On January 21st, I was incredibly saddened to see writer J. Michael Stracynski announce on Twitter that actress Mira Furlan had passed away at the age of 65. Furlan was known to audiences for playing Danielle Rousseau on Lost, or providing her voice and likeness to Payday 2 as the Butcher. But to me, Furlan will always be remembered as Ambassador Delenn in the ’90s space opera Babylon 5.
For those unaware, Babylon 5 is a science fiction television series created and written by J. Michael Stracynski and aired from 1993 to 1998. The story begins in 2258 on a space station called Babylon 5. After a war between humanity and a race called the Minbari nearly wiped out Earth, the Babylon project was created so all races could work out their differences in peace. It’s like if the United Nations was also a city in space.
Before prestige television became the standard, Babylon 5 was ahead of its time. Problems were rarely solved in one episode. Character arcs and certain mysteries unfolded over seasons. And unlike other television shows, Babylon 5 stuck the landing. This is naturally the part where I tell you to watch it, so I will try to avoid spoilers here as much as possible.
My parents watched the show when it originally aired. Once it came out on DVD, they were excited to share it with my sister and I. I wasn’t too interested. However, I sat down in the living room one day and ended up getting sucked into the episode my mom and dad were watching. I asked if we could watch another, and then maybe one more after that.
Watching Babylon 5 as a 10-year-old made me feel smart. I liked how the storytelling was more complicated than what I’d watched or read before. I was quickly attached to all the characters, but Mira Furlan’s Delenn stood out.
Delenn is the Minbari ambassador and secretly a member of their ruling body, the Gray Council. She serves as ambassador for a variety of reasons. To prepare for a coming war between ancient powers, and also to make up for her vote to start the Earth-Minbari war. It is rare to see a female character be able to make a terrible mistake and then be allowed to atone for her actions.
Much of Delenn’s development comes from her reckoning between the legacies she is born into and the ones she chooses. She will do the right thing even if it puts her at great odds with her culture, those on Babylon 5, and her loved ones. She offers a hand to all in need, including her enemies. As a little girl, I was impressed to see how she handled this burden with compassion and diplomacy even when she faltered a little. Delenn was a role model for navigating a complicated world, although I didn’t understand at the time.
One of her finest moments feels far more pressing today. In Season 2’s “Confessions and Lamentations” the Markab race has an outbreak of a deadly plague known as Drafa. The plague is 100% contagious and fatal. While the disease has only claimed the lives of Markabs, a panic spreads throughout the station. Hate crimes are committed against those who people feel are responsible, and command and diplomatic leaders face backlash when a quarantine is ordered by the station’s head doctor.
After the Markab ambassador decides to have his community isolate, Delenn asks Captain Sheridan if she can go with them to offer her care. She asks not knowing when or if she would be able to leave. Sheridan tries to stop her, saying they aren’t her own people. Delenn counters, “I didn’t know similarity was required for the exercise of compassion.” When those around her suffer, their suffering becomes hers as well. It is never an act of condescension, but of true sympathy.
Delenn could have felt stilted or one note in the hands of a lesser actress. Mira Furlan brought grace, humor, and strength to the character. J. Michael Stracynski’s scripts gave her wonderful material to build upon. Furlan shined as Delenn, whether she was laughing at the idiosyncrasies of the English language, or calling out her leaders for their inaction. She now joins fellow cast members Richard Biggs, Tim Choate, Andreas Katsulas, Jeff Conaway, Michael O’Hare, Jerry Doyle, and Stephen Furst beyond the veil. I haven’t watched Babylon 5 again in a few years, but it’s time for a rewatch in their honor.