Episode Review of Babylon 5 Season 4: "Intersections in Real Time"

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Episode Information

Title: "Intersections in Real Time"
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Director: John LaFia
Rating (out of 4 stars): ****
Reviewed on: February 12, 2010

Synopsis from The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5


Sheridan is tortured to obtain his cooperation with President Clark.

This episode is a masterful display of manipulation. Sheridan is manipulated physically, psychologically, and with information in order to get him to "break" and confess his "crimes" against Clark's government.

As the episode begins, Sheridan is lying in a rather large cell, obviously having been beaten up. The interrogator arrives and begins asking Sheridan questions like "Do you have any allergies or illnesses I should be aware of?" When Sheridan fails to respond, the interrogator warns him that he will be punished if he doesn't cooperate. Sheridan wearily gets to his feet and rushes the interrogator, but when he gets close, he is shocked by pain-givers (we first saw these in season one in "The Parliament of Dreams"). The interrogator chides Sheridan, saying that he is there to do his job - get Sheridan to cooperate - and nothing more. The interrogator summons some minions to force Sheridan into a chair, where he is shackled. Then the interrogator says there's no reason Sheridan can't answer such benign questions, so Sheridan finally does.

And so the manipulation begins. The interrogator starts out by appearing as a reasonable person, just doing his job. He even seems to be on Sheridan's side, asking after Sheridan's health (which also implies more drastic techniques that might be used later).

The interrogator leaves and returns sometime later. He comments that it's morning, which Sheridan denies, since it had appeared to be light outside earlier, but now it's not. The interrogator demonstrates his complete control of Sheridan's environment by showing the light in the hall that was turned on and then off...no outside light involved.

The interrogator looks through his files, and comments that no one thought Sheridan was political, and Sheridan agrees. Thus, the interrogator says, Sheridan must have been influenced by others, which caused him to take such drastic action against his own government. Sheridan denies this, to which the interrogator takes the reasonable position that everyone is influenced by others - it's just part of being alive. We and Sheridan know that the influence of others is a question of degree and he certainly doesn't feel that he was not controlling his own actions, but he doesn't want to agree with the interrogator in any way. After all, he knows that if he starts agreeing with the interrogator on things that seem reasonable, his agreement could unintentionally escalate into things he didn't mean to agree to.

The interrogator had started eating a sandwich for lunch, and he offers Sheridan half of it, since he hasn't eaten in at least two days. But, Sheridan can only have half if he agrees that it's lunch time - despite the interrogator shortly before having asserted it was morning. The interrogator is explicitly making the point that truth is what people decide it to be... and Sheridan decides that it must be lunchtime somewhere. Sheridan gobbles down the sandwich, and the interrogator begins making a hasty retreat. He says that he has over time ingested small amounts of poison to build up an immunity, so the sandwich won't affect him, but it will affect Sheridan. Not to kill him, just to weaken him.

We get the lovely implication of Sheridan overcome by food poisoning. Anyone who's had a case of food poisoning knows very well how it wipes you out both mentally and physically. When the interrogator returns, Sheridan has been "cleaned up" and looks horrible, lying on the floor. The interrogator gives him some water. Sheridan slowly returns to the chair, where he is shackled again.

The interrogator begins with some relatively simple questions, asking if Ivanova is still Sheridan's second-in-command, and other related things. Then the interrogator just drops into the conversation: Sheridan's father sends his regards. According to the interrogator, Sheridan's father is being held in a nearby facility, and Sheridan's interrogator ran into the father's interrogator and had a brief chat. Sheridan's interrogator speculates that they will only hold his father for as long as they hold Sheridan, and they'll let Sheridan go as soon as he cooperates. Ah, the carrot.

Incredibly, Sheridan seems to accept the information about his father as truthful. I hope that was just for appearances, because I can't imagine why the interrogator would willingly volunteer information on Sheridan's father. Of course he said it - perhaps even manufactured it - just to coerce Sheridan a little more. Sheridan even thanks him for the information!

Then the interrogator takes a harder line, producing Sheridan's confession: he need only sign it. In the confession, Sheridan pleads guilty to treason, mutiny, terrorism, conspiracy to overthrow the government, and the murder of the crew of the Roanoke (last season in "Severed Dreams"), among other charges. Sheridan indignantly denies all charges and refuses to sign. He demands his rights, including an attorney and a military tribunal. The interrogator brings him up short, saying that in this place he has no rights, and there is no justice, no mercy, no fairness, and no hope here. He storms out, leaving Sheridan shackled in the chair.

Sometime later, the interrogator returns, along with guards that bring in a Drazi prisoner. The Drazi begins making a confession (which the interrogator dutifully records electronically) about being one of the aliens who influenced Sheridan and caused him to go against Earthgov. Sheridan begs the Drazi to stop cooperating with the interrogator, but the interrogator says that once the Drazi cooperates, he'll be freed. Sheridan protests that the Drazi is letting the bad guys win. He expounds on his experience with how strong the Drazi are, and he begs the Drazi not to let the interrogator win - each time the Drazi refuses to cooperate, it's a victory. He says right out that as long as the Drazi refuses to cooperate, they need him, but once he cooperates, he's expendable.

The Drazi straightens up and refuses to cooperate any further. The interrogator asks him if he realizes this is his "very last chance", and the Drazi confirms. The interrogator summons guards, who strap the Drazi to a gurney and whisk him off to "Room 17". The interrogator tells Sheridan that everyone is expendable - except for Sheridan, at the moment. The lights in the room brown out and a horrible scream is heard - implying the death of the Drazi.

This whole scene is excellent. Sheridan might not have told the interrogator his mental plan to refuse to cooperate, but Sheridan eagerly shared it with the Drazi, whom he perceived to be in the same situation. Sheridan's whole plan is to refuse at every step, since they can only hurt his body - a "shell" - and not his heart. Sheridan naturally fell into the role of a leader, assuring the Drazi that if he followed Sheridan's footsteps, he'd be OK. The interrogator yanked out that basis for Sheridan's mental defense by having the Drazi executed. If Sheridan's premise that refusing to cooperate would make him valuable, then what else might Sheridan have wrong?

The interrogator explains one item that might actually be true: his superiors want Sheridan honestly broken so that he can go out into the public, and if he is scanned, his cooperation is honest. This does make some sense, and it explains why so much time is being spent on Sheridan here. After all, they've been pretty gentle on him and haven't used much physical torture - all the better to keep up his appearance for the public. It also explains why the interrogator hasn't yet tried to find out any of Sheridan's military secrets in regard to the campaign against Earth. A broken Sheridan would be a coup for President Clark: the rehabilitated war hero who's very, very sorry for the trouble he's caused the Earth Alliance. Something like that might cause the campaign against Earth to just fall apart.

The interrogator leaves Sheridan for some indeterminate period of time, forcing him to listen to a recording of how he should confess. When the interrogator returns, he again offers Sheridan "his" confession. He says that Sheridan will be free, once he confesses. Trying to give the appearance of honesty and friendship, he "admits" that yes, Clark's forces will kill him eventually, but it won't be until all the publicity wears off... and until then, he'll be free. What a deal!

Sheridan is really starting to look bad. He had the food poisoning, and we saw him get some food intravenously, but the rigors of the incarceration are getting to him. Does he seriously think about cooperating? It's not clear, but suddenly he sees a vision of Delenn standing behind the interrogator. This vision is so surprising and out of place initially, that it really drives home how far gone Sheridan is. This almost always makes me lose it when I watch this episode (and crying while running on a treadmill is no fun, believe me!). Sheridan's face softens a bit with a smile - I was surprised the interrogator didn't notice this. Delenn would never want Sheridan to surrender... and so Sheridan spits on the confession. The interrogator looks horrified, and says Sheridan's fate is out of his hands now. He leaves in a rush.

The interrogator returns and has to prod Sheridan awake. He said that previously his superiors wanted Sheridan alive and broken so that he could appear publicly. But now, his superiors are considering another option: a posthumous confession, constructed from images and audio of Sheridan that they have on file. He admits that it wouldn't be as believable, but if Sheridan continues to refuse to cooperate, they might decide that the posthumous confession will be sufficient.

The interrogator is trying to remove Sheridan's foundational knowledge that he's too important to be killed. Instead, Sheridan seems to have become more fatalistic, and he counters with the comment that he's been thinking about the statement that "You can't fight the system." Sheridan says that a person can fight the system, as long as one person refuses to break. He wins every time he says, "No.".

The interrogator steps away and takes on a formal stance, asking if Sheridan will confess. Sheridan refuses. The interrogator asks if Sheridan realizes this is his "very last chance", but Sheridan refuses to respond as the guards strap him down onto a gurney. The interrogator orders him to be taken to "Room 17". Sheridan is rushed down a dramatically-lit hallway, with a priest rushing alongside, giving him the last rites. Sheridan looks up and sees a vision of Delenn waiting for him.

Sheridan is wheeled into a room and unstrapped, and then the guards leave. A masked and gloved person is waiting, presumably the executioner, but then he just leaves. Another set of guards enter and move him to a chair, and then set up a table just like the one in the room he just left. Another interrogator enters the room and begins asking the same questions the first interrogator did initially. A figure behind the interrogator steps forward, and we see that it's the Drazi. The Drazi gives Sheridan a snarky nod and leaves. Sheridan is stunned. The new interrogator keeps repeating his questions, and the episode fades out.

The end of the episode is simultaneously a victory and a defeat. The build up to Sheridan being sent to "Room 17" is excellent, with the interrogator taking such a solemn tone in pronouncing it Sheridan's very last chance. The last rites were a nice touch. Clearly the first interrogator was hoping that the scare of Sheridan's impending death would finally get him to cooperate. It didn't work, so that's a victory for Sheridan.

But when the whole interrogation process starts over again, we can see how it must seem to Sheridan as if the torture is never going to end. Yes, he's won for now, and maybe he can have some confidence that they aren't really going to kill him, but he's going to have to go through the interrogations over and over again. They could conceivably wear him down. Can he continue to resist?

The ending of the episode also showcases the absolute control the interrogators have over Sheridan and his environment. They revealed to him that the previous conversation with the Drazi was all a set-up and that the Drazi wasn't a prisoner at all. This underlines how Sheridan can't believe a single thing about his environment or what he is told. One has to wonder what new tricks they will come up with.

I also have to wonder who was really behind Sheridan's interrogation. Sheridan seems too important, and the first interrogator too low-level for the first interrogator to have been calling the shots for real. I have to think that someone higher-level was running Sheridan's interrogation, deciding what new tactics the "front man" interrogator should take.

Assuming that Sheridan is rescued somehow and his campaign to re-take Earth is successful, will he do anything about these kinds of interrogation operations? Does he view them as a necessary evil and understand the goal? What does he think about people such as the interrogator, who are supposedly just doing a job? How would such a job affect the one doing it? Is the interrogator a good husband and father? It's hard to believe the he wouldn't carry the traits of psychological and emotional manipulation over into his "real" life. In an extreme case, this reminds me of a recent event in the news: a soldier who "waterboarded" his 4-year-old daughter after she couldn't recite the alphabet. It's not known yet if this soldier was involved in waterboarding of prisoners overseas, but it's not hard to believe that would be the case. These issues are still very relevant - 13 years after the episode originally aired - as President Obama contemplates shutting the prison at Guantanamo Bay and deals with the exposure of the torture perpetrated by underlings of President G.W. Bush.

This episode has been described by JMS as "two guys in a room", which is a pretty good description. We don't get any scenes other than those involving Sheridan's torture. The lack of information on the other characters and plots in the series mirrors Sheridan's lack of information of what is happening in the outside world.

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