The Clone Wars has been with us for six—now seven—seasons, and while it has remained consistently delightful, the Clone Wars themselves have dragged out to a point that our heroes are really starting to feel the costs of all this fighting. Costs that, for some at least, became distressingly literal in this week’s episode.
Off the back of “The Bad Batch” last week, “A Distant Echo” continues to deliver on some very familiar fronts. Like its predecessor, it’s an episode that is action-forward, and once again, that action is frequently phenomenal. Rex and Clone Force 99 are joined by Anakin on their mission to hunt down what Rex believes is the captive, long-thought-dead ARC Trooper Echo, who seemingly perished nearly four seasons ago right in front of Rex’s eyes (like I said: this war? It’s been going).
If last week was Clone Wars at its visual best, then this week somehow manages to trump even that, not just with some truly lavish and brilliantly framed action setpieces as the team infiltrates Wat Tambor’s Techno Union base on Skako Minor, but also in the quieter, more emotional moments of the episode. Clone Wars’ time away from our screens, as cursed as it could feel at times, has been a major blessing on its animation front. By the time it left us it didn’t look bad, but the quality of the animation on display here, especially facial animation, feels like it’s on another level entirely, delivering a subtlety and nuance that feels light years beyond what the show could do at its most heart-wrenching.
This is firstly most apparent in the opening moments where Anakin, with a little help from Rex, attempts to sneak away some time for a holo call to Padmé. He runs a gamut of emotions, as does she—joy over seeing his wife, frustration that the war is keeping them apart, and concerns that his friend Rex is chasing a fool’s hope of undoing one loss among many in this never-ending conflict.
It’s an important moment, not just because we get the hilarious interruption of Obi-Wan trying to find where his former padawan’s run off to, dancing around his coy (yet, in the wider context of the prequels, somewhat tragic) knowledge of what Anakin’s actually up to when he sneaks away for these holo calls to cut through the sadness. But the moment also expresses what becomes a running theme throughout the episode, of just how tired these heroes are of this war, and what it means to be tired of it, whether you’re a peacekeeper of the grand republic, or in our clones’ case, literally tools bred for it. A few action setpieces later—and a brief dabbling back into an old Clone Wars trope, our heroes trying to communicate and find common ground with an alien species caught up in this conflict of Republics and Confederacies, in this case Skako Minor’s native Poletec—we touch upon it again.
Upon approaching the Techno Union base with a little help from their new native friends, Rex finds himself no longer bristling, but openly furious about Crosshair’s constant needling that Echo might either just be dead, or worse, a traitor to the cause. At this point in the war, Rex isn’t just tired of losing people, he’s tired of essentially being that tool he, on a cold, analytic level for the Republic at least, really is. The Bad Batch, having the benefit of being beneficially mutated, are relatively at peace with their lot in life as such tools. It grants them a distance that allows attitudes like Crosshairs’. They’re not just bred for war, but abnormally, perfectly so, so what’s the problem with it lasting for so long?
But Rex, one normal cog in a whole machine of them, no longer can be satisfied by that train of thought. His time with Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka has reshaped his view of the world, the ongoing, painful horrors of the war have taught him to reconsider his values beyond simply fighting because it’s what some long-necked scientist plopped him out of a tube for back on Kamino. For Rex, being able to find and save Echo isn’t just the right thing to do for the Republic—recovering a valuable asset and ensuring that Republic tactical stratagems are no longer in Separatist hands—it’s almost like trying to get part of his soul back. He has this one chance to undo one of many, many losses he’s suffered thanks to the war, and he can’t let go of it. He doesn’t want to contemplate an alternative where Echo can’t be saved, because it would force him to reckon with the fact that there’s just this part of himself that can’t be saved from the war in the process.
Thankfully, Rex does get his wish...sort of. After he, Anakin, and the Bad Batch carve their way through Wat Tambor’s forces in Skako Minor’s secret Techno Union base in yet another exquisitely presented battle sequence, Rex is rewarded with conviction: Echo is indeed alive. But is he still Echo? What the Separatists have done to the poor clone is, ultimately, make the existential idea of the clones as tools of war something more distressingly literal. Hooked up to machines searing his brain for data, the poor clone is (if you’ll forgive me for the reference) more machine than man, his body this mangled mix of flesh and steel. He’s replaying the final moments of his life over and over, unsure of where he is or who he is—or, horrifyingly, what he’s become.
Whether Echo can be given a semblance of normality after everything not just the Separatists, but the war itself, has taken from him, remains to be seen. But at least his recovery can, in some part, allow Rex to take back just one of the many horrors the Clone Wars have claimed from him. However, as we continue to barrel towards the show’s final endgame—with Revenge of the Sith lurking in the shadows—the jury’s out on how long he’ll be able to cherish that small victory.