In the eighteenth episode of the fourth season of Babylon 5, Captain Sheridan says no. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Babylon 5.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of torture, brainwashing, manipulation.
I’ve re-started my draft of this review like five times now, and every time I do, I think I’ve got a good opening for all this, and then it feels trite. So here I am, still in awe of this episode and what it accomplished, and this remains difficult. It’s easy to say that this is an immense accomplishment, that Bruce Boxleitner and Raye Birk give phenomenal and haunting performances, that JMS’s writing is crisp and terrifying and minimalist. But the themes at the heart of this episode feel so radical, so relevant, that I’m struggling with how to vocalize that. This entire episode is about how important one person can be in a resistance movement. While I’d also argue that the collective is very important in Babylon 5—I’d argue that the Shadow War is about the power of unity in many ways—I’m enjoying how vital it is that individuals make the decision to do the right thing, and that absolutely matters.
So, with that said, I wanted to delve into specific aspects of this rather than go through the story chronologically as I often do. There’s a lot at work here to make this such a memorable episode, and one thing I’m fascinated by is how so much is done with so little. The entirety of this episode takes place in one room and one hallway, is between two actors for 90% of the time, and is comprised of mostly close-ups and wide shots of the room. There’s a sense here that even without any of the show’s context, you could actually stage “Intersections in Real Time” as a play. I’ll talk about how that’s the case for the script later, but in terms of the staging, it totally works as something for a small stage, doesn’t it? You just need two chairs, a desk, and a gurney, and some well-placed lights!
It also sets the atmosphere. This has to look artificial, as if the events are taking place in a set that has been constructed to do exactly what the unnamed interrogator promises: to provide a world without hope, without second changes, without a last-second rescue, without fairness. It’s stark, bleak, and shadowy; the lights imitate day and night, but in the end, they’re a construction, too. And isn’t this all about the nature of truth and the fluidity of reality, at least in terms of who portrays that reality?
Because of this, the action is focused on the people, and I remain in awe at Birk and Boxleitner, who dive into their characters so wholly. Even if Sheridan is confused, angry, spiteful, determined, or terrified, we can still see the Sheridan we love within this performance. He’s always there, even if the interrogator shoves him deep beneath the surface. And then there’s the interrogator, played with a no-nonsense plainness by Raye Birk, who truly gives off the vibe that he is just another employee who is here to do his job. That detachment, which never seems to break over the course of this episode, makes this a million times more chilling. He is so certain, so comfortable playing this sadistic role for his government. And now that I know the ending of “Intersections in Real Time,” it’s clear that he cycles from one prisoner to another, taunting them, manipulating them, ruining their lives and their bodies and their minds, and this is just a job for him. It’s horrifying, isn’t it? There’s no empathy or sympathy in what he does, and it makes me think he truly believes that Clark and his ilk are the moral ones in this situation.
But really, I’m obsessed with the way that this is written. While I felt like elements of the previous episode called back to The Prisoner, this episode was like an homage to some of the more disturbing aspects of 1984. Yet the stories are still different, and by dedicating an entire episode to this, JMS sheds light on Clark’s oppressive regime and Sheridan’s moral framework. Because it’s through this that we get confirmation of the techniques we’ve seen or heard of in pieces across multiple seasons. Clark doesn’t care about any truth but his own, and so he wants to wield the truth like a weapon. That makes the interrogation room the forge, the chance for his agents to stick people into the fire and reshape them as needed. I’m sure there’s some joy to be had from Clark in knowing that Sheridan suffered so much, but in the end, this process existed so that Sheridan could become the symbol that Clark wanted.
That’s Clark’s agenda. People are tools and pawns, and he spins them as needed in a massive media empire that acts as a willing arm of this regime. The interrogator was supposed to mold Sheridan into believing that he had been unduly influenced by alien forces. Which is so wild to me, since this episode is devoted to someone unduly influencing Sheridan. They can’t even see the inherent contradiction here. Actually, they might??? But they don’t care! The very act they criticize is okay for them to use, and it’s so eerily relevant that I just want to scream forever. (I will never get over how watching this show in 2018/2019 was the perfect coincidence and the most surreal nightmare.)
Yet throughout it all, Sheridan says no. No. That’s the crux of his moral argument, and it is both simple and immensely power. Sheridan’s refusal to be a tool of Clark is painful to watch, particularly as the interrogator escalates matters against Sheridan. He poisons him, then tries to make him complicit in the suffering of an unnamed Drazi. But you know what was most damning? When he admitted that even if Sheridan died, Clark would just make a fake video of a confession anyway. They didn’t even need Sheridan’s participation; it just would have been ideal. Yet Sheridan never budges, and it’s so admirable. His rejection is the culmination of nearly four years of character development, of his dedication to doing what is right and fair. It’s a sign that Sheridan always tries to think of what world he is leaving behind. Even if he dies, he refuses to help Clark at all.
So he spits on the confession.
And he says no.
And then it starts all over again with a new interrogator.
And in every world, every instance, I believe that Captain John Sheridan would say no.
Goddamn, what an episode.
The video for “Intersections in Real Time” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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