by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 8 of
After a long hiatus, Babylon has returned to continue Zen Seisaki's descent into madness at the hands of Ai Magase, and the direction the story seems to be taking is, for lack of a better term, interesting. The story in this episode can be split cleanly into two halves, with the first reuniting us with our harried hero, while the second introduces us to a new character whose role in the story is set to expand its scope significantly. As has frustratingly been the case with this show, it is still too early to predict how any of this will pay off, or whether any of it will be successful, but nobody can fault Babylon for want of ambition.
To begin, we have Zen, who has seen better days, to say the least. For one thing, his guilt and anger of the loss of his entire team has driven him not only to drink, but to revel in what could charitably be called vivid daydreams, though they could also well be labeled hallucinations. A bar is shown to be filled with the phantoms of Shinobu, Atsuhiko, and all the others whose lives were cut short by Ai's manipulation, before we see the place to be completely empty. Later, Zen meets with a vision of Hiasa, who we learn is the only one of the fallen to be acknowledged as a murder victim, which has ground any hope of a proper investigation to a halt. Ariyoshi the journalist is at a loss, Zen's boss, Yasutaka Morinaga, has resigned, and Zen himself has been left to stew at home while his wife and his son try to lift his spirits.
As far as plot goes, the major developments all concern everything that Zen has absolutely no control over. Ai is nowhere to be found, Kaika Itsuki has successfully taken his place as Shiniki's mayor, and perhaps most importantly, the suicide law has successfully been ratified. More to the point, the passing of the law in Shiniki isn't just destroying the status quo of Japanese discourse – in Canada, Halifax has begun to pass a similar law through legislation, and there are rumblings of similar events on the horizon for other countries. In earlier reviews, I openly struggled with how to contextualize this story's discussion about the morality of suicide, since the culture in which this work originated has such a personal and fraught relationship with the subject matter, but the moment Zen gets a visit from an FBI officer, that context gets blown wide open. This is no longer a story just about how Japan wrestled with the ethics of assisted or even legally sanctioned suicide. As of this eight episode, Babylon has gone global.
In the parlance of one of my all-time favorite podcasts, Hardcore History, Kaika's radical approach to suicide has become an “intellectual contagion”, an idea so volatile that it can transcend political and cultural borders and spread beyond anyone's ability to control it. This is where we abruptly transition to the United States, Washington D.C. to be precise, where an innocuous seeming man named Arthur Wood is having a long think on the porcelain throne. Via extended flashback, we see how he grew from a sickly young child to a successful academic in college, and even managed to find love with a gorgeous wife by becoming a legendary player in a popular MMORPG. This might all sound a little hokey and irrelevant, but it doesn't take long before you start asking why so many member's of the White House staff are being cut to throughout Arthur's monologue, and that's when two and two get put together to form the final reveal: Arthur Wood is the President of the United States, and right now, he doesn't know exactly how he feels about all of this “legalizing suicide business.” Hartford, Connecticut has apparently gone ahead and pushed forward with the movement. If the President of the USA also falls victim to this intellectual contagion, what could the consequences possibly be?
I won't lie, for all of the ridiculousness I have forgiven Babylon for in the past seven episodes, this President Wood story may have been just a bridge too far. His random “I was just an MMO playing doofus until my hot wife came along and pushed me to greater heights as the President of the country” story feels more than a little half-baked, and the dialogue is quite frequently corny to the extreme. There's a scene where Wood's innocent son sits down on a bench and asks what he should even think about all of the hullabaloo being raised over the suicide laws. The ever contemplative Arthur, Holy Bible in hand, gently responds that he doesn't know, since even the Good Book doesn't specifically say suicide is a sin. I think this scene is meant to be taken seriously, but I couldn't help but think it felt ripped straight from a parody of those old 50s educational films, where a “Gee Whiz!” looking kid asks his Pop to explain the big mysteries of life, like how to talk to girls, or what to say when one of the greasers at the sock hop tries to sell him a bottle of liquor.
This is also where Babylon betrays its lack of knowledge about international law, since as far as I'm aware, a single city wouldn't just be able to subvert local state laws about suicide, and it sure as hell wouldn't be able to do so overnight. I get that the rapid onset of pro-suicide mania is apart of the thesis that Babylon is peddling, but it really hurts the shows prospects when you have to completely forgo any semblance of real-world politics in order for that premise to function at even a basic level. It could be that I'm completely wrong, and that such a thing is totally possible in any of the countries the episode covers, but the fact that it feels so ludicrous and under explained remains a serious problem.
I've enjoyed much of what Babylon has had to offer thus far, in spite of its many questionable decisions, mostly because its confident execution has elevated it above its own shaky foundations. The show has taken a very fast-and-loose approach to logic and reason in order to ask potentially compelling questions and tell a reasonably entertaining story, but each passing episode reveals that those questions probably aren't as good as they need to be to keep this show afloat, and the story starts to crumble more from there. None of that even touches on the wildly problematic elements Ai Magase brings to the table, but given Babylon's pattern of bringing her into focus every other episode or so, I'm sure I'll have more to say on that front, too. Like I said before, I have absolutely no idea if Babylon is headed anywhere that isn't disastrous, and I don't even know if it can be called good at this point, but it still gives me something to talk about each week. For that reason alone I am compelled to continue on this weird and wild journey…I'm just bracing for a messy impact once we reach Babylon's final destination.
Odds and Ends
• The elegant and composed American Chief of Staff is named Edmund Guliani in this universe, which is pretty damned funny given the current state of the real-world figure for whom he was presumably named.
• Ai remains committed to tormenting Zen with cryptic packages. The one we see this week is apparently not the first, and it contains two eggs, along with a note asking, “Which one is bad?” One of the eggs is just an egg, while the other contains a partially developed fetus. Like much of what Ai has done and represented so far, this looks to be a very gross but ultimately meaningless message to send.
• Zen's wife gets some dialogue and screen time this week, which is cool, though it is a bummer that she apparently exists only to be a pleasant and attractive partner to Zen. Let's hope she doesn't get the Se7en treatment, by the end of this (I'm calling it right now, though: Ai is totally going to kill this poor woman).
Babylon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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