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TFN Review: The Soft War

Posted By Eric on October 20, 2012

The Clone Wars Season 5 Episode 4: The Soft War

As Anakin told Ahsoka in this episode's second act, "Purpose must come before feelings." The way I saw it, three people had to weigh the choice between purpose and feelings in The Soft War, and all three of them succeeded. The first two people who succeeded were Steela, who had to make a difficult choice in deciding whose life to save, and General Tandin, who abandoned his ideological intransigence to aid the Onderonian rebel movement. The third person who kept emotions in check to focus on duty was Ahsoka, although her own obedience to orders was shown to be imperfect in the episode's final minutes. Beneath the surface of those three characters' dramatic choices were emotional currents that promise great things for this story arc's resolution in the next episode.

The Soft War opened with a rebel strike on a droid convoy that gave us a sense of how the rebels were becoming more tactically proficient, both in terms of combat and messaging. Saw demonstrated improvement in his AAT-destruction skills, whereas in the previous two episodes he had floundered when given the chance to disable one. Yet the average people on the street looked disturbed by the rebels' actions. Evidently they were still uncomfortable with the idea that all of this fighting was happening so close to them. We even saw the obligatory crying child to emphasize that the rebels needed to step up their PR campaign.

Luckily for the rebels, Steela proved to be a very competent leader on more than just the battlefield. She also demonstrated that she understood how to put a human face on the struggle. Her speech to the city via hologram reminded me of something that Mon Mothma might have done at the beginning of the war against the Empire. Steela recognized the need to inspire people to break out of the paralysis that their fear had created. After her impassioned speech, people seemed to warm up to the idea of restoring King Dendup, even if they had a long way to go toward supporting the rebel movement.

The execution scene at the end of the episode was the pivotal moment in the rebels' PR campaign. The crowd that gathered to watch King Dendup die was obviously skeptical of King Rash's reasoning at first, and the rebels' heroism shifted their allegiance even further against the new king. When the super battle droids mercilessly shot Dono, the woman who attempted to lead the rebels' retreat, it elicited gasps of horror from the assembled Onderonians. The whole incident was a PR boon for the rebels. They looked strong and brave while King Rash looked puny.

The gasps and applause at Ahsoka's last-minute appearance showed that the citizens of Onderon trusted the Jedi to do the right thing and welcomed their intervention. I loved the shot of the citizens literally pushing against the hulking super battle droids as the rebels escaped. King Rash was probably weighing whether or not to have the droids start massacring the people in order to recapture Tandin and the others. The decision that he evidently made -- to not risk inciting further violence and avoid innocent bloodshed -- illuminated the Separatists' larger problem. How could Rash and his cyborg general Kalani hope to fight against an enemy whose public image had shifted from trouble-makers to heroes in less than a day?

While the rebels had won a PR victory by the end of this episode, the events that played out in The Soft War also showed us how fragile the insurgent movement is and how the fight is affecting the relationship between Saw and Steela. Saw, like Garm Bel Iblis, is impulsive. He wanted to act quickly; he didn't consider the broader PR consequences of what he was doing. Saw's impulsiveness was not all that different from Anakin's. The latter man was never content to sit around waiting to act when he could be acting instead. (Although, ironically, he now expected Ahsoka to do just that.) Like Anakin, Saw was too focused on the here-and-now.


Steela, on the other hand, saw the big picture. In the moment when she yelled "Stop!" at Saw, there was a thunder clap in the middle of the rain storm. I have no doubt that this was an intentional insertion. It symbolized the tension building between the siblings and the toll that the rebellion was taking on all involved. Saw got so frustrated that he called out Lux's perceived uselessness by telling him to "go write a speech."

Lux and Steela's discussion of Saw offered another window into the fractious rebel movement and Steela's dedication to holding the group together. She recognized that Saw's actions would backfire for the rebels, but she still wasn't ready to physically restrain her brother. She had to start making hard choices, including abandoning her brother to save King Dendup. This was a nice example of the human side of the growing rebel movement. It's good to see that the rebels' battle tactics were improving, but it was more important that we see the evolution in attitudes and behaviors on the part of the movement's key figures.

It certainly wasn't helping matters that Lux was giving her a look. Now, personally, I couldn't figure out what that look was about. Was it infatuation? Concern for Steela's emotional state? Whatever it was, her anguished reaction was highly significant. Did this foreshadow a moment when Steela will conclude that she doesn't have time in her life to think about men because she has to lead the rebels? Will we see her consumed by duty in a way that she has never been before? If Lux's look was one of romantic interest, will Steela's dedication to duty push him to discover how he truly feels -- or at any rate, how I believe he truly feels -- about Ahsoka? That a single look and a brief exchange of words could raise all of these questions speaks to the skill of The Clone Wars team. They're absolutely nailing it when it comes to imbuing every second of their work with meaning.

The Soft War didn't just continue to shape existing characters; it also introduced two fascinating new ones into the mix. The new general, Kalani had a cool design and an interesting perspective on the Onderonian conflict. The tension between him and General Tandin, King Rash's human adviser, was an important indicator of the latter's eventual allegiance swap. While Tandin sensed an opportunity to negotiate, Kalani viewed that approach as weak. He evidently hadn't dealt with this kind of uprising before, because most CIS-occupied worlds don't experience this level of organized resistance. As a result, this cyborg general saw the situation as a matter of a simple death toll. He didn't recognize that Saw was worth more to the rebel movement dead than alive. Tandin spoke volumes when he told the new general, "You cannot calculate a different approach." As a droid, Kalani was unyielding, set in his ways, and shackled to the conventional techniques that he was programmed to implement.

General Tandin, by contrast, was a tortured soul whose change of heart we had the opportunity to witness with substantial exposition over the course of this episode. Tandin understood the psychology of the rebel movement. He recognized the insurgents' tactics. "What you're doing guarantees other will take his place," he warned when the subject of execution was brought up. The groundwork for Tandin's decision to join the rebels was laid in the excellent scene in which he verbally sparred with Saw. Tandin may have been smarter than Kalani, but he had still aligned himself with the Separatists, and he wouldn't be an easy convert.

I noticed several important moments in the argument between Tandin and Saw. First, Tandin called himself a free man, but by then he must have started to realize that he was just as much of a CIS pawn as Saw, if not more. Saw's forceful proclamation that he was a patriot and not a terrorist helped tear down the general's ideological defenses. Second, while Tandin saw himself as a strong man, there was an opportunity for Saw to play on his frustration with Separatist tactics as a way of helping him to see the light. Saw described the Separatists' arrival on Onderon as the product of the king's passivity. Based on what we know of Tandin, the suggestion that Onderon's occupation was due to passivity likely empowered him to reevaluate the situation.

Even so, the general needed a push to take the leap of faith and join the rebels. He got that push during the execution scene. As he stood above the execution site watching his king interact with his captives and the assembled crowd, he must have had a realization much like Darth Vader's in Return of the Jedi: This isn't right. Tandin's decision to side with the rebels was depicted like Vader's redemptive moment. Physical inactivity, which metaphorically represented unconscionable abandonment of principles, gave way to a selfless, last-second rescue following a change of heart. Tandin had seen firsthand the monstrosity of the person he's been serving. His moment of clarity wasn't too dissimilar from the one that Vader had.

I noticed several interesting things about the two kings, old and new, at the center of the insurgency. King Rash demonstrated that he was an incredibly ignorant and arrogant man. He was unable to accept the obvious facts: the former king had been isolated and out of contact with everyone and could not possibly have instigated the uprising. Even so, he was too proud to believe that a significant portion of Onderon's population was disgusted that he occupied the throne. He also refused to accept that the rebels were even capable of negotiating, suggesting that he viewed them as savages.

The old king, by contrast, was very much a traditionalist. The insurgency struck him as too messy at first. He was worried about the cost to innocents. He called Saw and his rebel friends "meddlers creating disorder." It was clear that, while he disliked the new king, he cared more about stability. He was more concerned with what the everyday citizens had to experience than with who sat on the throne. Interestingly, while he called both the CIS and the Republic corrupt, he told Saw that he'd "been waiting a long time" for the Jedi to step in.

At first, this confused me: if he was pleased that the Jedi were taking an interest in Onderon's affairs, why didn't he join the Republic to get their protection in the first place? Then I realized that Dendup was starting to reevaluate the entire situation. Spurred by his firsthand experience with the Separatist approach to governance, he was slowly changing his perspective on the rebellion, his ousting, and the choice he had made to refuse to align with either galactic power. Essentially, the more he saw of the Separatists, the more he realized that he had made a mistake. Traditionalism had failed him, but the involvement of the Jedi had sparked new hope within him.

I have said a lot about the rebel movement, its leadership, and various entities allied with and fighting against them. The most important element in this episode, however, was Ahsoka. Her actions didn't take center stage until the last few minutes -- the bulk of the action focused on Steela, Saw, and Tandin -- but as the only major character on Onderon, her reactions to the episode's events were of paramount importance. The way that things are playing out in this story arc is changing Ahsoka. On her first major solo assignment, she's getting rattled. Anakin recognized this during their holo-conversation, reverting to his old tactic of calling her "Snips," something he only used to do when Ahsoka was much younger and less sure of herself. Even Obi-Wan sensed fear in her, although whether he identified its source -- she was afraid that she was getting too involved and losing sight of her mission -- is unclear.

In any event, Anakin had to remind Ahsoka of her place in the grand scheme of things. Because she was a representative of the Jedi Order, he said, "Purpose must come before feelings." Again, there's that rich irony that pops up whenever Anakin gets righteous with someone. I have seen some responses to my Front Runners review that criticized the way I called Anakin a hypocrite. These critiques of me generally amounted to an assertion that Anakin had no choice but to say what he said. He couldn't exactly give Ahsoka carte blanche to get carried away by her emotions, especially in front of Obi-Wan. This may be true, but I stand by my judgment that in advising her as he has, Anakin is proving that he's a hypocrite. The very fact that his only option was to order Ahsoka to stay focused proves my point: That is the expected advice from Master to Padawan -- it's the logical course of action -- and therefore Anakin's decision to personally and secretly abandon the wisest path makes him a hypocrite.

More to the point, though, Anakin's statement that "Purpose must come before feelings" is a wise one. Ahsoka, like Steela and Tandin, had to abandon emotional attachments to certain people (or, in Tandin's case, to certain ideologies) and take stock of the larger issues at hand. But Ahsoka was not just being pulled between duty and emotions; she was also being pulled between two conceptions of her duty. The question that nagged at her all throughout the episode was whether to obey the Council's orders that she sit out the rescue of the king or to get involved and help her new friends.

Her frustration at having to stay behind first manifested itself when she reluctantly told Lux that she wouldn't be fighting with the rebels that day. She had to have seen the disappointment in Lux's eyes, had to have felt like she was betraying him, but she had little choice if she was going to do what her Jedi elders expected of her. Perhaps to reassure herself that purpose-before-feelings was the right path to take, Ahsoka repeated this mantra to the rebels when she stated her support for Steela's plan. She then looked at Lux, as if to say that, while she wanted to help him, she had her orders. Curiously, Lux may have interpreted this glance as a warning that Steela's own purpose would take precedence over her feelings, including her potential feelings for him.

For all of my talk of the importance of duty before feelings, I think that Ahsoka's decision to disobey the Council actually belied her growing maturity and independent spirit. The Council had ordered her not to intervene, but the Council wasn't present on Onderon. Only she could take stock of the situation and perform a cost-benefit analysis of her intervention. There was a cinematic quality to the way the execution scene interspersed shots of Ahsoka and Tandin. The way the camera cut back and forth between Ahsoka readying herself to intervene and Tandin making up his mind to save the rebels conveyed the weight of that moment perfectly. You could see the frustration and determination on Ahsoka's face as she stepped forward, withdrew her lightsaber, and resolved herself to disobey the Council.

By the time the Separatists surrounded General Tandin, she had obviously decided that his life was worth disobeying orders. In fact, this was the right move: the Council wanted Ahsoka to let the rebel movement flourish without the need for the Jedi, and by saving Tandin's life, she was preserving for the insurgents a valuable ally. Her disobedience was done in the spirit of the Council's larger instructions. Even so, this was a decision that Ahsoka might not have been able to make in Season 2 or 3. Her independence demonstrated her remarkable growth.

Ahsoka's growth was certainly the most important big-picture element of this episode, but The Soft War paid careful attention to other things that foreshadowed future events. Take, for example, General Kalani's surprise when he learned of Lux's involvement. Why was he interested in what young Bonteri was up to? Did Dooku warn him that Senator Mina Bonteri's death might have repercussions for the rebellion? What role will Lux play in the story arc's final act? Furthermore, take note of the fact that the Onderonian palace guards went with General Tandin when he joined the rebels, as did the army. This shift in power on Onderon demonstrated the meaning of the episode's title: there is the hard war that is fought in ambushes with blasters and grenades, but there is also the soft war that is fought with speeches, propaganda, and poignant displays of bravery.

Given this story arc's parallels with the Rebel Alliance of the Original Trilogy, it is just as important to show the diplomatic and motivational aspects of war as it is to show the combat.The Soft War definitely succeeded in that respect. It also excelled at illustrating Ahsoka's dramatic progression from baby-faced Padawan to confident leader, while simultaneously highlighting her persisting vulnerabilities. Simply put, this was a strong episode. It covered a lot of ground and continued to build on themes that will resonate both in the next episode and throughout the rest of the series.


-------------------------------------

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


Related Stories

October 24, 2012   Preview TCW: "Tipping Points"
October 17, 2012   Preview TCW: "The Soft War"
October 13, 2012   TFN Review: Front Runners





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