The Clone Wars Season 6 Episode 2: "Conspiracy"
The second episode of The Clone Wars Season 6 was impressive from start to finish. It made great use of familiar characters like Shaak Ti and Fives, developed the existing character of Nala Se in an interesting new way, and introduced a droid whose evolution represents the trials and tribulations of clone troopers across the galaxy. This series has dealt with questions of individualism and collective goods before, but never has it been presented in such a stark way, and never before have the stakes been so high. As we all know, Revenge of the Sith was so named for a reason, and this episode earned its status as one of the most important in the history of The Clone Wars because it powerfully and cleverly enhanced our understanding of the plot that would hand the Sith their carefully planned revenge.
The presence of Shaak Ti in this episode reflected the Jedi Order's continuing involvement in the clones' growth and development. As the generals leading these troops into battle, they would of course maintain an important stake in how the clones' development progressed. Shaak Ti, in particular, is associated with Kamino due to her presence there in "Clone Cadets" and "ARC Troopers," where she served as a stern but sympathetic face for the clone troopers of Domino Squad, including Fives. I appreciated seeing Shaak Ti again, as she provided a faint beacon of hope amid all the darkness that Fives was experiencing and witnessing. She was an individual manifestation of the widespread sentiment among the clone ranks that Jedi could be trusted to care about them as individuals, and I enjoyed hearing Fives voice this trust in her.
Even so, as the representative of the Jedi's concerns on Kamino, Shaak Ti had her work cut out for her. She had to be a reassuring face for the clones even as she practiced careful diplomacy with Kaminoans like Prime Minister Lama Su and senior clone scientist Nala Se. She evidently shared some of the clones' distaste for Kaminoan procedures, specifically the hypertest that Nala Se ordered for Tup. The Kaminoan scientist, meanwhile, was more interested in results than clones' wellbeing. This tension boiled over in the argument between Shaak Ti and Nala Se regarding how to proceed with studying Tup. Their dispute underscored the tension between the clones' providers and the clones' overseers. I really enjoyed seeing this tension receive more attention, because it's a fundamental conflict in this time period and it hadn't received enough attention in the series.
When Shaak Ti reported on Tup's situation to the Jedi Council, Mace Windu gave voice to a new worry that had sprung up as a result of Tup's betrayal. In the middle of leading a massive war effort and seeing their numbers strained to the breaking point, the Jedi now had to worry that they'd "find more clones turned against us." The brief scene in the Council chamber shed light on the success of Darth Sidious' plans. It reminded us that the Council was seeing the threads of Sidious' plan flutter in the shadows but was unable to prevent it from coming to fruition. Without a doubt, this ominous, hazy awareness of the threat painted a darker and more interesting picture than the suggestion, found in the EU, that Order 66 was a total surprise to the Order. I like the idea that the Jedi could sense a plot but found their hands tied by lies, secrets, and bureaucracy.
Even in this episode, we saw evidence of the Jedi's inability to act, albeit on a smaller level. In the midst of simmering tension between Fives and Nala Se, Shaak Ti found herself in a difficult position. The audience was half rooting for her to help Fives and half rooting against her catching him. She had to help the Kaminoans even though she disagreed with their methods, because it was in the Order's best interest to maintain a productive relationship with the army-builders.
The big questions about what it meant to be a clone trooper took center stage in this episode just as they had in "The Unknown." This time, however, those questions became more pressing, as Fives faced life-and-death decisions and increasingly aggressive defiance of the Kaminoans. Right from the start, Fives' distaste for and distrust of the Kaminoans became clear. He didn't want to abandon Tup, which he interpreted as leaving him in the Kaminoans' care. His initial outburst at the sight of Nala Se operating on Tup reflected his suspicion about Kaminoan medical procedures, a suspicion that I'm sure was widespread in the clone ranks.
Even though not a single blaster was fired in this episode, the tension and anxiety boiling inside Fives made for a dramatic story. "Fighting a virus is a nice change of pace from all those clankers," Fives told Rex as they parted ways. Indeed, this new challenge seemed to test the battle-hardened ARC Trooper's emotional and ideological limits, straining them to what is sure to be a breaking point in the next episode.
It was incredibly interesting and enjoyable to watch Fives' assertions of clone identity, most of which came during his conversations with the plucky medical droid AZ-3. Their initial conversation about numbers and names harkened back to Fives and the rest of Domino Squad selecting nicknames to reflect their independent personalities. This improvisational behavior was something to which AZ-3, having been cooped up on Kamino, had not been exposed. But Fives eventually got AZ-3 to violate his orders in the service of his highest protocol (saving the patient), suggesting that little by little, the skilled tactician was wearing down the floating droid's programmed defenses.
One of the best exchanges in the whole episode happened between this unlikely duo. When Fives learned that Tup was to be terminated, he declared, "We were not created to be disposed of this way." AZ-3's response was both accurate and brutal: "Perhaps you were." This conversation illuminated, as no other interaction had, the fundamental tension at the heart of the Republic's clone army. The clones were bred to be obedient, and they expressed this obedience in part by developing a genuine loyalty to the Jedi. Ultimately, however, they were bred, not simply trained, and as much as the Kaminoans would hate to admit it, the clones' origins affected how they operated. Their loyalty to the Jedi coexisted uneasily with an understanding of their births in cloning vats and their lack of rights and freedom beyond the confines of the Republic military.
Fives' tedious assault on AZ-3's rigid obedience to the Kaminoans was analogous to how he and his fellow clones "creatively interpreted" orders to serve the broader mission all the time on the battlefield. What made these scenes with Fives and AZ-3 so simultaneously powerful and ominous was the fact that Fives' thinking represented a serious threat to the Kaminoans, who relied on obedience to maintain order in the ranks. One of the deepest ironies of this entire storyline is the fact that, while Fives continually disobeyed orders to investigate Tup's betrayal, what happened to Tup was the precursor to a galaxy-wide betrayal that explicitly relied on the clones' obedience and unthinking discipline.
AZ-3 was interesting to consider on his own. Like Shaak Ti, he was a light in the darkness, albeit a more chipper one. Despite (or perhaps because of) the gravity of events in this episode, I appreciated AZ-3's chipper mood. I laughed out loud when he said to Fives, "I always wanted to have human feelings. But I do not. Goodbye!" before briskly floating out of the room. Soon, however, AZ-3's chipper attitude met with Fives' cynicism about his robotic nature. "You're just a droid," Fives told him dismissively. "You don't know about real duty." In an episode filled with ironies both tragic and complex, this was one of the most profound ironies of all. Here was Fives, a clone born in a vat who vastly exceeded his makers' expectations of him, lecturing a droid about its limits. Some in the Republic -- including the lanky genetic manipulators walking the halls of that medical center -- would have lectured Fives in the same way. Or at least, they would have done so until he demonstrated why they were wrong. In much the same way, Fives learned to respect AZ-3's capacity much as others learned to appreciate his own.
Fives and AZ-3's relationship was refreshing not only because I wanted Fives to have an ally but also because the clone helped AZ-3 exceed his programming. "We all have numbers," AZ-3 told Fives early in the episode. I wonder if it was this insistence on conformity and uniformity that inspired Fives to take it upon himself to free AZ-3 from his prison of discipline. Whatever the reason, he consistently encouraged the droid to assert his individuality. AZ-3's increasing willingness to obey Fives and not follow his normal programming routine was a microcosmic example of what the clone army had been experiencing since its commissioning, and I enjoyed seeing that dynamic play out in microcosm.
It would be impossible to discuss this episode without analyzing the literally and figuratively towering presence of Nala Se, the clone scientist. This episode did a great job portraying the Kaminoans' complex personalities, but it also established Nala Se as a uniquely unsympathetic member of the species. There was her cold demeanor when she found AZ-3 performing a deeper scan on Tup, a chilling reminder of the heartlessness of the clone-builders. There was her shock at being defied by Fives, an unsettling reflection of her view that the clones she helped design are merely tools that can be applied to whatever task their masters prefer. And there was her argument with Shaak Ti, in which Nala Se called the clones "property of the Kaminoan government" in order to establish her claim to authority over them.
Nala Se's casually heartless statement to Shaak Ti reminded us that, in the eyes of their masters, the clones are fundamentally products. As much as we may identify and sympathize with individual clones like Rex and Fives, for the purposes of legal and institutional arrangements, they are goods sold to buyers, not people possessed of fundamental dignity. All of Nala Se's actions established her as the clear villain of the episode, but the story added depth to the contrast between good and evil reminding us that her work was vital to the survival of Republic. As such, while the audience might have balked at her methods and attitude, it was indisputable that she had done "the good guys" a great service by providing battle-ready clones to the Jedi Order and the Galactic Senate.
I initially found it striking that, when AZ-3 proposed risking Tup's life to discover more information about his condition, Nala Se refused to follow his advice. After all, his cost-benefit analysis was something that the results-oriented, ends-justify-means Kaminoan cloners ordinarily endorsed. Of course, there was something else going on here. Nala Se was obstructing AZ-3's intended procedure because she was concealing a truth that went straight to the heart of the Kaminoans' contract with the Jedi Order.
When Nala Se and Lama Su discussed Tup's misconduct with Count Dooku, many things fell into place. It was fitting that the scene where they discussed "Clone Protocol 66" featured such dramatic, pulse-pounding music, because it shed light on a fascinating, intricate mystery that had befuddled me since I watched Revenge of the Sith: How did the Kaminoans receive the instructions for the Order 66 programming, and how much did they know about its purpose? I had never really thought that senior Kaminoan officials were knowing accomplices to the Sith plot, even if they were a race of heartless, profit-seeking gene-manipulators. Lama Su and Nala Se's musings on the curious nature of the Jedi Order after their conversation with Dooku shed some light on the situation: They assumed that Dooku was a Jedi, and that whatever Protocol 66 was intended to do, it was a Jedi creation designed to enhance the clones' service of the Jedi Order.
The fact that Protocol 66 came from a modified inhibitor chip inserted into the clones' brains erased much of the confusion around their fateful execution of the Emperor's first command. But as I re-watched the episode, I asked myself: Does this change how I felt about Order 66? Does the fact that Order 66 was essentially a voice-activated initialization of a biomechanical chip change the gravity of that montage in Episode III when the Jedi start dropping like flies? At first, I felt like the computerized nature of the command cheapened the moment. No longer was Darth Sidious figuratively activating a long-held, secretly-fostered sentiment among the clones. Now, he was literally activating an organic subroutine, flipping a switch to convert the Republic's defenders into its conquerors and its guardians into its scapegoats.
The more I thought about it, however, the less it bothered me. The most important thing about Order 66 is its effect: the virtual extinguishment of the Jedi Order, the annihilation of the guardians of peace and justice in the Republic. Order 66 may have drawn its literal power from organic circuitry that turned clone troopers into Jedi killers, but it drew its thematic power from the myriad story threads that were woven together in this episode. Fives' trust of the Jedi, the Jedi's respect for the clones, the Jedi's hazy awareness of a plot against them, and the clones' pride in their independence -- all of these themes contributed to the stunning efficacy of Emperor Palpatine's grand plan. Ultimately, the irony of the inhibitor chip manifesting as a tumor is that Order 66 is a cancer on the clone army that eventually infects and exterminates the Jedi Order.
Without question, the best scene in this episode was Tup's final moments of life. As Fives leaned over him, Tup whispered about being freed from his mission. "What mission?" Fives asked, as the music darkened. "You know the one," Tup said cryptically. "The one in our dreams. It never ends." That alone would have been a jaw-dropping moment. The clones have had dreams about "executing Order 66"? Wow. Talk about foreshadowing. But the scene got better, because as Tup spoke these haunting words, the grey-armored clone troopers serving guard duty looked at each other with what seemed like hesitation. The close-ups on their faces made it clear: they knew what he was talking about. Shaak Ti, predictably and tragically, merely looked puzzled. That scene impacted on the Star Wars mythos like a bomb blast. When I first watched this episode, I was so stunned at that scene that I had to rewind and watch it again, not only because I didn't want to miss a moment of it but also because I couldn't focus on the rest of the episode after initially viewing the scene.
I did have a couple of complaints about this episode that I want to mention. For one thing, Shaak Ti told the Jedi Council that Tup had been reported missing on Ringo Vinda, but we never learned more about that disappearance. I wish we had learned where Tup had been and what had prematurely triggered his Order 66 programming. My other complaint is about the voice of Palpatine. Tim Curry is simply not a good fit for the role. It is probably impossible to replicate the vocal mastery of Ian Abercrombie, but the creative team behind The Clone Wars must have had seriously underwhelming options if they went with Tim Curry. I mean no disrespect to Curry, who is by all accounts a talented performer, to judge by his other roles. He simply isn't suited to play Palpatine. It was clear from the one line he had at the end of Season Five, and it remains clear in this episode.
Those complaints aside, "Conspiracy" took The Clone Wars to new heights and provided fodder for endless discussions about the relationship between the clones and the Jedi and the balance between obedience and independence on the battlefield. It's hard to imagine any scene related to Order 66 carrying more dramatic weight and jaw-dropping implications than the one where Tup and Fives discussed the clones' "dreams." For these reasons, I commend the creative team for producing a masterful piece of storytelling dealing with the multifaceted dilemmas facing the clone army, the Jedi Order, and the Galactic Republic.