In the closing moments of “Sacrifice,” the Season 6 finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Yoda awakens from a disquieting vision projected by Darth Sidious—the last test the diminutive Jedi must pass to qualify for future Force ghost status. The mystical priestesses who administered his trials congratulate him on resisting temptation and grant him permission to start training to keep taunting Luke long after entering forever sleep. “Like us, you shall learn to maintain your consciousness after death,” one priestess intones.
The Clone Wars, which returned from a six-year layoff to start streaming its seventh and final season on Disney+ on Friday, has twice survived apparent demises of its own. The animated series—not to be confused with the same-named film that slightly preceded its release or Star Wars: Clone Wars, the earlier, now-non-canonical animated microseries developed and directed by Genndy Tartakovsky—premiered in October 2008 and aired for five seasons on Cartoon Network. Months after The Clone Wars creator George Lucas sold his Star Wars empire to Disney in late 2012, Lucasfilm announced that the series would be “winding down,” which seemed to spell its end.
The Clone Wars received a stay of execution when a sixth season, composed of 13 episodes that were already in production when Lucasfilm pulled the plug, aired a year later on German TV network Super RTL. The new episodes, collectively labeled “The Lost Missions,” subsequently came to Netflix, along with the first five seasons. Despite fervent fan campaigns to extend the series beyond Season 6, several planned plot lines and character arcs were left in limbo until the summer of 2018. Shortly before the 10th anniversary of the series premiere, supervising director Dave Filoni revealed that The Clone Wars would be resurrected on Disney’s streaming service, serving as a living link between the Lucas and Disney eras of Star Wars. On Friday, the first of the 12 new episodes appeared. Begun again, The Clone Wars has.
The first new Star Wars series to appear on Disney+, The Mandalorian was designed to be the centerpiece of the streaming service’s launch. Although the series was stuffed with Easter eggs for Star Wars scholars, it didn’t demand an advanced degree in Lucasfilm lore, which made it more approachable than some Star Wars material outside of the Skywalker saga. The Mandalorian’s combination of a largely standalone narrative; several recognizable stars; a distinctive and stylish tone, look, and sound; and the irresistible Baby Yoda made the franchise’s first live-action TV series a high-profile hit.
The new season of The Clone Wars will likely be more of a love letter to longtime fans than a new tentpole intended to broaden the reach of Star Wars; this is the end of a series, not the start of one. For fans who’ve followed The Clone Wars from the start or caught up on its 121-episode library while it was off the air, the new season promises to flesh out gaps in the histories of iconic characters like Ahsoka Tano and Darth Maul and resolve relationships and story lines that Filoni has long hoped to complete. But because of where the series sits in the Star Wars release schedule and fictional timeline, Filoni’s final bow should also appeal to casual fans who are coming in cold. Not only is The Clone Wars the only on-screen Star Wars content coming before Baby Yoda returns in October, but its last act may give us a second, even more emotional look at the climactic events of Revenge of the Sith—including Order 66 and Anakin’s descent to the dark side—while also illuminating some of the murky history that set the scene for The Mandalorian, which Filoni helps write, produce, and direct.
Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars focuses on the exploits of Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Anakin’s Padawan Ahsoka, along with a large supporting cast of clone troopers, Jedi, Sith, and assorted other combatants, profiteers, and victims embroiled in the galactic conflict that ushered in the Empire. Although the series as a whole is deservedly acclaimed, the quality of The Clone Wars varied widely from week to week. Its 22-episode early seasons contained a fair amount of filler; more than a few episodes followed Jedi dispatched to foil a Separatist plot or attack on a planet whose significance to the war effort wasn’t always clear.
Some episodes aired out of chronological order, and many of the two- to four-episode mini arcs that formed the building blocks of each season were unrelated to each other. (Also, Jar Jar popped up from time to time.) Because the prequels made the outcome of the Clone Wars clear—and because the conflict was orchestrated by Palpatine, whose scheming undercut any victories the Jedi achieved—the battles tended to be less compelling than the character work, the ruminations on morality, and the explorations of lore.
At its best, though, The Clone Wars captured what George Lucas must have imagined the prequels to be before his scripts screwed them up: a grand tragedy leavened by love, hope, and heroism. Palpatine’s plotting is more impressive when we watch it play out on dozens of fronts while he works in close proximity to the unsuspecting Jedi, and the time and depth of character development that a TV series allows makes Anakin’s downfall more devastating. In his interactions with Obi-Wan and Ahsoka, we get glimpses of the good in him that are much more affecting than his rapid fluctuations between arrogance, petulant rage, and puppy-dog possessiveness of Padmé in the prequels. Obi-Wan’s star-crossed romance with Mandalore’s Duchess Satine and Ahsoka’s gradual disillusionment with the war and the Jedi—which culminates in her rejection of the Order in the Season 5 finale—parallel Anakin’s secret marriage to Padmé and his own defiance of the Council, deepening the bonds between the three.
The series also excels at posing pointed questions about the purpose of the war, the role of the Jedi, and the rights of the clones. “I remember a time when Jedi were not generals, but peacekeepers,” Satine says in Season 2’s “Voyage of Temptation.” “We fight for peace,” Anakin responds, which the pacifistic Satine rightly ridicules as an “amusing contradiction.”
Some Jedi can’t tolerate the tension between the Order’s conflicting pursuits. In the Season 4 episode “Carnage of Krell,” Jedi general Pong Krell realizes that the war will be lost and turns on his own troops to curry favor with the Sith. “I am no longer naive enough to be a Jedi,” he explains. In Season 5’s “Sabotage,” Mace Windu confides to Ahsoka, “Not every Jedi agrees with this war. … There are many political idealists among us.” Ahsoka, appalled by the idea that a Jedi could have been behind a murder, asks, “But a traitor?” Mace responds, “I’m afraid one can eventually become the other.” Later, they learn that Luminara Unduli’s Padawan, Barriss Offee, has turned terrorist, bombing the Jedi Temple to protest the Order’s involvement in the war. “My attack on the Temple was an attack on what the Jedi have become,” she tells the Republic court that hears her confession. “An army fighting for the dark side, fallen from the light that we once held so dear.” We can condemn her methods, but we can’t question that she sees the situation much more clearly than the Council.
In the prequels, most clones are cannon fodder, and they’re largely interchangeable. The Clone Wars sets them apart via nicknames, hairstyles, tattoos, and individual desires. “We’re not droids,” clone Captain Rex protests in Season 4. “We’re not programmed.” Yet they’re given no more choice about their lot in life than a droid bound by a restraining bolt. “It’s the Jedi who keep my brothers enslaved,” says Slick, a sergeant who rebels and tries to desert in the Season 1 episode “Hidden Enemy.” “We do your bidding. We serve at your whim. I just wanted something more.”
The Clone Wars isn’t an easy watch: Whatever happens, things will get uglier. At the end of the Clone Wars, the Death Star doesn’t explode, the good guys don’t win, and the bad guys don’t redeem themselves. As the series proceeds and the war worsens, the characters tend toward existential angst. When Mace Windu laments, “This war is becoming less and less popular every day it persists,” he’s not just talking about the public approval rating; the war is growing less popular among the participants, too. “What’s the point of all this? I mean, why?” Rex asks his subordinate, Fives. “I don’t know, sir,” Fives says. “I don’t think anybody knows.”
While it doesn’t talk down to its audience, The Clone Wars is geared toward a younger audience than The Mandalorian, and it contains just enough levity to lighten the gloom. Although its mini-arcs don’t lend themselves to seamless seasons, the series’ range of characters, setting, and tones is one of its strengths. Amid the diplomatic missions and the frequent combat, The Clone Wars could delve deep into the nature of the Force, as it did during a three-episode interlude in the mysterious realm of Mortis in Season 3 and Yoda’s vision quest in Season 6. It could also shed light on lore and ritual that the movies didn’t depict, including a two-episode arc about Kyber crystals and lightsaber assembly in Season 5.
The Clone Wars contributed a long list of cherished characters to the canon, highlighted not only by beloved regulars like Rex and Ahsoka—a formative fictional figure for many of the young viewers who were weaned on the series after discovering Star Wars through the prequels—but also recurring rogues such as dark-side assassin Asajj Ventress, bounty hunter Cad Bane, and opportunistic mercenary Hondo Ohnaka. And its indelible scenes stand up to any of the most poignant prequel moments: a dying Satine declaring her love for Obi-Wan; Ahsoka walking away from Anakin and the Order; a distraught Fives trying and failing to warn Anakin that the clones are a danger to the Jedi.
As Season 7 starts, big questions about The Clone Wars’ comeback remain. How much of the final season will mirror the material released in unfinished form after the earlier quasi-cancelation of the series? Ahsoka and Maul reappear in Rebels, which is set decades later, but what did they do in the aftermath of their apparent exits from The Clone Wars in Season 5? How much will we see of the Siege of Mandalore, referenced by the Darksaber-wielding Moff Gideon in The Mandalorian’s first-season finale? How do Rex and his clone comrades Wolffe and Gregor, who live to fight on in Rebels, remove the inhibitor chips that cause the clones to execute Order 66? And given what they learned in Season 6 about Count Dooku commissioning the Clone Army, why aren’t Yoda and the Council better prepared to prevent the Jedi genocide?
Those questions and others will be answered over The Clone Wars’ final few months. Considering the hurdles that the series had to clear to come back to life, any tidbit its devotees get is a gift. “To the end we are coming now,” Yoda said in “Sacrifice.” Fortunately for fans of The Clone Wars, the future of the franchise is always in motion: The Master spoke one season too soon.