The various plot threads that have dominated the past several episodes move toward their climax, with a few great character moments thrown in for good measure.
The Vorlon/Shadow conflict gains yet another complication: A Shadow planet killer, released in retaliation against the Vorlons. This gigantic black cloud envelopes a world, then reduces it to rubble by firing thousands of missiles directly into the planet's core. The defenseless planet is literally destroyed from the inside out.
Sheridan sends Ivanova to complete the mission she had begun prior to his return: to find any of the remaining First Ones that she possibly can, so that Sheridan's fleet might stand a chance in the coming battle. Meanwhile, he prepares a strategy of his own. Combining Garibaldi's musings with information from Lennier, he determines where the Vorlons are most likely to strike next. However, to have a chance of ending the war forever, he will also need the Shadows to be there - forcing a very difficult command decision.
Meanwhile, Emperor Cartagia has arrived on the Narn Homeworld, the site he has selected for G’Kar’s execution. This is all exactly according to Londo’s plans, to assassinate the Emperor in such a way that no one will ever suspect foul play or conspiracy. However, a few overly-hasty words on Londo's part causes the plan's execution to fall into the hands of a most unlikely executioner...
Though there are many memorable threads running through this episode, the most dramatically rich and gripping thread remains the subplot involving Londo, G'Kar, Vir, and the mad Emperor Cartagia. These scenes are laced not only with tension, but also a surreal black comedy that far from diffusing the tension actually thickens it.
Toward the beginning of the episode, Londo receives yet another reminder of exactly why he must remove the emperor. This occurs in the scenes involving the jester. The jester is played almost as a parallel to Londo. Cartagia seems fond of the jester, just as he seems fond of Londo. The jester works to placate Cartagia by amusing him. But suddenly and without warning, Cartagia gives him a single, harsh look... and the entire room freezes. Everyone's afraid to move; one Centauri is paused midway through lifting a drink to his lips, his hand trembling from the effort of holding his glass in place. No one wants to attract the Emperor's eye at this moment, lest they fall victim to his wrath.
Then Cartagia laughs, his glee as sudden as his earlier irritation. The entire room breathes a sigh of collective relief as Emperor and Jester begin joking with each other, gigglingly imitating a massive explosion. The moment is quite funny - but the fear permeating the room also makes it extremely disturbing. What if someone with the mentality of a small child had the power of life and death over everyone around him? As Jerome Bixby's It's a Good Life showed, the results would be terrifying. Without Lord Refa to keep him in check, Cartagia has become that all-powerful child.This is underscored by the second scene involving Cartagia and the Jester. As Londo walks toward the throne room, he hears a sudden cry - and then the Jester's head rolls across the carpeted floor to land at Londo's feet. "Humor is such a subjective thing," Cartagia says by way of explanation. The head at his feet reminds Londo of his own inevitable fate if the Emperor survives.
This all leads to another very memorable scene: the death of Cartagia. As G'Kar fulfills his end of Londo's bargain by providing a distraction, Londo prepares to execute his scheme. However, the Emperor remains a mad child, babbling uncontrollably about his godhood. Londo loses his composure at the exact wrong moment, snapping at the lunatic to "shut up." As Cartagia reacts by physically attacking Londo for his impudence, the role of execution falls to… Vir.
According to J. Michael Straczynski, this was a last-minute decision taken while writing the script. It was the right choice. Not only is it more dramatically effective for the innocent Vir to strike the final blow, but it also ties in with one of the series' many recurring themes: Responsibility.
Even had Vir not directly killed the lunatic Emperor, his hands would still not be clean of the man’s blood. He was entirely complicit in the assassination. It was Vir who, when directly confronted with Cartagia's casual sadism in The Summoning, snarled at Londo to "kill him." In this episode’s teasser, it is Vir who argues with Londo's allies that Cartagia must be killed. It is Vir who delivers the poison to Londo, along with specific instructions on how to use it.
Vir feels horribly guilty at the episode's end, because he was the one who finally killed the man. But he would have been a key part of Cartagia's death regardless. The blood was already on his hands. Having to physically commit the crime brings home that responsibility.
Vir's subsequent scene with Londo, as the younger man gets well and truly drunk, is by far my favorite scene of an episode that has many great scenes. Once again, parts of the scene are quite funny. It's hard not to laugh at Vir's explanation of how he got drunk ("I was raising a toast to Emperor Cartagia, but since he wasn't here I had to drink for him. And I couldn't be rude, I had to drink with him..."). But even at this point, the pain in Vir's voice and face is heartbreaking. When he goes on to discuss how little he ever wanted out of life, how very basic and fundamental his ambitions were, the scene moves from the memorable to the truly powerful.
The direction is well-turned here (as throughout the episode), with the Narn fireworks in the background making a perfect counterpoint to the emotion. Vir is grieving the death of his own innocence in the foreground, while the Narns celebrate the rebirth of their freedom in the background. But it's the words themselves and the actors delivering those words that truly carry the emotion.
That’s one of the reasons I like this show so much. The very reliance on monologues that the show's detractors criticize highlights something that too few modern modes of entertainment even remember - the power of rhetoric, of words and language, to move us. In an age when most modern entertainment is more concerned with the power of pyrotechnics, it is just wonderful to find a work - a television series, at that - that is willing to show that language itself is still the fundamental building block of drama.
G'Kar also gets some memorable moments in this episode. There has been a fair amount of Christ imagery centered around him throughout this subplot. He has endured torture and taunts, the removal of his eye. Yet he comes through his ordeal stronger than before. Without his eye, he tells Londo, he sees more clearly than ever. His calm rattles Londo, as does his statement to Londo: "You have an empty heart, Mollari. Did you know that?" Londo's response begins with the words, "I know" - tellingly, there is a pause before Londo twists the statement around to what will happen to G'Kar and his people if the Narn cannot focus on the task at hand.
There is more Christ imagery, as G'Kar is seen paraded through the crowd, chained to a cross. Even here, he pauses to urge his people to "be strong." Finally, in his last scene, he tries to quell the rage of the other Narn, urging his people to redress their wounds rather than to seek revenge. He is not quite preaching forgiveness here, but he is at least urging his people to let go of their hatred and focus on themselves.
In this last scene, it is as if G'Kar is arguing with his Season One self. In Midnight on the Firing Line and Signs & Portents, G'Kar wanted nothing more than revenge against the Centauri. "I look forward to the day when we have cleaned the universe of the Centauri and carved their bones into flutes for Narn children," he told Sinclair. To Mr. Morden, he said he wanted "to suck the marrow from their bones and grind their skulls to powder... and then... as long as my people's safety is guaranteed, I don't know that it matters."
These words could just as easily come from the mouth of G'Lorn, the Narn with whom G'Kar argues. But G'Kar has come to see that his people and the Centauri are tied together. Their mutual hatred has the potential to undo both worlds. The Narn desired revenge against the Centauri for the occupation of their Homeworld. Then the Narn became the aggressors, assaulting and laying claim to more and more Centauri territory, starting with their sneak attack on Ragesh 3. This led directly to Londo's deals with Morden and Refa, striking back at the Narn. In this very episode, as the Centauri abandon the Narn Homeworld, one minister even describes the devastation of Narn that ended the war as the Centauri having taken their revenge. Now the Narn want to take revenge against the Centauri all over again. If this cycle continues, then Kosh's prediction of Midnight on the Firing Line will come true. The Narn and the Centauri will indeed both be "a dying people."
In the midst of all this, it would be easy for the war story on Babylon 5 to be forgotten. However, even with less screen time than previous episodes, there is still some strong B5 material. The Shadow planet killer is a wonderful CGI creation. The sight of the missiles pouring down out of that cloud onto the helpless world beneath is at once horrifying and breathtakingly beautiful.
Sheridan gets to share some of the guilt Vir feels in the Centauri story as he orders Ericsson and his Rangers to their deaths. Near the episode's end, we see Sheridan, sitting alone at his desk in the dark, listening mutely to Ercisson's final transmissions. "They've taken the bait," is all he says; the emotional weight he is left to carry as a result of this order rests entirely in his posture, in his eyes, in his grim voice.
The episode ends with a final voice over from Sheridan, ending with a bookend to the series' pilot. In The Gathering, Sinclair referenced Tennyson’s Ulysses. Here, Sheridan discusses finding the poem, left for him by the previous commander - a torch passed from one commander to the next.
In The Gathering, the poem was invoked as an example of rebuilding, Sinclair using it to explain to Delenn why humans kept rebuilding structures until they were finally able to last. Here, its meaning is tied up with confrontation, war, battle. As the season’s title observes, “No surrender, no retreat.”We are not now that strength which in the old days