Even while I say it’s a nightmare, however, the episode is still directed and presented in such a way that makes it feel shockingly real, with no surreal flourishes. Although one might guess that Rygel’s “death” would tip off the viewer that there’s a twist coming, nothing else pings that sort of radar. It seems too direct and straightforward to be a dream–and it isn’t one–which makes it very difficult, on a first viewing, to figure out what is happening. For all we know at this point, Rygel was actually killed in an out-of-nowhere shock (Farscape had already proven itself to be this off-kilter and bold in the past), and the episode will end with John and Aeryn somehow freeing D’Argo and them all escaping Earth somehow, never to return. Come to think of it, the fact that we don’t see D’Argo die helps legitimize the proceedings even further. It’s one thing to kill the puppet character, but had they killed D’Argo on screen, as well–two major characters in one pop, in one episode just over halfway through season 1–it would have been too much to possibly accept. By leaving the chance that D’Argo’s still alive at another facility for now, however, one can almost come to consider that maybe, just maybe, the show really did off Rygel.
As always, Ben Browder is absolutely superb throughout the hour, the arc of his performance so finely tuned that its build from initial joy at getting home to annoyance and defiance at being locked up to outright rage at the murder of Rygel feels entirely natural. By the point he is holding Cobb, one of Wilson’s men, at gunpoint with Aeryn and clocking him on the head, you truly believe his desperation and his utter disgust at what his people have done to his friends. Because what this episode accomplishes, above all else, is to force John to realize, head-on, once and for all, that Earth isn’t the idealized place that he had been holding onto all this time. He had made one reference to its negative qualities in “They’ve Got a Secret,” but still, it had been easy at that point, far from home, to disregard its overall flaws as being anomalous, particularly to his day-to-day existence there. But now that he’s been to other worlds and has come back and sees how cruelly his home is treating his friends, terrified of them just because they are different, he realizes what a small, closed-off place it is, full of some hateful people, particularly those in positions of power. When Aeryn tells him he has to choose between his people/planet of origin and her/his new friends, he is forced to make the exact same decision she had to make in “Premiere,” and just as she ultimately chose to go with him, so does he go with her.
At the end of the episode, John will, of course, learn that none of this was real but that it was a physical place (or at least an illusion that wasn’t in his head) that an alien race known as the Ancients created from his memories in order to test whether Earth would welcome them should they decide to travel there in order to replenish their race (like John, they’re also trying to find home). Everything that happens is, therefore, an extrapolation from his own subconscious knowledge of the people of Earth. Fascinatingly, this means that even the up-to-this-point young, idealistic Crichton on some level knew of these dangers and of what humans are capable. (Ironically, at the start of the episode, John thought being in space might be aging him. In fact, it’s going back to “Earth” that starts to break him.) Although of course this exact scenario isn’t 100% guaranteed, there is a high enough likelihood of humanity not welcoming them that the Ancients write it off for now. And that makes him feel truly ashamed, as well as consider for the first time on some level that Earth might not be home for him anymore. That isn’t to say that he’ll stop trying to get back there, but the seeds of doubt have been laid. Is it possible, even in the relatively short time he’s been gone, that he’s seen, learned, experienced, and changed too much to ever be able to be fully happy there again? And that gap between him and his former life will only continue to widen from this point onwards.
It says something about John’s essential goodness and moral compass that even the possibility of Earth behaving at its worst lessens his blind affection for it, as well as that, although humanity on the whole has failed the test, that John hasn’t. He has proven himself to the Ancients, and we later learn that they secretly bestow a gift upon him here, burying all of the wormhole knowledge he will need to get home in his subconscious memory. Significantly, Browder confirms on the DVD commentary that the flashback scene in which this occurs, which we see in “The Hidden Memory,” was actually filmed the same day as the rest of the final John/”Jack” scene, meaning the writers did know where the plot was going for the season, even if they didn’t necessarily realize yet how important the Ancients would be to the series’ overall arc.
Another truly brilliant aspect of the episode is that even with all of Earth’s worst qualities on full display, it also takes time to show that John isn’t the only good thing about it. For one, “Jack” ultimately proves himself trustworthy both to John and Aeryn, and while, yes, Crichton later learns that he’s actually an Ancient masquerading as Jack (versus the other characters, who–although it’s never confirmed exactly what they’re made from–seem to essentially be the equivalent of Star Trek holodeck characters), he is based on Crichton’s memories and knowledge of his father, and is such a convincing replica, John couldn’t tell the difference. And even given how Earth is ultimately judged, “Jack” doesn’t write off all humans, again largely due to John himself. Furthermore, even given all that Aeryn goes through, she manages to note the planet’s aesthetic appeal, even when Crichton can’t bring himself to. She opens her mouth and revels at the new experience of feeling and tasting rain for the first time (another great instance of something that seems so commonplace to us being revealed to be completely alien to her, just as it’s usually the other way around for John), and she later comments on the beautiful view outside of their motel room window. In “Rhapsody in Blue,” John was frustrated by how unimpressed Aeryn always is by everything they come across in the Uncharted Territories, but here, their position has completely flipped. He doesn’t want to hear about the alien nectar that the beer he gives her reminds him of, while she’s the one acknowledging some genuine awe at Earth, despite everything it has done to her. And, early on, she had been the one who had scoffed at the idea of this backwoods little planet.