Shadowcon Reviews: Transformers Prime season 1, episode 8: “Con Job”
I’m going to be taking a different approach to this one than I normally do. Probably has something to do with the fact that I’m on vacation and that laziness is just infecting. So, sorry if you enjoy your blow-by-blow review, because this one is just going to be me and my thoughts on the matter.
A part of me is very tempted to rip this episode to shreds, because there are a number of things wrong with it both in its structure and in its abundance of conveniences and contrivances. And it would be all too easy for me to point those out and deem this episode bad based solely on those issues. However, a part of me is also adamantly saying, “Luke, don’t rip into this one. This is a kid’s show; it doesn’t deserve this kind of nitpicking.” True and true (though I do have one major issue with this type of episode, and I’ll get to that later on). I don’t really care about plot holes so long as the episode is good, and this one, while not outstanding, does certainly fall into the “average” category for me. It’s place in the series too is indicative of that; this was the beginning point in Prime where the show really seemed to take a few breaths after the “Darkness Rising” opening, and this episode along with “Convoy”, “Deus Ex Machina”, “Speed Metal”, and “Predatory”, make that point clear. These are far more episodic than what we had been given in the beginning with the five-part opener, and I think that really puts some rose-colored glasses over some peoples’ faces (mine included). So no, this one is not bad. But compared to what Prime had given us in the past, this one is, like “Convoy” and “Scrapheap”, a light course.
Speaking of “Scrapheap”, I do enjoy that continuity is acknowledged here as Ratchet is still trying to get the GroundBridge to work, and that’s a key plot point in the episode as well, so that’s pretty neat. Ratchet does get some good lines in this episode too, which is always nice to see. The main draw of this episode is that it introduces us to a new character to the show (kind of): Wheeljack and we also get the first namedrop of the Wreckers, the group that ‘Jackie and Bulkhead are a part of. We’ll get more of that as the series progresses as you know, and I like that here it’s just kind of hinted at; we don’t get a whole backstory to this unit beyond what Bulkhead has to share with people, and that’s great because why would the Autobots need to know about stuff that they’re familiar with in their universe? They wouldn’t, and I like that this gave only bits and pieces of that unit and not a full expository monologue by someone. Wheeljack himself looks awesome, and debuts in a suitably Transformers fashion: by just tearing up some 'Cons! I really dig his model too; he looks armored and padded but also rough and worn. He manages to retain the classic Wheeljack look while bringing a new "warrior" look to the table, and those swords are awesome!
This episode is a Bulkhead-centric episode, or at least that’s what it wants to be. It never really reaches that character-exploration mode though. I actually think both “Toxicity” and "Triage" did that better by Bulkhead and Wheeljack respectively, and that’s coming from someone who didn’t really enjoy the development of the T-Arc very much. Bulkhead and Bumblebee are the least developed characters on Team Prime, and this could have been a great way for us to get to know Bulkhead a little better.
That didn’t really happen here and there’s one reason why that just absolutely kills this episode for me: Wheeljack isn’t present for the majority of the episode; the Autobots think they’ve picked him up, but it turns out to be a Decepticon named Makeshift who can disguise himself as anyone. And that’s terrible, because not only does this make Bulkhead’s interactions with this guy completely meaningless, but we don’t get any characterization for Wheeljack either because it’s not him. And just to shoot us in the foot even more, the episode shows us from the beginning that Starscream gave this guy Makeshift a mission to infiltrate the Autobot base and even showed us the dude transforming into Wheeljack in silhouette. I just… at what point did anyone think this was a good idea? Now, some may be saying “well, this allows us to get into Bulkhead’s character more because we see how he sees Wheeljack and that’s constantly questioned during the episode”. And that it is, and I would agree with you if not for the fact that there’s no resolution to that questioning. I love this exchange between Bulkhead and Arcee:
“Something’s just not right about Wheeljack…”
“Bulkhead, really? He’s traveled galaxies. You haven’t seen him for centuries. He could just be rocket-lagged or… well, ‘Bots do change, y’know?”
Now, imagine this for a moment if you will: what if the Autobots had picked up the real Wheeljack and brought him back to base. He was this stoic, quiet, uptight guy who didn’t partake in any of Bulkhead’s retelling of their old war stories, and he was more interested in leaving than indulging himself. All of this comes from the Makeshift character in the actual episode, but imagine if it wasn’t Makeshift, but the actual Wheeljack. That could have driven home Arcee’s line about ‘Bots changing perfectly, because it would mean that the Wheeljack that Bulkhead knew wasn’t there, that Bulkhead was just living in the past. Through this, we could have seen Bulkhead realize that he must accept ‘Jackie for who he is now instead of who he used to be. And that could have gone the other way at the same time; Wheeljack could have realized that Bulkhead was still the same guy that he used to hang out with back on Cybertron and that could have given him the opportunity to loosen up or rediscover all the fun he used to have in his world.
And that’s just one example of what could have happened had the writers decided to explore the actual Wheeljack and Bulkhead rather than have Bulkhead figure out what we already know from the start. Had the episode either given us the real Wheeljack from the start or had the Makeshift character be a sleeper agent so that he didn’t know that he wasn’t Wheeljack until the very end, either one of those could have made for a very good and suspenseful story. And with the second option, you wouldn’t have had to lose the ending fight or climax. But what ended up happening was that this was more of a plot episode that was trying to be a character episode instead of a character episode through and through. Not a bad thing, but there are seeds of ideas in here that I think could have yielded something so much better.
I think this is why a part of me is recognizing of the fact that this is just a children’s cartoon; it doesn’t need to be all grandiose and epic and all of that. True, but Prime proved in its opening that it can be, and even if they wanted to make this more episodic, fine. Look at “Rock Bottom” or “Partners”, or, to pick a Wheeljack-centric episode, “Loose Cannons”. All of these deliver character studies or suspense, neither of which is in this episode, I feel. The suspense is lacking because we know who the enemy is right from the get-go so there’s no mystery. And the character centricity on either Bulkhead or Wheeljack is lacking because it’s not the real Wheeljack and we don’t glean anything from Bulkhead’s experience with a double.
And I am willing to accept that this is just a stand-alone bit of fluff, don’t get me wrong, and as an action episode, it’s okay. And action is all fine, but when it comes to a character’s introductory episode, I’d much prefer that we actually meet the character instead of getting duped by a one-off character who dies in the same episode. It seems that the people writing the show recognized this as Season Two’s “Loose Cannons” fixed nearly all my problems that I had with this episode (in that one, Wheeljack gets a vehicle mode, something that happens in most other introductory episodes for new characters across the Transformers universes).
It may seem like I’m just pummeling this episode into the ground, but it’s just because this one really makes such poor use of a new character and squanders what could have been a great opportunity to explore one of the weaker regulars on the show. Definitely not one that you must see, but an enjoyable ride nonetheless. It’s looking back knowing that future episodes do such a better job at introducing Wheeljack that makes this one so weak in my eyes.
Final score for “Con Job” is 4/10. Some neat action might be enough to get you through an otherwise rather bland experience. Wheeljack’s model is absolutely gorgeous though, and the way Starscream attempts to use the GroundBridge to the Autobot’s disadvantage is a breathe of fresh air. A shame the rest of the ride isn’t as character-focussed as it wanted to be.