We have reached what many consider the pinnacle of Babylon 5 — season 4. Due to behind-the-scenes issues, including the channel the show was on shutting down, JMS was originally told that Babylon 5 was going to be canceled. He immediately took his 5-year plan for the show, cut any subplots that weren’t absolutely necessary and crammed in everything else. As a result, a lot of things happen in season 4 and the pacing is really fast.
Eventually, the TNT channel would rescue Babylon 5, allowing JMS to get his fifthseason as originally planned. Due to all the stuff that was crammed into this one, however, season 5 felt different. But we will get to that later. If you are keeping track, this is the climax season in the show’s 5-act structure. If you missed the previous top 5 episodes for the 25th anniversary, here are seasons 1, 2, and 3.
5. No Surrender, No Retreat, Season 4 Episode 15
As with most of the seasons, the episode that shares the season’s subtitle will often end up on this list. In this episode, we have the opening of hostilities between Babylon 5 and the Army of Light with Earth. As Sheridan says at the beginning of the episode “enough is enough!” For a long time, the crew of Babylon 5 has had to watch as Earth descends into tyranny, but were helpless to do anything. Now that the Shadow War is over, the First Ones have left, and the Minbari Civil War has ended, they can turn their attention to the threat that hits closet to home.
While the Shadow War was about ideologies involving dealing with sentient life, the Earth Civil War will be the hardest thing they have ever done. In season 3, they defended themselves against a military coup and declared independence, but they have never actively fought a war against their own people. Friends will be killing friends. Sheridan’s optimism and belief that what he is doing is morally right may be brought into question when put in that context.
And, as Babylon 5 does so well, it makes galactic events resonate on a personal level for the characters. Londo goes to G’Kar, desperately trying to extend the olive branch. He knows he is doomed, but if he can make amends and help his friends in any way, perhaps he’ll be able to live with himself. And Ivanova is descending into a pit she may not crawl out of. Her usually enduring Russian pessimism takes on a new context — after everything she has been through, she has lost all hope.
Favorite Exchange Of The Episode
Sheridan: “What happened here today was difficult for
all of us. But it’s over now. What we have to decide now is what we do next.
Option 1: You and your crews can return home. We won’t stop you. Sooner or
later the Heracles and her crew will have to answer for their actions before a
military tribunal. But that’s not our problem for now. Option 2: You can stay
here and help protect Proxima 3 from further retaliation by President Clark.
And Option 3: You can come with us…join the fight.”
Levitt: “Captain, I wasn’t about to let Captain Hall
get the rest of my crew killed, defending Clark’s policies. I happen to
disagree with those policies. But that doesn’t mean I agree with your actions
either. It’s not the role of the military to make policy.”
Sheridan: “Our mandate is to defend Earth against all
enemies, foreign and domestic. Now Clark has become that enemy. Your oath is to
the Alliance and to the people back home, not to any particular government.”
MacDougan: “You’re splitting that hair mighty thin, John.”
Sheridan: “Am I? Nightwatch, Ministry of Peace,
Ministry of Truth? I mean, is this the same Alliance you joined or – or has it
become something else? The orders you’ve been getting, do they represent the
ideal of the Alliance? Or of a dictatorship? You’ve been ordered to open fire
on civilian targets. Is this what you signed on for? Now we’ve made contact
with other ships that have left Earthforce. They should be getting here in the
next few hours. Now, some will stay and hold Proxima. The others will come with
Levitt: “I thought you had all League worlds backing
you up. Why do you need us?”
Sheridan: “Because I want this to be a clean fight. The other worlds won’t fight for us, but they won’t get in our way either. It’s your call. I’d like you to join us. We’ll kick out Clark and the Nighwatch and the rest of that bunch, and we’ll turn it over to the voters. Let them decide if what we did was right or wrong. Because in the final analysis, those are the people we work for.”
4. The Long Night, Season 4 Episode 5
The opening six episodes of season 4 are a tour de force of serialized storytelling, which is why one-third of them are on this list. The Long Night is the culmination of so many things that lead us to the end of the Shadow War in the following episode. Londo, G’Kar, and Vir succeed in assassinating the unstable Emperor Cartagia. Sheridan has to make an impossible choice to trick The Shadows and the Vorlons into a final conflict. Everything is on the line. If Londo doesn’t succeed, Centauri Prime will be destroyed with only Cartagia and himself surviving the slaughter. The Shadows and the Vorlons are using weapons that destroy entire planets, technology the Army of Light stands no chance against.
There was a change in the plan for this episode that was a stroke of genius by JMS. As originally planned, Londo was supposed to kill Cartagia. However, when JMS was writing the script, he realized that it would be better if Vir was the one to kill him. This makes it more dramatic and allows him to take Vir on a new arc. Vir is kind and innocent, but he has now taken a life. The life of a tyrant and murderer, but a life is still a life to Vir. The question is, can he live with himself? This is what good writing is, admitting that something will lead to better character moments as long as the motivation is consistent. JMS talks about writing this scene here.
The scene with Ivanova near the beginning is just heart-breaking, especially considering the ending of the season. She has lost so much and become so detached from others that all she lives for is to fight for what little she believes in.
Favorite Exchange Of The Episode
G’Kar: “Why are you celebrating?”
G’Lorn: “We drove them away. They knew they could not
enslave us forever, and we drove them off through strength.”
G’Kar: “Is that what you think? Try to understand. The
strength that defeated the Centauri is not from weapons or arms.”
G’Lorn: “G’Kar, you are tired. You’re hurt. You’re not
seeing this as we do.”
G’Kar: “I see, G’Lorn. I see better than you can
G’Lorn: “When you’ve rested, we will thank you properly, as is your right. There will be celebrations in the street, G’Kar. Your name will be a blessing to any who speak it. And then – then, G’Kar, you will lead us against our oppressors. You will be the instrument of our vengeance. With you directing us, we will finally destroy the Centauri!”
G’Kar: “You have just tossed someone off that throne. Would you put another in his place so quickly? The Kha’Ri spoke with many equal voices, not the one voice of a single leader.”
G’Lorn: “We need strength to lead us, fire to forge
us. We saw that in the Centauri, learned that from them.”
G’Kar: “Then you have learned the wrong lessons. I
will not take the throne. If the Kha’Ri is restored, I will take my place among
them, but that’s all. I did not fight to remove one dictator just to become
G’Lorn: “But the Centauri-“
G’Kar: “Are a lost people! They are to be pitied. They are already on a course for self-destruction, they do not need help from us. We need to redress our wounds, help our people, rebuild our cities.”
G’Lorn: “We must strike back!”
G’Lorn: “I never thought you a coward, G’Kar. We
suffered and died during their occupation. Where were you? What have you
G’Kar: “What have I endured?”
(G’Kar begins to laugh as he leaves.)
3. Rising Star, Season 4 Episode 21
One thing unique to Babylon 5 for a very long time other than the CGI and serialized storytelling, was the fascination with the aftermath. In most shows or movies, after the heroes have taken down the tyrannical government and bring peace to the world, the story ends. The Star Wars franchise is a great example. But Babylon 5 is a show smart enough to know that things don’t work that way. That sometimes the aftermath is just as horrific and hard as the war itself.
Sheridan has landed in the realm of politics, which is a battlefield with far more shades of grey than the one he is used to. Before, he was fighting a war in which he was unquestionably right on moral and legal grounds. But on political grounds, he fought the war incorrectly. He has become an inconvenience for the politicians back on Earth because he upset the established system they were used to. But as he correctly points out, people were dying, so the political way — aka apathy — was just as deplorable to him as joining Clark’s regime.
What is fascinating about this particular episode is the invention of the Interstellar Alliance. JMS, while a fan of Star Trek, disliked the idea that all the races in the franchise just magically got along and formed the Federation. In a more realistic setting, races would have quarrels and other problems with each other that would stop them from immediately signing an alliance. So we have 4 seasons of build-up in Babylon 5 before the ISA becomes a thing. As Sheridan points out, he has been trying to get the races to work together as much as he could. This has been his plan all along.
Favorite Exchange Of The Episode
Luchenko: “Well, Captain, you’ve caused quite a stir. Half of Earthforce wants to give you a kiss on the cheek and the Medal of Honor. The other half wants you taken out and shot. As a politician you learn how to compromise, which by all rights means I should give you the Medal of Honor and then have you shot. I confess the idea had a certain appeal when I mentioned it to the Joint Chiefs a few hours ago. Sit, please.”
Sheridan: “Yes, Ma’am.”
Luchenko: “I’ll give it to you straight, Captain.
President Clark was out of control. Many of us wanted to move against him, but
the time was never right.”
Sheridan: “With all due respect, ma’am, while you were
waiting, innocent civilians were dying.”
Luchenko: “There were issues of planetary security to consider. To look weak or disorganized would be to invite invasion. We couldn’t take that risk. His people were everywhere. He would have known instantly if we were up to something. Ironically, by breaking away, you were the only one who could move against him without his knowing what you were up to. That’s why he was obsessed with you. Babylon 5 was outside his control. So, yes, you saved some lives, I’m not here to argue ethics with you, Captain. Right or wrong, you led an insurrection against your own government. That’s mutiny at best, treason at worst.”
Sheridan: “So morally I was right, but politically I’m inconvenient.”
Luchenko: “Inconvenient doesn’t even begin to cover it. Now we have to clean up the mess.”
2. The Summoning, Season 4 Episode 3
This episode has so many things going on, but it’s all juggled masterfully. You’ve got Garibaldi showing up randomly in a mysterious ship after his disappearance in the finale of last season, Delenn is losing control of the Army of Light as Sheridan is believed to be dead, and G’Kar suffers horrific torture in the hopes of Londo fulfilling his promise to free his people. While this is enough for several episodes in their own right, on top of everything you have the Vorlons dropping all pretence and going to war full-out. Things have just gotten a lot worse for the entire galaxy.
First things first. What makes this episode so memorable is how it handles the whipping of G’Kar. In today’s TV climate, the wounds and blood the whip leaves on him would be shown in all their gory horror. But this was made in the 90’s when they couldn’t show the violence and, as a result, the horror of the scene is actually augmented. Instead of the gore, we focus on people’s faces. G’Kar’s pained expression as he refuses to give Cartagia the satisfaction of screaming, even though he knows he will die if he doesn’t. Vir’s obvious sickness at the sight, Cartagia’s smile of pleasure, and Londo’s look of disgust as he desperately mouths the word “Scream!”
The ending of this episode is scary as the Shadow War takes on a new context. The Vorlons have stopped aiding the Army of Light and they are now their own independent force. And worst of all, they have the technology to destroy planets. The Army of Light is outclassed and outgunned. This is a war in Heaven and they are but ants as the giants roam the playground.
Favorite Exchange Of The Episode
Londo: “A little scream. Is that so much to ask for? I know what it is with you. It’s your pride. You would rather stay silent than give him the satisfaction of seeing you cry out in pain, hmm? I would probably do the same myself. But not now! There’s too much at stake! I need a live ally, not a dead martyr!”
G’Kar: “What you ask I cannot give.”
Londo: “Is your pride worth more to you than saving
your world? We had a deal. You help me with Cartagia, I help free Narn.”
G’Kar: “We do not oblige conquerors. If I give him what he wants…if I beg for mercy, cry out…I would no longer be a Narn.”
Londo: “And if you are dead, are you still a Narn
then? No! You are food for Cartagia’s pets, and your people are still
prisoners! They, too, are no longer Narns, only slaves. And then dead slaves.
Is that what you want G’Kar? Is it? One scream, that’s all! One little scream
and he will let you live, and we will both get what we want.”
G’Kar: “You don’t know what you’re asking. You don’t understand.”
Londo: “Yes, I do! … Yes, I do.”
1. The Face Of The Enemy, Season 4 Episode 17
The focus of this episode is Garibaldi, one of the best characters on the show. But for this entire season, he has been slightly off. Not out of character necessarily, but just going a bit further than he normally would. His decisions have been questionable at best and straight up wrong at worst. But in classic JMS style, this was all part of the plan. The moment Bester walks into the tram car and it’s revealed that Garibaldi has been under Psi Corps control this entire season is one of the best jaw-dropping moments of the series.
The viewer is asked to re-examine all of Garibaldi’s actions and choices in this season from this new perspective. Which makes it all the worse when he betrays Sheridan in this episode. We know that Bester requested that Garibaldi’s innate character flaws be enhanced, but his personality was to remain intact. Sheridan is someone that Garibaldi has learned to trust and considers a friend. Mind-controlled Garibaldi is still reluctant to betray his friends, and even though he ends up following through, you can tell by his face that he hates himself for it.
The fact that Bester decides not to kill Garibaldi and instead frees him from the mind control is far more horrific. Garibaldi now has to live with the consequences of his actions — actions he normally wouldn’t have taken. Which is why the news broadcast that ends the episode is so haunting. Garibaldi is now considered a hero of the Clark regime and everyone has orders from Ivanova to kill him on sight. He has become an enemy of his friends and desperately wants to get them back.
Favorite Exchange Of The Episode
Lyta: “When I interned with the Psi Cops, there were a number of murders. Someone was killing commercial telepaths and the Mundanes didn’t care. For them, it was just one less Teep to worry about. So the Psi Cops took care of it.”
Franklin: “What did you do?”
Lyta: “What we had to. We scanned anyone who might’ve had a lead. No warrant, no permission, and no trace. Just…gaps in their memory, missing hours, headaches…”
Franklin: “Did you find him?”
Franklin: “Did you, uh…”
Lyta: “No. That would have been too quick. And we couldn’t go to the police because we didn’t want to explain how we found him. Somewhere on Beta Colony, there is…an institution. In one room of that institution, there is a man…who spends his days and nights screaming at…things only he can see, things we planted in his mind. They have to keep him in a straight-jacket 24 hours a day, or he’d…claw his own eyes out just to make it stop.”
Franklin: “My God…”
Lyta: “When it was over, I transferred to commercial work. I wanted out. The Corps took me in when I was just a few years old. They taught me what a telepath was, what we could do, and all that time, I’d never been afraid of who we were…until that day. When we did, what we had to because no one else would. Someday there’s going to be a war between Telepaths and Mundanes, Stephen. I just hope I don’t live to see it.”
Convening The Babylon 5 Advisory Council
Babylon 5 season 4 is widely considered the best season of the show. And while I think every season of Babylon 5 is amazing — it is my favorite TV show after all — I do agree that this season has the best pacing. There are some wonderful episodes in this season and, sadly, I had to omit some of my favorites. Into the Fire, which ends the Shadow War in a way you don’t see coming and exposes The Shadows and the Vorlons in all their hypocrisy — it’s an epic to end all epics. And then, of course, the 44-minute treatise on horrific torture methods — Intersections in Real Time. This episode was originally planned to be the season finale if JMS hadn’t had to cram so much into the season out of fear of cancellation. And what a finale it would have been!
In three weeks time, we will be taking a look at what is perhaps the most controversial season of Babylon 5. Season 5 is a love-it or hate-it kind of season. I personally have conflicted feelings about it, but I end up in the middle because of some fantastic episodes. And the ending of the series is still unmatched to this day.