Monday, February 15, 2010

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - 2.14 - The Duchess of Mandalore

Duchess Satine pleads Mandalore's case before the Republic Senate as the usual suspects conspire to silence her once and for all.

While dabbling in deeper political themes on the Clone Wars is always appreciated, I can’t help but feel they ultimately came across as a muddle in this episode. The beat by beat story is clear enough: Duchess Satine wants Mandalore to solve its own problems. The Senate finds convenient evidence that claims Satine’s government would rather the Republic intervene. Satine finds evidence to the contrary, and the Republic stands down. End of story.

So where’s the muddle you ask? Notice how I summed up the story without mentioning the pacifism debate. If the central issues are Republic intervention vs. Mandalore silencing DeathWatch on its own, why is the only thing we hear debated over and over again Satine’s pacifist ways versus the Republic’s military violence? No one bothers to mention how Republic intervention might help DeathWatch until the deceased minister Jerec’s second hologram is played at the end of the episode. Both the Senate and the audience are kept at bay from this important central issue by nothing more than smoke and mirrors. And while these might be appropriate tactics coming from Palpatine, Satine herself is the greatest culprit. The more she continues to criticize the Republic’s methods and purport her own pacifism, the less anyone spends thinking about how sending troops to Mandalore might give DeathWatch a boost in the public opinion polls. In this regard, Satine becomes her own worst enemy – but that’s not what the story is about.

Oh but isn’t it, you ask? After all, Obi-wan does accurately point out that she’s rushing into the debate in a hysterical state of mind all while pushing her friends away when she needs them most. So perhaps the story IS that Satine’s stance is flawed and that Obi-wan is a voice of reason – but – oh – wait – no - if Obi-wan’s the voice of reason then why is he arguing that she calm down and make the wrong decision by letting the Republic authorities intervene? So ultimately what we have is this: Satine’s arguing the right thing (Mandalore Helps Itself) poorly by using unrelated ideology (Pacifism) as her trump card while Obi-wan is arguing the wrong thing (Republic Intervention) poorly by using unrelated psychology (You’re Cutting Out Your Friends) as his rationale. So regardless of the merits of pacifism, and regardless of whether Satine is pridefully denying assistance, neither of our heroes is ultimately arguing anything relevant to their problem, and both are completely missing the central matter at hand: that Republic troops arriving on Mandalore will give DeathWatch something to rally against.

So while there are some nice little character beats here -- such as Satine learning she can trust Obi-wan’s assistance (even if she can’t trust his opinions), and Obi-wan learning to appreciate Satine’s rigid determination (even if it’s motivated by irrelevant ideology) – these beats are ultimately mismatched to a plot which would have run the same course even if Satine had confided in Obi-wan from the beginning or even if Obi-wan had agreed wholeheartedly with Satine’s pacifist ways. Those things have trouble vying for relevance when the day is actually saved by a holo-recording of a dead guy who points out the actual problem that everyone else has somehow avoided putting into words.

So now that I’ve stuck it to this episode hard for its hopeless jumble of messages, themes, arguments, and ideological rhetoric – let me say that if you were able to take a knife to that jumble and pare it down into something more manageable and more relevantly inter-related, you’d actually end up with a damn good episode.

Having a guest character play the starring role in an episode is a welcome change, and Duchess Satine made for a likeable lead, despite constantly arguing pacifism even at times when simple logic would suffice. Following her as the Republic and its allies failed her at every turn was affectively frustrating, and even if her survival in the Coruscant streets was a bit too luck-and-convenience-based, once Obi-wan arrived as her protector, the tension amped up considerably and there was more then one sniper-aiming shot when I worried her time may have come. That’s a testament to how strong a character they’ve built with Satine. We lose guest characters very often on this show, and it’s nice to get a solid new reoccurring heroine we can look forward to returning again.

And speaking of reoccurring characters, the ensemble of appearances this week was another of this episode’s great strengths. Palpatine was appropriately two-faced. Sidious was appropriately creepy. Dooku got to play both pious servant and wisdom-toting master. Mas Ameda was given form for the first time on The Clone Wars, and given a personality for the first time anywhere. Pre Vizsla had far too little to do, but his outburst to Dooku at the end was powerful and bodes well for his future in this series. And, finally, it was great to see Padme play a relevant role and be a character in her own right apart from Anakin.

Rounding out the positive side of things, I have to say that I love Coruscant as an environment. Building off of what we saw in 2.11 (Lightsaber Lost), we’re given more of the planet than ever in this episode and the busy streets, eerie courtyards, and regal cityscapes made for a tense, cool, and realistic sci-fi environment. Major kudos to the Clone Wars team for constantly outdoing themselves in the setting and atmosphere departments.

If only the DeathWatch themselves had been given such rigorous attention. My final complaint is not one against this episode in particular, but against this first Mandalore trilogy as a whole. By trilogy’s end, I feel like we know as little about DeathWatch (their character, their values, and their motivations) as we did at the end of its first part. It was tantalizing to see Pre Vizsla standing before so large an Army – and I hope the implications of DeathWatch’s size and reach pay off in future episodes – but for now we’re left wondering where exactly a band of honor-based warriors are meant to belong in this conflict.

I wasn’t particularly impressed by how quickly Vizsla gave up against Obi-wan in 2.12 (The Mandalore Plot) and I’m even less impressed by how quickly the DeathWatch assassin ran from his charge of killing Satine in this week’s installment. By running away from his mission as soon as the going got tough, this so-called warrior became single-handedly responsible for spoiling Dooku and Vizsla’s plan. There was more than enough going on in this episode to cover for DeathWatch’s lack of involvement, but in the future I hope these guys are able to truly rise to the occasion as formidable villains – both by the uniqueness of their motivations as well as by the merit of their actions. No more running, please.

The Rub: While I appreciate a lot of what was attempted here -- including both the very real-world Republic intervention debate and the very hard-boiled conspiracy cover-up -- it’s an absolute shame that neither of these plots were capable of being carried through to even a logical conclusion since they ultimately slammed into each other and a deus ex machine ending fell out. Lofty ideas, great ensemble character-work, a brilliant environment, and some truly tense action were marred by the incoherent crisscrossing of incongruous thematic material with disparate character points-of-view. Still, it’s nice to see a depth to the proceedings not even attempted in the first season of the show. 3.5 stars.

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