The Clone Wars Season 4 Episode 7: Darkness on Umbara
With an incredibly fast pace, a plethora of awesome combat scenes, an intriguing new character, a compelling environment, and a persistent enemy, Darkness on Umbara ranks as the best episode of Season 4 so far and easily surmounts most Season 3 episodes to become one of my all-time favorites. In between bouts of fighting that evoke memories of Geonosis, there was the ideological struggle between Jedi General Krell, with his traditionalist attitude toward clones, and Captain Rex, with his focus on unit loyalty and clone brotherhood. In the midst of all the action lingered an extremely interesting development concerning Chancellor Palpatine and Anakin.
In terms of visuals, Darkness on Umbara was light-years ahead of its seventy-six (including the movie) episodic predecessors. As soon as the Republic Assault Ship descended through the fog and its wing of gunships streaked through the atmosphere, I knew we were in for a treat the likes of which probably hadn't been seen since the fan-favorite Landing at Point Rain. As the gunships descended, I noted many awesome visuals: slowly-fading explosions dotting the Umbaran sky; dirt and dust soaring into the air as laser fire hit the ground; unique-looking Umbaran hover tanks whose energy pulses reminded me of the Geonosians' sonic weaponry; and finally, a magnificent wide shot of gunships heading in for landing as small-arms fire dotted the battlefield below.
Once the Republic forces landed, the camera followed clones surging into battle with momentary shakiness to match explosions and clever positioning to replicate the feel of a war movie. Later in the episode, the panning shot of the clones in the trenches continued the Band of Brothers vibe. When the Y-wing bombers swooped in overhead and lit the landscape with an airstrike, I was reminded of the classic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now.
All of this incredible imagery was paired with a simply superb mixture of audio. The familiar rumbling of the Republic gunships gave way to the eerie screeching of the Umbarans' missiles, and the mayhem of the battle was accentuated by the plethora of Dee Bradley Baker background clone chatter (Take 'em out!" "That's the stuff!"). The moment of silence right before the Y-Wings strafed the ridge lent the same degree of tension to the episode, albeit with stillness instead of clamor. I was constantly taken aback by the cinematic nature of the sound design in Darkness on Umbara. Audio-wise, one of my favorite sequences was when the mine exploded on the path to the capital. The use of a quick burst of screaming, noise, and background music followed by near-total silence made the troops' approach terrifically disquieting.
Captain Rex and his men were more interesting to watch in this episode than in most prior TCW stories, simply because of how gritty the combat was and how much time we spent with the clone battalion. The addition of ARC trooper Fives to the mix seemed to raise the stakes of the mission, and I'm glad Fives alluded to his prior work with Rex in Rookies by saying, "Just like old times, Rex." The humanity of the clones in this episode was just as compelling as their lethality in combat. Their visual distinctions, from facial tattoos to hairstyles, were part of this humanity, but their camaraderie was very important too.
This camaraderie was exemplified by an exchange between Anakin and Rex after Anakin ordered trooper Dogma to get some rest. "He's wound tight, but he's loyal," Rex told his boss. "He kinda reminds me of you," Anakin observed in reply. "Maybe," Rex said contemplatively, "Back in the day." I loved that conversation. It demonstrated how working with Anakin has transformed Rex from a rigid soldier (like Dogma) into a flexible leader (like his Jedi general). It also served to emphasize Rex's loyalty and create a stark contrast between the Chosen One and the unbearable General Pong Krell.
Enter General Krell. I'll get to my thoughts on the recall of Anakin later in this review, but first, Krell himself deserves some focused analysis. The fortune cookie for Darkness on Umbara is, "The first step toward loyalty is trust." This tells us everything we need to know about the mounting losses and fraying morale that the 501st experienced in its first battle under the Besalisk Jedi's leadership. He didn't trust his clones, and that strained their faith in him as they strove to be loyal. In fact, based on the extreme close-up of his narrowing eyes as Anakin departed the battlefield, I believe that we're meant to distrust him.
With his first statement to Captain Rex, General Krell wondered aloud how a clone could understand honor. This established his repugnant, Kaminoan-like attitude toward his troops. (The reclusive cloners' disdain for their creations' individuality featured heavily in Karen Traviss' Republic Commando book series, and we saw some of it in the The Clone Wars Season 3 premiere episode, Clone Cadets.) He may have a reputation as an efficient leader, but by calling Rex by his numerical designation, Krell proved that he doesn't view his troops as people.
When Krell leapt into action for a brief moment to defeat two flying Umbaran creatures, it was apparent that he's an accomplished warrior, as Rex noted. I enjoyed seeing him wield twin double-bladed sabers and demonstrate Force mastery, but afterwards, he was noticeably disappointed that he had to intervene to save the clones. Based on what we know of the Jedi and their philosophy, it's unusual for one of them to behave this way. We're accustomed to seeing them relish the opportunity to save lives, but Krell's actions carried the unspoken gripe, "Do I have to do everything around here?"
Further distancing himself from General Skywalker, the less-forgiving General Krell was willing to throw away the lives of his clone soldiers for a full frontal assault on the Umbaran capital. To Anakin, the soldiers' lives would have been more precious. We've previously seen his anguish at the deaths of his troopers on multiple occasions. In addition, Anakin was always on the front lines of the battle. General Krell, on the other hand, didn't rush into combat alongside his troops, preferring instead to remain in relative safety and criticize his unit's performance from afar.
When ARC trooper Fives challenged the general and his tactics, Krell visibly darkened and ignited his lightsaber next to the clone. I have to wonder whether Krell would have actually killed Fives, or if he was just trying to assert his Jedi authority. Either way, it was a distasteful way to respond. His continued insistence that clones were expendable machines ("Do you have a malfunction in your design?") eventually overwhelmed even Rex's commendable loyalty. Portrayed over the course of three seasons as the army's most honorable captain, Rex hates seeing a flawed strategy cost lives. Those deaths, he reminded General Krell during their conversation, were "Not clones, men." Rex asserting himself to Krell was the first of what I hope will many proud moments for the clone captain in Season 4. As the war drags on, I believe it's crucial that we see more and more of the clones' story. The series seems to be setting up Rex as a hero on par with other main characters like Ahsoka. If that's the case, Rex will need more of these stand-out moments to further define his character. If future moments are anything like this one, I'll continue to be very impressed.
While I've praised the clones' humanity, I haven't yet touched on what I described as their lethality. The battle sequences offered gritty but humorous clone dialog, such as "You want a piece of this?" (said by a clone with a rail gun) and "I think Hardcase made 'em mad!" (when the Umbarans ambush the battalion). I also noticed that a lot of the killing was done with brutal headshots. I loved the close-up of Tup (the clone with the teardrop on his helmet) and his blaster as he shot an Umbaran at point-blank range after flipping him off his back and onto the ground. As befits the breakneck pace of a well-crafted battle sequence, this shot was followed almost immediately by a shot of Fives cracking an Umbaran's helmet and shooting him right in the face. There were also some really grim clone deaths in this episode. When the ambush began, a clone scout jumped into his AT-RT and immediately got shot in the back and slumped forward, the back of his armor smoking at the impact site.
One thing that should not be lost in all of this excellent combat is the fact that the clones are once again killing sentients. It was perhaps easy to write off Season 2's Geonosians as "bugs," but with the opening trilogy on Mon Calamari and this battle against the native Umbarans, we're reminded that the Separatists do have a large coalition of living, breathing armies willing to fight for what they consider "freedom." The Umbaran warriors, whom the clones refer to as "the shadow people," have been featured in the Expanded Universe on occasion (most recently in Paul S. Kemp's just-released novel Riptide). The EU establishes that they have the ability to influence others' minds, and I expected to see that happen in this episode when one of the clones was spooked by the shadowy terrain. I still hope to see it at some point in the Umbara story arc. On another note, it's interesting that Umbara opposes the Republic when the only Umbaran we see in the movies (the unimaginably-pale Sly Moore) is the Senior Administrative Aide to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine.
Speaking of Palpatine...Darkness on Umbara cast a shadow of doubt in viewers' minds when General Krell brought word that the Supreme Chancellor had personally recalled Anakin to Coruscant. As soon as I heard that Palpatine was pulling his future apprentice out of a pitched battle with extremely high stakes, my first thought was "Oh my god, Outbound Flight." In that novel, written by Timothy Zahn, Chancellor Palpatine arranges for a Jedi-led exploratory mission into the Unknown Regions to be destroyed in order to eliminate a large number of experienced Jedi and prevent the mission from alerting an extragalactic menace (the Yuuzhan Vong) to the Republic's existence. Because he had plans for young Skywalker, the Supreme Chancellor met the task force before their departure and pulled both Master Kenobi and his apprentice from the mission. Outbound Flight was later destroyed by the forces of an alien captain named Thrawn.
I consider the story of Outbound Flight to be narrative precedent, its lesser status in canon notwithstanding. With that in mind, it's my belief that something very bad is going to happen on Umbara, something that costs the lives of General Krell and much of his battalion. Palpatine may simply have another, more urgent assignment for Anakin, but the similar circumstances in Outbound Flight and Darkness on Umbara seem too good not to exploit.
Without a doubt, Captain Rex's honorable, compassionate attitude was one of Darkness on Umbara's many compelling factors. (Another exciting moment: Finally seeing Obi-Wan for more than three seconds. We need more of "The Negotiator" in the next three episodes and the rest of the season.) Zoom out from Captain Rex's interpersonal struggle and you see a majestic tapestry of war on display in this episode. With equal parts shadowy front-line drama and bright, explosive aerial combat, Darkness on Umbara takes the cake for the cinematic high-water mark of the series so far. I have no doubt that the team at Lucas Animation will raise the bar even further as the battle for Umbara continues.