Mace Windu is like the Christian Bale of Star Wars… he can do anything in the world except smile. Don’t get me wrong, it works for him. While Obi-Wan and Anakin seem to get their jollies by slicing and dicing through droid armies, Mace knows that just because you’re good at creating carnage doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. So it’s appropriate that his big spotlight turns out to be the most solemn episode yet.
Not that ‘Liberty on Ryloth’ doesn’t rock. Oh, rock it does. This episode has everything: EU references, dancing girls, TSA battle droids (who know the Miranda rights!), Wat Tambor’s shifty eyes, riding beasties, droid commandos, bomber droids, Twi’lek culture, Windu-on-window action. All that plus Orn Freakin’ Taa. There is a lot to love, the difference being that this time around, the action carries some serious weight.
Take, for example, Mace riding on an AT-RT. I found this image to be incredibly unnerving. It’s akin to the first time Yoda gave orders to the clonetroopers in Attack of the Clones – before clonetroopers became ubiquitous as good guys, seeing Yoda boss them around was downright disturbing. I had the same reaction watching Mace hop around on a walker, and again when a trooper refers to Twi’lek natives as “Rebels.” These are subtle yet chilling reminders of how the Jedi blindly helped create the Empire. Small details which carry a strong emotional undercurrent… I believe they call that good teevee.
Another dose of seriousness comes in the form of Cham Syndulla, a Twi’lek resistance fighter who is either very concerned for his people or very concerned about last night’s meal. Voiced by Robin Atkin Downes (who, if memory serves, played a similarly Messianic figure on Babylon 5), Cham is pretty much suspicious of all foreigners – Lou Dobbs with lekku, if you will. This allows Cham to espouse a neat little bit of political philosophizing, which I’m sure some folks are going to interpret as a polemic against the Iraq War. But as the story progresses, it becomes a much more idealized message about balancing independence with compromise, which is a nice change of pace from the deepening moral confusion of the Jedi.
Not serious enough? Just wait, I haven’t gotten to the firebombing yet. Yes, indeed, innocent people actually die in this episode. Until now, The Clone Wars has only dealt with the (usually vague) threat of mass casualties. Here, for the first time, we see the destructive price of a galactic civil war. Kudos to the show for really upping the stakes, and continuing to push the dramatic boundaries of a kiddie cartoon.
Fittingly, the villains are also getting nastier, even to each other. Count Dooku, snarling his commands via hologram, is more menacing than we’ve seen in a long while. And though we still don’t understand why the Separatists invaded Ryloth, at least Dooku explains the cruel thinking behind their exit strategy. Meanwhile, poor Wat Tambor has to deal with an insubordinate tactical droid who’s so cold and calculating that it’s genuinely creepy. This dude is the executive assistant from hell.
So is there any fun to be had in this episode? As it turns out, quite a bit, especially in the action scenes. One particular sequence, featuring Mace Windu on a bridge, actually had me holding my breath and trying to remember that it’s just a cartoon. And at the risk of repeating my previous review, the sound design (or in this case, the absence of sound design) is nothing less than brilliant. Mark my words, come this fall, Cartoon Network’s gonna have a slew of Emmys coming its way.
Finally, I have to mention the pitch-perfect denouement. This mini-trilogy had plenty of heroes, from Jedi to clones to freedom fighters. But instead of those deserving folks, the episode ends on a shot of a jubilant Twi’lek child, keeping the focus on those caught in the crossfire. Serious, to be sure, but also undeniably touching.
Well, that’s a lot of praise for twenty-two minutes of cable animation. But y’know what? This show deserves it. ‘Liberty on Ryloth’ is as good as it gets, and I can’t imagine how they’re going to top it for next week’s season finale.