For a show about clones, sooner rather than later Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Bad Batch was going to have to get into the idea of just how and why the newly-risen Empire would begin to replace the Republic’s legions with a different kind of soldier. But the Disney+ series’ third episode, for all the gains it makes towards starting that transition logistically, considers another question entirely: is loyalty earned or grown?
“Replacements,” for our heroes at least, is a simple yet earnest adjunct. After the shuttle took damage in last week’s escape from Saluecami, the Batch (Dee Bradley Baker), with Omega (Michelle Ang) firmly in tow, find themselves limping through hyperspace until their shuttle just can’t take it anymore. Dumped out of lightspeed to promptly crash land on an uncolonized moon, the team faces two problems. The first is logistical: a power capacitor needs replacing to get the ship back online. The second is emotional: Clone Force 99 has a new member, is mourning the loss of one of its own to the new Empire, and quickly realising that a cramped shuttle of grown men is a less-than-ideal living space for a young girl taking her first steps into a larger world. The first problem would be easy enough to solve, but then the episode would be much shorter than its 30-minute runtime. As Echo and Tech promptly replace the damaged capacitor with their final reserve, a dragon native to the moon that feeds on energy promptly nabs the fresh battery to munch on.
The second problem takes a bit more work, as Hunter tries to establish a bond with Omega as not just distant clone relations, but part of the same team and family unit now. Taking her on the mission to retrieve the capacitor shows Hunter’s willing acceptance of her in the team after last week’s existential crisis with the Lawquanes. That faith rewards both him and Omega when, after an encounter with the dragon knocks Hunter’s rebreather off, temporarily incapacitating him through exposure to the moon’s toxic environment, Omega has to go it alone to recover the capacitor from the dragon’s den.
It’s a wonderful moment of character building for her, her eagerness to be recognised as one of the squad tempered by her fear and hesitance to be in a bad situation on a strange, alien world. Despite her previous history with “lucky shots” from when the Batch escaped Kamino, thankfully Omega isn’t forced to save the day through violence. Instead, her quick thinking lets her briefly empathise with the Moon Dragon, trading the threadbare battery of her flashlight in order to recover the capacitator. Her diligence is likewise rewarded, not just with Hunter’s pride but, in an incredibly adorable move by Wrecker when they return to the ship, a makeshift room on the shuttle of her own, acceptance that she truly is part of the family.
But “Replacements” contrasts this heartwarming display of commonality with a fascinatingly grim plotline for the now fully converted-to-the-cause Crosshair. Back on Kamino, Admiral Tarkin (Stephen Stanton) and newcomer Vice Admiral Rampart (Noshir Dalal) begin hatching their plan for the Empire’s transition from a purely cloned force, much to the dismay of the Kaminoans. With Crosshair’s loyalty secured by force, he is tasked with training a new elite squad of troopers. They’re not clones, but humans, with Rampart arguing that loyalty earned by willing recruits to the cause will forger stronger links that loyalty bred into disposable beings as the Republic had before it. Tarkin cynically chides the costs of cloning as well, but this is the real test of what the Empire wants to maintain its ruthless sense of new order: not just troops, but essentially cultists, fervent believers in the Imperial cause above all.
It’s fitting then, that these humans — a diverse array across gender and racial background, continuing Lucasfilm and Disney’s current, perhaps ill-fitting, attempts to advance representational diversity through a fascist institute like the Empire — are painted in broad brushes. We’re never given names, with only two of them listed in the credits by their callsigns, ES-01 (Emilio Garcia-Sanchez) and ES-02 (Daheli Hall), their reasons for signing up left vague beyond the sentiment that they felt left behind by the increasingly recalcitrant bureaucracies of the Republic.
Like the chain codes introduced last episode (which we learn here were another Rampart initiative), there is a human element, but it’s filed down to a blunt, almost blank bit of data, a tool to be wielded by those in power and little else — and a stark contrast to the humanization of the clones we’d seen the Jedi foster throughout The Clone Wars.
This blunt tool, with Crosshair at the helm, is quickly put to the test by Rampart and Tarkin: succeed where Clone Force 99 failed, return to Onderon to eliminate Saw Gerrera’s dissident cell. The mission mostly, distressingly, goes off without a hitch, as Crosshair and his new subordinates ruthlessly pick off rebels trying to protect some local civilians with safe passage off-world. But it’s complicated, and made all the more distressing, by what comes after — and what comes with trying to incorporate a shred of humanity into the Imperial War Machine.
When only the civilians remain and with Gerrera already long gone, Crosshair coldly declares the survivors as devoid of purpose, drawing his pistol to execute them. But one of his team, 01, steps forward to protest — 01 advocates that the mission was to find Gerrera, not execute civilians. The tone left unstated is grim: he may have signed up to kill people, but only people that deserved it. To Crosshair, there’s no difference, and 01’s failure to comply is promptly rewarded with a blaster bolt to the chest, chilling the rest of the squad into obeying Crosshair’s command to butcher the remaining survivors. They return to Kamino a squadmate down, but forged into exactly what Rampart wants: faithful tools to a new galactic order.
Pairing this early mediation on a Star Wars fact we already know — that one day the Republic clones left in the Empire’s forces will be replaced with human recruits — as a mirror to Omega’s touching growth into a member of the Bad Batch makes “Replacements” much more than the sum of its parts. In contrasting her finding a place within this new family structure through love and trust to Crosshair’s loyalty-or-death zealotry, we begin to see the strains the Empire’s rise is having across the galaxy. Whether the cost of Crosshair’s loyalty will be too much to bear remains to be seen, but for now the specter his absence casts across the rest of Clone Force 99 becomes representative of a gulf between our heroes and our “new” villain that will take much more than switching off an inhibitor chip to cover.