I've been anxious to return to the story of Maul and Savage Opress ever since Season 5 opened with "Revival". In the latest episode, The Clone Wars served up a hefty dose of combat as only the ex-Sith warriors and the Death Watch legions can bring it. It was great to see Maul's story align with that of Pre Vizsla and the Death Watch. Mostly, it was just nice to see the series return to several of the unresolved overarching plot threads that have livened up so many previous episodes. Episodes like "Eminence" reflect the shadowy undercurrents shifting in the broader Clone Wars narrative, and it's fantastic that the series continues to take us behind the battle lines in this way.
From a visual perspective, this episode was chock-full of eye candy. We saw a ton of species, including Gamorreans, Gotal, and a host of others at Jabba's palace. There was also the series debut of the Falleen, which no doubt excited Expanded Universe fans like myself who have been waiting for The Clone Wars to seize on more threads from the underworld. We also met the Pykes, who formed part of the alliance. The Pykes are an interesting addition to the series, but at least in this installment, their value was unclear. Did the story arc simply require another underworld ally, or will the Pykes bring something unique to the table in the rest of the arc?
It's also important to note that there was a lot more killing of non-clone, non-droid combatants in "Eminence" than in most of the previous episodes. Their deaths, while not major to the story, enhanced the menace of the coalition. The utter casualness with which many of those underlings were slaughtered was grimly appropriate for this story arc. I particularly liked the sequence where the Death Watch command ship landed on Tatooine as armored commandos defeated Jabba's palace guards. The way the camera swept through the separate one-on-one fights and ended with the shuttle setting down in front of several bodies was cinematically superb. Earlier in the episode, there was also a great sweeping shot of the Death Watch encampment as the camera panned across various teams and individual commandos at work. The Clone Wars feels more like a feature film with each episode.
Savage Opress fought alongside his brother in battle, but this episode was really about two characters: Pre Vizsla and Maul. The red-skinned Zabrak found a key ally in Death Watch. After all, Vizsla's contempt for pacifism and Duchess Satine mirrored Maul's own disgust at Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi beliefs about peace and cooperation. One might call the two a match made in heaven, or perhaps hell in this case. But Maul had grander designs than a long-term alliance with the Death Watch, and he expressed them to his brother when they were alone. He noted that the Death Watch possessed honor, which Savage called a weakness. Evidently the ex-Sith plan to exploit that failure for their own ends.
It was inevitable that in such a cautious alliance, each side would try to play the other. Maul and Savage obvious have bigger goals than the Death Watch mercenaries can even comprehend, so this sort of backstabbing would have been expected no matter what arrangements Maul made. However, Sam Witwer's magnificent performance as Maul, and the way he handled this particular dialog, made for a remarkable glimpse into a character we often underestimate. We know Maul is an extremely capable warrior, but until Sam Witwer took on the character and added a cunning, razor-sharp edge to his voice and personality, it was impossible to see just how ambitious Maul had become. Sam Witwer's portrayal of Maul is what makes the character so extraordinarily compelling to watch.
One of the most fantastic aspects of Maul in this episode was also one of the subtlest. Throughout the episode, during moments when Maul asserted himself, a barely audible but distinctly ominous whisper would emerge. It occurred as Maul woke up on the hospital bed. It reappeared when Maul identified himself and Savage as Sith, and appeared again when he called them "the true Lords of the Sith." The whispers reemerged later in the episode, right before Savage executed the last remaining Hutt, and again when Maul, Savage, and Vizsla entered Jabba's palace. I couldn't help but wonder if the whispers reflected the influence of Mother Talzin, who originally imbued Maul with his new strength, and who might be watching her protégée as he enacted his plan for revenge. The idea that the Nightsister matriarch could be observing or even manipulating events from the mysterious realm to which she disappeared was positively thrilling to consider.
Whether it was due to Mother Talzin's influence or his own cold focus, Maul certainly made his mark on numerous organizations in this episode, at a pace that was somewhere between brisk and rushed. Maul, Savage, and Death Watch made quick work of Black Sun. Their visit to the syndicate's headquarters offered a jarringly weak depiction of Black Sun's strength and fortification. In fact, Black Sun's leadership demonstrated such a remarkable and uncharacteristic lack of tact, and so little instinct for self-preservation, that I was actually disappointed with their role into his episode. "Eminence" clearly required that Maul put on a show of force, but in the process of depicting the attack, it ruined Black Sun's reputation for shrewdness and cunning. On a more welcome note, however, the scene where Savage slew the Black Sun leaders recalled Maul's earlier mission (in the EU) to wipe out the council of Vigos, which he did at the behest of Darth Sidious.
The Hutts, with their characteristic arrogance and lack of familiarity with serious threats, were likewise an easy target for an alliance that quickly asserted itself as one of the most potent in the series' five-season history. Maul and Savage, demonstrating Sith-like self-confidence and disdain for lesser beings, generously gave the Hutts more chances than they probably deserved to fall in line and join the alliance. When Sugi attacked, Savage even deigned to send her dagger into the table in front of her, instead of embedding it in her chest. I noted with satisfaction the progression in how Maul handled violence and confrontation. He has changed a lot since "Brothers". In dealing with the Hutts, Maul recognized that his anger and bloodlust could be unproductive. Instead of slaying everyone in sight, he muddled through some semblance of a diplomatic process. The beings on the other side of the metaphorical negotiating table were hardly cooperative partners, but Maul has learned how to lead, not just in blows but also in words. Clearly, he's no longer the single-purpose killing machine that Darth Sidious once trained.
The scene where Maul led Embo, Sugi, and the other bounty hunters on a chase through the Hutt compound seemed unnecessarily long, almost like an excuse for extra combat sequences. That said, it was nice to see Maul and Savage face serious resistance from those familiar faces, just as it was nice to see the bounty hunters taken aback by the strength of their opponents. Any time a TV series introduces two sets of formidable characters to each other on the battlefield, it makes for more interesting combat than the one-sided fight scenes that usually result from episodes focused on only one of the two sets of characters.
Another thing that made that part of the episode interesting was the way Maul called off the attack and let the bounty hunters leave because there was no value in capturing them (he observed that they had no allegiance). Pre Vizsla wanted to pursue them, but when ordered him to forget about it, he complied. Just as Maul took the lead in interrogating that Hutt straggler and confronting Jabba on Tatooine, the former Sith warrior easily assumed command of the alliance's combat operations. Despite Vizsla's reservations about him, he emerged as the clear leader of the group -- or at least that's what Vizsla wants him to think for now.
Indeed, Pre Vizsla's role in this episode was almost as interesting as the character progression that Maul experienced. Vizsla first found Maul and Savage in a position of weakness in their escape pod. That influenced his impression of them as he continued to work with them. At the moment, he thinks he can control them. He's blinded by his perception of his destiny. I can't wait to see how severely he will learn his lesson when he eventually confronts the two Zabrak.
When Maul explained that the passion driving him in life was his quest for revenge, Vizsla and Bo-Katan exchanged a glance that seemed to foreshadow the next few episodes. They recognized that Maul's primal hate for Obi-Wan was a weapon waiting to be crafted, and I suspect that in the next few episodes, they will attempt to do so. The question, of course, is can they control this weapon once they have it in their hands? Pondering that question, I was reminded of the fact that Darth Sidious once faced the same challenge.
With Maul still in the room, Bo-Katan gave voice to Vizsla's view of the Zabrak warriors: the Death Watch healed them after their defeat at the hands of Jedi, so how strong could they be? At first I thought that this was a spontaneous outburst, but when I saw how Vizsla relished the anger that Maul showed at being described as subordinate to the Jedi, I reconsidered that interpretation. After Maul left, Bo-Katan and Vizsla exchanged another glance, this one suggesting that Bo-Katan's insult had been planned. It was a test of sorts, and evidently Maul had passed. Clearly, his anger had impressed Vizsla. Even so, Vizsla continued to view him as a pawn in a much bigger game.
It was interesting to think about the fact that both men imagined themselves playing a game the scale of which their tentative ally could not comprehend. That tension rippled beneath the surface throughout this entire episode. "Eminence" began with the fortune cookie, "One vision can have many different interpretations." Obviously, both men had different interpretations of their alliance and the crucial moment in history upon which they were seizing. Maul seemed to caution Vizsla against acting on his interpretation when he told the Death Watch leader, "There is only one plan, one vision." This admonishment naturally had Vizsla bristling. He wasn't used to taking orders from someone else. When Maul announced his plan to rule the underworld, Vizsla's clenched fist reflected his frustration with his new ally. As befitted an episode involving two strong personalities vying for control, "Eminence" ended with Vizsla reiterating his intention to double-cross the two Zabrak warriors.
It remains to be seen how the tension between these two leaders will play out, but I for one am incredibly excited to see that happen. "Eminence" may have taken us to several different planets and dazzled us with many impressive combat scenes, but it kept the real focus squarely on two very interesting characters, each of whom has been given a strong presence on The Clone Wars, and each of whom will undoubtedly shape the path of the war -- and the series -- monumentally in the episodes to come.