Every Star Wars fan, including myself, has a thousand explanations for exactly how and why the prequels were a catastrophic failure: bad plotting, bad characterization, and Jar Jar Binks, just to name a few. But the worst thing the prequels ever did was cast aspersions on the quality of what came before. Critically, Star Wars hasn’t aged well. When it first hit public consciousness, even intellectuals like Joseph Campbell were prepared to weigh in on it and find merit in its storytelling. Now, Star Wars seems like a punchline—NOOOOOOO!—maybe less than a punchline. A sad mistake.
At first, Star Wars: The Clone Wars seemed like another mistake—a 3-D animated series to take place in the three-year period between Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith just sounded like another prequel inserted in the space between prequels to create more clones of prequels. To be fair, it was. The Clone Wars is still a Lucasfilm product, and as a result it suffers from some of the same flaws—endless retreading over established ground, a fascination with gadgetry that comes at the expense of storytelling, and a vague spirituality that never quite makes total sense.
At the same time, though, The Clone Wars is the best possible outcome of present-day Lucasfilm: a fun, engaging, and surprisingly serialized cartoon aimed at some interstitial demographic between children and adults—which, if we’re being honest, is what Star Wars always appealed to most. It works to rectify the mistakes of the prequels by filling in all the gaps and adding many, many layers of nuance to the major characters. It manages to have fun while also telling serious and sometimes even tragic stories. And it knows what it is, which is not something many of the other Star Wars spinoffs can really attest to. The films have often found themselves to be preaching spirituality or spinning a splashy narrative for shock value, and neither really suits the franchise.
The Clone Wars tackled the vast universe of Star Wars by taking a kind of popcorn approach—there were a few major stories spooling out, but while those ticked by, a galaxy at war was ripe for any number of mini-adventures, featuring practically every character Star Wars had ever created, give or take a few Skywalkers. The result was a show that created a surprisingly rich world, one that felt as comfortable on the deck of a ship as it did inside a seedy Coruscant bar.
It also boasted exceptionally clean storytelling, which has never been easy for Star Wars. Characters had complicated but clear motivations, and though the universe is a messy one, each episode went out of its way to be precise. The InterGalactic Banking Clan is not an immediately obvious reference, but the show quickly defined it and also proved its importance (it lends money to the Republic, and also engages in war profiteering!).
This past Friday, Netflix released the sixth and final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is aptly subtitled “The Lost Missions.” It’s a truncated season—just 13 episodes, instead of the 22 that marked the previous five seasons. And this program was always a kind of fringe venture. The Clone Wars started out as something of a vanity project—Lucasfilm made multiple seasons of the series before the show even had a distributor, which is something you can do when you are a media conglomerate. But cancellation truncated the vision, whatever it was.
In many ways, it is the end of an era. Not only is this series ending, but it’s ending to make room for a new show, Star Wars Rebels, that will air on a Disney network. This is one of the last Lucasfilm productions that won’t be produced under the Walt Disney umbrella; so yes, it is the end of an era. And that’s probably a good thing. Lucasfilm’s addiction to these few years of storytelling, and its stable of less and less reliable characters, has hampered its storytelling ability. Disney’s influence could very well infuse the series with new life. Meanwhile, these last 13 episodes are an attempt to wrap up what this series was trying to say—because whatever it doesn’t say is said instead by what follows it, chronologically: The Revenge Of The Sith.
It’s a kind of swansong, as a result—and all the more so because this series, like the prequels, were writing towards a foregone conclusion. There is no happy ending here, just the setup for a happy ending 20-odd years later. All Revenge Of The Sith could do is end with a bang; all this series can do is end with a trailed off ellipsis—as the trapezoidal prologues before each film do. They are just thrilling setup for what’s to come.
The season drops through a few different plotlines—the story of a clone with a chip implanted in his brain, a little more relationship drama for Padmé and Anakin, an entirely forgettable adventure with Mace Windu and Jar Jar Binks, and, literally, a vision quest starring Yoda and the ghost of Qui-Gonn Jinn. Of these, the first and last, which bookend the season, are easily the strongest—and the cloning story, which is a setup for Revenge Of The Sith's infamous Order 66, might be its strongest yet. In it, a cadet named Tup is a victim of mind-control, but he and his friend Fives (a recurring character in the series) can’t convince anyone else that this is happening. Not since Luke Skywalker’s desperate stare off into the twin suns of Tatooine has Star Wars really convinced an audience that a character is disenfranchised, desperate, or dying; the ubiquity of what appear to be the only two droids in the entire universe and the many character resurrections manage to break that spell.
But Tup and Fives are no one special at all; they are clones, made to follow orders and fill out the ranks. When they’re manipulated, they are at the mercy of forces (and Forces) well beyond their control—and as a result, they are terrified. Their four-episode arc stars some of the big names in the Star Wars universe, but ultimately what cements the pathos is Fives himself, a character denied agency by his society who nonetheless attempts to find it. (A particularly depressing detail worked in by the script is that all of the clones have used tattoos or other markings to distinguish themselves from all of the their “brothers.”) These four episodes were written by Katie Lucas, who is, incidentally, George Lucas’ daughter, and has worked on the series before. Lucas shows an ability to integrate personal stories into the massive Star Wars universe without losing intimacy with the characters. And the production design goes above and beyond, too. There are moments with Fives on Coruscant that offer a snapshot of the vibrant pre-Republic world better than any Star Wars movie ever did—the little details of taxicabs, dirty bar bathrooms, and commiseration between clones.
Those episodes soar in comparison to Christian Taylor’s three-episode arc on Padmé and Anakin, though to be fair, no one has ever been able to make that disaster sing. The series doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that Anakin’s expressing abusive behavior well before Return Of The Sith; in these three episodes, Anakin has to struggle with Padmé’s continuing acquaintance with her ex, Rush Clovis. Meanwhile, these episodes soar in comparison to the Mace Windu/Jar Jar Binks double-feature. Jar Jar Binks has a really, really annoying voice, but Mace Windu pretending to be his servant for the terms of some kind of diplomacy is vaguely funny, in the way that jumping off a cliff might be funny.
The coda on this season and this series—and, perhaps, even on this era of Star Wars—is the four-episode concluding arc, in which Yoda faces off with Darth Sidious (sort of) and discovers Dagobah. It’s the most overtly spiritual Star Wars has been in decades, telling the story of how Yoda became the hidden Jedi Master Luke found in Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back—an occasionally muddled, crochety hermit, compared to the tactician and strategist he is during the Clone Wars. The show offers a portrayal of the Force as something not just living but sentient; five figures, wearing five different masks, guide Yoda through the process of finding immortality, as he attempts to uncover the truth of what is really behind the Clone Wars.
It’s a little regrettable that The Clone Wars couldn’t instead tell the stories of some of its less central characters in these Lost Missions—Ahsoka Tano, in particular. But this last journey with Yoda allows the series to come to a conclusion that has been sadly lacking in the intervening years between 1983’s splashy Return Of The Jedi and today’s action-packed, gadget-obsessed, video-game-spinoff-filled Star Wars franchise: There are no real winners in war. Pitting the Empire and the Rebellion as Manichean stand-ins for light and dark worked for a while, but closer inspection revealed many shades of gray between the Dark Side and the Jedi. At the close of this series, it looks that Star Wars and Lucasfilm kind of, sort of, maybe get it: But now that Star Wars: The Clone Wars is being put to bed, for the brave new world of Disney’s Star Wars, it remains to be seen if future iterations of the franchise will be able to tell this story as gracefully as an animated series did.
I still don’t think it makes sense that R2-D2 is the very droid that Yoda takes with him to Dagobah… and then expresses confusion when Luke wants to go to Dagobah? I don’t really understand the mythos of R2-D2, though, except that maybe it (he?) signifies how machines will inherit the universe after all the humans are done killing each other.
Star Wars Rebels will be helmed by Filoni and Greg Weisman, the creator of Gargoyles. It will finally leave the Clone Wars behind for the time in between Revenge Of The Sith and A New Hope, which is a good 20-year span. It will debut in the fall and run on Disney XD.