I did not know what to expect from this episode. When I heard about a screening of a "Young Jedi" story arc at Celebration VI, I had trouble seeing how such a story would fit into this incredibly dark season of The Clone Wars. I heard a rumor that Lucasfilm was considering a third animated series alongside TCW and Detours, and it occurred to me that maybe "Young Jedi" was supposed to test the waters for this new series. After watching The Gathering, I am not only convinced that this story arc can fit nicely into the season -- a moment of light amidst the darkness -- but I am thankful that it was given the chance to do so. In addition to being a nice change of pace, this character-driven episode had an incredibly important message for viewers about the nature of the Force and a Jedi's place as a servant of it.
I want to start by making a few observations about Ahsoka. In the opening newsreel of this episode, we were given a brief glimpse of Plo Koon inviting a baby Ahsoka to join him on Coruscant and begin her Jedi training. Far from being a random shot thrown in to emphasize narrator Tom Kane's message about younglings being selected for training, this was a deliberate attempt to draw a contrast between the na´ve, inexperienced little girl who joined the Star Wars universe in The Clone Wars movie and the confident, steady Jedi apprentice who was guiding this episode's younglings on their journey.
By focusing on the younglings and showing most of the episode from their perspective, we got a look at Ahsoka in a teacher's role. The very fact that she was working alongside Master Yoda elevated her status within the series, and while the previous Onderon story arc demonstrated her increased maturity by showing her leading others in combat and tactics, this episode demonstrated her growth by showing her instructing other Jedi with grace, poise, and a Yoda-like penchant for being cryptic.
It hasn't even been that long since Ahsoka's August 2008 debut. Watching the younglings glance around curiously on their way to the hidden Jedi cavern, I was reminded of that Ahsoka and all of her unease and self-doubt. She has clearly come a long way from being like them, and she herself seemed to notice that at one point. When Petro said that the hidden cavern entrance looked like a dead end, she offered a knowing smile before helping them expose the doorway. It made me wonder if she had expressed similar doubts when she first arrived on Ilum for this ritual.
Anytime we get to see Yoda in The Clone Wars for more than a few seconds, we can be sure that his involvement will be both meaningful and immensely enjoyable to watch. Even though he was only used sparingly in this episode, his participation in the trial gave it a certain seriousness. Yoda is at his best when he's giving lessons to the young, the uncertain, and the inexperienced, as he did so many years ago in the series premiere, Ambush. In this episode, he appeared less frequently, but his brief moments were loaded with meaning, such as when he grimaced and closed his eyes while sensing Petro abandoning the trapped Katooni.
Another moment when Yoda stepped in to great dramatic effect was when he forced the successful younglings to refrain from reentering the cave to assist their friends. The lesson here was obviously that part of being a Jedi is knowing when not to act. Being forced to sit back and wait to see if your friends escape peril is one of the most difficult things an honorable person can be forced to do.
Yoda performed one of his final acts in the episode -- explaining his trickery regarding the frozen cave entrance -- with a mischievous laugh that was straight out of the Original Trilogy. His revelation that the entrance barrier was "easy to break if you have the will" reminded me of all of his lessons to Luke on Dagobah, where he was building up young Skywalker's trust in the mystical energy field that sustained the Jedi.
The interior of the cavern on Ilum looked fantastic, and the chanting music that played as the younglings entered gave it a very religious feel. The vast open space felt like and airy. When Yoda started talking, the music changed. It began to sound like drops of water on a surface, which fit in with the chamber's theme of ice and water. This episode also benefitted from music during the scene when Katooni was climbing her mountain, with the dramatic rhythm symbolizing her struggle against self-doubt. In addition, when Gungi was staring out across the cavernous room containing his crystal, there were whistling, howling noises that were reminiscent of a Wookiee's howls. The noises had a windy element to them that fit perfectly with the open-air cavern room motif.
The crystal cave itself was imbued with enough symbolism and meaning to power an entire review. I will only say a few brief things about it, because I think my observations will clue readers into the deeper extent of my thinking. In its purpose, if not its appearance, this cave bore a striking resemblance to the one on Dagobah. Like that mystical grotto, this was a supernatural place that tested one's resolve, gauged one's personality, and adapted to one's fears and habits. As the younglings strode through the open entrance, I heard, in the back of my mind: "What's in there?" "Only what you take with you."
Those similarities aside, the difference between Dagobah's Dark Side cave and this more upbeat locale was apparent from the start. I thought it was incredibly cool on both a visual and symbolic level that the sunlight from outside the cavern melted an opening into the cave. This natural phenomenon carried the distinctly Jedi-like theme of light and warmth exposing paths of action. This cave also offered an optimistic lesson that the Dagobah one did not: the cave wall, which Ahsoka had said was impenetrable during the planet's dark cycle, was, after all, only simple frozen water. The lesson that it was possible to break through the ice simply by wanting it badly enough was a great way to end the episode. Petro was able to escape by overcoming the strongest barrier of all -- his doubts.
The Gathering was a character-focused episode and the characters who sustained our interest were the younglings themselves. Their individual personalities and weaknesses manifested over the course of the story, beginning with Petro, the ambitious one. Impulsive, selfish, and obsessed with victory, this human kid wanted to show off, even if he denied it to Yoda and Ahsoka. Petro's impulses led him to see what he wanted to see as he explored the crystal cave. This was even made explicit when he saw a glimmer at the edge of a walkway: "That must be a crystal," he told himself. I loved how the Force played games with his impulsiveness to teach him a lesson.
The bluntest example of this lesson came when Petro arrogantly strolled out of the cave -- leaving the others behind -- and displayed his "crystal" to Yoda. It melted, because he didn't trust the Force to guide him to his real crystal. In that moment, he should have seen the lesson: he had been impatient, he had rushed into his task, and mostly importantly, he had tried to outsmart the Force. The melting of the crystal symbolized the elusiveness of Petro's goal and the fact that the Force was the difference between success and failure.
Unfortunately, Petro was impatient until the very last second. Even after Ahsoka and Yoda admonished him, he still didn't get it, and he let himself rush around inside the cave when he re-entered it. He finally redeemed himself by rescuing Katooni. In that moment, he relinquished his selfishness and worked toward a greater cause. Sometimes, he learned, putting aside the immediate objective was actually the best way to ultimately achieve it. As is the will of the Force, his goal manifested itself in the course of his seemingly unrelated action. This was a great reminder that the Force had a "mind" of its own.
The Tholothian youngling Katooni's lesson was not about selfishness but about confidence. The Force tested her self-confidence at every turn. First, only she could see her crystal at the top of the mountain. Even in a universe where beings can lift objects with their minds, this must have given Katooni a reason to doubt herself. She didn't want to try climbing the mountain, given how imposing it looked, but Zatt gave her the confidence she needed to get started. Even then, Katooni was worried that she wouldn't even find anything up there, a worry that symbolized her lingering doubts.
Katooni not only lacked confidence in her ability to climb the mountain, but she also thought that her eyes might be playing tricks on her. Later, the Force tested her confidence again when she became trapped behind an ice wall. She had to convince Petro to give up his selfishness, which was not an easy task, and a lesser being might have balked at the enormity of her challenge and sat down to accept her inevitable death. Katooni persevered, however, and she no doubt gained an appreciation for the way the Force gave her confidence.
Ganodi, the Rodian, experienced a similar despondency, although her problem was not so much self-doubt as it was a lack of trust in the Force. She lost hope almost immediately after entering the cave. She didn't believe that the Force would even show her a crystal. When it finally gave her a sign by dropping her through the floor into the room full of crystals, she had trouble imagining that she would ever find the right one. Ganodi became overwhelmed by the number of crystals in front of her. She saw every situation as hopeless no matter how much closer the Force pushed her to her goal.
When Ganodi finally trusted that the Force would light the way, her eyes fixed on a single crystal out of all the others that she realized was hers. There was a great circular tracking shot of her that showed how many crystals were around her as she reached out her hand and let it swivel in the right direction. She was gaining clarity as she allowed herself to hope.
I'll be honest: I saw a little bit of myself in the character of Zatt, the Nautolan kid. From the moment he calculated the duration of Ilum's planetary rotation, it was obvious what his challenge would be. Zatt relied too much on technology to light the way, and he gave up when it -- predictably enough -- failed to point the way to his crystal. Too preoccupied with his gadgetry, he wasn't looking around. He was thinking instead of feeling. He wasn't opening up to the Force. He thought everything could be tracked and calculated.
Zatt's breakthrough moment came after he had smashed his scanner, at the moment when he decided to open up to the supernatural power that imbued the cave with its complexity and meaning. The camera circled around him as it had with Ganodi as the Nautolan youngling reached out with the Force. Before long, the cave wall behind him lit up with the signature blue glow of a crystal. I thought it was a nice touch to show him using his scanner to facilitate his access to the crystal. After subtly critiquing the use of electronics as a guide, the episode allowed for the fact that sometimes using technology and the Force in tandem was the only way to reach one's goal. This episode showed that technology, while useful, was only one element of a successful plan. To paraphrase a famous smuggler, a good blaster is no match for a hokey religion at your side.
Gungi the Wookiee faced the predictable obstacle of patience. When Gungi and Ganodi came across the icy pond, Gungi saw his crystal, and he assumed that he should just go for it. The cold bite of the icy water into which he almost slipped was a brisk reminder of the impossibility of traversing the pond safely -- at least for the moment. Just as Qui-Gon had to kneel and wait before the Theed energy field dissipated during the duel in Episode I (and even Darth Maul had to resort to pacing back and forth), Gungi needed to learn that sometimes action was the wrong way to go.
Faced with the challenge of doing nothing, which we know is difficult for a Wookiee, Gungi wisely sat down, closed his eyes, and began meditating. He met with success because he trusted that the Force would open his eyes when it was time. It did so, thus allowing him to slip humorously across the temporary ice field and snag his crystal. Once outside, Gungi was again tested when Master Yoda forced him and the others to wait outside as Katooni and Petro struggled to escape. His fearful howl when he realized that two younglings were still inside reminded me of Chewbacca's howl when the Hoth base's shield door closed. He was anxious for his friends' safety, which demonstrated his protectiveness and loyalty.
Last but not least is Byph, the timid Ithorian youngster. Byph was afraid of striking out on his own, and he needed to be convinced that following his instincts was the right thing to do. Even after accepting that, he still had to overcome his fear of monsters, which manifested itself in the menacing cavern room that held his crystal. The interspersing of other younglings' personal trials with shots of Byph edging closer to the crystal made for a humorous sight, and it fostered sympathy for the young and panicky Ithorian. When he finally grabbed his prize, he seemed to realize that the malevolence in the room wasn't really there at all, that it was just a product of his fearful mindset.
Byph and Gungi were definitely my two favorite characters to watch in this episode, because their entire personalities were contained within their behavior, movement, and facial expressions. Instead of emoting with words, they did it with body language. Sure, they made noises, whether they were roars or anxious chattering sounds, but they expressed the majority of their thoughts and feelings with their actions. Their eyes in particular were incredibly expressive. I loved watching his eyes shift around depending on how he was feeling. After he tentatively grabbed his crystal, his eyes widened a bit as he inspected it before he chittered contentedly and sauntered away.
The Gathering opened with the fortune cookie "He who faces himself, finds himself." This bit of wisdom applied perfectly to the episode, because it became clear by the end of the story that the younglings had discovered who they were and what they could do by confronting and overcoming their fears or flaws. They also discovered that facing their fears was rewarding. Each youngling, in his or her own way, came across a crystal as a result of their personal struggle. It emphasized Ahsoka's warning that "only you can know which [crystal] is yours." (If you ask me, it sounded like the explanation from Harry Potter that "The wand chooses the wizard.")
This episode was clearly aimed at young kids. There was a lot more explanatory dialog in this episode than in typical TCW stories: "You need to be patient"; "You can do this"; "I can do this"; "You're right, he is selfish"; "You shouldn't be afraid of monsters, Byph. You're a Jedi." Even so, The Gathering had a lot more narrative weight and symbolism than your average "kid's story." By letting the Force guide them -- as they did when they closed their eyes and let it point their fingers -- the younglings demonstrated their trust in it, and it rewarded them with their own individual paths to victory. That kind of trust is one of the first steps that a Force-sensitive trainee must take toward becoming a Jedi. Overall, despite the obvious indicators that it was geared toward kids, The Gathering was an impressive episode in terms of its visual and auditory composition, the lessons that it offered about the Force, and the thematic resonance that it had with the darker aspects of the Force as seen in the cave on Dagobah.