More development of the Mars subplot, more tantalizing hints of "something rotten in the state of Earthcorps," and an intriguing glimpse at a road not taken with the character of Sheridan highlight this entertaining entry.
Taro Isogi (James Shigeta), a businessman with Future Corps, is at Babylon 5 to meet with Amanda Carter (Adrienne Barbeau), of the Mars Colony Business Affairs. Isogi has a plan to trade Mars' resources for economic support from alien worlds. It is Mars' best hope to secure independence without bloodshed. Babylon 5 provides two advantages for Isogi's plan. The various alien ambassadors are readily on-hand to discuss details; and the station telepath, Talia Winters, is an old and very close friend of Isogi's.
Isogi's initial meeting with Carter seems very promising, and he expresses confidence to Talia that he can make his vision a reality. But his dream is left unrealized when he falls victim to a mysterious assassin, whose only words are a cry of "Free Mars!"
Despite the assassin's cry, Talia seems unconvinced that the assassin was a Mars separatist. She tells Sheridan that the Free Mars group would have had no reason to kill Isogi, and that the assassin's mind seemed oddly blank, but for a single recurring image - an image of a ship exploding. Her words line up with Sheridan's own suspicions: that the assassin is not a terrorist from Mars, but rather a sleeper agent sent by forces from within Earth's own government.
"There's a spider in the web," he observes to Garibaldi, "and I intend to find it and kill it." As Sheridan conducts his hunt, though, the assassin turns his attentions to a new target. The one person on the station who could threaten the security of the operation.
Like many episodes from both Season One and early Season Two, A Spider in the Web does much to develop the characters of the show, taking what we already know about them and giving them another little nudge.
The obvious center of attention in this episode is Talia Winters, a character who has been given relatively little to do thus far in the second season. Here, she is given the limelight, and we learn quite a lot about Miss Winters. In her warm relationship with Isogi, and in her interactions with Garibaldi, we see yet again that Talia is an essentially social person. Unlike most of the other telepaths we have seen - including Babylon 5's first telepath, Lyta Alexander - she seems to find it remarkably easy to get along with people. Yet again, that seems to fit well with her ultimate fate (one wonders how Lyta's eventual arc could possibly have transferred to the highly social, anything-but-isolated Talia... I suspect events would have had to play out in a radically different fashion).
This is one of the few episodes thus far in the second season that would not really have worked with Sinclair. As we saw many times in Season One, Talia and Sinclair were quite comfortable with one another. Some of the more interesting material in this episode comes about precisely because Talia and Sheridan are relative strangers. In their first scene together, Talia comes very close to accusing Sheridan of using Isogi's death to further Earth's political agenda. Sheridan, in turn, has to ask Susan before he even begins to consider trusting Talia.
The scene with Sheridan and Susan casts further light on aspects of Talia's character that we have already seen. Susan notes that Talia is primarily honest, but that she is very loyal to Psi Corps. This very observation plays out later in the episode. Talia sees exactly what happened to the assassin, and even clearly sees a face of a person wearing a Psi Cop's uniform. When Sheridan asks if she saw anything identifiable, however, Talia simply says, "No." Her final scene in the episode makes it clear that Talia is uncomfortable with what she saw, and is searching for some answers on her own. Nevertheless, she is neither ready nor willing to compromise Psi Corps, the institution that she credits with raising her.
For Sheridan, the episode is an interesting one. Here, we learn that Sheridan has a little hobby: he collects secrets and conspiracies, the way other men might collect old coins. Intriguing, and well-suited to the gradually darkening tone of the series. I also think this new character trait fits well with Boxleitner's whimsical portrayal (again, I would never picture Sinclair casually "collecting secrets" just for the hell of it... but with Sheridan it fits). This revelation also ties nicely with Sheridan's eventually-revealed backstory with General Hague. Six episodes into Season Two, and the production is still planting seeds.
This episode does much to build Sheridan's character. Thankfully, it does it in the best possible way: through action, rather than exposition. Sheridan is very proactive as he investigates the mystery of Isogi's murder. Again, Sheridan's method of operation nicely contrasts Sinclair's character. Sinclair - whom I tend to regard as a "chess player" - would probably have dealt with the situation by sitting down, studying the data, and planning out a trap (possibly directly using Talia as bait). Sheridan, on the other hand, is a mass of energy who can hardly sit still for a second. He never gets multiple moves ahead of the assassin. He just trusts to his instincts, thinks fast, and moves faster - catching up with his opponent just in time for the episode's climax.
Oh, and who's that making his Babylon 5 debut way, way, way in the background of this episode? Looks like Garibaldi has a new aide. In his first appearance, Zack Allen is a glorified extra who I doubt attracted much notice. Hard to imagine this seemingly tiny character (whose line delivery, in his first appearance... well, let's just say there's room for improvement) will become very important later in the series. In any case... "Hi, Zack." I admit, though, that I'll miss crusty old Lou Welch.
This is a Talia episode. The good news is, it is a very well-written episode that brings out some interesting facets of Talia's character. The bad news is... it's a Talia episode, meaning that Andrea Thompson has a lot of screen time. I'm afraid I still find it all but impossible to believe in Talia as a character, because I still find Thompson's performance style horribly artificial.
Thompson actually does well in the middle of the episode, in her scenes with Jerry Doyle's Garibaldi. She works quite well with him (perhaps unsurprising, given their off-screen relationship), and - as with her humorous moments opposite Garibaldi or Sinclair last season - she seems to fare reasonably well with the lighter and more human moments of the character.
When she's given more dramatic material, though, such as in the events surrounding the assassination plot, or when she's trying to sell a long relationship with a guest actor, she just utterly fails to convince me. There's something about her gestures, or her line delivery, or her expressions... I still can't pinpoint it, but something doesn't seem genuine. And given that she's the focus of much of the action here, that puts a significant strain on the episode for me.
It remains a strong and well-plotted episode, one that brings the Mars situation back to the foreground and provides some interesting character material for Sheridan and Talia. Definitely a winner, in my view.