After many episodes of bounty hunting chases, Rylothi insurrection, and the briefest snifter of mounting resistance, Star Wars: The Bad Batch returned this week to a concept it fascinatingly pondered early on in its debut season. We know, as the audience, that the Clone army is destined to be replaced by the human recruits of the Stormtrooper legions. But how are they going to feel about it?
When Bad Batch first explored this idea, we got what is arguably still by far the strongest episode of the season, “Replacements.” There, its exploration was not the expected resistance to such a changing of the guard, but about the dark road Crosshair took himself on to prove that a clone could still be a useful weapon for the new Empire. “War Mantle” might not quite hit the same highs in telling that expected story of resistance this time around—occasionally tripping up on a few of the problems that have hampered the show this season—but in returning to such an idea in the first place it laid the groundwork for some very interesting conflicts to come as the season entered its endgame. Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, however.
The episode opens, as many Bad Batch stories do, with the same old premise: the team, mid-hyperspace on a mission for Cid, find themselves offered a chance to help someone in need. This time, it’s Captain Rex asking, requesting a pickup for a clone on the run. Like always, Hunter is skeptical about the risk, like always, Omega is willing to override that risk because someone needs their help—and, like always, Hunter relents. This particular Bad Batch indulgence is followed up by another when, upon arriving on the planet Daro, it’s quickly revealed that the team’s extraction target is none other than former Clone Commando, and one-day Rebel agent, Gregor. Thankfully, like its recent use of Hera, this particular penchant of the Bad Batch to lean all the way in on familiar faces from other Star Wars content is less about “Hey, you know this one!!!” and more about using who Gregor actually is to help flesh out the world Bad Batch deals with. In this case, it’s Gregor’s former status as a Republic Commando.
We learn over the course of the attempted escape from Daro’s secret Imperial training facility that the Commandos—the closest thing the Batch has to direct brothers in the old Grand Army—have been roped in by the Empire to train the next generation of soldiers: the first true Imperial Stormtroopers. They have the new armor, a mix of classic Stormtrooper and familiar clone gear that’s just dying to be turned into an action figure at a moment’s notice. They have what Rampart wants, as we see him begin to make his own moves to lock down the Kaminoans on their rainswept homeworld: a human element of loyalty, people directly answering the Empire’s call rather than being born or brainwashed into it. But even if Bad Batch doesn’t really dwell on it in its dialogue—our heroes are, of course, too busy blowing their way out of Daro to actually talk much beyond Gregor’s initial distaste for training his own replacements—it’s there in the visual storytelling of the action: Stormtroopers, no matter who trains them, just aren’t the clones.
We see it in the ease with which the Batch pick apart fireteam after fireteam, we see it when the only people capable of catching up with them as they flee through Daro’s facilities are the Clone Commando trainers themselves. The difference is stark, and telling. But it also, crucially, doesn’t matter. It comes up time and time again during the team’s escape attempt, a grim reminder of the Empire’s dread inevitability. They don’t need Stormtroopers to be as good as clones in martial skill. They don’t even really need the homegrown loyalty Rampart desires for his new legions. They need, and already have, the sheer mass of bodies to oppress through unrelenting, overwhelming force.
No matter how many troopers the Batch stuns as they flee through the Daro base’s hallways, there’s more around the corner. Whenever they’re pinned down at a dead-end or a tight spot, Stormtroopers just keep coming. When things go sideways as Wrecker and Omega attempt to extract the rest of the team and Gregor in the shuttle, it’s wave after wave of V-Wings—waves that grow from a handful of fighters to a swarm—that pose the greatest threat. Even as Wrecker’s canons pick them apart one by one, more come shrieking in. That’s the true shadow of the Empire more than even the replacement of the clones that “War Mantle” excels in showing here, and it’s that which ultimately undoes our heroes. The numbers too many, Hunter is forced to tell his friends to leave him behind, surrounded by a sea of Stormtroopers that he could try and overcome with his heightened skills—but knows he can’t.
And there, the stage is set for multiple ticking time bombs to go off as we conclude this rocky first season—both in whether or not our heroes will be able to liberate Hunter from the Empire’s grasp (and Crosshair’s, who shows up to gloat at his capture as the episode closes) and when and how the Empire will make its full move to push out the clone army in favor of its new recruits. Hopefully, these last two episodes will bring as many of the interesting discussions about the future of the clones to bear as they do the big explosions though—if so, we could be in for a treat.
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