Sinclair once said that the characters were "standing at a crossroads, and I don't like where we're going." The sense that things are going wrong, and are going wrong very quickly beyond the ability of anyone to control it, has never been so strong as it is at this point in the series.
The League of Non-Aligned Worlds has fractured. Delenn has gathered up a fleet made up of the Rangers and those of the League who have remained loyal, and is preparing to attack Z'ha'dum. However, those plans are threatened when the rest of the League Worlds decide that such an attack would only bring the Shadows down on them all the faster. A demonstration is planned, to stop Delenn from taking action.
As the deadline for the attack grows near, Ivanova decides to take a Whitestar out to try to find some more of the First Ones. Marcus goes with her, to act as translator. Their search for the First Ones appears to be in vain. However, they do make a discovery in hyperspace - a discovery that will shock them to the very core. The entire nature of the war is changing, and not in a good way...
Meanwhile, on Centauri Prime, Emperor Cartagia is most displeased with his new toy. G'Kar has too much pride. He refuses to beg Cartagia for mercy. He won't even scream. Cartagia determines that if he cannot get the Narn to scream, then he will have to kill him - leading a desperate Londo to beg G'Kar to compromise his pride just a little, if not for the sake of his life then for the sake of both their Homeworlds.
Finally, acting Security Chief Zack Allen runs down the lead that G'Kar and Marcus discovered in the last episode, tracking the salvage from Garibaldi's ship. The clue yields results, and Zack is able to bring Garibaldi back to Babylon 5. The return may have been just a little too easy, however. Among other things, surely that ship wasn't badly damaged enough to be destroyed - and destroyed with just enough time left to eject Garibaldi, alone, in a life-pod.
As if all that wasn't enough, there's an unidentified ship in hyperspace - and it's making its way right for the station...
Most of my reviews focus on the easiest areas to review: script, themes, and acting. This one will be no different, but I did want to pause for just a moment to talk about the directing.
As I've observed in past reviews, Babylon 5 is a series that often uses a very stagelike style to great effect. This episode is yet another example of this. Look at the electro-whip scene, with Londo and Vir watching helplessly as Cartagia has G'Kar whipped simply because the Emperor "must have (his) scream." It is the single most memorable scene of the episode. Now look more closely. The set is utterly basic. A chair for Cartagia, a pillar to which G'Kar is chained... nothing else. The lighting is kept dim to avoid drawing your eyes to the absence of set dressing. Then spotlights are used, quite effectively, to focus on the actors' faces.
The brightest spotlight is saved for G'Kar. He is the focus of the scene, after all. Everyone else in the room is waiting on him. The absence of set dressing is made to actually enhance the action. There is nothing on-hand to distract us from those witnessing G'Kar's ordeal. Cartagia sits there, a look of boredom on his face. He is there only because of a whim. He wants G'Kar's scream, and he will either have it or G'Kar will die by the whip's fortieth stroke. His lack of reaction makes him all the more monstrous. Londo cringes at the strokes, feeling empathy for his old adversary when he would probably rather not, but at the same time begs G'Kar with his eyes to just give that one scream to save both their worlds. Vir has no agenda at all; he is simply sickened by what he is witnessing. And G'Kar is at the center, lit in a stark bright white light, enduring the increasing agony with an absolute determination not to scream - not until the very last.
There's no gore here. Just Cartagia counting, the sound effect of the electro-whip, and the expressions on the characters' faces. Not much at all, really. But it is one of the most harrowing moments - maybe the most harrowing moment - in the series to date. Script, acting, lighting, directing, editing... it all comes together perfectly. It's a hard scene to watch, and an impossible scene to forget.
In this installment, however, G'Kar and Londo are the secondary focus. The main focus this time is the action back on Babylon 5.
The episode's biggest change is in the series' view of the Vorlons. For the past three seasons, the Vorlons have been viewed as allies. In Season One, they were mysterious aliens whom we were encouraged to see as dangerous, but essentially "good." In Season Two, they were revealed as allies and, ultimately, as angels. In Season Three, Kosh made of himself a heroic sacrifice, and additional Vorlons accompanied Sinclair into the past to help "sell" him as Valen.
Starting late last season, the Vorlons have emerged as a darker presence, particularly with the introduction of Ulkesh ("new Kosh"). The relationship between Ulkesh and Lyta is very different to that between Kosh and Lyta. Lyta's expression when she carried Kosh was one of rapture, bliss, exhilaration. As Ulkesh draws his essence out of her, both in this episode and in The Hour of the Wolf, her reactions are very different. Her body is wracked with shudders of pain and revulsion. "You hurt me," she complains afterwards, going on to note that he felt hard, cold, and uncaring. There are two lines of subtext I can see with the Lyta/Vorlon sequences. In the religious subtext, carrying Kosh was to Lyta the bliss of true belief; Ulkesh, however, is the bitterness of having that belief betrayed. In the romantic/sexual subtext, Kosh's treatment of Lyta was that of a considerate and thoughtful lover; Ulkesh's treatment of her is that of a controlling abuser.
In either case, this is the episode where Lyta finally leaves the Cult of the Vorlon/the abusive lover. After Ulkesh floods her mind with visions of the Vorlons' new plan, Lyta is left almost paralyzed with the sheer inhumanity of it. By the end of the episode, she is firmly aligned against Ulkesh, pleading with the command staff to find a way to stop the Vorlons "or it won't matter who wins or loses... none of us will be left alive to see it."
The revelation of the Vorlon fleet, specifically of the Vorlon planet killer, is beautifully handled. Christopher Franke's music, the CGI effects, and - once again - the facial expressions of actors Claudia Christian and Jason Carter combine to convey a feeling of mounting dread. Upon seeing this fleet, "not just hundreds of ships... thousands of them," Ivanova knows that something is going horribly wrong. The announcement at the episode's end, that a planet that housed a Shadow base has now been utterly obliterated, only confirms the feeling already conveyed by the preceding scenes. When the news is delivered, it seems not surprising but inevitable. Just as Cartagia casually watches G'Kar's torture, so are the Vorlons casually destroying entire species. Ultimate power coupled with a lack of empathy - whether in the hands of a callow youth or a supposed "angel" - can only lead to ultimate corruption.
It's a testament to the episode's careful construction that these momentous events do not overshadow the returns of two major characters. Garibaldi comes back first. Consistent with what will later be revealed, he at first seems entirely like his old self. He cannot remember what he has been conditioned to forget - just flashes, "a blur" - but he doesn't react with even slight paranoia to Zack. When the red alert is called for Security, Garibaldi forces himself out of bed, straps on his uniform, and insists on being on the front line.
Only late in the episode does Garibaldi seem different. When Sheridan reappears and makes his big speech, Garibaldi looks troubled. He can't take his eyes away from Lorien, and he is downright hostile to the First One in the meeting at the end. However, none of this actively goes against Garibaldi's nature. Even in Season One, Garibaldi was very suspicious. After his shooting by a man he trusted implicitly, that suspicious nature took on an angry undercurrent. Nor do I think Garibaldi's questions about Lorien are out of line. There's nothing unreasonable in his wanting to know who Lorien is and what he wants; indeed, those are the very questions Lorien insisted on putting to Sheridan in the previous episode. Sheridan's glib refusal to give an answer can only enhance Garibaldi's unease... an unease that I honestly can't entirely fault. Of course, this all only serves to boost the feeling building through all the episodes so far this season. Events are out of control and moving relentlessly in the wrong direction.
Finally, Sheridan's return is well handled. I love that his return was held back until very late in the episode. The timing is perfect, with his return the resolution to a problem that has been placed before Delenn. I have to give Sheridan credit; the man knows how to make an entrance.
And of course, there's that exchange that could have been lifted straight out of Monty Python: "We thought you were dead." "I was. I got better."