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.
- 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!