An atypical episode in that it follows no less than three different story strands. Still, The Quality of Mercy manages to set up several future developments while at the same time giving a nice look at a "fairly quiet day" on the station.
Dr. Franklin is running a free (and illegal) clinic in Down Below, disregarding station regulations out of his personal commitment to healing the sick. But he is not the only healer at work in Down Below. Laura Rosen (June Lockhart), a former doctor in disgrace after her addiction to stims caused a fatal accident, is also promising healing to all comers. She has a miracle cure - an alien device that she insists can heal any wound and cure any sickness. Is she a healer, as she claims; is she a huckster, fleecing the people of Down Below for whatever she can get; or is she simply deluded, her desperate need to make up for her past mistakes allowing her mind to convince her that she is helping people again?
As Franklin investigates Laura, Mr. Garibaldi and station telepath Talia Winters have a shared problem of their own. Karl Mueller, a cold-blooded man who murdered two lurkers and one of Garibaldi's security guards, has been sentenced to be mind-wiped... a procedure that involves a telepathic scan to confirm the success of the wipe. Talia has done such scans before, and is reluctant to do it again. As for Mueller? When sentence is read, he threatens everyone on the station with death.
Meanwhile, Londo is presented with a challenge by a Centauri senator, who is displeased with Londo's lack of progress in making allies on the station. Londo's solution is to buddy up to Lennier, acting as Minbari ambassador while Delenn is off-station. Londo promises to show Lennier the Babylon 5 he knows best... that Babylon 5 being, of course, strip joints and card tables, climaxing in a game of poker that proves more educational than either man intended.
Though not a particularly momentous episode, there is much to enjoy about The Quality of Mercy. Chief among these is the script's handling of Dr. Franklin. Much earlier in the season, Franklin was given the spotlight by David Gerrold's superior Believers. That episode showed us a man dedicated to the preservation of life, but also a man whose worldview was narrow and rigid. Stephen was presented as an inflexible man, too arrogant to admit even the possibility of being wrong.
At first, it seems that Stephen is going to be just as arrogant and unbending in this episode as he was in Believers. He is quite antagonistic to Laura in his first scene with her, declaiming her as a fraud before doing any investigation of her machine at all. Certainly in a universe where alien technology is being discovered and exploited on a regular basis, he seems a bit hasty in denying even the possibility of Laura's find being genuine.
Nevertheless, the experience of Believers has apparently softened Stephen's rough edges in a believable fashion. All of his harsher traits are still there, but this time he's not quite as rash. He actually does investigate, looking at the medical records of the patients Laura has treated. Admittedly, he is searching for confirmation of what he already thinks is the truth. But when the results surprise him, he is willing to adjust his views to fit the facts - which alone shows character growth. The deal he makes with Laura shows a sense of personal honor that makes him a far more likable character than in previous episodes.
Also, we see Stephen's willingness to bend military rules where he sees them as conflicting with his own express purpose: healing. This ties in with his backstory, refusing to allow his research to be used in biological warfare during the Earth/Minbari War. It also makes his deal with Laura believable. Seeing another healer bending the rules to do good creates a sense of kinship. Meanwhile, Laura's own backstory foreshadows a possible fate for Stephen, who - as we have already seen - is perhaps just a touch too dedicated for his own good.
The episode is not a major arc episode, but there are developments here that will appear again later in the series. The most obvious of these is Laura's machine, which will play a key role both in Seasons 2 and 4. This is also the episode that introduces the process of "mind-wiping." We knew from And the Sky Full of Stars that the Minbari had the ability to wipe at least a portion of someone's memories. This episode shows us that the Earth Alliance has that ability as well. In the Babylon 5 universe, the technology exists to completely erase an existing personality, and to build a new personality from the ground up. Moreover, telepaths are specifically tied to the procedure. In this way, several seeds that will sprout so memorably in Divided Loyalties are planted here.
Finally, we learn a little more about Lennier, and about the Minbari code of honor. Lennier's scenes with Londo offer much to enjoy. The quiet, understated Bill Mumy is hysterical when juxtaposed with the loud, larger-than-life Londo. Every one of their scenes together is enjoyable. The revelation posed by the poker game proves to be one of the best laugh-out-loud moments of the series. Lastly, yet more set-up for things to come occurs in the scene where Lennier lies to Sinclair to protect Londo's reputation. Lennier doesn't fool Sinclair, of course, and he says flat-out that "Delenn will know better," but it saves Londo from an uncomfortable conversation. A nice, minor throwaway bit that ends up being a major piece of foreshadowing for events in Season Two and beyond.
Oh, and lest I forget... pay attention to the Centauri senator who is berating Londo in the episode's opening scene. He'll be seen again down the road. Probably just a case of JMS re-using an actor who "worked," but I prefer to think that this anonymous Centauri senator later gets a job as minister to the imperial court...
Famously, J. Michael Straczynski was ill when he wrote this episode... so ill, that he later had no memory of writing it at all. Given that, it's probably surprising just how enjoyable an installment it really is. But it is fair to say that there's a certain "smallness" to the episode, particularly compared with some of the big, arc-heavy episodes surrounding it. In the midst of a run that includes such heavy hitters as A Voice in the Wilderness, Babylon Squared, and Chrysalis, this one stands out as seeming like a bit of a trifle. Its virtues are somewhat overshadowed by the episodes surrounding it. At the same time, it definitely breaks the momentum a bit. The overall flow of the season would hae been better served had this episode aired earlier in the season.
The final flaw is a minor point, but I'd have to say that Richard Biggs has no chemistry at all with Kate McNeil, whose Janice Rosen is presented as a potential love interest for him. The two actors simply don't feel right together, which makes it just as well that Janice is never seen or heard from again.
Nothing particularly bad here, and much that is good; but it's just too "small" an episode for me to rate it higher.