I’ve never watched Babylon 5 before, but I got the whole series on a great sale and have been watching it from the beginning. In this post, please do not SPOIL anything past the episode discussed. There will, of course, be major spoilers for this episode.
Babylon 5 and the Fragility of Humanity- “Passing Through Gethsemane”
There are moments when you’re watching something on TV or a movie when you realize it’s a transcendent time. Something about what’s happening on the show clicked; one of those moments where everything aligned. “Passing Through Gethsemane” was one of those episodes for me. It may be the first time TV has ever touched me on such a spiritual level.
Near the beginning when we see Brother Edward, a Trappist Monk, talking about the Garden of Gethsemane. He says that there, Jesus could have chosen to leave, postponing the inevitable. It was a “very fragile human moment” that resonates so deeply with Brother Edward. Later in the episode, we discover that Edward has been mind wiped and is, in fact, a notorious killer. He himself starts to discover this as a telepath reawakens his memories–apparently as a step of a plot to get revenge from families of the victims. Edward finds himself in a kind of broken psyche, realizing who he was, but also that his entire life and outlook on the universe has changed. Who is he, now?
Edward asks whether there is “enough forgiveness for what I’ve done” as he contemplates his former life, and the implications of being that same person. The answer, provided by Brother Theo of the Trappist Monks, is simple: “Always. Always.” Edward’s killed by the families of his victims, but he chooses to go to his death, knowing what they will do. He sees it as his own “passing through Gethsemane” and the fragility of the human condition one finds there. He apparently saw justice and forgiveness align and chose that path.
One astute reader pointed out the problematic nature of seeing Edward as a good man, since he was, in a sense, made that way. As a viewer, I viewed Edward-as-he-is as a completely new and different person than Edward-as-he-was, the murderer. This is aside from the moral question of the mind-wipe as punishment which seems highly questionable at best. (Feel free to comment on that below, I’d love a discussion on that, too.) As I reflected on this, it reminded me (as a Lutheran, particularly) of baptism. Edward’s old self was like the Old Adam, which we drown in the waters of baptism, creating a rebirth and, in a sense, a New Adam/self washed clean by Christ. The metaphysics of this metaphor playing out become quite complex as one thinks about it, because here the question of the morality of a mind wipe is writ large. But I’m thinking of the outcomes, not in a consequentialist way, but in a pragmatic one. If Edward has been created anew, however that happened, he seems a new man. For the baptism analogy, this plays out quite well and, while likely unintentional, makes me think even more on that sacrament.
Theo and Sheridan have a conversation about “Where does revenge end and justice begin?” and Sheridan makes a point that forgiveness is a “hard thing”–likely himself thinking about his wife. But then, we discover Malcolm–one of the men who committed the vigilante act against Edward–is mind wiped and himself one of the Trappists. And Theo turns Sheridan’s words back on him. Knowing Sheridan is enraged by this vigilante killing, Brother Theo says that Sheridan himself just made a comment about forgiveness being a hard thing. Sheridan pauses in his rage and shock, and finally shakes the new Brother Malcolm’s hand.
It’s not often that you get to see full on theologizing in a television series, but this episode presents just that. Of course, it never fully realizes the whole of the Christian message, but it is powerful and compelling for Christians all the same. It may also speak to those who aren’t Christian, due to the beauty of the moment. And I suspect that’s what the writer(s) was going for. Christ, here, is seen as facing a “very fragile human moment,” but the total importance of it is made to sound more like an ethical moral choice than something about the fate of humanity. However, there is no question that this episode beautifully shows the humanity of that moment. Yes, Jesus Christ is God the Son, but we must not forget that he was the God-man, fully human as well. I was struck deeply by how this episode made that point so clearly. To humanity as turning on this moment with Christ in Gethsemane, able to “delay the inevitable” but choosing instead to pass through Gethsemane. It’s beautiful.
The other ethical-theological aspect here is the notion that individual humans can also “pass through Gethsemane” with their own trials/temptations. We have our own fragile human moments, and those can define who we are. Babylon 5 doesn’t portray the help we receive from the Holy Spirit here, but I still think it is to be commended both for the genuine look at the humanity of Christianity and the beauty of its story.
Appendix: A number of comments on Facebook when I shared this post raised questions about the death penalty and the justice of the mind wipe. I’m opposed to the death penalty, and I think that the book and movie of “Just Mercy” help explain some of the issues surrounding that. They’re highly applicable to discussions of the mind wipe as well.
Babylon 5 Hub– My “Eclectic Theist” site features a number of posts discussing my first watch-through of Babylon 5. Check them out here!
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For me, the true masterstroke of the episode is the ending. It is easy to sympathize with Brother Edward when we get to know him solely as his reformed/reprogrammed self. Meeting Brother Malcolm at the end, however, really hits the point home of how hard it is to forgive someone for his former crimes. The question to what extent those new personalities can or should be held accountable for the deeds of their former selves, only makes it all the more interesting and complex.
Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on one of the most interesting episodes of B5.
I first watched the series with a devout Anglican lady, who insists that the entire series is about faith and especially redemption. We always disagreed fundamentally about this particular episode, as when I was younger, I took the side of the vigilante families in this episode, which she found disturbing.
Now, however, your point about
“the moral question of the mind-wipe as punishment ” gives me pause, as I rethink many of my earlier stances. I’ll wait until you’ve seen the rest of the series before commenting further, just to be sure I don’t spoil anything.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I am curious as to how your stances may have changed since you watched the show!