The Clone Wars Season 4 Episode 14: A Friend In Need
As The Clone Wars grew and improved to meet the long-term goals of its creators, one of the things it always needed to tackle was the development and evolution of its most important protagonist: Ahsoka Tano. I say "most important" instead of "main" because while there is clearly a trio of main characters, the show's most important figure is the one it created and will be responsible for molding. Hence, Ahsoka's role on the show will be watched more closely than anyone else's, save perhaps Rex, for similar reasons. With this in mind, it was important that we get episodes like A Friend In Need -- stories that depict her simultaneously powering up and wising up. As Ahsoka has grown, she's learned more and trained more, compounding her understanding of the Clone Wars and her ability to face its biggest challenges. After watching the fourteenth episode of Season Four, I think we can safely say that Ahsoka is a forced to be reckoned with in a way that few expected after her August 2008 theatrical debut.
For an episode with such a small cast, A Friend In Need pulled off some pretty big things. Ahsoka and R2 were the only main characters. Lux is a relatively minor figure whose arc hasn't been developed much. So the stakes were high and Ahsoka really had to carry the show. She passed that test, just like her Death Watch faceoff test, with flying colors. But even before we get to her and others' specific roles, I'd like to point out some general observations about this episode. First of all, the action sequences were very tight and well-coordinated. Dialog seemed sparser than in most episodes, but because the story was really about Ahsoka proving her skills, it worked better to have more acrobatics and fewer witty quips. The episode featured great music at the end as Ahsoka dueled Pre Vizsla; it was just powerful enough to be cinematic without distracting from the actual fighting.
I also think the plot from the beginning of the episode was interesting -- oh yeah, remember those peace talks? Suffice it to say that, as a fan of nuance in my Star Wars, seeing actual peace talks on-screen was a delight. I have consistently applauded when TCW's writers attempt to infuse some of the war's subtler aspects into their storylines. Even though we only briefly saw the talks taking place -- and even though Ahsoka's rescue of Lux was the catalyst for their complete erosion -- it was enough to know that this option was being explored. Given that Darth Sidious is pulling all the strings here, the very existence of these peace talks suggests that Palpatine couldn't figure out a way to defeat them. The circumstances surrounding his failure to exercise control in this scenario would make an interesting episode all on its own.
Fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of Death Watch, and for those viewers looking to see more brutality and lethality from these ex-Mandalorian mercenaries, A Friend In Need didn't disappoint. Seeing as Death Watch only had a minor role up to now in the series, it was great to see and learn more about their culture and practices. Their depiction in this episode obviously solidified their mercenary reputation and primed us for their return (especially Pre Vizsla and Katee Sackhoff's Bo-Katan) in Season 5. As expected, Jon Favreau was menacing and brilliant as Vizsla. His performance enhanced the character's reputation as a Boba Fett-like figure, in the middle of the conflict but with tactics more closely aligned to one side.
Speaking of Vizsla and Death Watch's tactics, let's talk captured women. I found the "female villager slaves" story element an interesting one as it related to the Death Watch warriors' personalities and ethos. This factor distinguished them from a dangerous loner like Boba Fett. It cast them as a barbarian group -- admittedly one with advanced weaponry, but with primitive customs nonetheless. The slavery subplot also gave Ahsoka a chance to play leader and morale-booster like she did with the lost Padawans at the end of Season 3, even though this encouragement happened briefly and off-screen. The fact that she was thrust into that role again, however temporarily, added to her experience as a strong young woman fending for herself on the battlefield.
The naïve tribe element of this episode, an extension of the aforementioned slave-women plot point, was basically just an excuse to prove Death Watch's brutality to Lux. That said, they certainly were brutal. After going over this episode in my head a few times, I figured out why I didn't see Vizsla's back-stab coming even though it's happened before on The Clone Wars. I didn't expect it because, in this case, Vizsla killed a child. Sure, she was an older child, but nevertheless, she was cast as the daughter of the village leader and emphasis was placed on her youthful innocence. Her murder was the darkest part of this episode, grimmer even than the warriors' use of flamethrowers that ravaged the village and implicitly set many people ablaze as well.
I'd actually be interested to know how many parents let their young kids watch this episode without screening it first. Those who opted to screen it probably made the right choice. While we didn't see any burning corpses, that much was certainly implied when the Death Watch mercs brought their flamethrowers to bear. Plus, there was that whole innocent-village-daughter-being-stabbed-through-the-back moment.
Intermixed with these brutal scenes were a few moments of levity. I could probably count them on one hand if I tried, and most of them came from R2 and his heroics. Oftentimes, R2 appears in an episode but doesn't really do much. I'm glad that A Friend In Need diverted from this approach. Not only were his mannerisms and noises perfectly orchestrated, but he actually had a task worthy of an organic being, like in R2 Come Home oh so many episodes ago. The droid torture sequence was a nice touch for the Death Watch camp, and as soon as I saw those pitiful automatons and heard the largest droid whining "Why, why?", I knew it was going to be an R2-saves-the-day-with-his-droid-followers kind of story.
The sequence with R2 marshalling his droid troops was upbeat and poignant in a way that kept this episode from being completely sinister and depressing. Even though his new friends were destroyed almost immediately, they got to do their part and contribute to another example of R2-D2 being the real hero. Somebody get that little guy an oil bath! (Fun fact about R2's heroics: Ahsoka's line of gratitude for his second save, "That's two I owe ya," was a nice reference to the conversation between Han and post-Wampa Luke in Echo Base.)
Shifting gears here, I also have some thoughts on Ahsoka's old friend and apparent new flame, Lux Bonteri. His plan, arrogant as it seemed at first, actually rested on an assumption that I think is central to Ahsoka's character -- namely, that she would rescue him. What does it say about Lux's confidence in Ahsoka's personality that he knew she'd go after him? Or was it just because she was a heroic Jedi? In any event, Lux's estimation of Ahsoka illuminated a core aspect of her personality: her selflessness. In the series' earliest episodes, Ahsoka was brash and overconfident, making mistakes because she didn't stop and await the instructions of her experienced Master. Then she learned to act with restraint and deference to Anakin. In A Friend In Need, we saw her combine the initial boldness with a maturity that wasn't originally present. She didn't wait for Padmé to suggest that she pursue Lux; she barely waited for Padmé to approve the action. Lux's plan to avenge his mother's death rested as much on how Ahsoka would respond to his capture as it did on what Death Watch could do for him once he joined them.
The fact that Lux's only recourse was to join Death Watch again reflects the fragmented nature of the galaxy and the ways in which neither side offers the kind of justice that some noncombatants demand. Too preoccupied with fighting Dooku's Separatists, the Republic evidently did nothing to look into Mina Bonteri's murder, despite her high profile as a Separatist advocating for peace with the Republic. Lux's plan highlighted the desperation of ordinary people caught between the two sides in this war. To the uninformed and grieving, Death Watch presents an attractive avenue for revenge. And as Pre Vizsla points out, the young man's motives aren't that different from those of Death Watch. Both Lux and Vizsla want to put Dooku in his place for what he's done to them. Neither of them is pleased with the Republic's lethargy and corruption, but they despise Dooku too much to align directly with the Confederacy. These similarities do not bode well for Lux's future, barring a serious intervention by Ahsoka and her Jedi friends.
For all the commentary that can be provided about Lux and Death Watch, A Friend In Need was really about Ahsoka getting to show off her insanely developed combat prowess. An apt subtitle for this episode would be "Where's your snippy baby Jedi now, disappointed older Star Wars fans?" I cannot emphasize enough how great it is to see episodes chronicling the fact that Ahsoka is growing by leaps and bounds, both emotionally and in terms of her Jedi training. There were several moments when her voice, masterfully provided by the amazing Ashley Eckstein, developed a frustrated edge reminiscent of Anakin or Obi-Wan. In posture, action, and words, she emulated many of the Jedi Masters we've seen around her. These facets of Ahsoka's developing personality combined during the episode's climax, as she proved that it was a mistake to underestimate her. By any conceivable account, this was not the same Togrutan we met in Season 1.
The absolute best moment in the episode, and perhaps the entire season, was Ahsoka's double-slash that decapitated four Death Watch guards in a moment worthy of Anakin Skywalker himself. Ahsoka's duel with Pre Vizsla was evenly matched, with his superior physical strength facing off against her discipline and determination. As someone who's always appreciated cleverness in live-action duels, it was nice to see Vizsla's contempt for Ahsoka blind him to her calculated strike on his jetpack. I thoroughly enjoyed their tightly-choreographed, fast-paced confrontation, and I was glad to see Ahsoka do so well.
Besides her skill in combat, Ahsoka had other important moments in this episode, including one early on when Anakin contacted her ship. I pay close attention to facial expressions when characters with close relationships are talking, and in this conversation, I noticed something important. When Lux apologized for the trouble he'd caused and Ahsoka quickly supported him, I was happy to see Anakin give her a look of curiosity. It reminded me of the look that Obi-Wan gave Anakin in Attack of the Clones, right after young Skywalker promised Padmé that the Jedi would capture her would-be assassin. There was a tinge of "Your thoughts betray you, Snips" in that glance, and it can only mean more intrigue if Lux reappears in Ahsoka's life.
As if young Bonteri's lust for vengeance wasn't enough to make his presence compelling, there were also a few light-hearted moments between Ahsoka and him that played off their potential budding romance. I think we can all agree that Han/Leia was better on-screen than Anakin/Padmé. The latter didn't really work because, among other things, their banter was neither funny nor organic -- it was awkward and forced. On that note, and while I realize that this may be rushing things, I'm actually a fan of how Ahsoka and Lux interact as a "couple." There's something very Han/Leia about them. One of the best examples of this was when Ahsoka muttered to Lux, "Careful not to choke on your stupidity." It was a great Leia-esque line that perfectly evoked a "You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" sentiment. Her headstrong personality, clearly influenced by Anakin, is developing well. As a side-note, I found it funny that Ahsoka's first on-screen kiss was a fake one, done to avoid raising suspicion. Such is the love life of a Jedi, I suppose.
A Friend In Need combined excellent voice work for primary characters with cinematic fight choreography to give us an eye-opening look at Ahsoka's talent and an appreciation for how much she's grown. While I wish we'd seen an episode where Death Watch actually went after Dooku, the story we did get served several important purposes. First, it focused on Ahsoka's increasingly disciplined personality and fighting style. Second, it shed light on the nuances of the Clone Wars and featured an example of the crumbling diplomatic framework that will give rise to Palpatine's New Order. Third, it fleshed out Ahsoka and Lux's complicated but meaningful relationship.
This third point leads me to my analysis of the episode's final scene, one that I sincerely hope will have long-lasting ramifications for both characters. That final conversation between the two young characters proved that, while they made a good team, they were from different worlds, different worldviews, and different supporting environments. With the departure of Lux and the second hiatus in their cautious friendship, Ahsoka understood with renewed frustration that individuals and their interests aren't always clear-cut. In considering Lux's motives and background, she discarded her inadequate two-sided view of the Clone Wars.
In the year and three months since the November 2010 airing of Heroes on Both Sides, viewers have been asking for more of the nuance and complexity that we briefly glimpsed in that story. Heroes on Both Sides opened up a new philosophical front in The Clone Wars, one that must be central to any long-term narrative about this conflict. It's important to keep in mind the war's grey area, no matter how black-and-white a Sith-vs.-Jedi war may seem. A Friend In Need further explored that grey area, giving the audience and Ahsoka a better understanding of what propels everyday people caught up in this galactic struggle.