Without a doubt, this was the most important episode of The Clone Wars for Asajj Ventress. From a stunning betrayal to an eye-opening look at her past, Nightsisters exposed us to the emotional, "humanized" version of Asajj, bringing in bits from the EU and further developing her character with glimpses of her complex past. Whether it was from the bridge of a command ship or in lightsaber combat with Anakin and Obi-Wan, Asajj never stood out as a remarkable individual before Nightsisters. She was an excellent warrior and her cruelty was legendary, but the shroud of her past had never been lifted, her motivations were unclear, and her identity was restricted to that of a twisted Sith lackey. Nightsisters moved beyond the surface-level depiction of Asajj from prior episodes and transformed her into something much more compelling.
Right from the start, Asajj displayed more personality than ever before. Her facial expressions during the space battle were fantastic -- the excellent animation quality allowed us to see her frustration, hate, shock, and eventually all-out rage. When Dooku sentenced her to death, there was a nice shot of her eyes widening -- an unusual expression for a character who is generally so confident. I imagine that, as she left her ship to duel with Obi-Wan and Anakin, a lot of her shock had to do with her lack of exposure to true betrayal. Presumably Dooku has turned his back on her before, when he could teach her something by having her persevere without his assistance. However, it was clear that Asajj understood the magnitude of his abandonment this time, hence the unprecedented glimpse we got of her in a position of weakness.
Just before she locked lightsabers with the Jedi, you could clearly tell that Asajj was still recovering from her conversation with Dooku. From the one sequence where she steps grimly out of her ship, it was obvious that she was reluctant to do battle with the Jedi under these circumstances. Soon we saw the rage in her eyes when she Force-choked the Jedi, and later the hurt, almost a sense of resignation, when they subdued her by throwing her against her starship. The fact that her mannerisms and facial expressions were depicted this masterfully on-screen is a testament to the prowess of the animators.
Later, when Asajj arrived on Dathomir, we got an even more extensive picture of her emotional state. Given how we're used to seeing Asajj in The Clone Wars, it was a fresh new take on her character to portray in a time of great weakness. It "humanizes" her for us to see her flaws and fears, because it removes the "self-assured, never-faltering warrior" aspect from her persona and allows us to look deeper. Her pain and desire for vengeance explain a lot, especially when you add in the scenes from her past and her weary mumblings. After that look back at young Asajj's life, it was clear that she is mostly a product of her circumstances.
As with many others broken by the Sith, Asajj's misfortune combined with her vulnerability to lead her down a dark path. I liked seeing her as a young Jedi and then as a prospective Sith acolyte. That transformation explained a lot about her motivations and her personality. The Jedi gave her a way to build on her powers, Dooku gave her a way to vent her frustration over her Jedi Master's death, and now the Nightsisters are giving her a way to strike back at Dooku. The lesson here? For all her raw power, Asajj Ventress mostly relies on the shaping and direction of others.
Dooku, for his part, also featured prominently in this episode as the instigator of Asajj's desire for vengeance. I found it interesting that Dooku felt strongly enough about Asajj to disagree with his Master (not that it did him any good). I can't help but wonder what personal connection Dooku has to Asajj -- after all, beyond indirectly serving Sidious' needs, Asajj was "quite important to" Lord Tyranus. Is it possible that Dooku was training her to help him overthrow Sidious? Something else that strikes me is that Asajj's predicament was very convenient for Dooku. He knew he had to get rid of Asajj somehow, and he was spared the difficulty of justifying his orders to Asajj by couching it in the guise of a failed mission. If she had won the battle and left the area safely, it would have been impossible for Dooku to have her taken out without causing her to question why he was doing it. At least she can rationalize his abandonment in terms of Separatist tactics, however shocked she is by the sudden twist.
Even though he can easily justify abandoning Asajj to her fate, apparently his conscience (Sith have consciences!) was not so easily cleared. Despite being a Sith Lord and one of the galaxy's cruelest beings, Dooku appeared to show genuine regret when he thought that Asajj was dead and reported this to Sidious. Again, I'm left wondering just what value she had to him beyond that of a remarkable warrior -- such a simple role could be filled by any number of other beings if one searched enough, and the end of this episode seems to confirm the ease of finding more raw power. My feeling is that it went beyond raw power.
We don't often see Dooku in combat these days, so it was refreshing to see him handle three well-trained Nightsister warriors toward the end of this episode. Aside from demonstrating that Dooku is still a remarkable fighter even when severely visually disoriented and outnumbered, the duel was just an excellent fast-paced battle overall. I may only refer to it as a "lightsaber pajama party" from now on, but I definitely think it added to the rage building in Asajj against her former Master. Plus, as we saw at the end of the episode, Dooku's victory (complete with his trademark Force lightning) came at a cost, one that Asajj intends to exploit in the rest of this TCW trilogy.
One of the few things that bugged me about this episode happened at the end of the first act, when the Separatist command ship exploded. The tactical droid said, "Our scanning indicates there are no survivors," but wouldn't Dooku have sensed Asajj's death if it had occurred? And wouldn't he therefore question the absence of that sensation when the ship exploded? Throughout the EU, it is made clear that Jedi and Sith who are attuned to certain members of their Order can sense that person's death anywhere in the galaxy. Now, obviously there's no need to be faithful to that part of the EU, but surely Ben Kenobi sensing the destruction of Alderaan because of the mass slaughter in Episode IV has some relevance to the issue at hand.
I had another question after this episode ended. Why couldn't Dooku sense Mother Talzin's deception? I do like that we're seeing his vulnerabilities (perhaps he's just blinded by his combined weariness and frustration over Asajj's "death"), but it's hard to reconcile the ferocious warrior and brilliant tactician with the man who was so easily fooled by a non-Sith. I'm not even sure if Mother Talzin's "I have seen Asajj's death" claim was credible. Do the Nightsisters have the same ability to sense the deaths of their kind as the Jedi and the Sith? Dooku's gullibility may be explainable, but I don't think the context did a good enough job of it.
Apart from that, I was very impressed with this episode. Other miscellaneous things I enjoyed included Nika Futterman's phenomenal voice acting, the sinister music that played when Dooku spoke to Sidious, the realistic fire in the Separatist hangar, and the awesome sequence where the droid starfighter explodes. I thought the opening space battle looked and sounded fantastic, and I was relieved to see that Anakin got some time to show off his ace flying skills. Obi-Wan's new character model is great -- he now looks much more like Ewan McGregor in Episode III. Plus, did anyone catch Asajj's line about being able to smell Dooku's stench "a parsec away"? That's further confirmation that parsecs are units of distance even in Star Wars. (I guess Han Solo didn't know astrophysics.)
Dathomir looked incredible as a blood-red planet, and the barren forest, complete with giant webbed teardrops hanging from the trees, helped set the right tone: creepy and ominous. The music in the background as Asajj landed helped accentuate that creepy vibe. The Nightsisters themselves are a great addition to the TCW cast and the Star Wars universe in general. I loved how their voices echoed in distorted tones whenever they spoke -- but only on Dathomir, as one of them sounded normal just after the fight with Dooku. That's a nice touch that, while unexplained, adds to the mystery of the Nightsisters and complements their appearance and reputation. The same can be said of the green smoke that sizzled when Mother Talzin touched Asajj's semi-invisible shoulders.
I also liked how there was an exotic, almost Arabian soundtrack while Asajj and her fellow Nightsisters prepared for the battle with Dooku. The music that played when they sneaked into Dooku's palace was also impressive. In general, this episode was scored perfectly, another example of why you don't need nonstop John Williams music to establish the perfect vibe on a Star Wars TV show. (Before you get mad at me -- I love John Williams' Star Wars music more than any other music in the world, but in my opinion this episode's musical themes seemed so fitting that there was no need to use potentially-cliché tracks from the films.)
I also liked how prominently the EU featured in this episode. Asajj's outfit in the opening battle was based on the one she wore in concept sketches and some of her earliest EU stories. The ship she piloted during that battle was the one seen in Genndy Tartakovsky's 2003-2005 Clone Wars series, which the episode guide calls a "Geonosian fanblade starfighter." Furthermore, Asajj's background was, as seen in the flashbacks, mostly preserved in The Clone Wars, something about which I'm glad. Not only is it a good background for a person like Asajj, but it assuages the worries of EU diehards who have been regarding this series warily. Finally, Mother Talzin's comment to Dooku about selecting a male replacement is a reference to the EU fact about the planet Dathomir (and the Nightsister tribe in particular) being a female-dominant culture. More specifically, her remark that Dooku "couldn't tame the female" is a reference to the Nightsisters' tradition of oppressing (no pun intended) males and using them as slaves.
In conclusion, let me just say: Well done, Katie Lucas. Nightsisters was a remarkable look at the character of Asajj Ventress, but while the spotlight shone on her, other areas of the episode were just as strong. The depiction of other characters like Dooku and Mother Talzin, the intense lightsaber and space combat, and the eerie portrayal of the Dathomir and its Nightsisters helped make this a standout episode of The Clone Wars and certainly put Season 3 back on track. Despite a few minor qualms, I was very impressed with how this episode shed light on the intricacies of Asajj's past and deepened our understanding of an already-interesting character. The Nightsisters make excellent villains, due in part to Lucas's writing and in part to a remarkable on-screen portrayal visually and audibly. Although it was meant to set the scene for the next two episodes, Nightsisters also stood well on its own with a combination of fantastic voice work, great writing, and superb animation.