Babylon 5 redux (season 3 spoilers)

Oh my. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Brother Theo, the Franciscan monk who appeared in a few of the earlier episodes in Season 3 of Babylon 5. But tonight the wife and I watched ‘And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place’, the third-to-last episode of this season, and wow, religion is all over this one. Plus it has an intriguing, provocative, subversive element that gets me thinking — cracks open my consciousness, I am tempted to say — in a manner not unlike Jesus’ parables.

It was nice to see yet another basically decent and positive religious figure, in the person of Baptist minister Will Dexter. (The Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist colleagues who arrive with him seem like good chaps too, but they get almost no screen time.) I liked the good-natured inter-denominational ribbing between Dexter and Brother Theo, and the warmth of Dexter’s attempt to offer Sheridan some informal counselling. But the truly memorable thing about this episode is, of course, the cross-cutting between the assassination of Refa and the religious service that climaxes with a rousing rendition of the episode’s title song.

First of all, I was really impressed by the way Londo Mollari had plotted the whole thing out. And I started to giggle at the way smug old Refa had had the rug pulled out from under him — not unlike how I had started to giggle when Sheridan trapped those smug Night Watch stooges earlier this season.

But then I realized that, in the sermon scenes that alternated with the assassination scenes, Dexter was preaching about how our true enemy is fear and hate; and I wondered if G’Kar was giving in to this enemy, and if I were somehow complicit in this moral failure on G’Kar’s part because I had exulted at the thought of Refa’s death. Come to that, given that G’Kar is basically assisting Mollari’s own plans for revenge — and given that Mollari’s own moral standing is itself rather compromised — I had to wonder if both G’Kar and I were somehow complicit in Mollari’s evil, G’Kar through co-operation and me through celebration.

And then things got even stranger, as the gospel number kicked in and a vocalist began singing so joyfully about how people won’t be able to hide on Judgment Day. My wife noted that Delenn seemed a bit mystified by how humans could sound so cheerful while singing about something so grim. And this mystification, if you will, is enhanced by the cross-cutting, in which we see Refa running for his life and being beaten to death while the song plays over the soundtrack. As noted here, there is even a close-up on G’Kar’s face when the singer refers to Jesus. Suddenly, G’Kar no longer seems like the one who has given in to the enemy of fear and hate; suddenly, it is as though he is being cast in the light of a righteous avenger. And you can clap your hands to it.

This is profoundly interesting stuff; like certain parables, it teases the mind into active thought. How do we distinguish between justice and revenge? Is it ever appropriate to celebrate the demise of another? Even if it’s for the wrong reasons? There is certainly a precedent for this impulse in, say, the Bible, e.g. Psalm 58:

The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then men will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

But I am still suspicious of this impulse whenever it rears its ugly head. And I am intrigued by the questions raised on this point by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence in their discussion of disaster movies in The Myth of the American Superhero, in which they coin the term “Tertullian ecstasy” to describe those who embrace what you might call righteous schadenfraud:

What does the retelling of such tales of violent and bloody cleansings reveal about the state of a culture? What are the outlooks and motivations of those who enjoy moralized suffering and bloody redemption? What is the relationship of such themes to a discomfort with the facts of human sexuality that threads through these artifacts?

In reflecting on these elusive questions, our attention fell upon the early church father Tertullian. In a well-known passage, he argued that the spectator pleasures offered by the Christian faith are immeasurably superior to popular Roman diversions. The faithful are promised the opportunity to witness the eternal suffering of sinful pagans. When the day of judgment comes, the Roman poets, tragedians, philosophers, charioteers, and wrestlers would be seen with flames billowing around their agonized bodies. Tertullian poses the following to his readers:

What quaestor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favor of seeing and exulting in such things as these? And yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination … they are nobler, I believe, than circus, and … theaters, and every race course.

Tertullian’s argument was repeated centuries later by the American divine Jonathan Edwards, who promised that “the sight of hell-torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.”

In these citations from Edwards and Tertullian there is a strange exulting in the painful punishment of others. It is particularly striking in thinkers who harbor profound suspicions of ecstasy, especially sexual ecstasy, as they did. It is as if sexual ecstasy were replaced with Tertullian ecstasy — the enjoyment in seeing the punishment of the wicked. In any event, this is what seems to be involved in the audience response to catastrophe films. Unlike sexual ecstasy, which is potentially communal and creative, at its best involving love and mutual respect, Tertullian ecstasy can be achieved privately. It demands no creative effort, only that someone suffer for the pleasure of others. Tertullian ecstasy works toward its climactic visceral gratification by a kind of inverted foreplay. Whereas sexual love begins with attraction, the preparation for retributive ecstasy requires revulsion triggered by negative stereotypes. The camera cues the audience to recognize targets of retribution by scenes of evil behavior and exclusion from the community. This de-identification of interest, an inversion of mutual respect and attraction, blocks any sympathetic response that the audience might have when the wicked suffer their punishment.

At the moment the evil of the marked ones becomes unbearable, and the desire for punishment reaches its climax, the moralized forces of catastrophe provide a kind of retributive coitus with an ecstatic release. The cheering of audiences in such scenes is evidence of a ritual release from tension. Tertullian ecstasy therefore provides one of the few publicly acceptable forms of visceral gratification or ecstatic release in American popular culture. The reward for the audience conforms to a Deuteronomic pattern of compensating every virtue and punishing every vice. The ecstasy of violent punishment is thus provided to those who identify with the pure superhero and his renunciation of sexual gratification. In the subtlest version of this tradeoff, we are allowed a faint and vicarious taste of sexual excitement in the almost subliminal orgasmic cries of the temptress Chrissie in Jaws: the sounds of her being devoured suggest the need for sexual release at the very moment that she — a symbol of yearning — is destroyed.

Okay, there’s nothing sexual about the sequence in question in Babylon 5 — for our purposes, that part of the excerpt may be a bit of a red herring. But I really like the way this episode creates a new tension at the very moment when we might expect it to relieve tension, as described by Jewett and Lawrence.

On the one hand, two of the show’s main characters — Mollari and G’Kar — get to take revenge on one of the show’s more annoying recurring characters. On the other hand, we get a “joyful noise”, and perhaps even a bit of comedy, in the religious service. Each of these things relieves tension, through payback or humour.

But put the two things together, and suddenly there’s a brand new tension. Is the death of Refa really cause for joy? Or is the death of Refa at the hands of G’Kar’s men really something we should feel bad about, even if it means G’Kar has given in to his hate, and has thus given in to the “enemy” that Dexter talks about?

And what about the grander apocalyptic sensibility of that gospel song — what about the implications it has for all of our souls? Does the song’s peppiness obscure the significance of its subject matter — a significance that is underscored in the cross-cutting? Is it a song for people who are convicted of their own sin? Is it a song for people who are simply secure in their own faith in Jesus?

I’m just thinking out loud here. I’m sure I’ll think of even more responses to this episode in the days to come. And I love that.

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  • Andrew Irwin

    I would have to say that “The Rock cries out…” and “Passing through Gethsemane” were my two favourite bab5 episodes. It’s odd to see a sci-fi show where Chrisianity still exists

    • Jonathan Martin

      It’s because JMS (The shows predominate writer) understands that, while he himself is an atheist, that religion has been around for a long time, and that it will most likely to continue to be like that. Humans are human, and it is not like us to change.

      He is a brilliant Sci-fi writer.

  • Ah, yes, yet another episode which, while I was watching it, I found myself thinking, “Man, I have to get Peter to watch this show.: 🙂

    As I’ve said before, B5 really does do an excellent job of raising these kinds of food-for-thought questions without attempting to offer us pat answers in the form of platitudes like, uh, well, a lot of other shows I could name. Which is wonderful.

    They will, by the way, come back to questions of revenge and forgiveness and suchlike matters in future episodes involving G’Kar and the Narns. Stay tuned! 🙂

  • BethR

    Great analysis, Peter. Thanks. I love this episode, and your thoughts added to my appreciation.

  • Rick Summon

    I’m not sure this episode can really be interpreted as saying that G’Kar gives into revenge. If he had, he would have smashed Refa into the ground himself. Instead, G’Kar lets the others do it and simply walks away. The implication seems to be that G’Kar has lost his taste for revenge; that he sees revenge as empty and futile.