Babylon 5–Season 2, Episode 19: Divided Loyalties

I really, really liked this one. I always take breaks from watching right before the weaker episodes, I guess, and then start to wonder about the series, and then when I stick with it, I end up with awesome. The psychological drama embedded in this episode was potent. That it reminded me of the whole Battlestar Galactica Redux “who’s a Cylon” game made it even better, because I got to relive the tensions from watching that series, too, so it packed twice the punch!

Since watching the episode, however, I’ve been quite sick, and my memories of the past few days are fuzzy. I apologize if I get details wrong.

The Episode

So this is the one about the Psychic from the pilot movie (Lyta) who sneaks back onto Babylon 5 in order to warn the captain that there’s a traitor in his midst–a traitor who doesn’t even know he or she is a traitor! Some person has been programmed to collect information and hide beneath an invented personality until the code word is psychically transmitted to him or her, and the PsiCorps can bring the station, or its personnel, down for its nefarious purposes. It’s not a lot of plot on the surface to pull through a whole hour, but what I loved about this episode’s treatment of it was that instead of pulling in a real side plot, we got lots and lots of character development. Missing from the episode were my favorite non-humans (G’Kar specifically), but they weren’t likely candidates for the subterfuge anyway.

A long time ago I got some information in an unexpected place…

…(well, in a discussion thread online about the show) where I learned things about Susan Ivanova and Talia Winters that were unexpected. I’ve seen them since then having pajama parties and all-night talking sessions, so although I was surprised to basically see them having breakfast together this early in the show (true, we’re basically half-way through the series), it was very exciting.

Talia: It’s hard to believe it’s taken us so long to get to this point. Two years!
Susan: Well, you didn’t exactly make it easy.

So Talia drops a heavy hint that she needs a place to stay that night, Susan makes her room available, we see Talia–fully made up–emerge from Susan’s shower… it’s a classic story of star-crossed lovers, what with Talia working for PsiCorps and Susan having been traumatized by PsiCorps as a child. Oh, and because of the lesbian. It’s a shame, really, that this episode also represents the last of Talia Winters the love interest. Poor Ivanova! Clearly being gay just isn’t that common in the future, or in the future military, and there are not a lot of women who are her professional equals, and she’s always on call–her opportunities to have romance are pretty limited. I mean, we’ve seen all the men meet someone and do the flirty to the one-night-stand to the marriage thing, and the doctor and the captain and Garibaldi are as busy as Ivanova are. It’s sad to see her alone. Plus, why introduce the lesbian stuff at all if you’re just going to undermine it by taking one of the women away?

So now I have to wonder about representations of lesbians on network TV in the mid-1990s. Ellen is running concurrently, although the main character is not officially lesbian until the last season (and then the show is canceled). Northern Exposure is set in a town founded by two lesbians, although neither are characters on the show. Ross of Friends was abandoned by his wife when she came out as lesbian, although that occurred before the show starts (I think); she ended up marrying a woman on television later in the episode. I didn’t watch Ellen (for no particular reason), but I doubt that her character was treated like a joke in the same way the Northern Exposure or Friends lesbians were (as novelty characters that made possible events for other people to react to–not that they were openly mocked or caricatured, even though that monkey on Friends was troubling). Was having a high-ranking military officer be lesbianish a radical act for science fiction network television? It’s hard to say. Ivanova is often infantalized as a high-ranking military officer and frequently put into positions of needing a mentor or getting advice in ways that Garibaldi is never seen in–and I think she (a Lieutenant Commander) even outranks him (Chief Warrant Officer). I know, I know… she’s young, but still. (And my knowledge about the relative rankings of fictional future military is spotty, but still.) It’s part of a general trend that I’ve commented on before, so I’ll let it rest. But she’s technically high-ranking military, and this is sort of on the heels of President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and it’s interesting. Because, for the very few moments of Susan and Talia we see together on this show, their personal relationship is never trivialized, even if it is cut short before fulfillment. Real-Talia (after the code word was invoked) is actually quite cruel to Susan in her parting speech, which to me sends the message that Susan’s feelings were deep and genuine, and understood, and taken seriously by Fake-Talia (before the code word). On the other hand, it’s science fiction, and we get acts of love between species a lot in this genre, and there’s certainly nothing more unnatural than that. If Fred Phelps knew that was going on, I’m pretty sure he’d be dropping fags from his list of people God hates.

So it’s all the more romantic for the truncation, I’m sure, and very interesting in hindsight, but Susan Ivanova has other revelations for us that are just as interesting. This “I’m sort of a psychic” thing is fascinating, beyond the fact that it explains her fear and loathing for the PsiCorps. She is the only person, really, who refuses to participate in the code word screening, and even though it seems innocuous enough–hell, I’d have said yes–and the matter important enough, she holds her ground. It tells a lot about what kind of person she is, and what kind of people the others are. She does not want her privacy sacrificed to her loyalty oath to serve or anything like that. No one else takes a stand (and for good reason–it is better to know who a traitor is than to not know), but to me this matter strikes at an important question: Do thoughts matter? You could have traitorous, murderous thoughts, but if you never act on them, are you a traitor or murderer? I’m not really going to get into that thesis right now (my thoughts are too vague and the topic is beyond the scope of this discussion), but you can see why the PsiCorps is sort of dangerous. It’s an iffy situation, having them organized as a body like that and controlling all people with psychic ability. If thoughts don’t matter, who cares? Are thoughts more important than actions? If someone ends up inspired to write more at length on this, don’t forget to take The Minority Report into consideration… short story, movie, doesn’t matter.

And that’s a lot of words to get to this observation: Susan Ivanova–Second in Command–never actually is screened. She never is exposed to the code word. We don’t know what would have happened if Lyta had transmitted the code word to her brain. I cannot believe that this oversight will not come back in some way. It has to, don’t you think? Maybe we’ll find out later that Susan and Talia have always been lovers, and were brainwashed together, and that’s why their attraction to each other has been so strong, in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sort of way. (We’re all over the sci-fi references today–some themes just need constant revisiting, I guess.) Details like this are what will keep me watching the show.

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  • nevermore  On August 24, 2009 at 11:08 am

    It wasn’t planned to be cut short like that. It was due to Andrea Thompson’s decision to leave the show.

  • Karen  On August 24, 2009 at 11:36 am

    I wonder, then, if the relationship would have been fully explored, or if this hurry-up-and-expose-it-and-then-end-it was the only way that the producers wanted to address the issue.

    It trips me up watching Lyta because of how much she looks like Christine Baranski (and I’ve since learned she used to stunt double for her). I keep expecting a song to break out. I have my fingers crossed against a “musical” episode!

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