The simmer Season Two has maintained post-The Coming of Shadows cranks itself up to full boil in the series' most intense episode since Chrysalis.
And given just how big this episode is, I'm afraid this review is going to be a long one...
Sheridan, probably spurred by the vision of the Icarus' explosion the he saw in Knives (a continuity point originally lost by the network's out-of-sequence airing of the two episodes), has finally decided that it is time to go through his wife's effects. This includes a personal log from the Icarus, containing the identities of every member of the crew.
One face jumps out at Garibaldi instantly: the face of the mysterious Mr. Morden.
Upon discovering that one of his wife's crewmates is, impossibly, alive, Sheridan orders Morden to be locked in a holding cell until Morden tells him what happened to that ship and how he survived. Garibaldi is willing to assist Sheridan at first. But when Sheridan grills Morden for ten straight hours without ever offering a charge, Garibaldi gives Sheridan an ultimatum: either release Morden, or he will resign as Security Chief.
Garibaldi isn't the only one pressing for Morden's release. Vir conveys a demand from Ambassador Mollari to release Morden at once, officially extending Centauri diplomatic immunity to the prisoner. Susan tells Sheridan that his behavior is bordering on the irrational, and that she may be forced to report him. Dr. Franklin tells Sheridan that, as hard as it may be, there are things that a station commander (like a doctor) simply cannot fix. And station telepath Talia Winters, when maneuvered by Sheridan into a position where she will unintentionally scan Morden, responds with violent anger to the captain's manipulations.
Sheridan, however, cannot relent. He sees two possibilities in Morden's survival. Either Morden is responsible for his wife's death, or maybe - just maybe - his wife might still be alive somewhere. Neither possibility is one Sheridan can bring himself to ignore... until Delenn and Kosh finally come to Sheridan and, with the gravest reluctance, tell him all they know: about the Icarus, about Morden, about the Shadows, and about the world known as Z'ha'dum.
Meanwhile, Pierce Mackabee, a visitor from Earthdome, comes to the station to arrange a presentation for a newly-formed group. The group calls itself the Night Watch, and membership is open to all station personnel. Membership is worth an extra 50 credits a week. All you have to do is keep a watchful eye out for the spread of "harmful ideas" that might defeat peace.
"An extra 50 credits a week to do what I'm already doing?" scoffs Security Officer Zack Allen... who then is one of the first in line to put on that vaguely sinister black armband.
Since The Coming of Shadows, I have lamented on occasion that the second season of the series, while maintaining a consistent quality, just hasn't had as many outright brilliant episodes as Season One. Too many episodes have felt "small" and "safe," lacking the undercurrents that made some of Season One's best episodes so good.
Well, there's nothing "small" or "safe" about In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum. This is an episode where every scene is important, and every major beat is exploited to its maximum potential. Even on first viewing, not knowing what was later to come, I could feel the momentum of the entire series shift with this episode, in a way that I hadn't felt since Chrysalis. On second viewing, knowing what is to come and seeing it actually being set in motion, that feeling is even stronger.
The very first scene puts the episode's most low-key thread into motion. The deal Sheridan and Delenn struck with G'Kar back in Acts of Sacrifice has built from a humanitarian gesture into a logistical nightmare. The number of Narn wounded and dying is prohibitive. They are taking up every bed in Medlab, and Stephen is working himself to the bone trying to care for them. Even Sheridan is forced to admit that, though he thought the station could handle this situation, it is beyond their resources. He compromises his earlier agreement. Those wounded who only require first aid will now be sent directly onto the Narn Homeworld, and only the severely wounded and dying will be kept in Medlab. Even that is not enough to relieve the incredible burden on Dr. Franklin.
Stephen is not only dedicated; he is positively obsessive about his work, keeping himself in Medlab for 36 straight hours with no food and no rest. Susan finally has to relieve him of duty, ordering him to bed and to eat before he will be allowed back at work. Stephen is physically exhausted (to the point where he begins, here, to actively keep himself going with stims - thus setting another gun on the wall), but the emotional toll is even greater.
Stephen's dilemma prompts one of Richard Biggs' best scenes in a while, as he tells Susan about his beliefs with regard to God, and how he sees those beliefs reflected in his work. He talks about watching the eyes of the dying, and seeing God Himself reflected in their eyes at the moment of death. "I've seen a lot of reflected Gods today, Susan," he tells her. Biggs underplays the scene, delivering much of his monologue matter-of-factly. It's a good choice. The doctor's weariness is conveyed by the flat, tired tone, and the scene hits much harder than if Biggs had gone for emotional histrionics.
What's amazing, given the importance of that subplot to Stephen's development, is that this is probably the episode's smallest plot thread!
The introduction of the Night Watch is wonderfully handled. Mr. Macabee is a very pleasant-seeming fellow. He charms a weary Talia quite effortlessly in his first scene, earning a smile from her and a promise to attend his meeting. He is equally charismatic at the meeting itself. He presents the group as an organization dedicated to peace, and puts his proposal mostly in terms that make it difficult to see Night Watch as a bad thing. Only when he drops in that most pernicious phrase in the English language - "harmful ideas" - does the fascist nature of Night Watch become clear. Even then, Mackabee glosses over the words so quickly and so charmingly that it is easy to see how his audience would fail to see through him. It's little surprise that a relatively simple man like Zack Allen doesn't analyze the subtext, and instead fully buys into what Macabee is selling.
This is the episode where Zack begins to emerge as a character, rather than just a background figure. His gullibility with regard to Night Watch shows one side of his personality. However, his loyalty to Garibaldi, when Sheridan "temporarily promotes" him, shows another, more admirable side. He also shows clear discomfort when Sheridan orders him to manipulate Talia. This, and his compassionate response to her later collapse, add yet another layer, foreshadowing his later interactions with Lyta. Zack may be a simple man, but he's a decent one, and Conaway's performance can't help but make him likable... even when he makes some questionable decisions.
Of course, I can't possibly fail to mention one of the series' greatest scenes - the second scene of this episode, still in the precredit sequence. Vir, the character so easily dismissable as a comedy buffoon, faces down Morden with more poise than his flamboyant employer ever managed when he gives his perfectly honest, unimpeachable reply to Morden's favorite question: "What do you want?"
"I'd like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike, as a warning to the next ten generations that some favors come with too high a price. I want to look up into your lifeless eyes and wave, like this... Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden?"
Morden remains unflappable throughout this exchange, but one can sense that he is not happy at Vir's response.
Everything I've mentioned so far is more content than most episodes have contained in their full 45 minutes. Plenty of rich character work, beautifully done (particularly on second viewing)... and all of this confined to the subplots. Because for all of its richness, the above-mentioned scenes and exchanges are sideshows this week. This episode does not belong to Vir, or Talia, or Stephen, or Zack. This episode belongs to two characters, and two characters alone: John Sheridan and Mr. Morden. For both characters, and the actors playing them, the episode represents a new high point.
I've had mixed reactions, on second viewing, to the introduction of John Sheridan. On the one hand, the character's enthusiasm and joy in new discoveries have been a breath of fresh air. Sinclair's joy had largely been kicked out of him long before the series' start; he was a man who resisted life and in fact worked hard to avoid life, while Sheridan breathes life in through both lungs. On the other hand, Sinclair had a complexity that Sheridan just hasn't been able to match. After the multi-layered onion that was Sinclair's troubled, haunted, and frequently embittered psyche, "Captain Happy" has seemed - dare I say it? - shallow.
Well, break out the spades, boys. For both better and worse, "Captain Happy" dies in this episode.
This episode aligns Sheridan with Captain Ahab, obsessively pursuing his white whale: not Morden, but the secret Morden carries and refuses to divulge. As soon as Sheridan learns that Morden is alive and on the station, he is a man possessed. It is the first time in the series that Boxleitner has really sold me when playing anger. Part of it is because Sheridan doesn't actually do much shouting in this episode (Boxleitner doesn't actually shout very well, I've decided). He glowers, he glares relentlessly at Morden's image on the monitor. He growls questions at Morden, barks follow-ups, tries everything he can to trip his prisoner into just one visible lie.
When Garibaldi gives his ultimatum, Sheridan just stands there, looking lost. He knows that he does not want to lose Garibaldi, and on some level he even knows that Garibaldi is right. But he cannot make himself let go. Boxleitner's nonverbal acting here is superb (far better than any of his predecessor's nonverbal acting, in fact). This is a man who is knowingly putting himself on a self-destructive path. But as he explains to Ivanova, he is incapable of making any other decision.
When Sheridan finally learns the truth, and knows that he will have to let Morden go after all, he is left a haunted man. He relates to Zack, in a dull and weary voice, the tale of a horrible decision Winston Churchill once had to make. He is a defeated man, as he dispatches Zack to Morden's cell, to release the prisoner. He looks one more time at Morden's face on the monitor...
And Morden's grin is the grin of a demon, gloating even before he realizes that he's won.
Tiredness, weariness, exhaustion... that's the motif of this episode. Stephen is exhausted by the flood of Narn refugees. Talia, when we first see her, is tired from the heavy workload. Then, after Sheridan's manipulations, she is overpowered, her limbs exhausted past the capacity of standing without Zack's support, by the horror of what she sensed in and around Morden. Lastly, at the end of the episode, Sheridan finds the very life beaten out of him by the decision he must make. Even the Night Watch plot relates, as Zack heedlessly makes a choice that we already know will cause him weariness down the road.
Thematic richness, enormous character development, huge plot developments, perfect structure... I suppose I could slip in a snarky comment about giving Talia a subplot just to remind us that she's there. But there's no real bad here. There's the good, the terrific, and the mind-blowing, but there is no significant bad. I can't even find it in myself to nitpick, this time out.
. Season Two's best episode to date, and the series' best episode since Chrysalis overturned the apple cart.