The Clone Wars Season 3 Episode 4: Sphere of Influence
Politics once again played a key role in this episode, but the balance between talking and shooting was much more in keeping with the "war" part of the show title. The introduction of several new characters and the development of some familiar ones made this episode exciting to watch. The Papanoida family's TCW debut impressed me, and we saw more character development for Ahsoka, along with an emphasis on the personality of Senator Chuchi. Even this episode's egregious flaw didn't affect the rest of the plot too much. (I'll get to that later.)
The introduction of Baron Papanoida was a large part of why I really enjoyed this episode. His voice was masterfully done -- I thought it fit the character perfectly. He sounded exotic and authoritative, with a note of emotion in his voice at just the moments (such as when he grabbed Greedo by the collar in Jabba's palace). He was a great mix of political savvy and combat readiness, and he certainly had a lot of the latter. He knew when it was important to be cautious, and he had a kind of "been there, done that" toughness that was refreshing. I liked when he warned his son that the Hutts were the only meaningful law on Tatooine. It was his own "Wretched hive of scum and villainy" moment. It's nice to see that Padmé isn't the only diplomatic figure who knows how to handle a blaster. Papanoida's fears for his daughters came through well on-screen, and that was very important in this episode.
Another character who was portrayed well in this episode was Senator Riyo Chuchi. She seemed a lot like Padmé in many ways -- a savvy politician and a brave person who is loyal to her people and to democracy. She also worked well with Ahsoka, and I would like to see their friendship explored in greater detail. We were supposed to assume that they had met and worked together before, but I don't remember this from a previous episode. They are both great characters with similarly strong personalities; another team mission would be interesting to see. Senator Chuchi showed how smart she was at the end of the episode when she cut that deal with the Trade Federation representative to end the blockade of Pantora.
The visuals in this episode were very impressive. Some of it was blink-and-you'll-miss-it-type stuff, very subtle but very detailed and realistic. For example, when Chairman Papanoida meets with Senator Chuchi in her office, you can see busy Coruscant traffic streams behind her, and the massive skyscrapers in the foreground are partially engulfed in shadow. The shots of Senator Chuchi's office featured ornate furniture and close attention to lighting and shadow detail, proving once again that the animation team goes over every frame with a fine-toothed comb to make it appear more like it would in real life. It's those little moments that enhance the experience of watching this show. Jabba's palace also looked great, from the lighting near his dais to the background aliens conversing in the shadows. The scenes were colorful and exotic, and it felt just like the palace had appeared in ROTJ. It was cool to see that atmosphere and location revisited in the animated style. It seemed that great attention was again paid to lighting in the palace; you could see specks of light hovering in the smoky air behind the Twi'lek to whom Chairman Papanoida spoke. I was intrigued to see the bounty hunter Embo (from Season 2) hanging out in Jabba's palace, given that he seems like a more honorable bounty hunter than the type who usually hangs with Jabba's crowd.
I was also glad to see to Greedo take Baron Papanoida to the Cantina, because if you're on Tatooine anyway, how can you not stop by the famous bar from ANH? The inclusion of the animal sound (I think it was an eopie) outside the Cantina really helped set the scene -- I felt like I was watching Episode I for a second. The inside of the Cantina looked great, just like it did in the movie, but I wish it had been more crowded. I understand that models are time-consuming to build and animate, but the Cantina looked way too empty. The conspicuous absence of the usual diversity of species was almost jarring, given that we've only ever seen the Cantina packed with creatures. Even so, the fight inside the Cantina was fast-faced and exciting, and we finally got to see Baron Papanoida wield a weapon. I had always wanted to see a fight in that Cantina, and this one didn't disappoint.
Padmé had some interesting moments in this episode, which I'll touch on briefly. I liked her point about the Naboo/Pantora blockade connection. It was a reminder of the Trade Federation's obvious guilt in both matters, and a subtle jab at the Senate for refusing to take action in either case. This was also the first time we've seen Padmé act motherly toward Ahsoka -- they haven't had nearly enough screen time together given how close each of them is to Anakin. I also liked seeing Padmé's joking criticism of Anakin's hands-off approach to training his Padawan: "I still can't believe they let you teach." That's the first time we've really heard Padmé's thoughts, sincere or otherwise, about Anakin being an instructor.
Ahsoka's growth in this episode was apparent at several points. I was impressed to see her pull off two Mind Tricks, especially since she'd never done it before. I liked seeing her levitate Senator Chuchi to avoid Sib Canay catching them, but it also pleased me to see her struggling to maintain the act of levitation. It's clear that her Force powers are still developing, and even though we see her do some pretty amazing stuff later in this episode (including taking out a contingent of Super Battle Droids, which would have been incredible for her just two seasons prior), she's definitely in the process of learning to master her abilities. They didn't have to include that split-second shot of Ahsoka focusing to maintain her grip on Senator Chuchi, but the fact that they did indicates a desire to showcase her growth throughout the season. She's clearly improving as a Jedi and demonstrating that she is less and less reliant on Anakin's aid.
At the center of this story was the political dilemma of the Trade Federation. As seen at the beginning of the episode, Senator Lott Dod avers that the Trade Federation is not a part of the CIS simply because they do business with the Separatists. While that is an interesting statement (one that plays into the idea of moral ambiguity on both sides of the conflict), it's obviously flimsy cover for the Trade Federation's true motives. It's unclear whether or not the Senate fully believes Dod's claim, but either way, they are unwilling to act in the interest of the Pantorans upon learning of the blockade. Senator Dod claims that the blockade is necessary to ensure that Pantora pays its debts to the Trade Federation -- a confusing and shallow claim at best and an admission of intimidation and bullying at worst. The fact that this is not apparent to the assembled politicians is further evidence of the alarming deterioration of the Senate. The eventual revelation of Neimoidian Sib Canay's treachery should do little to encourage the Senate to believe Lott Dod -- after all, they must remember the Senator's suspicious refusal to allow aid to reach Ryloth earlier in the war. But when the Trade Federation Senator announces that he's ending the Pantoran blockade, he receives cheers. To me, this inexplicable stupidity was a lot like the end of ROTS, where we saw liberty die in the Senate Chamber. It was a great way for The Clone Wars to emphasize the ignorance, corruption, and decay of the Republic's political system.
One last thing must be addressed before I wrap up. Since the preview for this episode aired following the conclusion of Supply Lines, fans had been wondering about the inclusion of Greedo in this episode. A character named Greedo had appeared in The Phantom Menace, but Lucasfilm later said that it had been Greedo the Elder, the father of the Rodian who met his end in A New Hope. I was prepared to believe that Sphere of Influence would feature Greedo the Elder, since he could be a young adult by this time. However, the announcer in the Cartoon Network preview seemed to be implying that it was the Greedo we all knew from ANH, which worried me. According to the Expanded Universe, the younger Greedo was born during the same year in which the Clone Wars came to an end with Palpatine's declaration of a Galactic Empire. In other words, ANH Greedo didn't even exist during the time of TCW. Shortly after the preview aired, my worry was justified. Leland Chee commented on Twitter that they had already tried to retcon TPM Greedo to become Greedo the Elder, and that they weren't going to attempt to place TCW Greedo correctly in Star Wars canon. This is extremely annoying to me, and given the importance that Lucasfilm seems to place on maintenance of canon in general (Leland Chee's entire job revolves around that), I'm surprised they would just ignore something like this. Here we have a character appearing in a story that takes place when he shouldn't even be born yet. I'm utterly confused as to why they didn't just say that Greedo the Elder was the Rodian in both TPM and this episode of TCW.
Outrage over canon aside (It would have been so easy to make this work! Come on! Okay, forget it...), Sphere of Influence was a great episode in several ways. Ahsoka grew as a Jedi, Papanoida shined in his first major story appearance, and we saw more of the corruption and inaction that made the Republic Senate so famously shameful. I would like to get back to the heavy focus on large-scale ground and space battles -- or really any combat involving Anakin, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan -- sometime soon, but this episode played an important role in the overall story of the era. Politics may not be the most exhilarating story material (except "aggressive negotiations, of course), but you can't conduct a war without involving politics, and this was probably the most political war in Star Wars history. (At least until a canon-defyingly resurrected Greedo starts his own war in the Legacy era. Okay, fine! I'm done griping now.)