As the final episode of an interesting and deeply significant story arc, Tipping Points did not have to depart too much from the previous three episodes to impress me. It simply had to provide closure to the rebels' fight in a manner consistent with the thought-provoking, character-oriented episodes that had preceded it. It certainly did this, but it also employed sweeping cinematic shots, powerful music, and riveting combat sequences to raise the level of drama by an order of magnitude. The last few scenes in the episode were some of the best choreographed, most emotional, and most interesting scenes in the show's history. They brought home the central message of the Onderon rebellion story arc: All wars have consequences, whether they span galaxies or merely cities. Just as the clones and the Jedi are learning about the price of the Clone Wars, the mission to help recapture Onderon offered lessons for Ahsoka that will reverberate for the rest of her life.
As I said, this episode featured some of the best use of film-quality camera movement and scoring in the entire series. Several examples struck me and I think they deserve to be mentioned. As Lux and Ahsoka flew to the rebels' base, viewers were treated to a phenomenal wide shot that offered a beautiful look at Onderon's surface. The main ground battle later in the episode was also well-shot. I enjoyed the sweeping overhead shots of the battlefield when the camera was riding along with one of the rebels on their rupings (the flying beasts). I would love to see that sequence in IMAX. The episode also made excellent use of the camera to demonstrate the scale of the battle and its different phases. The overhead shots of Steela perched on her rock showed the hordes of droids approaching her position, and when the ruping-mounted rebels swooped by to save some rebels' lives, the camera tracked under the creatures' bellies. Many of the sweeping and tracking shots during the battle reminded me of aerial dogfighting sequences from war movies.
Although Tipping Points was full of seriously dramatic combat scenes, there was also time to dwell on characters and explore them more fully. In King Rash's case, this was the last time we'd be exploring him at all. Going into this story arc, I expected him to die in a futile attempt to defend himself against the rebels as they stormed the palace. I saw his survival as key to the Separatists' public claims that they protected their member worlds. I underestimated Dooku's haste to escape from a long, drawn-out conflict.
King Rash also misjudged the Separatists, and he paid the price for it. Perhaps because his Sith Master was already planting the seeds of some future distraction for the Republic, Dooku had no interest in a "prolonged war" on Onderon. He shrewdly realized that the planet was lost, so he cut his losses. Rash, in his arrogance and ignorance, didn't expect to be abandoned, much less killed. As he learned, however, that's how the Separatists do things. Ironically, Rash was just starting to get the hang of that whole planetary occupation thing: earlier in the episode, he demonstrated that he understood the need for public approval in order to sustain his rule. (True to form, his droid general Kalani once again ignored the threat of public unrest and stuck to the Separatist playbook of "kill them all and they won't be able to revolt.")
Because it needed to cram in so much on the "backend" of the story, Tipping Points only had a few seconds to show us that the people of Onderon were bristling at the Separatist occupation and starting to react. There was a nice moment during King Dendup's speech where the people in the market started eyeing a group of battle droids with distaste and the droids started looking around nervously. The way Dendup's speech played out in the background as Ahsoka and Lux took flight on their ruping was perfectly choreographed; they became the dominant part of the frame right as Dendup said that the rebels were the planet's "destiny."
The rebels benefitted greatly from being "of the planet" in many ways. Not only did they know the streets (and presumably many of the citizens), but they also used rupings instead of vehicles. This created a meaningful contrast between the homegrown resistance force and the mechanized outsiders of the Confederacy. It reminded me of the Battle of Naboo in The Phantom Menace. In fact, during the main battle, there was one shot of General Tandin pulling Saw onto his dalgo (the rebels' riding beasts) that reminded me of a similar moment between Captain Tarpals and Jar Jar in Episode I.
One highly significant part of this episode that may not receive the thoughtful analysis that it deserves is the inclusion of Hondo and the Jedi's decision to enlist his aid. Anakin's visit to Hondo was certainly a nice way to break up the long ground battle on Onderon. The pirate's attitude -- especially his mockery of the Jedi's need to use him to accomplish their goals -- was also a welcome addition to the episode, especially for those of us who thoroughly appreciated his involvement in the season premiere episode, Revival. But if you look closely at that exchange between Hondo and Anakin, you can see that Hondo picked up on something in Anakin's demeanor that will have lasting consequences for the Jedi Order.
Hondo recognized that Anakin was frustrated at having to turn to him. He may even have divined the general reason for this unusual development (the Council's need to avoid drawing the Republic directly into the conflict). What the rest of us know is that the Council is being tested by every aspect of this war. Onderon was no exception. Forced to heed the Council's orders, Obi-Wan and Anakin decided to seek outside help. They knew they had to rely on someone who would not reveal their involvement, and whatever else can be said about Hondo, one must acknowledge that he has enough of a rapport with Obi-Wan to be discrete about this situation.
Hondo's presence in Tipping Points was not just a way to throw a fun character into the mix or break up the long Onderon battle; rather, it was evidence of a deeply significant shift in the tactics of the Jedi Order. While Obi-Wan and Anakin probably didn't ask the Council's permission to buy Hondo's help, they are two of the Order's leading generals, and their actions (in addition to those of other individual Council members) help set the tone of the Order's involvement in the war. Anakin and Obi-Wan's decision to resort to illegal methods of aiding the rebels demonstrated that the increasing flexibility of "the Jedi way." Even within the fairly straightforward confines of their orders regarding Onderon ("do not get the Jedi more involved"), the two of them managed to find a way to do the right thing while not directly disobeying the rest of the Council. I doubt that this will be the last time the Jedi enlist the help of outsiders to keep their own hands clean.
No one in this episode better demonstrated the costs of following the Council's orders than Ahsoka. Almost from the very beginning of this episode, she saw her need to remain on the sidelines affecting her relationship with Lux. Based on the previous three episodes, it's clear that Lux and Steela have consistently been on the front lines of combat, while Ahsoka has been forced to sit out many important fights. As a result, her bond with Lux was deteriorating even as he grew closer to his new comrade Steela. The look on Ahsoka's face when Steela and Lux kissed before the big battle pretty much said it all. She was clearly using all of her self-control to remain calm and continue treating Lux like an old friend -- from the wry smile to the shoulder punch -- but there were fleeting glimpses of her face that showed how hurt and disappointed she was.
Things did not get better for Ahsoka as the battle progressed. Her frustration at not being able to help was mounting. She could tell that Lux was frustrated with her for having to stay out of the heavy fighting. This was clear during her holoconference with Obi-Wan and Anakin, when she came closer than ever before to throwing their orders back in their faces. The dangerous parallels between her headstrong, impatient personality and her master's similar nature became clear during that holoconference. Anakin was wearing his frustration on his face, although he respectfully deferred to Obi-Wan until the call was over. At that moment, his body posture, facial expression, and tone of voice became just as impatient and annoyed as Ahsoka's had been. With his back to Obi-Wan, he dismissed his former master's admonition that "we must learn our lessons" as being impractical and cruel in this situation.
Ahsoka and Lux seemed to grow closer in the episode's final moments. After everything that had happened that day, Lux's attitude toward the Jedi Order had changed. Whereas before their need to separate themselves from the fighting had exasperated him, in the end, he was just thankful to them for what they had been able to do. Once he forgave her and committed himself to serving Onderon in the Republic Senate, Ahsoka saw hope for him. Lux has obviously come a long way from his day as a Death Watch trainee, and Ahsoka realized that.
The only person who was closer to the center of this episode's attention was Steela. Even after days of doing things her way, Saw still wanted to change tactics and be more aggressive. The Gerrera siblings disagreed about how to fight the battle, and Saw demonstrated his lack of diplomatic skills when he expressed no concerned for innocent deaths. He called the rebellion war, which was a convenient excuse and an overstatement of the situation. Steela, on the other hand, recognized that the rebels' main advantage was that they were a sympathetic group. She knew they couldn't afford to squander that advantage, so she took charge of the decision.
Steela was rewarded moments later when Dendup formally asked her to command the rebel forces during the battle. Like any good leader, she was humble. She seemed surprised at being asked to assume the role of commanding general, but she was obviously determined not to let Dendup down. As she prepared to depart the rebel base with her newfound confidence, Steela missed Lux's attempt to embrace her, which he tried to casually transform into a step back. (It reminded me of the way that people sometimes reach out for a handshake and then, seeing the other person not doing the same, quickly bring that hand up to awkwardly run it through their hair.) Steela realized at last that she was forgetting something, and then, seizing the moment, went back and kissed Lux for luck.
Steela didn't let her feelings for Lux interfere with her duty, however. Whereas he was growing visibly weary of the Jedi's reticence to get involved, Steela treated Ahsoka with more respect, providing a more moderate perspective on the Jedi. When Lux stalked away after a disappointing response from Ahsoka, Steela reminded Ahsoka that her help had been invaluable so far. Later, when Saw was playing with Hondo's rocket launchers, Steela suggested that he "thank the Jedi," as a way of encouraging the rebels to appreciate what limited help the Jedi could provide. She was a natural diplomat, but she also proved herself to be a natural warrior. ("What good will that do us if she gets herself killed?" Lux wondered aloud at one point, in an obvious allusion to Luke's comment about Han on the Death Star.) Steela took her commitment to the cause and to King Dendup seriously, proving that she was fiercely protective of him by sacrificing herself to push him to safety.
Steela's ultimate sacrifice was the culmination of a series of events in the episode's final act that I thought brought legitimate tension and drama to a series that has experienced few such serious moments. While heroes like Ahsoka, Anakin, Rex, and Obi-Wan frequently dive into dangerous situations, we instinctively know that they aren't going to die (at least not for a while, in the case of Ahsoka and Rex). In Tipping Points, because only secondary characters were in serious danger, the stakes were incredibly high. It began with an incredibly brutal execution sequence when the commando droids attacked the rebels' base. As one of the droids shot the final rebel defender at point blank, his faceplate flashed red from the laser blast. It was pretty disturbing.
During the climactic scene at the edge of the cliff, there were so many moments when I thought someone was going to die and then they were saved, only to put someone else in peril. The quick pacing kept the viewer too focused on the danger to ever breathe easily, which was impressive. First, King Dendup was almost shot, but then Steela saved him; then Steela fell; then Lux reached out and almost saved her; then Lux, too, almost toppled off the cliff edge, but Ahsoka saved him with the Force; then Ahsoka almost saved Steela but got shot.
That final event, when the crashed droid gunship shot Ahsoka and caused her to drop Steela, was the most incredible moment in the episode. Every aspect of the sequence was beautifully composed and produced: the muffled sound of the laser blast, Steela's horrified expression and hollow cry of surprise, the smoke rising from Ahsoka's wound, the muffled sound of Lux's laser hitting the gunship, the choir music as Ahsoka reached out futilely for Steela's body, and finally Lux's horrified, disbelieving expression. It was without a doubt one of the best-choreographed scenes in the history of The Clone Wars.
With just a few minutes left in the episode, the denouement from that scene was going to be brief. Saw obviously blamed himself for shooting down the gunship, and it was nice to see Lux reassure him that Steela understood the risks, because that was true, and Steela would undoubtedly not want them to obsess over what-ifs and if-onlys. What you didn't hear during that scene is what Ahsoka must be thinking: I dropped her, so it was my fault she's dead. I failed her.
The episode's final scene viscerally evoked reflections on the price that must be paid to win a war. I loved the visual juxtaposition: a new, free, jubilant Onderon pays its respects in front of the casket of the fallen hero who helped free them. The music that played as Lux, Saw, and Ahsoka looked down at the casket was the kind of orchestral piece you'd expect from a major motion picture. It really sold the scene.
When the credits rolled, and the Onderon story arc had finally ended, I was left with one major thought: the rebels' victory was the tipping point in their battle to retake Onderon, but was there a sense in which this mission was a tipping point for Ahsoka? Obi-Wan and Anakin certainly recognized the importance of this mission to Ahsoka. "This has been quite a journey for our Padawan," Obi-Wan told Anakin, perhaps using the word "our" instead of "your" to suggest that Ahsoka's growth was a matter of interest to the entire Council. Obi-Wan was right: this mission has fundamentally changed Ahsoka, in ways that have yet to manifest themselves.
Thanks to this game-changing experience in Ahsoka's life, as well as a bevy of wonderfully-choreographed scenes, Tipping Points earned a proverbial gold star from me. It successfully capped off an impressive arc that explored the natural of political unrest and ratcheted up fans' speculation about the lessons Ahsoka learned and the path she will take. If every Ahsoka-centric story arc for the rest of the series is this impressive, there will never be any doubt that introducing this young Togruta into the Star Wars universe -- and using her to explore the dark and complicated time between Episodes II and III -- was one of the best creative decisions that George Lucas ever made.