Babylon 5, “Soul Mates,” and marriage.

In the season 2 episode of Babylon 5 titles “Soul Mates,” we have a sudden influx of spouses. Talia’s ex-husband, Matt Stoner, and Londo’s three wives all arrive on-station to cause headaches for their spouses.

The plot revolving around Talia was frustrating in the ways her plots always are– it seems like nobody, even she, can remember her past (like, say, who was her mentor in her first year at Psi Corps– she’s had three now!) or her goals for the future. Just last episode, she was “completely loyal to Psi Corps” (in Ivanova’s estimation) and even concealed information from Sheridan to protect the Corps. But in this episode, she longs to escape! Madness.

(EDIT: This madness is explained in the “next” episode, “A Race Through Dark Places,” where Talia meets a number of telepaths fleeing Psi Corps and comes to sympathize with and defend them. I put “next” in quotes because it was actually intended to air before “Soul Mates,” and although the incorrect order is preserved on the DVD it’s still pretty clearly wrong.)

But more frustrating was the sudden appearance of Londo’s wives. He’s whined about them before, and how much they nag him and spend all his money. But now he has been granted a special dispensation from the Emperor, allowing him to divorce all but one of his wives. Hurray! he says, and calls them all to B5 to decide which one to keep. The two he divorces will lose their social status and their money, a fact he is just overjoyed to relay.

Daggair is generally critical of Londo, but goes honey-sweet in his presence, trying to convince him she’d be a political asset. Mariel is always sweet, and plays up her sexiness and youth. Timov thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and derides Londo for putting them all through it.

Basically, we have a spectrum: a shrew (Timov), a shrew-cum-gold-digger (Daggair), and a gold-digger (Mariel). And Londo is deciding which of these three “burdens” he will have removed.

Now, these were all arranged marriages, but I was still upset that there was so much vitriol directed towards the wives. It was meant to be a humorous sub plot, but I just couldn’t laugh when Mariel and Daggair are each trying to seduce Londo, and actually consider his proposal of a competitive threesome. It only fails to happen because Timov, when invited to “show her feelings for him” like the others, slaps him and storms out. (Well, and because it’s a PG show.) I don’t think sex is inherently debasing, but there did seem to be something debasing in this scenario…the fact that it was the only way they could secure their futures, that it was compelled rather than desired. That’s not what sex should be about, and that’s not what marriage should be about.

The thing is, I knew Londo would pick Timov (the shrew) because to have him reward gold-digging behavior would be unacceptable, somehow. I don’t think the writers felt they could get away with endorsing that kind of message– that you shouldn’t tell men what you think of them, you should lie and offer sex or else the men will throw you to the streets. And they did a good job with that decision, but not the best job possible.

You see, the problem with Mariel and Daggair was that neither of them really respected him. When, at one point, Londo’s life is threatened, they talk about how much better it would be if he died, because the divorce hadn’t been ratified yet so they’d all live richly. We later discover that Mariel had actually poisoned him herself in an attempt to bring this about (and Daggair may have been in on it). I would say it makes sense to divorce a woman who would prefer you dead than alive.

Especially when Timov is the alternative. It’s not so much that she hates Londo as it is that she recognizes his flaws and is more than willing to point them out. Since he does the same to her, it’s in some way a healthier dynamic than the cloying lies of the other two wives. Especially since there is an undercurrent of respect– Timov shares Londo’s blood type, and though she reflects for a while first, she does go to give Londo the blood transfusion that saves his life. However, she keeps this secret.

In fact, Londo makes his decision without knowing that Mariel and Daggair sought his death, or that Timov saved his life. He chose Timov, even though, as she says, she will never be what he wants her to be, because “with you at least I know where I stand.” This is an admirable sentiment, preferring the honesty of her ambivalence to the sweet lies of the other two, but it is a sentiment that would have been strengthened if he’d known about their actions regarding his life.

As it stands, it seemed almost as if he’d chosen the one option sure to infuriate all three wives. I can only hope he learns to appreciate her honesty a little more in future, and we will be subject to less of his whining about the terrors of wives.

Because honestly, that trope is what bothers me most in all this– the idea that wives are somehow annoying. Newsflash, guys! You don’t have to get married if you don’t want to! Why is it funny to act like associating with your chosen life mate is some kind of burden? I guess I’m just a humorless feminist, but if I was allowed to get married, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to let people know that I liked my wife.


12 Responses to Babylon 5, “Soul Mates,” and marriage.

  1. nevermore says:

    Who do you mean by Talia’s three mentors in her first year in Psi Corps? Abby was her caretaker in her first year after she entered Psi Corps, kind of a governess. Ironheart was her teacher after she entered academy – much later. Who’s the third – Osogi? He wasn’t Psi Corps at all.

    As for Londo’s wives, I’d understand your reasoning if this was about humans. But the Centauri are an alien society. A society where women have no political power, and where marriages are arranged. So yes, they *do* have to get married, or at least they are expected to marry whomever their houses choose for them – “what has love got to do with marriage?” (Londo in The War Prayer). And it’s not like the series portrays the Centauri society as a desirable state.

  2. nevermore says:

    Ah, one point I forgot:
    “Just last episode, she was “completely loyal to Psi Corps” (in Ivanova’s estimation) and even concealed information from Sheridan to protect the Corps. But in this episode, she longs to escape! Madness.”

    That mess we owe to PTEN who screwed up the air schedule. The intended order of the episodes was:

    6. A Spider in the Web
    7. A Race Through Dark Places
    8. Soul Mates

    Not sure if you’ve already seen A Race Through Dark Places, but in this order the progression of Talia’s loyalities makes sense. The intended schedule is posted here:

  3. eloriane says:

    Hey, thanks for the comments!

    Talia’s ex-husband Matt Stoner was her mentor in her first year of Psi Corps…just like Abby. She even used the same mini-monologue to talk about it– “I was so scared and confused and he made the transition easier.” Ironheart was later but I expect more “first year student mentors” to show up later. I haven’t seen it all yet, so I was going off The Hathor Legacy’s interpretation of the character, here.

    As for Londo’s marriages…you’re completely right, and clearly I shouldn’t have deleted the paragraph talking about that. Londo absolutely has to get married– but every guy in every sitcom every makes the same complaint about his wife. It’s not a trope that is limited to people who are forced into marriage. It’s not even a trope that’s limited to fiction— I’ve heard people in real life whine about how much of a bother it is to deal with their SOs, whether it’s eating certain foods or quitting certain bad habits or who knows what.

    Londo and his wives struck me as an example of us applying a hurtful trope to a character whose situation justifies the trope (kinda) so we (meaning men, of course) can all nod our heads and agree that “the ol’ ball-and-chain” sure is a pest, but we can still defend Londo because he didn’t have a choice. The sentence I deleted was something like this: Sure, Londo was forced to marry against his will. What’s your excuse?

    As for Talia…on the DVD, the order is “A Spider in the Web,” “Soul Mates,” THEN “A Race Through Dark Places” (which I’ve seen now). Bizarre! Why didn’t they fix the order on the DVD?

    You’re right, it makes a huge difference! Since, uh, “A Race Through Dark Places” is a thoughtful, well-developed account of her losing faith in the corps. Wow, I’m totally dropping that compaint.

    Though if I can be stubborn, I could say that airing the episodes out of order (and leaving them that way on the DVD) is just another way they the show’s creators aren’t taking Talia quite seriously enough 🙂

  4. nevermore says:

    Regrettably, the creators have no influence on what the networks decide to do about the airing schedule – nor on what WB does with the DVDs (otherwise we wouldn’t have JMS witnessed fuming online over the changes). The networks execs were given the proper schedule and either erroneously or on purpose it got changed. I’ve no idea why WB didn’t fix the order on the DVDs. This isn’t the only case. But in general, WB didn’t exactly waste costs and efforts when it comes to the production quality of the DVDs.

    About Talia: I think you’re confusing Talia entering the Corps and Talia entering the Academy.
    About Abby: “I was raised by Psi Corps from the time I was 5. She was my support during my first year at the Center.”
    About Ironheart: “He was my instructor at the Psi Corps Academy.”
    About Stoner: “In your first year of training in Psi Corps Academy, you’re assigned to an advanced trainee who oversees your development.”

    She joined the Corps when she was five years old, and Abby was her governess – this has nothing to do with the Academy. The Academy is a higher level education institution, like college (after they’ve finished basic education) – otherwise she wouldn’t have fallen in love with Ironheart. You don’t have a relationship with your instructor at the age of five. So Ironheart was an instructor (whether or not he instructed he in her first year isn’t mentioned, I think), and Stoner was a fellow student (albeit a few years more advanced the curriculum) who was assigned as overseer in her first year. I see no contradiction here. And no worries, there won’t be any more Talia mentors 😉

    About the Centauri: I don’t see it as discriminating, since this isn’t about humans. If anything, I think it’s meant as a parody of said sitcoms, it’s too obviously a caricature. The guy who wrote the ep., Peter David, also wrote the Centauri trilogy, three canon tie-in novels that deal with certain events on Centauri Prime (don’t read them until after you’ve seen the series, though, they’re spoilerish). In these books, we meet Timov and Mariel again, and learn some new sides about them, and the evolution of Londo’s relationship to them later.

  5. eloriane says:

    I think you must be right about Talia. I wish they’d been mentioned in more than one episode (though Ironheart, at least, seems to have had a long-term effect), but all the characters are guilty of having significant relationships that only appear for one episode.

    I also think we’re going to have to agree to disagree about Londo. His vindictive joy at the prospect of ruining their lives was a little hard for me to swallow (he eventually settled on allowances for them, but originally he was going to toss them out with no money and no connections), and I’d think that in a culture of arranged marriages people would learn to be politely distant from their spouses.

    Really, though, what bugs me is not that he has unhappy marriages, but that he uses very sexist insults, which have a long history of being used to silence woman. Because, y’know, the Centauri culture isn’t actually real; it exists within our OWN culture. And in our culture, we have thousands of years of women’s concerns being dismissed out of hand, of women being silenced with the words “nag” and “shrew”; you can’t separate these claims from their history.

    So the trope of wife-as-annoying in this case can’t separated from our historical treatment of wives-as-annoying; it is exactly as problematic here as in any other example, because even if it’s “really” Centauri acting out the trope, it’s really humans who are getting the message.

    For an example from a totally different medium, over at Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed), the main blogger often objects to under-dressed, super-sexy women and one of the trollish responses she tends to get is,

    “But she’s from an alien culture with no nudity taboo!”

    And the first time she appeared, that excuse was just barely enough to hoist one’s disbelief. After all, fashion is a pretty strange cultural artefact, and clothing only necessary in terms of if you’ll freeze without it.

    But when she keeps appearing, with different names, still resembling a buxom earth lass who just likes to walk around naked – just because! – it gets icky.

    She’s not real. She was created. Her no-nudity-taboo-alien-culture was created. And they were created so that there was an excuse, however flimsy, to objectify yet another female character.

    The same principle applies here. Aliens don’t get excused because they have different cultures. Their cultures get criticized too.

    This whole blog exists to call out problematic messages within otherwise-excellent media. I love Babylon 5, and I even love Londo, but I refuse to accept that there’s nothing wrong with the way he treats his wives.

  6. nevermore says:

    I didn’t say there’s nothing wrong with the way Londo treats his wives. There are a lot of things wrong with Londo, and the Centauri culture in general.

    What I was trying to say is that I don’t see how the series excuses Londo’s behaviour. Londo is a very grey character (and as I said, the Centauri society as a whole is and it is by no means shown as a desirable state). Though you’ve only just started season 2, I think it’s spoiler-safe to say that Londo isn’t a role model in this series. By this point he’s responsible for the death of 10 thousand Narns, on the grounds of revenge and desire for power.

    He is a vindicative character, on that part we agree, but this vindictiveness isn’t limited to his wives, it’s a general problem. And it may well be that my opinion is influenced by knowing Londo’s fate, but even so I just don’t see how the episode excuses or justifies Londo’s behaviour towards his wives. Their behaviour is the result of the status of women in Centauri society, and Londo’s behaviour reflects his character. It’s the way he treats people he considers his “underlings” – just look at how he treats Vir. But the thing is, Londo isn’t “the good guy” in the series, and as such, I just don’t see that the episode legitimises his behaviour.

  7. eloriane says:

    Coming from that point of view, I think you’re right. I’m resistant to the idea that “it’s an alien culture” justifies anything, but “it’s an alien culture that is condemned by the text” is a lot more acceptable.

    You’re right that Londo is definitely heading to a very gray area right now; it’s just that, in season 1, it was very easy for me to see Londo as the “good” guy and G’kar as the “bad” guy. I think I’m right in the middle of that perspective shifting but I’m slow to lose my pity for a character, and it’s still hard to think of Londo as anything but a sympathetic character.

    But you’re right, he is vindictive and dismissive with everyone. I think some of his earlier, casual comments about his wives were meant for humorous effect…but then, so were his mean comments to Vir. I think it’s quite possible people were laughing at/nodding along with some of his original comments, but we’ll be disapproving of them soon.

    In which case, this show is a lot more subtle and thoughtful than most shows. It certainly sounds like Londo’s eventual fate is relevant, so maybe I’ll revisit this after I’ve seen more.

    It’s been great having your perspective, though 🙂 Thanks!

  8. nevermore says:

    Well, Londo may seem to be a sympathetic character during the first season, but there are many pieces of information indicating problems with the Centauri society. There are slaves even among their own people (remember Adira), there are clearly many intringues among the high houses, we are told that Centauri “live their lives for appearances”, that title and status is everything and those who don’t play along with these rules end up like Adira, that the Centauri tradition “values wealth and power over love”, only to mention a few.

    I still don’t think the Centauri society is being “condemned”. This isn’t a show that preaches the ultimate wisdom of humanity; there’s as least as much wrong in the future human society. JMS believes that as a writer it’s not his business to reinforce anyone’s political, social or religious believes; he considers this “not storytelling or art, but simply propaganda”. Plots accordingly aren’t developed to transport morality lessons, but designed to reflect who the characters are and how they react to the situation. They pose ethical questions – leaving the answers to the audience.

    As for who the good guys and bad guys are, there’s one very important line in season 1 (spoken by G’kar): “No-one here is exactly what he appears.” 😉

  9. eloriane says:

    Yeah…I thought condemned was too strong a word. At the very least, not endorsed.

    I suppose I’m used to seeing those kinds of problems in people and relationships presented as unproblematic, and it takes me a while to get used to the idea that, well, no one is exactly what they appear.

    I’ll have to watch more closely at what the text’s actually saying, next time, see if maybe I’ve been reading my own view into situations that were meant to be left open. Though I do think, at this point anyway, that he is presenting peace as preferable to war, and Psi Corp’s shady dealings as problematic.

    (Though I’m still in the middle of all sorts of fascinating plot stuff, so maybe that will be less clear later, as well.)

  10. Crowfoot says:

    This has been a really interesting discussion, and I’ve been wanting to join in but I always seem to lack the time to sum up my feelings. Writing anything always takes me sooooo long. Ok not always (thinking of my serial posting on this blog in the last 20 min or so!)

    But I wanted to say that I disagree that Londo is played as unsympathetic. I think he’s played as completely sympathetic. Even when he makes choices that make us squirm. Even he squirms, remembering his agreement with… the smarmy white guy that helped him destroy the Narn outpost.. what was his name? Anyways. He’s like the likable guy with questionable morals, that we really want to do the right thing, but become increasingly horrified at the choices he makes. Or maybe it’s just me. There’s more to say, but I’m getting too tired to try and write it.

  11. eloriane says:

    Yes, that’s exactly what I meant to say! The show makes us like him, even as we are totally horrified by his decisions. I’m constantly yelling at the screen, like, “No! Don’t do it! You’re better than that!”

    There was nothing sadder, for me, than the time that Londo wanted to celebrate his “good fortune” with Garibaldi at the bar, but Garibaldi just couldn’t condone Londo’s heartless attacks on Narn civilians, and so Londo waits at the bar until it closes, all alone, chattering to the barmaid about how he’s waiting for his very best friend, but Garibaldi never comes.

    I wanted Londo to be happy, and for Garibaldi to come and make him happy, but more than that, I wanted him to deserve to be happy. It completely tugged at my heartstrings even though I completely agreed with Garibaldi for staying away.

    Which I guess is a true testament to the writing, and to the acting– that we can adore a character whose decisions we deplore.

  12. Crowfoot says:

    Which I guess is a true testament to the writing, and to the acting– that we can adore a character whose decisions we deplore.

    Exactly! It’s that complexity that makes the show so. damned. good.

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