April 16, 2014

Shadowcon Reviews- Darkest Hour

Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 2 episode 26: “Darkest Hour”

Season Two is by far the weakest season of Prime, but I would like to stress one point that I have come to realize may have come across as something entirely different than what I had intended it to be: I do not hate Season Two. I think Season Two is flawed, some of the plot points and especially the main arc of it were poorly handled, but I do not hate this season of Prime. I just think it was very weak compared to the first season. Obviously, in my Overview, and to an extent in my T-Arc reviews and other episodes that I’ve covered from this season it did come across that way, and I sincerely apologize for that. I don’t hate this season. It’s just the weakest of the three, but there’s still plenty of stuff in here to enjoy.

Let’s start with the beginning of the episode, which launches us right back into the thick of things, with Megatron holding the children hostage. It’s pretty tense; while Jack and Miko are prepared to die for the Autobots, Raf’s more sensible and acts like anyone would when held in an air-tight jar held by a huge skeletal purple robot. Optimus is left with the decision to either revive his home planet and in so doing watch the children die, or take Megatron’s word that the children live and most definitely lose the Keys to Megatron. Now, let’s lay out what Optimus and Megatron both have and want here: Megatron has the children. That’s it. He has the three kids and his top men with him, but that’s all he has. Optimus has the four Keys, he’s got the Star Saber, Arcee has the Apex Armor, Bulkhead and Bumblebee both have their Immobilizer and Gauntlet, and Smokescreen still has the Phase Shifter. So, even by pure weapons, the Autobots have the court here, but even if they didn’t, they still have the Keys, the very things that Megatron wants. Now, I know he’s banking on the Autobots’ care for the humans to win him the Keys (which it does), but come on! The Autobots have been waging this war for millennia, just waiting for the chance to revive their home; they shouldn’t squander it now just because three humans whom they met two years ago are in danger.

On the flip side of this argument, one could argue that Optimus did make the right call. He’s gotten out of worse scrapes than this before, and getting the children to safety wouldn’t be that difficult (they’ve retreated mid-battle before). Not to mention that he has four Keys, while Megatron only has three hostages. Ah, but it seems that Megatron has thought of that too, as he says to Optimus when they do make the trade that Jack is worth two Omega Keys because he was entrusted with the Matrix of Leadership. Well, yeah, but by that logic, Miko shouldn’t be worth a key at all since she hasn’t done anything of use on her own for the past season. So, Optimus effectively has Megatron by the balls in this opening. But what does Optimus do when confronted with this situation:

“If my decision dooms the Autobot cause on Cybertron, so be it. But I will never forsake our human allies.”

No! Fucking no! Hey, Optimus? You have the Omega Keys, you have weapons, you have complete control of the Omega Lock now! Use these things to your advantage! God, every time I try to praise this season of Prime, it just ends up biting me in the ass! Anyway, Optimus and the other Autobots all surrender their weapons, and the exchange of humans and Keys begins. I like that each Decepticon, human partner, and Autobot are all paired off in this exchange: Miko is held captive by Knock Out (who was partners with Bulkhead’s arch enemy, Breakdown), Raf is held captive by Soundwave who doesn’t speak much like Bumblebee, and Jack is held by Starscream, Arcee’s nemesis, and he’s rescued by Arcee and Smokescreen, both of whom consider him their partner. It’s just a nice script decision, that’s all. Of course, once this exchange is over, Megatron pulls the evil card and just sends in a whole bunch of drones to hold the Autobots at gunpoint, because he’s evil and that’s what evil people do.

The Decepticons insert the Keys into the Lock, and then Megatron uses it to restore… one building. Y’know, I keep saying that the Omega Lock and Keys are crap, and this is really why. If you want to make something epic, why not have the beam thing coming out of there restore like, a city or something? Like have this be a devastating weapon that makes whole regions of the planet restored in Megatron’s image or whatever. But one building? That just seems kinda small, don’t you think? And the building doesn’t even look that impressive; it’s this squat dome thing that really doesn’t invoke menace or power at all. Everyone stares in awe at this thing until Optimus pleads with Megatron to allow the humans to return to Earth, but Megatron says that they’ll be far safer here.

“Why rule only one world when I can rule two?”

Yep, he’s planning to turn Earth into a second Cybertron, and this actually does begin to happen. Megatron targets and fires the Omega Lock through the Space Bridge and at Earth and… oh, there we go! There’s the giant epic blue laser beam! I guess the Lock has like settings or something, y’know like a hairdryer. Anyway, on Earth, Ratchet tries to contact Optimus, but the beam from the Lock crashes all the computer systems. Back on Cybertron, Miko questions why this is a bad thing, and Optimus lays out the obvious for her: if Megatron does Cyber-form Earth, then the planet as we know it will be completely destroyed, remade as a new Cybertron. That’s not the best thing for humanity, especially since we know that humans can’t breathe on Cybertron.

Megatron’s having a hell of a time with this thing too. He’s already thinking about what to call his conquered Earth.

“What shall I call my new domain? ‘New Kaon’? Or perhaps ‘Gilded Earth’?”

That really pushes Optimus the wrong way, and he just throws caution to the wind, whips out his in-built sword and makes a run for the Star Saber. It’s actually a really sick move, because he grabs it, yanks it out of the ground with one hand and then just swats away like ten guys rushing him! Then, to continue his performance, Optimus charges Megatron and just slices off his Prime arm, sending it spinning! Jesus! To complete his awesome charging sequence, he then dodges Starscream’s missile, kicks him in the face, and then just up and cuts the Omega Lock itself in half, creating a huge explosion and making the beam dissipate over Earth! And this all happens within like thirty seconds of the first act! Ratchet’s equipment starts working again, and Optimus calls for a Space Bridge.

I’ll analyze Optimus decision-making in a minute, but I’ll tease it with this: Starscream’s expression when he emerges from the smoke sputtering and just looks around at the carnage and flames and charred earth that covers Cybertron in the wake of Optimus’ actions, that says more to me than words ever could. And I applaud the writers for making this a Decepticon who is now in shock and stares in horror at what damage an Autobot has done. It just really drives home the punch of Optimus’ decision really well. Then of course to deflate that, we have Knock Out’s awesome line of “I guess we should cancel the welcome home party”! I love you, KO! Starscream is enraged at what Optimus has done.

“Prime! You will pay for dooming Cybertron to remain a lifeless husk!”

Megatron’s in pretty good spirits for someone who’s just seen any chance of his home being restored get destroyed, and he doesn’t even really register that he’s missing his right forearm! My God, this guy’s hardcore. And he promises the Autobots this:

“They can run, but they can never again run home.”

The Autobots return to base sulking and quiet. Ratchet demands to know what happened, and Bulkhead fills him in, clear sullenness just bursting from his voice. Ratchet is aghast at what Optimus has done, and here is where the writers could have taken that brilliant line from last episode, about how Megatron would restore Cybertron and twist history to fit his own image, and use that as a launching point for a great discussion between Ratchet and Optimus about morality or history or image or legacy, or a combination of any of those. We do get Ratchet outraged at Optimus’ decision, but he is only really upset about the outcome; he fails to focus on the fact that it was Optimus who did this, that it was Optimus who allowed Cybertron to remain a dead planet even after all that trouble to get there. All the other Autobots don’t seem to care all that much about what’s happened. Arcee even goes so far as to say “what’s done is done”. I’m sorry, but no person, be they machine or otherwise, would ever shrug off the fact that their leader effectively destroyed their home.

And what really kills me is that I know exactly how they could have so easily changed this scene to follow through with what Optimus had said last time. Instead of having Ratchet berate the team for not finding another way or for destroying the Omega Lock, what he should have said should have had something to do with Optimus himself. Optimus had said not one episode ago that Megatron would use the Lock and the revival of Cybertron to his political advantage, branding all Autobots as war criminals. Well, look at what Optimus has done. He’s effectively put Megatron in the right. Optimus destroyed the Lock, and he destroyed, as Ratchet says “the only device in any universe capable of restoring [their] home…”.

But even more grievous than that was the fact that it was Optimus himself who did this awful act. Ratchet should have pointed out that it was Optimus who destroyed the Lock, that it was Optimus the guy who had pledged to stop Megatron no matter the cost… except this time, the cost of stopping Megatron was Cybertron’s very revival. That could have propelled the series into something brilliant, and they had all the pieces there to make this work. They had set up this point perfectly all the way back in “Crossfire”, when Optimus was willing to entertain the thought of killing Megatron, and then they expanded on this a little more in “Flying Mind” when Megatron had noted that Optimus had been becoming increasingly more reckless, and then Optimus even was willing to use the Spark Extractor in that same episode, and then finally pushing the point into the foreground last episode with Optimus’ line about Megatron restoring Cybertron being a political move, and his line that “Megatron must be stopped no matter the cost”.

Yes, the decision itself fits with what was set up with regards to Optimus’ character, but it’s the way that the follow up scene is handled with all the Autobots just shrugging it off that gets to me. Ratchet should have questioned Optimus’ command abilities during this scene. And this is why for all its faults, there were things in Season Three that picked up the ball regarding this whole arc and that followed through with the Optimus/Ratchet dynamic very well, but that’s a review for another time. For now, what we have instead of this great debate about Optimus’ legacy or the legacy of the Autobots or the idea that Optimus has basically made Megatron the hero by default by making himself Cybertron’s destroyer, we get a thirty second scene of Ratchet voicing a small portion of that idea… with the rest of the Autobots either shrugging it off or defending Optimus himself.

And then Fowler of all people interrupts it. Dammit. Fowler says that something major is going on outside, and the Autobots rush to the roof to check it out. It turns out that Megatron did actually accomplish something with his cyber-forming of Earth in that he now has a huge fortress along with his huge ship! Fowler’s a bit confused about why the Decepticons would want to set up camp in Jasper, Nevada, and it’s admittedly a smart question. A far better setup would have been in DC or New York or somewhere worth holding. But we soon find out from Optimus why Megatron decided to build his fortress here:

“Because the Decepticons have discovered the location of our base!”

Well, alright, but that must have been through sheer luck right? Megatron didn’t know about the Autobot base when he targeted Earth with the beam, did he? And if he did, why didn’t he just target somewhere populated or strategically important and then send his ship over to deal with the base? It’s not like the fortress is doing anything in the attack on the base. If it’s to make a statement, then it’s a pretty poor one as the only people who actually care about it are soon going to be destroyed by your weapons. The only reason the huge evil fortress is here is for spectacle and awe-factor, which is admittedly alright in a show like this, but really, when I think about dominating a planet (which happens more often than you might think), making an impression on my enemies by looks alone is usually further down on my list than that of conquering all by setting myself up in a strategically smart location.

Well, none of that really matters, because it’s time for action, action, action! The Decepticons begin swarming the base, allowing the Autobots to retreat back inside, leaving Fowler to engage the huge army on his own. Optimus notes that this is a pretty stupid idea (and you know it’s bad when the guy who just made a play so bad that it cost him his entire planet calls you out on your foolish plan), but Wheeljack shows up to take some of the heat off of Fowler. Bulkhead’s excited about this (I’m sure he really doesn’t want to spoil Wheeljack’s good mood by telling him that Cybertron is now dead again thanks to Optimus… sorry). Wheeljack does his best in the fight, but Starscream shoots his ship down, taking him out of play. Not knowing this, Optimus then makes the smartest command decision he’s made all day:

“Ratchet, prepare to bridge everyone out of here… The base is lost. Wheeljack and Agent Fowler can only buy us time to escape… We must disperse to avoid capture, until we can regroup and launch a counterattack. Survival is our only priority now.”

Oh! Holy crap! Actual consequences and the status quo changing in this show! Okay! Great job, guys, I knew you could do it! Really, this is the part of the episode that really speaks “finale” to me. The shot of Jack and Miko looking sadly at each other conveys more than word between the two ever could, and the music and lighting and animation all help out to pump this scene up from an average goodbye scene to a “we might not see each other again at all” scene. It’s very effective and really gives you the sense that this might just be the last time we see things this green again.

To top it all off, Optimus sends Ratchet through the Space Bridge, announcing that he’s staying behind, and the two share a farewell that is heartfelt and delivered very nicely:

“I… never imagined it would end like this.”

“Neither did I, old friend.”

The Decepticon ship finally gets its Omega-Mega Awesome cannon ready and Optimus prepares to destroy the Space Bridge with the Star Saber… and then the ‘Cons fire and the base explodes. Fowler and June (oh, yeah, June’s here too) watch the destruction from the chopper before flying off, and Megatron and Starscream land triumphant in the ruins of the base. The final shot is one of teasing bitter promises: Optimus’ damaged and sparking arm poking out of the heap of rubble that was once his new home.

Post episode follow-up: Final score for the finale of Prime Season Two, “Darkest Hour”, is 7/10. It comes so close to an 8 for me in terms of how it stacks up to the other two finales, but it loses a few points due to how it fumbles with the material it's given regarding Optimus’ decision and the implications of and fallout from that. The action this episode is really good, and the final act does bump this up to finale standards for this show, but the writing just felt a little too jumbled and not quite as tight as the other two finales. There is a real sense of finality to what goes on regarding the ending fight and the base’s destruction, but as a bang for your buck kind of ending, this episode delivers the goods in modest proportions compared to last season’s finale, and especially in regards to Season Three’s ending.

In terms of ending this season on a high note, it does deliver a good portion of arc resolution, especially given how much it had to wrap up; Optimus’ character is seen throughout this season as being more desperate and violent than he was last season, and that carries through well into this episode. The plot of the season wraps up okay, but once again a tighter focus on characters or a tighter script following the strokes of the plot would have helped this season out a lot, and it would have made this episode’s punch that much better. Overall, I am sad to say that this finale is the weakest of the three in keeping with the season that it’s attached to,. It does have enough in here to make last episode pay off… just. Next time, we’ll take a look at how this whole thing affects our characters, both good and bad, and how Optimus’ character goes from really good to… well, you’ll see.

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