Metaphors of Mortis

You’ve been warned – SPOILERS from last week’s episode of The Clone Wars!

The notion of balancing the Force is central to our understanding of the myth at the heart of Star Wars. The Jedi believed Anakin to be the Chosen One, the one who would bring balance to the Force. It’s Anakin’s rise and fall as a hero that defines the epic tale. Those of us who’ve been on this ride for a while – long enough to say we don’t want to admit how long – are getting used to the idea that what we thought were the truths of Star Wars often morph like a reflection of the moon on the water.

In 1977, Darth Vader was the worst evil imaginable, a thing of nightmares. Evil, all-powerful, unquestionably black in a monochrome world.  Empire Strikes Back shocked fans – how could someone so good, so white and bright, have been fathered by the equivalent of moral black hole, a Sith Lord? By the end of Return of the Jedi, Lucas had turned the monster into a savior. It was as if he had flipped the Star Wars universe like a negative on his film.

The Prequel Trilogy took the fans’ perceptions and peeled them back to expose even more complicated layers. A monochromatic tale began to turn to shades of grey.  The Clone Wars has taken this another step further. In the most recent episode, “Altar of Mortis,” themes from the movies are continually emerging – but this time, each subtle nod to the stories of old serves to paint new colors onto the canvas of the saga.  Bright, beautiful, bold images begin to draw a picture none of us really could have imagined.

In all fairness, I think you have to watch “Altar of Mortis” a couple of times to really appreciate what it’s done with the story. When I went to a Q&A with Dave Filoni at Star Wars Weekends last June, he ventured into a brief discussion about Ahsoka’s origin as a character, and specifically how George Lucas had originally envisioned a being called Ashla who embodied the Light Side of the Force. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but it’s obvious now that the story told in “Altar of Mortis” was well into development at the time.

The first viewing of the episode is stunning because it’s so unexpected; the second and third time, you start to wonder about the more subtle things – the way the floor ripples with incandescence, how clouds block out some of the stars, or the way a tree’s leaves wither in the background. There are also stunning wide shots rife with symbolism, and these beautiful expositions only exist for a second or two at a time but are obviously designed to tell us so much about the story.

From start to finish we hear echoes from the movies, both forward and backward. Mortis exists on a metaphysical plane where time and the Force don’t act in the ways we ordinarily understand. The Force, it seems, is far more powerful. The Force philosophy presented through the saga shows us that the Force is like a river: that some Force users can look upstream and downstream, as well as experiencing their own present. Furthermore, Dave Filoni’s episode commentary confirms that this arc is meant to be an experience similar to the tree-cave on Dagobah.  Our heroes, then, have been thrust into a river of the Force with only what they have taken with them.  And as viewers, we are given a chance to look both up and down the stream in the saga.  Sometimes it’s relived literally line for line, yet refracted by the surreal reality of Mortis.  The musical cues enhance these connections, yet the story design was so clever the episode don’t feel like the saga-redux that it was.

These great connections to the saga wouldn’t work without the fantastic voice work in this episode, and I feel like I need to give some shout-outs before delving into the substance of the story. Matt Lanter and James Arnold Taylor are always spot on. Lanter so embodies the role that he has become Anakin to me. Ahsoka’s role took a dramatic departure from the character Ashley’s had to project so far in this series, but she worked out the shift masterfully. It will be interesting to see how Daughter manifests into Ahsoka in subsequent storylines. But it was the guest actors who made this episode what it was.  In particular, Sam Witwer knocked his ball out of the park. His voice smoothly transitions between Son, the little blue creature, Palpatine, and then pre-suit Vader with his ominous take on “I hate you!”

At its core, “Altar of Mortis” is an allegory for the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. In this episode, as always, Anakin rushes into action, driven by the need to do something – here, to save his Padawan. For Anakin, the will of the Force just doesn’t seem to exist, and as seen in the previous episode, he believes there are times he should bend the power of the Force to serve his needs. Despite the drastic turn of events, Obi-Wan takes a more measured approach and seeks guidance. Anakin’s impulsiveness and his Master’s patience are the boiled-down essences of their very natures throughout the Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars. The only difference now is that we are visualizing, through their interactions with Son and Daughter, the philosophical and moral implications of their choices as Force users to either act or wait.

Daughter, fearful for her father and somewhat afraid of the changes in her brother, is eager to put a weapon in Obi-Wan’s hand. She is the embodiment of the light side – she is creation, life, selflessness, forgiveness – and she is unwilling to stray from her nature, yet still able to experience trepidation and allow that emotion to sway her judgment. Her traits are the things the Jedi aspire to be, and Obi-Wan is often considered the consummate Jedi. So it is no small irony that Daughter’s decision to enlist Obi-Wan mirrors the same mistake made by the Jedi Order: putting their faith in the prophecy of the Chosen One and believing Anakin would restore balance to the Force by being their champion.  For years, many Star Wars fans have accepted the notion that balance meant the light outshining the dark, the Jedi defeating the Sith, so the weapon would seem inevitable. Shouldn’t Son be killed? But is he truly evil or simply the night?

This light must triumph over dark concept is partially from the storytelling – most of the points of view we are given come from the Jedi – but it also is based on the personal religious influences of the fans of the saga. Religions, especially Western ones, want to boil our existence down to good versus evil, God versus the Devil. This perception aligns with the Jedi philosophy on some levels, but not all. So it’s understandable that the original interpretation of the prophecy by fans would bring the expectation for balance to mean defeat of the darkness.

A good storyteller enjoys the many interpretations drawn by fans. Sometimes, too, the storyteller anticipates the misinterpretations, even drives the audience toward them, all the while hoping maybe a few see the truth before it’s finally sprung. What Lucas is doing in the Mortis arc of TCW is not changing his view of the Force, but rather enlightening ours.

Looking back on it now, it’s clear that the entire third season has been about balance. It’s even true in the meta of the overall structure of the season: we’ve had slower-paced, politically-aimed episodes; some lighter, happier fare; and a good share of action-packed dramatic tales. Too much of any of one of those might not have worked so well. Instead, it’s the give-and-take of the entire season that has made it compelling to watch.

On Mortis, Son and Daughter – dark and light – are steeped in the symbolism of yin and yang. Interestingly enough, though, the male and female are reversed in colors from the Taoist versions. And the recurrence of themes from Eastern religion should be no surprise, either; there were plenty of them in the famous Yoda sequences of Empire Strikes Back.

In building the allegory to Anakin, “Altar of Mortis” makes a point to emphasize the selfishness of Son and the selflessness of Daughter. And although Son tells his sister that he attacked Father because the old man would selfishly not die, Father is portrayed a selfless entity, having retreated to seclusion to protect the galaxy from the powers of his own children’s natures. Here we see another interesting juxtaposition, as well: in the previous arc, the Nightsisters trilogy, the devious, evil character was called Mother. And so within this season, TCW has even managed to balance out the differences in the sexes, imparting the wisdom that selfishness or selflessness, good or evil, dark or light, isn’t inherent in either gender.

At first, Daughter is reluctant to fight her brother, but when the face-off finally begins, their battle is choreographed to emulate their natures. Son takes an aggressive stance, Daughter a more defensive posture. Son attacks, Daughter deflects and redirects. The constant struggle between creation and destruction is played out as sibling melee, and we’re given new perspective on what balance truly is. It’s what the creative team has been showing us in the background for the last two episodes, as the season change many times over the course of a day. Life springs up in Daughter’s wake and death travels with the Son.

Yet remarkably, Daughter never sees her brother as evil. She opposes him because something has changed in Son, making him different than the brother she’s always known. Perhaps he was already falling to the dark side’s temptation, and that spurred Father to seek out the Chosen One. But we can see that Anakin’s arrival on Mortis changed something in Son; now he wants much more than his nature should. These changes are what Daughter fears, and become the reasoning behind her fateful decision to entrust Obi-Wan with the dagger from the Altar. I don’t think we’re meant to get too wrapped up in the ethereal weapon, other than to recognize its resonance with the time-tested Arthurian legends.  Just as in those stories, it’s merely emblematic of a broader theme.

Weapons cannot save people; choices can.  Just as choices can kill. In the prequel movies the Jedi, fearing the dark veil being pulled across their perceptions of the Force, put too much faith in a prophecy to right the wrong in the galaxy. The choice to train Anakin and give him the mantle of the Chosen One had grave consequences. The same tragedy befalls Mortis.

Carrying the dagger but not yet wielding it, Obi-Wan joins Anakin to fend off Ahsoka, who, like Son, is not behaving naturally. As Son looks on, we are reminded of the Emperor on his throne in Return of the Jedi, feeding off the conflict around him. While death and destruction are part of the cycle of life, ego-driven conflicts such as murders and wars are not. The loss of loved ones to cancer or disease inspire people to seek out cures and aid others, but the untimely losses in war generally breed anger, resentment, and hate. The cycles of war and conflict, unlike the cycle of life and death, can infect whole societies, aggravating their fears to a point where no one acts rationally.

While Anakin and Obi-Wan easily could have ended their conflict with Ahsoka by maiming or killing her, both adopt the defensive stance taken by Daughter inside.  Fighting her sibling, though, Daughter begins to get a sense that a defensive posture could result in her death, so she assumes her griffon form. Although she is shorter in stature in her humanoid appearance, the griffon outsizes the gargoyle. That too, I think, is a metaphor for what George Lucas thinks about the balance: that if good doesn’t at least have a little bit of an edge in the constant struggle of life and death, we’ll all end up in a black hole.

Some fans have struggled with Father’s impartiality. They don’t understand why he didn’t do more to stop Son – but I think that’s the overarching lesson of Star Wars.  Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Just because there is a weapon, doesn’t mean it should be wielded. In my mind, at least, there’s a wonderful simplistic allegory for the current state of the world we live in embedded in there, too.

What Father does do is assertively try to halt the fighting.  Force-smashing Son and Daughter out the window only results in all the players ending in one location, and the dagger now becomes a powerful temptation. The failing of Obi-Wan and Yoda in the Original Trilogy is that they didn’t understand Padmé’s deathbed message.  Thankfully, somehow Luke did. In “Altar of Mortis” Daughter had offered the dagger as a means to control her brother, but the message of Star Wars is that control is only an illusion. All we’re left with at the end of the day is our choices.

The consequence of the attempt to wield the weapon against Son is Daughter and Ahsoka laid out dying before their loved ones.  Obi-Wan’s choice has the same tragic turn as Father’s. When Father rails that there is “no hope,” it’s Anakin who counters that there is always hope – a heartfelt emotion that he unfortunately loses touch with between this moment and his fear for Padmé in Revenge of the Sith.  What was most powerful about this scene, though, was the tree behind Father shedding its leaves, almost as if to say, “This too is just another season.”  The tree completes this transition through the course of the scene, ending bright and luminescent, not dead at all, just as Ahsoka rises once more to life as a “luminous being” in the Force. I think there is much being said in those last moments but I’d rather remain open to what lies ahead in the next episode, and even the remaining seasons of the series, before trying to catalogue the message in the bottle.

Ending on the same theme of metaphors, “Altar of Mortis” is not what I’d call a brownie sundae.  Actually, it’s something much better than that. Instead, the Mortis arc reminds me of one of those rare trips to a swank fine-dining establishment downtown.  You know, one of those places where everything has to be ordered separately, and the waiter brushes the crumbs off the pristine white tablecloth between each dish.  And the dessert, well, that had to be ordered up front too, because they prepare each one individually. I recall a particular restaurant with a molten lava cake you wouldn’t dare split, even with your spouse – so scrumptious everyone gets their own. 

Molten lava cake is a special treat. The “Altar of Mortis” episode, for me, left me feeling just like that point where the beautiful, specially baked morsel had been set down on the table, my fork pierced the soft, moist outer layer, and a liquidy velvet stream of melted chocolate poured forth. The first bite was sheer decadence. Yeah, it was that good

The Mortis trilogy concludes with “Ghosts of Mortis” at 8:30pm tomorrow on Cartoon Network. If you missed “Altar of Mortis,” you can watch it before Friday in the videos section of starwars.com.

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