What would you do if Dr. Josef Mengele turned up alive, well, and unaged, and offered you the cure to all diseases in return for a full pardon? That's the central question of this episode, an installment that's ultimately more interesting as a morality play than as a story.
Station personnel are shocked when G'Kar's aide, Na'Toth, publicly assaults a commercial trader. Commander Sinclair is even more shocked when he discovers that the woman Na'Toth attacked is none other than Jha'dur (Sarah Douglas), the notorious Dilgar war criminal known as "Deathwalker" for the horrific experiments she carried out in the name of science. Jha'dur has an offer, one the Earth Alliance finds impossible to refuse: the secret of immortality in return for her freedom. Sinclair's orders are to deliver Jha'dur to an Earthbound ship. When the identity of his prisoner gets out, however, Babylon 5's alien population demands justice - giving Sinclair a last chance to create a compromise that will satisfy both his orders and Jha'dur's victims.
Meanwhile, Talia Winters receives a new client: Ambassador Kosh, who demands that she monitor a very unusual series of conversations...
One of the many elements that made Midnight on the Firing Line such a strong first episode was its glimpse of Sinclair's ability to "fight within the rules" to secure a positive outcome when given orders that he would personally prefer not to follow. Deathwalker provides an episode-long example of this trait.
I don't think there's any other episode that spotlights Sinclair's diplomatic skills as well as this one. Sinclair is given orders that he hates, orders to ignore justice in exchange for expediency. His disgust with Jha'dur is palpable in both of his major scenes with her. Nevertheless, he manages to find a way to avoid disobeying his orders. When word of Jha'dur's presence leaks to the rest of the station, he convenes a Council meeting, trusting to the Minbari sense of honor to secure a trial for the war criminal. When this ploy fails, and it seems certain that the League of Non-Aligned Worlds will pull out of Babylon 5 altogether, Sinclair comes up with an additional compromise... one that lets him follow the letter of his orders while at the same time preserving the fragile alliances on the station. Though this episode doesn't get beneath Sinclair's surface in the way a few of the others have managed, it does demonstrate just how good of a planner he is.
The final scene between Sinclair and Jha'dur also provides an effective reversal. Up until this moment, it appears that Sinclair's compromise has won a "happy ending" for everyone. Then Jha'dur reveals the key element in her serum. Sinclair's diplomatic maneuverings may have saved Babylon 5's viability as a diplomatic center... but in this scene, he realizes that in the larger scheme of things, he has lost this fight and Jha'dur has won.
Only the intervention of The Hand of God (or the Vorlons, which is the next best thing) saves humanity from a descent into nightmare. Ordinarily, this would seem like a deux-ex-machina. But it works here because of the reason Kosh gives for the Vorlons' actions. "You are not ready for immortality," he tells Sinclair. Kosh has no interest in the morality or justice of the situation. He simply considers the human race "unready," and then intercedes. Presumably, Earthforce pilots innocent of doing anything other than their jobs are killed along with Jha'dur... a consideration that Kosh and the other Vorlons will probably brush aside as easily as we might flick away a troublesome ant.
Also effective is the additional background this episode delivers about the Earth/Minbari War, and Sinclair's relationship with the Minbari. When she awakens, Jha'dur instantly asks to see Sinclair. She doesn't ask for "the station commander" or "whoever's in charge," you'll notice; she asks for Sinclair by name. In her interactions with him, she seems to be very familiar with his character. She even lets slip that a fanatical clan of Minbari warriors known as "The Windswords" sheltered her during the war in exchange for her services developing weapons. Jha'dur further makes it known that the Windswords fear Sinclair, and that they know that he has "a hole in (his) mind."
Very interesting... One could easily extrapolate that the member of the Minbari Warrior Caste who attempted to assassinate Kosh and set up Sinclair way back in The Gathering was a member of this clan. Had Sinclair stayed past Season One, presumably we would have gotten more background on The Windswords. As it stands, this offhand remark offers an intriguing glimpse into What Might Have Been.
Some supporting characters also get overdue attention in this episode. Lennier's characterization benefits greatly from Delenn's absence here. With Delenn presumably back on the Minbari homeworld, Lennier gets to sit in for her at the council meeting. In his scene with Sinclair before the meeting, we see the naive and enthusiastic Lennier of Parliament of Dreams. Lennier has studied all the details of Deathwalker's crimes, and assures Sinclair that even the Windswords would not have been so dishonorable as to shelter her. Later, when Lennier arrives at the council meeting, his evasiveness and shame are palpable. When he explains his vote to Sinclair, we can hear in his voice the pain of a young man who has had his illusions shattered. Bill Mumy does an excellent job with both scenes. In only his second episode, he raises Lennier from a background cipher to a genuinely interesting and sympathetic character.
Ivanova gets the most entertaining beat of the episode, when she comes up with a "creative" solution to the alien ships besieging the station. Talia also gets a strong subplot, as she goes into business with Kosh... and soon comes to wish that she hadn't. Her role in The Quality of Mercy is nicely foreshadowed here. Other flashes that we see inside her head during this subplot never do fully pay off, though I suppose one could argue that the "flashes" are buried memories of the implantation that will become key in Divided Loyalties.
Finally, for hints of the big arc to come, note Jha'dur's words to Sinclair: "the strong will always subjugate the weak." To Jha'dur, all of her actions are justified because her race was stronger than the races she wiped out; and her experiments advanced her race even further... or would have, had Earth not interfered. Whose philosophy does this sound like? One suspects there may have been a bit of Shadow influence, either in Dilgar culture in general or, at the very least, for Jha'dur in particular. She wanted immortality, after all - and until the Vorlons interfere, she managed to get exactly what she wanted (I tend to suspect that in the original outline, with no Anna Sheridan or Icarus expedition, that the Shadows had already been awake for some time at this point).
Wonderful, the things you catch in this series the second time around.
Though terrific as a morality play, and effective in its glimpses at the arc and the characters, Deathwalker does suffer from heavy-handedness. Anyone at all familiar with history knows instantly that Jha'dur is essentially Josef Mengele. From this starting point, too much of the episode turns into an unsubtle Holocaust allegory. I don't mind allegories; I even enjoy them much of the time. However, I do not enjoy feeling the writer sledgehammering me with the Moral of the Story. I felt a lot of sledgehammers on the fringes of this episode.
Some of the acting is uneven, too. Jerry Doyle has several "off" line readings for the first time since Infection, and this time without the excuse of having just returned to the part. Michael O'Hare, whose performances have been very strong since The Parliament of Dreams, continues to show his strengths in his scenes in the council, or in his scenes opposite Deathwalker; but some of his scenes with Garibaldi, particularly at the very end, see the return of the "I'm not sure how to play this line" grin... an affectation I had hoped was long behind us. Regrettably, Deathwalker stands as one of Jerry Doyle's few weak episodes, and as Michael O'Hare's most uneven showing since the very early days of the season.
Still, it's an interesting episode, if nothing else, one that probably suffers in comparison to some of the very strong episodes surrounding it.