Over the past few months I’ve watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars in its entirety. I’m still not sure why I did this. It started as curiosity – I have been enjoying Lucasfilm Animation’s new series Star Wars Rebels, so I figured I might as well give their previous show a shot, but very quickly this proved to be a mistake. The first season of the show, particularly the first handful of episodes, borders on being unwatchable. It’s irritating and shallow, filled with characters that did not connect with me on any level doing things I could not care less about. On top of that, the whole thing is mired in the distasteful aesthetic and tone of the Star Wars Prequels. I very quickly gave up on it, deciding that this nonsense was not worth my time. And yet, there was still this nagging curiosity, spurred on by rumors of overlap with Rebels and assurances from many people that the show gets dramatically better after a certain point. So, against my better judgement, I did it; I watched all 125 episodes of this silly show, so I might as well talk about it.
First, allow me to address perhaps the most important question: does the show get better? Yes, but not as dramatically as I was led to believe. The show goes from being a painful endurance test, to merely being not very good. There are some bright spots in the series (more on this in a bit), but they’re tucked away inside hours of thudding mediocrity.
If you aren’t aware, or couldn’t gather as much from the title, The Clone Wars is set during the roughly three year gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Unlike most serialized shows, The Clone Wars doesn’t feature large stories that span the length of a season, but rather smaller, self-contained story arcs that play out over three or four episodes. These story arcs usually tend to focus on Anakin and Obi-Wan, but there are times when the show takes the opportunity to explore other facets of the Star Wars universe during this period. There are story arcs dedicated to other members of the Jedi order, crime and politics in the Galactic Republic, and the lives of Clone Troopers. In many ways, The Clone Wars is George Lucas’ Silmarillion. There’s a sense that he’s purging all the lore and mythology of this universe he had tucked away in his head, and like The Silmarillion, it often comes across as being equal parts interesting and misguided.
The show is, after all, coming straight from the mind of Prequel-era Lucas, and despite being filtered through the talented direction of Dave Filoni and the rest of the Lucasfilm Animation team, a lot of that very specific kind of George Lucas badness seeps into the show. There are numerous callbacks to the original trilogy that misunderstand their original intent (like a moment where Anakin comes up with the idea to carbon freeze himself in order to break into a high security prison) and there’s the same weird conflict of tone in which annoying cartoon characters with funny voices exist alongside moments that are needlessly dark and violent. The original Star Wars is so great in hitting just the right tone – it appeals to kids without talking down to them and it plays well to adults without having to posture as being something dark and mature. The tone of The Clone Wars, as well as the Prequels, has a gross phoniness to it. It simultaneously comes across like the kid who swears way too much because he thinks it makes him sound older and the adult who gets on his knees and talks like a baby anytime there are children around. There’s this whole business about the return of Darth Maul that plays like a bad ‘90s comic book, and then there are story arcs that are centered around Jar Jar Binks or worse (and trust me, there’s MUCH worse).
The other big issue here that reflects the Prequels is that The Clone Wars frequently introduces compelling themes without paying them off. A thread that runs throughout the show is the idea that the Jedi, self-described guardians of peace, have no business leading a war effort. This is a GREAT theme for the show to explore, but they never pay it off. There’s more than one story arc in which the Jedi find themselves on a world that has chosen to remain neutral in the war and are chastised for bringing war to this planet, only to end up saving the day and being hailed heroes by the end of the story. The show likes the idea of painting in shades of gray, but always ends up defaulting to a black-and-white solution. There’s even an episode where the Jedi militarize a peaceful people against the wishes of their leader, and the show treats this as an unambiguous victory. It’s so crazy because we already know the outcome of this war. We know the whole thing was founded on a conspiracy to allow the Sith to take control of the Galaxy, and that both sides are working towards that end, and yet the show refuses to do anything but portray the Jedi as paragons of goodness and the Separatists as unflinchingly evil. The original trilogy was a broad mythic tale of good versus evil, so these kinds of black-and-white ideals work in that context, but if you’re going to base a whole series of movies around political corruption and galactic conspiracies, you have to commit to what that entails.
So what about those bright spots I mentioned? Is there anything in this series that’s worth going out of your way to watch? Well yes, now that you mention it, there is. There are exactly four story arcs worth watching. Fifteen episodes out of a total of 125. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these four story arcs.
Season Three, Episodes 15-17
(“Overlords”, “Altar of Mortis”, and “Ghosts of Mortis”)
In the continuum of science fiction stories, Star Wars has always been on the fantasy side of things, but the Mortis storyline takes the fantasy elements of Star Wars and turns them up to eleven. The basic premise is that Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s Padawan, created for the show) receive a distress signal that leads them to Mortis, a conduit through which the Force flows through the galaxy. On Mortis, they meet the physical embodiments of the Light and Dark Side of the Force in the form of a Daughter, a Son, and the Father who keeps the balance between them. The story deals extensively with Anakin’s supposed role as “the Chosen One” and goes all out with big, weird fantasy imagery. It’s extremely unconventional, and in many ways doesn’t even feel like a Star Wars story, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. It sheds the skin of Prequel badness, and zooms off into uncharted territory, and it was the first story arc of the whole series that was actually exciting to watch.
Season Five, Episodes 17-20
(“Sabotage”, “The Jedi Who Knew Too Much”, “To Catch a Jedi”, and “The Wrong Jedi”)
This story arc was the final one that aired on Cartoon Network after the show’s cancellation (the unfinished sixth season was distributed through Netflix), and it’s essentially a Star Wars themed remake of The Fugitive. If there’s one single good thing to say about The Clone Wars, it’s the development of Ahsoka Tano as a character. Anakin’s apprentice invented for the show was, like many things early in the series’ run, completely insufferable. She was irritating in her demeanor and a generally superfluous character given the pre-existing dynamic between Anakin and Obi-Wan, but a funny thing happened on the way to 125 episodes, the writers turned her into a really great, really compelling character. While the assurances of “it gets better” in regards to the show as a whole are a gross overstatement, they’re absolutely true about Ahsoka to the point that this story arc, which sets up her exit from the show, is the only genuinely moving moment in the whole damn series. It’s also perhaps the only time the show managed to stick to its guns and say “you know what, the Jedi are kind of jerks” without undercutting that point with a heroic turn. I’ve heard rumors that Ahsoka might be showing up at some point in Star Wars Rebels, and I was initially dead against this idea, but my mind has been changed on the matter. Ahsoka is a great character, and I’d love to see what she’s up to fifteen years later.
Season Six, Episodes 1-4
(“The Unknown”, “Conspiracy”, “Fugitive”, and “Orders”)
This story arc is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s one of the stories that focusses primarily on the Clone Troopers, and second, it retcons and recontextualizes one of the dumbest choices made in the Prequels. On the first point, The Clone Wars went out of its way to make the Clone Troopers compelling, likable characters. A lot of the story arcs they’re featured in aren’t great, but the series sets up an interesting idea of the Clones developing individuality despite being created as disposable firepower. This story arc is the best of the Clone-centric stories, tackling these ideas head on, but beyond that, this episode serves as an opportunity to fix some of the lore broken by the Prequels. I’ve said this before, but “Order 66” has to be one of the dumbest things to come out of the Prequels. On a base level, it’s so painfully uncool that most of the Jedi were wiped out by Stormtroopers, and on story level it comes across as silly that the Clones, after years of fighting alongside them, would execute their Jedi generals without a moment’s hesitation. While it can’t do much to address the former issue, this story arc does fix the latter, and it does so in a way that pays off the development of the Clone as characters throughout the show.
Season Six, Episodes 10-13
(“The Lost One”, “Voices”, “Destiny”, and “Sacrifice”)
Yoda, as he appears in the Prequels, is a completely different character from the Yoda that appears in The Empire Strikes Back. His motivations, his philosophy, and even some of his famous lines in Empire are completely contradicted by his character in the Prequels. While it’s possible to see what Lucas was going for – a war hero who now regrets his role in the war – much like Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, Yoda’s transformation is not handled in a way that is compelling or convincing. The final four episodes of The Clone Wars attempts to bridge that gap and give us some context for the Yoda of the Prequels becoming the Yoda we see in Empire. It’s not perfect, and I think in some ways it’s held back a bit by the series’ persistent problem with committing to more complex themes, but it comes close enough to be worth recommending. The story arc also deals with some of the weirder lore of Star Wars and dips its toes back into the out-there fantasy stuff we saw in the aforementioned Mortis storyline. Of the four story arcs I’m recommending here, this one comes with the most reservations, but it’s still easily one of the brightest moments of a mostly dull series.
Having watched the show, I sort of get why so many people like it so much. There are a lot of people out there in my generation and younger who grew up with the Star Wars Prequels and have a certain level of nostalgia for them. They may have realized that the movies themselves are garbage as they’ve gotten older, but that nostalgia still exists, and The Clone Wars plays to that. It takes the tone, characters, and settings of the Prequels and polishes them just enough to look good by comparison, but despite any improvements, the show is still mired in the same problematic qualities that made the Prequels such a disaster. While the original Star Wars films and Star Wars Rebels have characters that are instantly appealing, the small handful of good characters in The Clone Wars only became worthwhile after years of character development, and unlike the assured tone of the original films, The Clone Wars’ comes across as schizophrenic and false.
I come to bury The Clone Wars, not to praise it. We’re entering a time where Star Wars is exciting again for the first time in 15 years, and looking back on the end of the old era only serves as a reminder for just how broken the whole thing was. Who knows how the new series of films will turn out, but for now we have Star Wars Rebels and that’s good enough for me.