Coming of Age: The Growth of Vir Cotto
Beginnings: Capable of a “Well-Deserved” Humility
In the second season episode There All the Honor Lies, Vir reveals that his family sent him to Babylon 5 to be rid of him, and that previous to his assignment as Londo Mollari’s attaché, he had held a number of positions that were ultimately personally isolating or disastrous. Vir is, at the start, a failure by noble Centauri standards, fundamentally lacking the ruthlessness and ambition required for advancement in the royal court. Held in contempt by his family and ignored by his countrymen, Vir is also, I believe, a deeply lonely figure desperately seeking some place where he can fit in.
It is true that when Vir first arrives on Babylon 5 a fat, meek, clumsy, stammering young man in a seemingly perpetual terror of Londo, he is not much to look at. Still, even as early as The War Prayer, we see that there may be something more to Vir than his outer childishness- that he’s not beyond quietly holding a subversive notion or two. In a later episode, he is pegged as a radical for his beliefs on romantic love in particular, but the term “radical” is, in my opinion, inaccurate. Vir is too mindful of authority to wear that label.
A Reformer, Not a Radical
No where is Vir’s lack of radicalism more clear than in the second season, when he is faced with the central moral dilemma of his arc. Presented with the choice of rebelling against Londo outright versus seeking a change from within, he chooses the later. At every opportunity, Vir strenuously dissents from Londo’s course of action against the Narn, pleading with his superior to make a different choice. Yet still, while on Babylon 5, he obeys.
Many may understandably find this early caution frustrating. I, however, see it as a correct decision given the circumstance. All through the second season, Vir is negotiating from a position of powerlessness. Frank rebellion would’ve resulted in Vir being turned out into the wilds of obscurity or worse, leaving him subsequently unable to influence future events.
To be sure, there is little evidence to show that Vir is consciously influenced by these political considerations. Hands down, Vir’s principle motivations for staying the course are personal and emotional. Extremely uncertain of his own talents and capabilities, he hangs back. But even more importantly, he loves Londo and cannot bring himself to leave him behind.
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Vir’s relationship with Londo is unquestionably the emotional center of Vir’s arc.
As I’ve written in previous essays, the origin of Vir’s attachment to Londo is somewhat of a mystery canonically. I do, however, have a working theory that has informed my own writing:
As I mentioned earlier, Vir was a subject of ridicule in his family who was exiled to B5 simply to get him out of the way. There is a very strong implication that Vir grew up intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually neglected by others. Before Vir came to Babylon 5 and before Vir met Londo, no one gave a damn what fat little Vir Cotto thought. He was a fool, a joke, something to be pushed aside. He was probably shuttled from one job to the next completely dependent upon the whims of his superiors.
Londo, however, is different, likely because Londo himself is an outcast. For all of Londo's scolding and mistreatment of Vir- and for all of Londo's attempts to maintain the traditional power balance- he allows Vir into his private orbit. Londo really can't help himself. As often and as forcefully as he declares that he is fine being alone, at base he craves emotional intimacy and is constantly seeking the companionship of others.
Further, throughout the series, Vir is most gratified when he is told that he is indispensable. Even as early as Born to the Purple, when Vir is at his youngest and most child-like, we see how being entrusted by Londo with an important negotiation makes his face light up like a Christmas tree. Though Londo is certainly unaware of it at the time, that small display of trust is probably one of the first moments of positive attention Vir has ever received from an elder. Even Londo's injunction not to "give away the home world" doesn't distract Vir from that feeling of genuine pride.
And lastly: When I watch Londo in the first season, I see many possibilities- any number of might-have-beens. The anger, the depression, and the bitterness are all there, but so too are a core of nobility and romanticism, a natural sensuality, and a heart formed for friendship. Everyone, aside from the important exception of G'Kar, is a "good, dear friend" in Londo's universe. He is un-self-conscious in a crowd, unafraid to laugh out loud or look foolish. Garibaldi's line in The Fall of Night describing the early Londo as "our pain in the butt" encapsulates the exasperated affection Londo inspires in others.
It is entirely fathomable that Vir also gets swept up by this same affection. With Londo's tendency to rope in whoever happens to be there, the celebration in Parliament of Dreams is probably not the only social gathering to which Londo drags Vir. Londo is often genuinely likable and fun, and the sense of inclusion he provides for the shy and awkward Vir must be like rain in a desert. In essence, it is Vir's emotional starvation and Londo's irrepressible personal warmth that set the stage. The story of Londo & Vir is the story of a minor cult of personality becoming something more- something deeper, more complex, and more enduring. The thing that makes the relationship between Londo and Vir truly noteworthy- the one great irony- is the fact that their friendship grows stronger through events that may have shattered it. Despite everything, Vir continues to stand at Londo’s bedside when he is in extremis, continues to protect him, continues to hope that one day, Londo will listen, and, when Londo dies as a result of his own bad choices, continues to love and miss him.
In one sense, Londo and Vir begin as kindred spirits- both are outcasts, both are ridiculed. But in another very important sense, they are very different, for while Londo reacts to his status with deep resentment and shame, Vir simply never imagines that he could be anything else. And in assuming nothing, Vir is given a very crucial advantage. He is able to "walk through the corridors of power and not be touched" because the others believe he is a harmless fool and even more importantly because he himself believes he is nothing special. Inoculated from the negative influences in the royal court, Vir has been allowed to develop an unusually strong sense of right and wrong and, amazingly, given the probable neglect in his background, an equally unusual well of compassion. Though appearing naïve on the surface, Vir has emerged from a lifetime of abuse with a wisdom that exceeds his years.
Vir: A Serious Character in the Second Season
This is an argument I’ve been harping again and again, because I really feel it can’t be emphasized enough: Vir becomes a truly serious, influential character as early as The Geometry of Shadows.
In the The Geometry of Shadows, Vir emerges for the first time as Londo’s conscience. As a witness to Londo’s earliest meeting with Lord Refa, we see subtle signs of Vir’s discomfort. We also see Vir trying to counsel Londo to let the Technomages alone, to no avail. And we see the first indication that Vir is fundamentally built of stronger stuff than his elder. While Vir amusingly can’t hold his liquor worth a damn, he faces down Elric’s illusory monster in a remarkable show of courage. Compare this with Londo’s later obsequious cringing, and Vir comes off looking far braver than his master.
From this point on, Vir’s few scenes in the second season are largely serious and content oriented. In The Coming of Shadows, Vir's misgivings about Refa and about Morden are brought into even sharper focus. The central scene for Vir in this episode is deadly serious, his suspicion evolving into fear and anger. When, to Vir's horror, Londo makes his first conscious decision to utilize the services of Mr. Morden, there is no "Maybe you shouldn't"- there is only "Don't!" And when that falls on deaf ears and Vir's desperation fades to resignation, the anger remains. "No, I will go. I will find him and I will bring him back. But one day, I will remind you of this conversation and maybe then- then- you'll understand!" he warns fervently, absolutely certain that the path Londo’s choosing is the path to hell. And at the end of the episode, with the choice made and the deed done, Vir icily refuses Refa's cup and can only look at his friend with profound disappointment. This is no buffoon. This is someone who is morally centered, appropriately angry, and very, very right.
As previously mentioned, the second season episode There All the Honor Lies gives us the clearest glimpse of Vir’s backstory. But we also see the emotional toll of the war with the Narn- the strain of the dissonance between Vir’s personal feelings for Londo and his deep, moral objection to Londo’s politics. “I’m trapped between fire and flood,” he says, “and if there’s a way out, I sure don’t see it.” We see Vir’s independent personhood- his pain- in sharp relief. In one of the most underrated scenes in Babylon 5 history, Vir drunkenly unloads everything on a previously oblivious Londo- his loneliness, his anger, his frustration and sorrow at being dragged down with Londo, and his fear that he is losing himself and his own dreams in the process. The last is a poignant theme to which Vir’s storyline returns two seasons later.
A third- and this time more famous- major scene takes place during Comes the Inquisitor after the fall of Narn. At the start of the episode, G’Kar shouts to all passerby in the Zocalo that the Centauri are coming for them next. All are distinctly reluctant to heed his words- all, that is, except Vir, who observes in grim silence. The payoff for this comes several scenes later when Vir boards a transport tube and discovers that G’Kar is the other passenger. Here, Vir does what Londo is incapable of doing at this point- he conquers his instinctive fear, faces G’Kar, takes the guilt of the war upon himself- even though, strictly speaking, there was little a young man in his position could’ve done to stop the course of events- and apologizes. And in a moment that stands among the best of the series, G'Kar turns around, slices his hand, and forces Vir to face the permanence of what the Centauri have done, leaving the sweet-natured Vir in tears. Vir’s actions in the third season, I believe, can be traced in part to this singular moment.
Of Empowerment and Underestimation
There is a note of tragedy in Vir’s assignment to Minbar- a sense of frustration and disappointment that Londo has sunk so far that he feels he must put a redeeming friendship away from him. But the move on balance is an empowering one for Vir. Though his lack of confidence still drives him to seek out Londo’s advice on the particulars of diplomatic leadership, Vir’s newfound power also allows him to act upon his own convictions.
I love Sic Transit Vir completely and without shame. It is Vir’s shining moment, and a fantastic demonstration of the folly of conflating outward clumsiness with a lack of intelligence. For all of his bumbling and ineloquence, Vir manages to create the fiction of Abrahamo Lincolni and in the process saves thousands of Narn completely on the sly. This is another big reason why I am driven mad by the emphasis on the comic aspects of Vir’s character on the DVD commentaries.
Vir is consistently and unjustly underrated and underestimated, not only in meta-commentary, but also in the show itself. In fact, the element that troubles me the most in Sic Transit Vir is the manner in which Vir’s underground operation is revealed. Why do Ivanova and Sheridan storm into Londo's quarters without discussing the matter with Vir first? There's an implication here that is interesting- that Ivanova, Sheridan, et. al. may like Vir well enough at this point (there's a distinct note of fondness in Sheridan's voice when he recounts the fight with the Narn to Ivanova), but they don't really trust him. That perhaps, on a subconscious level, they believe Vir is more lackey than independent mind- that he is incapable of standing up to his superior. But they are wrong- just as Londo is wrong for taking Vir for granted.
The End of Childhood
In the late third season and early fourth season, events serve to almost completely divorce Vir from the vestiges of his childish naiveté. The first of these takes place in And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, when he learns in devastating fashion that Londo is capable of using even him. Londo's actions in And the Rock could have utterly destroyed his relationship with Vir. Recall that what Vir needs most is to feel that he is needed and trusted, and Vir's anger becomes even more understandable. In essence, what Londo does in this episode, whether he intends to or not, is imply that Vir is dispensable given an appropriate cause. This is what hurts Vir more than anything. It's not that Londo is capable of manipulating people, and it's not that Londo is capable of seeing to someone's grisly demise. Vir knows these things already. It's that Londo would be so willing to betray Vir's trust.
It is a true testament to Vir's strength and compassionate character that even this does not drive him to abandon his friend. However, there is a disturbing finality to the final scene of And the Rock. “I thought I knew you. But I guess I never really did, did I?” Vir says heatedly before he storms out of sight. Though Vir remains at Londo's side, one senses the end of an era in their relationship, a sensation that grows more acute as the fourth season begins.
We don’t see how Vir and Londo manage to repair their relationship in the aftermath of And the Rock, but it is evident in the arc encompassed by The Hour of the Wolf through Into the Fire that Londo’s impression of Vir has changed. The plot to assassinate Cartagia is a conspiracy of equals. Londo does not merely order Vir to comply, but appeals to his friendship and patriotism and asks him, as a fellow politician and adult, to assist. In the process, Vir is confronted with a sickening brutality beyond match and some of the darker capabilities of his own soul.
I’ve taken to calling the climactic scene in The Long Night “G’Kar’s Passion” because of its blatant Biblical imagery- “the stuff of legend” indeed, though not the sort of legend Cartagia had in mind. It is, as selenak once said, an “awesome” moment when G’Kar, battered and less one eye, at last breaks his chains and fights back.
But the truly brilliant surprise of the episode occurs when Vir strikes the blow that kills Cartagia. And the look on his face in the foreground as we fade to black- one of absolute and utter shock- is probably Stephen Furst’s best reaction take ever.
This is when it all crashes down for Vir- this is when it suddenly hits home that he has traveled a path he had no intention of traveling. It’s not simply that he has just murdered someone for the first time. What he says through his tears and intoxication speaks to something much broader and less specific. The last time we saw Vir trying to drown his sorrow with alcohol, he lamented that “I don’t even know what I wish.” Here, with crushing clarity, he suddenly does know- he wants a simple, humble, unassuming life. But now, with all that has happened, that avenue is permanently closed. Just as Londo has taken yet one more step on his path to a throne he’s no longer sure he really wants (as evidenced by his great reluctance to take on the post of Prime Minister) and G’Kar has taken one more step on his path to prophet-hood even while rejecting the offer of political power (that scene being an interesting parallel of Londo’s), Vir has now begun his own rise to power and prominence.
“Don’t you know that all I ever wanted was… just a good job,” Vir says to Londo in Stephen Furst’s best, most poignant performance. “A small title… nothing fancy. Maybe a wife I could love. Maybe even on who could actually love someone like me. I never wanted to be here. I never wanted to know the things that I know, or to do… to do the things that I’ve done.”
Vir and the War for Centauri Prime
Vir is non-violent by nature, but he is also a character caught by the inevitables in the human (sentient?) condition. Thrust into a war of archetypal proportions, he is forced to kill for the greater good and it is agony for this man who has never raised a hand in anger. But- and this is the key- he still does what he has to do. I don't believe the assassination of Emperor Cartagia was an accident (and JMS doesn't believe it was either, by the way). He had to prepare the needle to strike. Which means he had to make a deliberate decision to kill.
Throughout canon (and I’m including the novels in this analysis), Vir lives in that messy grey area between patriotism and cosmopolitanism, between loyalty to home and loyalty to the greater good. Yes- in many ways, Vir is a subversive by Centauri standards. But he never, ever abandons his people, nor cheers on their enemies- he guards them and cares for them even as he seeks to change them.
Put another way, Vir’s relationship with Londo is a microcosm of Vir’s relationship with his world. He loves the Centauri in the same way he loves his friend. It’s a frustrated, complicated, sometimes painful love, but it’s a love that’s real and true. And when it comes time to act in his people’s benefit, Vir does so, even if it means going against his deeply rooted gentleness and pacifism.
Even if it means living afterwards with the burden of his own guilt.
As I touched on before, Vir is not a radical. He is not temperamentally suited for the role of lone rebel. Circumstances in the Legions of Fire novels, however, force him into this mold, to his own personal misery. Londo is right to call Vir a Centauri patriot, for it is Vir’s Centauri sense of duty that drives him to take on the mantle of resistance leader and redeemer of his world in utter isolation. At every juncture, he begs to be allowed to handle matters on Centauri Prime without the Alliance in “the Centauri way,” thereby laying an incredible burden on his own shoulders. And throughout the novels, we see that burden harden him. He becomes more skilled in the arts of manipulation and realpolitik. He learns how to fight and how to lead. And he aches for all of it and continues to wish on some level that he could go back to the innocence of his youth, even as he knows that he cannot.
The Basic Why
Vir Cotto’s character arc is Babylon 5’s great coming-of-age story, and Vir’s transformation throughout is arguably one of the most dramatic. He begins a child- a cast-off- and becomes at various points a Centauri de Sousa Mendes, an assassin, a resistance leader and saboteur, and, in the end, the leader of an intergalactic empire. And beneath all of this runs a poignant chronicle of a loss of innocence- a chronicle of friendship and tragedy and patriotism and unconditional love.
Additionally, Vir is profoundly endearing as a person. He is shy, unfailingly polite, optimistic, often funny, compassionate and very affectionate. He simply makes me smile whenever he’s on screen. Honestly, who doesn’t love Vir’s wicked, cheery taunting of Morden? Or his retreat behind Londo’s hair when he is introduced to his arranged bride? Or his wide-eyed sexual inexperience? Vir is just so very huggable- so impossible to resist.