Monday, March 10, 2014

CLONE WARS REVIEW: Clovis arc (Season 6, Episodes 5-7), Part I

The most interesting politician in Star Wars
In honor of the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Netflix, I've decided to review Season 6, the previously unreleased "Lost Missions." Overall, this is some of the best we've ever seen in the series. Even when I had complaints about plot elements, the characterization is rich and animation gorgeous. These reviews are meant more to think critically about the plot and character elements in the episodes, so there are spoilers - I strongly recommend readers watch each episode before continuingWith that said, on to the Clovis arc...

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The Clone Wars has had a mixed history with telling stories about politics, but the Clovis arc ("An Old Friend", "Rise of Clovis", and "Crisis at the Heart"; Season 6, Episodes 5-7) finally gets it right. While stories about intergalactic politics will never be the most popular amongst fans, the political decisions in this arc actually seem to matter. More importantly, this arc keeps the focus where it should be: on the characters, particularly Clovis. The relationship between Anakin and Padmé get some much needed development. We also get a few fun chase scenes with everybody's tenth-favorite bounty hunter, Embo.

I split the review into two parts. Part I is below; Part II will be posted tomorrow...


Senator Padmé Amidala goes to the Banking Clan Main Vault to negotiate a transfer of funds to for war refugees, but is taken aback when the Banking Clan negotiator turns out to be Rush Clovis. After an assassination attempt, she accepts Clovis' help in inspecting the banks for corruption. After exposing the corruption in the Banking Clans, Clovis seeks to become the new chairman. He wins the support of both the Republic and Separatists, but only after making a deal with Count Dooku. Meanwhile, Anakin sees Clovis working closely with Padmé and becomes jealous, leading to a brief fight. Dooku attempts to call in his debts by ordering Clovis to raise the interest on Republic loans, and Clovis is forced to comply. Dooku then attacks Republic ships sent to investigate. After a droid fighter crashes into the Banking Clan building, Padmé and Clovis nearly fall off. Anakin can only save one and so Clovis willingly falls to his death. Back on Coruscant, Chancellor Palpatine announces that the Republic has nationalized the banks.


While Star Wars has always been about politics implicitly (why else would Poli-Sci Jedi exist?), it wasn't until The Phantom Menace that fans actually saw formal political institutions in action. The response was, to put it mildly, mixed. Some fans of the Original Trilogy have gone so far as to say that politics has no place in Star Wars. I have argued before on this site that politics is very much at the core of Star Wars and explicitly urged J.J. Abrams not to shy away from political themes in Episode VII. That said, I do think critics have a point in that the political storytelling in the prequel era has not always succeeded.

Good political stories have a few elements. First, the stakes must be clear and important. It takes an exceptional storyteller to make audiences care about a vote on renaming the local post office. More importantly, the political controversy should matter to the plot and to the characters. One problem with previous TCW episodes is that the plot focused on a peace initiative or other proposal we knew was doomed to fail (e.g., "Pursuit of Peace"). With high stakes comes controversy. If the characters aren't arguing about it, then why should the audience care? The political scenes in the Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars often gloss over the controversy. Padmé is the audiences' window into the "liberal" point of view, but there is no character set up in opposition to her so the opportunities for actual debate between important characters is limited (obviously Chancellor Palpatine does oppose Padmé, but he conducts his plots mostly in secret). The closest we saw on screen was the picnic scene in which Anakin and Padmé debated democracy and dictatorship.

I think the Clovis arc succeeds more than not. The episode begins with a negotiation for a bank transaction, but an assassination attempt raises the stakes. Later on, Embo shoots and kills Teckla, who gave a moving speech about the effects of the war on ordinary civilians in "Pursuit of Peace" (3:2). It's clear that somebody has something to hide, and the show informs us that this is important by killing off a character we had already met before (and frankly one of the most sympathetic in the entire series). Adding Embo, a fan-favorite bounty hunter, also makes this episode stand out as more important than just a story about bank transfers.

After exposing the Banking Clan's corruption, Rush Clovis seeks Senate approval to become chairman of the Banking Clan. Unlike many political choices in Star Wars, this is actually portrayed as difficult. It's not just a vote for "war" or "peace," in which the warmongers are clearly under Palpatine's nefarious sway. Rather, Clovis is distrusted as a former Separatist sympathizer, but also seems genuinely committed to reform. Clovis seems to have a personal interest in banking reform, partly due to his being adopted by a Muun family when he was younger. When he says, "I hope to right the wrongs that I have done," he actually sounds sincere.

We later learn that the character himself is genuinely torn. In a scene that takes place in his office, outside of the public eye, he tells Dooku that he will manage the bank fairly, despite the Separatists' help in electing him to the chairmanship. Clovis realizes that he's made a deal with the devil, but also has regrets. Politicians make compromises all the time to ascend to higher office and it's nice to see this episode address the dilemmas that real politicians face. The conversation between Dooku and Clovis mirrors the types of conversations that Boss Tweed or Tom Pendergast must have had with his political cronies. In fact, out of all the political characters in Star Wars, Clovis feels the most true to life.

This ambiguity is highlighted by the Senate scenes. Unlike the films, which portrayed Senate debates as senators mindlessly chanting in the background, the brief Senate debate in this episode actually shows individual senators exhibiting individual and unique reactions. While Clovis speaks, the camera pans to a Gran senator shaking his head in dismay and then a Bith senator cheering Clovis on. It's a nice touch that implies these senators are individual characters with their own interests rather than just set pieces in the background. We even get more dramatic music playing as the senators cast their votes. It's not West Wing, but it's an improvement.

However, I was disappointed that Padmé's original goal, helping the war refugees, got lost in all of the shooting and scheming. In one of the Attack of the Clones deleted scenes, it's clear that Padmé has a passion for helping refugees. I thought it unlikely Padmé would abandon that goal so quickly. Moreover, it would have been a great opportunity for The Clone Wars to show Padmé as a leader who does not forget about the costs of war. She could have even said that Teckla's death renewed her commitment to helping the poor. Instead, her actions in this episode seem to confirm Teckla's speech in "Pursuit of Peace," that the Republic has forgotten about ordinary citizens. Many fans have criticized The Clone Wars for not doing much for Padmé's character and I unfortunately don't think this episode helps. It's telling that between the two I found Clovis to be by far more interesting character.

An ineffectual leader?
The Clovis arc also makes the Separatists a bit more sympathetic. Season 3's "Heroes on Both Sides" (3:10) showed us the Separatist Parliament and several sympathetic Separatist senators. We got the sense that many Separatists did indeed want peace but the peace initiative was sabotaged by Dooku, Grievous, and other warmongers. In "Crisis at the Heart," Separatist delegate Bec Lawise arrives at the Banking Clan Main Vault to bear witness to Clovis' assumption of the chairmanship. When Count Dooku tries to manipulate Clovis, Lawise objects, saying that the Separatist Parliament would never approve. It's a rare moment in which a Separatist behaves honorably.

Unfortunately, Dooku's response is to use the Force compel Padmé to shoot Lawise  But the episode takes some care to show that Dooku isn't simply a thug - like Darth Vader - who kills subordinates at the slightest whim. Dooku kills Lawise and attempts to frame Padmé for the murder. The Clone Wars has not done much for Dooku's character and he often does come across as a one-dimensional villain, but at least in this instance there was a method to his cruelness. Unfortunately, it turns out that the framing attempt doesn't play any further role in the episode.

The fate of the banks also raises an interesting question about the political economy of Star Wars. Chancellor Palpatine announces that the Republic will nationalize the banks to ensure proper management. Not surprisingly, we haven't heard much about commerce and economics in Star Wars. However, we almost did. In an earlier cut of A New Hope, Lucas had included a scene in which Biggs tells Luke, "You know, they've already started to nationalize commerce in the central systems" and warns that Uncle Owen's farm might be seized. The scene clearly implies that the Empire had only started nationalizing industries relatively recently by the time of that movie. The Clovis arc potentially changes the situation drastically and implies that the Empire had achieved much greater control by the time of A New Hope.

Stay tuned for Part II of the review, including the final rating...

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