Episode Review of Babylon 5 Season 1: "The Quality of Mercy"

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Episode Information

Title: "The Quality of Mercy"
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Director: Lorraine Senna Ferrara
Rating (out of 4 stars): ***
Reviewed on: March 17, 2009

Synopsis from The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5


A psychopathic murderer is sentenced to "death" on B5 and escapes.

The Ombudsman of B5 (the same one as in "Grail" - I give him a lot of credit for sticking around!) finds Karl Edward Mueller guilty of murdering two residents of the station, along with a security guard. The Ombudsman declares that the sentence will be pronounced the next day.

The Ombudsman, Sinclair, Garibaldi, and Talia confer privately about the sentence. Garibaldi is certain Mueller has killed many more people than just the three they know about, and is in favor of throwing Mueller out an airlock. However, the death sentence is only allowed for mutiny or treason. The only options are to put Mueller into prison for life, either on B5 or somewhere in the Earth Alliance, or sentence him to "death of personality".

Since there is no money to send Mueller to a prison, the death of personality is the only option. Mueller's mind, memories, and personality will be "erased" with a medical device, and then a new personality devoted to serving the community will be implanted. The idea is that the new personality will do more good to society than Mueller's personality did harm. The catch is that Talia must scan Mueller's mind before and after the brain wipe to ensure that the wipe was successful. Talia is very unhappy at the thought of entering the mind of a serial killer - we know she did it once before (as described in "Deathwalker"), and it was terrifying to her. However, she doesn't really have any choice but to agree. When the Ombudsman pronounces the sentence in court, Mueller breaks into a psychotic rage, screaming that everyone on the station is going to die.

Meanwhile, we learn that Dr. Franklin has been running an unauthorized medical practice in downbelow, giving free medical care to the lurkers who cannot afford conventional care. Ivanova visits him to chide him about breaking regulations - she doesn't mind that so much, because it's for a worthy cause, but she does mind him trying to do it without her knowing.

Franklin has been hearing about a quack doctor who has also been running a practice in downbelow; when Franklin's "business" drops off too much, he searches out the quack. The quack turns out to be an elderly woman named Laura Rosen, who has some kind of alien device that she claims heals other people. Franklin questions her closely, but is interrupted by Laura's fiercely protective daughter, Janice, who kicks Franklin out.

Franklin asks Garibaldi to find out what he can about Laura Rosen. Franklin finds Janice Rosen working on the zocalo and asks about her mother. Laura Rosen used to be a medical doctor, but she tried to work too hard and got addicted to stims as a way of keeping up. Her addiction got too bad, and she made an error that caused someone to die. Her medical license was revoked, and she began searching for some alien healing device that she could take back to Earth to "redeem" herself. Franklin points out that know Laura seems to have such a device and that even though they have enough money to go to Earth, they haven't. Janice says that her mother is old and doesn't have much time left, so she just wants her to stay here and heal people and be happy. Janice claims that Laura is not hurting anyone - which Franklin rightly corrects by saying that if Laura is preventing someone from getting proper medical care, then she is hurting someone.

Franklin also does some follow-up tests on patients that Laura claims to have healed. Once he has this information and Garibaldi's information, he returns to talk to Laura, surreptitiously monitoring her life signs while she conducts a "treatment". He admits to Laura that he's astounded - the alien device really does appear to work.

Laura says she's studied it for a couple years, but still hasn't figured it all out. From what she can tell, it was originally used as a form of capital punishment: the life "energy" was taken from a person convicted of death and transferred to a terminally ill patient so that the criminal died and the patient was cured. However, Laura says that the device can be used at a lower intensity so that less serious afflictions can be ameliorated or cured without harming the donor of the life energy. She also reveals the fact that she has Lake's Syndrome, so she only has a few more years to live herself. Franklin agrees to allow Laura to continue her work, as long as he can monitor her health.

Talia arrives do scan Mueller before the brain wipe. Mueller doesn't quite have the same level of scary vibe as Hannibal Lector, but he does exude an effect sense of evil. He makes some comments that successfully make Talia even more uncomfortable. When Talia scans him, his thoughts tell her that he has to kill enough people to make a choir to sing him into heaven, and reveals all the dozens of people that he has killed. Talia breaks out of the scan and stumbles out of the room in horror.

Later, Garibaldi finds Talia to confirm that the scan is done and the brain wipe can proceed. Talia is still shaken about the scan, and muses to Garibaldi about the "terrible things inside us". This is one of the best incidental lines forewarning us about both Talia and Garibaldi's fates, in seasons 2 and 4, respectively.

Garibaldi and a security team escort Mueller to medlab for the brain wipe. Because of a dumb incident with a transport tube, Mueller manages to steal a gun and flee, but is injured by a shot from Garibaldi. When Franklin treats one of the security guards that is injured, he realizes that Mueller will need medical care, but isn't dumb enough to go to medlab, which means his only option is Laura Rosen. He tells the guard to get Garibaldi to go to Rosen's operation, and heads down there himself.

When Franklin arrives at Laura's section of downbelow, he finds Laura treating Mueller, while Mueller holds a gun to Janice. Even though the treatment is distracting to Mueller, he still manages a warning shot at Franklin. Laura realizes that despite Mueller's promises, he isn't likely to let any of them live, and so she turns the healing device up to full power. Mueller temporarily feels Laura's condition - Lake's Syndrome - before the device drains the life out of him. Laura is completely healed.

In court, the Ombudsman rules that Laura acted in self-defense, but orders her to surrender the alien healing device to Franklin. Laura feels horribly guilty for having killed a person, even a serial killer. She has decided to being traveling again, looking for more alien technology that can be used for good, especially now that she has many more years of life ahead of her.

A third plot that ran throughout the episode concerned Londo "improving" relations between himself and Lennier. Noting Lennier's naivete, Londo decides to broaden his experiences while Delenn is off-station. First, Londo takes Lennier to a strip club, conveniently forgetting to bring his own credit card. Apparently aliens can find naked females of other species very attractive, as both Londo and Lennier are entranced by what appears to be a human female dancer.

Londo discovers that Lennier specialized in probability while in school and promptly takes him to learn poker in the Dark Star club (last seen in "Born to the Purple"). Lennier wins many hands easily, providing a distraction while Londo cheats. Londo uses a tentacle-like appendage to reach under the table and take cards off the deck. He is eventually caught cheating, and he and Lennier get into a fist fight with the other patrons of the club.

Security stops the fight and brings Londo and Lennier to Sinclair. Sinclair can hardly believe his eyes at the two beat-up diplomats, which do make a funny picture. Londo can't come up with a good story for Sinclair, so Lennier takes all the blame for the incident. Later Lennier tells Londo that Minbaris find honor in saving face for another. Upon Lennier's inquiry, Londo explains that the appendage that he used to cheat was part of his sexual organs, as shown on a Centauri statue (which we saw before in "The Parliament of Dreams") - Lennier is stunned at this, and takes a vow of silence to not speak of it again.

This episode is among the most thought-provoking for me because of the different ethical issues it raises. First, there is the issue of Mueller's sentence. Apparently by the time B5 exists, humanity has decided that capital punishment is either morally wrong, or simply ineffective as a deterrent. If it's considered to be morally wrong to kill a person, how is the brain wipe any different? Yes, the body of the person still lives, but the personality and memories of the person (do these constitute the soul?) is destroyed. That person is for all intents and purposes dead, and now the body of the person is going to be "used" by implanting a new personality in it.

It's only stated briefly in this episode what this new person will do - serve society. (We will learn about this in more detail in season 3.) This is a very interesting proposition. There is a nice symmetry to the idea of the body of someone who has done horrible things now being used to help society. However, the original person hasn't shown remorse or decided to serve society - the original person no longer exists. So, yes, society can get some good out of the new person, but this punishment in no way rehabilitates the original offender.

A bonus of this punishment is that the new person is not a criminal, so doesn't need to be guarded or imprisoned, which certainly relieves society of that burden. For this reason and the benefits of the person's service, this seems to be a punishment beneficial for society. As a deterrent, it seems like it wouldn't be any worse than the contemporary death penalty - the criminal is dead. It's nice to see that the characters on the show have moral qualms about this punishment, as shown by some of the interplay between Garibaldi and Franklin, but it's not preached about.

One of the main detractions of the death penalty today (in my opinion) is that it's possible for an innocent person to be falsely convicted and executed. The US justice system goes to great lengths to ensure that this doesn't happen, but certainly it has. With the death of personality punishment in the episode, I wonder if it's possible to store the original personality so that it could be restored in the case of wrongful conviction? Of course, if the person's innocence is found out after the "new person" has developed in the body for several years, is it morally correct to destroy the new person in favor of restoring the original person? This is a whole other can of worms.

We also learn in the episode that anything a telepath sees incidentally in a person's mind is not admissible in court. However, telepaths are used in business negotiations to verify the intentions of the participants. Are telepaths used in the justice system to verify the truthfulness of statements by witnesses at trial? This would make a guilty or innocent verdict easier to decide.

The second big ethical dilemma the episode deals with is the existence and use of Laura Rosen's alien healing device. Frankly, I find the idea of using the device for its original intent of capital punishment to save dying people to be ingenious and very satisfying. Assuming, of course, that the criminal was guilty beyond all doubt, this seems to be the ultimate form of justice. No, it can't bring back the people that the criminal killed, but it can save at least one life.

For me, the shades of gray when using the device are when it's not used to kill the donor. Laura Rosen used it at a lower intensity to give part of her life energy to heal other people. How does this work? If Laura gives away some of her life energy, is she shortening her life? Or can she regenerate what she gave away if she takes some time off? This seems to be what the episode implied was happening, although we don't know for sure. I feel like this makes some intuitive sense, since it's like other types of exertion: many people would die if they had to run a marathon right now all at once, but everyone could run that distance if they could break it up into small amounts and rest in between.

How much can be cured when the device is used at this lower level? A cold? Arthritis? High blood pressure? Multiple sclerosis? Alzheimer's? Cancer? Could you cure someone of cancer if you gave them multiple sessions at the low level? Does the device work on diseases of the brain (Alzheimer's, autism) as well as more traditional ailments?

If devices like this came into common use, I see all kinds of ethical dilemmas. Suppose a dying child's mother wants to sacrifice her life to save the child? Or a husband save his wife's life? Who decides if this is acceptable?

Franklin's off-hand idea of storing up small amounts of "life energy" from many donors is fascinating, although we have no idea if it's at all plausible. Even so, it's a wonderful thought. I know that we will see this device again in season 2 and 4, but I really think it should have been more intensely researched, given its enormous potential.

The handling of the plots around these issues varied, in my opinion. The Mueller plot was done very nicely; as I said, I thought Mueller was very nicely creepy, and Talia's fear and discomfort was portrayed very well. Mueller's escape was kind of dumb, but not as bad as it could have been. For a psycho that has been convicted of killing three people and suspected of killing many more, I really would've thought they'd virtually smother him with guards.

The plot involving Laura Rosen was more so-so. I applauded Franklin for pursuing someone he thought was a quack. However, when it turned out that Laura Rosen was legitimate and a colleague, I thought his turn-around in attitude was just a little too abrupt. Asking her daughter to dinner right away? Come on. The story of Laura Rosen's stim addiction nicely set the stage for Franklin's own problems later in the series - too bad he didn't take that story more to heart.

The third plot involving Londo and Lennier was pretty funny, since the two characters really couldn't be more opposite. They both get some excellent lines while playing things completely straight. We also get a softer look at Londo, who just wants to drink and gamble on someone else's dime - too bad for him that he's on a path for much more serious issues. The only real detraction to this plot is that it seemed too much the humor relief for the seriousness of the other plotlines, which was sometimes jarring.

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