Babylon 5 #39: In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum

"I want to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations that some favors come with too high a price. I would look up into your lifeless eyes and wave like this. Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden?"
IN THIS ONE... Sheridan detains Mr. Morden against everyone's advice.

REVIEW: Morden's been operating on the station with impunity for a while now, so it's satisfying to see him get grabbed by security, even if it's on an unrelated matter. Well, it's all related. Sheridan is finally going through his dead wife's stuff, and Morden was aboard the Icarus when it apparently blew up. So what's going on? Morden won't say, the creepy mo-fo, despite Sheridan's best Jack Bauer interrogation techniques. I've rarely seen someone be so badass while failing. The silent treatment, just letting Morden keep talking and hang himself (he only does the former). How he manipulates Talia into touching Morden's mind after she expressed ethical objections and gets a great slap out of her. The irony is that because he'll never get anything out of Morden, Delenn and Kosh are forced to finally spill the beans about the secret history of the universe.

The episode answers questions, but asks new ones too, pushing us ahead. Thousands of years ago (a wink to how long Sheridan is ready to hold Morden), the First Ones, including the Vorlons, helped keep the ancient Shadows at bay. If Sheridan makes a move against them too soon, they'll attack before the forces of good are ready (and boy, we're pretty freaking far from ready by the looks of it). He HAS to release Morden. Perhaps he can be mollified by the information that the Icarus is what woke the Shadows up (and ooh, they don't have to look like literal shadows), and so might be alive as their slave. His promise to go one day to Z'ha'dum is a future Kosh seems to believe will be fatal. One of the freakier pieces of information is Kosh saying the encounter suit is so he and the Vorlons won't be recognized. "By who?" "Everyone." Brrr. What does THAT mean? Are we hard-wired to recognize shadows and angels for what they represent? Sheridan's anxiety does spike when he catches a glimpse of the Shadows who hang out with Morden in his cell, and that's what finally convinces him to let their agent go. Not the ethical appeals made by Garibaldi, Ivanova or Talia. Not Vir's legal wrangling (despite his complete hatred of Morden; his early speech makes me hope he'll be the instrument by which Morden gets his comeuppance). No, something more primal than that.

The ironies keep piling on. A small subplot features the Ministry of Peace (we're in Orwellian territory here) recruiting for its new Nightwatch program as fascism continues its rise in Earth politics. It all seems so innocuous, right? Just report on your neighbors who express dissent so we can get them help, the proper information, etc. Uh-huh. Security Zack joins up for the 50 creds a month to do nothing but wear an armband. Yeah, that'll end well. So why insert this thread in this episode? As ironic counterpoint. This is an episode where Sheridan goes too far and tramples on a man's rights, but he's working for an organization that, if not now, soon, would be quite comfortable with giving him the right to if he asked. Another small subplot of note is Doc Franklin's, pushing himself with "stims" to get through 36-hour shifts (that'll come back to bite him, I'm sure), but also discussing his faith which isn't, as previously thought, atheistic. The "Foundationalist" idea that religions are bogus, but that there's a greater unknowable Divinity beyond what we can understand and express is thematically linked to the revelation about the Vorlons, I think. JSM is peeling back the layers of the B5 universe and there are beings of greater scope behind what we see, and surely something greater beyond that, and so on.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Important revelations abound, but the shows does best when it explores the innate paradoxes and ironies of existence. That's where this episode lives.


Anonymous said...

Sheridan takes an interest in Morden almost by accident, and this is where things start to get interesting, replotting-wise. Let's go with the notion that the original plan was for Sinclair's girlfriend to disappear in Season 2, presumed dead -- in other words, fill Anna Sheridan's exact role. Well, Morden was already on B5 in the middle of Season 1, working for the Shadows, so the original plan couldn't have been for him to be a member of the B5 commander's squeeze's crew when she disappeared.

Was the plan, perhaps, that Sinclair's girlfriend was already touched by the Shadows in Season 1? Or was Morden's original role to deliver her to the Shadows, and that's what put him onto Sinclair's radar? That latter possibility seems highly plausible; it requires a lot less coincidence and contrivance. As originally planned (perhaps), a ship Morden was on woke the Shadows, Morden joined Team Shadow, Morden saw to it that whatshername fell into the clutches of the Shadows so that she could be used as a weapon, and Sinclair followed the trail of clues to Morden.

Madeley said...

One of the best of all B5 episodes. Back when it was first on air, at the end of the season a number of episodes were held back from being shown in the US (I forget why, monkeying with the ratings maybe? One of the more knowledgable commentators here will know the reaason). This meant that a number of episodes were broadcast in the UK first, which usually never happened and was pretty cool at the time (for us).

At the time, there was an episode of B5 that I watched first at home, and then by complete coincidence a little while later watched the US premier when my family went on holiday to Florida. If I recall correctly it was this episode, although it was some time ago now and I might be wrong.

Ryan Lohner said...

As far as I know, JMS has never revealed what the plan was regarding Morden if Caroline/Catherine rather than Anna had gone missing at Z'ha'dum, but what we get here works quite well, and I very much admire his ability to take these changes to the story forced on him by outside elements and turn them into an asset that may well be better than the first plan. By the way, the all-time king of this sort of thing is Breaking Bad; learn anything about how that show was made and marvel that it ended up as fantastic as it did.

Another lovely change forced by real world circumstances is that Peter Jurasik was unable to be in the episode, meaning Vir was able to take a bigger role with his knockout threat to Morden, plus his argument with Sheridan. Who knew Flounder from Animal House had it in him?

That slap Talia gives Sheridan? 100% real. They didn't even bother foleying in the sound because nothing could be better than the real thing. Apparently Boxleitner's jaw ached for days.

JMS was worried that the Nightwatch arm bands were a bit too obvious as a reference to the Nazis (plus making it a bit weird how no one in-universe seems to make the connection), but ultimately he bowed to production realities of needing something that could easily be put on and taken off onscreen.

With his now taking a bigger role, a bit about Zack Allen. Jeff Conaway's big role prior to this had been Bobby Wheeler from Taxi, but he was addicted to heroin at the time which often caused problems during filming. Finally, one day he was simply in no condition to work at all and Bobby's lines were spread among a few other characters, which caused the producers to realize they didn't actually need him at all, and he was fired. By the time B5 was being made he'd kicked the habit, but his career had never recovered, and as a huge Taxi fan JMS wanted to help him out. So he got a bit part in Spider in the Web, which worked out so well that they kept bringing him back, until like Neroon he was given a major role in the ongoing story starting here. Sadly, Conaway also suffered from chronic and unbearable pain that led him to get addicted to painkillers, meaning he wasn't able to capitalize on this role and found himself right back where he started. He also developed encephalopathy, a major brain dysfunction, which combined with a bad case of pneumonia killed him in 2011. By all reports a very nice guy who was dealt a bum hand by fate he didn't deserve at all.

Siskoid said...

Wow, B5 really does seem like it was made by a collection of misfits, doesn't it? The story of how it was made could be its own show.

LiamKav said...

You compare the mortality rates for the TNG cast with the B5 cast, and it's pretty shocking. As of the time of this writing, all the main TNG cast are still alive (hell, only two of the TOS cast are dead, and that show was made in the 60s!). Meanwhile, of the people who were actually listed in the opening titles, B5 has had 4 deaths, and a couple of substance abuse problems.

Doug Hudson said...

The show runners had a real gift for identifying skilled bit players and turning them into memorable characters. Who would have predicted at the beginning that Vir and Zack Allen would be such great characters?

And its interesting that this episode really marks the beginning of the transformation of both characters from sidekicks to heroes in their own right (and sets the stage for Vir's crowning moment of glory.)

-Doug Hudson

Doug Hudson said...

Oh, and Morden is one of my favorite villains ever--so calm and collected, always smiling...except once, of course...

I've speculated with other fans about whether Morden serves the Shadows willingly or not. Which is creepier: that he serves them voluntarily, or that he is just a puppet of the Shadows, and the personality we see is that of his Shadow puppeteers?

Ryan Lohner said...

The novel The Shadow Within, which JMS has described as "70%" canon, posits that the Shadows promised to bring his wife and daughter back to life after they were killed in a jumpgate accident (and his pendant contains a picture of them).

LiamKav said...

I think I prefer the idea that he's just doing what he wants, without pressure. It's much creapier that way.

Siskoid: You mentioned in season 1 that Sinclair was a "revelation". Are we at the point where you can give us your opinions on Sheridan, both as a character and as a replacement? Or are you waiting for the season finale for that?

Siskoid said...

I guess I'm waiting for the narrative to demand it..?

Madeley said...

Ryan: Any handy links to the behind the scenes story of Breaking Bad? I'd be interested to read it.

Doug Hudson said...

LiamKav, I agree with you, I prefer to think that Morden is working with them voluntarily. It makes him more villainous.

As unfortunate as the personal issues were behind the Sinclair / Sheridan switch, from a purely aesthetic standpoint I think it worked out for the best. Boxleitner is much better as the action hero leader, and Sinclair's revised story arc is brilliant, my second favorite after Londo/G'Kar.

Ryan Lohner said...

Mandeley: I've actually garnered a lot of it from the DVD commentaries. Some major points:

If the first season hadn't been cut short by the 2007 writer's strike, Jesse would have been killed at the end of it.

Raymond Cruz had to leave for another job, so Tuco was killed off and we got Gus as a far more interesting major villain.

The house used as Jesse's house was sold after season 1 and the new owners wouldn't allow filming, so we got the story of Jesse being kicked out, which introduced Jane and everything connected from then on. Then it was sold again, so he was able to buy it back in season 3.

LiamKav said...

One thing about the CGI model of the Shadows... more than anything else, it shows how much the CGI has improved. Remember the Jason Ironheart CGI at the beginning of season 1? Urgh.

Siskoid said...

Although of course always easier to do an insectoid than a human.

But nice shading on this.

jdh417 said...

Thanks for that quote at the beginning, it's my favorite from the show, and this episode is also one of my favorites too.

I remember Jerry Doyle talking about Jeff Conaway on his radio. They were good friends.

Don't forget Conaway's best role: Kenickie in Grease.

LiamKav said...

-The thing I like about the Minipax people is that the whole thing is just a job to them. It's that scary parallel with Nazi Germany or any other society where the rights of the common people were crushed... a lot of the people doing the crushing weren't moustache twirling maniacs dressed all in black. Most of them were just filing paperwork and dealing with resource issues. The people sat next to you in the office? In a different society, many of them would be doing appalling things and not batting an eyelid.

(Obviously, this approach changes somewhat as Earth becomes more and more sinister. But it starts with regular people in nice suits.)

- "You're gonna have to charge me with something. And last thing I heard being alive isn't a crime." No, but fast forward twenty years and being the wrong colour in the wrong part of town is. BUUUUUTTTT let's not depress ourselves with the real-world (although that line is almost naive nowadays. Even aside from race issues, the US has had a least one government policy based around the idea that if you're suspicious of your neighbours for some reason, you should report it. Likewise, I don't think we can laugh at "The Ministry of Peace" for being too on the nose when there's an honest to goodness "Patriot Act" existing in real life.)

- Hey, a Hollywood writer remembered that the British broke Enigma, not Americans. I now know that the historical truth of the "Churchill knew about Coventry" story is in doubt, but at the time I was fascinated. Even now, I think Boxleitner plays the scene really well (in fact, he's great in this whole episode, his first real chance to stretch his acting legs). Such a shame that all the shots of him telling the story are zoomed in for no apparent reason (they're intercut with non-zoomed in shots of Zack, and don't contain any SFX).

- Everyone remembers Vir's badass speech to Morden in this episode, but I also have a soft spot for Sheridan's response to "If you go to Z'ha'dum, you will die."...

"Then I die. But I will not go down easily, and I will not go down alone."

Hell yeah!

Siskoid said...

Never trust someone in a suit.


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