Star Wars: The Clone Wars recap: Nightsisters of the Living Dead
Thankfully none of the Nightsisters shouted “This is our land!” à la Braveheart or Avatar when General Grievous invaded their planet. But they easily could have. The episode title said it all: “Massacre.” This was a vision of death and desolation that we’ve almost never seen before from the Star Wars saga. This is a franchise where even the destruction of a whole world is quick and painless. Yes, when the Death Star fired upon Alderaan “millions of voices cried out,” but almost immediately they “were silenced.” Generally, I’m okay with that. Star Wars has always presented a Hawksian worldview in which the greatest traumas can still be faced and overcome with a stiff upper lip. Maybe it requires you to “bury your feelings” like Obi-Wan told Luke in Return of the Jedi, but, hey, you do what you have to do to survive.
Asajj Ventress has certainly done what she’s had to do to survive. But I now feel that, short of Anakin Skywalker himself, she may be one of the great tragic characters of that Galaxy Far, Far Away. Someone who’s been repeatedly abandoned and betrayed throughout her whole life and now, even more horrifically, finds herself the cause of her new family’s destruction on Dathomir. It’s easy to blame others for your heartbreak, but much harder to blame yourself.
That’s why I thought the opening moral of “Massacre,” “One must let go of the past to hold on to the future” was particularly poignant. I think that when Ventress, still nursing her physical and psychic wounds over being betrayed by Dooku and then her own apprentice Savage Opress, flew back to Dathomir and found herself welcomed once more as a Nightsister, she really was willing to leave her past behind. She was willing to abandon the pursuit of glory as a substitute for familial fulfillment, to relinquish the goal of galactic conquest in favor of protecting her new Sisters. There was a moment after Mother Talzin told Ventress that “You have your breath, your skill, and your Sisters. You have everything you need to survive,” that the battle-scarred assassin seemed to experience a twinge of loss, as if she would indeed miss her pursuit of power. But with hindsight I really think that glimmer of sadness that came across Ventress’ face — a moment beautifully and subtly realized in the animation, as always — was because of the time she now realizes she’s missed being with this family she always had but never recognized.
NEXT: Grievous abandons his pursuit of Jedi scum for witch scum. He will crush them and make them suffer!
Of course, even though Ventress was willing to let go of her past once and for all, it still came nipping at her heels. Dooku ordered Grievous to send an army to Dathomir to wipe out the Nightsisters for their betrayal. I mean, not only did Ventress turn on him, so did his second Mother Talzin-approved assassin from Dathomir, Savage Opress. So before Ventress could get down to partay with her fellow Nightsisters after she emerged from that oily baptismal pool to officially join their ranks — wearing, you’ll notice, the same black, form-fitting suit she always wore in the comics — Grievous’s droid starfighters came pouring crimson thunder out of the sky. (I feel particularly bad for those two Nightsisters who clearly were having a great time at that party, doing some kind of slinky, slow-swaying, hip-twirling dance.) As Mother Talzin herself announced, “The war has come to Dathomir!” Interesting that Grievous wouldn’t just open fire on the planet with his battleships in orbit. With the amount of firepower he had at his disposal, he probably could have turned much of Dathomir’s crust into molten slag in 10 minutes. But clearly Dooku and Grievous wanted to make this personal. They wanted to see the light go out of Ventress’ eyes firsthand.
Immediately, Ventress knew that she was the cause of this mayhem. “The Droid Army is only here because of me,” she said. “And so many are going to die.” Talzin turned Ventress’ bony chin toward her with her long-nailed fingers and said there was no time for regret. Of course, as soon as she said that, Karis, the Nightsister who seemed particularly excited about Ventress joining their ranks, thus sealing her doom, was crushed by a statue that fell on account of a bomb blast. “Lead…our people…to victory!” Karis rasped with her final breath. Cheesy as it would have been, I wish to the Force that Ventress had then clutched Karis’ lifeless body, raised her head to the sky and shouted, “I shall avenge you!”
NEXT: Let the zombie apocalypse begin!
So this was kind of an Avatar-style uphill battle for the Nightsisters, because they really only had bows-and-arrows with which to fight the battle droids. Of course, they were laser bows-and-arrows. And Mother Talzin was able to summon her magic for some kind of sweeping cascade of Force Lightning that majorly diminished the droids’ ranks. (Okay, even despite everything we’ve seen to the contrary here, I still believe The Clone Wars’ depiction of the Nightsisters resides within established canon, and that the Nightsisters’ “Magick” is really just the Force, but accessed through chants, verbal spells, vocal commands and the like. That’s how Dooku knew that Grievous should follow Talzin’s magic back to its source by the green glow it leaves behind.) Still, the droids’ advantage was the same as always: they had the numbers. Yeah, they’re the most incompetent, worthless ‘bots in the Galaxy, but assemble 10,000 of them and they can still be pretty formidable.
So Mother Talzin journeyed to The Secret Cave to talk to their oldest and wisest Sister, Old Daka, who would begin a chant of resurrection to summon all the fallen Nightsisters of yore from their sack-like graves and have them join their living Sisters in battle against Grievous. I know what you’re thinking, it’s like the Army of the Dead from Return of the King, right? Wrong! This was so much creepier. That Lord of the Rings army was basically comprised of ghosts. This army was actually made up of reanimated corpses. Yes, zombies! And not the first time we’ve had zombies on The Clone Wars (see: “Brain Invaders.”) I mean, this was a new level of gore for the show. These zombies were like anything makeup artist Greg Nicotero and his Walking Dead team could have devised: flesh partly rotten away, jaws slack, eye sockets decomposed and sunken, little tendrils of tissue hanging off jagged bone. And they can’t be killed because they’re already dead! Grievous had met his match, and the only thing he had to counter them was one of Lok Durd’s defoliator tanks, the weapon that can kill all organic life in its path (leaving droids unharmed…and presumably zombies too). If only George Takei could have shown up to voice Durd again, but alas he’s confined to Celebrity Apprentice. But with this army of the undead at her side, Grievous was able to commandeer an AAT and fire on the Defoliator with no apparent difficulty. Another of Ventress’ living comrades grabbed a couple blaster pistols off some battle droids and started firing away, a gun in each hand Chow Yun-Fat-style.
NEXT: It’s good to have an ace up your sleeve. Especially if that ace is a voodoo doll.
Grievous was on the run, so Talzin pulled an ace out of her sleeve. It was time to kill Count Dooku. And what better way to do that than with a voodoo doll! Yes, she created an effigy of the Sith Lord in her cauldron, pulled it out, and started subjecting it — and it’s flesh-and-blood counterpart light-years away, supposedly safe in his lair on Serenno — to unspeakable torments. First, she dipped the doll into a fire, causing boils to break out on Dooku’s face. Then, she stuck a pin through the doll’s head, which you would think would kill Dooku, but apparently not.
Meanwhile, Asajj made it to Grievous’ landing ship, shouting that she was the one he was after and he should face her in battle alone. If she won, his forces would withdraw from Dathomir; if he won, the Nightsisters would surrender to him. A one-on-one duel to see who was really the greater warrior had been a long time coming. After all, Grievous had really supplanted Ventress at Dooku’s side as his most favored lieutenant. Even if he wasn’t quite as effective a warrior, he seemed to just have a lot less baggage than Ventress. He’s always been willing to toe the Sith line, so to speak. And you’d think that Grievous would be every bit as bitter as her, right? Sure, Ventress was given up by the Nightsisters as a baby to protect their land from pirates, and her subsequent protectors — including Jedi Ky Narec — either abandoned her or died, leaving her to face an unspeakably dangerous galaxy all on her own. But at least, as Mother Talzin said, she still had, you know, a body.
Grievous really can’t say the same. Darth Sidious, Dooku, and Intergalactic Banking Clan chairman San Hill had arranged for Grievous, previously a fearsome Kaleesh warrior, to suffer a near-fatal shuttle crash that left most of his body broken. With his limbs all amputated, and really not much more than an organ sack containing his vitals, and parts of his skull, eyes, and brain intact, Grievous would be then rebuilt as a badass Robocop-style cyberwarrior. You’d think he’d resent having lost most of his physical identity. But whereas Ventress is all mopey about her abandonment issues, Grievous’ attitude toward his astonishing injuries and subsequent transformation into a cyborg is positively gleeful. He seems to adore having four mechanical arms. All the better to slaughter Jedi scum! Even a persistent hacking cough from his sometimes faulty respirator can’t diminish his maniacal laugh. Talk about someone who’s let go of his past and come to terms with the present! I’d say that Grievous’ relentless bloodlust and virulent anti-Jediism were indicative of some inner pain that needs feeding, but then why does he take such joy in unleashing his slaughter? I’d say he’s one of the happiest crazy people I’ve ever seen.
NEXT: Zombies and voodoo and droids, oh my!
Anyway, the battle between Grievous and Ventress was deliciously over-the-top. Sure, we had only two combatants. But we had six lightsabers between them. Of course, Ventress, who values finesse and skill above blunt-force power, defeated Grievous, despite his superior number of limbs. He immediately turned to his battle droids and shouted, “Kill her!”
At the same time, Mother Talzin was increasing her torture of Dooku, this time ripping open his torso and popping out as a magical hologram to deliver a message: “Withdraw your armies!” Um, why, Dooku asked, would he do that when he knows they’ll just keep plotting against him? Good point.
Meanwhile, Grievous was altering his deal. Ventress better pray he doesn’t alter it further. Well, actually, he did, because with Ventress on the retreat, he followed that glowing green magic light back to its source, grabbed Old Daka, and ran her through on the point of his lightsaber. Immediately, all the resurrected corpses dropped to the ground, the magic that had reanimated them having ceased. Talzin immediately apparated away and Grievous knocked over her cauldron, freeing Dooku from her spell. When all the zombies dropped to the ground seemed like the inverse of that moment in The Phantom Menace when the battle droids all deactivate after Anakin destroys the droid control ship. There, the deactivation of the droids meant that the Gungan army would be spared and that Naboo was well and truly free from the Trade Federation’s grip. Here, when those zombies dropped like really stinky, rotting flies, the Nightsisters’ doom was sealed, their planet fated to be taken over by the mechanical armies of an off-world invader.
NEXT: Ventress finds herself alone once again. There is no God… er… Force.
Asajj found herself the only survivor of her coven. She ended up right back in the position she’s been in her whole life: alone and unwanted. In the past, though, she could always blame others for her abandonment. But now her Sisters hadn’t really abandoned her. She’d gotten them all killed. And she only had herself to blame. Mother Talzin appeared before her in spectral form to say that their destinies will always be linked but that now she has her own path to follow. It kind of reminded me of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, when the Force Ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to Luke Skywalker for the very last time. After that, Luke knew he was well and truly alone, and he was the only one who could rebuild the Jedi Order from scratch. But at least Luke had a mission! Ventress doesn’t even have that. And now she’ll be full of a self-loathing and regret beyond which she had ever experienced before. However this story ends for her, I don’t think it’s going to be a happy one.
Can you believe how amazingly well The Clone Wars has turned this hairless, one-dimensional villain into someone worthy of our concern and empathy? Who doesn’t want to see her succeed here, as she stands alone and screaming at the end of “Massacre”? And, yes, she is a villain who has wrought untold havoc across the galaxy for our heroes. But somehow, because of Lucasfilm Animation’s immersive storytelling (in fact, “Massacre” was penned by George Lucas’ daughter, Katie), we actually care about what happens to her.
Was “Massacre” a winner for you, as well? When’s the last time, if ever, you’ve seen such a relentless vision of annihilation from Star Wars? What do you think is going to happen to Ventress next? And how does this all relate to the return of Darth Maul in two weeks? Sound off in the comments below. Also, a very special thanks to Matthew Wood, who’s the supervising sound editor on The Clone Wars and voices Grievous, for participating in our live chat last night. See you next week, everybody!
Before the Dark Times, before the Empire, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fight to restore peace and justice to a galaxy far, far away…