The Clone Wars review: ‘Altar of Mortis’

One of the common criticisms of the prequel trilogy was that the movies were a bit too drunk on their own mythology.  The originals films, the argument goes, used Joseph Campbell to tell a story, while the prequels used a story to talk about Joseph Campbell.  It’s not a criticism that’s unique to the prequels (it was also leveled at Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the Matrix sequels, and more recently, Tron: Legacy), and I don’t think it’s completely fair… but it’s hard to deny that Uncle George laid on the symbolism pretty thick.  That being said, the mythological overtones of the prequels were apparently just a warm-up for this Mortis storyline.  The result is an episode that’s beautiful to look at, fascinating to analyze, and otherwise pretty dull.

To start, ‘Altar of Mortis’ isn’t really about Anakin, Obi-Wan, Ahsoka, or any of the usual cast of heroes.  They’re there, to be sure, but the story belongs to The Father, The Son, and The Daughter… and really, how I am supposed to take those names seriously?  They’re so obviously supposed to be Significant Mythological Archetypes that it’s hard to care about them as living, breathing (do they breathe?), vulnerable characters.  Put another way: just because they’re Important doesn’t mean they’re Interesting.  (It doesn’t help that the third act is loaded with overwrought choral music, to underscore how these events are very weighty and filled with dire consequences for the entire galaxy! Yawn.)

Listen, I like mythology as much as the next guy – show me a Star Wars fan who doesn’t – but the myths in ‘Altar of Mortis’ seem strangely half-baked.  For example, I never quite knew what to make of The Son.  He was clearly an embodiment of the dark side (the previous episode was all about the balance between him and his sis, who notes here that “his nature” is to be selfish), yet the plot of this episode hinges on how he’s falling to the dark side.  So which is it?  It gets more muddled when he appears as a creature in Ahsoka’s dungeon cell.  The creepy little dude (who I rather enjoyed) starts tempting Ahsoka with tales of despair, trying to get her to renounce her Jedi ways… and then he just bites her arm, infects her with some zombiefying disease, and takes control of her mind.  Why bother turning her to the dark side only to give up halfway through?  Why not just start gnawing on her limbs right from the start?  Perhaps I’m being too nit-picky here, but when there’s so much overt mythology involved, the show invites close scrutiny.  And even on the narrative level, it doesn’t hold up.

Still, some parts of ‘Altar’ were great fun, especially the villains.  Sam Witwer gives a terrific performance as The Son, full of taunting sarcasm and nice vocal nods to both Ian McDiarmid and James Earl Jones.  (I particularly enjoyed his intonation of the word “Sister.”)  And mirror universe dark side Ahsoka was a hoot – when she complains about being called “Snips,” she was speaking on behalf of fans everywhere.  (And how perfect was it that after she recovers, Anakin goes right back to using that stupid nickname?  The boy aint right.)  The wizard’s duel between The Brother and The Sister was also very cool, because who doesn’t love a wizard’s duel, amiright?

The episode ends with the balance of Mortis shifting, and the hint that the rest of the galaxy is soon to follow.  The theological (for lack of a better term) implications here are, admittedly, rather intriguing, and I’m looking forward to seeing how far the show will go with this literal translation of “balance.”  On the whole, though, ‘Altar of Mortis’ asked me to care about too much – the Father/Son conflict, the Son/Daughter rivalry, Anakin’s guilt, Ahsoka’s latent anger, Obi-Wan’s Giant Mystical Dagger™, not to mention the fate of the galaxy – so that by the end, I didn’t care much at all.  I appreciate that The Clone Wars is being ambitious and trying new things, but as an experiment in storytelling, ‘Altar of Mortis’ made me long for the subtlety of the prequels.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Was this the longest newsreel yet?  It felt awfully heavy.
  • Anakin continues the grand Jedi tradition of not sleeping with a blanket or pillow.  I’m beginning to suspect that he married Padme partly for the sex, and partly for the bedding.
  • Matt Lanter gave a nice reading of the line, “It was a giant tower, of course I saw it!”  Great bit of Obi-Wan/Anakin banter.
  • Maybe I’m showing my geek colors here, but the reference to Sarumon’s staff was so obvious that it bypassed homage and went straight into cheese.
  • The Father’s domain really is a stunning bit of design.  I kept wishing we could see more of it.
  • Anakin is at his best when he’s trying to hold back.  He was a total badass while fighting Ahsoka.
  • I love how The Father just throws away the dagger.
  • I can’t decide if that red lightning is supercool or merely cool, so I’ll flip a coin.  Hey hey, it landed on heads!  Supercool it is!

Grade:

9 thoughts on “The Clone Wars review: ‘Altar of Mortis’

  1. Alex Johnson

    The Mortis trilogy really didn’t click with me. As fantastic as it was visually, it seemed like a far stretch into msyticism, even for Star Wars’ standards.

    It was also down right confusing. Where these characters the physical personification of the Force, or where they simply uber-powerful Force wielders?

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  2. Scott

    George Lucas’s concept of “Balance” is as off kilter and wrong as Greedo shooting first. True Balance would allow light(orignal) and dark(special edition) trilogies to co-exist in fully restored beautiful quality Blu-Rays.

    As for Alter of Mortis, it was severely melodramatic, but still some of the better episodes in the series as a whole. This “Chosen One” business is on shaky ground at best considering that it’s trying to convice us that the Yin should ultimately triumph over the Yang, which isn’t balance, it’s the opposite of balance. I could go on, but I shan’t. It would go on for too long. Love your site.

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  3. Chris Mathers

    You know, all the mystical magical crap is usually too fantasy-oriented for me. But it’s rare that an episode of the Clone Wars can feature zero clones, zero Palpatine, and zero Mandalorians (the ones that act more like Vikings than hippies – come to think of it, do you think the drill sergeants from the season premier were Mandos or not?) and still be enjoyable. And anything that goes this deep into Vader’s backstory is just automatically good. But I loved the way Ahsoka channeled both Harley Quin and Gollum, and the way Obi-Wan is all casual the way he’s all “Oh hey, Anakin, here, just use this badass ancient magical immortal-killing blade.”

    Also, the thing about the beds? I almost didn’t notice. In fact, what was more of a surprise was the fact that he even HAD a blanket in Overlords. After seeing Ahsoka asleep in nothing but a tube top I’d just assumed Star Wars didn’t even have blankets. Hell, the clones sleep in those creepy morgue drawers. Maybe it’s just that starships can have their temperature regulated to the point where blankets aren’t necessary. Heh, knowing how unpredictable the Star Wars galaxy can be, I don’t think I’d be able to sleep very well in it without an E-11 holstered to my leg.

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  4. jawajames

    pointing out the Matrix sequels here made me realize that if they’d just kept this story arc to the first part ‘Overlords’ – it was enough to chew on and think about, but then adding two episodes more that tried to expand on it but just ended up being a bit muddled in the philosophy dept. like you said – half-baked.

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  5. Stooge Post author

    Where these characters the physical personification of the Force, or where they simply uber-powerful Force wielders?

    I’m fairly sure it was the latter, but they were treated as the former. Which is the big reason it didn’t hold up to my scrutiny for me. I don’t mind ambiguity, but only when it presents multiple possibilities, not multiple contradictions.

    This “Chosen One” business is on shaky ground at best considering that it’s trying to convice us that the Yin should ultimately triumph over the Yang, which isn’t balance, it’s the opposite of balance.

    Well said. If that’s balance, then balance was specifically not restored in ROTJ.

    And anything that goes this deep into Vader’s backstory is just automatically good.

    I don’t know if I’d go that far… it was ultimately pretty worthless, though I’ll leave that for the next review.

    After seeing Ahsoka asleep in nothing but a tube top I’d just assumed Star Wars didn’t even have blankets.

    I assume that blankets are tough to animate (and essentially unnecessary), so they just avoid them in the show. But they do exist in the movies.

    pointing out the Matrix sequels here made me realize that if they’d just kept this story arc to the first part ‘Overlords’

    Yeah, I really dug the first episode, and then found myself less-than-enthralled with the second.

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  6. Aaron

    For my taste the Mortis episodes suffered from the same problem the prequels did: Three parts that should have been (at least a little more like) one felt like… well… three individual parts. In part one they threw Mortis at us to go figure, in part two they added the weird altar with its equally weird dagger (plus the notion that the Son wished to escape from Mortis… where did that come from?), and in part three Anakin acted all Vaderish for no apparent reason. That is to say that the reason was as unsatisfying and generic as in ROTS.
    Personally I love the mythological aspect of Star Wars a lot more than I ever could the sci-fi, the western or the comic book part, but Mortis was just another mirror universe arc (without the Terran Empire) instead of a meaningful contribution to the greater myth. We know little more about the Force, the prophecy, the Chosen One, Ahsoka’s fate or anything else, so why spend three episodes on it?
    And yes, I loved the visuals. And Ahsoka’s Sailor Moon moment. And Liam Neeson. But as far as the “Secrets revealed” premise goes, Mortis fell a couple of lightyears short.

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  7. TitaniumWookie

    Great review stooge, I really appreciate your attention to the philosophical aspects of this. ALSO GREAT THAT YOU DIDN”T DO A POINTLESS REVIEW

    Reply

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