Because I’m viewing the series in chronological order, for the purposes of this article, Season Five is defined as the episodes on this list beginning with “A War on Two Fronts” and ending with “The Wrong Jedi”.
Throughout this series, I’ve talked a lot about The Clone Wars as a passing of the Star Wars torch from creator George Lucas to the next generation of storytellers entrusted with its legacy, chief among them supervising director Dave Filoni. This period of transition was not without its rough patches, from a generally lousy first season all the way up through a fourth season that stopped just shy of achieving real greatness. But then came Season Five. Five years and 100 episodes in, this series finally starts firing on all cylinders; delivering five story arcs that – if not all quite masterpieces – represent a level of craft and storytelling focus heretofore unseen in the series.
So, of course, it was promptly cancelled.
During the mid-season break of The Clone Wars’ fifth season, Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm was finalized and George Lucas formally walked away from the company and the story that had defined his life for nearly four decades. The remainder of the season carried on as planned, but then, just over one week after the Season Five finale aired, Lucasfilm announced that the series would be “winding down” with the remaining 13 episodes that were already nearing completion to be released on Netflix as part of the streaming service’s licensing deal for the show. On some level it makes sense; Lucas had left the company, so shelving the projects he had been overseeing and charting a new course forward set clear expectations about the future of the company. Lucasfilm would honor the legacy of its founder, but it was also committed to telling new stories from new storytellers, breaking Star Wars free from the idea that it is a story that belongs to one person. The unfortunate casualty of this decision, though, was cutting off The Clone Wars just as it really started to hit its stride.
There are five story arcs in this final, full season of the show, and for the first time in this series, I’m going to spend some time discussing each one, because each arc is not only interesting in its own right, but each also has crucial ties to the future of Star Wars storytelling. To begin, let’s talk about the origins of the Rebel Alliance.
It’s interesting that for all the many, many, many years of storytelling in the old Expanded Universe, there were not a lot of stories that explored how the Rebellion organized and gained momentum. We knew vaguely that it had something to do with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and the Force Unleashed games presented their own kind of crappy version of those events, but that was it. Starting in 2014, that would change in a big way thanks to Star Wars Rebels, but even before The Clone Wars was cancelled and Lucasfilm Animation pivoted to the new series, the seeds of the Rebellion were planted right here by George Lucas himself.
The first four episodes of Season Five deal with an uprising on the Separatist aligned world of Onderon. When the Clone Wars began, Onderon’s king chose to remain neutral in the conflict, but when the Separatist army invaded, King Dendup was forced to surrender at which point he was taken captive and replaced by a pawn to do Count Dooku’s bidding. Our story follows a group of freedom-fighters seeking to overthrow their phony monarch and restore the rule of the rightful king. In order to do so, these Onderon rebels find themselves seeking the help of the Jedi Order. Though officially the Jedi are unable to interfere in Onderon’s internal political affairs, they do agree to dispatch Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka to provide training and guidance in the hopes that this rebellion can resolve with Onderon as an ally for the Republic rather than an enemy.
In its entirety, this arc is perhaps a bit too long. Like many of the series’ other four-part arcs, this could have pretty easily been trimmed down to three and benefitted from tighter pacing and more focussed storytelling in the process. That being said, by this point the series has come so far from the shoddy, stiff animation that plagued the early seasons of the show that I understand the inclination to be a bit indulgent. Visually, The Clone Wars in Season Five looks extremely cinematic, and it makes sense why they’d want to make every arc feature length. It also helps that the ideas being explored feel big enough to justify the expanded scope that has become the series new default. Here we have another Star Wars story drawing seemingly blatant parallels to past American political scandals, in this case some amalgamation of the Iran-Contra affair and the U.S.’s interference in the Soviet-Afghan War. Like the Cold War U.S. trying to combat communism by aiding insurgents with purported ties to al-Qaeda, here the agents of the Republic provide training and resources to some of the very figures who will go on to violently oppose the Empire. Put more simply, this arc sees Darth Vader personally training future rebel radical, Saw Gerrera.
Now I want to pull back the curtain for a moment and be super clear here: it would be wildly irresponsible for me to suggest that George Lucas or Dave Filoni or anyone else intended for Saw Gerrera to be a one-to-one allegorical stand-in for Osama bin Laden. I am not suggesting that, nor do I believe that. The interpretation of the Empire and the Republic as broad metaphors for the failures of the United States’ political system and position as a global superpower has been widely accepted and it’s a reading I happen to agree with, but it would be a mistake to take these stories as direct allegory and further make the leap that anyone working on this show intended the early origins of the rebellion to mirror al-Qaeda. If you want to have a bigger discussion about where I stand on the auteur theory vs. death of the author spectrum, come hit me up on Twitter, but because I’m reading some pretty tricky historical baggage into this story, I didn’t want anyone walking away from this with the impression that I think Lucas sees al-Qaeda as the “good guys” in any way. So with all of that out of the way, let’s actually talk about Saw Gerrera.
Saw Gerrera is a fascinating figure. Most probably know him from his role in Rogue One wherein he’s played by Forest Whitaker, but the character originated right here in The Clone Wars under the guidance of George Lucas himself. Saw, along with Twi’lek freedom-fighter Cham Syndulla, provide an interesting glimpse into the earliest origins of the rebellion and a character type that’s somewhat rare in Star Wars. Both of these men are fighters who survived one conflict only to see their liberators turn heel to become oppressors. While both vehemently oppose the Empire, their actions end up being seen as too radical to be embraced by the mainstream Rebel Alliance. Other prominent figures in the early rebellion have direct ties to the Republic, but Saw and Cham were both independent agents who were highly skeptical of the Republic’s agenda before it gave way to totalitarian cruelty. When their suspicions are proven justified, it makes sense why they’d perhaps butt heads with the self-proclaimed Alliance to Restore the Republic. Saw specifically had to see his sister, Steela, die in the fight for freedom on Onderon only to have that freedom give way to an even greater tyranny. His more anarchist outlook feels justified.
It’s true that much of that character dimension was added retroactively thanks to stories told later on, but even in this arc, Saw is a compelling figure. Torn between his distrust of the Jedi and the Republic and his desire to see his home free from Separatist rule; dedicated to his home and to his family and little else. There’s so much interesting dramatic potential for this character introduced up front, and I’m glad that Lucasfilm has found opportunities to check in with him. What’s more, this introduces the idea that the rebellion didn’t come from just one place; it sprang up organically, spurned on by individuals all over the galaxy who stood up to reject the oppression of the Empire. The Rebel Alliance as an alliance of separate rebellions that emerged all across the galaxy is a far more interesting and powerful notion than the old assumption that it was all just organized by Bail Organa. It’s a story that would be more fully explored in Rebels and Rogue One, but none of that would exist without the foundation being laid right here in The Clone Wars.
And speaking of foundations being laid, that takes us to the second arc of Season Five which is all about lightsabers. Obviously lightsabers have been a part of Star Wars since the very beginning. They’re the quintessential piece of Star Wars iconography, so much so that they’ve cropped up in every single movie even when – in the case of Solo – there’s absolutely no good reason for them to be there. Unlike the origins of the rebellion, so much has been written about the lore and rituals that surround the crafting of this elegant weapon from a more civilized age to the point that most of it is wildly different and contradictory. In these four episodes (primarily the first two), Lucas gets to give the final word on what exactly is involved in the ritual of lightsaber crafting. Some of it is pretty unique and interesting, and some of it owes more than a little bit of credit to a certain boy wizard.
Let’s begin with the more interesting half of the ritual: the Gathering, as portrayed in the appropriately titled episode “The Gathering”. This is the process by which Jedi younglings seek out the Kyber crystal that will become the heart of their lightsaber. In the crystal caves on the ice world of Ilum, the younglings must face and overcome trials that reflect a specific struggle they face in their personal lives. An impatient young Wookiee must wait until an underground lake is frozen over, a fearful Ithorian must face down frightening images, an arrogant boy must learn to put others’ needs ahead of his own, and so on. The lessons are broad and handily summarized by Yoda at the end of the episode in case you missed them (it’s a kids’ cartoon, it’s fine), but that broadness fits in nicely with the established mythology of the Force, deliberately calling back to a lot of what we see in Luke’s training on Dagobah, specifically his vision in the cave. Having the crystals tied to personal challenge adds a spiritual aspect to the lightsaber that is very befitting of Star Wars. That’s why I find it such a shame that the process of building the actual hilt is just lifted wholesale from Harry Potter.
In the next episode, we see the younglings begin the process of constructing the hilt, a process which is overseen by a stuffy, eccentric, British robot who retrieves lightsaber components from floor-to-ceiling shelves based on what materials will be best suited to that particular Jedi. Huyang is the droid version of Harry Potter’s Ollivander, and they’re not even really trying to hide it. On the one hand, sure, Star Wars has always pulled very obvious inspiration from other facets of pop fantasy, but in this case, it doesn’t feel as though it has been synthesized enough to stand apart on its own. It just feels like copying. Which is why it’s sort of weirdly fitting for Disney to so clearly try to one-up the Ollivanders attraction at Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter with their own lightsaber building experience in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
These four episodes have become an odd companion piece to Disney’s newest theme park land, not just in Savi’s Workshop which draws very heavily from these episodes as well as Star Wars Rebels’ “Path of the Jedi”, but also given the fact that space pirate Hondo Ohnaka, your host for the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride, is prominently featured as an antagonist here as well. But even beyond the influence felt in theme parks, the establishment of the notion that lightsaber crystals are attuned with the Force and are almost living things to themselves has led to other fascinating developments: the idea that red blades come from crystals that were not obtained through spiritual connection but rather “activated” by force, and further the idea that red crystals can be “healed” through the Force and return to a solid white; there’s also the idea that the Force inside of Kyber crystals has a memory and that can be used to store and retrieve information through holocrons. It’s all a little bit silly, but it takes something that was always just a laser sword and adds a layer of hippy-dippy sci-fi spiritualism that ties it back into the core ethos of Star Wars.
But not every story in this season has sweeping implications to the larger Star Wars mythology, in fact, the middle arc of the season seems to intentionally step on the brakes a little bit and take a breather with a series of interlocking wacky adventures starring R2-D2 and a team of droids led by the diminutive Colonel Gascon. These episodes are fun, if a tad disposable, but tucked away in the third entry in this four-part arc is the surprisingly emotional tale of Gregor.
While fleeing from Separatist forces, Gascon’s droid team crash lands on the barren world of Abafar where they meet a clone working as a dishwasher in a local diner. The hitch is, this clone doesn’t remember who he is. After surviving one of the Republic’s most brutal defeats in battle, Gregor was left adrift in space and eventually landed on Abafar with no memory of who he was or how he got there. The owner of a diner in Abafar’s only settlement took advantage of Gregor’s state and hired him on as help for the restaurant, housing him and paying slave wages. When Gascon and the droids arrive, they help the soldier remember who he is and restore a sense of purpose that had been stolen from him for too long. By this point in The Clone Wars, it’s already been well established that the clone soldiers of the Republic army are not just mindless, biological drones, but are instead individuals, bred into military service, but with their own thoughts, feelings, and personalities. The series has wrestled with weighty ideas like the clones being effectively slaves of a galactic government or the perceived disposability of identical, mass produced soldiers, but this is one of a few instances where the show poses the question of what life could there be for a clone outside of battle?
Back in the Season Two episode “The Deserter” we saw the story of Cut Lawquane, a clone who abandoned the Republic army to forge a life for himself with a wife and kids far away from war. Gregor’s isn’t quite so lucky. Without being a soldier, he finds himself literally without an identity, working a miserable job on the ass end of space, just biding time until he dies. When Gascon helps him rediscover who he was, it’s rousing, but it’s also, secretly, deeply tragic. This is all that this man has: the role that he was bred to fill, the mission he was born to believe in. It gives him purpose, but it’s just a much of a prison as his indentured servitude on Abafar. We do eventually catch back up with Gregor during Rebels as one of three clones we know who survived the Clone Wars with their wits intact (mostly), and of all the clones that could have made the cut, I’m glad that Gregor’s one of the few who didn’t die as a slave.
But for some characters, death isn’t the end of their story anyway, and nowhere is that more true and more unfortunate than with Darth Maul. I dislike Maul. I’ve made my position on that very clear. So with that being said, I find myself deeply conflicted on the penultimate arc of The Clone Wars’ fifth season. As a story all on its own, these four episodes represent one of the most well structured arcs of the entire series. It’s paced correctly – the “one episode too long” problem that plagues many of the four-episode arcs isn’t present here – and it tells a compelling story that sets up a fascinating new status quo for this corner of the galaxy. Unfortunately, this arc has a big tone problem and it’s all thanks to everyone’s favorite Zabrak.
Let’s start with the good. For several seasons now this show has slowly built out the political turmoil on Mandalore. Centuries of warrior tradition replaced by pacifist rule, a radical fringe group seeking to return Mandalore to its old ways, institutional corruption weakening the political foundations; it’s a powder keg ready to blow, and here is when the fuse is lit. Death Watch stages a coup, not as invaders, but as liberators. They unite several of the galaxy’s crime families to stage a fraudulent attack against Mandalore’s capitol city, and while the Duchess and her government struggle to root out the problem, Death Watch comes in to save the day. But Death Watch isn’t working alone. They discover Maul and his brother, Savage Opress adrift in space after a conflict with Obi-Wan and it’s the shared hatred of the Jedi Master that forges the initial alliance between Maul and Pre Vizsla. Maul sees working with Death Watch as an opportunity to enact his revenge against Obi-Wan and hatches the plan to recruit an army from the galaxy’s underworld to aid in their takeover of Mandalore. There’s almost a genuinely intriguing angle to this: Maul’s plans are effectively just a quicker, messier, smaller version of the galaxy-wide game of chess Palpatine is playing with the Clone Wars. Maul organizes an illegitimate conflict between two opposing forces, both of which he controls, in order to facilitate his own rise to power. If they had leaned into that, this idea that Maul had been groomed to be ruling a new Sith empire alongside Darth Sidious, only to have his legs cut out from under him (sorry), it could have been a potentially interesting angle to explore with this character, but instead, that only exists as subtext in the distant background to Maul’s growling hatred of Kenobi.
Maul is a curse. He’s a one-note villain and he always has been. His role in The Phantom Menace is solely to be a final boss for the Jedi to battle at the end because the real villain of the movie is operating unseen from the shadows as per the title. He’s given one line of dialogue referencing “revenge” and that became his only semblance of motivation for all future appearances, and at some point you just kind of stop caring. There’s nothing to this character; no interesting history, no compelling arc, no meaningful wants or desires, just an empty avatar of posturing “cool” forged in the same “dark and edgy” fires of ‘90s pop culture that brought us the likes of Doomsday and Spawn. Setting aside my own personal distaste for that whole aesthetic, it’s just so clearly diametrically opposed to everything that makes Star Wars what it is. Star Wars can get dark, but it’s rarely cruel. It’s optimistic to its very core; it’s about seeing the world get as bad as it can and still finding the strength in yourself and in one another to fight for a better tomorrow. Even in the prequels, which are the story heroes failing and institutions crumbling, we see the seeds planted for future hope. But this story is just ugly and mean and bleak, with a Jedi Knight being gored through the chest on the horns of a Frankenstein monster and the powerful Duchess of a peaceful world brutally murdered just for the sake of making Obi-Wan sad – and all of this, it should be reiterated, is happening in a cartoon for children. This is the darkest story in the current Star Wars canon by far and it absolutely did not need to be.
But not all darkness is bad. The final arc of The Clone Wars’ run on traditional television is dark – it involves murder, betrayal, suicide bombings, and a crisis of faith – and it’s also the one of the best Star Wars stories ever told in any medium.
The Clone Wars took a long time to hit its stride, and even then its hit rate is inconsistent at best, but there’s still a lot of good that came out of it. If you were to boil all of it down, though, and take away the one element above all else that made this show worthwhile, it would hands down be the invention of Ahsoka Tano. Like so much else in this series, Ahsoka started out pretty rough around the edges. Her attitude was petulant and her bickering relationship with Anakin grated, but as the show continued to develop, so too did this character. Slowly but surely more dimension began to be added as she took on roles that were greater than merely being the spunky young kid tagging along on Anakin’s adventures. In Season Two she begins getting her own dedicated episodes largely absent of Anakin, in Season Three we follow her as she’s forced to see the world outside of the narrow scope of both the Republic and the Jedi, and even in Season Four, which is somewhat lighter on Ahsoka-centric stories, we get to see her go toe-to-toe with Death Watch and win. By the time Season Five rolls around, she’s effectively become the heart and soul of the series. Three of the five arcs in this season are largely centered around Ahsoka, and it’s this last one that packs the biggest emotional wallop.
Ahsoka’s fate is a question that hung over the show from the very beginning. She was a new character taking on an enormous role, but one who we know is somehow completely removed from the picture just three years later. The assumption for most was that, of course, she would die, but it’s to this show’s great credit that they landed on a solution that’s far more clever and with far more meaningful implications for the larger saga. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This arc begins with Anakin and Ahsoka leading a mission on Cato Neimoidia. It’s a battle that at once calls back to Anakin and Ahsoka’s first meeting on Christophsis but also shows how far the two have come. They’re no longer squabbling, but instead working seamlessly as a team. In fact, when Anakin becomes incapacitated, it’s Ahsoka who saves his life and not the other way around. After three years, we get to see master and apprentice fully in sync. But it’s not long before they are abruptly summoned to return to Coruscant to investigate a recent attack on the Jedi Temple.
It turns out there has been a bombing, and it’s looking increasingly likely that it was spurned on by protests against the Jedi’s continued involvement in the war. After four seasons of reluctantly dancing around the issue, the show is finally willing to tackle the idea head-on. Looking outside of the confines of the Republic Senate building or the Jedi Council chamber, we see that this war has become enormously unpopular with the average, ordinary citizen, and the Jedi especially are being given the blame. This works on so many levels because, on the one hand, it better sets the stage for Palpatine to frame the Jedi as criminals and traitors, but more to the point, it’s one hundred percent true! The Jedi are to blame for abdicating their duty as peacekeepers and perpetuating this fraudulent war that seems to have no end in sight. It seems that sentiment is echoed by at least one person with access to the Jedi Temple, and given their clear alibis of being away on a mission, Anakin and Ahsoka are tasked with investigating the attack and uncovering its perpetrator.
Their search ultimately leads them to Letta Turmond, wife of a munitions expert working in the Jedi Temple and the apparent suicide bomber responsible for the attack. It’s determined that Letta fed her husband explosive nano-droids without his knowledge, and she is placed under arrest. While being held under military custody, Letta requests to speak with Ahsoka, who reluctantly agrees to a meeting. Letta confides in Ahsoka that though she facilitated the attack, it was not her idea; she was contacted by someone within the Temple and now fears for her safety. As Ahsoka presses for more information, Letta suddenly begins to suffocate – strangled through the Force by some unseen assailant. The trouble is, to the prison’s security footage, it looks an awful lot like Ahsoka is the one doing the killing.
Ahsoka is arrested pending a military tribunal, but she’s convinced that Anakin will find some way to free her, so when an abandoned key card happens to appear outside of her sell, she’s convinced it’s her master’s doing. Unfortunately, it isn’t, and as she discovers clones first incapacitated, and then killed by lightsabers, she realizes things have suddenly gotten far worse for her than she ever imagined. Now framed not just for the murder of a civilian, but several military officers as well, she goes on the run, evading her master and the clones sent to track her down, and eventually coming into contact with Asajj Ventress. Ventress, now working as a bounty hunter, initially hopes to collect the reward for Ahsoka’s capture, but having herself been betrayed and cast out from the world she thought she belonged in, she finds unexpected kinship in the wanted Jedi. As the two work to try to clear Ahsoka’s name, their search takes them to a warehouse housing the same nano-droids that Letta Turmond used in the bombing. Unfortunately, Ahsoka is attacked, and when Republic forces arrive and the attacker flees, once again Ahsoka is found in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She’s returned to the Temple, stripped of her status as Jedi by the Council, and once again placed under arrest, awaiting trial where Tarkin, serving as prosecutor for the Republic is recommending a death sentence. While the trial is taking place, Anakin manages to uncover the real culprit: fellow Jedi Padawan Barriss Offee, who is brought before the Republic tribunal where she gives an impassioned testimony, confessing her crimes while calling out the Jedi as villains, an army working for the dark side, responsible for the war and the crumbling state of the Republic. It’s a chilling, powerful moment that hits especially hard for cutting right to heart of the central tragedy of the prequels with absolute clarity and conviction after more than 100 episodes of timidity and hesitation to commit. They never undercut this by highlighting the Jedi’s heroics, nor do they discredit Barriss by framing her as a villain. The show fully, completely wants you to understand that she is right. Bariss, whose Master abandoned hope and left her for dead, knows more than most how far the Jedi have fallen.
And then, to drive the point home with ultimate resolve, we have the fallout for Ahsoka. Ahsoka returns to the Jedi Temple and is brought before the Council, who offer to restore her status as Jedi along with a half-hearted apology, citing their own decision to abandon her in her hour of greatest need as a trial that would strengthen her connection to the Force. She declines, choosing instead to walk away from the Jedi Order for good. Anakin runs after her, desperately trying to change her mind, but she is steadfast. This final exchange is profoundly moving as it represents not only a culminating moment in Ahsoka’s journey, but also a major turning point in Anakin’s. While nothing can retroactively make Revenge of the Sith better, The Clone Wars does a lot to help sell Anakin’s turn to the dark side in a way the films never did, and this is the moment that sells it the best. Over the course of the series, Ahsoka has become a reflection of Anakin, but only the best parts of him. If Vader is the embodiment of all of Anakin’s failures, Ahsoka represents his successes; his loyalty, his ingenuity, his passion for justice. When she leaves, she takes all of that with her, and further fuels Anakin’s disillusionment with the Jedi.
The Clone Wars’ final arc before its cancellation represents not only the high water mark for the series, but is also better by itself than fully half of the Star Wars films. I suppose there’s something to be said for going out on top, but seeing the show finally grow into its potential only to prematurely end is just a little bit heartbreaking. Of course, this wasn’t really the end for The Clone Wars; there is the truncated sixth season, a handful of unfinished story reels, comic book and novel adaptations of episode scripts, and character arcs carried forward into Star Wars Rebels (to say nothing of the proper conclusion the series we’ll be getting this November). What we got far outweighs what we lost, but I have a great deal of sympathy for Dave Filoni’s frustration at having to walk away from this story while it remained unfinished.
But hey, if you’ve got to go out, there are worse ways to go than with a season of television that left an indelible mark on the future of Star Wars, culminating in a finale that stands alongside the best storytelling ever achieved in this 40-year franchise.
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…