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TFN Review: Altar Of Mortis

Posted By Eric on February 5, 2011

The Clone Wars Season 3 Episode 16: Altar of Mortis

This episode was light on plot but heavy on meaning. Because we already knew the basics of Mortis from Overlords, this episode was able to expand on the roles of all three family members and shed more light (no pun intended) on Son's evil quest. In addition to the excellent visuals and dialog, there were many moments that foreshadowing events to come in both the conclusion of the war and the Original Trilogy. Quite honestly, I'm having a harder time digesting and interpreting the events of this episode than I ever have before. I think it's because this was the single most symbolic episode of the series so far. Events on Mortis have terrible ramifications for the real galaxy, and with that in mind, the conflicts in Altar of Mortis represented metaphysical commentary on the nature of the Force in Star Wars.

The core of this episode's action revolved around Son and his plot to escape into the galaxy to wreak havoc. I saw a lot of similarities between Son and other Dark Side characters. When he tried to convince Anakin to join him in the vision at the beginning of the episode, he sounded distinctly like Emperor Palpatine. I found this similarity most striking in the lines "My friend" and "How simple you make it." There were also undertones of The Empire Strikes Back in that conversation. Son tried to sway Anakin with the promise of restoring balance and peace just as Anakin himself would later do with his own son. Later in the episode, I heard a touch of Palpatine in Son's voice as he told Father, "You will die." Given that Sam Witwer voiced Palpatine in The Force Unleashed, it was very fitting of Dave Filoni to bring him in to voice Son.

In the guise of a rodent-like creature, Son warned Ahsoka that her physical restraints meant nothing (even removing them as he spoke) and said that her psychological struggles would be more troublesome soon enough. This is actually an apt explanation of the Dark Side itself. When a Jedi immerses himself in the Dark Side, physical constraints cease to bother him -- in fact, drawing on the Dark Side actually allows him to overcome many physical difficulties. At the same time, however, the emotional and mental corruption he experiences is severely damaging. His care for others falls away, much like what happened to Ahsoka and Son in this episode. His highest priority becomes his own survival and success -- again, mirroring what Ahsoka and Son experience later on in the episode. Without knowing it (or perhaps intentionally), Son was explaining the most disturbing part of succumbing to the Dark Side.

The conflict between Anakin, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan fuels Son's Dark Side energy, but even before that fight begins, we see Son slipping closer to the brink of total ruin. After he attacked Father, he shouted, "I hate you," and he sounded almost exactly like Anakin saying the same line to Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. The message here was clear: Son was experiencing the same alienation from Father that Anakin felt from Obi-Wan, and in both cases this separation contributed to their corruption. The connections between Anakin and Son were both explicit and numerous in this episode -- the writer did a great job of showing Son's descent into total darkness by comparing it to the greatest Dark Side fall of the entire film saga.

Given the comparisons between Son and numerous Dark Siders in this episode, I thought it was only fitting that Son used the Ahsoka vs. Obi-Wan/Anakin conflict to feed his power and hate. It was yet another way of showing how hate and combat fuel the rise of darkness. This also played into the fact that conflict and animosity on the mortal plane feeds Palpatine in his quest for unlimited power. In addition, just as Ahsoka grew more powerful as her anger mounted, the Sith in the real galaxy harnessed their anger and the Jedi had to become more militant in response to the Separatist threat. Son's manipulation of the Jedi for his own ends is the perfect Mortis metaphor for Palpatine's master plan to become Emperor.

Speaking of Son's plan, I think it's important to examine his original goal and how it played out with Daughter's intervention. But Son moved to attack Father, he told him, "You mean nothing to me anymore." I took this as implying that Darkness no long valued Balance and saw it as an obstacle. After he unintentionally killed Daughter instead, Son fled, presumably to make his escape even while Father still lived. I was initially surprised that Son didn't want to kill Daughter. If Son had succeeded in defeating Father, wouldn't Daughter still have fought to oppose him? I still think the way it played out is worse for the galaxy than the way Son planned it.

However, I think I've developed an explanation for what Son hoped to do. Perhaps Daughter wasn't strong enough on her own and needed Father's power of balance. As we saw in the conflicts throughout this episode, Light doesn't lend itself to overwhelming strength, so it would be ill-equipped to combat Darkness on its own. Without something to keep them both in check, however, Darkness definitely does embrace extreme might. Maybe it's the inherent nature of Light that it can't oppose Darkness without the element of Balance, and that's why Son was okay with letting Daughter survive. Of course, Balance is not much good against Darkness without Light, so the galaxy is still in trouble.

Daughter reminded me of the entire Jedi Order in a lot of ways. First of all, she was, quite frankly, in denial. When Obi-Wan told Daughter that he'd seen her brother attack their father, Daughter replied, "He must have his reasons." She also told Obi-Wan, "He would never do such a thing." Clearly he did do such a thing. Furthermore, Daughter's response to Obi-Wan was practically paradoxical. She said that Son would never attack Father, but in the same breath, she agreed that it was in Son's nature to be violent. In that sense, Daughter seemed to deny the possibility that Son was consumed by darkness even as she admitted that it was his nature to act that way. As I said, she reminded me of the Jedi Order; in this specific case, her paradoxical denial reminded me of the Jedi Council's blindness to the rise of the Sith.

I was also confused by Daughter's reluctance to get involved to stop her brother. Surely the damage Son could do to the balance of the galaxy would be worse than the ramifications of her keeping him in check. On the other hand, perhaps Son's actions were fated and had to happen no matter what. Perhaps that was Father's role on Mortis: to step in when Daughter didn't think it was appropriate to do so. This reluctance to fight Son also appeared in Daughter's fighting style. Much like the Jedi themselves, Daughter stayed mostly on the defensive and only attacked when it was necessary to drive Son back. She didn't use lightning at all, although she did reflect it back at Son once, ? la Yoda in Attack of the Clones. Her desire to remain on the defensive and refrain from dealing a killing blow epitomizes the Jedi (at least before the Clone Wars) and the Light Side itself.

Daughter's sacrifice to save Balance (however futile) was also very Jedi-like; she went even further than most Jedi when she absolved her brother of guilt by using her dying breath to tell her Father, "It is his nature." Perhaps most memorably, Daughter cautioned Father not to hate his son. That warning is particularly important because Father is neither Light nor Dark, and as such he would have been vulnerable to the temptation of rage because of his daughter's death. Like so many Jedi before (and after) her, Daughter made sure that her death wouldn't cause even more corruption and hatred -- as the embodiment of the Light Side, she recognized that hate and grief were slippery slopes toward Darkness.

While Son and Daughter represented the polar opposite sides of the Force, Father's down-the-middle approach was striking in this episode. He spoke calmly with his son about the nature of the Dark Side, telling him to be strong and resist the temptation to do what he must not do. While I see that an element of darkness is needed to complement the Light Side, I think this conversation portrayed Father as weak and na?ve. When have truly evil people who tasted power and became greedy for more ever stepped back from the edge on their own? Even Darth Vader needed to see his son near death to redeem himself. Father's insistence that Son should somehow "be strong" without becoming evil was perplexing -- how can pure darkness do anything except corrupt and be corrupted when it grows stronger? I think Father's insistence on neutrality got the better of him in that scene. He should have acted to control Son, but instead he opened himself up to a lightning strike.

Later in the episode, Father still hasn't learned that Son needs to be contained. When he arrived and saw his children fighting, he used his power to repel both of them. This frustrated me as a viewer; how could Father not see that things were getting out of control? It was no longer permissible for him to treat them equally; Son needed to be restricted, and only Daughter could help him do that. Yet even after Son attacked him, Father didn't pick a side. His unwavering belief that Light and Darkness must exist in moderation led to undesirable more conflict and, ultimately, Daughter's death. With the loss of Light, Balance was useless: he could not moderate the eternal conflict with only one surviving combatant. It was not in Father's nature to perform the role his Daughter had played, and so Son was left to escape unopposed. Father's most important contribution in this episode came at the very end, when he said that the war would escalate and the Sith would rise. In his words, "All is lost. The balance has been broken."

One of the most striking parts of the preview for this episode was Dark Side Ahsoka and her fight with Anakin and Obi-Wan. At first, I wondered what had actually happened to Ahsoka -- was it possession or brainwashing? Then it became clear. She retained her normal voice and she was acting on her own accord (albeit based on twisted beliefs). Because of those two pieces of evidence, I think she was brainwashed. I think Son poisoned her mind and exaggerated real fears and anxieties she had. In that sense, it was a lot like how the Dark Side gives one a feeling of control but twists one's principles and values. Just as Palpatine would later seize on Anakin's frustration with the Jedi Council and turn him into Vader, Son temporarily seized on Ahsoka's private doubts and worries to use her to fuel his rage and acquire the blade of Mortis.

When Ahsoka's frustration with Anakin bubbled to the surface, she became more powerful than we'd ever seen her before. Anakin could barely fend her off -- although perhaps he was deliberately reserving his strength because he didn't want to kill her. Either way, the Dark Side unquestionably enhanced her abilities and corrupted her mind, but she was doing it because of what she thought she wanted. I have to wonder, though: could some of that frustration have been genuine?

Ever since Ahsoka was revealed in the lead-up to the 2008 The Clone Wars film, Star Wars fans have entertained the possibility that she would turn to the Dark Side and Anakin would be forced to kill her. With that in mind, Ahsoka's fight with Anakin and Obi-Wan was a relatively "safe" way of experiencing that conflict -- it showed TCW fans how one of Ahsoka's possible fates could play out, and it made for a just-plain-awesome duel. It was pretty much guaranteed that she would survive, but we still got to see how she would handle that kind of fight, and she had a few callous Sithly lines like "Two Jedi. Finally, a challenge." I thought the fight was supremely well-choreographed and had a few excellent moments of agility and Force mastery.

Later, when Ahsoka had delivered the blade of Mortis to Son, he tapped her forehead, Savage-style, and she crumpled to the ground. Now, the logical part of my brain was calmly saying, "She can't die yet, you idiot!" Even so, a part of me wanted that to be the end of her. I don't know how long this series will last, but the irrational part of me contemplated multi-episode flashback stories that kept Ashley Eckstein in the cast without reviving Ahsoka after the showdown on Mortis. That said, I think I mostly just wanted to see the reaction from my friends on Twitter. After all, if she's going to die during the series, we're in for that gobsmacked, dumbfounded disbelief at some point. In any event, there was something satisfyingly grim about Ahsoka dropping to the ground and Anakin screaming out like Vader in ROTS.

Anakin, for his part, displayed significant emotional difficulty handling pretty much everything in this episode, from Ahsoka's abduction to her brainwashing to her supposed death. When he rushed into the shuttle cockpit to follow Son, the exasperation on his face and in his voice spoke volumes about his obsession with saving Ahsoka. Only after he had literally channeled the Light Side to revive Ahsoka (thanks to Daughter's last strength) did he adopt an expression empty of worry and anger. You could almost feel his relief when he hugged his Padawan. Much like his attachment to Padm? played into Palpatine's hand, Anakin's care for Ahsoka made him a prime target for the manipulations of Son. He even ignored Obi-Wan's insistence on seeking Father's help, displaying an alarming level of impatience and urgency in his quest to rescue Ahsoka. With every one of these "impatient Skywalker" scenes in The Clone Wars, Dave Filoni and his team paint a richer picture of Anakin's character and continue to build up to his fate in Episode III.

I was so busy following the story and paying attention to the symbolism that I probably missed several great music cues and examples of superb animation. That said, I did notice a few. I was really impressed with the music during the Son/Daughter duel and during the scene at the altar. In both cases, the music set an epic tone and conveyed a sense that the ongoing action was of extreme consequence; in both cases, this tone was very appropriate. The chorus of voices present at the start of the Son/Daughter fight made it seem like the fate of the galaxy hung in the balance -- and in one sense, it did. The altar of Mortis itself looked really cool with its blue flames, and it had an "Excalibur" sort of feel to it. Anakin and Obi-Wan's faces were beautifully animated -- their expressions of concern, fear, and anger at various times were remarkably realistic.

I think Altar of Mortis deserves more credit than it is receiving in various corners of fandom. It may have been light on plot, but it had such epic implications and devious symbolism that it still ranks as one of the series? finest installments. While Overlords introduced us to the precarious balance that Father was maintaining, this episode examined the nature of Force balance itself and showcased the similarities between Son and Anakin. The Anakin/Obi-Wan/Ahsoka fight was a refreshingly different kind of lightsaber duel, turning allegiances upside down much like the Dooku/Savage/Asajj fight. I considered all three family members to be appealing, three-dimensional characters, and I think the writers (and Sam Witwer) did a fantastic job making Son such a despicable man. Daughter was sympathetic and compassionate, with excellent voice work from Adrienne Wilkinson. Given the implications for the Force and the galaxy at large, I think Altar of Mortis will be an episode to remember when the series concludes.


You can find all of my TCW episode reviews on TFN's review index page.

Related Stories

February 12, 2011   TFN Review: Ghosts Of Mortis
February 7, 2011   Watch TCW: "Altar Of Mortis" At SW.com
February 5, 2011   TCW: "Altar Of Mortis" Episode Guide
February 4, 2011   TCW: Son Speaks To IGN
February 3, 2011   TCW: New Dark Side Ahsoka Clip
February 1, 2011   TCW: "Altar Of Mortis" Episode Guide
January 31, 2011   Preview TCW: "Altar Of Mortis"
January 31, 2011   TCW: "Overlords" Now Online At SW.com
January 29, 2011   TFN Review: Overlords
January 29, 2011   Sam Witwer Talks About His TCW Role
January 29, 2011   TCW: "Overlords" Episode Guide
January 27, 2011   Preview TCW: "Overlords"
January 25, 2011   TCW: Welcome To Mortis: New "Overlords" Clip

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