Rarely have I been as impressed with an episode of this series as I was with Massacre. It had a great combination of the most important elements in any story -- eye candy, character development, engaging plot, and emotional resonance. The devious and brutal Asajj Ventress met her match when the droid army took away the one thing left to her in the galaxy, leaving her lost and alone. Her search for guidance may have started at the end of the episode, but her fragility and sense of purpose pervaded her behavior throughout the story. Awesome appearances by Grievous -- who was actually lethal for once -- and Dooku -- who was uncharacteristically powerless -- also enhanced this sensational episode. All that, and I've only scratched the surface -- Massacre was basically "Night(sisters) of the Living Dead", and I was loving it.
The look and feel of Dathomir instantly immersed me in the eerie, menacing tone of this episode. Dathomir's blood-red environment and its gnarled trees foreshadowed the bloodshed that was soon to come. Before that violence, however, came Asajj's transformation into a Nightsister, which simultaneously impressed and disturbed me. Her rebirth in the green aura of the Nightsisters' magic was positively unnerving, combining careful animation of her body posture and an eerie, vaguely Arabian music track. I kept my ears on alert throughout that scene and was rewarded with the subtle hints of chanting that backed the music -- the mysterious, subdued voices were not those of the Nightsisters, suggesting that the ritual had a disembodied audience.
Speaking of creepy, this episode was an absolute triumph for its portrayal of Mother Talzin alone. It was great to see her again after almost an entire season's worth of episodes separating now and the Season 3 story arc that introduced her. One of the best things about Talzin is her creepy, multi-layered voice. It's fairly high-pitched, but also rough, and it has the undertone of a deeper, more menacing vocal track. Matthew Wood and his Skywalker Sound team deserve sound design Emmys for many reasons, but some of their finest work is in Talzin's voice. With every spoken word, it sounds as if she contains a monster that's just waiting to burst free.
Mother Talzin brought far more to this episode than just her voice. Her role in the series is to represent the primal side of the Force. With phrases like "the magics and the old ways," she embodies a savage, primitive, unrefined mysticism, one that is sharply at odds with both the Sith and the Jedi. Her personality remained enigmatic, as it did during her Season 3 appearance. Despite the surprise arrival of the droid army, it remained unclear whether she had anticipated and even welcomed the battle. When she told her clan that "the war has come to Dathomir," I was struck by the possibility that she might have been eager to watch this conflict play out.
Talzin was certainly doing well on the battlefield at first. As the droid army advanced on her clan's position, her posture and fearlessness emphasized how confident and powerful she was. As she took on the droids from afar, the sound of her energy blasts reinforced her primal, mystical persona. Talzin's method of protecting her cave with a magical barrier, as well as her ability to conjure a solid sphere to hold the lock of Dooku's hair, further enhanced her spooky aura. The imagery that solidified her menacing personality throughout the episode culminated in the shot of her spectral image ripping out of Dooku's chest.
While the bulk of the action took place on blood-hued Dathomir, Count Dooku played a significant role as well. At first, he was supremely confident in his ability to defeat Mother Talzin and her witches. His grim pronouncement that Grievous should eliminate the cult came in the form of an Episode I reference: "Wipe the witches out. All of them."
For someone who is usually aloof and detached, Dooku certainly cared a lot about the Nightsister clan, who had been relatively minor players on the galactic stage so far. The fact that he felt the need to take action against the witches showed the extent to which Asajj and her sisters had rattled him with their earlier assassination attempt. Their primal powers may also have troubled him more generally; we know from several sources that the witches troubled Darth Sidious. In any event, it was cool to see conflict finally erupt between Dooku and the Nightsisters given the tension between them in Season 3.
Despite his discipline and certainty at the beginning of the episode, Dooku eventually found himself at Mother Talzin's mercy. Her introduction of the voodoo doll was surprising, but not unwelcome. With an army of overwhelming size at her front door, it made sense for Talzin to try to force Dooku to call off the attack. It was a good plan, and I think if it hadn't been for Grievous, Dooku might have succumbed to Talzin. For the first time in a while, he looked, sounded, and acted vulnerable. During his conversation with Grievous, his pain and surprise were evident. Clearly he wasn't used to being at such a profound disadvantage. For all his military might in the form of his droid army, he found himself ill-equipped to fight off Talzin's sorcery. However much he might have denied it to Grievous, Dooku feared Talzin's power.
The ostensible focus of Massacre was the newest member of the Nightsisters, Asajj Ventress. In seeking out refuge from the Clone Wars, Asajj exposed a new side of her personality to viewers. We briefly glimpsed her vulnerability in the Season 3 story arc, but she was much more despondent and troubled here. Because Asajj has traditionally been the overconfident harpy of the series -- the one whose cockiness finds its match only in her perennial foe, Anakin Skywalker -- it's usual that we see her broken and dispirited. I thought it was a great new take on such an iconic PT-era character. We've always thought of her as Dooku's trusted and fearless assassin, and I'm glad to see The Clone Wars delving deeper into her twisted psyche.
Asajj's "baptism" emphasized the cult-like nature of the Nightsister tribe. Their perspective on the Force was very much a religious one. They didn't have a "God" per se, but they did believe that rituals and traditions strengthened their connection to the Force. That said, while the rest of the Nightsisters seemed to view Asajj's transformation as definitive and important, I didn't notice any change in her behavior or thought process afterward. What I did notice was that Asajj seemed to feel guilty when the droid army arrived. Once again, she displayed emotions that we were unaccustomed to associating with her, forcing us to reevaluate our perspective on her character.
However guilty she might have felt, Asajj remained positively lethal in combat. It was interesting to see her fighting against the very droids that she previously led into battle. I got the sense that she had always been disgusted with the Separatists for fielding a metal army. Throughout the battle on Dathomir, Asajj had a number of good moves, including one where she gracefully stabbed two battle droids through their chests simultaneously, and another where she used droid heads as stepping stones to an AAT and then swiftly decapitated its gunner.
The best fight scene featuring Asajj was the one between her and Grievous. That duel, because it was between two of Dooku's top warriors, offered viewers the chance to see a long-standing rivalry finally come to blows. Even when they both worked for Dooku, he would test them and accomplish his own goals by pitting them against each other. The resentment that fueled their fight was the inevitable result of the Sith apprentice's manipulations. Both combatants struck and stabbed with such fury that their relief at finally being able to settle this score was obvious.
Asajj's half-grief, half-rage at the decimation of her Nightsister clan was also obvious. At the beginning of the episode, it was clear that, even after being abandoned by Dooku, she still had some spirit left. Her ancestral clan offered the promise of new allegiances, new loyalties, and new kinship -- a welcome prospect even for someone whose essence was so dark and cold. The arrival of Grievous and his troops extinguished the last flame of hope smoldering within her.
Grievous himself seemed revitalized as a character thanks to fight against the Nightsisters. Massacre gave us the chance to see him actually do well against a formidable enemy. He's always been the run-and-hide coward in this series, and while he did experience a moment of weakness while fighting Asajj, he recovered and renewed his furious assault on her clan almost immediately. Grievous seemed to regain his cybernetic "mojo" in this episode, barking orders like "Burn those witches to the ground." Here was the kind of combat that the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars cartoon made us expect from Grievous. Watching him easily dispatch the Nightsisters with his trademark hulking posture and ferocious style fulfilled my expectations and left me wanting more. I can only hope that he retains this level of competence as the series progresses.
As a general thematic observation, I really liked the contrast between the Separatists' mechanized army and the Nightsisters' feral cult. Several aspects of the action on Dathomir emphasized the differences between the robotic invaders and the culturally-rich tribe of Force-users. First, there was Daka, the old woman in the hidden cave. Daka's croaky voice and ancient appearance, in addition to the amazed look on Talzin's face as she watched the chant, emphasized the fact that she, not Talzin, was the true clan matriarch. While the younger witch led the Nightsisters in battle, the older woman harbored enigmatic powers and was the spiritual anchor of the group. It is a testament to the awesome storytelling capacity of this series that a few lines of dialog and a couple of facial expressions were enough to pique my interest in the relationship between Talzin and Daka.
Daka's appearance was brief, but she conjured up one of the most incredible parts of this episode: the army of the dead. With their green, glowing eyes, their primal and unsettling screams, and their senseless, angry style of movement, the Nightsister zombies were perfect for Dathomir's spooky environment. The way their faces contorted into hideous expressions sent shivers up my spine; I never expected this series to be capable of doing that. It was great to see the rushing horde of undead Nightsisters race toward the droids. Their ferocious posture and primal brutality made this episode feel like a horror movie.
With Daka impaled on one of Grievous' lightsabers, the fighting ended quickly. One of my favorite shots in the episode was the one where the Nightsister zombies collapsed and the commando droids, barely missing a beat, proceeded to slaughter the hapless Nightsisters. I also liked, and was intrigued by, the moment when Talzin disappeared into a green mist after being surrounded by droids. The fact that Talzin's fate remains unclear suggests the possibility of her returning to the series. The final scene in this episode, where she speaks to Asajj, had me wondering if she survived in a corporeal or merely spiritual form.
Star Wars fans may consider Asajj to be heartless -- and for good reason -- but she still must have felt devastated watching her former allies ravage and destroy the only community to which she could ever truly belong. In episode's final scene, a despondent Asajj begged the ghostly form of Mother Talzin for guidance. "Where do I go? What do I do?" she asked. Broken and confused, she seemed like an entirely different woman from the Sith warrior who caused mayhem in previous episodes of The Clone Wars. It was a fresh look at her character, one that I'm grateful to Massacre for showing to us. In general, I thought Massacre "killed it" (pardon the pun) as far as TCW episodes go. We were treated to a new side of Asajj, a horde of Nightsister zombies, a beautiful but eerie planet, a vulnerable Count Dooku, and an unusually ferocious Grievous. Massacre balanced these great story elements well and avoided the feeling of being crowded, and for that reason I consider it a standout episode of The Clone Wars Season 4.