The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 2: A War on Two Fronts
If this season of The Clone Wars is going to focus on bringing out the inner turmoil that threatens to consume the Republic, the Jedi, and the men and women who serve both institutions, I can think of no finer template for how to do that than the season's second episode, A War on Two Fronts. This episode had everything: combat, dialog, humor, personal growth, self-doubt, and even a touch of romance, albeit a tangled one. The introduction of the rebel movement on Onderon will no doubt play a large role in events to come, and it is my hope that the return of Lux will have the same impact on the life of one Togrutan Jedi commander.
Let's start with the Separatist occupation of Onderon itself. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit a location where the war isn't raging, but instead, regular folks go about their daily lives with what seemed like minimal harassment from the Separatists. While the rebels obviously had reasons to want to repel the occupation force, it seemed that the Confederacy of Independent Systems was not engaged in pitched battle on Onderon. Rather, this was a mostly stable -- if, to some, unpalatable -- situation. It was a break from the usual routine of the Jedi arriving on a planet to repel an invasion force, à la Naboo or Maridun.
Interestingly, the de facto rebel leader, Saw Gerrera, mentioned that the "true king" of Onderon had been replaced by a tool of the Separatists. While I did not feel like it was necessary to further explore what had happened there, I was pleased to hear a reference to the internal politics that all too often accompany a planet's capitulation to the Separatists. There will always been those in the political machine of a planetary government who oppose outside intervention, particularly in the form of droid soldiers, but as this episode made clear, Separatist sympathizers (and, presumably, the Separatists themselves) have ways of making those dissenting voices disappear. Saw's denouncement of Onderon's current government alluded to how complicated it can be to assess what the residents of a planet truly "want" in the context of the Clone Wars.
This question was unavoidable in the chambers of the Jedi High Council, as we saw in the episode's phenomenal opening scene. Yoda, Obi-Wan, Mace, and Anakin engaged in a discussion that I felt got to the heart of the Jedi Order's ongoing descent into ruin. The Council faced a difficult philosophical choice: How involved could they get in Onderon's internal affairs? If Saw was wrong, and this was the preference of the legitimate government, who were they to interfere? The Order lends an air of moral legitimacy to whatever course it chooses to pursue, and the heavy burden facing Yoda, Mace, and the others is how and when to bring that institutional legitimacy to bear.
Obi-Wan and Anakin's disagreement formed the crucial division in this episode. It lay beneath almost every scene and passed between the two Jedi with every look they shared. Obi-Wan didn't want to risk losing the war just to win the battle. He considered sponsoring terrorism to be a step down the path to the Dark Side. Predictably enough, Yoda agreed with him. Anakin, on the other hand, demonstrated that he was all too willing to apply his ends-justify-the-means philosophy to this situation. As Anakin and Obi-Wan argued, there were a few telling close-ups on Ahsoka's face as she absorbed each side's position. She was friends with Lux, after all, and she clearly wanted to help him and his new friends.
I was pleased to see Obi-Wan give Anakin a worried look when his former Padawan told the Council that the rebels "can be a great new weapon for us." Such phrasing foreshadowed Anakin's later obsession with turning his son to the Dark Side so he could become "a powerful ally" of the Sith. It was not at all lost on me that Obi-Wan's excuse for joining the mission was to say that he trusted Anakin "too much." While he said it in a lighthearted tone, it sounded like he was worried that Anakin might be changing, straying from the man whom he felt more comfortable trusting. He would obviously turn out to be right all too soon.
I enjoy pondering the existential dilemma in which the Jedi Order finds itself during this war, so it was immensely rewarding to watch the Jedi Council scene play out. It set the stage for everything that followed in this episode and for what I imagine will follow in the rest of this story arc. I found the entire dispute fascinating, and I loved hearing Obi-Wan summarize the dilemma by saying, "How we conduct war is what distinguishes us from others." In the chaos of the Clone Wars, those wise words were all too often lost on the people who had the most to gain from heeding them -- and the most to lose from ignoring them.
Once they arrived on the planet, Anakin and Obi-Wan differed in terms of how they spoke to the rebels. Obi-Wan cautioned that they were not there to fight the war for them, while Anakin focused on what they were there to do. It was obviously that he wanted to get more involved. When the droids attacked later in the episode, Anakin wanted to wade into the fighting, and Obi-Wan had to remind him to be mindful of their place. Echoing his own former master in what I thought was a deeply symbolic moment for both men, Obi-Wan said, "We can only protect them; we can't fight this war for them."
Onderon itself was a fantastic planet. I liked seeing the focus on pack animals in both the rebel camp and the city market. That reliance on beasts of burden, that emphasis on how deeply the animals were integrated into Onderonian life, reminded me of the Beast Wars of Onderon from the Tales of the Jedi comics. Using the herd animals to run down the droid foot soldiers later in the episode also helped emphasize to the affinity for animals that seems to define Onderon. From a production standpoint, the various creatures were well-designed, suitably diverse, and truly alien-sounding. It was also refreshing to have an episode set in such a beautiful and secluded locale. The music that was used as Steela brought the Jedi to the rebel base was, appropriately enough, very exotic with a hint of menace. This tone was also reflected in Saw Gerrera's expression as he apprehensively watched the Jedi approach.
While I'm on the subject of miscellanea, I want to mention how much better the battle droids have become as characters. There is less droid humor, for one thing, and when it does happen, it's only in moderate amounts. I actually enjoyed the final exchange between two battle droids as they stared down at a rebel grenade. "It looks like an explosive," one told the other, to which his comrade replied, "How can you te--?" Apart from that, the battle droids were actually depicted in a serious, professional manner. When the droid commander dispatched his troops to hunt down the rebels, he actually patted the departing AAT as a way of telling it to move out. This was a nice way of showing how the droids are internalizing the same kind of battle mentality and "team spirit," if you can call it that, as the clone troopers. The pat on the AAT's armor was both subtle and, in an odd way, endearing.
As revealed in the entry for The Force Unleashed novel in Pablo Hidalgo's recently-published guide Star Wars: The Essential Reader's Companion, the Onderon story arc will explore an idea that George Lucas had for the formation of the Rebel Alliance. "Lucas's alternate explanations for the roots of the Rebel Alliance appear in season five of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which take precedence over Starkiller's involvement," the book says on page 161. Given the close involvement of Lucas himself, it is especially important to think about the attributes of the Onderonian rebel movement that parallel the Alliance that we see in the Original Trilogy.
One of those aspects was the idea of blending into the civilian population and conducting hit-and-fade techniques. That's what the Rebel Alliance under Mon Mothma will focus on until they start conducting large-scale operations like the Death Star attacks. Given that this episode was based on George Lucas' ideas about how the Alliance formed, it was only natural that there would be parallels to Episode IV, V, and VI. One of my favorite connections was the Separatists' use of probe droids -- like the Empire, probes from Arakyd Industries -- to search for the hidden rebel base. Given the shared manufacturer, it was only natural that we be treated to the iconic electronic warbling of the Imperial probe droids as the CIS units mobilized for the search.
Establishing diverse and combative personalities in the rebel ranks was a great way to make them an interesting bunch. Unlike, say, the rebels from the Ryloth story arc, the lead insurgents here actually have interesting motivations, desires, and outlooks on life and war. They aren't just angry freedom fighters; they have legitimately different philosophies and approaches. Steela proved herself to be more of a leader than Saw in this episode, as she tried to bridge the gap between his and Lux's clashing philosophies.
Speaking of Lux, I'm really glad that we're seeing him again. He may be a third-tier character in the grand scheme of things, but bringing back those kinds of individuals to further develop them provides continuity and enables the team behind the series to show the effects that they have on the main characters. Given his background, it made sense that Lux would be an eager but inexperienced rebel fighter, just like he was an ambitious but naïve prospective Death Watch mercenary. On Onderon, he wanted to help the movement any way he could, but his conflicting loyalties meant that he was apprehensive about taking up politics.
Because he didn't want to have anything to do with the Republic, Lux buried his political instincts and started to become more militant. This change would no doubt have worried his pacifist mother. What we saw in A War on Two Fronts was one of the consequences of war: Lux is literally getting his hands (and face) dirty. As a reminder of his dark future, the episode showed us that Anakin was eager to foster in other rebels the militant transformation that Lux was experiencing.
The two people who shared strong concerns about Lux's future were also the two people who were the most at odds in this episode: Steela and Lux. Early on, Steela's became curious when Lux mentioned his and Ahsoka's adventure on Carlac. She was obviously jealous of the time they spent together, and none of that jealousy disappeared when she learned that Ahsoka had saved Lux's life. When Ahsoka complimented Lux on his "droid-popper" grenade-throwing skill, Steela grimaced at their friendly rapport. (Ahsoka later showed similar disappointment when she saw Lux helping Steela with her throwing arm.)
Throughout the episode, Steela was visibly uncomfortable with the bond Lux and Ahsoka shared, a discomfort that she channeled into suspicion of Ahsoka. When Ahsoka gave her advice about throwing the grenades, Steela wondered aloud whether Ahsoka's skill with the grenade-throwing technique came from the Force. Was Steela just venting more frustration, I wondered, or was this a deeper distrust of the Force?
Ahsoka, meanwhile, began the episode as a rock of discipline, her attitude befitting her rank. While training the rebels, she sounded older and more experienced, and she seemed more confident in herself than she had ever seemed before. There was a close-up shot of Lux's face that showed us that he recognized the change in her personality as well. Even so, Onderon had taken the edge off of her confident attitude by the episode's third act, when her visible discomfort with Steela and Lux's friendship led Anakin to say, "Snips, are you losing focus?" His use of her old nickname, and his worried tone, suggested one of two alternatives. Either Anakin was trying to see how rattled Ahsoka was by poking fun at her, or, after recognizing her un-Jedi-like attachment to Lux, he was reflexively sinking back into Protective Master/Teacher mode. The hypocrisy embedded in the latter explanation is so obvious that it does not require elaboration.
The training scenes were a great opportunity to emphasize how extraordinary the work of the clones and the Jedi must seem to most people. Even to these rebel fighters, the precision and discipline that we see from Rex, Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka in nearly every episode must have seem remarkable and almost superhuman. We don't consider how acrobatic and experienced they are in most people's eyes because we are used to that level of excellence from the characters who provide our primary eyes into the universe. The first great example of this was when the rebels had to pair up and disable the AAT, but I especially liked the destroyer droid practice session because it demonstrated how difficult it is to throw droid-poppers into a droideka's shielded zone. A simple task like throwing those grenades seems effortless when we see Anakin and Ahsoka do it, as they have in countless battles, but in reality that skill is the result of intense and consistent practice.
The training scenes also gave us the opportunity to see how Saw and Lux interacted. Lux tried so hard to prove that he was ready for combat, but he overextended himself. The resulting argument between Lux and Saw proved Obi-Wan's point that the rebels were a ragged bunch who were prone to internal strife. Rough around the edges indeed, but then again, so were Mon Mothma and Garm Bel Iblis at first.
A War on Two Fronts was a thoroughly enjoyable episode. It mixed foreshadowing of several sorts with rich character development and exciting action sequences, and it did so at a brisk but manageable speed. Scenes didn't feel rushed or drawn out. The pacing of the rebels' preparations befit the rebels' own blend of caution and urgency. In addition, although it was the first part of a multi-episode story arc, it didn't feel like twenty-two minutes of setup because there were deeper questions embedded in the storyline that transcended the Onderonian conflict.
Those deeper questions came in two forms, leading me to ascribe a very specific meaning to the episode's title. The two fronts, so to speak, are the philosophical and the practical. Philosophically, the Jedi are engaged in a war of ideals. The Order is struggling to decide how it should help the Republic prosecute the war, but each new strategic proposal brings its own risks for this unique group of beings. They have to square away the larger moral dilemma that Obi-Wan and Anakin hashed out in the episode's opening scene: What can the Jedi Order condone without losing its way? That was one of the two fronts that this episode handled brilliantly.
The other front, the practical one, has already been fleshed out to a certain degree in Episodes II and III and in a few episodes of The Clone Wars, but in a different context. I'm referring to the problems that love and attachment pose for members of the Jedi Order. While the relationship between Anakin and Padmé has already received considerable -- if somewhat shallow -- attention, Ahsoka's own struggle to decide how she feels about Lux has been largely undeveloped thus far. As I said, this puts the question of Jedi falling in love into a different context, because while Anakin's fall is known to us as fans of TCW, Ahsoka's fate -- and the choices that lead her there -- are still wide open as far as we know.
The softer, romantic side of Ahsoka has not been explored much, except in the occasional Ahsoka/Lux episode from past seasons. One reason for this is obvious: she is very young, and it would be inappropriate to put her in the kinds of intimate situations that make for easy romantic scenes. That being said, there are ways to explore that side of her that are more nuanced and age-appropriate. The fact that we are now seeing Ahsoka recognize the conflicting loyalties in her life can only be a harbinger of more serious things to come. As Ahsoka comes to grips with her feelings for Lux, The Clone Wars needs to capitalize on the threat that her feelings pose to her career. If it can deliver more episodes like A War on Two Fronts, where Ahsoka is shown grappling with her priorities and her emotions, this series will prove all of the Ahsoka haters wrong and demonstrate the incredible value of her character to the Star Wars saga as a whole.