The Clone Wars Season 6 Episode 1: "The Unknown"
After a yearlong hiatus during which fans wondered if, when, and how we were going to see more episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the series has blasted back onto the fan community's radar in a huge way, with thirteen new episodes debuting yesterday on Netflix. The first episode in the first story arc, "The Unknown," launched us on a fascinating journey into the origins of the clone army and the nature of the programming they received. In this opening act, pitched battles and light banter reinforced the strong bonds between clones and Jedi Knights that the Clone Wars have fostered. The ominous nature of one clone's mysterious betrayal called into question the potentially troublesome aspects of these bonds, while at the same time, the essential nature of the Republic's vat-grown soldiers received new scrutiny. "The Unknown" was a worthy entry point into this story act, forcing us to confront anew a host of tough questions about the clone troopers, the Jedi, and the Republic, all summed up in the troubling mantra, "Good soldiers follow orders."
Even as it served mainly to set up later events in the story arc, this episode contained a wealth of evidence that the clone troopers had firmly established their place in the Republic army, developing friendships in their own ranks and with their Jedi generals. Early on in the battle on the space station above Ringo Vinda, when Tup saved Fives' life, the latter said, "Thanks brother," and they spared a moment for a bit of light banter in the style of Han and Luke. ("That's two you owe me, junior.") This early camaraderie was a great reminder of the bonds that war forms, as well as the need for small doses of humor to sustain even the most battle-hardened clones during long battles.
The extent to which the clones had formed unbreakable bonds was evident when Tup first began exhibiting signs of unusual behavior. When he spat out the word "Jedi," Rex shrugged it off by simply asking if he was feeling alright. To the viewer, this moment was obviously disturbing, but Rex was relatively unperturbed. At first, this reaction puzzled me. Then I thought about it more, and I realized that Rex's reaction was a combination of two sentiments: A little bit of "I don't have time for any funny business," but mostly "Whatever he's going through, it can't possibly be a threat to our unit." Rex evidently couldn't imagine Tup truly being contemptuous of the Jedi, especially after all of the missions Tup had been on where he'd served Jedi generals.
This was a small moment in the course of the episode, but to me, it highlighted one of the strongest advantages that Darth Sidious possessed as he carried out his grand plan: the element of surprise. By engineering the Grand Army of the Republic and the Clone Wars, he set in motion structures, processes, and routines that would solidify and lull the participants into a false sense of security. This was not security in the literal sense of the word; clone troopers would regularly face danger and both personal and material insecurity as they fought the war for the Republic. But as clone units continued to fight alongside each other, personal bonds would form that would make questioning each other -- even if it was for a good reason -- more difficult and more unlikely. Sidious counted on this happening within the Jedi Order as well, and it did, as evidenced by Mace Windu and Yoda's careful and relatively uncritical treatment of Anakin Skywalker.
I was pleased that the writer of this episode gave Tup the line "Good soldiers follow orders" to mutter continuously as he fell under the sway of his programming. This is a line that exposes the paradox of the clone army. What is a good soldier? Is it unthinking, unquestioning obedience, which Tup exhibited? Or is it creative and unconventional planning and decision-making in the service of a mission? Strictly speaking, it seems like the former is more accurate. The word "orders" doesn't leave much room for flexibility. Yet one of the clone troopers' most formidable advantages over the Separatist droids is their ability to improvise, to adapt to situations, and to think outside the box. The programming buried deep within Tup asserted itself in the form of instant obedience to a predefined mission, but it nonetheless raised the question of what makes a good soldier. Watching Tup later struggle against his restraints and despair at the very notion that he could have killed Tiplar reinforced the profound tragedy of it all, because it showed that he still had a strong urge to respect and protect the Jedi. He had essentially been robbed of the ability to choose how to conduct himself as a soldier.
Rex and Fives' response to Tup's betrayal was particularly interesting to watch in the context of the bonds of brotherhood that had developed within the clone ranks. They had watched one of their brothers, someone with whom they'd laughed and commiserated many times, shoot one of their commanding officers in cold blood. It was a contravention of one of their highest vows, to serve the commanders of the Jedi Order and lay down their lives for the Jedi if necessary. How would Anakin Skywalker's clone captain and an ARC Trooper who owed his success to another Jedi Master (Shaak Ti) process and evaluate Tup's action?
Although the episode didn't dwell on it, I have to imagine that the responses we saw from Rex and Fives concealed some measure of shock. By all indications, Rex couldn't believe what Tup did. Here he was wading into battle like he had done countless times before, shooting droids with his fellow clones, brothers serving the Jedi. On my second viewing of this episode, I realized that by shooting Master Tiplar, Tup was betraying Rex and Fives in addition to the Jedi general he had sworn to obey and protect. Rex's relationship with Anakin must have endeared him to (or at least fostered respect for) the Jedi Order above and beyond what normal infantry clones might have felt. To see one of his own kind slay a Jedi Knight on the battlefield, where the importance of trust and loyalty was at its peak, must have rattled Rex like few events he had experienced before.
Like a true leader, however, Rex muddled through an ocean of disbelief and dismay to be a firm voice of care and support for Tup as Anakin, Tiplee, and their clones processed what had happened. When Tup was being loaded onto the medical shuttle, Rex put his hand on Tup's chest and reassured him that everything was going to be okay. It was both a reminder of their solidarity as fellow clones and an indication that Rex wasn't blaming Tup for his misconduct. When Tup reiterated that "Good soldiers follow orders," Fives seemed to interpret the statement as both a rationale for Tup's unconscionable betrayal and an assertion about the proper place of a clone trooper. His response was classic Fives, and, indirectly, classic Anakin: "You are a good soldier," he told Tup. The implication was clear: Everything that you have done up until now has been the conduct of a good, solid clone trooper, and orders aren't everything. It's what you do with the orders that counts, not how precisely you follow them down to the letter. Fives' remark reminded me of how fully Anakin himself lives by this creed of flexibility and personal initiative. His opinion about following orders, which he imparted to Rex and Fives, will lead to unimaginable destruction and despair in the months and years to come.
Even after Tup was taken out of the picture, this episode continued to emphasize one of the central themes of The Clone Wars: the close, even cozy friendship that develops between a Jedi and his clone troopers. When Anakin, Fives, and Rex were surveying the Separatist space station hangar filled with battle droids, Rex told Anakin, "This is stretching it even for you, sir." His remark followed a brief exchange between Fives and Anakin where the clone jokingly asked his boss if his electrobinoculars were "Jedi-issue" and Anakin responded, half-smiling, that he should stay focused on the mission.
If this scene doesn't seem very important to you, recall that each twenty-two-minute episode of The Clone Wars is the product of a significant amount of editing and winnowing down of material, so that no scene remains in the final product by accident. The creative team behind the series clearly wanted to devote a few seconds to this light banter, and the reason why is obvious. In a story arc that is all about a certain anti-Jedi bit of clone programming, it is imperative that the audience understand how close the Jedi and the clones have become over the course of the war. This friendly banter between Anakin, Rex, and Fives was the storytellers' way of reminding the audience that the dark secrets of Order 66 were lying in wait beneath strong, battle-tested bonds and true friendships. Without that foundation to shatter, Order 66 would not have had such a profoundly demoralizing impact.
After Fives suggested that the three of them use his grappling hook to board the Separatist shuttle carrying Tup, Rex commented to Anakin, "That's why he's the ARC Trooper." Given the importance of individual clones' narratives in this TV show, it was nice to be reminded of the progress that Fives had made since becoming an ARC Trooper. In brief, seemingly inconsequential moments like Rex's remark, the audience was able to grasp onto a thread running throughout the series: the maturation and growth, not only biological but also psychological and emotional, of specific clone troopers. Anakin, Rex, and Fives' fast-paced, almost effortless boarding of the Separatist shuttle made it clear that these clones had spent significant time in the field with Anakin and other Jedi, and that they had learned a lot about how to work and fight alongside them. Given what was lying in wait for both Jedi and clones in Episode III, seeing this camaraderie and teamwork was a grim reminder of how quickly everything could -- and would -- fall apart.
Although this episode was focused on the camaraderie between the Jedi and the clones, there were other, smaller elements that I enjoyed too. For one thing, Jedi Masters Tiplee and Tiplar made up for their uncreative naming with pleasantly unique accents, and even though their role in this story was brief, I would have liked to see more of these sisters working as a team. I appreciated that the clones' battlefield tactics had evolved to suit the times, including the use of riot-police-type body shields and the deployment of the droideka-disabling technique that Ahsoka and Anakin showed the Onderon rebels. I also liked the way that they didn't show Tup actually shooting Tiplar, choosing instead to show Tup's entranced face as the blue light of his single blaster bolt reflected off of it. This decision to suggest, rather than, simply depict, the kill made it a more haunting scene, particularly because the visual focus was fully on the unthinking murderer. Finally, when Tiplee said that there were rumors about the Separatists working on an "anti-clone virus," I instantly thought of Doctor Uthan and her clone-killing nanovirus from Karen Traviss' Republic Commando series. Whether or not this was the intended reference, I consider it a nice connection between the higher-canon televised material and the EU.
There was a lot to enjoy on the Separatist side of things as well. I enjoyed seeing Admiral Trench return to The Clone Wars. His appearance was a nice throwback to Season 2, when he was one of the earliest new villains that the series' heroes faced. In keeping with his reputation as a calculating, analytical villain who liked to carefully scrutinize enemy tactics, Trench slowly replayed the recording of Tup's betrayal, studying it with a curiosity borne of surprise. Clearly Trench had not been expecting such a novel battlefield development. Of course, like a good lackey, he dutifully reported it to Count Dooku. Both Trench and Dooku relayed the story of Tup to their masters using the word "executed," a fitting, if obvious, bit of foreshadowing given what Tup's actions portended.
Dooku's involvement in this episode offered a couple of interesting things to consider. One was his passing remark that "things" like Tup's betrayal "have been reported in the past." I wondered if this was a reference to the Season One episode "The Hidden Enemy," in which clone trooper Slick betrayed Rex, Cody, and his other clone brothers because he was tired of being a slave of the Jedi. More interesting was the revelation that Dooku knew a lot about Sidious' plan to have the clones execute Order 66. Prior to this episode, nothing in Dooku's actions, words, or demeanor in either the films or this series suggested that Sidious had briefed him on this part of his grand plan. It led me to wonder what else he knew about Sidious' machinations. The Dark Lord of the Sith certainly wouldn't have told him much about his vision for young Anakin Skywalker, since that would have entailed Sidious revealing his intention to betray his apprentice. Indeed, prior to this episode, I figured that Sidious had kept Dooku in the dark about everything except what he needed to know. Evidently Sidious had told Tyranus more than many fans suspected.
I did have a few complaints about this episode, although they were minor. Firstly, the Republic "blockade" of Ringo Vinda and its space station was never made clear. Were the Republic forces actually encircling the space station, as opposed to just sending troops to take control of it? If so, why weren't the Separatist frigates engaging the Republic fleet? That aspect of the story seemed to be there simply to explain the presence of the Republic forces, without much thought to how it would explain or affect the behavior of Trench and his droids. Secondly, I felt that the scene where the rocket battle droids and buzz droids boarded the Republic medical shuttle was a waste of time. It was cool to watch (as I'll elaborate on in a second), but because the Republic retrieved Tup anyway, its only effect was to establish how important Tup's capture was to the Separatists. This could have been established in a less time-consuming way.
That criticism notwithstanding, the droid attack on the medical shuttle was one of the best examples of the masterful animated cinematography for which The Clone Wars has become known. From a visual standpoint, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the boarding scene, seeing the clone officers die because they didn't have breathing apparatuses and watching the helmeted clones fight futilely for their lives in a confined space where they were outnumbered. It was eerie to see the officers' bodies just floating there, hunched over, as the nervous clone soldiers prepared to be boarded. Then, finally, there was a great shot of the one surviving clone officer watching as the rocket battle droids dispatched the other clones. It was downright grim to watch him shake with fear (you could actually see him shaking!) and then steel himself before boldly taking out several droids and getting killed. Later, when Anakin and the search party arrived, the eerie atmosphere persisted thanks to the way the clones' bodies floated in the vented shuttle bay. The music and the clones' search lights accentuated the horrifying setting, as did the one close-up of a clone officer's dead eyes as his head floated in the foreground in front of Rex.
This episode's opening "fortune cookie" text was "The truth about yourself is always the hardest to accept." Tup initially struggled to accept what he had done because his years of service to the Republic had built up layers of respect for orders, duty, and the Jedi; he couldn't imagine having betrayed those responsibilities and those institutions. The truth about himself -- that he was a pawn in a massive game that would soon play out on a galactic scale -- was brutally hard for him to accept. Everyone around him dealt with the situation in different ways. Anakin voiced his suspicion that Tup's behavior was the result of a Separatist plot. He was so close that he was almost on top of it, but he didn't realize it. Rex reaffirmed his belief that Tup had been co-opted by some sinister force, because he couldn't picture the Tup he knew violating his oath so blatantly. Meanwhile, even as the programming at the core of the clones' development came to the forefront, evidence of their capacity to grow and learn revealed itself as well. At the end of the episode, Fives expressed his desire to go with his friend Tup to Kamino, reminding us that even programmed soldiers can exceed their programming.
And with that, one of the most interesting story arcs in the history of The Clone Wars was off to a solid start. It's great to be back reviewing TCW episodes for TheForce.Net. Look for my reviews of the other twelve bonus content episodes over the course of the next few weeks. I hope to post a new one every two or three days. As always, thank you for reading.