The Autobots race for the remaining Omega Keys. In the end, they discover something unexpected.
For the life of me, I will forever be confused by the official plot summary given to “Hard Knocks” because it makes it sound like Knock Out and Starscream would have more screen time than what they actually got. Knock Out all but appears for the first six minutes and then disappears for the duration of the episode. It’s a shame because his anxiety is compelling. Knock Out wants to prove his worth to Megatron, but for what specific reason? I have a few theories. The first is his spite towards Soundwave, Megatron’s obvious favorite. He may still hold resentment that his boss favored Soundwave’s recovery over Knock Out’s vanity in a previous event. The second is his vendetta against the Autobots for giving him that epically painful paint scratch in “Tunnel Vision”. Lastly, Knock Out is increasingly getting paranoid. He’s been protesting against Megatron frequently. He may not actually have it in for Soundwave, but takes the silent bot as an example of the level of competence Megatron expects. Knock Out wants to live up to that and Megatron’s constant disapproval is agitating and worsening his insanity.
“Hard Knocks” is a graphical marvel. I’ve mostly been nonchalant on the backgrounds and disgruntled at worse, but the autumn forest setting is breathtaking. The lighting is amazing. Look at the way the orange covers Smokescreen. Look at the leaves constantly dropping from the trees. The blu-ray release would be worth owning just for this layout. I also love the little character movements spread throughout the episode. They’re minor, but gestures like Soundwave’s erratic typing or Smokescreen loosely hanging his arm in a carefree manner are both great expressions. It’s certainly better than the needlessly dramatic arm flaring the cast has a bad habit of doing. I just wish the battle scenes would reduce the use of bullet time; the entire Dreadwing/Bulkhead fight is nothing but slow motion. I know Transformers Prime is more then capable of creating an enticing battle scene without having to rely on that tired old gimmick.
In the last recap, I feared the location of the four Omega Keys would mean the series would split up into yet another tetralogy to locate one per episode. Instead, the casts manage to find the rest in the span of one episode. While I think it could stand to have some breathing room, I will take this over a repeated—and thus tedious—plot structure any day. This is especially poignant because the final Omega Key whips up a plot twist that I did not see coming. In retrospect, I really should have; Smokescreen mentions his “destiny” so many times that there was no way the writers were going for subtlety. It debunks my personal guess that Smokescreen is secretly a mole for a different (and unseen) Autobot. No, his fate is so much bigger and interesting.
I’m actually finding myself drawn more to Smokescreen. Sure, he’s an irresponsible kid who doesn’t get the big picture, but he’s not a jerk. He’s excited to be in Optimus’ crew and spares no expenses paying respect to all the team members. Nolan North finally nails his vocals by removing the chipmunk squeaks. He’s an idiot, but well-meaning and I really like that. “Hard Knocks” really pushes it when Smokescreen babbles on and on about how lucky he is to be in Optimus’ crew, how heroic and grand he plans to be, and how everything that’s happened so far is his “destiny.” There’s not a moment where he isn’t jumping around like a kid on Ritalin. He’s constantly boosting his own ego because he seriously believes he is just that awesome. Maybe there’s enough of a gap between my age and teenagers that I see this particular problem, but endearing personality or not, this is when it hit a bit of a low point for me. Like the average teen, he thinks he’s a special snowflake.
Smokescreen’s spent the better part of his appearance screwing up due to youthful naivety, but he does apologize afterward. There is a humble side to him, but it’s juxtaposed by childish arrogance. Fed up with his behavior, Arcee chews him out and tells him exactly what he needs to hear: war should not be glorified, he needs to learn to use his head and most of all, he needs to grow up. Smokescreen takes it about as well as you’d expect and storms off. Meanwhile Arcee is criticized by the other Autobots for her harshness. Frankly, I’m completely on her side! Now, I’m firmly in the Smokescreen camp when Arcee retaliated against him in “Alpha/Omega”. He was still apologizing for his previous action, but Arcee kept making a mountain out of a molehill. Some of her arguments here falls a little flat because Smokescreen isn’t as selfish as she makes him out to be—he truly wants to be help—and Arcee isn’t exactly a saint when she’s run amok to deal with her personal problems. However, Arcee grew from that and learned to realize petty revenge isn’t key. Her current message is exactly what the kid needs to hear. War is a serious matter that should not be debased by naïve, foolish means. He admires Optimus’ wisdom and courage, but doesn’t realize beneath the surface, it’s built from tragedy and sacrifice. Maybe her bluntness went too far and should not have occurred while Smokescreen is feeling his lowest (for a screw up that wasn’t his fault), but I still got irked when the other Autobots—including Optimus—tells her to take a chill pill.
Ironically, after all that, Smokescreen is revealed to be the final Omega Key. Well, what do you know, he IS a special snowflake. This would bother me because it means Smokescreen’s planet-sized ego is validated, but I think I know where they’re going with this. “Hard Knocks” ends with Soundwave capturing Smokescreen because of what he is. The details of how is another matter and the Cons are curious. This is not going to end well for Smokescreen and I imagine it’ll be a traumatizing event. Smokescreen may find out his so-called “destiny” is not as pleasant as he expects it to be. I think this might be the best—if not the only—route to finally humble Smokescreen. It’s a brilliant subversion and I’m very interested in how his fate will play out.