Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Betrayal fuels The Bad Batch, Disney Plus’ thrilling new Star Wars series

Star Wars: The Bad Batch
Star Wars: The Bad Batch
Image: Disney+/Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s important to remember that before things really, truly, irrevocably went south for the Republic in Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, the good guys were mere inches away from victory. The Republic’s mounting wins against the Separatist droid army were turning the tide of the war, General Grievous was up against a wall with a Jedi Master closing in, and the machinations of Darth Sidious were about to be revealed to the Galactic Senate. The Clone Wars were almost at an end, and justice was about to be done.

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Only that was never going to be the case. Chancellor Palpatine’s sinister game of fifth-dimensional chess would always end with his triumph because he never once lost possession of the winning gambit in this war, the greatest cheat: direct access to the programmed loyalty of the clone Republic Army. The clone soldiers who fought and died alongside the Jedi in the name of democracy had always been but one order away from turning against it. It’s the knife’s twist that hurts the most: Sidious was never going to lose.

Betrayal has ever been a core facet of the Star Wars mythology and it’s certainly the fire which fuels The Bad Batch, the latest canonical Star Wars animated series developed for Disney+. And in its hour-long premiere episode, titled “Aftermath”, Palpatine’s betrayal burns.

Directed by Clone Wars vets Steward Lee, Saul Ruiz, Nathaniel Villanueva and written by series developers Jennifer Corbett and Dave Filoni, “Aftermath” picks up where “Shattered”, that incredible penultimate episode of The Clone Wars, left off, armed with a question that’s loaded with storytelling potential: where was the notoriously order-resistant Clone Force 99—our eponymous “Bad Batch”—that fateful day when Chancellor Palpatine executed Order 66?

Its stirring opening sequence, which thrusts Clone Force 99 into the final hours of the Clone Wars, answers this question while underscoring the complex morality that has long been a compelling feature of The Clone Wars. It also kicks the exhilarating droid-smashing fun we’ve come to expect from the Batch into overdrive, reacquainting us with the individuals of this hyper-competent elite unit in the process: Hunter’s the leader, a tracker who can navigate any skirmish no matter how daunting; Wrecker’s the muscle, a paragon of brute force who cackles madly once thrown into the fray; Tech’s the brains, the Donatello of this particularly fearsome fighting team, proficient in computer hackery; there’s the cyborg, Echo, a former clone trooper who endured torture at the hands of the Techno Union, and who fortifies the unit with added strength; and then there’s the cunning sniper Crosshair, whose natural cool always lets him get an expertly-placed blast in edgewise. The crew makes quick work of their operation until Palpatine gives his fateful order, which sends the team scrambling to find footing in a galaxy that has suddenly stopped making any sense at all.

(Let us now acknowledge the vocal talents of Dee Bradley Baker, who has taken the subtle variations of his beloved clone performances and has weaponized them in this series for maximum dramatic effect. Jumping from the gravelly drawl of Hunter to the matter-of-fact dryness of Tech to the flinty malice of Crosshair, Baker absolutely commands this episode.)

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The presence of two Jedi Knights at the beginning of “Aftermath” also means that there’s little chance of avoiding the gravity of Palpatine’s ultimate betrayal to the Republic: two recognizable faces, Jedi Master Depa Billaba and her padawan Kanan Jarrus Caleb Dume, score a small victory in the beginning of the fracas only to have their hope suddenly stolen from them by the Chancellor’s act of incalculable evil. Pitted against a “66”-addled squadron of clone troopers bent on their destruction, Billaba falls, which sends Caleb running with the Batch quickly on his heels—only Hunter isn’t sure why he should be chasing him.

It’s here where the scale of The Bad Batch, now that the war has been brought to a violent end, shrinks. There are quiet sequences in this episode that play up the human element to these fantastic characters, one of the most potent being this moment where Hunter, grimacing under his amazing Rambo headband, realizes that Order 66 must be wrong and allows Caleb to make good his escape. Of course, not every member of Clone Force 99 is going to feel the same way, and that’s where the internal drama of the series begins to take shape: Crosshair seems fine with executing Order 66 (“good soldiers follow orders,” he insists), going so far as to fire on the bereaved padawan without thinking twice. Hunter, who clearly wants to protect the Jedi despite his orders, tells Crosshair that he sent the boy to his death, a lie to stave off his duty while he figures out what exactly is going on with this war. This ruse has little effect on the almost comically baleful Crosshair, who seems to truck with this new galactic order and thus begins his descent into Imperial darkness. Expect heinous things to come.

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From this point on the visuals of “Aftermath” become appropriately gloomy: Kamino, the clone planet facility (and “home” as far as Wrecker is concerned), is a black torrent of rain, thunder, and lightning, raging waves in an endless sea. It’s representative of the far more personal conflict to come, one we know will never truly cease, not for this galaxy, not for this franchise. What’s more, its tumult is matched by a gauntlet thrown into the works by Admiral Tarkin, an anti-clone lackey of the newly-christened Emperor Palpatine who plans to test the loyalty of our deviant clone unit before deciding their ultimate fate. After a lethal appraisal of their skills, Tarkin sends the Batch to the also-portentously-designed Onderon sector, a swampy bog of a planet where Hunter & Co. are meant to wipe out the remaining separatist forces and instead end up facing a few harsh truths about their superiors, causing them to sink ever deeper into a moral quagmire that will challenge their very identity—as clones, as soldiers, as outcasts.

Which brings us to Omega.

Every Star Wars story has a mystery. Dangers lurking just out of sight, hidden pasts which threaten the future, stuff like that. As The Mandalorian so famously reminded us, these mysteries often take character-shaped form, and in the case of The Bad Batch, that mystery is Omega. Voiced by Michelle Ang, Omega is far too compelling to be considered a more articulate, less mercurial Grogu; Corbett & Filoni give Omega deep wells of vulnerability and curiosity, and her younger, more cherubic Boba Fett design is calibrated to extract maximum empathy from the audience. She both knows and is excited by the Batch, but is that by reputation… or does something else connect them? “I thought it was obvious,” Tech says to the Batch at the midway point of the episode. And so the first shoe drops: Omega is a clone, just like Echo, just like Crosshair, just like Hunter (in some respects, exactly like Hunter). Which means she’s different from the rest of the “regs” who once made up the Grand Army of the Republic. She’s a deviant like the Bad Batch, and so their fates are intertwined. (Omega even proves her Batch bonafides in a pitched food fight against a bunch of regs in the mess hall.) What else is Omega hiding, willfully or otherwise? It’s enough to know that Omega was made for a specific purpose. The other shoe, that’s for future episodes.

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For now, “Aftermath” is concerned with setting a more intimate tone from the expansive scale of The Clone Wars or even Rebels. More than its million-dollar computer-generated production, The Bad Batch is rendered by mood and mirth, infused with as much pathos as the best installments of the series and dashed with just enough spaghetti western to sate those still holding out for a Mandalorian Season 3. (The staredown between Hunter and Crossfire towards the end, especially, went full Eastwood/Van Cleef and it ruled.) “Aftermath” triggers growing pains within the Bad Batch, forcing this motley crew to come to terms with what they are, what they represent, and how they’ll fit within the confines of this saga. Where can deviants with the faces of the oppressors call home in such a hostile galaxy? Look to this episode’s final shot of Omega, wide-eyed with wonder at the universe calling out to her. Amid tragedy and betrayal, we’re given a glimmer of hope. And a reminder of those who would stamp it out.

Stray observations

  • Depa Billaba’s untimely demise was first chronicled in Marvel’s Kanan: The Last Padawan #2, though the details seem to have changed some: Clone Force 99 wasn’t present in this issue, and Depa’s lightsaber blade was green instead of blue.
  • Wrecker, meeting Omega for the first time: “What’s that?”
  • It’s like poetry, it rhymes: Tech says Echo is “more machine now than man,” which… obviously.
  • “We’re more deviant than we are defective.” Tech kills me.
  • Saw Gerrera’s knack for popping up in a Star War whenever things get really intense never ceases to amaze me. Remember Jedi: Fallen Order? He literally pops in out of nowhere!
  • That look Tech gives Saw when he says, “I figured you for the smart one.” Priceless.
  • RIP: AZI-345211896246498721347, the medical droid who was also our friend. (And also quite wonderful during the first three episodes of The Clone Wars’ sixth season.)
  • Omega served as a medical assistant to Kaminoan cloner Nala Se, who helps to facilitate the Batch’s climactic escape. What’s the Kaminoan endgame here? Are they bitter about the Empire backing out of their contract via loophole? (“The Republic no longer exists,” Tarkin says.) Or is there something more personal at play here?
  • What do you think, group? Is the “guy” Hunter knows going to be Captain Rex? What is Omega’s hidden power? Will Lula, Wrecker’s stuffed gundark, survive the series?
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