Because I’m viewing the series in chronological order, for the purposes of this article, Season Four is defined as the episodes on this list beginning with “Water War” and ending with “Revenge”.
Revisiting The Clone Wars, it’s been interesting to more clearly be able to chart out the progression of this series. The first season is one characterized by growing pains, of unlearning the lessons of the old Expanded Universe and laying a groundwork for storytelling more in line with George Lucas’s sensibilities. The second season shows the creative team experimenting, pushing the boundaries of genre and tone to see how far into the weeds you can get while still maintaining the texture of Star Wars. Then the third season sees some pretty wild reinterpretations of the Force, opening up the mystical possibilities of a series that had become mired in codified rules and assumptions. By the time Season Four rolls around, there’s a feeling of refocussing, of taking the lessons learned on the prior three seasons and tying them all back together into stronger, tighter stories more specifically concerned with examining the deeper themes that underly this chapter of the Star Wars saga.
It’s just a shame that they’re still just off from hitting that target dead on.
Back in my revisit of Attack of the Clones, I talked about how the story of the prequels is sincerely fascinating, it’s just regrettably hampered by inconsistent execution and frustrating choices that often undercut the points these movies are trying to make. On average, the storytelling by this point in The Clone Wars is much more solid than any of the prequel films, but they’re still running into this very same problem of coming so close to dealing with these ideas of evil rising amid institutional complacency, but failing to follow that thought through to its logical conclusion. To that end, I want to focus the discussion of this season around four specific story arcs. These arcs are varied in tone and approach, but each one of them introduces a big, bold, enticing idea, and each one fumbles in some crucial way that keeps these ideas from being fully dramatically satisfying.
First on the list is the Umbara arc; that’s the episodes “Darkness on Umbara”, “The General”, “Plan of Dissent”, and “The Carnage of Krell”. Now, two years deep into this war with no end in sight, the moral justifications for the conflict are starting to wear thin. Republic forces are dispatched the shadowy world of Umbara, not to free its people from Separatist oppression or to rescue a captured ally, but merely to take control of a planet in a corner of space that happens to be advantageous to developing supply lines. It’s the most clear, cut and dry example of the Jedi abdicating their role as peacekeepers in favor of being soldiers that the series has yet offered, and it’s a point that’s underlined by the first significant appearance of the Phase II clone armor that more closely evokes the stormtroopers of the original trilogy. This is one of the series’ clone-centric arcs, which tend to be pretty interesting on average, but what really sets this one apart is the tone these episodes seek to capture. This is a story about soldiers fighting in an unjust war and beginning to question their roles in it, the disposability of their lives, and the gnawing feeling that the people making all the decisions don’t have their best interests at heart. Basically, it’s a Vietnam War story.
The Vietnam War and Star Wars have been inextricably linked since the series’ inception – it’s a story that was born out of war protest – but it’s fascinating for the first time to see the specific imagery of Vietnam War films used in Star Wars almost 35 years after the fact. In case you think I’m reaching here, they literally hired Walter Murch, the editor of Apocalypse Now, to direct an episode that is essentially one extended battle sequence. In it, this battalion of clones led by Captain Rex are tasked with taking an enemy airbase. The only problem is that their commanding officer, Anakin, is called away by Chancellor Palpatine, and in his stead the troops are to be led by Jedi General Pong Krell.
Krell’s record is effective, but ruthless. His victory count is high, but not as high as the death toll of clones under his command. He orders his troops to march headfirst into enemy territory where they are quickly decimated by ambushes, traps, and soldiers more familiar with the alien terrain than they are. In spite of incurring heavy casualties, the clones make it through and manage to capture the airbase, but Krell’s cruelty doesn’t end there. When clones Fives and Jesse have a plan to slip past enemy defenses and take out a Separatist command ship, Krell forbids them from going through with it, instead ordering them on another suicide mission to take Umbara’s capitol city. After Fives and Jesse disregard orders and successfully go through with their plan, Krell detains and unilaterally sentences them to execution without court-martial. When the other clones express concerns, he orders them away under the pretenses of defending against enemy fighters disguising themselves in stolen clone armor. These “enemies”, as I’m sure you’ve already deduced, end up being just another battalion of clones, given the same false intel by Krell. When Rex and the other clones confront the Jedi, he completes his heel turn by revealing himself to not only be a traitor, but a Sith hopeful seeking to impress Dooku with his cruelty.
By turning Krell into a cackling baddie, it reframes this story away from one of a hero whose ideals were eroded by war and lets the Jedi off the hook in a story that was ripe with opportunity to explore the failure of their order. Imagine if, rather than introducing a new character, this story had involved someone like Plo Koon, Mace Windu, or Ki-Adi-Mundi. It could have been a tale of someone who has bought so fully into the war that they’re willing to win by any means necessary rather than holding firm to the stated purpose of the Jedi in defending peace and justice. It’s there in the set up, it’s there in the story of the clones, but when it comes time to bring it all together and drive the point home at the end, they blink and the whole thing crumbles.
The Umbara arc trips right at the finish line, but otherwise it’s a really solid set of episodes, the same can’t quite be said for the Slaves of Zygeria arc (“Kidnapped”, “Slaves of the Republic”, and “Escape from Kadavo”). Here we have a set of episodes centered on a huge issue that’s gone largely unexplored in Star Wars up to this point, but renders all of it in a way that’s completely dramatically inert. The focus here is slavery – something we know exists in the Star Wars galaxy, but the movies have never quite dealt with the political ramifications of. Anakin was a slave, rescued from captivity on Tatooine, who left vowing to come back someday and free all who are in bondage. That was 14 years ago, and Anakin thus far has not freed any slaves. To make matters worse, when Togruta colonists on the planet Kiros are captured by Dookus forces and sold to Zygerrian slavers, Anakin has to go in disguise as a slaver himself in order to infiltrate the Zygerrian capital and locate the captured colonists.
Obviously that’s a hugely compelling idea; a former slave playing the role of slaver in order to rescue others from slavery. It’s Django Unchained in space. But the problem is unlike the Tarantino Spaghetti Western, the internal struggle of assuming the role of evil in an attempt to do something good isn’t ever addressed with Anakin. The one time Anakin is put in a compromising situation, he abandons his disguise without hesitation. Later, when Obi-Wan is captured and forced to work as a slave himself, there’s no moment where he’s confronted with his privilege or made to challenge his perspective in any way. On paper the set up here is enticing, but in practice, no one is ever forced to make a tough choice or question their beliefs or opinions. The closest it ever comes is in a deleted alternate ending wherein Anakin and Obi-Wan briefly debate the responsibility of the Republic when it comes to this evil existing in the galaxy.
It’s hard not to imagine a more interesting version of this story where instead of the slavers being decisively aligned with the military enemy of the Republic, the Togrutans were sold to slavers on a neutral world, one the Republic is not allowed to interfere on given their abstention from the war. The show has already gone to great lengths to establish these morally dubious neutral parties who deal with both the Republic and the Separatists. The Trade Federation and the Banking Clan being the preeminent examples. Zygeria as a neutral third party would allow for a much more focussed interrogation of the politics at the heart of this arc than they’re able to achieve with slavers aligned with the Separatists. It would make the Republic much more directly complicit in the continued practice of slavery, and it would give Anakin another reason to question the efficacy of a Republic and a Jedi Order that see slavery persist in the galaxy and yet are not allowed to take action to abolish it.
Which brings us to the episodes “Deception”, “Friends and Enemies”, “The Box”, and “Crisis on Naboo.” This arc pulls a neat trick of being mostly focussed on Obi-Wan when secretly it’s really all about Anakin. In it, the Jedi uncover information about an assassination plot aimed at the Chancellor and Obi-Wan is forced to fake his own death, change his identity, and go undercover with a group of bounty hunters being courted to do the job. The wrinkle here is that while Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council are all in on the plan, they’ve made the decision to leave Anakin in the dark, intentionally allowing the volatile young Jedi to think his friend and mentor has been killed. It’s a great set up, and when it resolves in the final five minutes of “Crisis on Naboo” it’s one of the best moments in the entire series. Unfortunately, that dramatic weight is sidelined through most of this arc in favor of a fish out of water story with Obi-Wan and the bounty hunters.
Like I said, I think the idea of having the big emotional stakes of this story reside in a character who isn’t the focus is interesting, but in order to make that work we need to have Anakin’s perception of these events in the back of our minds at all time, even when he’s not on screen. The problem is that too often the story veers so far away from Anakin that it loses the point of what the story is really trying to accomplish. The worst offender here is “The Box” which, though fun, accomplishes so little in terms of forwarding the story or developing its themes that it could almost be cut entirely without much consequence.
When we do finally get to see Anakin deal with the weight of this betrayal in the final moments of this arc, it’s moving and impactful and helps to sell Anakin’s frustrations with Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council better than anything in the movies ever did, but it’s all relegated to the final five minutes of a 90 minute story. When Anakin discovers the betrayal, that should hit like a ton of bricks, but instead, we first get a scene where Yoda and Mace Windu decide to bring Anakin up to speed, mitigating somewhat the guilt of their manipulations.
The final arc I want to discuss is about Asajj Ventress and the return of Maul. I’ve talked extensively about my problems with Maul as a character, and I’m sure I’ll talk even more as I revisit Season Five of The Clone Wars as well as Solo and Rebels. But my frustration here comes from the fact that all of the stuff dealing with Asajj Ventress in this arc is capital-G Great, and the hard pivot to the worst character in all of Star Wars takes away from the triumph of that story.
I’m going to talk a lot about Ahsoka next time, because her exit from the series (spoilers, I guess) is the single greatest achievement of this show’s five year run, but a lot of the groundwork for the triumph of Ahsoka’s story was laid in an unlikely place. Ventress, once just another in the throng of one-note baddies populating the early episodes of The Clone Wars is betrayed by Dooku, abandoned by everything she’d put her value in, and forced to find a new way forward and a new sense of purpose. We got to see the betrayal in Season Three, but now we really get to feel the fallout. Ventress has never had to establish an identity for herself. She was stolen from Dathomir and made a slave, then she was rescued from slavery by the Jedi, and finally she fled the Jedi only to immerse herself in the dark side under Dooku’s tutelage.
After all else has abandoned her, she tries once again to find purpose in a larger institution, this time the Nightsisters of Dathomir from whom she was taken as a child. But even that cannot last as her past follows her. General Grievous, under order from Count Dooku, lays waste to the Nightsister coven, leaving Ventress as the sole survivor. With literally nowhere else to turn, Ventress sets out on her own for the first time in her life, and it’s here where she’s forced to discover who she really is as an individual. She joins up with a group of mercenaries led by Boba Fett (*sigh*), but when they’re hired to do a job that is secretly human trafficking (alien trafficking?), she breaks from her team, choosing to follow her own sense of morality rather than toe the line.
It’s such a good, meaningful story of self-discovery and reckoning with one’s own past, and to have Ventress forced to confront a monster of her own creation in Savage Oppress is a natural extension of that idea. Unfortunately, by the time we get to that point, the story almost fully abandons Ventress for the sake of walking us through the leaps of logic required to bring back Darth Maul.
Regardless of how I feel about the character, Maul has no bearing on Ventress’s story – they have no history, their goals are neither meaningfully aligned nor opposed – so for Maul to show up in the back half of an arc focussed on Ventress and proceed to fully steal the spotlight just stinks and it comes with yet another nasty, unmotivated decent into posturing darkness that feels out of place on this show. I know the decision to bring back Maul comes directly from George Lucas, but it feels like fan service eclipsing the needs of the story. As this arc concludes we get some fun banter between Ventress and Obi-Wan and a pretty neat two-on-two lightsaber duel, but the reality is that after these first two episodes, Ventress’s arc is put on hold so that the show can revive a non-character that fans fell in love with based on the way he looked on the poster.
After four seasons, The Clone Wars has improved by leaps and bounds over where it was in its earliest episodes, but at the same time it’s still not all the way there yet. It’s telling the right kind of stories, exploring the right kinds of themes, pushing its characters in smart directions, but in the moments where it really counts, it’s self-sabotaging with wrongheaded, unsatisfying creative decisions. Perhaps this is the curse of the prequels, to never quite be able to achieve the potential laid out before it, but the show is so damn close to being great that it’s enormously frustrating to see it remain stuck in very good.
But then, Season Five is on the horizon, and while that too is not without its failings, there’s at least one arc that finally cuts through the noise to tell a laser-focussed story among the very best in all of Star Wars. I can’t wait to talk about it.
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…
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