Babylon 5–Season 2, Episode 12: Acts of Sacrifice

Ah, Babylon 5! I miss watching this show, but I won’t let myself advance through the series until I’ve written my response to the episodes, or else I get them all confused. I ended up watching this one twice as a result, and I definitely liked it more the second time (as usually is the case with deliberately scripted programs). I mean, the Ivanova B story was cute at first, but sort of annoying in a shallow cuteness way, and then I really heard what she was saying. I had suppressed, too, all the depressing parts–which were many. This was kind of an awful series of events, and not just because it was about snobbery and war. Perhaps we have to credit the acting Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar) for bringing the dark, helpless emotions to the forefront. I am a terrible judge of the finer points of acting, but I believed him, and his breakdown at the end was tragic.

I will state upfront that this is likely to be the least coherent and most rambling of my generally long, rambling, semi-coherent posts on this show. If I don’t finish this before naptime, I’ll never finish it, and I want to watch the next episode while sorting laundry. I’ll start with the title:

Acts of Sacrifice

1. That Narn ship that provides cover for the civilian ships so they can get through the portal.
2. Ivanova agreeing to bed the alien.
3. G’Kar swallowing his rage to accept pittances for his people who need help.
4. The offering up of poor people to the dark corners, so the wealthy people can avoid thinking about them.
5. The friendship and status Londo has lost by supporting his wars.

Commentary (in no particular order)

1. Londo deserves it. Sorry, dude. Surely you understood that former alliances would die when you created these new ones? I’m not saying he thinks he’s a victim, because he isn’t stupid, or that he regrets his course of action, although he very well may, but it wouldn’t be a sacrifice if it wasn’t very valuable. One gives up what one treasures for higher ideals, and perhaps finds satisfaction and greater rewards, but it doesn’t make the sacrifice itself very nice. Consider, oh, I don’t know, Abraham and Isaac. Nasty piece of work that. It could very well turn out–and these are my suspicions–that he will reconsider the value of what he has lost and the value of what he has gained, and then sacrifice the latter to hopes of regaining the former.

2. G’Kar swallows his pride. For some reason I cannot fathom the nature of the Narn/Centauri conflict as well as other people can. Perhaps they have more information because they’ve seen the whole show, or perhaps I am really bad at keeping track of small details, but I am just not sure what it’s really all about. I know that this time the Centauri attacked a Narn colony to get at that planet and that the Narn have responded with full aggression, and I know that the other alien races are declining to get involved (although individuals are responding to individuals), but I don’t know if this is a prudent, reasonable course of action or a statement about the stubbornness and inherent evils of bureaucracy. Earth’s government hasn’t been painted in a very favorable light to this point; is its abstaining from providing official relief another example of its failings or a moment of sensibility? There is a lot to be gained from not starting a multi-species war.

So G’Kar wants official assistance and makes do with leftovers, cargo space, and whatever else Sheridan and Delenn scrape together within their capacity as managers (but not owners) of resources. G’Kar is obviously grateful for the help to the people who will eat and sleep somewhere safe in the short term, but he is obviously getting peanuts., especially after the outbreaks of Narn/Centauri violence on the station. I can’t really gauge whether this short term acceptance of some help will undermine the Narns’ ability to plead their case later on galactic stages (I don’t think so, because these people are being helped in secret). I don’t think G’Kar considers that swallowing his official pride to accept this unofficial aid is much of a sacrifice; I don’t think that’s the source of his tears. What I think he has finally sacrificed is his sense that the Narn are a people with clout, that the galactic community welcomes them as equals. I don’t know that they aren’t people with as much clout as everyone else has, or that the galactic community is less welcoming of them than they are of any other people, but it’s got to be hard to be a race that only recently (in the grand scheme of things) gave up its pastoral lifestyle for a technological, spare faring one. If I was pressed to come up with an analogy, I’d liken the Narn to the Japanese of the 17th and 18th Century, deciding to modernize and play the same game that Europe and North America were playing. If the Narn are touchy and defensive, well, who can blame them? It’s a hard blow to think that you are being brushed aside by the groups you thought you fit in with; they have a lot of racial baggage. G’Kar’s perceptions quite likely are colored by a Narn insecurity and overwhelming sense of being the underdog. Cuts sting harder for them.

G’Kar is sacrificing his entire image of himself. If the Narn turn frantic, vicious, and become unreasonable and ignore all calls to diplomacy, it’s because they feel trapped.

3. Ivanova’s story was just hilarious, especially the second time around. Once I caught on to its subtext, I liked it even more. First of all, her version of human sex was worth many, many rewatches, and despite a few terms that screamed “1990s” (like “portfolio”), it speaks to the ages! The sex device the alien snob sent her with his parting note was also funny, as was the gallant mouthpiece’s gestures of respect and affection.

It is interesting that we’ve seen her nightie again. That hasn’t made an appearance since the pillow fight she and the psychic (also dressed in her nightie) had in Ivanova’s quarters. I mean, conversation. I can’t believe I am forgetting the psychic’s name right now.

The subtext of the tour through the underbelly of the station–the trip that made the alien snob realize that humans were worthy of direct communication and political alliance–exploded with meaning upon a second viewing. At first, when you are only listening to the show and sporadically watching because you are doing dishes at the same time, you catch this blatant social commentary about how Western society treats its poor (badly); it’s the kind of explicit agenda that normally pisses me off when I encounter it in fiction. But when you are actually watching the scene, because you’ve already heard the dialogue, you start to see that Ivanova isn’t really that outraged. She doesn’t really express sympathy, although she isn’t cruel and she is quite honest about how people come to that state. She makes no excuses. The alien snob doesn’t quite paint the same picture (he ties it into social Darwinism), but he finds kinship not in the details, but in her attitude. Ivanova is a very good explainer. She also betrays no defensiveness or outrage. Humans accept this situation, is the message the alien snob gets. Ivanova, rather than be embarrassed that this is the reason the alien snob agrees to form an alliance and speak to her directly, is relieved to have successfully completed the task that Sheridan thrust (ha! I said thrust) upon her. Her ability to achieve this alliance and to avoid actual coitus is portrayed by the show producers as an unqualified victory.

I don’t know quite what to make of it. It’s straightforward presentation of life. It neither blames the successful nor victimizes the losers, and the degree to which the audience accepts and cheers Ivanova for her victory speaks volumes about the point of view of the audience members. I found myself more annoyed at the insertion of the commentary than the reception of the commentary at first. I’m sure that’s exactly what would happen. It’s a fairly libertarian attitude on the part of the show, I guess. We’ve seen the doctor smuggled political refugees off the ship, but it’s unclear what humanitarian efforts go into helping the underclass. OK, there was that lady doctor with the scary machine… she was helping people, and there was great conflict among the rulers about what to do with her–they didn’t want to spend money on free medical care for the poor. (It’s like what the government stresses over when it funds charitable religious organizations… is that unconstitutional or efficient?) Should Babylon 5 be deporting poor people? What would that say about the ruling class (the officers)? Is extreme social stratification more excusable if it is acknowledged? It would be idiotic to claim that everyone is going to live the same; hiding poverty and refusing to mingle with it would be astonishingly corrupt. At least living on the space station protects poor people from inclement weather.

This is not the first glimpse we’ve seen of the shadowy places that the busy characters usually forget to worry about. It’s all fun and games watching the rich, powerful, and clean interact with each other to control resources and preserve their shared traditions (like against what dark, unnamed force is gathering at the outskirts that I’m sure Londo is inadvertently helping), but it’s way more interesting to see the faceless masses that the game players are acting on behalf of. Otherwise it’s all just one big thought experiment.

I was going to wrap up with some resolution to investigate world events and analyze them against the fictional backdrop of this show to look for larger themes and statements, so I looked up a bio of J. Michael Straczynski and discovered that he not only went to SDSU he used to live in Chula Vista! Imagine that. It’s like we’re neighbors, except that he lived there before I was born and now lives in LA, and I don’t live in Chula Vista.

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