This was a monster of an episode, that's for sure. Once again, Katie Lucas and the animators impressed me with wall-to-wall action, this time mixed with a horrifying transformation and a grim betrayal, with plenty of spectacular sights and sounds in between. I thought that there were a lot of parallels between Savage's journey to stand at Dooku's side and the journeys of various other prominent characters in the Star Wars films. On its own, I found that this episode did a great job of exploring Savage's transformation, making us admire him at first and then twisting him into something repulsive.
Let's start with Savage himself. I really liked that Katie Lucas chose to introduce us to Savage as an "untainted" and nondescript Zabrak instead of making him an obvious pick for Dooku's apprentice. Not only did this allow him to demonstrate his prowess on-screen, but it also gave us the chance to see him before the Nightsisters twisted him into the beast we're familiar with from the commercials and promotional imagery. It was a lot more like the depiction of Anakin in the Prequels and less like that of, say, Sidious or Dooku. While I appreciate the mystery of Sidious and Dooku's paths to the Dark Side, I really enjoy seeing the "normal" lives of less-famous soon-to-be-villains like Savage, because it complicates his personality in a compelling way. It also gives the Nightsisters' magical transformation a more profound impact in the story.
I also thought it was a smart decision to have Asajj require trials for the Nightbrothers instead of making the male community naturally brutish and bloodthirsty. She had to force them to exhibit violence in a structured test, which is more interesting than what I was expecting. I figured that Asajj would journey to the other side of the planet and have to fight her way through tribes of savage male Zabraks until she found one who wouldn't be easily cowed. The way this episode handled Asajj's selection allowed us to view the Nightbrothers as a civilized society, which in turn lends more weight to the Nightsisters' "dehumanizing" (deZabrakizing?) manipulation later in the episode.
Savage's camaraderie with Feral made it even more dramatic to see him kill his friend after being twisted by the Nightsisters. I liked seeing Asajj control Savage's mind with her calm orders -- his final resistance, first by gripping her throat and then by hesitating to kill his friend, was extremely important to watch and it made the disintegration of his final willpower even more sinister. Katie Lucas did a great job making us feel bad for Feral earlier in the episode; Savage's "weakling" insult in the third act contrasted with his obvious sympathy for Feral earlier in the episode. This underscores the "Evil is not born, it is taught" fortune cookie from the beginning of this episode by showing us how the Nightsisters' wicked magic can craft a perfect warrior from an otherwise decent being. When Savage said, "Yes, sister," it almost sounded like he'd been brainwashed -- his voice was completely devoid of emotion.
One thing I was particularly impressed by -- though I doubt a great deal of conscious attention was paid to it -- was the way Asajj took Savage back to the Nightsisters. It reminded me of when Qui-Gon took Anakin from Tatooine, but with the opposite tone. It was dark and frightening for Savage and depressing for those he left behind -- after all, he was going to be twisted into an evil warrior. Anakin, on the other hand, had a lot to look forward to in Jedi life, and indeed his anticipation was palpable. His mother and friends were glad to see him escape slavery and be trained as a noble Jedi. I don't know how much one can take away from the two different paths that ultimately led to much the same place (with Anakin facing Savage-like tasks when he first became Vader), but I found the parallels to be eerie.
I think it was a smart decision to end this episode with Savage's battle on Devaron and to not reveal him to the Jedi and the Republic until Witches of the Mist. Unless this battle had taken place at the very beginning of Monster, it would have been hard to explain the Republic learning about the aftermath within the same episode unless several days were shown to pass over the course of a few minutes. And even though that would be technically possible, I felt that this ending had the most impact. By scripting it as she did, Katie Lucas leaves us with the emotional weight of a crippled Republic task force on Devaron and a dangerous villain on the loose in the galaxy as the credits roll. This ending was the best way to portray Savage as a menace that had just been unleashed upon the galaxy, even if there is no true cliffhanger element (we know the Jedi learn about him in the next episode).
Of course, the battle itself was also stunning. The sound effects of Savage's metal spear crunching clone armor were fantastic, and seeing the bodies go flying by as Savage dealt with them so quickly was a great introduction to his skills. The whole scene reminded me of General Grievous's introduction in the Genndy Clone Wars series. The way Savage dealt so quickly with two Jedi -- disarming the Master almost immediately -- really hit home not just how cold and twisted he had become, but also how powerful he was. I kept thinking back to the first glimpse we saw of Grievous, as he fought with a small band of Jedi struggling to stay alive until reinforcements arrived. In fact, the more I think about it, Savage's closest "life story" cousin truly is Grievous. Both were proud warriors manipulated to the point of pure rage and bred to hate the Republic and its Jedi protectors. Both of them were introduced in much the same way: a Republic campaign against the Separatists is disrupted by a creature previously unheard of that devastates the Republic. Unlike Grievous, though, Savage was more successful in his mission: as a member of Delta Squad will tell us in Witches of the Mist, "there were no survivors on Devaron."
While Savage was undoubtedly the focus of this episode, Dooku also factored into the plot in several interesting ways. Firstly, I'll say that his relationship with the Nightsisters, and Mother Talzin in particular, intrigued me. Just like in Nightsisters, I was surprised at how trusting Dooku is of the witches. I can accept that he has no idea what is truly going on -- though surely a determined effort on the part of such a powerful Sith Lord would have penetrated whatever magical mind barriers the witches could employ. But let's say that he's still not at top form after dealing with three assassins on Serenno. Even so, surely he must be wary of their power and cunning. I doubt he believed that Talzin was truly giving him a new apprentice simply to settle an age-old debt. Dooku even drank a mysterious beverage Talzin conjured up for him, which I believe is generally a bad idea when dealing warily with tentative allies. (Although in fairness to Dooku, he didn't want to be rude. That would be so unlike him.)
When Dooku's apprentice finally arrived by shuttle, he almost seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when he said, "At last." That made me wonder how uncomfortable Dooku felt working alone, or at least not having someone else to do the majority of his dirty work. It reminded me of Sidious' situation in the Prequels: After losing Maul and then Dooku, he must have been anxious to install Anakin as his enforcer so that he could rule with an iron fist remotely. In fact, Dooku's first mission for Savage was not that different from Sidious' first assignment for Anakin -- the introduction of a horrifying new warrior who slays all in his path on a mission to test his skills for his new Master. Dooku's line, "Take what is rightfully ours," even mirrored Sidious' instructions to Anakin about eliminating the Separatist Council on Mustafar and working together for the good of the Empire.
In addition, Dooku's promises to Savage mirrored just about every other Dark Side seduction we saw in the films: Dooku to Obi-Wan on Geonosis in AOTC, Sidious to Anakin on Coruscant in ROTS, Vader to Luke on Cloud City in TESB, and finally Sidious to Luke on the second Death Star in ROTJ. It's also interesting to see that Dooku is interested in overthrowing Sidious -- he never seemed all that dissatisfied with their arrangement in the past, but perhaps this scheme arose because he was angry at Sidious for ordering him to betray Asajj.
Speaking of Asajj, she certainly impressed me in this episode during the Nightbrothers' trials. While I am still not sure why she wants to let Savage kill Dooku instead of doing it herself (or so I interpreted from her conversation with Mother Talzin), I'm sure she enjoyed discovering Savage among the other, less-powerful Nightbrothers. To her, he was like a needle in a haystack, a lucky find with just enough potential to become a fearsome warrior. It was certainly nice to see Asajj totally dominating a fight for once. She's almost always fighting highly-trained Jedi in this series, but putting her immense talent in perspective (by pitting her against untrained Nightbrothers) really emphasized how skilled she is. The way she cruelly toyed with the untrained men was another indicator of her cold, twisted personality -- not unlike the monster that Savage himself became by the end of the episode. The second trial was particularly creepy; I thought the animators and audio engineers did an incredible job of mixing Asajj's laughter with the sharp whistling sounds and weapon strikes. Additionally, the third trial had one of the most intense (and perhaps the most fast-paced) fight scenes I've ever seen on The Clone Wars. We're so used to seeing Asajj dueling with a lightsaber that we rarely consider how deadly she can be with her bare hands (well, that and the Force).
It seems that the Nightsisters are getting creepier with each appearance. Their transformation ritual in the third act was certainly their most disturbing scene -- again, the combined visual and audible effect of that scene was positively unnerving. Some viewers may have wanted a better explanation of just what they were doing to Savage, but I didn't mind that remained ambiguous. I enjoyed the combination of emphasized magical sound effects and subdued background chanting, plus Asajj looking on with muted satisfaction and the light playing off of the Nightsisters' faces. There was also an incredibly creepy shot of Mother Talzin and another Nightsister with their eyes rolling back in their sockets. It was the best satanic ritual that one could hope to get in the GFFA.
As I said, I enjoyed the fact that a lot of the Nightsisters' magic was kept mysterious. I think the mystery is what makes them so alluring, much like the notion of Darth Sidious' long-dead Sith Master. These things, just on the edge of our understanding and comprehension in a universe that has been painstakingly explored by the EU, serve to keep us guessing, sometimes eternally. For example, while I had previously assumed that something "bewitching" about Dathomir caused the Nightsisters' voices to echo ominously, we saw in this episode that Mother Talzin's voice had that distorted booming effect even on Serenno. Plus, we'll probably never learn what exactly Mother Talzin did to render Savage unconscious with the touch of a finger. And could she sense Savage's hate (as she mentioned) or could she simply detect it in his composure? We may never know the answers to any of these questions, and I don't mind at all.
I've already mentioned some of the most beautiful and audibly-impressive elements of this episode, but there's no reason not to continue heaping praise on the production staff for their incredible work. The ominous music in this episode helped set the stage for confrontations of various sorts, whether it was Dooku's landing on Dathomir to meet with Mother Talzin or Asajj's final test for Savage. The shots of Dathomir's landscape were likewise very impressive, giving us another glimpse of that creepy blood-teardrop forest. I enjoyed seeing the contrast between the cold, barren landscape inhabited by the Nightsisters and the more lively conditions of the Nightbrother encampment. (Symbolism, anyone?) I also liked the shifting platforms at the end of Asajj's duel with Savage. The challenge presented by those platforms reminded me of the environmental problems that Anakin and Obi-Wan had to contend with during their climactic duel on Mustafar.
Plot-wise, Monster was clearly the "bridge episode" between the presentation of the trilogy's premise (in Nightsisters) and the explosive confrontations at its conclusion (in Witches of the Mist). Accordingly, some elements of Nightsisters were resolved (Asajj and Talzin finding a suitable apprentice for Dooku and putting their plan into action) and some new plot points were introduced for Witches of the Mist (how will the Jedi react to Savage, and what else will Dooku have him do?). That being said, Monster also stood well on its own and had pretty much everything a good episode of The Clone Wars should have: action, intrigue, and personality. Savage is a formidable villain now that he's working for Dooku, and these twenty-two minutes of setting up that relationship were definitely worth seeing. As a middle-of-the-trilogy installment, Monster did a good job of carrying the Nightsisters' plot forward and setting the stage for the monster that Savage has become. As a standalone episode, this story provided a closer look at Dooku and Mother Talzin's interactions, demonstrated how lethal Asajj truly is, and introduced a new villain whose straightforward yet tragic back-story makes him a dynamic character right out of the gate.