from Patreon: my review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

In this week’s episode of Star Wars: The Mandalorian, the character of Ahsoka Tano appeared in live action for the first time. Originally part of The Clone Wars animated series that debuted in 2008, Ahsoka started out as Anakin Skywalker’s padawan, and went from annoying teenage sidekick to one of the best characters in the Star Wars universe. I binged The Clone Wars on Disney+ in the spring of 2020 in time for D+ to air the long-delayed final episodes of the show, and posted the following review on my Patreon on the 5th of May.

If you support my Patreon at $5/month or higher, you get anywhere from 1-5 TV reviews per month, as well as a monthly movie review and tons of cat pictures. (In terms of other SW material, I’ve also reviewed The Last Jedi, Attack of the Clones, Solo, Revenge of the Sith, and the followup animated series Rebels.)

My history with Star Wars fandom is a weird one. Where I was a Star Trek fan from birth, pretty much, and that fandom has been consistent through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood as a fan, for ten years as a writer of Trek fiction and another ten as a critic and “expert” on the show.

Star Wars, though, is a different story. When the first movie came out in 1977, eight-year-old me was hooked. I joined the Star Wars Fan Club, I was totally obsessed with the galaxy far, far away. But that fandom burned brightly and then, while it never extinguished, by the time Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, fourteen-year-old me was less excited by it, and then SW faded from the public consciousness for a while. While I was an avid reader of tie-in fiction in general, when Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire came out in 1991, I was not interested, and didn’t get into it.

I did go see the remasterings of the original trilogy that were released from 1997-1998, but that was more to see the films on the big screen again—the actual new effects and whatnot left me pretty cold, in all honesty. The only change I approved of was restoring the Han Solo-Jabba the Hutt conversation in Star Wars, as that made Han’s choice to come back and help the rebellion instead of going back to Tatooine much more effective. 

And then we had the prequel trilogy, which killed a lot of interest I might have had in SW, because they were so incredibly terrible. Part of my disappointment was that we didn’t really see the Clone Wars, that historic event referenced in Star Wars several times. Attack of the Clones showed the very beginning of it, and Revenge of the Sith showed its end, but we didn’t really see the war itself. Then in 2003, Cartoon Network started a bunch of shorts about the Clone Wars created by Genndy Tartakovsky, and that got me interested, as I’m a huge fan of Tartakovsky’s work on Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Powerpuff Girls.  

When The Clone Wars debuted in 2008, first as a theatrical film, then as a TV series, I was not at all interested. Tartakovsky did excellent work in those shorts, and it looked like this new project would overwrite them. On top of that, it was being done in computer animation that looked awful to me, and George Lucas was directly involved, which struck me as disastrous, given that Lucas himself seemed to have utterly lost it as a creative person, based on the prequels.

But over the years, other folks have told me good things about this series, plus it was finally getting its planned seventh season on Disney+, and I’m trapped at home under quarantine anyhow, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Having just finished it—the final episode of the seventh season aired this week on the Star Wars “holiday” of May the 4th (be with you)—I’m sorry I waited.

Well, okay, not really that sorry, because bingeing it was, I think, the best way to experience this particular storyline.

Bridging the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the TV series (and movie, which is really a stitching together of the first few episodes of the show) tells the actual story of the Clone War itself. We see the Jedi Knights as the generals leading the clone armies into battle against the Separatists’ battle droids, led by Count Dooku. 

At first, the show seems to be stumbling around a lot with a lot of tiresome tricks that prequels tend to fall into the trap of. While Dooku generally stays in the background manipulating things, General Grievous is a regular foe for much of the early days of the show, and we know that a) he’s never going to be completely successful and b) he’s never going to be punished for his failures because we already know that Obi-Wan will confront him in Revenge of the Sith. Worse, the show has to twist itself into a pretzel to keep Anakin from meeting him in person, because Sith already established that that was Anakin and Grievous’s first meeting.

This is mitigated to some extent by the creation of Asajj Ventress, a Sith apprentice to Dooku. Ventress is also pretty nowhere in the early going, but gets much more interesting when she, at least, suffers consequences for failure, with Dooku kicking her out of the club, as it were. She then returns home, gets involved in the resurrection of Darth Maul (more on that in a bit), and then later becomes a bounty hunter. Ventress becomes way more fascinating when she’s no longer part of the Sith club.

Even though the stories are weak in the first two seasons, the seeds of the show’s strengths are sown there, and they’re threefold. 

The first is giving us something the prequel trilogy should have given us and utterly botched: showing the bond between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Both Attack and Sith kept the two of them separate far too much, which took the wind out of the sails of the final confrontation on Mustafar. But in this series, we get lots of Obi-Wan and Anakin goodness, with Obi-Wan’s constant sarcasm going nicely with Anakin’s out-of-the-box thinking. We see the two of them working together, sometimes at cross purposes, sometimes very beautifully, and it deepens the bond, strengthening, not just the awful prequel trilogy, but also the final confrontation the two of them have in Star Wars. Plus, the voice work is superb. As Obi-Wan, James Arnold Taylor perfectly channels Ewan McGregor’s interpretation of a young Alec Guinness. And Matt Lanter is a thousand times better than Hayden Christiansen’s emo whining as Anakin.

The second is the clone troopers themselves. They’ve just been created for the first time in Attack, and in Sith they’re just a bunch of disposable soldiers who all look and sound like Temuera Morrison, and who turn on the Jedi when Palpatine gives Order 66. And truly, there isn’t time for much more than that. Beyond naming one clone trooper (Cody), the movies have bigger concern than the cannon fodder. Besides which, the whole point of Palpatine’s manipulations is to bring about a war between the Separatists (who have their own cannon fodder in battle droids) and the Republic with both sides having a theoretically infinite supply of disposable troops. While it has the story effect of showing Palpatine’s mendacity, in truth, it made it easy for George Lucas to do battleground scenes without real carnage.

But the TV show takes that and runs with it, in particular by having the clones be people. They’re not just the interchangeable multiple iterations of Morrison. They’ve got personalities and quirks and nicknames. It’s a credit to Dee Bradley Baker, who voices all the clones, that he manages to imbue each clone with a different personality (while making sure to match Morrison’s Kiwi accent). Over the course of the series, we come to know these guys—including Cody, which makes his trying to kill Obi-Wan in Sith that much more awful.

(The show also makes clear what Sith doesn’t: that the clones are compelled by a control chip in their brains to obey Order 66. This is especially a relief given the close bonds that the various Jedi form with the clones who survive. We find this out in a storyline where one clone’s chip activates prematurely, and he’s compelled to kill Jedi. The Kaminoans are able to cover this up, but some of the clone troopers now know they have a chip in their head, though they are lied to about its true nature.)

The third are three characters created for this show specifically, who have quickly become among my favorite SW characters: Ahsoka Tano, Rex, and Hondo Ohnaka.

Going in reverse order, I took an instant love to Hondo, a pirate who spends most of the Clone War profiteering and doing quite a good job of it. Jim Cummings deserves a lot of the credit here, as he does a great job with Hondo’s freewheeling personality, his sense of humor, his complete lack of morals, and his general snide commentary. The weird sorta-kinda-friendship that develops among Hondo, Anakin, and Obi-Wan is tremendous fun to watch over the course of the series. 

Rex is the face of the clone troopers, the most reliable soldier who always has the Jedis’ back. The Clone Wars was cancelled after six seasons with stories left to tell, but then Rebels started up (I’ll be reviewing that down the line), and established that Rex survived the Clone War and had his chip removed. The new seventh season got to establish how that happened, and it was amazing. (More on that in a bit, too.)

And then there’s Ahsoka.

When she was established back in 2008, Ahsoka was not a particularly popular figure. A teenage girl assigned to be Anakin’s padawan, she was annoying in that way that only teenagers can be, and she was a major retcon in a series that was already retconning a lot, since there’s never been any mention of the future Darth Vader having a padawan before.

But as the show progressed, so did Ahsoka. She matured and improved and got more skilled and more interesting. And her bond with Anakin developed rather nicely. 

Best of all was the arc that ended season five, in which Ahsoka was framed for a horrible crime. Eventually she and Anakin clear her name, and the Jedi oh-so-self-righteously tell her that she’s welcome back, and this was all obviously just a test brought on by the Force, a feeble attempt to cover up their own screwup—and, to her credit, Ahsoka refuses, and walks out on being a Jedi.

The primary purpose this serves is one that shows Anakin’s descent into the dark side, and is another wedge to drive between him and the Jedi Council, a wedge that was only about half convincing in Sith.

Most of the best storylines are from the later seasons of the show. Part of that is a distinct lack of General Grievous. Part of that is the development of Ahsoka and showing the toll the war is taking on Obi-Wan as it progresses. Part of that is watching Ventress go from boring hench-Sith to fascinating bounty hunter. Part of that is the resurrection of Darth Maul, who survived being cut in half by Obi-Wan and has been driven mad, wanting only vengeance—but also slowly taking over the criminal gangs of the galaxy. (Seen also briefly in Solo.) As voiced brilliantly by Sam Witwer, Maul becomes a fascinating rogue operative, as he’s no longer a Sith, but he knows enough about the Sith’s plans to see what’s going on, predicting the tragic end to the war that nobody else can see. His single-minded determination to take out Obi-Wan takes on a tragicomic aspect (followed up on in Rebels when he finally confronts him again, but again, we’ll get to that in another review). He also takes over Mandalore. 

(This show and especially Rebels do a great job with the Mandalorians. If you’ve been watching The Mandalorian on Disney+, I strongly recommend watching the two animated series, as well. Dave Filoni, the co-creator and executive producer of both TV shows, is also one of the two show-runners of Mando, and it all works beautifully together, which is why I’m heartened to see that Ahsoka is going to be in season two of Mando.)

The last four episodes of season seven tie directly into Sith, and it’s a tour-de-force. The scenes interweave with those that we saw in the feature film seamlessly. The story nicely explains what Ahsoka and Rex were doing during the movie, as they go to Mandalore to confront Maul. The scene where the 501st, led by Rex, all salute Ahsoka had me tearing up. The clone troopers aren’t just cannon fodder, they’re good soldiers, and they don’t care that Ahsoka isn’t really a Jedi anymore. To them, she’s still Commander Tano, still the person who led them skillfully into battle, and they’re going to follow her into the gates of hell itself if that’s what’s necessary.

One of the nice touches is that each clone paints his or her armor a particular way, which helps distinguish them (that and they have different hairstyles), and the 501st all have repainted their helmets to match Ahsoka’s facial markings, a lovely tribute.

Anakin and Obi-Wan go off to Coruscant only to find out that Palpatine’s been kidnapped, which is where Sith picks up. Cody stays with them, as we saw in the movie. Throughout the next several episodes, we see Ahsoka’s side of the events of the final prequel film, with mentions of Obi-Wan taking out Grievous and Anakin becoming the liaison between Palpatine and the council, and so on.

Meanwhile, Ahsoka and Rex and the gang are taking on Maul, along with Bo Katan (a Mandalorian brilliantly voiced by Katee Sackhoff). The fight between Maul and Ahsoka is one of the best in SW history (the franchise’s record with saber duels is notoriously hit-and-miss), and apparently Ray Park (who played Maul in The Phantom Menace) came back to do motion capture for Maul’s fight with Ahsoka, and it shows. Just a brilliant set piece, culminating in Ahsoka’s hard-fought victory.

But then, as they’re taking Maul to custody, Order 66 comes through.

Ahsoka is able to remove the chip from Rex, whose foreknowledge of the chip from the previous storyline allows him to temporarily resist the urge to kill Ahsoka, but that’s as far as that goes. It becomes Ahsoka and Maul against an entire ship full of clones who are compelled to kill Ahsoka—worse, compelled to kill Ahsoka while wearing helmets repainted in tribute to her leadership

The end result is not only a thrill-ride of an action sequence, but also a tragedy of epic proportions, as Ahsoka and Rex are forced into a position where they have to fight for their lives against their friends and comrades. Ahsoka frees Maul to cause chaos and be a distraction (when Maul asks for a weapon, Ahsoka tartly points out that she’s not rooting for him), and he destroys the hyperdrive forcing the ship to crash, a conflagration that only Ahsoka, Rex, and Maul survive.

The Clone Wars ends with Ahsoka and Rex burying the dead 501st, with their helmets on sticks, and then leaving, Ahsoka abandoning one of her light sabers. That’s followed by a coda from some time later when Darth Vader arrives at the crash site, now covered in snow. He sees Ahsoka’s light saber and takes it away.

The last shot is more poignant than anything Lucas managed in any of the prequel movies: the reflection of Vader walking away in the visor of a clone trooper helmet repainted with Ahsoka’s facial markings.

The Clone Wars has its ups and downs, but the latter portion of it in particular, and the series as a whole does an amazing job of showing us the many aspects of this war, bringing a complexity and a grandeur to the proceedings that the prequel movies utterly failed to convey. I haven’t even mentioned the excellent work the show does with Senators Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa, the other Jedi like Plo Koon (one of the redshirted Jedi in Sith, the show gives him a personality and background as one of the wisest of the Jedi) and Mace Windu (I particularly enjoyed little Boba Fett trying to get revenge on Mace for killing his Dad by infiltrating the clone training school), and the greater texture of life in the galaxy far, far away. Oh, and the first six seasons open each episode with delightful opening voiceover narration that sounds like it comes straight from a 1930s newsreel. Tom Kane absolutely nails those, and I have to admit to missing them in the seventh season. (Less so the fortune-cookie aphorisms at the top of each episode, which got a little strained as the show went on, and were never all that great in the first place.)

Unfortunately, the show also overdoes the comic-relief droid trope that SW can’t seem to get away from, though it does so better than the prequel movies and Rebels, but not as good as Rogue One, Solo, and The Mandalorian. And they keep using Jar Jar Binks and the Nemoidians for no compellingly good reason, with the only attempt to mitigate the disgusting racial stereotypes they both embody by hiring George Takei to voice one of the Nemoidians in one episode (it’s not nearly enough).

Still, this is quite possibly the finest overall piece of SW lore you’ll see on screen. The entire series is available on Disney+. The streaming service shows it in broadcast order, which is not necessarily the best way to view it. Luckily, there’s a recommended viewing order here…. 

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