Mark Watches ‘Babylon 5’: S02E19 – Divided Loyalties

In the nineteenth episode of the second season of Babylon 5, I hurt. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Babylon 5. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of consent, including sexual assault, nonconsensual medical procedures, homophobia

Oh, I have such complicated feelings about this episode, y’all. On the surface, this is one hell of an accomplishment in terms of serialized storytelling, with threads from The Gathering, “Spider in the Web, “The Quality of Mercy,” and probably a handful of other episodes. There’s just so much here hinting both at what is possible and what is. Hell, we had the name “Control” thrown out to us as an operative in Bureau 13 before, and Babylon 5 delivered on this promise. It took a while to do so, and it’s executed in a way that’s both effective and utterly heartbreaking. That’s especially the case for Ivanova, who has now had two romantic partners of hers turn out to be pretty terrible people. CAN IVANOVA HAVE A NICE DAY PLEASE.

The timing of it all is another punch in the gut, too, since Garibaldi and Sheridan had discussed inviting Talia into their inner circle. Their quiet little rebellion is risky enough as it is, but this is something they’re going to have to consistently think about. When can they add more people to their resistance? How can they trust someone ever again? They’ll have to if they want to grow this rebellion of sorts, won’t they? And I don’t know what that looks like. This incident is going to make all of them a lot more paranoid.

On top of it all is the shocking revelation that Ivanova has hid that she’s a latent telepath all this time. I just… holy shit, it actually makes a LOT of sense given how she’s reacted to the Psi Corps over the course of this show. Now, granted, I don’t have as extensive knowledge of Babylon 5 as most of you do, but I feel like this fits, like it gives us an insight into a person without destroying what we saw prior to this reveal. This doesn’t unravel Ivanova or cast doubt on her past appearances or characterization. (Perhaps it does for Talia, but I feel like this twist was significantly hinted at before.) Instead, I have a new context to understand her character. She has been so very afraid for a long time, y’all, and the events of this episode threatened to ruin her. 

So, I don’t have a problem admitting I like a lot of these aspects of “Divided Loyalties.” And on the surface, I found it commendable and thrilling that this show actually canonically suggested a relationship of sorts—romantic, possibly sexual—between Ivanova and Talia after HEAVILY hinting at it for a while. There’s no bait and switch here, and while I feel like we could interpret their scenes in a few different ways, one aspect feels undeniable: the potential was there. This had the chance to become more than platonic, and my gut tells me this was intended to confirm the two of them as a pairing, whatever that pairing might have ended up as. And from here on out, we’ve got canonical bi/pan Ivanova. YOU CAN’T TAKE THIS OUT OF MY COLD, DEAD HANDS. It’s real, she’s a major character, and my love for her—which was already through the roof—is now as such that I would probably fight a war for her or something. PROTECT HER AT ALL COSTS.

What makes me feel uncomfortable appears to be mostly unintentional, but I can’t unsee the tropes that unfold here. If we accept that Talia was somewhere on the spectrum of queer, that she was gay, that she was bisexual or pansexual, that she was DEFINITELY not straight, then it turns out that her queerness was created. It was an artificial aspect of a hidden personality. The “real” Talia—the one hidden away until activated, the one who volunteered to be Control—could very well be straight herself. We don’t know, and I’m not sure we can ever know unless she comes back. But her chilling and unnerving little monologue to Ivanova near the end of the episode suggests that everything Talia did was just to get closer to command staff.

Which invokes another unfortunate trope: queer people being predators. And I don’t want this to be a suggestion that queer people can’t perpetrate sexual assault of any kind. It’s more that we frequently have to fight the damaging stereotypes that we are inherently predatory, that we manipulate and harm the people around us because it’s in our nature. The portrayal of Talia in this episode skews a little too close to that trope for my tastes. And again, I don’t think it was a malicious, intentional thing at all! I get the sense that JMS and company had planned this twist for a while, that Ivanova probably needed to be hurt by someone close to her for her own character arc, and that at the very least, some different romantic pairing was intentional. I still don’t interpret that part as an accident or queerbaiting. 

The problem, ultimately, is that there are just so few characters from our community in ANYTHING, so when these tropes come up, they tend to feel like commentary on the group rather than just a feature of a single character. To the show’s credit, there’s not just a lone non-straight character here! Which is FUCKING HUGE. I can’t ignore that! If I’m doing my math right, this came out in 1995, yes? There was a huge risk in having this here anyway, and you better believe I’m gonna fight EPIC BATTLES for bisexual Susan Ivanova. I just wanted to apply a critical lens to this to explain why there was some discomfort from me on video. And I’m eager to see what all of y’all thought of this, too!

The video for “Divided Loyalties” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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