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This amazing episode is simultaneously excellent and tragic. It's like watching a car accident in slow motion: you can see what's coming, but there's no way to stop the wreck. This episode is a turning point that sets the course for major events throughout the rest of the series.
The Centauri emperor is going to visit B5, over G'Kar's vehement protests. Sheridan tries to convince G'Kar that the visit is an opportunity for G'Kar to negotiate directly with the Emperor, but G'Kar considers the Emperor to be nothing more than a war criminal, even though all of his "crimes" were committed by his predecessors, not himself.
Londo is preparing for the Emperor's visit with his crony, Lord Refa. Refa has been organizing their political allies to win favor with the nobles and the people so that when the frail emperor dies, they can step into position and put their own emperor into power. Refa has prepared a speech for Londo to give during his audience with the Emperor that will get the Centauri people fired up. Both Vir and Londo are uncomfortable with Refa's blatant manipulations, but Londo goes along.
We see G'Kar also preparing for the Emperor's visit: he has received approval from the Narn government to assassinate the Emperor at the dinner reception. G'Kar knows that he is sacrificing himself, since he will either be dead or imprisoned for life when he is finished, but he feels that it is worth it.
The Emperor is received aboard the station, and the aura of power around him, despite is age and frailty, is palpable. The command staff visibly stand up straighter at his compliments. After Sheridan gives him a tour of the station, the Emperor asks if Sheridan chose to be there: Sheridan says yes, he wanted to serve something bigger than himself, so he joined Earth Force. The Emperor muses that he has never really chosen anything for himself, but he has always followed the path laid out for him and the expectations of his people. We can see that the Emperor has many regrets for what he could have accomplished, and now that he's reached the end of his life, he's taking stock of what he has done. The dialog in this scene is amazing, particularly the Emperor's line to the effect of "The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us, and our lives slip away moment by moment..." He may be old, but he's seeing things much more clearly than anyone else - perhaps one needs that perspective of age and experience? He does assert that he has just enough time left to make a difference.
At the reception, the command staff and huge numbers of guests await the arrival of the Emperor. G'Kar hesitantly walks in, and Sheridan compliments him on taking the opportunity to meet the Emperor. Of course, we know G'Kar's intentions. Despite his previous assertions, he seems to be having a hard time handling it, as he avoids Delenn assiduously - we all know that Delenn sees right to the heart of everyone. But G'Kar's plan is foiled - the Emperor collapses on his way to the reception. I appreciated Dr. Franklin's professional and calm manner of leaving the reception to reply to the call for assistance without alerting or panicking anyone.
The Emperor is not dead yet, but is in very critical condition in medlab. He persuades Franklin to personally deliver a message for him. The message is to G'Kar. In some wonderful black comedy, G'Kar is furious that the Emperor had the gall to collapse before G'Kar had the chance to kill him. The message? An apology from the Emperor to the Narn ambassador for all of the hurt the Centauri did to the Narn. That was the primary reason for the Emperor's visit. G'Kar is not so shallow or vengeful that he doesn't realize the significance of the Emperor's message. He's completely taken aback, and realizes that there may really be a chance for peace between the Narn and the Centauri. He sees this as a revelation that there really can be some good in a Centauri.
But while G'Kar is having this revelation, Lord Refa is in a frenzy of political maneuvering, since the Emperor was rude enough to collapse before Londo could give his magnificent speech. Refa believes that their competitors are ready to seize power as soon as the Emperor dies, and he apparently thinks they'll succeed. Londo is caught up in Refa's worry, and remembers that in "Revelations" Mr. Morden said he could pick a target and Morden's associates would eliminate it. Londo says that they (meaning Londo and Refa's faction) will publicly take back an outpost seized by the Narns years ago, and that they believe the Narn use for spying. Refa likes the idea, but says they don't have the forces. Londo brushes him off and tells him just to arrange for a few ships to go to the Narn outpost.
When Refa leaves, Londo orders Vir to find Morden. For once, Vir tries to deny Londo and convince him to re-think his decision. Londo tells him he knows exactly what he's doing: starting a war with the Narn. But does Londo really understand what's going on? The consequences of a war with the Narn will certainly be horrific enough to stain Londo's conscience for the rest of his life. But why does he believe that Morden's associates will be content to continue to do what he asks and nothing more? Their technology is so superior that fighting the Narn will be child's play for them. What if they want more: power or territory or subjects? Londo is playing with some extremely dangerous fire, and I'm not sure he truly realizes that at this point.
And what is Londo doing all this for? As he tells Vir, he has limited political ambitions, because he knows the limitations and problems with being Emperor. What are Londo's and Refa's "competitors" like? Do they espouse very different political views? Or is this purely a squabble to see which houses end up with the most power once the Emperor dies, and Londo wants to make sure his house ends up at the top? Just what is that worth to Londo? And what will everyone else have to pay for it?
While he is waiting for events to unfold, Londo has another prophetic dream. Way back at the beginning of the first season in "Midnight on the Firing Line", Londo told Sinclair that he knew how he was going to die because he saw it in a dream: he and G'Kar as old men, choking each other to death. In this dream, we get an image of a hand reaching out from a star, which seems a vivid recreation of Elric's vision of Londo dooming billions of people (from earlier this season in "The Geometry of Shadows"). Then we see Londo standing on the surface of a planet, watching Shadow ships streaking by overhead. Finally, we see Londo as an old man in the regalia of the Emperor, and it's then that he and G'Kar choke each other to death. G'Kar is missing an eye.
When Londo awakes from this dream, he seems like he might be re-thinking his decision to ask for Morden's help. But when he looks at the time, he realizes it is too late. We get to watch the Shadows destroy the Narn outpost with ease. Once they are done, Centauri ships arrive on the scene to take control. Narn ships arrive (presumably in response to a distress call), see the Centauri ships, and immediately attack on the assumption that the Centauri have caused the devastation. It's no use, as the world is firmly under Centauri control, and they have numerous prisoners.
On B5, Londo remarks to Refa that the Narns will be learning of the attack any time now. Refa leaves to take care of a bit of business that he is careful not to tell Londo about: assassinating the prime minister, a good friend and supporter of the Emperor. Although Refa and Londo may be allies, Refa clearly has no problems doing things behind Londo's back that he thinks are necessary or beneficial to him.
Londo is confronted by G'Kar, in another blackly humorous scene. Londo thinks G'Kar is going to be enraged over the attack, but G'Kar is still elated over the Emperor's apology. He wants to buy Londo a drink! The stunned look on Londo's face tells us all that we need to know: he's realizing that there really had been a possibility of reconciliation with the Narn, but that chance has been destroyed, even if G'Kar doesn't know it yet.
Earlier in the episode, we had seen a man in brown board the station and then begin following Garibaldi. Garibaldi isn't head of security for nothing, and he quickly noticed the man and had him thrown in the brig before the Emperor's reception. The man has been asking repeatedly to speak with Garibaldi privately, and Garibaldi finally relents.
The man is a Ranger, and he brings Garibaldi a message crystal from Sinclair, ambassador to the Minbari on Minbar. Sinclair says that the Rangers work for him gathering information for the coming darkness that some of the Minbari have been preparing for. He asks Garibaldi to help the Rangers when they pass through the station, and to keep their existence a secret for now. Sinclair is definitely taking a more Minbari attitude, as he says that "where you see the Rangers, you see me". Garibaldi agrees to help out the Rangers, but only if they also pass along relevant information to him when they pass through.
G'Kar is informed by his government about the Centauri attack on the colony. Unsurprisingly, he is enraged and storms toward Londo's quarter, taking out anyone getting in his way. Sheridan and some security guards finally block his path. G'Kar begs for Sheridan to let him through, saying that it's all happening again between his people and the Centauri. Sheridan tells him to get himself under control so that he can continue to represent his people on B5 and hopefully do some good. G'Kar's anger burns out enough so that his good sense can take over, and he returns to his quarters.
This scene is a great reversal of the one in last season's "Midnight on the Firing Line", when the Narn had attacked the Centauri, and Londo was headed for G'Kar's quarters intent on murder. "The wheel turns" indeed, to quote G'Kar from that episode. The repetition here is completely natural - of course G'Kar would want revenge on Londo. But it also emphasizes just how much bad blood and history there is between the Narn and Centauri, and how it may be impossible for them to ever reconcile.
In medlab, the Emperor is fading. He repeats his wish to see a Vorlon, which he never has. Lo and behold, Kosh shows up. The Emperor asks, "How will this end?" Kosh replies, "In fire." Oddly, this seems to satisfy the Emperor - maybe he's just happy to have seen a Vorlon and that the Vorlon seems to be as all-knowing as their reputation might imply. The end the Emperor was asking about is probably the end to the bad relations between the Centauri and the Narn, but is that what Kosh was answering about? Why did Kosh deign to visit the Emperor at all? In previous episodes, such as "Midnight on the Firing Line", Kosh seems to have been dismissive of both the Narn and Centauri, so why would he care about what happens to them?
Later, Refa joyfully informs the Emperor of their successful attack, saying that the homeworld is rejoicing. The Emperor wants to reply, but waves Refa away and whispers in Londo's ear instead. Then he dies. Londo reports that the Emperor's words were a blessing of their efforts. But when he and Refa are alone, he says that the Emperor declared that they were both damned.
Why did the Emperor choose to speak to Londo? I can only think that the Emperor is much more politically savvy than the others realized, and he knew from Londo and Refa's past actions that Londo was most likely the power behind the attack. A small tragedy in this episode is that the Emperor lived just long enough to see not only his dream of reconciliation with the Narn die, but be savagely cut down.
Another interesting question about this scene is why Londo lied about what the Emperor said. As far as we could tell, only he, Refa, and two of the Emperor's companion telepaths were present (besides human medical personnel, who were not paying attention). He told Refa the truth. Wouldn't the telepaths have also known the true words? We know they communicate with their companions remaining on Centauri Prime. Perhaps they don't actually scan the Emperor, but just report what they see and here, so Londo was lying for the benefit of the royal court back home.
Garibaldi relays his first bit of information from the Rangers to Sheridan: there's another major race that has been involving themselves in events recently, and they seem to be connected to the Centauri. Sheridan, Garibaldi, and Ivanova speculate that this other races was the real strength behind the Centauri attack, and that the Centauri aren't likely to want to reveal that. This gives Sheridan an idea to help G'Kar and the Narn prisoners.
Sheridan calls a Council meeting, and asks Londo what will happen to the Narn civilians that were captured. Londo says they'll be put to useful employment within the Centauri Republic. Sheridan plays his bluff: he says that Earth Alliance has given permission for neutral observers to visit the captured colony to check on the treatment of the prisoners. Londo says they are not welcome, but Sheridan says they'll be going anyway, and will also be looking for the means with which the Centauri succeeded in their attack so quickly. Londo relents and suggests his government is likely to agree to release the prisoners, so that there's no need for observers. This is obviously good news to G'Kar, but he solemnly announces that the Narn regime has declared war on the Centauri Republic.
The events in this episode have completely altered the political situation in the series. The Narn are obviously outraged at the attack, but I don't really think too many of them are upset to be at war with the Centauri. Given their forced military and technological build-up so far in the series, they probably think that they can win the war. However, they don't know that the Shadows are backing the Centauri. How much longer can the Shadows continue to keep their presence secret?
Since we know about the Shadow influence on the Centauri, we know just how tragic it is that the peace between the Centauri and Narn has slipped away. The violence between them is likely to spread to the other species, causing instability in the entire region. If the Centauri do win the war, are they going to be satisfied with that?