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 “Holocron Heist” and ending with “Lethal Trackdown”.
When you talk to fans of The Clone Wars, the oft-repeated line is that the show starts out kind of bad in the first season, but then quickly turns into something great. There’s definitely some truth to this sentiment, but it comes with a healthy amount of exaggeration on both sides. On the one end, as we discussed last time, some of the early episodes of The Clone Wars’ first season – in particular the pilot movie that was released in theaters – are substantially worse than “kind of bad.” The good news, though, is that the show does get noticeably better over the course of Season One; both in the very tangible way of improved animation quality as well as in the less tangible, but even more crucial aspects of character, tone, and theme. The final arc of the first season almost feels like a different show than the theatrical release.
Unfortunately, that upward trajectory hits a pretty hard plateau in the show’s second season.
That’s not to say the show is bad in Season Two – it’s actually much more consistently good than the first season, but that consistency becomes its own sort of problem. Where the good episodes of Season One stood out because they were so much better than what had come before, almost nothing in Season Two is memorable as being particularly good or particularly bad. It all winds up coming in at the same level of “good enough,” which makes the whole season fade together into a sort of same-ey blur. Couple that with the fact that the nature of this show means there isn’t even a season-long story to track, and it makes this season kind of difficult to talk about. It’s fine, but there’s just not a lot of “there” there.
That said, there are some trends worth noting. By the start of The Clone Wars’ second season, George Lucas had taken more of a direct interest in the project. No longer content to just sign off on stories thought up by Supervising Director Dave Filoni and Series Writer Henry Gilroy, Lucas began personally penning the first pass at nearly all of the new episodes. That leads to what is perhaps the most interesting element of Season Two: experiments with genre.
George Lucas loves movies, and his well of cinematic inspiration runs deep. Do a casual search for films that inspired Star Wars and you can easily rack up a list of dozens upon dozens of films spanning decades and originating from every corner of the globe. But despite the breadth of Lucas’ inspirations, the titanic success of Star Wars pigeonholed him as a science fiction guy and he never quite got to fully explore the other types of stories he wanted to tell. He tried really hard to get a high fantasy franchise to stick, and alongside Spielberg, he crafted a love letter to old adventure serials in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there’s so much more in Lucas’s background that he was never able to get around to. Never, that is, until The Clone Wars.
Thanks to the extremely broad focus of this Star Wars cartoon, there’s an opportunity to tell stories that don’t necessarily have to adhere so strictly to the same style and tone in every episode, and that gave Lucas the excuse he needed to start playing. Right from the start of Season Two, you can see this take effect. The first arc of this new season takes inspiration from 1940s noir films, with bounty hunter Cad Bane being hired by Darth Sidious to infiltrate the Jedi Temple and steal a Holocron containing information on Force sensitive children not yet recruited by the Jedi Order. As is befitting of a noir story, this arc is darker than is typical of Star Wars, but it’s one of the rare instances in which that darkness feels meaningful rather than merely gratuitous posturing. By threatening the very future of the Jedi Order, this story examines the lengths the Jedi will go to protect their existence, even if that means compromising the very ideals that are meant to define them. The way the Jedi ultimately succeed is by performing a group mind trick on Cad Bane, and the episode presents this very nakedly as a torture tactic. It moves on perhaps a bit too quickly to let the ramifications really sink in, but it’s a pretty significant improvement in communicating theme over the first season’s propensity for always portraying the Jedi as unerringly noble and just.
Even beyond this first trio of episodes, Season Two does a lot more to really poke at the central conflict of the prequel era – the failure of the Jedi Order as an institution – but the results are still decidedly mixed. One the one hand, you get the aforementioned torture scene in “Children of the Force”, but later on in “Legacy of Terror”, the Jedi do another war crime when they kill the Geonosian queen and thereby enact genocide against an entire species, and the tone of the episode doesn’t suggest that this is in any way morally complicated. What’s frustrating is that this comes right in the middle of a four-episode arc that does do a lot to examine and interrogate the flawed belief system of the Jedi Order. “Landing at Point Rain” and “Weapons Factory” are a sort of pseudo remake of Saving Private Ryan with the invasion of Normandy relocated to Geonosis. The goal is ultimately to infiltrate and destroy a massive droid factory churning out new soldiers for the Separatist army, and Ahsoka Tano along with fellow Padawan Barriss Offee are given the task of sneaking behind enemy lines to plant explosives on the central generator powering the facility. The mission goes awry, though, Ahsoka is forced to react quickly – destroying the factory before she and Barriss are able to escape, burying them beneath tons of rubble.
Trapped, and with limited time before they suffocate and die, Barriss very quickly gives up hope, reasoning that her Master will not attempt to rescue a Padawan she assumes to be dead. And she’s right! Master Luminara steadfastly adheres to the Jedi code of purging oneself of detachments, and is ready to move on. It’s only due to Anakin’s insistence and Ahsoka’s ingenuity that the young Jedi are rescued. Adhering to the strict precepts of the Jedi code would have meant abandoning children and by inaction cause their death. This is made even more explicit later in the arc when Ahsoka refuses to kill Barriss even after Barriss’s mind has been taken over by a Geonosian parasite and the lives of herself and the remaining crew are at risk (the back half of this arc is sort of a Night of the Living Dead/Invasion of the Body Snatchers double bill). It’s a very Star Trek sort of moral conundrum – the needs of the many versus the needs of the one; killing Barriss and the remaining infected clones would have guaranteed this infection could not spread, but it would have also meant taking innocent lives, lives that Ahsoka is personally invested in. Ahsoka’s decision is the right one, even if it flies in the face of the Jedi’s teachings, and that is the point.
This arc, right in the middle of the season, is easily the high point for Season Two, and even then it’s a mixed bag in terms of effectively communicating the themes it’s trying to explore. The rest of the season feels less interested in anything that ambitious, and instead is content to play in the sandboxes of different genres. There’s a two-episode arc riffing on Kaiju movies in which a giant monster is unearthed on an alien world, brought back to Coruscant for study, and (naturally) breaks free to wreak havoc on the galactic capitol. There are also a couple of episodes doing abridged versions of Akira Kurosawa films (Seven Samurai and Stray Dog to be specific) and a screwball comedy starring Obi-Wan and an ex-flame of his, the Duchess of Mandalore. Unfortunately, that last one is less fun than it sounds, but it does, at least, try to tackle some weightier issues, even if it doesn’t do a particularly good job of it.
The most interesting angle here is Lucas’s complete overhaul of what Mandalorians even are. I’ve talked before about how The Clone Wars was the unofficial death knell for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but never is that more clear than it is here. Ideas from the expanded universe bled into the first season of this show where they were gently given a different spin to adhere to George Lucas’s vision for the series, but here we have the show devoting an entire three-episode arc to a facet of Star Wars lore that had not previously intersected with so-called “G-canon” or George Lucas Canon. The Mandalorians and their history was this whole, massive mythology that spun out of fans’ obsession with the quasi-character of Boba Fett. They were an ancient warrior race whose society had dispersed, populating the galaxy with mercenaries, bounty hunters, and ne’er-do-wells. Basically, it was an excuse to have a whole bunch of Boba Fetts running around the Expanded Universe.
In The Clone Wars, though, Lucas keeps the idea of the Mandalorians as descended from an ancient warrior race, but rather than their society dissolving, it was restructured under pacifist leadership following a brutal civil war. In the current conflict, they stand opposed to both the Galactic Republic and the Separatist Alliance – a neutral party refusing to take up arms in the conflict. It also creates an outlet to use the ideals of pacifism to challenge the role of Jedi as warriors. It’s a similar idea to what we saw in the Season One episodes “Jedi Crash” and “Defenders of Peace”, and like those episodes, the result is at least a little bit muddled. Satine, the Duchess of Mandalore, bickers with Obi-Wan over each of their views on their individual roles and responsibilities with regards to the ongoing war, but when an assassination plot is uncovered and those ideals are put to the test, Anakin just shows up and murders the orchestrator of said plot, saving either Obi-Wan or Satine from having to make a difficult choice.
And while we’re on the subject of both Boba Fett and missed opportunities to explore interesting themes, we have to talk about the final three episodes of the season. This arc, centered around Boba Fett seeking revenge against Mace Windu, just stinks. If it wasn’t already clear from my constant dismissal of the character, I think Boba Fett is kind of lame. He’s less a character than he is a costume, and fans’ decades-long obsession with him is the ultimate case study for valuing superficial “coolness” over anything with real substance. The frustrating thing is that in making him a real character, there was real opportunity to create some substance and meaning there, to give this guy some dimension beyond just a cool costume, but instead he’s just kind of this angsty twerp whose desire for revenge isn’t particularly well dramatized.
It’s a shame, because there are some really interesting ideas that they could have chewed on here. The fact that this kid is having to endure in a galaxy that is now populated with thousands of copies of his dead dad, all of whom are in service to the people who killed him in the first place. Boba’s quest for revenge could have shone a light on Mace Windu committing murder without much in the way of remorse and what that says about the Jedi as supposed peacekeepers. And those ideas are very subtly touched upon in lingering glances and pointed lines, but it never becomes the focus of the storytelling, and consequently isn’t given the weight it deserves. For all the progress the show makes in tackling some of these bigger themes, it’s still not willing to go as far as saying, “you know, maybe Mace Windu is actually kind of a bad guy.”
Ultimately that’s the problem with The Clone Wars’ second season. It’s a step forward, but not enough of one. It moves fully past the embarrassing state of early Season One, but seems content to settle in at a state of just okay. More ambitious themes are touched upon, but they’re either undercut by the narrative or not given the room to be satisfactorily explored. Two seasons in, The Clone Wars becomes a reasonably entertaining – if inconsistent – supplement to the feature films, but it’s not breaking any ground or pushing the Star Wars story in any new and interesting direction. All of that would begin to change starting with Season Three.
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…