If Clone Cadets was one slice of bread and Rookies was the meat, the latest episode, ARC Troopers, would be the other slice of bread. (Wow, I can't believe I just made that analogy.) This episode served as the perfect closing bookend to the "growing up" story arc of Fives and Echo, and even though they may (and hopefully will) be seen again, I think it's safe to say that they reached their goal. With some fantastic visuals and a heartbreaking finale, this bittersweet episode had more than enough evidence of the third season's exceptional growth and progress.
I'll say this right off the bat: some of the shots in this episode looked like they could have been taken out of Revenge of the Sith. In particular, the sweep past the Republic fleet as the Separatists emerge from hyperspace was phenomenal. If that was too brief to establish a true ROTS feel, perhaps you were even more thrilled when the space battle began. Every explosion, screaming starship fly-by, and barrel roll took the pitched battle up another notch. Another truly cinematic shot was the Republic Assault Ship pulling up alongside a building in Tipoca City to unload the Jedi and their clones. Later in the episode, we were given another incredible shot of Tipoca City, this time with several octopus droids hammering away at the buildings. I also noticed that Obi-Wan's character model appears to have been updated; the TCW team is slowly eradicating all traces of a "wooden" look in their characters. If the rest of the season looks this good, we're in for a treat.
The attack on Kamino was exciting for a number of reasons, both obvious and subtle. On the obvious side of things, we have two impressive lightsaber duels. I really like that Anakin vs. Asajj and Obi-Wan vs. Grievous have become two long-standing conflicts that keep flaring throughout the series. Each Jedi has his own "white whale" whose defeat is his mission. The musical cue when Obi-Wan revealed himself to Grievous was quite good, and it captured Grievous's exhilaration at facing the Jedi Master again. I enjoyed the fact that Grievous used his spinning-saber move like we saw (or, I guess, will eventually see) in ROTS. Asajj and Anakin definitely have a strange relationship, but I like it, because it's definite animosity, but there's a tinge of worthiness in both sets of eyes. They almost respect each other's tenacity. Asajj both expects and relishes these confrontations. The lightsaber duels in this series keep getting better, with more interesting moves being employed and more agility being displayed. I particularly liked Obi-Wan's double Force-push and Asajj's chest-kick to Anakin when she was lying on the ground. At the end of the Anakin/Asajj duel, the Republic narrowly avoided losing the container (flash drive?) with the clone DNA (how many gigabytes do you think that was?), thanks to the arrival of a group of clones. There was a great moment from that scene when the only sound you could hear was the clone blasters clicking as they were trained on Asajj.
It's clear from the start of this episode that defending Kamino is, as Cody says, personal for the clones. It's their home world. As we saw, Fives and Echo remember training here, and they glance nostalgically at the passing clone cadets who remind them of their earliest days. They even run into 99 in that hallway, and he shows them the medal given to him by now-deceased Domino Squad comrade Heavy. It's a bittersweet reunion -- while they rejoin an old friend for the impending battle, they must also recall the death of a lost friend at a past battle. That doesn't dampen their enthusiasm for the fight ahead, though. As the clones say, "This is our war." The emphasis is most definitely on our in this situation, because outside of Kamino they're really fighting someone else's war.
Once the battle begins, we are immediately besieged with scores of clones falling right and left. The scene where the ARC trooper told 99 to leave right before being killed was very sad. Not because we really knew that clone, but because it was so sudden -- it felt like we were right next to him when it happened, and he was just talking to us. It definitely engendered more of a sense of remorse than most of the clones we saw dying. And the smoking wound in his helmet definitely complimented the darkness of that shot as 99 scrambled for cover. Speaking of 99, he really proved himself throughout this episode. Finally, the fight is near him, around him, directly affecting him, and as he said, a Separatist victory would mean the end for him and his brothers. Now he doesn't have to be cleared to ship out in order to fight the enemy. For once, he can prove that he's capable of really helping out. More on him later, sadly.
At times, the entire battle seemed very fluid. There was one moment when we saw a trooper fire a rocket, which hit an octopus droid, which slid off the roof to the platform, just as Asajj rushed past it. That's a good cinematic technique to emphasize the simultaneity of combat, and I'm pleased to see the TCW team employ it here. Of course, the battle in the barracks was no less exciting. The hallways were bathed in eerie red emergency lighting, which set a grim background for the fast-paced battle that ensued there. The clones' plan to hide young cadets in the slide-out bunk beds was genius, and this helped them turn the tide of the battle and gain back the ground they were losing to the incoming droids.
Despite the cool look of the new aqua droids, they seemed to be no more capable of individual battle proficiency. Only their sheer numbers gave them the initial upper hand. I would have preferred fewer but more skilled droids, like the commando units that we saw in Rookies. However, I will say that the regular battle droids are doing one thing right: being battle droids instead of comic relief. Seriously, it's amazing how different they are from Season 1's droids. If you just watch the series sequentially and never delve back into old seasons, it's almost impossible to imagine them acting like they did very early on. (Granted, they're still terrible at fighting, but at least they're trying.) Another thing I was impressed by on the Separatist side was Grievous's ploy of disguising octopus droid components as debris. It was a smart move, although perhaps the Republic's scanners should have picked up active, intact electrical components in the "debris."
I think the Separatists' interest in the clone DNA went unnoticed -- or at least unremarked on -- by many people. Before the premiere, the episode was set up as a simple assault. But I wonder what the Separatists planned on doing with the DNA. I would expect the Kaminoans to do something to the genetic signature that would make it impossible for other, competing cloners to use. In any event, that's the kind of thing that should become a long-term plan that they try to achieve over the course of several episodes.
Asajj Ventress was definitely a force to be reckoned with in this episode, no pun intended. The way she slaughtered the ARC trooper was gruesome and eerie, especially because of his facial expression in the split second before his death. Yet despite her menace, I was more preoccupied with trying to figure out the nature of her relationship with Grievous. During their holoconference in the beginning of the episode, Grievous said he looked forward to meeting Asajj ("Let's do lunch my dear!"). Then when they met up in the Tipoca City corridor, Grievous offered to lend Asajj a droid escort ("Do you need a big strong man robot to protect you on your mission?"). He even grabbed her arm to stop her while he said this, and she responded by ... what? Caressing his cyborg chin? I think Grievous may have some twisted metal affection for Asajj, and that's kind of weird. Even if it were two fully-organic beings, it would still be distracting, because we don't expect that from either of these Separatists. Of course, Grievous and Asajj went back to their usual angry selves when he picked her up on his way off-planet. I think the TCW team cut a few seconds off of the escape scene inside Grievous's ship, but you could definitely see him shake his head and see Asajj respond with a grimace. Clearly she resents having to be rescued by Grievous. (Although in all fairness, he didn't exactly make a triumphant departure from his fight with Obi-Wan.)
Before I get to the downer in this episode, a few funny lines. The first was from Anakin when Obi-Wan headed underwater to investigate the "debris." Showing his traditional overconfidence, Anakin said, "Only you could be worried about the ships I already shot down." Zing! The other funny line was Obi-Wan's, spoken when a flying Aiwha beast (presumably the same one as before) saved his life after Grievous escaped. Obi-Wan said, "We've got to stop meeting like this." (I bet Asajj thinks the same thing about Grievous!)
Of course, as a minor hero introduced to teach a lesson about loyalty against all odds, 99 had to die. A lot of us saw it coming when he entered the fight. Watching the episode with a group of people in the TFN chat room, I remember that several of them predicted his death as soon as he said he could go get more grenades. It was expected, but no less sad. In fact, the entire event seemed to be exquisitely crafted to induce maximum sadness: dramatic music (which swelled when 99 was finally shot in the back), then quieter sounds of blaster fire in the shocked aftermath, and finally 99's last facial expressions. It was poignant, but then Shaak Ti raised Cody on his comlink, and the commander had to respond immediately as if nothing had happened. The scene was tragic for a moment, and then it was back to the battle. Later, as the clone cadets celebrated their victory, Cody remarked that they had lost a brother in the fight, adding, "He really was one of us." In the end, 99 truly earned that comment.
The promotion of Echo and Fives to ARC Troopers sort of completes their own personal story arcs in a sense. First Clone Cadets, then Rookies, and now ARC Troopers -- the episodes featuring these two clones were named to mark their progress as soldiers. We've become familiar with Fives and Echo, and I'd like it if we continued to see them attached to missions that coincided with those of our heroes. Cody and Rex are great clones, but the more troopers we can legitimately recognize on-screen ("Hey, he was the one from...!"), the better.
This episode review is dedicated to 99, even if he was a little short for a clone trooper.