Another season, another well-deserved Hugo Award. What can be said other than the obvious: This, the climax of the 3-episode mini-arc that began in Messages from Earth and continued in Point of No Return, is one of the series' very best episodes. It is also one of the most important, so be warned: This review is going to be a long one, with a touch more rambling on my part than usual (yes... be afraid...)
In the days immediately following their pyrrhic victory over the Night Watch, Sheridan and his command staff are "enjoying" (if that's the right word) a brief moment of calm before the next storm. Sheridan still clings to the hope that Clark can be ousted, or at least contained to Earth itself. Mars colony has refused to institute Clark's order of martial law. With Clark's forces already overextended, there may be a chance to salvage some kind of negotiation, to herald some kind of return to sanity. At the very least, it seems that Clark's eye has not turned specifically to Babylon 5.
At least, not yet. But the calm before the storm is about to end. General Hague's ship, The Alexander, is left badly damaged and on the run after Hague's failed coup against Clark's regime. There is only one place the crew of The Alexander can go for repairs and a chance to catch their breath. The place? Well... refer to the title of the show.
Of course Sheridan can't turn the renegade ship away. As he notes to his crew, "Those people are not the enemy... they're as loyal to Earth as you or I." However, by taking the ship under his protection, he earns Clark's attention. As Clark's attempts to tighten his grip on the more distant human colonies become truly tyrannical and violent, Sheridan is forced at last to make a final, irrevocable decision.
To quote a previous Babylon 5 commander: "Nothing's the same anymore."
I'm struggling to begin this review. Not because there is any remote difficulty in finding areas of this episode to praise, but because there is so much here worth praising that it is difficult to find a starting point. I suppose the best starting point for this episode - a climax point for the series to date - is to take a moment to look backward. "What is past, is prologue."
As Londo's narration in the introduction of The Gathering... as Sinclair's narration in the introduction to Season One... as Sheridan's narration in the introduction of Season Two all pointed out, "Babylon 5 was a dream given form... our last, best hope for peace."
As Susan's narration in the introduction to this season points out: "It failed."
The Gathering, set in 2257, saw the dream given form, as the station finally secured Ambassadors from all five major powers to work toward maintaining the peace. Like all great dreams, it didn't come easily. But as Sinclair pointed out, quoting from Tennyson, the true importance lay in the effort itself: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." By the end of that movie, Babylon 5 was truly open for business, and the characters were filled with hope for the future.
Season One, set in 2258, saw a gradual sense of things slipping in the wrong direction. "We're standing at a crossroads," Sinclair observes, "and I don't like where we're going." The station was more or less able to go about its business as intended, and potential conflicts - usually between the Narn and Centauri - were usually sorted before any irrevocable lines were crossed. But even before that Shadow ship appeared out of nowhere in Signs & Portents, there was a feeling of encroaching darkness. Though President Santiago's government was essentially benevolent, there was a sense of a hidden government inside that one, conspiracies involving the Psi Corps and the mysterious Knights and the Homeguard (and what is the Night Watch except the Homeguard by another name, given legitimacy?). By the end of Chrysalis, those conspiracies would bear fruit of the bitterest, most poisonous kind.
Season Two, set in 2259, saw the station's routine disrupted even further. Though the change of command went surprisingly smoothly, Captain Sheridan found himself faced with more problems than anyone could handle. Hostilities between the Narn and Centauri rose into full-scale war, and Sheridan was faced with an increasingly war-like attitude back home. As he observed in GROPOS, he was surrounded by the sound of sabres rattling. The conspiracies hinted at in Season One grew bolder and darker in Season Two. The man who attempted to kill Garibaldi is whisked away to freedom; the evidence indicating that Santiago's death was an assassination disappeared into thin air; witnesses with information were hunted down as traitors; the Orwellian Night Watch was formed, and by year's end was actively ruining people's livelihoods for such seditious activities as grumbling about Presidential policies. At the start of the year, when we first met him, Sheridan was enthusiastic and idealistic, proud of his status as an Earth Alliance Officer. By the end of the year, Sheridan was so disgusted by the direction the Earth had taken that he was practically ashamed to wear the Earth Alliance uniform.
By the end of 2259, the dream had already failed. One of the five major races has been conquered, its Ambassador forced to step down. By the start of 2260 - Season Three - Sheridan's every plan and action has seemingly been behind closed doors, as a conspiracy between himself and those he trusts. We are told in this episode that the League of Non-Aligned Worlds has enlisted protection from The Shadows to counter the threat of the Centauri... and now, given confidence by the Shadows' protection, they have taken to warring with each other. The response of both Earthgov and the Minbari Grey Council is identical: "The problems of others are not our concern." Meanwhile, Clark has imposed martial law, the media is walking a tightrope trying to report as much as truth as they can without being shut down, the Nightwatch has a ridiculous amount of control, and the "dream given form" has turned to ash just as Sheridan's uniform has turned to mere cloth.
"Babylon 5 was a dream given form... It failed."
All of which specifically brings us around to Severed Dreams, an event episode that upends just about every comfortable dynamic the first 2 years of the show had created.
Many things are severed in the course of this episode. Clark has severed the power of the Constitution, moving himself from President to dictator, all in the name of "protecting Earth from its enemies." He seems to be getting away with it, too. His preparations have been very careful. As a character observes in this episode, "he spent all last year putting his people in key positions." That's why early 2259 saw Clark being very low-key, more or less assuming the facade of continuing President Santiago's policies. Only late in 2259 did Clark's more draconian tactics emerge, with the hunt for Dr. Jacobs and the establishment of Night Watch. Only then had he secured enough power to feel safe.
There's an irony to Clark's severance of basic freedoms. We are told that most of the ordinary people on Earth are welcoming martial law, because it is more ordered and has reduced crime. Clark has spent the previous year making people afraid of alien aggressors (and the people behind him have been spreading their influence longer than that, through the Homeguard and other organizations). Lt. Keffer's oh-so-heroically made recording of the Shadow vessel played right into Clark's hands, by allowing his people to advertise a powerful unknown enemy, a "boogeyman" they could use to frighten the people even more. Now martial law is making the people feel safe. At the risk of earning bricks for quoting the latest Star Wars movie, Sen. Amidala's line from Revenge of the Sith seems highly apropos: "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."
With the severance of the Constitution also comes the severance of the free press. Actually, the press has been far from free for some time already. ISN has been very careful in its reporting, all too aware that Clark's axe might fall at any time. Now even the semblance of a free press ends, in a fine scene that ends with a chilling abruptness.
That last step Sheridan didn't quite take in Point of No Return is forced upon him here. The most obvious severance of the episode is Sheridan's official severance of his ties to Earth Alliance (I say official severance, because he has been emotionally severed from the current form of Earth Alliance since at least The Fall of Night). Another severance affecting Sheridan is the severance of regular communication with his father. In a touching, albeit slightly corny, scene just before the storm hits, Sheridan contacts his father. Though the conversation between the two men is low-key throughout, filled more with things unsaid than said, it is clear that both father and son are aware that it is very possible they are saying a permanent "Goodbye."
Finally, Delenn must sever a dream of her own people. Upon hearing that, faced with the verified fact of the Shadows' return, the Warrior Caste-heavy Grey Council has declared this to be "not their concern," Delenn is outraged. She storms into the Council and delivers a splendid monologue about the corruption of the Council, that they "say the words," but without any sense of the meaning. She takes the staff - the symbol of the Council's power - and snaps it in two, calling for those of the Religious and Worker Caste to leave with her, severing the Council (who "stand between the candle and the star... the darkness and the light") in the process.
This scene is more stylized than realistic. The members of the Council have their cowls so far over their heads that we can see no faces. None of them speak, or even move during Delenn's fierce monologue. No one resists her taking the staff, no one cries out against her breaking it, no one argues with her. The other Minbari in this scene are effectively props. I suppose this could be considered a flaw in the episode, but I rather enjoy the stylization. Babylon 5 has never been afraid of drawing its inspiration from the conventions of theatre, and such is the case here. The scene feels slightly removed from reality, existing instead in a more formalized "non-reality," such as might be seen in a play by Becket or Stoppard. I could see arguing against this sort of staging. However, in my opinion, the theatricality works splendidly.
In the commentary for this episode, J. Michael Straczynski declares the ending scene - in which Sheridan steps through a door and is given a standing ovation by the people of the station - to be a "movie moment." Perhaps it is. However, I think it's well-earned. Nothing in this episode is allowed without a consequence. The ruling body of the Minbari has fallen; the democracy that the Earth Alliance was supposed to represent has become a dictatorship; the station has been badly damaged; Sheridan, Garibaldi, and Ivanova all have received their own lumps, bumps, breaks, and bruises; replacement supplies, as Sheridan wryly notes at episode's end, are not liable to be forthcoming from Earth anytime soon. They've literally been through hell, and there's more to come. I haven't always been his biggest fan, and I will continue to criticize the living hell out of the character in the future where I think it's merited... but I'll allow Captain John Sheridan his ovation here. Both actor Bruce Boxleitner (giving one of his best, and truest, performances to date) and character earn that applause.
As does Delenn. No review of this episode can possibly be complete without referencing THE quote of the day, the one pure stand-up-and-cheer moment of the show, from Delenn to the Earthforce ships that have come to take Babylon 5 away from Sheridan:
"Only one human captain has ever survived combat with the Minbari.
"He is behind me. You are in front of me.
"If you value your lives, be someplace else."
From first frame to last, a triumph.