Londo in love... as has frequently been observed of this episode, what do you say to a series where the paunchy, middle-aged, dissolute ambassador gets a love scene long before the "action hero" character even gets close to one? A good, fun episode that, with benefit of hindsight, is actually much more important to the series' arc than it first appeared.
Londo is in love, utterly entranced by Adira Tyree, a beautiful Centauri dancer. Unbeknownst to Londo, however, his new love is actually a slave owned by the villainous Trakis. Adira's orders are to gain Londo's trust, and then break into his secret "Purple Files" - files used by House Mollari to blackmail the most influential members of the Centauri government.
When Londo discovers the threat, it is already too late... or it would be, save for a last-minute attack of conscience on Adira's part. Now Trakis is hunting Adira, and both she and Londo's career are in jeopardy unless Londo and Sinclair can find her first.
Though Babylon 5 has mostly been a good show even this early in its run, it has tilted a bit toward being stiff and formal. What was lacking was a good, well-written, well-paced character episode. Thankfully, Born to the Purple fills the bill perfectly.
We have already seen several sides to Londo. We have seen him contemplative and regretful (In the Beginning), we have seen him weak and bitter (The Gathering), and we have seen him enraged and vengeful (Midnight on the Firing Line). This episode shows yet another side. Underneath all the bitterness and cynicism, Londo Mollari is a gallant romantic. Which, come to think of it, fits perfectly with his pining for the glory days of his Empire. Just as Don Quixote worshipped the image of his (nonexistent) Dulcinea while pining after the days of knight errants, Londo worships "wine, women, and song" while longing for the days when his Empire was at its full glory. It never occurs to either Quixote or Londo that their image of the "good ol' days" is an idealized one, and that when confronted with the dark underbelly of their dreams, they probably wouldn't much like it.
The romance between Londo and Adira feels very genuine, despite its foundation in deception. It very quickly becomes clear that Adira really is quite fond of Londo. And despite the difference in age, and the fact that Londo cannot be physically regarded as handsome, this nevertheless plays as entirely believable. Londo is an extremely charismatic figure, and his treatment of her is both genuine and gentlemanly at the same time. Adira's inner conflict, in which from her perspective saving herself must come at the cost of destroying Londo, is extremely well-portrayed, and actress Fabiana Udenio is perfectly cast - vulnerable enough to command our sympathies, and beautiful enough that we have no trouble believing in Londo's gullibility. In Londo's shoes, I'd be pretty gullible myself.
Though Londo gets the bulk of the attention this episode, there's plenty of good character material to spare. A subplot involving Ivanova's use of the restricted gold channels goes a long way toward fleshing out her character and making her just a bit more human. The interaction between Ivanova and Garibaldi in this subplot also takes the first steps in forging a friendship between the two of them. At the same time, their interaction shows a new side to Garibaldi. He's like a dog with a bone as he pursues the reasons for the unauthorized use of the gold channels; once he finds what he's looking for, however, he responds to Susan's situation with tact and compassion. What I observed in my review of The Gathering is still holding true at this point; as of this episode, Garibaldi feels very much like the real star of the show.
That said, Sinclair does well in this episode, and we learn more about him as well. We learn that he reads Garibaldi's files, and believes very much in knowing everything he can about the station. He is a detail-oriented leader, and can name off the top of his head which people make up the major underworld figures in "Down Below," and can even convincingly pass himself off as one of them. If he pays that much attention to all the details involved in running the station, it's no wonder he gets so little sleep. Given the enormity of his duties in running a city in space, the commander probably should micromanage less and delegate more of his work to his staff. Nevertheless, his detail-oriented style will be key to some of his "little victories" later on this season. It must also be observed that O'Hare and Jurasik make a very entertaining "Odd Couple" during the second half of this episode.
Other characters have smaller roles. Still, we get a reminder of G'Kar's "preferred recreation" in the precredit sequence, when he repeatedly glances over his shoulder at the attractive blonde human dancer on the club's stage when he's supposed to be chiding Londo. Vir gets his first important Ambassadorial duty when Londo lets him take over the negotiations. Finally, there's evidence of Talia courting Sinclair's friendship and trust in this episode, after spending much of her previous appearance courting Ivanova's friendship; it's probably accidental, but Talia's way of getting friendly with the people who are in the station's most influential positions ties very well to her ultimate role in the series.
Mix in a good guest performance by Clive Revill (the original Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back... at least, before George Lucas decided to go the Stalinist Revisionist route with his DVD Special Edition), a good balance of humor and humanity, and a terrific score by Christopher Franke, and this episode is pretty much an outright winner... all the moreso for seeming on first viewing to be a standalone adventure, only to gain great importance later in the series.
Given the events of Midnight on the Firing Line, Londo and G'Kar's animosity seems too playful in this episode. There are parts of this episode, notably at the very beginning, when Londo and G'Kar seem downright friendly. This is probably a result of shooting episodes out of order; Jurasik and Katsulas hadn't played the characters' intense hatred for each other at this point, and so they just didn't know to play that animosity in their scenes here.
Lastly, the dancing at the club Londo attends seems a bit too... tame and mild to really attract much of a crowd. But that's basically a matter of TV standards & practices. Too bad this wasn't an HBO show.
I don't have any substantive complaints beyond the nit-picks this time, however. Born to the Purple is well-scripted, well-paced, and well-acted by every member of the cast. A winner.
Lower than some of the others not for any deficiency in the episode itself, but simply because it does feel just a bit lightweight.