After the soul-wrenching events of Z'ha'dum, the fourth season of Babylon 5 begins with this quieter, almost funereal entry.
Captain John Sheridan is dead.
At least, that is what everyone on Babylon 5 is whispering, and in some cases shouting from the rafters. And in his absence, the fragile alliance he had built is crumbling. The Drazi, the Brakiri, and the other races want to take advantage of the pause in the war to attend to their own planets, to tighten their own defenses. Ulkesh, the new Vorlon Ambassador to Babylon 5, refuses to consider helping. Sheridan's death or survival is irrelevant.
So it falls to Lyta Alexander to rally Commander Ivanova and Ambassador Delenn, to travel in the White Star to Z'ha'dum, where Lyta will hold off the Shadows for as long as possible while attempting to find a way to locate Sheridan.
Unless, of course, he really is dead.
Meanwhile, Londo arrives at his new posting on Centauri Prime, where he discovers a court in chaos. The new emperor, Cartagia, is just as much of an egomaniacal fop as Londo had always suspected. But there's one more element to Cartagia, something Londo never knew and never prepared for.
Emperor Cartagia is quite mad...
In Z'ha'dum, John Sheridan fell quite literally into the abyss, fleeing from the darkness of the Shadows into the underworld. At the same time, he called down his White Star, loaded with thermonuclear weapons, bringing to the Shadows' subterranean hiding place the one thing that always destroys darkness, if only for a little while: stark, blinding, bright light.
For all their powerful technology, the Shadows are not gods or demons. They are advanced, and they are alien, but they are mortal. Sheridan has hurt them, has "opened an unexpected door," as Ulkesh observes in this episode. In the wake of that hurt, the Shadows behave as any wounded animal will. They stop to lick their wounds. They pause.
The Shadows are not the only ones pausing in this episode, however. Just as Sheridan is currently caught between "tick" and "tock," neither alive nor dead (the cat inside of Schrodinger's box, in effect), so is the universe of the show in this episode. Susan Ivanova, ostensibly in charge of the station in Sheridan's absence, has been left numb. Her recollection of her father gives the show its title. The Hour of the Wolf, that hour in which all you can hear is the beating of your heart, and all you can see are the paths not taken. If grief has many stages, Susan is caught in the first of those: denial. With Delenn equally in denial, neither woman can move forward to take control.
The Brakiri, the Drazi, and the other members of the alliance are seen as selfish for not wishing to lend their aid in a desperate mission to Z'ha'dum. But to a degree, they are also right. Susan and Delenn may speak of pressing their advantage while the Shadows are hurting. In reality, though, all they want is to find John Sheridan. "If only I could just know," Susan says to Lyta. In their desire to know, in their emotional need to kick open the box and see whether Sheridan is a healthy captain or a poisoned corpse, they are forgetting their larger responsibilities. Caught between "tick" and "tock," in that stage before letting go, where the entire universe fades to insignificance beside the emotional hurt one is feeling.
Perhaps this is why Susan and Delenn are so unable to resist when the Shadow voice speaks in their heads. They are already in a state where they are particularly susceptible to the voice of chaos and the siren call of selfishness. All that prevents them from surrendering themselves, their crew, and the White Star itself are the precautions taken by the ever-prudent Lennier. As for the mission? Practically speaking, it was a pointless exercise. But it does at least give Susan the push she needs to move on, to leave the Hour of the Wolf behind and to let the clock continue ticking.
It all makes a suitably subdued and somber follow-up to the great personal epic that was Z'ha'dum. If this were all there were to the episode, it would be small, quiet, and effective all on its own.
But there's more. And in this case, the more is even better.
Londo's discoveries on Centauri Prime are beautifully portrayed. The Londo who arrives on the homeworld is the Londo we have come to expect. He's a sarcastic, cynical delight as he assures the Centauri minister (Damian London, returning to the series in what will become a very noteworthy role) that he has met Cartagia before, both as a drooling babe and as a teenager prone to looking up women's skirts, and that he fully expects to be just as impressed with Cartagia now as he was then. He is full of knowing winks as he meets Cartagia - at first glance, a debauched fop who surrounds himself with beautiful women and admiring toadies - and tells the young Emperor in dulcet tones that he has not changed at all since the last few times they met.
Then Cartagia pulls the rug out from underneath Londo's feet. Cartagia has become the third Centauri noble of the series to make a deal with the Shadows.
"What do you want?" is the Shadows' question. All Refa wanted was power for himself - ultimately, too petty a goal to hold the Shadows' interest for long. Londo wanted the glory and grandeur of his Empire back. That was an answer that was much more interesting; that showed vision.
However, Londo was sane. When Londo saw clearly the hell in which his deal with the devil was leading him, he pulled away. The welfare of his world meant more to Londo than the welfare of himself. As one of the beings endowed with a sense of self-sacrifice, one of the chosen few appealed to by the dying host of the Great Machine back in A Voice in the Wilderness, Londo was ultimately too selfless to be the perfect pawn that the Shadows had believed him to be.
Cartagia, however... as Londo so succinctly notes, Cartagia is mad. If the court of Centauri Prime is modeled somewhat after ancient Rome, and if the story of Centauri Prime carries echoes of I, Claudius, then Cartagia is this story's Caligula. Decadent, foppish, ever so slightly effeminate...
...and quite, quite mad.
"What do you want?" Even through the pain and horror of their defeat at Z'ha'dum, when the Shadows heard Cartagia's answer, they must have been tempted to roar with laughter. Cartagia wants the logical extension of what Londo wanted. Cartagia wants things to be as they used to be, for the Emperors of old. As the Emperors of old were declared, Cartagia wishes to be declared a god. A living god.
"I want things to be the way they used to be!" Is that Londo talking, or Cartagia? As Londo looks with horror at the megalomaniac standing before him, does he hear any of the echo of his own words in Cartagia's smug voice? One of the most memorable monsters of Babylon 5 has been unveiled. Not a Shadow crab, not a fleet of ships, not a black-eyed telepath with ungodly powers. Just a young man, crazed by power too great for anyone to truly wield, and certainly too great for someone so callow and selfish. Sane, Cartagia would be a horrible emperor, but one his planet would probably survive. Insane, eyes clouded over with delusions of godhood, Cartagia almost laughs with joy as he tells Londo that the sacrifice of the people of Centauri Prime to achieve his own godhood is a perfectly reasonable price to pay.
And Londo, the being endowed with the quality of self-sacrifice... Londo the patriot... Londo, the man who only wanted his people to reclaim their place as a power in the galaxy... is left with only one way to serve his people.
He can only save the Centauri Republic by killing its Emperor. But for now, Londo - like Susan and Delenn, like John Sheridan who is neither alive nor dead - cannot act. He cannot trust anyone other than Vir; he has traded away too many friendships in his rise to power. He, too, must pause, trapped between "tick" and "tock," in a universe gone as mad as Cartagia, as mad as the impossible specter of Mr. Morden sitting before him, picking scabs out of his own blackened flesh.
If Susan and Delenn spend this episode trapped in The Hour of the Wolf, then Londo is damned to spend the first quarter of this season there.
Whereas Season Three's title sequence was dark and bleak, leading us to the edge of the abyss with Sheridan and tossing us down it with him, Season Four's title sequence is kinetic. The split-screens for each character, intercut with bits of action from episodes across the previous three seasons of the series, are extremely effective. The emphasis is on adrenaline. The White Star bursting through the skylight over Z'ha'dum... the enormous number of troops filing out of transport ships from GROPOS... Starfuries engaged in chaotic and destructive combat with other Starfuries around the station from Severed Dreams. Zack may be skidding under a door in his kinetic left panel, but he is more contemplative and thoughtful than he is often given credit for being on the right. Stephen, of course, is consumed in his work. Vir is innocent. Lennier, strikingly, is not innocent; in one of his least proud moments, he is violently reminding Marcus that they are alien to each other on the left, and is looking none too friendly on the right either. This is very intriguing given that Lennier's darker side would only properly emerge in a season that, at the time these titles were put together, was thought to be called on account of no network.
The most striking character title of all is Londo's, appropriately. Two sides of the screen, as with the others. But in Londo's case, both panels show different views of the same scene. And what other scene could it be? We see, both on the left and on the right, Londo witnessing the devastation of his own soul as he watches the Centauri mass driver attack on the Narn homeworld. More than any other moment, this scene has defined Londo.
It's a stirring title sequence, and I actually prefer it to Season Three's. Wonderful stuff.