I am of two minds about this episode. On the one hand, it had a number of great moments that hinted at future character developments, as well as a few small treats for fans who know the EU backstory about the formation of the Rebel Alliance. On the other hand, it suffered from a number of flaws, some of which had to do with its status as part two of a four-part story arc and some of which were just plain puzzling and disappointing. I really liked Front Runners, but for reasons that will become clear in this review, I definitely enjoyed A War on Two Fronts more.
I'll start by discussing what I enjoyed about this episode. Chief among the story elements that impressed me was Ahsoka's continuing struggle to put the mission ahead of her personal feelings. Leaving her behind was a dangerous decision to make, as Anakin noted upon his, Obi-Wan's, and Rex's departure. I enjoyed seeing the Council push Ahsoka into a solo assignment that uniquely challenged her. It reminded me of their decision to send Anakin to Naboo to protect Padmé. We all know how well that worked out. The most disturbing parallel between the two missions is that in neither case does Obi-Wan recognize the danger and temptation inherent in the assignment.
To be fair, Obi-Wan's perceptiveness regarding Anakin and Padmé in Episode II is debatable. I personally think he underestimated the bond between the two secret lovers; Obi-Wan made a lot of mistakes, but even he wouldn't see the full truth there and choose to ignore it. In any event, he definitely didn't see what Anakin saw regarding Ahsoka's feelings for Lux. Because he had gone so long without experiencing love (he no longer felt it for Satine at this point), he couldn't recognize what Anakin and Ahsoka were sharing in that moment when Anakin cautioned his apprentice. This made for an excellent Attack of the Clones connection and it will surely produce a compelling narrative for Ahsoka as the Onderon arc continues.
At the end of the episode, there was another one of those mutual-disappointment sequences with Lux and Ahsoka. When Saw and Steela embraced, Lux looked disappointed. When Steela embraced Lux, it was Ahsoka's turn to look sad. Anakin, seeing his Padawan's reaction, started what I thought was the single best exchange of words in the entire episode. "Remember what I told you about staying focused?" Anakin asked. Ahsoka replied that she couldn't help her feelings for Lux, and Anakin said he understood. Ahsoka, visibly confused and perhaps for the first time wondering if her master was concealing something about his private life, replied, "You do?" This promising exchange -- and in particular Ahsoka's surprised "You do?" -- contained volumes of emotional complexity. I really hope that we get to see more of that throughout the rest of the season.
The conversation between Ahsoka and Anakin then segued into Anakin demonstrating his hypocrisy, as Ahsoka to push her feelings aside for the greater good of the Republic. In another example of Anakin's moral and behavioral shortcomings, he wanted his apprentice to accomplish what he had always failed to do. Ironically, Anakin would later pay the price for trying to make Ahsoka give up what he couldn't abandon. By persevering on Onderon despite her emotions, Ahsoka helped foster a sentiment of rebellion that would harass Anakin once he started enforcing order under a different name.
Speaking of Anakin and foreshadowing, his confrontations with Obi-Wan about strategy were less direct and more limited to differing tones in this episode. While Obi-Wan and Ahsoka were hesitant at first about the impact of rebels on a populace, Anakin was clearly on Saw and Steela's side regarding the need to step up their efforts. After their initial on-screen successes, Anakin cheered them on, as Obi-Wan and Ahsoka each noticed the people's fear. Obi-Wan must have been frustrated that, as he cautioned the rebels, Anakin was undoing his work by fueling their aggressive spirits.
Of all the tidbits that made this episode enjoyable, the majority of them focused on the nature of armed rebellion and the consequences of the different philosophies on display here. Front Runners opened with the fortune cookie "To seek something is to believe in its possibility." This resonated with the Onderonian rebel movement and the ideals of the later Rebel Alliance. Mon Mothma, like Steela, always believed that her movement would draw strength from hope, and that hope would motivate people to build a solid foundation on top of soft and impermanent aspirations.
Attacking the power generator in the city was a good way to gain an advantage over the droids, but it also affected the civilians. Again, this was a nod to the way the Rebel Alliance sometimes created uncomfortable situations for innocent people as part of their attempts to beat back the Imperials. To me at least, it begged the question: How far do you take a fight before the costs outweigh the benefits? In almost every respect, the Onderonian story arc is about morality. For Ahsoka and even Anakin, it's the morality of conflicting obligations. For the rebels, it's the morality of the ends justifying the means. For Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi Council, it's the morality of supporting insurgencies when their primary mission is one of peace and negotiations. I really liked seeing all of these different threads appear and weave their way through the story.
From a tactical perspective, Saw and Steela were always at odds. Saw thought the movement's public image problem meant that the rebels weren't acting aggressively enough. He couldn't understand why the people were afraid of the rebels. I found this ignorance fascinating. Saw may be a good fighter, but he hasn't proven himself to be all that smart. Steela, for her part, took the public's fear to mean that they were still hopeless. She said that the people didn't think the rebels were strong enough.
Once the rebels demonstrated that they could conduct serious operations by destroying the power generator, the populace seemed to warm to them, at least somewhat. This confirmed Saw's theory that the people of Onderon were only nervous about the rebels' chances of success. Predictably, Saw expected to be rewarded with command of the rebel movement. When Obi-Wan told the assembled rebels that the growing movement "will need a leader to rally behind," Saw crossed his arms and looked confident, as if he expected to be validated. When the leadership post went to Steela, he was understandably frustrated.
Saw's frustration aside, Steela made the most sense as the leader. Her attempt to balance Lux and Saw's philosophies of rebellion made her the right person to command the movement. In fact, all throughout this episode, Steela acted like a sister defusing fights between her two younger brothers. She saved both Saw and Lux when Lux failed to disable the second droideka. She stopped their argument about operating the AAT and brought it online. In almost every scene, she seemed capable and focused while Lux and Saw argued and acted sloppily. To disable the second droideka, she thought fast and improvised a solution. In short, she proved herself over and over again.
I have yet to see where the characters of Steela and Saw Gerrera are going, but I know one thing: the divisions between them and their philosophies reflect a much deeper conflict that is central to any insurgent movement. This story arc is already giving us an insight into what it must have been like to form the Rebel Alliance. Indeed, its depiction of the Gerrera siblings' conflict confirms what many Expanded Universe sources have chronicled about the internal battle between Mon Mothma and Garm Bel Iblis during the Alliance's earliest days. Bel Iblis, who like Saw advocated bold strikes, grew more and more frustrated as Mothma, the de facto rebel leader, favored caution and moderation in her strategy for the insurgency. Given that the Onderon story is based on George Lucas' ideas about the origin of the Rebel Alliance, I can't wait to see what other parallels are going to be drawn between the two movements.
The two things I didn't like about this episode were the glaring ineffectiveness of the droids and the rushed introduction of King Rash and his predecessor. I know that the heroes always need to defeat the villains or they'll be killed and the story will end. That being said, there is a way to script and depict a close fight that still has the heroes prevailing, and this episode failed to do that. The rebels got a way too lucky in their various fights. They only lost one insurgent in the entire episode. The danger in their struggle was simply not believable.
Perhaps most importantly, the droids seemed exceptionally uncoordinated, even beyond their normal inefficiencies. Everything just seemed to move a little more slowly than I would have expected. The super battle droids were almost as lame as the regular droids, a fact that contradicted their supposed superiority. There was one moment when a super battle droid was trying to shoot Lux and my jaw literally dropped as I saw it miss half a dozen shots with Lux right in front of it. I can only suspend my disbelief so much.
The ease with which the rebels dispatched the commando droids was also hard to believe. These droids were supposed to be even better than the standard grunts, yet it took almost as little time for the amateur rebels to defeat them. I never got the sense that the droids in this episode were anything more than cannon fodder, but I was particularly disappointed by how weak the commando droids seemed.
I was also not pleased at how the episode introduced King Rash, the Separatist sympathizer, or his predecessor, Onderon's true ruler. While I thought that the use of fruit to indicate Rash's mood was a nice touch (eating it when satisfied, burning it when frustrated with his predecessor, putting it down when intimidated by Dooku), the scene between him and the former king was rushed. It didn't connect well with the rest of the episode. It felt like the writer needed to fill time in this story, so he threw in an introduction to the political dynamic because he knew that it had to appear in the arc at some point. I might have liked King Rash's introduction better if he had had more scenes in this episode after he was introduced. His confrontation with his predecessor is obviously setting up something that we'll see in a subsequent episode. I just felt that his scenes were out of place with the rest of this part of the story.
The one nice thing about King Rash's appearance was that his request for superior forces from Count Dooku led to a scene with a nice parallel to The Phantom Menace. In response to the king's request, Dooku announced that he was sending a new general to assist in containing the rebels, and as he said this, that general stepped into the hologram's projection field. It was exactly like Sidious revealing Maul to the Neimoidians and dispatching him to Naboo in Episode I.
The biggest problem with Front Runners was that it failed to reach the compromise between fighting and talking that it was obviously attempting. There were no grand battle scenes and there was almost no sustained character exposition. The first episode worked because it had a lot of the latter, but this episode failed to reach the critical level of either quality. What character development did occur was mostly focused on Ahsoka, and while I think it worked tremendously, I wish there had been more of it. Alternatively, this episode could have been devoted to a giant conflict instead of several small and unfulfilling ones. That would have resolved the problem just as easily as a character-driven story. In either case, at the very least, there would have been a consistent theme to the episode.
On balance, however, I can take the good and the bad and enjoy this episode for what it was. It's never easy to produce four episodes that are both parts of a whole and sufficient wholes on their own. After the first two parts of the Onderon story arc, I can take comfort in the fact that The Clone Wars writers obviously know how to depict one of their most important characters -- Ahsoka -- handling one of her most difficult assignments.
Ahsoka's grimace at the end of the episode, when Steela told her that Saw was her brother, spoke volumes about the challenges she will face in subsequent episodes. She knew that she could no longer afford to pretend that Steela's interest was in Saw and not Lux. Her ponderous expression as that scene irised into the end credits was another indicator of her emotions distracting her from the mission. No matter what we may think about this one episode, there were enough individual moments in it to reassure us that the series has found its footing with respect to one of its most compelling features: Ahsoka's conflict of interest and the dark, all-too-familiar troubles it presents.