After taking a break from the assassination plot in Friends and Enemies, this arc really needed to get back to that mission immediately. But it didn't. Instead, we got an intermediate, stage-setting episode with shiny toys, largely superfluous character exposition, and a few token deaths to raise the stakes. Even one phenomenal but brief exchange between two of the saga's key players wasn't enough to steer The Box in the right direction.
The irony is that none of the problems with this episode were internal -- they all related to the fact that this was part three in a four-episode story arc. The aforementioned shiny toys, character exposition, and handful of deaths were certainly exciting within the context of the competition, but when you consider this episode in the broader context of the Chancellor Palpatine assassination plot, those elements really do seem distracting and unnecessary. Even so, I feel that it's important to assess this episode as an individual twenty-two minute story before rendering my final verdict on its value.
This episode certainly had a lot going for it in turns of animation and score. Serenno itself was beautiful, especially when seen during the day (as opposed to the night glimpse we got during the Nightsister story arc). Corey Burton's spot-on and positively sinister Dooku complemented excellent writing that kept his dialog faithful to the austere but vicious character we saw in the Prequels. The music in this episode was also great. When Dooku warned Eval that he had one more chance to prove his worth, the score darkened and became something that could only be described as creepy. During that final challenge, when Eval was showing off for Dooku, the close-ups of him and the fire below the hunters added to the sadistic nature of the chamber.
In terms of remarkable sights and sounds, "The Box" itself was no exception. From the giant holo-screens clicking on and off to the corridors opening up in the walls, and from the lights blinking on with a clunking sound to the electrified blocks shooting out of the walls, it was a well-designed proving ground. The cubist design elements were original and visually compelling. In addition to its appearance, The Box was also just a cool and fascinating place. It was an interesting training facility primarily because its artificial nature gave no hunter the advantage right off the bat. They were all unsure of what to expect; they were all unarmed; and they were all fighting for the same thing. It was great to see these normally self-assured hunters eyeing each other warily as they all processed the fact that they were out of their element.
Moralo Eval's comment that The Box was designed to present some of the scenarios that the assassins would face in real-life was chilling and ominous in one notable instance: the room with the electric beams shooting out of the walls on long ledges. Those beams were obviously intended to simulate lightsabers so that the hunters could prepare themselves to face the Jedi defending the Chancellor on Naboo. The Box is especially fascinating when one considers how much control Eval had over each individual room. He designed the syringe-and-energy-shield room to work specifically for Derrown in order to put Hardeen off his game, so he was obviously able to manipulate challenges on-the-fly instead of pre-configuring them. If only he had known how perfect the first challenge was for Obi-Wan Kenobi, as the dioxis gas that the hunters faced was also used in the attempted murder of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn aboard the Trade Federation flagship in The Phantom Menace (and what a nice little nod that was).
For an arc that seemed like it would focus on the planning and execution of an assassination attempt on Chancellor Palpatine, we sure focused a lot on bounty hunters. That said, it was nice to meet some of the galaxy's finest contract killers. It was important that The Box depict each bounty hunter a little differently, distinguishing them not just visually but also in terms of their personalities. Each of them had a distinct style of movement inside The Box. Derrown just kind of floated, Embo was all jumps and acrobatics, and so on. I liked how Dooku elaborated on each man and woman's notoriety, as it enhanced the series' depiction of the criminal underworld and the mercenaries who roam it. I did, however, find it interesting that Embo would be willing to work for Dooku. After all, what we saw of him in the Season 2 episode Bounty Hunters certainly suggested that he had higher standards than the Separatists could meet.
Some of the individual hunters received noteworthy character development, none more so than Cad Bane. As I've said before, I appreciate the way this story arc has shown us a different side of Cad Bane. Sure, he's still a loner, but now his attitude has a less violent tinge because he's among beings we might describe as his colleagues. I enjoyed seeing Cad Bane demonstrate his quick-draw, and I thought the chilling strain of music that followed him drilling a hole in Bulduga was a nice complement to the way he calmly placed his new hat on his head. This was followed by a fun little moment as Bane admitted that he cared about something mundane, telling the others, "What are you looking at? It's a nice hat."
Bane's opening salvo of sartorially-inspired murder wasn't the only surprise from the Duros in this episode. Him saving Obi-Wan really caught me off-guard, but then so did Moralo Eval's blatantly vengeful attempt to eliminate "Rako Hardeen." While the two hunters hadn't gotten along during their trip to Serenno, Bane demonstrated that he still had some scruples when he saved the supposed Jedi-murderer. "If you're gonna kill him, do it like a man" sounds like something the notoriously-professional Boba Fett might say. The parallels that the writers are drawing between Cad Bane and Fett are clear and welcome. His behavior will take on a different edge after this episode, because we see that he at least values honor during the hunt.
Count Dooku certainly had excellent research skills when it came to bounty hunters. Moments after he inquired about Hardeen to Eval, he described the disguised Jedi to the rest of the hunters as "the marksman of Concord Dawn. This was a nice reference to Boba Fett's original background, but one that I found a little off-putting since its meaning in this episode was unclear. What's so special about being a marksman? And what's so special about doing it on Concord Dawn? At least with characters like Derrown, nicknamed "The Exterminator," there was some real menace behind their reputations.
It was interesting to see Dooku clench his fist as he talked about bringing the Republic to its knees. It showed that he truly had convictions about his mission and emphasized how much of a pawn he really was. We've rarely seen that kind of emotion from the Confederacy's stoic leader. What did get repeated was Dooku's habit of betraying underlings. As usual, the Count turned the tables on someone who thought he was destined for greatness and brought him low in order to humble him. In this case, it was Moral Eval. Designing a testing facility is one thing, but as Dooku was clearly thinking all along, what made Eval so worthy of actually participating in the assassination? As with all pawns, Dooku was ready to discard Eval when it suited him. The underling's wide-eyed expression at the words "The operation will be led by Cad Bane" may foreshadow some team conflict in the arc's final episode.
The most important scene in this episode, however, was the one that fits in the least with the rest of the story. It came toward the beginning of the episode shortly after Dooku welcomed Hardeen, Bane, and Eval to Serenno. Anakin, troubled by the revelation that the Council had kept Obi-Wan's survival a secret from him, arrived as requested in Yoda's chambers. Although it was short, this one scene contained more emotional resonance and narrative relevance than anything else in the episode. ("Narrative relevance" here referring not to the story arc but to the overall series and the entire saga.) I absolutely loved seeing Yoda meet Anakin in his meditation chamber in a nod to their similar meeting Revenge of the Sith. The tone of this scene mirrored the one in Episode III perfectly. The careful lighting, the menacing music, and the facial expressions -- Anakin barely containing his frustration, Yoda gravely concerned -- were all gripping and perfect. In that scene, we saw the deception from both Anakin and Yoda's perspectives.
The framing of the scene was matched only by the bluntness and exquisiteness of its narrative foreshadowing. Never before had we heard Yoda speak this directly to Anakin about his tempestuousness. It reminded me of what Yoda told Luke in The Empire Strikes Back: "You are reckless!" Speaking of TESB, Yoda's advice to Anakin about trusting Obi-Wan ("If you leave, help him you could") is almost word for word what he told Luke about his friends on Cloud City ("If you leave now, help them you could"), and the effect of this on father seemed to be the same as it would later be on son. Echoing the similarities across generations, Yoda's warning that Anakin should be patient will only agitate him further and make him distrust the Jedi Council and their intentions for him. It was an expected but harmful lecture -- just another in a series of straws that are getting ever closer to breaking the camel's back.
The Anakin/Yoda bit was the most fascinating scene in The Box, despite its short duration. It spoke to the essence of The Clone Wars and the core of what this series should depict. Now, I have no doubt that Crisis on Naboo will give us some great Anakin moments, but an episode is far from perfect when, for all the deadly eye candy, its most interesting scene is the one that is shortest and least relevant to the rest of the episode.
The main problem with The Box was that it was an unnecessary part of the assassination story arc. Why not just have Hardeen, Bane, and Eval arrive on Serenno and meet up with the other two or three hunters they would need for the plan? Then Crisis on Naboo could have been the third instead of the fourth part. If the team behind The Clone Wars really needed to fill four episode slots, they could spread out the actual assassination attempt across Crisis on Naboo and a fourth episode -- featuring a cliffhanger in between!
The Box was light on conflict (there were deaths, but not many as a result of characters fighting each other) and full of theatrics. It spiced up the personality of Cad Bane and gave him and the others a chance to demonstrate their survival instincts. If it had been a standalone adventure, I wouldn't be complaining. As part of an arc, however, it felt like a waste of time -- and that's something The Clone Wars can't afford during these high-stakes multi-episode stories.