For an episode named after General Pong Krell, The General sure didn't focus much on the Besalisk Jedi. Instead, we got twenty-two action-packed, brutal, and explosive minutes of the Republic campaign on Umbara. I know some have criticized the Umbaran story arc for lacking main characters, but I have to say that this is exactly what a show about the Clone Wars should depict: clones fighting the war. Glorious visuals and tremendous sound design complemented magnificent scoring and pacing during the episode's crucial, stand-out scenes. Between Rex's independent, brilliance, and humanity and interspersed reminders of the other clones' personalities, The General did more to enhance the audience's understanding of (and sympathy for) these brothers-in-arms than any previous episode of The Clone Wars.
First, I want to address what I most enjoyed seeing and hearing in this episode. Guest-directed as it was by Oscar-winning film legend Walter Murch, The General was bound to be fantastic in these crucial ways. Even with my expectations heightened by the star power, this episode certainly didn't disappoint. There was a great sweeping overhead shot of the Republic troops inching forward near the beginning of the episode; this shot set the tone for the rest of the engagement. Later, as the battle raged on, we saw explosion after explosion cast up embers and sparks that were visible in incredible detail.
While we watched the Umbaran tanks stomp through the Republic lines, the camera shook as if rattled by the impacts on the ground, lending a sense of live-action authenticity to the episode. I also enjoyed the quick cuts to different areas on the battlefield and the close-ups of different troops shooting or calling on their comlinks. One of my favorite moments, enhanced by excellent visual framing, was when the two clone-piloted ships swerved around above the landing platform and then flew away from the supply base, leaving destruction in their wake. The way this sequence was shot brought incredible drama to the scene.
As befits an episode directed and choreographed in the style of a war movie, there was usually chaos going on around characters who were speaking. Whether or not this was the case at any given moment, but especially when it was, the episode's sound had to tell part of the story as readily as the visuals and dialog. As Krell spoke via comlink to Obi-Wan, we heard frantic background chatter all around him. The most obvious example was the clone shouting "Incoming, incoming!" while Obi-Wan updated Krell. The Umbaran worms sounded amazing as well, and their screeching reminded me of the beasts in the Geonosian arena in Attack of the Clones. I already mentioned that the shot of the clones inching forward for a full-frontal assault impressed me visually, but what I didn't mention was the excellent drumbeat music that accompanied this visual. Director Walter Murch's work on Apocalypse Now clearly afforded him valuable insight into producing the best possible on-screen war drama.
The newsreel at the beginning of The General reminded viewers that the Republic is mounting this campaign to take the planet Umbara because it's key to Grand Army's strategy. That didn't suffice last week, judging by the responses I've seen online, and it certainly didn't suffice as a reminder this week. I still want to know what Umbara is key to in the Republic war effort. Is it just a geographical stepping stone to another, more crucial planet? Do the Umbarans produce some rare mineral that the Republic seeks to acquire? I would like to know what so many clones are dying for as I wince at the brutal ways in which they meet their ends. That said, the planet itself looks positively creepy; it's the perfect place to stage a grim battle like this and to afford us some disturbing insights into the clones' future role (more on that later). I especially like how the Umbaran landscape has those branches topped with glowing red stalks. The Umbaran technology was also an interesting feature of this episode, from the natives' unconventional worm vehicles to their ships' futuristic control mechanisms.
Speaking of unconventional, I have a few new things to say about General Krell. I briefly mentioned it last week, but this week I have to reiterate it: I really hate how Krell engaged in exactly zero combat in this episode. He told Obi-Wan, "We're holding our ground," but he was in fact doing nothing of the sort; that distinction belonged to Rex, Fives, and the rest of the advance team. It sickened me to see so many clones dying when I knew that some of them would have been protected by a single whirling lightsaber blade, to say nothing of Krell's two double-bladed weapons.
Krell's reticence to actually fight notwithstanding, it seemed like he was making a major tactical blunder in prioritizing time over efficiency. While it's true that the Republic need to hurry up and take the capital city, and thus that this supply base needed to be eliminated, Krell was pushing his troops forward recklessly, in a way that even the most rushed military genius wouldn't condone. Krell may consider the clones to be expendable, but what happens when his carelessness leaves him with too few clones to do the battle plan any good? What would he do if his brazenness led to the battalion suffering so many casualties that he actually had to personally engage the enemy? On that note, I found it interesting that one of the clones later alluded to published casualty numbers for each Jedi General. As viewers surmised last week, Krell's figure seems to dwarf those of his fellow generals.
The rest of my analysis concerns the clones, whose determination, bravery, camaraderie, and skill were obviously the focus of this episode. One of my favorite scenes in this episode, and indeed in the entire season, was the one where the clones debated Krell's strategy for taking the supply base. Dee Bradley Baker's vocal range was used to great effect here; his ability to give each speaker a unique personality produced an array of distinct voices -- and thus, as was intended, a group of distinct men. When Captain Rex pointed out that General Skywalker's plans weren't always sane at first glance, I was glad to hear one of the troopers point out that Anakin always led their charges, as opposed to Krell's style of commanding from the rear. Rex's most important moment was in his private conversation with ARC trooper Fives. "We have a duty to follow orders," Rex said. "I honor my code."
One wonders how Rex's conception of honor and duty has changed and how it's still changing, especially given what he experienced in Season 2's The Deserter and what he's experiencing now with General Krell. We were told that the Umbaran story arc would shine the spotlight on the clones like never before, and so far, that's never been truer than in this scene. In the clones' clandestine meeting to analyze and critique their commander's instructions, we saw what may be the beginnings of dissent among the ranks. The Clone Wars hadn't shined enough light on this occurrence up until now, but I'm glad that's changed.
However dispirited they may have been by Krell's style, the troopers of the 501st demonstrated that they were still the Republic's finest army unit. What the hectic and explosive main battle sequences showed us was more than just the folly of Krell's strategy. They also depicted Captain Rex's quick thinking, his remarkable leadership skills, and the teamwork and brotherhood of the clones. Few episodes have centered on such sustained and brutal combat. When they did show similar battles, they were either far less graphic or composed of briefer, more numerous cuts. This episode jammed more battlefield imagery into a few minutes than had ever been done before in the series: we see clones dragging each other to safety, scrambling around corners and out of harm's way, relaying instructions to each other, rallying for battlefield movements, and much more.
In keeping with the episode's Band of Brothers theme, there were both moments of levity and intense depictions of wartime losses. I loved seeing the clones wave at the worms to lure in their Umbaran controllers. The image of them assembled on the overhead branches evoked the solidarity and cohesion of a World War II infantry division. Throughout most of the battle, however, the clones were getting positively slaughtered. We saw more clone bodies drop lifelessly to the ground with smoldering blaster marks than ever before. We saw clones get incinerated by advancing Umbaran tanks, screaming as they died, and we saw troopers get crushed under the feet of these massive lumbering machines. One clone lost the entire lower half of his body and had to be literally dragged to safety.
The battle did eventually turn for the Republic, and the clones' steady progress brought about two interesting scenes. First, there was the moment when the clones destroyed the still-flickering worm pod with the Umbaran in it. The way they coldly remarked on how they needed to finish the job reminded me of the cruelty of Imperial stormtroopers. As the soldiers walked past the now-destroyed pod window, Rex shot the Umbaran soldier repeatedly without even glancing at him. In my opinion, this grim scene was definitely supposed to be an omen of things to come for the 501st.
The second scene featuring Republic success was decidedly lighter in tone. It began when Rex ordered Hardcase and Fives to infiltrate the supply base and disable it from the inside. As the two clones approached the base perimeter, Hardcase took a moment to describe how different he was, how his Kaminoan supervisors had noted a leak in his cloning chamber, and how this flaw had made him "hyper-active." I really liked that moment, as it both added levity to the episode and increased the clones' humanity. Defective or not, Hardcase is quite an interesting clone. He also had the distinction of uttering Han Solo's line from A New Hope, "I'd prefer a good fight to all this sneaking around."
Speaking of levity, I especially enjoyed seeing Hardcase and Fives commandeer the Umbaran ships and take them for a joyride. Their whooping and cheering, plus the triumphant music in the background, reminded me even more of a war movie where the tables have just turned. The way the Umbaran troops shot at them and they effortlessly disposed of their enemy bore a striking resemblance to Anakin's escape from the Droid Control Ship in The Phantom Menace.
I was glad to see Rex take the initiative and order Hardcase and Fives to infiltrate the base. Burdened by Krell's callousness and constrained by the General's rigid style, Rex finally decided to call on his tactical savvy against the Besalisk's orders. In the process, he demonstrated to Krell that he was capable of planning successful offensives. Because the audience knew that Rex was right, we got angry at Krell when he stubbornly countermanded the clone captain's order and even angrier when he attributed the clones' success to luck and fortune. (A Jedi who believes in luck? That's unusual.)
Speaking of which, when Krell dismissed Rex's success at the end of the episode, it was important to note that Rex clenched his fest in frustration. Every time we see him, Rex is growing more and more independent. The danger, of course, is that he'll soon be out of place in the Grand Army of the Republic -- and what then? Somehow I don't think it was a coincidence that Krell was talking to Sergeant Appo, who we see leading the 501st in Revenge of the Sith. Could Appo's debut on the show be the first incident that foreshadows the end of Rex?
All in all, The General surpassed even Darkness on Umbara to impress me like few episodes of The Clone Wars ever have. With its astounding combination of breathtaking camerawork, powerful sound design, great dialog, precise timing, and a deep message, it is the most extraordinary episode of the series so far. But there's one last thing I have to mention in this review. On top of everything else that made this episode amazing, there was one moment, right at the end, that deserves special consideration at the conclusion of my analysis. As Krell walked away after admonishing Rex for not realizing that sacrifices must be made, Fives approached the clone captain and reassured him by saying, "He's the one who will never realize." There are two ways to take this powerful moment. On the surface, Fives just meant that Krell will never realize what it's like to experience camaraderie. On a more significant level, Fives' line hints at a deeper, more sinister fate approaching these stoic warriors. Before long, Fives' words will give way to a fire that sweeps through the Jedi ranks like the flames reflected in Krell's eye during an earlier extreme close-up: Order 66.