The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 15: Shades of Reason
This episode might as well have been called "Shades of Treason". It was a veritable merry-go-round of betrayal and backstabbing. After a strong buildup in the previous episode, Maul and Pre Vizsla managed to oust Duchess Satine from Mandalore. In the eyes of both men, however, this was only the preliminary challenge. The real fight would come next, and it would be between the two of them. The episode played out accordingly: barely nine minutes were allocated to the takeover of Mandalore, using a stratagem with parallels that I'll explore later. The rest of the episode focused on Maul and Vizsla's clash of visions and concluded with a truly spectacular clash of blades.
Pre Vizsla had privately viewed Maul as merely hired muscle from the start. When the Zabrak laid out the details of his plan to overthrow Duchess Satine -- pretending to lead an alliance of criminals against the people of Mandalore, with the Death Watch playing the people's saviors -- it undoubtedly reinforced Vizsla's assessment of Maul as an unsophisticated savage (no pun intended). Playing the role of hero to Maul's villain only increased his sense of superiority over the Zabrak brothers. Vizsla, however, made several grievous mistakes, all of which he would pay for by the end of the episode.
Chief among those mistakes was allowing himself to get sucked into the plan without the proper regard for the danger posed by his uneasy allies. Whereas Maul wanted to use Mandalore's resources to expand his reach throughout the galaxy, Vizsla's plan was limited to his homeworld. When Vizsla betrayed Maul and had him imprisoned for real, we heard those familiar sinister whispers that often accompany dramatic moments for Maul. In this case, they foreshadowed Vizsla's demise at the hand of an enemy whose lethality he underestimated. The Death Watch leader was blind to Maul's superiority, because he had become obsessed with liberating his people and returning them to their true ways. Once he had actually set foot on Mandalore, and even more so once Satine had been ousted, he seemed to grow intoxicated by the promise of having finally accomplished his life's work.
Vizsla's relationship with Maul reminded me of the dynamic between Darth Sidious and Count Dooku, except that Vizsla and Maul appeared to switch places throughout the episode. At first, Maul was pulling the strings behind the scenes, laying out the plan and (in the previous episode) holding Vizsla back when he wanted to pursue the Hutts' bounty hunters. Vizsla turned the tables when he revealed that he no longer needed Maul, but that wasn't the last time the balance of power would shift.
While Vizsla and Bo-Katan were playing with fire by allying with ex-Sith warriors, Maul and Savage also recognized that they needed to be wary of their putative allies. Both sides were posturing, which is what happens when you get in bed with Sith or former Sith. Ultimately, however, it was Maul who truly had the upper hand. "Greed never fails to motivate," Maul told Savage. It was a highly perceptive comment, and it proved true. Vizsla's greed for power and for fulfillment of destiny was "motivating" him to downplay Maul's treachery, just as Almec's greed gave Maul an opportunity to control him at the end of the episode.
The Clone Wars is doing wonders for Maul's character development. He's truly becoming a keen tactician and a master manipulator, much like the shadowy figure who trained him decades earlier. Indeed, Maul's plan was reminiscent of Palpatine's grand scheme: orchestrate chaos so you can be the hero by fixing things. There were thematic parallels between Maul's plan here and Palpatine's orchestration of the entire Clone Wars, as well as parallels between Maul's later use of Almec and Palpatine's association with Gunray. There was also an overt parallel between Maul and Palpatine in this episode. When Maul contacted Vizsla to give him the "go" order on their plan to unseat Satine, he did so by hologram. Vizsla even called him "Lord Maul," although the sarcasm in his tone should have been evident to the Zabrak. Like Palpatine, Maul no doubt noted Vizsla's disgruntled attitude.
Vizsla's highly public mock duel with Savage enabled the Death Watch leader to assert his dominance over the Zabrak, but Savage clearly chafed at having to back down for the sake of the plan. He clearly wanted to have a real duel with Vizsla. When Vizsla brought Savage before the people of Mandalore to boast about defeating him and his fellow crime bosses, Savage was positively snarling with frustration. Maul had to endure a similar public showing later in the episode: Vizsla called Maul a beast, and Maul's savageness appeared as if on cue. Vizsla was using him as a vicious reminder of what happens to societies that are ruled by pacifists in an uncertain galaxy, and for the moment, the true mastermind of this operation was willing to oblige.
Once imprisoned, however, everything changed. Maul and Savage's utter disdain for the simple structures that Vizsla had used to confine them emphasized how far above Mandalore's petty squabbles they truly were. As warriors in the Sith tradition, they had ambitions even Vizsla couldn't comprehend. The ease with which they broke out of their prison cell reinforced that imbalance of power, as did the efficiency and brutality with which Savage defeated Vizsla's prison guards. Even more serious was the fact that Vizsla had unintentionally given Maul access to the very person whose aid he required -- Almec, the disgraced former prime minister. The scenes in the prison complex were positively chilling. I loved the moment when Savage snapped a Death Watch guard's neck as Maul told Almec that they had severed their ties with Vizsla. As if Savage's murder of the guard hadn't just spoken for itself!
The moment when Maul told the newly-recruited Almec how he was going to defeat Vizsla was the turning point in the struggle between the two powerful men. Vizsla's incompetence came to light in several ways. Not only did Maul easily outwit overpower his security precautions, but he exploited the weakness he had identified in Vizsla in the previous episode: his honor. Maul knew he could defeat Vizsla in one-on-one combat, and also he knew that Vizsla would be too arrogant to realize this.
The climactic duel between Vizsla and Maul was quite simply stunning. It was superb. It was the best duel in the entire series. I particularly liked how it made use of quick cuts, and how low camera placement provided intense angles looking up at bruised and pained faces (or leaping figures). The fact that a tapestry of Satine hung on the wall behind the duel was an exquisitely tragic reminder of the context of the fight. Vizsla tried to use all of his technology, but Maul outmatched him with strength and endurance. When Vizsla's jetpack short-circuited and he lost the advantage of flight, the sinister Maul whispering effect came back, as if to thematically suggest a turning point in the fight. Indeed, it was only seconds later that Maul disarmed Vizsla. As in the case of Anakin vs. Dooku, the final strike in this fight between true master and true servant was a beheading. (I consider Anakin vs. Dooku to be a master/apprentice duel because one could say that Palpatine was essentially fighting Dooku through Anakin.)
Another important character must be discussed in this review: Duchess Satine. After it had been foreshadowed in several episodes in past seasons, we finally saw Satine's shameful (and, ironically, nonviolent) loss of the throne in "Shades of Reason". The Duchess' impotence was on full and depressing display in this episode. When she learned about the criminal attacks on Mandalore, she assumed it was Death Watch, with whose villainy she was so familiar. Regardless of the enemy, however, she was reluctant to get involved and also cognizant of her people's limited defenses. The irony of Satine's situation could not have been lost on her: her pacifism had led to a weak police force and poorly-trained security guards. Vizsla's argument to the people that "Duchess Satine has led us to ruin" was partially true. Indeed, it was her fault that Maul's plan even worked.
The beauty of the takeover plan that this episode depicted was how firmly it rested on a grain of truth. Vizsla exploited the people's genuine disgruntlement to take over the planet. If it hadn't been Savage, Black Sun, and the Pyke Syndicate attacking Mandalore, it would eventually have been another faction, one that would have put up a better fight against Mandalore's police than Maul's forces did against their Death Watch allies. Satine na´vely opened herself up to Vizsla's appealing call for militarism by presenting such a stark contrast to his strength and ambition. She lost the high ground the moment Vizsla's armored, helmeted associates landed on the platform in front of her.
It might seem striking that the people of Mandalore would accept the aid and benevolence of a group called "Death Watch," but the reaction of a Mandalorian guard when a Death Watch soldier freed him from imprisonment was a key moment in understanding the people's response to Vizsla's promises. That guard, like so many civilians, just wanted Mandalore to be safe and secure. As an officer of the law, he saw how impotent the planet's defenses had become, and he must have known that it was because of Satine and her na´ve, impotent political philosophy.
Satine's response to the plight that her people faced as a result of her incompetence was to double down on that failed posture. "I will not be provoked to violence by these terrorists," she declared as they stormed her throne room. This statement underscored just how weak and na´ve the Duchess truly was. Even with the ultimate threat to her reign standing right in front of her, she refused to act assertively. Faced with the certainty that Vizsla's successor state would eventually grow brutal and warlike, she could have tried to take steps to protect her government. Unfortunately, she didn't have the courage to abandon her ideology when it really counted.
Perhaps it was because Satine recognized that Vizsla had beaten her in the realm of public opinion. "The people are on their side now," she sullenly told her aide. Even though I strongly dislike the character of Satine (or perhaps because of that dislike), I wish we'd had the chance to see more of the Duchess' reaction to the realization that her people had abandoned her. That must be a heart-wrenching thing to experience when you just want the best for your people, even if you're going about it the wrong way.
This episode was largely about Maul's growing ambitions and manipulative talents, but it was also part of the long-term TCW arc that has explored the peculiar situation on Mandalore. Duchess Satine was, in a sense, an anomaly on her planet. Mandalore's "warrior past" seemed destined to reemerge. Its people wanted strength, and it seems that only the Death Watch can provide that strength. This episode was a commentary on the idea that, in a galaxy at war, uncertainty and terrorism must be met with strength and resolve.
That central of governance amid turmoil found its clearest articulation in the argument between Almec and Satine. Her naivety and his advocacy for what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called "realpolitik" clashed to great effect in the Mandalorian prison. Almec noted scornfully that Satine's rule had brought frailty to Mandalore, and while his treacherous approach in the earlier Mandalorian episodes wasn't exactly right, it was certainly more practical and more realistic given the circumstances. Perhaps that kind of attitude was at the heart of true Mandalorian society all along. Perhaps Satine had only barely managed to contain it on a temporary basis. In a sense, Satine's chickens had come home to roost in "Shades of Reason", and she knew it.
The end of this episode promised great things for the next installment, "The Lawless". Bo-Katan, who had strongly urged Vizsla not to underestimate Maul in the beginning of the story, was naturally horrified to see her boss defeated and beheaded. I liked how her separate faction of Death Watch warriors broke off, because it will complexity to the remainder of the story arc. What will Bo-Katan do now that her leader and mentor is dead and his plan has failed? There is also the question of who will be ruling Mandalore when this story arc ends. The people of Mandalore are really quite gullible, and I failed to see how they could believe Almec, a convicted liar, cheater, and traitor, when he claimed that Satine had murdered Vizsla. It will be interesting to see how the planet reacts to his rule as the story draws to a close.
I suspect that, when The Clone Wars wraps up, we will consider this episode to represent a major turning point in the character of Maul. He's undoubtedly the most interesting part of this story arc, and "Shades of Reason" did a lot to accentuate his strengths and explore his personality. When it ended, he was playing Almec like Sidious played Gunray in The Phantom Menace. (Indeed, Almec's status as puppet prime minister is an echo of what might have been had the Invasion of Naboo succeeded.) Long before the end, though, this episode was filled with reasons to appreciate Maul and the role he's playing in galactic affairs. Thanks to Sam Witwer's flawless vocal performance and the cinematically masterful final duel, "Shades of Reason" built up Maul as a terrifying presence and a force (no pun intended) to be reckoned with.