The season finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars brought together four characters for a fight that, while short, spoke volumes about one of the brawl’s central figures, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet even before Obi-Wan’s psychological turmoil came to bear, Maul himself underwent a spiritual transformation that saw him cast off his child-like timidity and reclaim the mantle of fearsome, cold-blooded warrior from his days as Darth Sidious’ enforcer. In some ways, the straightforwardly-titled Revenge was about two separate desires for vengeance: Maul’s overt need for retribution, and the quieter, more concealed thoughts of revenge gnawing at Obi-Wan. While the circumstances that befell Obi-Wan in Revenge offered more than enough reason to praise the episode, there was so much more to the story, especially Maul’s inner monologue, that kept my attention until the last second.
The episode began on Dathomir, giving us our first post-Massacre look at the planet. As Savage walked across the beaten landscape, we saw an eerie shot of the deserted battlefield, with super battle droids hanging from their deployment racks like skeletons, actual Nightsister skeletons lying broken on the ground, and a faint clinking sound that reminded me of rattling bones. All of this eeriness came to a head when Mother Talzin appeared and told Savage that the Nightsisters would always survive.
After coaxing Maul out of his hiding place like a patient mother would do with a stubborn child, Mother Talzin got to work “fix[ing] what has been broken.” Like she did with Savage, Talzin began simultaneously repairing and corrupting Maul’s twisted psyche. I was pleased to hear Talzin describe Maul as a “child of Dathomir,” referring to a passage in the novel Darth Plagueis where Darth Sidious received an infant Maul from a mysterious Dathomiri woman. The scene where Talzin “fixed” Maul involved more than a simple repair job. When she reached into his head, she removed both his blinding pain and his childishness, but she replaced them with a potent mix of feral rage and a thirst for revenge. The scene in the graveyard where this took place set the perfect tone for Talzin’s unholy work. From the music to the “operating table,” and from the skeletons to the dead trees, the procedure was even creepier than Savage’s own rebirth. As if to connect all of her rituals up to this point, Talzin ended the procedure with the head-tap (and the echoing, clanging sound) that has become a symbol for the corrupting influence of her magic.
When her work in the graveyard was done, Mother Talzin disappeared in a mist of green energy, as if she was sinking back into the ethereal world of the Force. Yet her continued involvement in the journey of the two Zabrak brothers led me to wonder what her endgame is. I like that fact that her motives and personal history have eluded viewers thus far. By keeping her on the sidelines, The Clone Wars has given her infrequent appearances more weight and import. She has only appeared when her guidance was needed. In fact, Talzin’s manipulations and personality remind me of another hidden force in the galaxy: Darth Sidious. I wouldn’t be surprised if the driving force behind all of her actions was her belief that the Force called upon her to sow mischief and chaos throughout the galaxy. Perhaps Sidious, through his own manipulations, foisted that belief upon her.
My fascination with Mother Talzin aside, this episode was primarily about Darth Maul himself, and what a transformation he underwent in those early scenes. At first, he was in physical and psychological agony, a state of being that Sam Witwer brought to life masterfully with his frantic muttering and his screams of pain. He refused to join Savage on his walk to meet Mother Talzin, instead choosing to stay on the ship and brood like a petulant child. Savage even described Maul’s focus on Obi-Wan as “an obsession.” (Based on his facial expressions and tone of voice, I got the sense that Savage wasn’t too happy with how his brotherly reunion was playing out, but that may be an analysis for another review.)
After rising from the operating table and testing his new legs, Maul seemed to return to his former self, his every word and action espousing the pride, power, and cruelty that were the hallmarks of his character in The Phantom Menace. When Savage expressed surprise that he survived the ritual, his brother replied harshly, “Of course I survived,” and ran off to put his plan for revenge into motion. He had clearly regained his sense of focus and was re-appropriating the venomous, arrogant personality that he wore when we saw him on the big screen. One minor detail of that first post-transformation scene stuck out to me: when Maul dismissed his brother’s concern and ran off, there was some whispered chanting in the background. To me, that chanting served to underscore the mysterious spiritual forces at work on Dathomir; it was as if there was more to Maul’s revival than mere mortals like Savage could grasp.
When Savage caught up to his brother, they had a conversation that stood out to me as one of this episode’s finest. It spoke volumes about what was going through Maul’s head as he processed his new lease on life, his new chance to settle the score. Maul’s line “The Force feels out of balance” was probably the best bit of dialog in the entire episode. With just a few words, Maul summarized what had changed in the metaphysical landscape of the galaxy since the relatively quiet days of TPM. When the discussion turned to the Clone Wars, Maul seemed almost childlike, observing that the conflict had begun without him. He clearly believed that he was destined to become something greater than a tool in Darth Sidious’ arsenal, but the important thing to recognize here is that he was wrong. As Darth Plagueis explained, Sidious never intended to give Maul a prominent role in his new Empire. He had crafted the Zabrak into a cunning and lethal warrior, but he had done so without the intention of making him a true apprentice. That error aside, Maul and Savage’s current events conversation gave us a look inside the former’s newly-prideful persona and his re-developing psyche.
One thing that Maul regained very quickly was his understanding of his enemy. His advice to Savage about getting the Jedi’s attention spoke to the cruelty and ferocity that he’d learned from Darth Sidious. One of the most powerful moments in the episode was when Maul spoke that line about getting attention and the cargo ship door slid up to reveal a row of innocent children waiting for supplies. Just like in Revenge of the Sith, the meaning here was clear. At first, I was stunned that Dave Filoni and his team would take such a bold step toward outright slaughtering of children in a Cartoon Network series. Of course, the unprecedented grimness of the implied massacre further enhanced the drama of the moment and made that scene one of the standout examples of darkness and brutality on The Clone Wars.
When word of the atrocity reached the Jedi Temple, it led to a meeting between Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Mace Windu. In an episode filled with excellent combat sequences, there were also quieter but equally powerful moments that deserve attention. One of them was in this scene at the Temple, when Obi-Wan closed his eyes in disgust and grief as he watched the bodies of the innocent villagers fall beneath Maul’s blade. It was obvious that Obi-Wan wanted to end the Zabrak warrior’s life permanently; his frustration underscored a single-minded focus that was unlike “the Negotiator” we know and love.
What I found interesting was that Obi-Wan was so confident in his ability to defeat Maul a second time. As much as I respect Obi-Wan, I don’t think anyone can deny that he basically got lucky in the Theed power station in Episode I. Not only was he a relatively inexperienced Jedi apprentice at the time, but he was blinded by his anger after watching his master get struck down. Obi-Wan was only able to slice Darth Maul in half because Maul arrogantly thought that he had rendered the young Jedi helpless and didn’t count on Kenobi’s trick. In a straight fight, especially while angry, Obi-Wan wouldn’t have lasted long against Maul.
Mace Windu and Yoda basically confirmed that they agreed with my assessment of Obi-Wan’s chances after he left the room. Neither of them believed that Obi-Wan could defeat Maul alone – but of course, he wouldn’t be alone. Displaying his trademark penchant for wisdom and foresight, Yoda sensed that another piece would maneuver onto the board to Obi-Wan’s advantage. It was refreshing to see Yoda turn to the Force as a guide for judiciously deploying his resources, especially given the fact that the Dark Side is increasingly shrouding and frustrating the Jedi Order at this point.
Now, Obi-Wan vs. Maul may have been a fair fight, but Obi-Wan against two Zabrak warriors was never going to work out in his favor. It struck me as the two men struck Obi-Wan that the Jedi Master has really been taking a beating this season. The music that was heard as Obi-Wan walked through the lifeless, broken town on his way to the fight would have worked perfectly to illustrate his own sordid state after Savage and Maul abducted him. Even so, Obi-Wan was joking around during the entire ordeal, saying things such as “I like your new legs; they make you look taller” and “When I cut you in half, I should have aimed for your neck.” Maul’s furious reaction made it clear that he wanted Obi-Wan to not only suffer but also reveal the extent of his suffering. The Zabrak wanted to revel in his enemy’s pain. But when he told the Jedi, “You will suffer as I have suffered,” he obviously didn't count on Obi-Wan's willpower.
The fact that Maul (with help from his brother) wanted to torture Obi-Wan showed us how devastated he was by his defeat on Naboo. Having been trained to such extreme lengths by Darth Sidious, he couldn’t even conceive of the possibility that he would lose in Episode I. Obi-Wan's victory shattered his psyche, and while he had recovered from the trauma, he was no less thirsty for vengeance. Enhancing the brutality of the torture scene was Maul's dispassionate response to Obi-Wan’s combination of physical weakness and willpower. “And they call you Master,” he spat at the Jedi. He was clearly disgusted by how weak he considered Obi-Wan to be. His renewed sense of superiority seemed to reinforce his desire to show Obi-Wan just how powerful he was now. Perhaps he still needed to prove to himself that Obi-Wan's previous victory was a fluke.
While the conflict between Obi-Wan and the Zabrak went on, Asajj Ventress was getting ready to step up to the plate. I thought she had a great entrance into the episode in that cantina, setting down her glass, passing Embo (who appears to be following her around), and muttering, “I've got this one.” As if to underscore the fact that she hadn’t left her Dark Side past behind completely, ominous music played while she downloaded the bounty info to her comlink. Later, when she arrived to confront Savage, the music that played was predatory, with heavy emphasis on drums and a variety of exotic sounds. This music emphasized her determination to beat Savage and perhaps redefine herself by that act.
I have to say, I really liked Asajj in this episode. She demonstrated that she was still a remarkable warrior, but she was also uncharacteristically witty. I laughed when she called out, “Looks like he's half the man you are, Savage.” Also excellent was her relationship with Obi-Wan, especially their banter. “When did you become the good guy?” he’d ask wearily. “Don't insult me,” she’d shoot back. “I want that back,” she’d say of her lightsaber. “That's fine, red's not my color,” he’d retort wryly. My favorite was at the end of the big fight. “You want to run?” she called out. “I learned from watching you,” he replied. “Funny!” she scolded. Listening to this great banter, I couldn’t help but imagine them working together in the long-term. That said, Asajj was no cupcake. She definitely retained more than a bit of her Nightsister spookiness, taunting the two Zabrak with a creepy laugh that echoed throughout the cargo bay.
Obi-Wan vs. Maul and Savage vs. Asajj are the two fights I’ve wanted to see for a while, and while that climactic battle was brief, it was nothing short of spectacular. The action was well-choreographed, with the fighters switching off every so often and making great use of space and nearby objects. There were some absolutely amazing moments during the dual duel, like when Maul would spin and Obi-Wan would kick him, or when Maul slapped away Obi-Wan’s lightsaber and Obi-Wan bounced back on the defensive.
Even though it was a great battle to watch, the single most important part of this long combat scene was how Obi-Wan reacted to facing Maul again. The tattooed warrior evidently remembered how loudly Obi-Wan screamed when he slew Qui-Gon, because he taunted the Jedi by asking him, "How did that make you feel, Obi-Wan?" Maybe by using Obi-Wan’s first name, he hoped to remind his enemy of how Qui-Gon used to address him. The intense choral music that followed underscored the effect that this had on Obi-Wan. His uncharacteristically angry attack, which ultimately cost him his focus, reminded me of the way he swung and struck at Darth Maul in Episode I. Recognizing this weakness, Maul sarcastically noted that Jedi don't do well managing their rage in battle. To the fans who complain about how woefully outmatched Obi-Wan was in this episode, keep this in mind: Obi-Wan’s memory of Qui-Gon distracted and unbalanced him enough to render him vulnerable, and that was all the opportunity Maul needed.
Before I wrap up this review, I’d like to address a few miscellaneous things. The first is very minor but it struck me as funny enough to merit a mention. When the bounty hunters in the cantina assessed Savage’s holographic wanted poster, one of them said, “Who is Savage Opress?” and pronounced his name using standard English syllables (i.e. SA-vage instead of Sa-VAGE). Given the initial criticism of the character’s name, I found it fitting that The Clone Wars team decide to poke a little fun at their own penchant for cheesiness.
My last observation is about Maul’s revival. In my review of Brothers, I said that I’d be expecting a coherent explanation for how Maul survived over the years. Unfortunately, what we got in Revenge did not satisfy me. Maul touched on his survival by repeating the familiar refrain that his hatred kept his spirit intact even as his body broke apart. Like I said last week, I found that explanation profoundly unsatisfying. I’m prepared to accept a lot of mysticism in my Star Wars, but there are limits to the amount of hand-waving you can do before it strains my suspension of disbelief. If Maul’s revival will never be explained with more clarity than “I hate, therefore I live,” then my suspension-of-disbelief bubble has popped from the strain. That was the one truly disappointing aspect of an otherwise phenomenal episode.
I won’t try to make my Revenge wrap-up a summary of the entire season. Instead, I’ll just say that, like many successful episodes of The Clone Wars, the Season 4 finale intertwined several compelling storylines and crafted an enjoyable narrative based on those various sets of characters, experiences, and motivations. All of the storylines impressed me, with each one offering a slightly different reward to the viewer. Whether it was learning more about what Maul had expected from Darth Sidious, witnessing Asajj form a shaky alliance with a former nemesis, or watching Obi-Wan face his inner demons and abandon his usual composure, Revenge played up the emotional underpinnings of the Clone Wars to great effect. And with mysteries like Asajj’s future life, Mother Talzin’s continued influence, and Darth Maul’s next move still up in the air, Season 5 promises to be the most exciting one yet.
Thanks so much for reading my reviews of The Clone Wars Season 4. I’ll be back this fall with commentary and analysis for a whole new slate of Star Wars stories!