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TFN Review: Prisoners

Posted By Eric on September 24, 2011

The Clone Wars Season 4 Episode 3: Prisoners

While I found a lot to enjoy in the final episode of the Mon Calamari arc, I thought that it was less impressive than the previous two installments. Even as Prince Lee-Char fully realized his potential and came into his own, Riff Tamson met a spectacularly gory -- and in my opinion, unnecessary -- death. The Clone Wars continues to impress with the animation and sound design, but Tamson's death highlighted a recurring problem on the series that I'll address later in my review. Before I get to that, however, I want to run through what I really enjoyed about Prisoners.

As I already mentioned, Prince Lee-Char received substantial character development in this final part of the story arc. He started off as a timid and reluctant leader in the first episode, but by the time of Prisoners, he had clearly internalized what he'd learned from Ackbar and was continuing to learn from Ahsoka. He recognized the value of extending an olive branch to form an uneasy but necessary alliance with the Quarren. While Ackbar, his mentor, still viewed the Quarren as the enemy, Lee-Char took the diplomatic approach and saw the bigger picture. Ackbar's perception of the situation on Mon Calamari seemed limited, the result of an earlier battle, but after meeting Tamson and assessing his character, Lee-Char recognized that the Quarren were just as powerless as the Mon Calamari. When Lee-Char proposed his strategy, Ackbar seemed to realize that his young ward was finally King material.

Lee-Char also demonstrated other attributes fit for a King. For one thing, he continued to inspire his people by visiting them and averring his confidence in their eventual triumph. When aqua droids arrived to capture him, the Prince accepted his detainment as a way to further his plan. The fact that he refused to run away and regroup showed his readiness to become a symbol to his people. Just by displaying his bravery, he inspired the assembled prisoners. Later, when the planet's natives began fighting the Separatists, he proved that his combat skills had improved as well. In Gungan Attack, we saw the Prince get distracted while continuing to attack a broken aqua droid. In Prisoners, his attacks were more graceful and determined. When it came time to face down Riff Tamson, Lee-Char embraced his warrior spirit and accepted that Tamson had to be stopped. After he killed the shark-being, I noticed that the Prince seemed disturbed by what he'd had to do. With just a brief glimpse of his face, it was clear that, as much as he recognized the occasional necessity of doing so, the Prince took no pleasure in killing others.

Another character whose personality developed throughout this episode was Nossor Ri. To be honest, I always knew he would turn on Tamson, but I thought he would die in the process. Prisoners did an excellent job of sprinkling in evidence of Ri's festering disgust and disapproval. He was visibly pained while he watched Anakin being tortured in the beginning, and during the conference with Dooku, he finally realized that he was never going to hold real power on Mon Calamari. With the Mon Calamari defeated, he wanted to rebuild, but Dooku's strategy didn't involve his or the Quarren's wellbeing. When Tamson abandoned Padmé to her fate and went to confront the Prince, Ri saw Anakin's suffering and finally confirmed to himself that Tamson was not fit to rule his or Lee-Char's people.

Later, when the Prince appealed to Ri's "humanity" and cooperative spirit, Tamson overdid his arrogance and cruelty, thus allowing Lee-Char's offer of freedom and unity to break through Ri's timidity. Observing Tamson's betrayal, his hubris, and his treatment of the Quarren people, Ri contrasted his prospects under Separatist rule with the hope that Lee-Char offered. Realizing that the Mon Calamari will be better allies than the Separatists, Ri internally renounced his allegiance to Tamson -- but he couldn't do so openly until he turned the tables. I thoroughly enjoyed Ri stepping in to personally protect the Prince with his ink-spray technique. Given that it was his acquiescence to the Separatists that brought them to Mon Calamari in the first place, I appreciated that he was stepping up to rectify his mistake. Given that some Earth squids actually can secrete obfuscating ink underwater, this surprising move felt less like deus ex machina and more like Well, of course!

In this final part of the Mon Calamari arc, it seemed like Riff Tamson's ruthlessness had been cranked up to eleven. While interrogating the Republic envoys, his question, "Where is Prince Lee-Char?" ended in a fierce growl. When he confronted Lee-Char, he told the Prince that he spoke to him "as hunter to his prey," thus acknowledging the animalistic nature of their animosity. He further demonstrated his cruelty when he cracked Padmé's helmet, a move that I confess I hadn't expected, given the enduring integrity of the divers' uniforms even during combat. What I really wasn't expecting, however, was how dark the team at Lucasfilm Animation decided to go with Tamson's combat style. Those exploding daggers shocked me and every in my watch group as something bold and unique on Cartoon Network's airwaves. While I didn't see it coming, I applaud Dave Filoni and his team for bringing a new grimness to the series. To be sure, we've already seen some dark tinges on The Clone Wars, but it was extremely disturbing to see Tamson stab those four soldiers and then float away as his enemies, startled and wounded, suddenly exploded.

My only complaint about Riff Tamson was his maniacal laugh. I understand that the kids need to know who the bad guy is, and having him laugh like a James Bond supervillain certainly emphasizes that fact, but if young viewers couldn't figure that out after all the torturing and vicious grinning, maybe they need a flowchart. The laughter, which occurred twice, got on my nerves and seemed almost corny; it was certainly out of place amid such heightened and believable tension.

Speaking of unbelievable things in this episode, how could Ahsoka and the Prince could have gotten that close to the prisoners without being detected. The aqua droids, which obviously couldn't discriminate between individual Mon Calamari, only found Lee-Char by matching what he said about his father to an internal profile. Furthermore, the droids didn't seem to notice the two new arrivals. If those really were prisoners, why weren't they guarded more closely?

With the major topics out of the way, I'll mention a few miscellaneous things that interested and impressed me in this episode. First of all, I enjoyed the use of eels as an underwater torture device, and seeing the electrocution scenes in high-definition was nothing short of stunning. I liked that Tamson called in Karkarodon reinforcements, but I didn't like that they were barely featured in the story. (Although when they haul Padmé and the other captives off to the execution, there's a great piece of shark-esque music that fits them perfectly.) As someone with an increasing appreciation for Jar Jar Binks, I loved that he actually demonstrated his usefulness by waterproofing Padmé's helmet. (For all of you who don't enjoy Jar Jar, you got a tiny moment of Kit Fisto smirking at Jar Jar's unorthodox rescue method. Even Padmé sounded surprised.)

I was also glad to see the Gungans in action, and their underwater weapons were quite cool. By showing that the Gungans are as much a proud and disciplined underwater culture as the Mon Calamari, The Clone Wars is rehabilitating their image. This episode made them into true warriors and thankfully refrained from playing into the "bumbling" stereotype. It was also nice to see Ackbar dodging that aqua droid's laser blasts, as it demonstrated his battle-tested agility and combat prowess. My guess is that the shot of him confidently adjusting his shoulders before returning to battle provoked appreciative laughter from many viewers.

Prisoners continued the Season 4 trend of demonstrating Lucasfilm Animation's immense technical improvements. Since I've already explained how impressed I am with the underwater animation and sound design, I only have two new observations in that vein. The opening shot, where Anakin, Padmé, and others captives were led down into Tamson's prison chamber, was lit beautifully, and I enjoyed seeing Tamson circling the floor of the chamber like a shark. Another standout moment was when the captured Prince was standing on a podium illuminated by a single artificial shaft of light. The symbolism was clear: Lee-Char was the sole force for good in the room, so the brightness of his people's hope and faith spotlighted him. On a much darker note, I thought the death of Riff Tamson was animated with impressive skill. The explosion itself was minimal, understated even, but the extreme close-up on his severed head, with its glassy eyes, made the moment positively eerie.

I mentioned at the beginning of my review that I had a bone to pick vis-a-vis Riff Tamson's death. As has been mentioned before, The Clone Wars has a frustrating habit of killing of minor characters, usually Separatist commanders, just when they're starting to impress viewers. Whether it's Captain Argyus, Admiral Trench, or Osi Sobeck, the series has featured some interesting bad guys who bite the bullet too quickly. While I understand that not killing them off eventually leads to General Grievous Syndrome, or the infuriating tendency to survive only by constantly fleeing the battle, I think that keeping some of these villains around for more than a single arc would enhance the series' narrative and expand the range of recurring Separatist thorns in our heroes' sides. While not everyone was a fan of Tamson, I for one was disappointed that he had to die so soon. On the other hand, killing him was a disturbingly effective way for Lee-Char to solidify his right to the crown.

As a third act in the Mon Calamari trilogy, Prisoners was an enjoyable if narrative-weak episode with the same impressive visuals and dedication to character development that kept me interested during Water War and Gungan Attack. While I'm glad that we'll be back on dry land with the next episode, I enjoyed our brief jaunt to the depths of Mon Calamari's ocean. For one thing, it demonstrated that Lucasfilm Animation's talented employees were more than capable of handling a challenge that might have seemed too massive just a few years ago. Additionally, we were treated to a story that had previously featured only in the Expanded Universe. In taking Mon Calamari's ongoing species tension to a higher level of canon, The Clone Wars gave this conflict new legitimacy within the scope of George Lucas' authoritative Star Wars story.

At the end of the day, no matter what you thought of this deep-sea arc, one thing's for sure: in the rest of Season 4, there's nowhere to go but "up"!


-------------------------------------

You can find all of my TCW episode reviews on TFN's review index page.


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