Character: Londo Mollari
Fandom: Babylon 5
Spoiler: For the entire show. Not for the novels.
Thanks to: penknife, artaxastra and kathyh for beta-reading.
I. A washed up old Republican, dreaming of better days
He's middle-aged, pouchy, pasty, with an outrageous hair style and an even more outrageous accent when we meet him. Viewers who start the tv show Babylon 5 (no matter whether through the pilot or with the first actual episode) without any advance knowledge can be forgiven for first assuming that Londo Mollari, ambassador of the Centauri Republic, is supposed to be the comic relief. He's clearly not one of the heroes - that would be the EarthForce officers who run the station Babylon 5 - or of the mysterious aliens (that would be the Minbari) - or of the villainous-appearing aliens (that would be his Narn counterpart G'Kar, who makes trouble for Our Heroes in both the pilot and the first episode, and thusly appears to be a comic bad guy). He's got a bombastic way of speaking, a short temper, and over the top clothes. There is some reference to the people he represents, the Centauri, having been powerful once, but they don't seem to have any fighting power left at this point. Yes, clearly, this Londo Mollari must be there for the comic relief.
Welcome to Babylon 5, where, to quote G'Kar from an early first season episode, "nobody is quite what they appear". (He names Londo as the first example, which tells you something about not just Londo but also G'Kar.)
Of course, when old-time viewers rewatch those early episodes, or people who started watching the show at a later point when Londo was busy conducting wars and getting the blood of millions on his hands, they see something quite different. Babylon 5 isn't perfect - no show is - but its continuity has yet to be matched, and Londo's arc is the most carefully planned out and executed storyline in the whole impressive ensemble. Right from the start, you get presented with the aspects of Londo which will cause him to make a Faustian deal as well. In the pilot, he expresses bitterness about the fact that the once mighty Centauri Republic has become "a tourist attraction", and the first episode showcases his anger at this loss of power and status which turns quite personal, as his people's enemies, the Narns, take a Centauri colony and force his nephew to make an approving statement on camera.
Londo is both a cynic and a romantic, which turns out to be a fatal combination. It's his inner romantic, with a glorified image of his homeworld and a longing for the unreachable past, which will prompt him on his path, while his cynical side will feed his enormous capacity for ruthlessness. Yet these qualities are never used just for one purpose in the overall story. An early episode like Born to the Purple in which Londo falls in love with a dancing girl who is supposed to spy on him showcases his romanticism in a seemingly benign manner, and not just because Londo in love is quite charming and endearing, and gets even more amusing lines than usual. ("What do you want, you moon-faced assassin of joy?" he groans when his helpless assistant wakes him up.) But the fact that he doesn't even bother to show up at the negotiations with the Narn - which are, after all, his job - isn't just funny; it's an early warning sign that he really does not take the idea of peace seriously. The inner emptiness he confesses to his lover, Adira - "but when I am forced to look behind the mask I wear, I see only emptiness" - isn't just post-coital melancholy; the fear of that emptiness stays with him and causes both his self-loathing and the hunger for power to fill it with. "Your heart is empty, Mollari, did you know that?" says G'Kar, much later, to him, and Londo replies: "I know."
Actually, it isn't. Which is part of the problem. After spending much of the first season sparring with G'Kar, befriending the station's security chief, Michael Garibaldi, and slowly forming a bond with his aide Vir, Londo Mollari meets his own personal Mephistopheles in the form of the charming, helpful Mr. Morden, who asks him what he wants. Actually, Morden puts that question to a lot of people, but G'Kar and Londo are the only ones who answer. It's worth quoting their answers in full, because they are so important to the rest of the show.
G'Kar, who gets asked first, is at that point in the timeline doing quite well, from a Narn point of view. As are the Narns in general. They drove the Centauri off their planet after a century of occupation, and are in the business of driving them back everywhere else. The Narn Regime is the new strong power; the Centauri are the old has-beens. If the station's commander, Jeffrey Sinclair, hadn't helped Londo out every now and then, G'Kar would have won every single petty and large confrontation due to this situation. Still, the memory of the occupation is still vivid.
"What do I want? The Centauri stripped my world. I want justice."
"What do you want?"
"To suck the marrow from their bones. To grind their skulls to powder!"
"What do you want?"
"To tear down their cities, blacken their sky, sow their ground with salt! To completely, utterly erase them!"
"And then what?"
"I don't know! As long as my homeworld's safety is guaranteed, I don't know that it matters."
The problem here, as far is Morden is concerned, is that G'Kar's thirst for vengeance and ambition limit themselves to the Centauri. As Mr. Morden represents the Shadows, forces of chaos who are interested in stirring up as many wars as possible, this won't do. Londo, on the other hand…
"All right. Fine! You really want to know what I want? You really want to know the truth? I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy! I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars! I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power! I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward! I want us to be what we used to be! I want - I want it all back the way that it was! Does that answer your question?"
Perhaps the ultimate irony is this: They both get what they want, in their way. Everyone who tells Morden what they want does. And once they get it, they usually don't want it anymore.
II. Millions of voices, crying out your name
Redemption is a popular theme in many a fandom. Both in the original texts, and in fanfiction. There is one element common to most fictional treatments on the subject, though: usually we don't see the actual fall and the crimes of the person in question as extensively as we see their endeavours to atone. We see them in flashbacks, or in one or two episodes. (This often leads to complaints that anyone not forgiving the potential ex-villain in question is unfair/judgmental/hard-hearted etc.) Not so in the case of Londo Mollari. Babylon 5 shows us his fall, and his crimes, in great detail and for two seasons.
Londo's corruption doesn't start with having answered Morden's question in season 1. That in itself is no crime. Nor does it start the first time he asks Morden for help, in the season 1 finale Chrysalis, because at that point Londo doesn't know yet just what Morden's "associates", the Shadows, are going to do. No, it starts with his conversation with Morden afterwards. Morden claims not to understand why Londo is upset; he did, after all, deliver the promised help, and thus enabled the Centauri to retake a Narn outpost.
Londo: "Yes, but you killed ten thousand Narn,"
Morden: "I didn't think you cared. They are your people's enemies, Ambassador. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, what's the difference?"
Londo: "Why don't you eliminate the entire Narn homeworld, while you're at it?"
Morden: "One thing at a time, Ambassador. One thing at a time."
The expression on Londo's face as it dawns on him that Morden isn't joking is crucial. There is some horror and disbelief, yes; but there is also the realization that he's just been given an incredible weapon, and yes, he will use it again, this time knowingly.
The point of no return for Londo (and several other characters) comes in a second season episode called The Coming of Shadows. This marks the first time he not only asks for Morden's help knowing it will result in many deaths, but does so to start a war. Vir, who by now has started to become Londo's conscience, protests vehemently, telling him that he doesn't know what he's doing.
"Yes, I do," Londo replies. "Yes, I do."
And he does. Bear this in mind. Londo is a lot of things, but "misunderstood woobie" is not one of them. Of course he can't foresee in detail the havoc the Shadows will cause in the rest of the galaxy, or much later to his own world, but he is aware he has just started a war which will cost millions of lives. He does want this war to end with a Narn defeated, humiliated and occupied once more (which happens). And he does not mind intimidating, bullying or even warring with other non-Narn people.
It's hard to say just where Londo hits moral rock bottom in the course of the next two years. Three episodes specifically come to mind: The Long, Twilight Struggle, in which Narn is defeated by the use of mass drivers (think thermonuclear bombs, only worse). This was the idea of Londo's ally Lord Refa, but Londo does not protest, something which will be brought up again, and the endless shot where he watches the bombardment of Narn silently, his face mirrored in the window, is one of the iconic images of the show.
Then there is A Day in the Strife, where Londo deliberately baits and humiliates G'Kar's "replacement" by reminding him of the labour camps on Narn. (Yes, the same Londo who was shocked at the news that ten thousand Narn were killed is now deliberately bringing up the imprisonment and death of many more.)
And finally, there is And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place near the end of the third season, where Londo for the first (and thankfully, last) time on the show is deliberately cruel to someone who cares about him (and whom he cares about), the only person who hasn't given up on him yet, Vir. In the course of an elaborate scheme to trick, destroy and kill Lord Refa, his former ally whom he believes to be responsible for the death of Adira, Londo threatens Vir and Vir's family in a brutal way. This stretches the bond between Londo and Vir to breaking point; learning the truth about Londo's objective isn't exactly a comfort to Vir because the crucial point here is what Londo did to him to achieve it. It's a not so minor miracle that Vir still doesn't give up on Londo afterwards.
III. Do you want to live?
Given all of this, why doesn't Londo end up as the show's clearly designated villain, to be confronted and defeated in some final showdown? Aside from B5 offering another kind of narrative, this brings us to what makes Londo's arc so amazing, and the character so rich. Through his two years of Shadow alliance, increasing callousness and ruthless power-mongering, you also get Londo the good friend who, when the Centauri government wants to reassign Vir, threatens to quit, Londo the incurable romantic who is happy for the first time in eons when Adira wants to return to him, and goes to pieces when Morden has her killed, and you get Londo's ruthless side (and intelligence) showcased in a non-Narn/Centauri context when he, trying to move Centauri Prime away from the alliance with the Shadows whom by season 3 he already mistrusts, blackmails his former ally Refa into doing the same in his unique way.
Refa: "But why should I?"
Londo: "Because your patriotism should outweigh your ambition. Because I have asked you. And because I have poisoned your drink."
Most crucially of all in regards to Londo's slow path back to the light is his complicated relationship with the Narn G'Kar. The two of them, representatives of their people on the space station Babylon 5, start out as rather similar. Both are fierce patriots, fond of sex (the first thing they can actually agree on is that women are the finest aspect of life), not exactly trustworthy and capable of both large scale ruthlessness and small scale pettiness. Their continuous sparring causes more than one "married" joke early on, but in the very first episode, we learn that this isn't just comic relief. (Though Londo and G'Kar can be very funny together and will remain so till the end of the show. When they're not ripping your heart out with serious drama, that is.) Londo tells Sinclair:
"My people, we have a way, you see. We know how, and sometimes even when, we are going to die. Comes in a dream, eh? In my dream, I am an old man, it's twenty years from now, and I am dying, my hands wrapped around someone's throat, and his around mine. We have squeezed the life out of each other. The first time I saw G'Kar, I recognized him as the one from the dream. It will happen- twenty years from now, we will die, our hands around each other's throats."
The audience gets to see this vision of Londo's in season 2, after Londo has made his fateful step of starting the Narn/Centauri war, and again several other times in the course of the show. For nearly three seasons, the meaning is obvious: that Londo and G'Kar will one day kill each other in a final act of hatred and vengeance against each other. G'Kar develops from blustering schemer into desperate resistance fighter, and, once the Narns have lost the war, noble spiritual leader. At the same time as Londo goes darker and darker, so this interpretation becomes ever more likely.
Then, from the middle of season 3 onwards, we get a couple of episodes which challenge this natural assumption. If it's difficult to say just where Londo hits moral rock bottom, it's pretty easy to say when G'Kar does. The episode is called Dust to Dust. G'Kar, still trying to find weapons his people can use against the Centauri, gets his hands on a drug called "Dust" which enables the user to become an artificial telepath for a few hours and, in essence, rape someone else's mind, turning it inside out. G'Kar proceeds to do just this to Londo, along with considerable physical violence as well. Which is when he gets his epiphany.
G'Kar, during said mind rape, asks Londo whether feeling like a victim enables Londo to understand what the Narns are going through. Actually, the way this works with Londo and G'Kar is just the other way around. It's seeing the other as a victim, not being a victim themselves, which contributes to making each of them turn over a new leaf. G'Kar emerges from the Dust to Dust experience (and the ensuing jail time) as a wiser, calmer man, no longer fixed on vengeance against Londo and the Centauri.
Still, there isn't a first time viewer whose jaw does not fall to the ground when, a bit further on in season 3, we get a time travel two-parter, which, among other things, offers a flash forward to the end of Londo's life. At which point he calls G'Kar "my old friend"; moreover, it turns out that he will actually ask G'Kar to kill him, in a last effort to save his people. How we get there is the story the fourth and fifth season of Babylon 5 detail.
When G'Kar, intent on saving his friend Garibaldi, gets captured by the Centauri early in season 4 and delivered to the Royal Court on Centauri Prime, Londo is forced to watch his enemy suffer under relentless torture. By then, the Centauri are ruled by the completely insane Emperor Cartagia (think Caligula in space). It doesn't take Londo more than one encounter with Cartagia to decide that a) the man is mad and b) has to be killed, as Cartagia thinks the destruction of Centauri Prime would make a lovely inauguration present once the Shadows reward his loyalty with godhood. Seeing Cartagia torment G'Kar, however, accesses something in Londo which his own ruthlessness before, and everything that happened between them, could not extinguish: the capacity for compassion and a code of honour even between enemies. When he tells G'Kar that he never wished this fate on him, he's quite sincere. His alliance with G'Kar has the pragmatic purpose of removing Cartagia from the throne, but as there were never any witnesses, Londo could have quite easily gone back on what he promises G'Kar in return: the Centauri withdrawal from Narn.
Honouring his promise to G'Kar after Cartagia's death, at a point where it is politically inconvenient and not necessary in the slightest way (the Centauri rule Narn uncontested, and any military resistance the Narn had to offer has been well and truly broken), is the first step back for Londo.
Of course, an alliance of necessity and an honoured promise do not make either a friendship or a redemption. The next time they see each other, G'Kar tells Londo that Londo doesn't exist in his universe anymore. But Londo Mollari of the House Mollari has always had difficulties with the word "no", and especially when he has something to prove. So Londo, by now his world's Prime Minister, throws his political support behind the show's heroes (busy with a civil war of their own) and, though initially rebuffed, gets G'Kar to accept another alliance between them for a greater cause. Note, however, that his personal pride still prevents him from downright apologizing, which is a plot point.
It's important, though, that Londo has been already accepted back into the B5 community and has started to establish a bond with G'Kar when he finally confronts the full extent of his guilt. Because there is no outward necessity or outward pressure to do so. Delenn, one of the uncontested good guys, sums up everyone's attitude towards Londo at this stage with:
"He has made me angry, he has made me laugh. I have even liked him from time to time, as much as I haven't wanted to. But I have never pitied him. Until now."
"Now" is Londo having fallen into a coma due to a heart attack. Many shows do an episode or two in which we get a glimpse into someone's head, but few do it so well as B5 with its fifth season episode The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari. It reveals the full extent of Londo's self loathing and awareness of just what he did, and shreds apart what denial he still mustered until then (i.e. that the fact the use of mass drivers was Refa's idea somehow exculpates him from having consented, for example). Returning to consciousness after this relentless self-examination, he apologizes for the first time in his life, telling G'Kar the words with which a former Emperor of the Centauri, just before the war started, wanted to end the hatred years earlier: I'm sorry.
If "I am sorry" were the three words Londo, despite earlier repentance, had the most difficulties with, because of the acknowledgment of guilt and full responsibility they carried, the three words which G'Kar struggles with for most of the show are "I forgive you". He doesn't say them when Londo apologizes; it's still too early, and Londo's penance has scarcely begun.
Season 5 sees Londo and the Centauri come full circle. The Shadows' allies, the Drakh, frame the Centauri for various attacks, and given their past behaviour, nobody believes in their innocence. Londo - with G'Kar as his bodyguard at his side - tries first to investigate and then to stop the developing horror, but in vain. As Centauri Prime is bombed with the same mass drivers once used on Narn, as everything he loved breaks down around him, the Drakh take their final vengeance on Londo for turning against their masters, the Shadows. They threaten to destroy Centauri Prime entirely if he does not accept a Keeper, a parasitic creature which will allow them to control him for every second of the rest of his life. As he has already seen what carrying a Keeper did to his old friend, the Regent, Londo is under no illusions about what this means. He agrees nonetheless to save the Centauri (and both G'Kar and Delenn who are under immediate threat by the Drakh at that point).
Having started out his role on the show in a colourful splash of purple, then going on to wear black literally and figuratively, he exits the story in the white robes of the Emperor, which are, of course, the white of the living sacrifice. He will wear them for fifteen more years, until he and G'Kar will finally fulfil each other's fate.
IV. Londo Mollari, of the House Mollari
In one sense, Londo's life is a perfect Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, as his fate comes true through a mixture of his own flaws and some external circumstances, with the emphasis on his own flaws.
In another sense, it breaks the pattern. Strictly speaking, he's not a hero in either the classic or the modern tv sense. Throughout the show, he takes turns as comic relief, villain, antihero and finally tragic hero. And sometimes all at the same time. Even when his great tragedy is at its worst, in the fifth season episode The Fall of Centauri Prime, you get dialogue like this:
G'Kar: "You saved my life!"
Londo: "Bah. You would have done the same."
G'Kar: "Yes, but I am the better person."
Even a five minute cameo of pure comedy, like Londo's scene as a happy drunk in the season 1 episode Parliament of Dreams, with one of his funniest outbursts:
(To Delenn): "Did I ever tell you you're cute for a Minbari?" (To Garibaldi) "You're also cute, in an annoying sort of way. Everybody is cute! Even I am cute. But in purple, I am stunning!"
Can't be rewatched without a gulp in the throat, because that is the very scene Londo remembers just before he gets the Keeper.
Londo can go from teasing G'Kar by offering to give him sexual pointers (in a late season 4 episode) to getting chilled to the bone by the reminder of the future awaiting him when Vir tells him, in the same scene, that the Centaurum has just decided to choose him as the next Emperor. As he is played by one of the best actors of the show, Peter Jurasik, this quick change of mood is beautifully conveyed, and it is so very characteristic of Londo. He's a sensualist, revelling in all the luxuries his position has to offer (even when said position is not a very powerful one), and an unabashed romantic, falling so hopelessly and completely in love with Adira that he forgives her having used him in an instant, frees her, breaks down completely when she is killed and murders to avenge her, twice. He can make you want to kick him when he's callously telling Vir, regarding the danger Vir had been in during the Refa scheme: "You were not important enough for him to kill." And he can stun you with the acute self-analysis and quiet comfort he offers Vir after Vir himself has killed for the first time:
"I never wanted you to… I remember when you first arrived on Babylon 5. You were so full of life... innocent. I was not kind to you. I treated you poorly. I think that I did that because I was... envious of you. Envious that you had come so far and yet were still... innocent, in your way. You still believed. I, on the other hand... I cannot tell you that your pain will ever go away. I cannot tell you that you will ever forget his face. I can only tell you that it was necessary. You may have helped to save our people. You did a hard thing... but you still have your heart, and your heart is a good one. You would not be in such great pain otherwise. It means there is still hope for you. And for that... I find I still envy you."
(Londo and Vir saying goodbye after Londo's inaguration)
Londo Mollari, ready to go over dead bodies to fulfil his ambition and yet capable of enormous self-sacrifice - offering his own life for others without hesitation -, witty ("arrogance and stupidity in the same package; how very efficient of you") and bombastic ("you make me feel alive, you fountain of passion"), who dooms and saves his planet, who redeems himself not through dying a heroic death but through living in torture for fifteen years, a complete traditionalist (even when he's planning to assassinate the Emperor, it's important to him to show up completely dressed when Cartagia calls him, as anything else would be disrespect to the imperial position) who comes to be closer to his former greatest enemy than he ever was to any of his own people, save Vir, who is incapable of sitting still for longer than five minutes without talking, yelling or laughing and then ends up brooding endlessly and alone in the prison of his own body, remains, to me, the most fascinating character I saw on tv.
Enemies and Allies
The only website devoted to the Centauri and the Narn. Fanfiction, essays, and fanart.
An introduction to Babylon 5, superbly summing up characters and main storyarcs for newbies
B5/Crusade Spoiler Junkies Page
Photos and screencaps
Lurker's Guide To Babylon 5
Episode summaries, plus comments by the Great Maker himself, JMS, to every single episode
Authorized website of Peter Jurasik, the actor embodying Londo
For a long time, there was a dearth in Londo-centric fanfic. Thankfully, this has now changed. Here are some favourites for the aspiring Londo-phile:
"War Stories", by andrastewhite; Londo and G'Kar at the beginning of the saga
"Moral", also by Andraste; Londo and Vir early on; a great glimpse at their developing relationship and Londo's mixture of cynicism and romanticism in general
"Safety in Numbers" by kakodaimon; Londo and G'Kar the morning after, in season 5. Takes into account what few slash - or het, for that matter - stories do, that sex doesn't solve any problems, especially not with two issue-ridden fellows like our favourite ambassadors.)
"After Horrors Seen" by hobsonphile; Londo and Vir in the fourth season during Cartagia's reign; great friendship h/c
"Certamen" by Andraste; Londo and his old friend Urza Jaddo; just the right mixture between sexiness, fluff, and foreshadowing angst, and Andraste proves that it's possible to write alien sex as truly alien
"Rampion" by kangeiko; G'Kar finds out about the Keeper. Heartrendering.
"Five Things Which Never Happened To Londo Mollari", by ruuger. A character so defined by his choices as Londo is had to have this written about him. A treat.
"A Lesson in Charity" by deborah_judge. Nobody writes Minbari quite like Deborah, and this story features Londo with the Minbari he has most in common with, though few beings in the galaxy would realize this. A story about two wars, two war crimes, and two lives afterwards.
Yours truly has also written quite a lot of Londo-centric fanfiction, which you can find here and, as part of the theatrical_muse project, the journal londo_mollari.
My two favourites so far in regards to Londo are
"The Road To Hell" by hobsonphile, and
"Forgiveness" by ruuger, whose fabulous B5 fanart can be found at 190 Bester Place.