The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 13: Point of No Return
I had my qualms with the first and second episodes of the D-Squad story arc, but with this concluding installment, I feel confident in calling it a success. In these four episodes, writer Brent Friedman hit on important themes that have largely been sidelined in the mythology of Star Wars. Questions such as "What defines sentience?" and "What makes an individual?" have long been at the heart of science fiction storytelling, but because Star Wars mostly focuses on organic beings, it hasn't dealt much with those questions or the broader dilemmas they address. That all changed with these four episodes, and in particular with "Point of No Return", which I thought did an extraordinary job of portraying the members of D-Squad and the droids they encountered in a fundamentally "human" light.
Before I get into the philosophical stuff, I want to talk about the remarkable sights and sounds in this episode. The first thing that stood out to me from a production standpoint was the really great music that we heard as the droids disembarked from their shuttle and as they investigated the command deck of the Republic assault ship. It was intense but mysterious, while at the same time subdued. It fit perfectly with the eerie sight of the empty hangar bay and helped build toward the dramatic reveal of the cruiser's true nature.
Later in the episode, there was a clever visual homage to A New Hope, when the group of Republic droids crossed the hallway and avoided Separatist blaster fire much like R2-D2 and C-3PO did (or would later do) aboard the Tantive IV. In terms of sights and sounds, however, nothing compared to the explosion of the rhydonium-laden cruiser. Both the explosion and the subsequent shock wave it sent through the Republic fleet were magnificent to watch in HD. Nothing short of "stunning" describes the animation quality of that sequence. That scene also benefitted from well-timed sound effects, from the delayed blast to the alarms to the echoing sound of hull fragments slamming into the conference station. It was all executed on a truly cinematic level.
From the very first scene of this episode, D-Squad proved itself to be far more capable of operating in dangerous or complicated circumstances that their commanding officer. After landing in the cruiser's hangar bay, WAC-47 and the astromechs paid attention and noticed that several things were wrong -- there were no droids or crew in the hangar bay, and all the blast doors were closed -- while Gascon, blinded by pride, ignored these warnings signs. D-Squad soon proved itself capable of facing Separatists in close combat, especially R2 and U9-C4, who defeated several battle droids toward the end of the episode's first act.
Even the super tactical droid on the bridge recognized the Republic droids' ability to disrupt the Separatists' plan, an ability they exercised to great effect as the episode progressed. When facing the swarm of buzz droids, R2 acted resourcefully as always, spraying them with his fuel nozzle and igniting them with his flamethrower. In the chaos of that scene, Gascon couldn't come up with a plan, but BZ did: he volunteered to open the airlock and subject the buzz droids to the vacuum. That showed bravery and ingenuity. WAC demonstrated a keen grasp of tactics and quick thinking when he ordered the other droids to magnetize their feet to protect them from the vacuum. That was only the beginning of this episode's "humanization" of droids.
Many of the other human moments for robotics in this episode came from the small cadre of Republic service droids that were left on the cruiser. I enjoyed seeing PLNK droids (the predecessor to the "Gonk" droid), a WED-15 Treadwell, and an MSE-series unit among the survivors. It was a nice homage to some of the saga's most popular droid models and a reminder of the part of the crew that is often forgotten in dangerous situations aboard warships. In keeping with this episode's focus on anthropomorphizing droids, WAC even attempted to flirt with the LEP servant droid, "Bunny," by telling her that he was the pilot who would get them all to safety. In keeping with this humorous tone, a subsequent scene featured a funny shot of the Treadwell droid failing to enter the laser cannon chamber because it couldn't get past the elevated doorframe. Far from being simply an opportunity for a laugh at the droid's expense, this was also a reminder of the limits of mechanical existence.
This episode even anthropomorphized the Separatist droids to a degree. There was the obligatory but tolerable battle droid humor, of course: two droids struggled to carry the heavy detonator apparatus to the control room and one of them was crushed while setting it down before weakly exclaiming, "I wasn't programmed for this." Far more interesting, however, was the buzz droid that the Separatist commander sent in to stop the Republic droids. The buzz droid had a fun personality of its own. It bounced around haphazardly like a frightened spy beating a hasty retreat when D-Squad discovered its presence.
The buzz droid then led D-Squad to a darkened laser cannon chamber where it could invite a swarm of its kind to overwhelm them. That was a smart move and one that signaled a peculiar kind of intelligence. It took initiative and communicated the idea to its fellow buzz droids, which is a great extension of its autonomy. Like an organic being, it gained confidence from the presence of the other buzz droids; it actually chuckled mischievously as it skittered away when the swarm arrived. The buzz droid swarm was D-Squad's version of the alien insect infestations that organic beings often face on perilous missions. With their more limited sentience, the buzz droids were separated from D-Squad in a way that put the latter group on a raised pedestal. It really equated D-Squad's members with organics and the buzz droids with insects. Even so, the buzz droids got to have death screams as they were sucked out into space.
It wasn't all fun and games, however. There were some sad moments for our friendly droids in "Point of No Return". Throughout this arc, D-Squad had faced only moderate danger and paid no serious price for their heroics. M5-BZ's sacrifice was a shock to the story: we had come to expect that the droids would all be fine, because so far they had been. The most serious damage any of them had suffered was BZ's near-death experience in the first episode. Now, however, there was a real cost to their mission. In a moment of acute humanity, the surviving droids had a keen enough grasp of the weight of BZ's destruction to request a eulogy from Gascon. I'll get to his actual eulogy later, but I thought it was important to note that R2 actually requested some words to honor his fallen comrade. That perceptiveness is what I saw from R2 and the other droids throughout this episode.
The loss of the Treadwell droid in an anthropomorphically unsettling way -- a veritable beheading -- was another reminder that the stakes were high even if only one organic life form was in danger on the ship. The way the Treadwell's "death" was scripted was tragic: he expressed fear about not making it past the blaster fire, Bunny encouraged him, and then just as we were starting to believe that he'd make it, his head got shot off. It was grim, and a few years ago I never thought I'd say that about a droid's demise.
At the end of the episode, Gascon delivered some bad news to Anakin: His trusty astromech droid was gone, but "he just saved all your lives." Gascon's interaction with Anakin, where he commended R2 to his master, was very touching. Anakin, of course, urgently ordered search teams to find his robotic friend. After almost four full episodes in which only one or two major organic characters interacted with the droids, it was nice to see Anakin expressing his concern for R2's wellbeing. It seemed to bring home the message of the arc -- that these droids who work so hard and have so many talents and personality quirks have friends just like organic beings do. Even though we knew R2 wouldn't "die," it was very dramatic to see his beaten and ravaged frame floating through the wreckage. It was akin to a rescue party finding a dying human in an EV suit that was running out of air -- a dramatic "he's safe" moment worthy of a true hero, which R2 undoubtedly was.
I've said a lot about the droids, and now I want to address the change that Gascon experienced in this episode. While he was no longer hostile toward D-Squad, he still didn't fully trust or appreciate them or what they had done for this mission. When he arrived on the Republic cruiser, he wanted to request a meal with the ship's captain, and he even started making food requests -- he was obviously proud that he had accomplished his mission. The problem, of course, was that this pride was premature. But Gascon didn't want to believe WAC when he said that something was wrong. He specifically told WAC that he wouldn't "allow your frivolous worrying to undermine this glorious moment." He also suddenly remembered his motivation for going on the mission in the first place -- that promotion to brigadier general.
Once Gascon learned that there really was a problem with their rescue ship, his first thought was to escape. The way he saw it, his mission was over. He was never explicitly told to prevent the disaster that awaited the Republic conference attendees. Maybe he was afraid, or just tired, but either way, I noticed that he wasn't acting like a good commanding officer. Strong leaders don't wait to be told to save lives and protect their government. They take initiative. Even WAC recognized this, but Gascon disregarded his argument about Republic casualties, calling it hypothetical when of course it was entirely accurate.
When R2 discovered Bunny shadowing D-Squad and she led them to her fellow service droids, I noted how disappointed Gascon was to see that the surviving crew members were not organics with whom he could establish a formal dialog. He obviously would have preferred living beings like himself, and this was a sign to me that he hadn't yet changed as much as I'd hoped. Thankfully, my worries fell by the wayside once BZ's destruction shocked Gascon into recognizing the value of his droid colleagues.
Gascon's eulogy for BZ was touching and showed that he realized the droids' value and their status as individuals with personalities. In that one speech, he almost seemed to summarize the changes he underwent throughout the D-Squad arc: he went from "grave doubts" to "we make an excellent team." He linked himself with the droids with the pronoun "we" -- "we've lost" BZ. He reiterated his point about sacrifice from the previous episode, in which he'd noted that Gregor's sacrifice was the essence of heroism and the dearest price a soldier could pay. In his eulogy, he seemed to equate BZ with Gregor by commending the former in the same heroic terms. Both Gregor and BZ committed noble acts of sacrifice to enable the larger mission to succeed, and the fact that one was a human while the other was a droid no longer seemed to make a difference to Gascon.
BZ's sacrifice was a formative moment for Gascon. It convinced him that this was a mission for which it was worth taking the initiative. Only if he truly valued BZ would the astromech droid's destruction motivate him so strongly. Later in the episode, after he saw that R2 was in danger, he actually urged D-Squad to head back and help R2, saying, "No one gets left behind." He tried to override his previous instructions that they escape with all haste. WAC brought their shuttle out of the hangar before Gascon could fulfill his promise to save everyone, but he had the right idea, and it helped emphasize his transformation from hard-nosed and uncaring to sympathetic and understanding.
At the end of the episode, Gascon reaffirmed his pride in the droids and what they had accomplished. No doubt seeing R2 being repaired gave him renewed appreciation for the droid's sacrifice, similar to how a commanding officer would feel upon visiting a recuperating soldier. In the final scene, Gascon blanched somewhat at the prospect of serving with WAC for the rest of the war, but what this development symbolizes is the Republic's newfound appreciation for what certain droids can contribute to the war effort. WAC in particular demonstrated a lot of integrity, ingenuity, and bravery in this last episode, so it's fitting that he would get a more permanent role in the war. Gascon may have grimaced upon hearing of his and WAC's assignment, but I have no doubt that he will continue to develop a rapport with WAC as the pit droid works hard in the service of the Republic.
Point of No Return hit all the right notes. It devoted a significant amount of time and attention to the droids and the various ways in which their humanity showed through their robotic exteriors. It ran the gamut from funny moments to sad ones and gave us a fun high-stakes mission in which these droids and their heroism could shine. Equally as important, this episode showed us Colonel Gascon revising his attitude toward droids, and in doing so, it gave us a lot about which to think. One of the topics that the Star Trek franchise addressed beautifully on numerous occasions was the issue of sentience. Were androids "people"? What about holographic doctors? Star Wars has largely shied away from dealing with this kind of issue, but in the D-Squad story arc, and particularly in its dramatic concluding installment, the galaxy far, far away gained a new philosophical dimension that will provoke thought, conversation, and debate for years to come. All in all, this episode, like the droids' mission, was a job well done.