The Clone Wars is definitely back, with an episode that reminds us why a war fought by clones is so interesting. This episode explored and developed clone troopers, both as people and as team players, more than any other episode so far. We saw the clones struggle to work together while simultaneously maintaining their own identities. We watched as the clone cadets learned valuable lessons. (And perhaps young children watching this episode learned these lessons too.) We met a few new characters and saw a familiar one revisited. Of course, one new character stood out, but we'll get to him later.
While not prominently displayed, the brief glimpses we got of Kamino proved that the TCW team is getting much better at animating challenging sequences. I never thought I'd say this, but the rain looked great! In addition to Kamino itself, the animators did a great job with the clone barracks. The look of the place, with its slide-out bed pods and locker-room-esque ground floor, definitely felt authentic to the clone training atmosphere. It fit in with the rest of Kamino's training areas, especially the ones we saw in Attack of the Clones: functional yet minimalist. Those scenes set the tone and did a good job establishing the atmosphere of the barracks. It was also nice to see the ARC troopers wearing Phase 2 armor, yet another sign that things are indeed progressing toward the endgame in Revenge of the Sith. And finally, I loved the simulation room. Maybe it's just the "camera angles" that were used during the training sequences, but it definitely gave a battlefield-like vibe. The animation has truly progressed quite a bit even since the end of Season 2.
The core of this episode was the interactions between the members of Domino Squad, whom we see later (chronologically) in the Season 1 episode Rookies. While the timeline shift is a bit jarring, I acknowledge that they might not have had this story ready before they began working on Rookies. Either way, this story needed to be told, because it sets up that episode perfectly. It's easy to connect with these troopers because of that episode, despite how green they are here. I'm glad we see the clone training simulations, not just because of how visually appealing they were, but also because of what they represent in the overall TCW story. It is important that we see all stages of the clone trooper's life (which, sadly, is synonymous with "military career"), and the combat sequences play a valuable role in that depiction. The simulation scenes showed us that even these professional soldiers, whom we've watched fight unflinchingly in both AOTC and this series, start off as amateur grunts with no cohesiveness in their squads. From that perspective, it was great to see the clone cadets' reverence for the ARC troopers. Sometimes the clones all seem to be on the same playing field, and we don't consider them to have wide skill disparities. As we know, however, the ARC troopers are the best of the best, the most elite of all clone soldiers. This episode showed that the ARCs have an incredible reputation and are looked up to by all the regular clones.
Seeing these clones acting disorganized and failing their objective puts them -- not just Domino Squad, but the entire army -- into perspective. The disobedience they display as a squad makes their later discipline and respect for authority much more valuable, because we experienced that process -- that journey -- alongside them. The success of Bravo Unit was a great nuance to add to the story of Domino Squad; it's one thing for them to be unsuccessful, but it's another thing for them to have someone to be envious of -- it gives them yet another human dimension. I also enjoyed seeing the individual clones develop their personalities -- Echo, for example, got his name at the beginning of the episode in a humorous way. And of course, Domino Squad's eventual victory was cheer-worthy. You really wanted to root for the clones when they started working together at the end of the episode, and the dramatic music certainly didn't hurt.
The second most important element of Clone Cadets was 99. Even before this episode aired, I was told that 99 would be a memorable character. I can't say I disagree; he played a tremendous role in the episode by inspiring the clones (especially Heavy) to work hard and value themselves and each other. 99 is a cool character because he represents the side of the clone army that we've been told about (the rejects) but never seen. We're unfamiliar with them and how they are treated. It was depressing to see him constantly tormented and disregarded, but it made sense because of the atmosphere in those training barracks. The fit and able-bodied clones are too busy worrying about how to be the best they can be to care about a misfit. After all, how could he possibly help them?
99's character shined particularly bright in the second half of the episode. He had the best line of the story, when convincing Heavy to stay with his squad: "How can I be a failure when I never even got my chance?" He makes a good point about Heavy's intent to desert. Clones should embrace their personality, but Heavy just wants to be a number. Or rather, he doesn't know that he can be more than that if he wants. Heavy and 99's conversation spoke volumes about the conflict of having an army of clones in the first place. Heavy needed to be shown that he was part of a group, but that he was still a person with his own identity. That's a tough scale to balance even if you're not a clone soldier. 99 also proved that he was more than the sum of his parts at the end of the episode, just before Heavy and his comrades shipped out. They spoke again after Domino Squad's victory, and the conversation was a perfect way to set up the entire series. This series is very much about the clones and the camaraderie they share; 99's lesson benefitted Heavy as a soldier and us as viewers.
In addition to 99 and Domino Squad, this episode also included an appearance by Jedi Master Shaak Ti. First, let me say that her voice was fantastic. It was regal and subtly "exotic," which was perfect for how I viewed her as a character. Her disagreement with the Kaminoan when it came to dealing with Domino Squad highlighted an important different between the two cultures they represented. The Kaminoans bred these men and never considered a single clone to be a person in the true sense of the word. They worked with these troops on such a massive scale that they had no concept of them as human beings. The Jedi lead these soldiers on the front lines, and they usually lose a few (or more) men at a time. Shaak Ti views the clones not just as valuable assets, but also as living beings with some degree of rights. (Although her position is dubious given the nature of the army itself.) The disagreement between Shaak Ti and Lama Su played on a core tenet of Karen Traviss's Republic Commando novels, where the Kaminoans are unsympathetic monsters whom the clones feared as youngsters and will hunt whenever possible as adults.
Another interesting part of Shaak Ti's appearance in this episode was the Jedi philosophy she expressed to the two Domino Squad clones who approached her at the end of the first act. She said that, to the Jedi, being an individual goes hand in hand with one's role as part of the group. Here again The Clone Wars delves deeper into the ideology of the Jedi Order. Indeed, Shaak Ti is right about the Jedi view of teamwork, but this also shows how much she respects the Order's stance on individuality and differing from the norm. She likely views Anakin Skywalker in much the same way as an errant clone: straying too far and not working closely enough with his comrades. Nevertheless, Shaak Ti's message is eventually well received by Domino Squad, as her lesson of cooperation and mutual respect pays off for the troopers.
The bounty hunters Bric and El-Les were an intriguing addition to the episode. Bric played an important role by being the harsh, unforgiving realist to El-Les's more compassionate stance. Bric did his job well by showing that the clones have harsh training lives and that failure is intolerance given how much worse the battlefield will be. However, he wasn't evil, and that's an important point to make. As we saw when he was talking to El-Les, he seems to want the best for the clones, even if he regards Domino Squad as unsalvageable. Granted, no one would say that they particularly liked Bric, but I wouldn't say he was evil. War has the tendency to bring out the worst in a lot of us, and Bric was simply a reflection of how desperately the Republic needed fresh, skilled warriors. He knew he had a job to do, and in the end, he was right -- Domino Squad does owe him somewhat.
Even so, Bric's conversation with Cut Up at the beginning of the second act was confusing; I understood why Bric would want to speak with the trooper messing up his whole squad, but not why he'd want to assault the guy. Perhaps it fits in with Bric's "tough love" methodology, but then again, it seemed unnecessary. (Either way, it was funny to see how Cut Up got his name.) Bric's work paid off at the end of the episode, of course. The twist of Domino Squad not having their ascension cables was unexpected but, given Bric, understandable. At first I was livid that he would sabotage the clone training procedure, but I can see why he would want to mess them up. It is unfair, but Shaak Ti was right -- the enemy won't show mercy any more than Bric will.
Now, two quick notes about this episode's homages. I liked the clone trooper's line to 99: "Sorry about the mess." That was well-timed and appropriate for the situation, and whichever clone delivered it sounded enough like Han Solo to make it work. On the other side of the coin was the ARC trooper's instructions for the training simulation: "Version THX, variable 1138." I am always weary of inserting that particular homage, but in this case it was particularly irksome because of the context. First of all, the nature of the reference was that this was a particular mode of the Citadel Challenge, so I thought a name would have been more appropriate than a version and variable number. The way the ARC trooper said it was just too jarring. I usually don't like those stereotypically-science-fiction scenes where the character runs off a string of letters and numbers (a navigational bearing, for example). Usually in Star Wars, it's done artfully, where the focus is not on the number/letter string, or where the dialog is spoken smoothly enough that it feels normal in the scene. With that in mind, while there are subtle ways to make the THX 1138 reference work, this was not one of them.
As someone who recently graduated from high school, I can imagine how the clones must have felt when they were graduating from their training. They had finally completed the preparation phase of their journey and were about to embark on the action phase. They didn't know what lay ahead, but they trusted that their training would serve them well. The final shot of the troops boarding their ship reminded me of the same shot in AOTC, where Obi-Wan is first introduced to the army. And indeed, that shot summarized the role of this episode in The Clone Wars. It established the relationship between characters and prepared them for their future adventures. It taught them lessons about teamwork and perseverance before sending them off into a galactic conflict that some of them (particularly some Domino Squad members) would not survive.