Because I’m viewing the series in chronological order, for the purposes of this article, Season Three is defined as the episodes on this list beginning with “Corruption” and ending with “Wookiee Hunt”.
Amidst the backlash surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, one of the more common talking points has been complaints about how these movies somehow “disrespect” the history of the series and misunderstand the way that the Force is supposed to work. Whether that’s Rey’s seemingly natural gift for tapping into the Force to do things without much training, or Luke’s ability to transcend the boundaries of physical space to manifest an image of himself on an entirely different planet, disgruntled men on the internet have made no secret about their displeasure, often tipping their hand to reveal the ugly attitudes they have towards women and minorities that underline many of these grievances. But I’m not here to discuss that aspect of it (I covered that pretty throughly in my piece on The Phantom Menace); instead, I bring this up because the idea that the Force is this rigid thing with a list of codified rules, stats, and power levels is so deeply antithetical to the way George Lucas always approached storytelling in this series.
When you think of “using the Force” your mind probably conjures images of telekinesis – of moving objects with not but the power of your thoughts – but it’s easy to forget that this quintessential “Force power” was not introduced until Star Wars’ first sequel. In almost every film we see the Force manifest in some new way that was not previously established. This not only presented opportunities for exciting new visuals, but it helped to entrench the Force as this vast, mysterious thing that even the oldest and most experienced Force users have an incomplete understanding of. Even the oft-maligned explanation of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace can be read as one more indictment of the Jedi Order’s arrogance – an attempt to reduce something vast and unexplainable into concrete, quantifiable terms.
But when it comes to taking big swings in expanding and redefining the nature of this cosmic energy field, Lucas saved his biggest swings for, of all things, The Clone Wars cartoon series. And it all began in Season Three.
In terms of overarching quality, Season Three is less consistent than its immediate predecessor, but the presence of some genuine stinkers is offset by some of the series’ most compelling stories to date. Starting in Season Two, Lucas took the creative reigns of the show and began using The Clone Wars as an outlet to experiment with genre and the types of stories Star Wars was able to tell. In Season Three, though, we move beyond mere experimentation as this animated show becomes the means through which Lucas can expound on and redefine the very essence of the preeminent pop mythology of the past 30 years.
But Season Three doesn’t take those big swings right out the gate. In fact, a lot of the early episodes of this season end up functioning as table setting for events that would come later in the series. In fact, the very first episode of this season takes place, chronologically, amid the earliest episodes of Season One. This prequel episode is paired with one that is contemporary with the rest of the season, but once again I’m finding myself becoming an advocate for the chronological viewing order of this series (and, to be clear, only this series). Both “Clone Cadets” and “ARC Troopers” are pretty solid episodes on their own merit, and they work well enough viewed back to back, but putting two full seasons of distance between them actually ends up strengthening the payoffs in the second episode. To be fully honest, the first time I watched the series, I didn’t quite grok that “Clone Cadets” was meant to be a prequel to the majority of the series (I didn’t remember that these characters had already been seen on active duty in the episode “Rookies”). Watching it first not only lends greater weight to the deaths of the other members of Domino Squad in “Rookies”, but it feels like a genuine reunion when we finally get to catch up with these guys 38 episodes later. The purpose of these episodes is to set up Fives and Echo to be major players going forward, but by viewing these episodes in chronological order, you get to better sustain the illusion that these guys were significant over the entire arc of the series, not just from Season Three forward. But while these episodes successfully recontextualize minor characters into major roles, the beginning of Season Three also spends a lot of time closing the loop on an older character with somewhat less grace.
Look, I’m biased. I think Ziro the Hutt is probably the most insufferable character in contemporary Star Wars canon. Your mileage may vary, but the lengths the series goes to to reintroduce this miserable slug back into the show only to kill him off feels hardly worth the effort. I do sympathize with the thought behind it, though. In release order, Season One ends with bounty hunter Cad Bane holding the Republic Senate as ransom in an effort to free Ziro, then Season Two came along and no one ever comments on it. It’s valiant to want to tie off that narrative thread – and there are a handful of interesting ideas introduced along the way – but it feels like a whole lot of work for such minor payoff. The legwork to make this happen, weirdly, begins in an arc that initially has nothing to do with Ziro. Rather, the first two episodes of this three episode arc are focussed on the growing political unrest on Mandalore. This time it’s not Death Watch seeking to overthrow the Duchess, but her own Prime Minister. Padmé and Ahsoka each do their part in separate episodes to uncover aspects of this conspiracy, but in the end, this all amounts to little more than an exercise in moving pieces around the board for later story developments, a concept that’s crystallized when this arc doesn’t conclude on Mandalore, but instead continues to follow Padmé and Ahsoka into an otherwise unrelated story about an assassination attempt on the senator’s life arranged by – you guessed it – Ziro.
After that, the initial Season One finale is sandwiched into an arc between two new episodes; the first is a reasonably fun Droids-inspired romp wherein Cad Bane tries to extract the layout of the Senate building from C-3PO, and the latter of which is a buddy cop story with Obi-Wan and Quinlan Vos (a dark, tortured Jedi made popular by earlier comics) in pursuit of Ziro and his girlfriend, Sy Snootles (yes, really). Despite only properly appearing in this one episode, the Clone Wars iteration of Quinlan Vos departs from his comic book origins and falls more into the mold of Martin Riggs to contrast with Obi-Wan’s Roger Murtaugh. He’s rash and reckless, but more likely to delight in antagonizing stuffy, by-the-books Obi-Wan than brood over his parents’ deaths at the hand of space vampires. There were more stories planned to utilize this character, but the only ones that ever properly materialized came in the form of abandoned episode scripts that were eventually adapted into the novel Dark Disciple. As it stands, the character only ends up showing up this one time to help capture Ziro who, as it turns out, winds up being murdered by femme fatale Sy Snootles. It’s all deeply ridiculous, and I might otherwise be enamored by that if I didn’t find these characters so throughly unpleasant.
But it’s two arcs that come right in the middle of Season Three that I really want to focus on; two arcs that not only push the storytelling of The Clone Wars in bold new directions, but arguably set the precedent for what Star Wars was allowed to be after Lucas ceded creative control.
The first of these comes in the episodes “Nightsisters”, “Monster”, and “Witches of the Mist”. I actually find this arc to be rather frustrating. All at once, it plants the seeds for one of the series’ most interesting continuing story threads as well as one of its worst. On the more positive side of things, this is a story that focusses on Asajj Ventress, Dooku’s assassin and prospective Sith apprentice. It’s that very fact that makes her a potential threat to Sidious. To ensure that Dooku has no plans to betray his master, the Sith Lord demands that Dooku betray his own apprentice. Dooku abandons Asajj, leaving her to die as the Separatist forces bombard their own cruiser in an effort to eliminate both the Jedi and Ventress herself. It’s a smart development for both of these characters, though the full dramatic weight of which is really only apparent in Ventress’s story. This woman, who has defined herself through her loyalty first to the Jedi and then to the Sith, no longer has anyone to be loyal to. Rudderless and without direction, she returns to her birthplace of Dathomir, home to an ancient coven of witches known as the Nightsisters.
The Nightsisters themselves are a hugely fascinating addition to Star Wars lore. They’re women who are able to perform feats of magick utterly distinct from what we’ve seen Jedi and Sith accomplish through their connections to the Force. In bizarre rituals, they can affect and control people’s minds, make themselves invisible to the naked eye, and even transform the physical features of another being. In a universe that had suffered years of shrinking as a result of prequel era storytelling, this weird, unprecedented exploration of the mystical opens up endless new opportunities. Whether or not these magicks have any connection to the Force, it shows that power is not the exclusive purview of the Jedi and Sith dichotomy.
Unfortunately, all of these fascinating elaborations on the very fabric of the Star Wars universe are done in the service of introducing up a bad character who only exists as a vehicle to reintroduce a worse one. It’s almost surprising that Savage Oppress was a new creation of this series, because he feels like a relic of the 1990s; a dark and violent Frankenstein monster in the vein of comic book villains like Venom, Bane, and Doomsday. His introduction to The Clone Wars comes with the kind of jarring tonal shift into darkness that is nearly always unflattering for series that ostensibly appeal to kids. You really have to work to earn those shifts in any way that feels narratively justified; the Harry Potter stories, for example, get pretty grim near the end, but that comes after years and years of storytelling that reflects the central characters’ maturity and increasing awareness of the evils of the world. Here, though, there’s no such progression, and seeing (and hearing) Savage graphically snap the neck of his brother with his bare hands feels gratuitous and gross. There’s nothing interesting about Savage, which is a shame because there’s a lot that’s interesting about Ventress, and she ends up being somewhat sidelined by this Darth Maul lookalike monster pandering to adolescent tastes.
Fortunately, the other significant story does not have these problems.
Though I still find The Clone Wars to be wildly inconsistent, I’ve warmed to it substantially. On my initial viewing, though, I found most of the first three seasons largely unpleasant, but even back then, these three episodes made me sit forward in my seat. “Overlords”, “Altar of Mortis”, and “Ghosts of Mortis” are the secret second watershed moment of Star Wars storytelling. This arc forever changed to direction of Star Wars storytelling moving forward in a way we haven’t seen since The Empire Strikes Back, and while Star Wars’ first sequel narrowed the scope of what this universe could be, the Mortis arc blows it out to staggering new proportions.
In this arc, Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka are mysteriously summoned to Mortis, a world that seems to act as a conduit through which the cosmic Force flows into the galaxy. As Obi-Wan observes, the planet is the Force, and it’s ruled over by three beings: ancient Force wielders known only as Father, Daughter, and Son. Daughter embodies the light side of the Force, Son represents the dark, and all the while the Father struggles to maintain balance between them. The three Jedi find themselves caught in the midst of this struggle as the Father, ever weakening, believes Anakin can take his place. What plays out over the course of these three episodes is Anakin’s arc over six movies played out in microcosm, reflected through the lens of a Greek myth starring the personified embodiments of the Force itself. The Son kills the Daughter, sending the world hurtling into darkness, and it’s only when the Father sacrifices himself to defeat the Son that balance is restored. Along the way, Obi-Wan is counseled by visions of Qui-Gon, Ahsoka receives a warning from a version of her future self, and Anakin gets to witness his own fall to the dark side. It’s wild stuff that’s way beyond the bounds of traditional Star Wars storytelling, and in conjunction with the new ideas at play with the Nightsisters, it opened the door of possibilities for the future of Star Wars stories.
There’s no way to know what George Lucas’s intentions were when he came up with this story, but the episode “Overlords” aired just a few months before Lucas began discussing the possibility of selling his company. He would ultimately appoint Kathleen Kennedy to take over running the company in his retirement, but when it comes to storytelling, it’s hard not to see the work Lucas was doing on The Clone Wars as a way to mentor the next generation of Star Wars storytellers. I’ve talked before about how Lucas’s involvement in the series transformed it from a pretty standard Expanded Universe project into something that feels more of a piece with the primary saga of films, and here it feels like he was expressly giving Dave Filoni and, by extension, all future Star Wars storytellers permission to get weird with it. This is a deeply strange series that eventually became such an institution that it was codified with its own restrictive set of rules and expectations, but here, just 22 months before Lucas would formally leave the company, he kicked down the walls of expectations and opened this galaxy back up to weird, esoteric, an utterly unconventional new stories. Without the Mortis arc, it’s unlikely we would have seen the deep dives into the very nature of the Force that Star Wars Rebels explored; it’s possible, even, that the places Rian Johnson took The Last Jedi would have felt too out there without the implicit permission Lucas granted future storytellers with this story.
Star Wars has always been at its best exploring new ideas and pushing its story into bold new directions. It’s always stood on the shoulders of nostalgia, but the best stories use the familiar as a springboard for doing the unexpected. In earlier seasons of The Clone Wars there was a lot of familiar, and some of it was even good, but very little of it was unexpected. Season Three changed that. There are more stories in Season Three I’d love to talk about – there’s an excellent riff on “The Most Dangerous Game” starring Ahsoka, as well as a Padmé-centric arc that digs into the meat of the prequels’ politics and it rules extremely hard. But it’s the Nightsisters and Mortis that changed the trajectory of this show, and in the process reaffirmed that, like the Force itself, Star Wars is bigger, weirder, and more potent than even its most ardent acolytes recognize.
Leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I am endeavoring to watch every canonical Star Wars movie and TV show in the in-universe chronological order. Follow along with…