Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Things That Live Inside Us: Babylon 5, ''The Quality of Mercy'' (season 1, episode 21)

Tonight, on an all-new episode: Dr. Franklin investigates a con-woman running a free clinic in Downbelow; Londo introduces Lennier to gambling; and Talia has to mind-scan a serial killer.
(season 1, episode 21)
airdate:  August 17, 1994
written by:  J. Michael Straczynski
directed by:  Lorraine Senna Ferrara
Depending on how you perceive it, this is either an episode with an A-plot, a B-plot, AND a C-plot, or an episode with three A-plots.  Me?  I tend to think it's the latter.  None of the three feels any more or less important than the others; all three are entertaining though decidedly uninspired.  And all three work on a production level.
This last point is important, I think.  This episode seems unlikely to knock anyone's socks off; if you ever find a Babylon 5 fan who claims this as his or her favorite episode, be sure to give them a Spockian skeptical-eyebrow raise.  Tell 'em it's from me.  And then ask "why?"  That's for me, too, because ... why?
Same goes if you ever find anyone who says this is their least favorite.  Why would it be?  There's arguably a bit of cheesiness in the Londo/Lennier plotline, but beyond that, this is good, solid, stuff.

Let's dig into it a little deeper.  (Not much; there's not that much to dig into.)
This is Karl Edward Mueller, who is in the process of being convicted of several homicides.  He's played by Mark Rolston, who was only about two months away from appearing as Boggs in The Shawshank Redemption.  Rolston does a good job of making Mueller seem like a seriously creepy dude; he's almost too good to have wasted on the mere five minutes or so he gets in this episode.

Speaking of being wasted, here's Jim Norton, making a second (and final) appearance as Ombuds Wellington.  Norton is great; Wellington has an interesting set of relationships with Sinclair, Garibaldi, Talia, etc.  He's not killed off or anything; he just never shows up again.  NORTON does (he plays two different alien roles later on); Wellington does not.  Missed opportunity, methinks.
Later, in conference with Sinclair, Garibaldi, and Talia, Wellington sentences Mueller to "death of personality," meaning he will be mind-wiped.  Andrea Thompson is great in this scene, as is the direction by Lorraine Senna Ferrara (who never comes back for a second episode, unfortunately).  She focuses much of the scene on the wordless Talia, who knows why she is there, and knows the likely outcome of the sentencing, and is silently dreading it.  She's been in the mind of a killer before (it's mentioned in "Deathwalker"), and does not relish a second such visit.
Interestingly, her side of the story is never resolved.  She shows up, performs the court-ordered mind-scan (a procedure which comes before the medically-executed [NOT telepathically-executed] mind-wipe), is freaked right the fuck out by the horror she experiences there, and then goes about her business.  "The things that live inside us..." she says to Garibaldi, in resigned despair.  She's emotionally hollowed-out, yes; but otherwise, nothing changes for her.

When Mueller escapes later, you kind of expect Talia to re-enter the story somehow.  Mueller taking her hostage seems like the most likely scenario.  Nope.  And while this might seem like a missed opportunity in the story, I don't think it is; I think it's an opportunity taken advantage of.  We focus here on the effect all of this has on Talia; there's no suspense-movie-type plot necessary to hammer that home, it's sufficient to show that when a telepath undergoes an experience like simply -- "simply" being a highly relative notion -- touching the mind of a serial killer, it leaves a lasting negative impression.  Talia feels like a very real person to me in these scenes, and I think the series as a whole is better for it.  That's part of why I like this episode so much in spite of its seeming slightness: we've reached a point now where the performances, the character relationships, and (importantly) the writing and direction of them are all starting to really click.

We get into the Franklin storyline by way of Ivanova breaking his balls -- and rightly so -- for using station resources to operate a free clinic.

In the process of having his balls broke, Franklin learns that his "business" is down by quite a bit.  He looks into why, and finds there's another free clinic in operation: one run by a lady who uses a mysterious alien healing device to ease people's pain and suffering.

This supposed con woman, Dr. Rosen, is played by June Lockhart of Lost In Space.  Never seen an episode of that show, me.  I should fix that someday.  Anyways, this is the kind of casting that in the promo commercial for the episode comes off as ridiculous and ineffective stunt casting.  But promos like that sometimes suck, and in fact Lockhart is just fine here.  (All the promos appear on the DVDs, by the way, which is a nice touch; I wish more tv-on-disc sets had that as a feature.)

Franklin, not unreasonably, accuses her of being a charlatan and/or a quack.  Later, he has a sit-down with her daughter, who tells him a bit of her mother's backstory: she got addicted to stims (stimulants, i.e., uppers to help her work longer hours) and eventually killed a patient accidentally and had her medical license revoked.  She stumbled across this alien healing device and is trying to help people with it as a means of atonement.  Where's the harm?

Hmmm...  Addicted to stims, you say...?

Rosen will divulge to Franklin that the alien device is thought to have actually been a capital-punishment device, one used to remove the life energy from condemned prisoners and transfer it to terminally-ill patients.  Hey, does it make me a bad person for me to wish such a device actually existed?  Removing shitheels from the world by curing little bald cancer kids seems like a powerful lot of good, if you ask me.

One of Rosen's patients is played by Constance Zimmer, who would later be on shows like Entourage and UnREAL.  She is irresistible even in this tiny role, her second-ever, if IMDb is to be believed.  Her next: playing a tiny role in Quicksilver Highway, a Stephen King-related movie.  Speaking of Stephen King-related movies, another of Rosen's patients is played by Philippe Bergeron, who plays the chef in The Mangler 2.  He's not pictured here, because he is stunningly awful in The Mangler 2.  He's also pretty bad in "The Quality of Mercy," come to think of it.  Anyways, though, Constance Zimmer.

When Mueller escapes, he ends up in Rosen's clinic; he takes her daughter hostage and makes her try to heal his arm of a PPG blast he sustained during the escape.  Rosen ends up sucking all the life right out of him, and healing herself of Lake's Syndrome in the process.  She's not happy about it; she's glad to have another new lease on life, but once again, she's killed someone.  This is not okay in her eyes.  So, not unlike Draal planned to do in "A Voice in the Wilderness," she declares her plans to go wander among the stars and find some way to make what she's done alright again.  Wellington pronounces her innocent of any wrong-doing, but orders that her alien healing device be remanded to station custody.  Wonder if that'll ever come up again...

I've saved my largest amount of screencaps for the most lightweight and silly of the plotlines by far: Londo taking Lennier out for a look at the seedy underbelly of Babylon 5.  In case you're wondering: no, Bill Mumy does not share any scenes with his former Lost In Space co-star June Lockhart.
As soon as he walks into the Dark Star, with its scantily-clad serving girls and its stage full of strippers, Lennier is wide-eyed with a sort of apprehensively repressed excitement.  I've not enjoyed most of Bill Mumy's work in the first season, but I've got to admit: he's pretty great at this stuff.  He and Londo are rather a good pairing, in fact.

Londo, of course, hasn't brought his credit chit; or is pretending to not have.  So he's fleecing Lennier for all he can get here, and yet it somehow doesn't entirely come off that way.  You sense that he does genuinely think he's doing Lennier some favors by showing him this side of the station.  Is that a reasonable thing to think and do?  Of course not.  But it is telling that Londo may well think it is.  This is, arguably, an insight into who the Centauri are as a people: craven opportunists who lack even the fundamental self-awareness to know how poorly they are treating others.

Jurasik is great in all of these scenes; this is arguably his best episode yet, certainly in terms of playing humor.  Mumy is also especially good in this particular moment, when he asks if the drink he has been given contains alcohol.  If it does, that would be ... bad.
The best bits of this plotline are possibly the gambling scenes, in which something happens that I kind of still can't believe made it into an American television series broadcast in syndication in 1994.  I can explain only by showing it to you, so here goes.

Unrelated to that, let's not fly right over the fact that Londo is drinking a Zima.

Anyways, there's a game of poker afoot, see?

Also, the server is bringing what I initially assumed to be a pitcher of water but am now pretending to be a pitcher of iced Zima.

Londo coughs a bit and unfastens a button on his shirt.

Moments later, a tentacle slithers up surreptitiously from beneath the table and grabs a card.

Londo reaches down and grabs it, then apparently gives it an inferior card...

...which it puts back into circulation on a different deck.

One of the other players gives Londo the stinky eye; not because he's figured out Londo has a trained animal working for him, but just, y'know, on general principles.

The tentacle goes to work again.

Ol' boy pours himself a glass of water Zima, and then...

...puts the pitcher down right on top of the tentacle.

Londo has a brief, soundless reaction of dismay that cracks me up.  After that, he shudders and exclaims about how cold it is in the room.

And at this point, one might well have figured out that Londo ain't got no trained animal in his coat: Londo has tentacles in his coat.

And in fact, those aren't tentacles.

Those are dongs.  Yessir, we've just witnessed a Centauri use one of his dicks to cheat at poker, on television in 1994.  Check it out; you can kind of see the veins and whatnot.  Holy moly, y'all.  This happened.  Not only is there Zima in this scene, there is Zima AND visible cock.

You never saw that on Star Trek.  Don't you kind of wish you had?  Not really, but just kind of...?

The alien figures out what's up when he catches Londo straining for unknown reasons and then sees the tentacle struggling to get free, and thus is a bar fight begun.  Londo gets decked.

Lennier springs into unexpected action, leaping into the air and doing roundhouse kicks like he's Space Van Damme or something.

I could have lived without Mumy's hand business.  But I'll be seeing it for years to come.  Ay yi yi.

The two appear, chastened and bruised, before Sinclair.  Lennier seizes all the blame for himself, much to Londo's surprise (and Sinclair's evident disbelief).

Londo explains as much of the tentacle business as 1994 censors will allow, mostly by pointing out that this statue of the Centauri Goddess of Passion represents Li as a hermaphrodite, possessing both male and female attributes.  He doesn't quiiiiiiite spell it out, but you'd have to be a real dunce to miss the point.  And if I'm not mistaken, you can just kind of see the female equivalent, uh, slots that the tentacles would, uh, intersect with.  I think you can just barely see them on Li's back.

What a weird subplot.

Babylon 5, y'all.

Bryant's rating:  *** 1/2 / *****

That's right -- I'm saying this is one of the best episodes of the season.  In some ways, I think it may be the best-produced episode of the season; the story lacks the gravitas and import of "Sigs and Portents," "Babylon Squared," and "Chrysalis," but apart from that, I think it is a better-made hour of television than all three.

Speaking of "Chrysalis," that's the season finale, and it's our next episode.  But we're not going to get to it for a while.  Inexplicably, it aired about nine weeks after "The Quality of Mercy," and since my rewatch project is working in tandem with my Deep Space Nine rewatch, I've got to get through the first five episodes of that show's third season before "Chrysalis" rolls around.  And THAT will have to wait for the Mission Log podcast.

See you in a few weeks!

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