn and Lennier feel very morally superior and the teensiest bit smug. Then the girl stumbles, feeling dizzy... the first symptom of the disease. The camera moves in to emphasize the horrified expression on Delenn's face, as she realizes that the child she just befriended is going to be one of the first to die before her eyes.
We don't see her again until the episode's conclusion. When she does reappear, still in the quarantine area, surrounded by the dead, her entire bearing reflects something we have never seen from her before this moment. She is utterly defeated. She's exhausted and despairing, unable to find any words or take refuge in any aspect of her faith. At that moment, Sheridan becomes a lifeline for Delenn, who clings to him as the only real and living thing around her, weeping into his shoulder in utter despair (and let me mention - since I haven't been mentioning the technical accomplishments of the show nearly enough in these reviews - just how perfect the shot composition and lighting are at this moment. It's a breathtaking shot, one that fully deserves its place in the next season's credits).
Other continuity points are raised in preparation for the big season ender to come. Keffer (remember him?) has been flying into hyperspace, searching for that Shadow vessel he glimpsed way back in A Distant Star. When Sheridan hears about Keffer's expeditions, his entire face freezes for an instant, absorbing the implications and connecting them to what Delenn told him in the last episode. Knowing the dangers that could arise if Keffer actually finds his White Whale, he orders the expeditions stopped. When Keffer is told of the order, it is clear that he is not pleased, and that he may soon be searching for a way to circumvent this command.
Finally, I can't help but note the similarities between the Drakh plague of Crusade and the Markhab plague here. "100% fatal and 100% contagious." The Markhab even doom their colonies by taking the exact action that it is predicted the humans on Earth will take, when the Drakh plague begins to manifest in its victims. I wonder if that parallel might have been explicitly followed up on, had Crusade survived?
The Markhab are presented as yet another alien race that appears to subscribe fully to a single religion. Of the Markhab we meet in this episode, only Dr. Lazarenn is shown to be opposed to his leaders' religious fanaticism. Even he only really does anything about the plague after Stephen calls him on it. It's not something that rankles particularly when watching the episode. But given that Stephen is able to find... well, not a cure, but an effective treatment for the disease within the time-frame of this episode (2 or 3 days, I'm guessing), it seems that Lazarenn and other Markhab scientists should have been able to have reached the same conclusions.
Other than that, Confessions & Lamentations is another very strong episode in a run of strong episodes.
Next Up: Back to the comics for a special look at the Psi Corps. The Psi-Corps and You!