Because I’m viewing the series in chronological order, for the purposes of this article, Season One is defined as the episodes on this list beginning with “Cat and Mouse” and ending with “Liberty on Ryloth.”
Before I began this series in earnest, I wrote a handful of articles on the no-longer-canon Star Wars television productions of yesteryear. To be perfectly transparent, that was largely done on a lark; I happened to find bootlegs of some of the things I had never seen, and writing about them gave me an excuse to watch them for the first time. I didn’t expect it to have any bearing on my analysis of the series proper.
And then, I started researching the production of The Clone Wars.
Earlier this year I published a similarly titled piece on the also similarly titled Clone Wars micro-series from 2003. In it I talked a lot about my broader problems with the way storytelling in Star Wars’s old Expanded Universe contradicts and undermines the ideas that beat at the heart of Lucas’s films. Generally speaking, these stories had a tendency to prioritize what was “cool” over what was thematically consistent with the story of the films, and a lot of that came from the nature of these stories as little more than officially licensed fan fiction. They were stories made by fans with little to no oversight or involvement from the people who actually worked on the films they were spinning off of. At best, you would have situations like Lucasfilm’s pre-2008 television output wherein Lucas would pitch a broad outline of an idea and then let someone else run with it. That’s how everything from the Holiday Special to the Droids cartoon functioned, and it’s sort of how The Clone Wars itself began.
Lucas hired Dave Filoni to come onboard and supervise the show which, at the time, was meant to be much more disconnected from the primary story of the films, with certain characters, stories, and entire planets initially deemed off limits. But as production progressed on the series, Lucas became more enamored with it and got more directly involved on a creative level; giving notes, rewriting scripts, overseeing editorial, and – by the time the first season wrapped up – writing the initial treatment on most episodes. All of that fundamentally changed what this series was meant to be.
In an interview with TheForce.net, Dave Filoni described it like this:
I think if anything there was a period where Henry [Gilroy] and I had to learn exactly what it took to be a part of George Lucas’ Star Wars, and tell the Star Wars story his way. We had to learn how to look at the Galaxy from his point of view and let go of some of what we considered canon after we found out the ideas were only EU. Really we had to “unlearn what we had learned” and go back to the movies as the defining source material.
And you can see this learning process rather starkly in the first season of The Clone Wars.
Put bluntly, the early episodes of The Clone Wars are not very good. Occasionally they are even quite bad. It’s not unfair to call the feature film that launched the series the nadir of Star Wars (at least in terms of the series’ history of film and television output). Every character is the worst version of themselves, Anakin and Obi-Wan’s bickering from Attack of the Clones is ported over and adding Anakin’s new Padawan, Ahsoka, into the mix makes it even more unpleasant. I won’t defend the fan reaction to the character, which plays into a long, ugly tradition of toxicity and misogyny in Star Wars fandom, but I will acknowledge that our introduction to this character was poorly conceived. Her initial dynamic with Anakin is meant to mirror the way Anakin bristled against Obi-Wan’s authority in Episode II, but that only serves to exacerbate a character dynamic that already didn’t work. The end result is that none of the main characters in this story feel like they like each other, and so, in turn, it’s hard for the audience to like them. Make that character dynamic the center of a story that is never able to find the correct balance of tone between silly and serious, and then render it all through stiff and ugly animation and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The Clone Wars feature film is everything that’s bad about the prequels with none of what’s good.
Unfortunately, this is how the series continued for several of its early story arcs. The episodes “Downfall of a Droid” and “Duel of the Droids” are very firmly set in this same mold, and the Malevolence arc manages to be only slightly better off. Incidentally, this front loading of the series with bad episodes is actually an argument in favor of a chronological viewing order. When it comes to the films, it doesn’t make a lick of sense to watch Star Wars in anything but release order, but for The Clone Wars, throwing in some episodes from late season two and early season three right at the beginning helps smooth out the show’s initial badness. It’s not meant to be a pilot, but starting the series with season two episode “Cat and Mouse” makes for a much more positive first impression than starting with the feature.
But season one slowly but surely starts to improve. By the time we get to “Jedi Crash” the quality of animation has gotten substantially better, and the writing and performances have settled into a solid dynamic for most of the central characters. In episodes like “Trespass” and “Mystery of a Thousand Moons”, the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan already feels way better than it ever did in the prequel movies. For the first time, you finally start to buy these guys as being the good friends Ben spoke of in the original film.
The problem that persists, however, comes at the intersection of tone and theme. These later episodes don’t have the aggressive tonal whiplash that plagued the earliest episodes of the series, but what it does have is a tone that fundamentally conflicts with the story that needs to be told. The story of the Clone Wars and the fall of the Republic is a morally complicated tragedy – one of heroes who have unwittingly become accomplices to evil through their arrogance and bureaucratic complacency. If the original Star Wars is partly a reflection on the Vietnam War, than the prequel era films could be viewed as a condemnation of the post-World War II American social climate that allowed leaders like Nixon to rise to power.
I’ve talked a lot in previous essays about how prescient the prequel films feel with regards to the Bush administration, 9/11, the Iraq War, and even our current political hellscape, but that’s largely due to the cyclical nature of these things. What the prequels really are is Lucas as an older man reflecting on the work he made as a young man. THX 1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars are all in their own way expressions of bitterness and anger at the way things like Nixon and Vietnam shattered his idealized memory of the world he grew up in, but with the clarity of hindsight, that very idea of the idyllic past is what opened the door for the later atrocities to happen. It’s the same reason the “Make America Great Again” mantra is so toxic, because it’s mythologizing an era that was only really great from a hyper-narrow perspective – one that deliberately excludes anyone who was not a middle class white person.
Unfortunately all of that complexity is lost on the first season of The Clone Wars. Instead, the conflict is painted in stark shades of black and white, deliberately evoking World War II era serials and newsreels with their square-jawed, noble heroes and their diabolical, mustache-twirling villains. The first time I watched this series several years ago, I remember just loathing all of the villains in it. Even as the show got better, characters like General Grievous, Asajj Ventress, and even Count Dooku continued to grate on my nerves. At the time, I attributed it to my general distaste of the prequel era characters and tone, but now that I’ve finally managed to make my peace with the prequels, I’m able to more clearly diagnose the real problem. The characters as presented here aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re presented very two-dimensionally. This is meant to be a story where both the “good guys” and the “bad guys are equally contributing to the dissolution of democracy and the rise of fascism. Especially in characters like Count Dooku, there’s tremendous opportunity to deal with the fact that he’s kind of right. The Republic is corrupt, the Jedi Order is failing, and yet, in an episodes like “The Gungan General” where Dooku is literally shackled to Anakin and Obi-Wan and the trio are forced to work together in order to escape, the show totally drops the ball. This scenario feels like it’s designed specifically to force the kinds of ideological sparring that might occur between a pair of Jedi Knights and a man who left the Jedi Order because he perceived them as abandoning their purpose, but instead, all that comes of this pairing is petty one-liners and empty bickering.
On the other side of that coin, almost every time there’s an opportunity to wrestle with the issue of Jedi peacekeepers taking up the mantle of soldiers in an illegitimate war, the show opts to brush over it, presenting the Jedi as unerringly noble and anyone who criticizes the war or their role in it as either naïve or deranged. Doctor Vindi distresses over war being spread across the galaxy, but his answer to the problem is releasing the deadly Blue Shadow Virus. In “Lair of Grievous” we follow Kit Fisto as he is reunited with an apprentice who feels frustrated and abandoned after his Master left to fight in the war, but instead of dealing with Fisto’s failings as a mentor and a Jedi, he is still presented as completely noble while his Padawan is at fault for daring to doubt the process.
The quintessential example of this, though, comes in the pair of episodes “Jedi Crash” and “Defenders of Peace”. In this arc, the Jedi happen upon a world populated by pacifist creatures who fled their homes in an effort to isolate themselves from the war. The leader of the Lurmen tribe confronts the Jedi on the hypocrisy inherent in calling themselves defenders of peace while they perpetuate violence and war. But in the end, war comes to the Lurmen’s world, and rather than finding an alternative to fighting or at the very least defending them without infringing on their pacifist ideals, the Jedi instead enlist the Lurmen in the fight, militarizing a peaceful people against the wishes of their leader. All the while, the show presents this as heroic and good. It’s an incredibly weird stance to take for a franchise that was initially rooted in war protest.
It all comes back, I think, to this old Expanded Universe mindset of missing the forest for the trees – doing what’s texturally cool rather than what’s thematically resonant. Everyone knows that Lucas was inspired by early 20th century adventure serials, and so evoking the style of those series feels like a natural choice, but by mimicking that texture, the show undermines the messy, morally complicated nature of the conflict at the center of this story – one that’s wildly different from the black and white morality of Buck Rogers or The Phantom Empire.
As The Clone Wars progresses, though, more of that thematic complexity starts to creep in, culminating in some of the show’s very best stories in the final couple of seasons. Going back to that quote from above, I think this reflects the evolution of Dave Filoni and Henry Gilroy’s understanding of what the core of these stories is alongside the deepening of Lucas’s creative involvement. By the end of the first season, you can already see this starting to coalesce with the very best arc of the season.
The episodes “Storm Over Ryloth”, “Innocents of Ryloth”, and “Liberty on Ryloth” follow the liberation of the Twi’lek home world from Separatist invaders. Over these three episodes, the show is able to deal with some really rich, complex ideas. We get an early example of one of the series’ most intriguing concepts: the clones as individuals rather than mindless drones. By reframing our understanding of the nature of these soldiers, it reframes the entire conflict in a different light. It’s no longer two armies of automatons clashing, but an army of robots versus an army of slaves – individual, intelligent people who were bred to fight in a war they have no stake in. That they serve as the army of the Republic, a government that has outlawed slavery, serves to shine a stark light on the Republic’s failure. To that end, this arc also shows us Twi’lek freedom fighter Cham Syndulla as he confronts Mace Windu over concerns that the Republic’s “security” forces will just give way to another occupation under a different army, a concern we later see become a reality in both Star Wars Rebels and the novel Lords of the Sith. Even without that benefit of hindsight, it still works to raise the specter of the Empire and highlight the idea that the “good guys” aren’t really the good guys in this story.
Lucasfilm formally abandoned the old Expanded Universe in April of 2014, but for all intents and purposes, its end began six years earlier. Looking back, The Clone Wars can be viewed as a passing of the Star Wars torch from Lucas to Dave Filoni and the rest of the team that worked on the show, people who would become deeply involved in the direction Star Wars took after Lucas left the company. Without Lucas taking a vested interest in this series and really making it clear what is and isn’t Star Wars, it’s unlikely that the stories we’ve gotten in the wake of the Disney buyout would be as interesting as they are (broadly speaking). The early episodes of this series, I think, are evidence to that point. You can chalk some of that up to the standard learning curve of television production, but without Lucas’s story instincts and his willingness to disregard the Expanded Universe and insist on pushing the story in more interesting directions, I don’t think the series would have ever gone to places like the Mortis arc in season three, the Yoda arc in season six, or Ahsoka’s final arc in season five. That’s not to discount the work of Dave Filoni, Henry Gilroy, or any of the other creatives on the show – all of whom are immensely talented – but it was Lucas who gave them permission to not just make another Expanded Universe show, but instead actually make Star Wars.
Leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode IX, I am endeavoring to watch every canonical Star Wars movie and TV show in the in-universe chronological order. Follow along with…