In the eleventh episode of the fifth season of Babylon 5, Bester is the goddam worst. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Babylon 5.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of police brutality, nonconsensual medical procedures, alcoholism.
That’s truly the message of this episode, isn’t it? And I don’t want to ignore that Sheridan and Lochley both made choices that affected this outcome, but the main factor that sent this south was BESTER. He escalated things beyond where they were needed, and even in the end, when EarthGov didn’t rule in his favor, he just couldn’t let it go!
But I wanted to start with Garibaldi’s plot before I delve into the disaster that is the telepath story in “Phoenix Rising.” It’s bad enough that Garibaldi was so horribly mistreated, that he was manipulated through telepathy into turning against his friends, and that there was no real way to prove what was done to him. It’s why he decides to confront Bester in the man’s quarters. If he can get Bester to finally admit the truth, justice might actually be within reach. It’s an act of desperation, but it’s also one that makes perfect sense in the moment. Garibaldi can’t get closure without some sort of public reckoning. It’s not like Bester is at all shy to admit exactly what he did! He spells it out succinctly here, and he’s done it before! But it’s always in private and he always retains plausible deniability.
There is, of course, a terrible irony in what Bester did to Garibaldi. It’s an act that is later given a parallel when we learn what Bester did to Byron. Bester loves to manipulate people; this we know far too well. But the way he manipulates others always seems to involve an intense cruelty. It wasn’t enough to just fuck up Garibaldi’s life. He had to telepathically block Garibaldi from ever causing harm to him. He stripped him of his agency, his ability to choose, but left his rage intact. Thus, Garibaldi can only simmer; he can only stew; he can only exist within his anger, but can never do what he wants to do with it. Yes, it’s an act of self-preservation on the part of Bester, but it’s so much more than that.
Bester is the worst.
I get why this episode is called “Phoenix Rising.” In the ashes of what happens in this story, Byron’s hope for a peaceful telepath existence rises and continues on. But this could also be called “A Tragedy of Telepaths” because THIS IS SUCH A TRAGEDY. It’s even more so because Byron’s backstory is revealed, and lord, this is a million times more intense because of it. Byron himself fascinates me because he is a character who is dedicated to his own moral system, right up until the end. But that system did not just form randomly; it is not arbitrary. Byron’s past as a Psi Cop, one who was once manipulated into murdering non-telepaths, directly influenced the development of his policy of non-violence and his hatred of the Psi Cops. It’s such a bold choice of an origin, which does make me sad that he’ll no longer be around anymore.
Yet even that decision makes sense to me within the worldview of Byron. Byron left the Psi Corps after Bester threatened to have him immediately executed if he didn’t fire on a ship of mundanes. As Byron put it, this was intentional. Bester wanted Byron to feel guilt over killing the mundanes because it meant there was blood on his hands, too. Again, it’s such a cruel form of manipulation! And given Bester’s monologue at the end of the episode, it’s easy to see why he thought this would work. He thought it would compel Byron to feel like he was on the same side. Instead—AND MUCH MORE BELIEVABLY SO!!!—it pushed Byron away. He saw through the manipulation, and he vowed not only to never kill again, but to help other telepaths not use violence as well.
So, his backstory lends a context to his entire characterization in this season, and it also explains why he is so upset that some of his followers turned to violence anyway. He’s always taken that as a personal failure, and now I know why! He feels like he failed these people, that he wasn’t a good enough teacher, that he let them down. Is that necessarily fair? I don’t really think so, but in Byron’s mind, it’s all that matters. It’s why he decided to meet the others in Med Lab, and it’s why he arranged what he hoped would be a peaceful end. Even within that, there is his deliberate attempt at holding one’s self accountable, something he’s tried to do ever since he was complicit in the murder of innocent people. He wants to hand over all those responsible for violence so they can be brought to justice… as long as the innocent telepaths can escape.
There’s a metaphor here, intentional or not, and it reminded me of how those of us who have been on the receiving end of police brutality, or communities with fraught relationships with the cops, react to the presence of law enforcement. No matter the intent, sometimes the very presence of cops exacerbates a situation. It’s something Lochley and Sheridan come to understand and then HATE about Bester. Of course, Bester proves this fear and concern over and over again by overreacting or deliberately goading the others. One of the telepaths makes this clear when he yells out that he’s “not going back” with the Psi Cops. Because when presented with the choices—go with the Psi Cops or fight for freedom—only one of those seems appealing. And I get that! We all know the Psi Cops are a disaster and one of the worst organizations in the entire show.
But even that’s not why Byron does what he does. It’s about impurity; it’s about how he didn’t live up to the promise he had made himself and the others. He killed one of their own in order to save everyone, and even that is just a step too far for him. So yes, none of these people wanted to go back with Bester; but I feel like there’s another component here. They had become something that strayed from their core values, and there was no coming back from that.
IT’S VERY INTENSE. But so is this ending, which took me a moment to understand because I was focusing on the news broadcast so much that I DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE THAT GARIBALDI HAD POURED HIMSELF A DRINK. My attention was on the wrong detail! Y’all, I’m upset. And after the events of this episode, Garibaldi’s relapse has such weight. It’s a reaction to feeling helpless, isn’t it?
I’M A MESS.
The video for “Phoenix Rising” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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