In turbulent Disney era, Clone Wars triumphs

How big is a galaxy?

That’s the question Star Wars fans have tackled for decades. Are the original three Star Wars movies “the real Star Wars”, as generations that grew up with Luke and Leia often attest? Or are just the first six, the originals and the prequels, the legitimate ones, like many Star Wars fans disillusioned with Disney’s sequel trilogy have suggested? All Star Wars movies, but not the canon TV shows and novels? Anything but the Holiday Special?

It’s a silly and divisive debate waged amongst legions of Star Wars fans with no real end goal attainable, because Star Wars means something different to everybody. To me, Star Wars is about the Skywalker saga, the familiar characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan, Luke and Leia, that mean the most (a reason I don’t care too much for the spinoffs). I grew up reading about, watching and poring over the prequels – they were my generation’s Star Wars. But I also moved up the Jedi ranks, so to speak, with the pleasure of watching the first truly successful Star Wars show, the Clone Wars, which defined my Star Wars fandom as much as any of the other Lucasfilm products. So you can imagine my joy when I found out that Disney was resurrecting the Clone Wars show, which had been cut short after six seasons when Disney bought Lucasfilm, for one final season.

Even after enjoying the opening season of the smash hit The Mandalorian, I looked forward to the Clone Wars unlike few other TV shows or films before.  It did not disappoint. Some of the arcs worked better than others in the 12-episode season, but the final four episodes were absolute peak Clone Wars and a fully satisfying finale to show. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Clone Wars is the best addition of the Disney era, and furthermore, that it is an essential piece of the Star Wars galaxy.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is set in the most fascinating time in the Star Wars timeline – between Episodes II and III as the Republic and Separatists wage war on planets across the galaxy and Chancellor Sheev Palpatine secretly ascends to universal domination. The show first debuted as a critically panned movie that had way too many Hutts for my liking, but then rebounded and settled in with an excellent first season. Episodes, which start off with a relevant proverb and are followed by lightsaber duels, sinister plots, and epic battles, are strung together for multi-episode story arcs that extend the galaxy, geographically, thematically and visually. And Clone Wars trades the politics and romance of the prequels for battles, battles, and more battles. It is a formula that works surprisingly well and holds up years later.

The strongest case for the Clone Wars as a required compendium to the Star Wars films is its elevation of its source material, the oft-maligned prequels. The Clone Wars spends copious amounts of time with the central characters of the prequels, most notably Obi-Wan and Anakin, and rights the prequels’ greatest flaw – character development. The Clone Wars gives a glimpse into Anakin’s psyche, rewriting what was before a whiny, capricious teenager into one that is sympathetic, valiant, and worthy of love, and yet still not immune to the dark side. His bond with Obi-Wan is a central component of the seven seasons, making the relationship work in the way the prequels could not and, in turn, making Anakin’s fall to the dark side and rebellion against his former master all the more tragic. Obi-Wan, whose prequels actor, Ewan McGregor, was already lauded for his performance in the movie, enjoys more depth (and even a love life), while Jedi Masters Yoda, Mace Windu, and Kit Fisto, oft-deployed as war generals, make for awesome battle sequences. The droids, whose errant aim is comparable to the original trilogy’s storm troopers, serve as some of the series’ best comedic relief (can I get a “roger-roger”?). Jar-Jar even gets a glow-up. The only character that the Clone Wars fails to improve upon is Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious, whose performance in Revenge of the Sith is deliciously over-the-top. The gap between the flaws of the prequels and gaps of the Clone Wars is not glaring to the point it detracts from the prequels, either (I know from watching ROTS many times since).

That is half the triumph; the other is creator Dave Filoni’s ability to create new characters that fit seamlessly. Ahsoka Tano, apprentice of Anakin Skywalker and a frequent protagonist, has the strongest arc of the series and draws out even more of Anakin (in addition to spectacular fighting skills). The series’ namesake, the clone troopers, are humanized through characters like Captain Rex and Fives, adding to the moral complexity of the battles waged across the seven seasons. Secondary characters like bounty hunter Cad Bane (he of “time to pay up Hutt, I don’t work for free” fame), assassin Asajj Ventress and warrior Savage Oppress are fun and worthy adversaries to the heroes as well. And, though he doesn’t appear until mid-series, Darth Maul is electric in his return to the Star Wars scene as an avenger/crime boss after his apparent death in Phantom Menace. I once staked out a pizza restaurant to watch his first episodes in elementary school.

 Clone Wars sidesteps the toughest obstacle in its way and turns it into a strength – the central characters’ certain fates escalates tension and lends itself to hair-clenching foreshadowing instead of spoiling the ending. One of the best arcs comes in season six, when a clone trooper discovers the implant that leads to Order 66 and the downfall of the Jedi, only to be silenced before he can tell the Jedi what it is. In another, Obi-Wan and Anakin go to Mortis, a Force-fueled planet, and Anakin’s future as Darth Vader is prophesied as he is lured by the Dark Side (Anakin looks away when his fate is in the air). Palpatine’s duality as a politician/Sith Lord is teased out in tantalizing fashion, from the Zillo Beast arc to several shorter scenes, yet the Jedi remain oblivious. And the lightsaber battles, from the taunts to the fluid animations, are stellar, even if most end without a winner.

The success of the first six seasons made the series’ termination a sad goodbye; it made its return euphoric. In between watching each week’s new release, I binged and reveled in the episodes of the past, some of which I hadn’t seen in almost ten years. The Mandalorian was an enjoyable and meme-sparking show, but one that felt geared more to casual viewers (no Skywalkers) and had a markedly slower pace to contrast the increasingly frenetic sequels. When the Clone Wars came around, I felt like I was on Cloud City. The timing of the final season was perfect — without live sports, the regularity of a Clone Wars episode every Friday morning was much needed.

Set in the days before the events of Revenge of the Sith, the season, replete with stunning animation upgrades, dedicates its first two arcs to two Clone Wars creations, the clone troopers and Ahsoka. The final arc, bumped from 22 to 30 minutes in run-time and set during the events of Revenge of the Sith, are nothing short of spectacular. One episode pits Ahsoka against Darth Maul in a fantastic lightsaber battle that was animated through motion-capture of actual actors (one of whom was Phantom Menace Maul actor Ray Park). The same downfall of the Republic is present in both Episode III and Clone Wars, but instead of feeling repetitive, it sees the tragedy through new perspectives and somehow makes the arc of the prequels even more epic. If the last four episodes were a movie (and it is time-wise), the production might be one of the top five best Star Wars movies. For an animated show, that’s incredible.

A lot of the high esteem I hold for the Clone Wars comes in that it caters to exactly what I love about Star Wars – the battles, the characters, and Revenge of the Sith (the rest is that it’s just a well-written, fun show). There’s also something special to watching the same show on Friday nights on Cartoon Network in fifth grade as on Friday mornings on Disney+ nearly ten years later (that’s right, I woke up early for this season’s episodes). Some arcs are throwaways and the urgency of a TV show is naturally less than that of a movie, but, as a whole library of content and stories, Clone Wars is a treasure.

When the Clone Wars kicked off its first episodes, we all knew the tragic ending, and, thanks to the one-season revival, it’s finally upon us in animated form. I don’t think anyone could have known how great the stories would be in between.

Best 10 Arcs/Episodes

  1. Fall of the Republic (Season 7, Episodes 9-12) – It’s the best.
  2. Darth Maul’s Reign on Mandalore (Season 5, Episodes 13-15) – This arc concludes with perhaps the series’ best episode, The Lawless, which is 1) incredibly emotional and 2) has Darth Sidious fighting Darth Maul and Savage Oppress. Say no more.
  3. The Unknown (Season 6, Episodes 1-4) – The aforementioned arc about the clone trooper who figures out that the clones are programmed for Order 66.
  4. Undercover Obi-Wan (Season 4, Episodes 15-18) – Obi-Wan going undercover as a bounty hunter is an interesting concept that works really well, with highlights in The Box (a Hunger Games for bounty hunters) and Crisis on Naboo.
  5. Sabotage (Season 5, Episodes 17-20) – Clone Wars applies a lot of film genres into the framework of Star Wars really well, and the conclusion to Season 5 is a fast-paced and fun mystery. Then the last episode comes, and, undoubtedly, it’s the most emotional and meaningful of the whole series.
  6. Mortis (Season 3, Episodes 15-17) – There’s a lot of foreshadowing and talk about The Chosen One on the Force planet of Mortis, and this three-episode arc just adds a lot of interesting context to the Star Wars saga.
  7. Darth Maul’s Return (Season 4, Episodes 21-22; Season 5, Episode 1) – I wasn’t fully convinced that it was a great idea to bring Maul back from the dead until Season 5, but as a kid, this was the best.
  8. Mandalore Plot (Season 2, Episodes 12-14) – Mandalore (the planet namesake of The Mandalorian and the armor provider of the famed Jango and Boba Fett) is the most favored and interesting planet in the Clone Wars series, coming up in the first two spots on this list. This arc sets the stage with the Death Watch anarchists vs Duchess Satine.
  9. Lair of Grievous (Season 1, Episode 10) – I loved this episode when I was a kid, and it holds up. Kit Fisto, one of my favorite Jedi, ventures with his former Padawan into the lair of General Grievous. Lots of great lightsaber fighting and a solid story makes it the best one-episode arc.
  10. Holocron Heist (Season 2, Episodes 1-3) – The Clone Wars nailed its villains’ swagger, and Cad Bane opens up the second season with an excess. Bane, a truly great bounty hunter, robs the Jedi Temple for a valuable Holocron in this arc.

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