Babylon 5's darkest season ends in what may be the series' darkest hour in an episode that really brings it all together: philosophy, myth, and change - which, as G'Kar observes for us, "is always born in pain."
Anna Sheridan (Melissa Gilbert) is alive and standing in front of her husband in his quarters. She has come with a deceptively simple offer: the truth. The full, unvarnished truth of who the Shadows are, what they believe, why they are doing what they are doing. All John Sheridan has to do is go with her to Z'ha'dum.
Anna is very reasonable. She agrees to a full battery of tests in Medlab to verify that she genuinely is John's wife, and not "some thing made to look like her." The tests are run, her identity is confirmed. Anna Sheridan did not die on Z'ha'dum. With that knowledge in hand, Sheridan goes with his wife to the home world of the Shadows, despite Delenn's warning that "no one comes back from there the same as they arrived," despite Kosh's warning that if he goes to Z'ha'dum, he will die.
Anna's offer is genuine, as far as it goes. By the end of the episode, he does meet with the Shadow's representatives: the earnest, passionate old man known as Justin (Jeff Corey), and the slimily affable Mr. Morden. However, the warnings of Delenn and Kosh are genuine, too. By the end of the episode, Sheridan will see how his wife has changed, and events will be put in motion that will change the future forever.
By the end of the episode, Sheridan will die.
"There's only one way to hurt a man who's lost everything. Give him back something broken."
-Stephen R. Donaldson, The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
Since his second episode at the beginning of Season Two, one incident has defined Sheridan as something other than the laid-back, affable administrator that he seemed to be: the death of his wife, long ago, in a jump-gate accident on her ship, The Icarus. Anna was gone.
In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum brought Sheridan face-to-face with a distant possibility. If Morden had survived the accident on the Icarus, then it was just possible that his wife had survived, as well. Even so, when Delenn and Kosh explained to him that anyone from that crew who refused to assist the Shadows would have been killed, Sheridan began to finally accept that Anna was gone forever. He began to move on, and think about forging a new life with Delenn.
His feelings for Anna never stopped, however. As he explains to Delenn in this episode, every time he felt himself falling in love with Delenn, he had to fight against the part of himself that still loved Anna. And in this episode, those feelings come back as Anna appears on his doorstep, seemingly unharmed, smiling at him and offering explanations and promises that everything will be all right again.
Just as he has committed emotionally to moving on from Anna, just as he has let go of the past that he lost and looked to a future with Delenn, the Shadows have come up with the most diabolical and harmful attack they could have sent against John Sheridan the man.
They have given him back Anna. A changed Anna, an empty vessel of Anna who is ultimately a stranger to John. They have given back everything that they took - but they have given it back to him cold, distant.
I commented in my review of Shadow Dancing that I felt Bruce Boxleitner's performance was "off" in that episode. He seemed to be forcing his responses in certain scenes, as if he couldn't mentally fully place himself within the main action of that episode, particularly during the big combat scene.
Well, he more than makes up for that here. Given some strong, highly emotional material to sink his teeth into, Boxleitner rises to the challenge and delivers his most intense performance since his episode-long boil in In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum. Boxleitner has to show John being confused and vulnerable as Anna comes back into his life. He has to show doubt and outrage in his confrontation with Delenn. Then he has to be the determined commander in his scenes with Garibaldi and Dr. Franklin. Finally, he has to display the grim commitment of a man who is making a journey that he knows will probably be one way, as Sheridan goes to meet his destiny on Z'ha'dum. This episode demands that Boxleitner show more sides to Sheridan than any other single episode before it. Boxleitner doesn't miss a beat. I have complained that despite the overall smoothness of his performance, I have sometimes felt that I was watching Bruce Boxleitner. Here, I didn't doubt for a single second that I was watching John Sheridan.
The episode also does an effective job of building on past events. Londo's manipulations come back to haunt him as he is "promoted" to a position back home where he knows full well he'll be walking a tightrope that could make any random heartbeat his last. Meanwhile, the medical scans taken of the telepaths from Ship of Tears are used by Dr. Franklin to foreshadow what has been done to Anna.
The episode's real successes, though, lie with the scenes between Sheridan and Anna. The huge arc, and all the philosophical questions explored within this arc, are brought down to the most personal level possible as John Sheridan wrestles with what has become of his wife.
Both the personal and philosophical ramifications of the story come together beautifully in the episode's key scene: the scene with Justin, Anna, and Morden. This scene begins by showing how far Sheridan has come over the past two years. In mid-Season Two, when Kosh began "training" Sheridan, an impatient Sheridan immediately asked Kosh the Shadow question: "What do you want?" Kosh reprimanded Sheridan for the question, vehemently insisting that Sheridan "never ask that question." Here, having been tempered by responsibility such as he has never known before, and having been exposed to Kosh's influence (even more than he knows), Sheridan begins his meeting with the Shadow representative by asking the Vorlon question: "Who are you?" Just as Kosh did not want to answer the Shadow questions, so does Justin attempt to avoid answering the Vorlon one. "Who I am is not important," he tells Sheridan, only relenting under repeated insistence. Even when he does answer, his reply is mostly an evasion.
"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
-Harry Lime (Orson Welles), The Third Man
Jeff Corey's Justin is the mouthpiece for the Shadows, explaining their philosophy. It's a philosophy with just enough truth in it to be persuasive. The Shadows and the Vorlons are two forces, equal but opposite: order and chaos. The Vorlons believe it is necessary to maintain order, to follow the rules, in order to ensure a successful civilization. The Shadows believe that through chaos comes conflict, and through conflict comes evolution. "It's like knocking over an anthill," Morden patiently explains. "Every new generation gets stronger. The anthill gets redesigned, made better." The Shadows do have a point. Many of the major scientific and even medical advances of the last hundred years have come about as a result of war, conflicts, and crises. The Vorlons have a point, too; no civilization can endure without order. Both sides are equally right. Because they limit themselves by denying the other, though, both sides are also equally wrong.
The Shadows believe they understand human nature, just as the Vorlons believe they do. The Shadows only understand the darker sides of human nature, however: ambition, greed, desire, envy, temptation. The elements of human nature represented by their question: "What do you want?" Thus their trap using Anna. What does Sheridan want? His wife. If they can give him an Anna with the same beauty, the same body, the same DNA, and the same memories, then she should fulfill what Sheridan wants. The Shadows' weakness, the flaw in their manipulation, is that they don't understand such basic human characteristics as love or intimacy. They don't realize that when two people are that close to each other, they can develop an instinctive sense of each other, can tell when something's wrong even when the other is neither doing nor saying anything to show it. They don't even understand how an Anna with the same appearance and memories might not fulfill Sheridan's desires. As such, the trap they set for Sheridan - while causing immense emotional pain - is doomed to failure from the outset.
John Sheridan is a creature of instinct; his instincts are rarely wrong. What is Sheridan's first, instinctive reaction to Anna? To recoil in horror. When Delenn as much as told John that Anna had died on Z'ha'dum, she told him the truth. However, even when Justin is forced to admit that the Anna before John is not his wife, he still tries to persuade him of the rightness of the Shadows' cause. He cannot understand that the blow of John seeing his wife destroyed - seeing her animated corpse sitting and smiling in front of him - would override the intellectual weight of Justin's argument even if John bought into it. Justin and the Shadows cannot see that by using this broken Anna to present their arguments, they have destroyed any chance they may have had of convincing John. What happened to Anna was a violation worse than rape, a destruction worse than murder. That they could believe John would respond to this with anything other than a desire for their annihilation proves just how little the Shadows understand humanity at all.
Inevitably, Sheridan rejects the Shadows, their philosophy, their manipulation, and the horrible devastation they have left in place of Anna. Sheridan flees, and is driven to a precipice overlooking a vast abyss. Then Sheridan does what any literary hero must do when confronted by an abyss. He descends. Kosh's prophecy comes true: "If you go to Z'ha'dum, you will die." Sheridan jumps into the underworld, taking a leap of faith and in so doing traveling where Anna cannot follow. Anna, reduced by the Shadows to a vessel that has been emptied, then re-filled with darkness, dies at the edge of the abyss, bathed in the destructive light that Sheridan has brought to the place of darkness. The trap set for Sheridan by the Shadows turns into the means for Sheridan to deal his strongest blow against the Shadows. As he said to Kosh, far back in In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, when he was first told that the Shadows had destroyed his wife, Sheridan would some day go to Z'ha'dum; he would die there; but he would take some of the Shadows with him.
Beautiful, breathtaking, mythic stuff - it would be impossible to overpraise the main throughline of this episode. The scenes of Sheridan with Anna and the scenes on Z'ha'dum represent the highest point the series has reached to date.
As is frequently the case these days, the only "bad" things I can come up with are nit-picks. Still, here they are:
Nit-pick #1: Why is Garibaldi outside the station in a Starfury when the Shadows appear? In previous attacks, Garibaldi has always been shown staying inside the station. It feels very much like he goes out on this occasion simply because the plot demands that he do so. It would feel less contrived if there was more precedent for it, if previous episodes had seen Garibaldi going out in Starfuries. But since past episodes have always left him on the station, to help defend against possible breaches, his presence in a Starfury seems motivated more by the demands of the arc than by the character.
Nit-pick #2 actually annoyed me just a little, because it was so unnecessary. I'm referring to Sheridan's explanation to Delenn for why he goes to Z'ha'dum. He goes to Z'ha'dum because she told him not to go in the War Without End flash-forward, and he therefore believes that by taking that advice he caused that future to happen, so now he's not going to take that advice and...? (head explodes from trying to follow the logic) The irritating thing, for me, is that there was no need even to come up with a convoluted explanation for why Sheridan goes. I had no problem believing Sheridan was going; even knowing it was a trap, he would want answers as to what had happened to his wife. Even knowing it was a trap, it would be reasonable that he might hope to somehow save her. Therefore, the scene is guilty on two counts. First, it provides explanation where no explanation is needed. Second, the explanation makes no sense, to the point where it actually takes me out of the episode, if only for a moment. Credit to Mira Furlan, though: her reactions to Sheridan's words in the message are beautifully played.
Neither nit-pick is enough to even tempt me to lower my grade for the episode, however. This is a superb installment that brings the series' darkest season to a close in a way that leaves the future of the characters drenched in uncertainty. Sheridan has descended into the abyss. Garibaldi has vanished, quite literally, into the belly of the beast. Neither man can possibly return unchanged, if they even return at all. "No one leaves (Z'ha'dum) the same as they arrived." As G'Kar's closing voice over tells us, the future could move from here in any direction. The one thing we know is that future, whatever it may be, has been born "in pain."