The final episodes of season seven of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the Disney+ animated series, aren’t just great episodes of an excellent TV show. Taken together, they amount to one of the best Star Wars movies in many years.
Mild spoilers follow.
The four-episode arc beginning with “Old Friends, Not Forgotten” and ending with Monday night’s “Victory and Death” are darker in tone than even Rogue One, boast a lightsaber duel that might even surpass the iconic Darth Maul-versus-the Jedi fight from The Phantom Menace and include character moments that are as heartbreaking as Han Solo’s response to Princess Leia’s declaration of love in The Empire Strikes Back.
But the episodes don’t just include moving and exciting moments. They tell a story. About a young woman growing up, working out what she believes in, making hard decisions then living with the consequences.
The Clone Wars in its 12-year run on TV, as well as in the uneven 2008 movie that launched the series, has been an ensemble show. Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and Skywalker’s apprentice Ashoka Tano are the major characters, but the show also closely follows clone troopers Rex, Cody and Fives, among others.
The final four episodes of The Clone Wars tighten their focus. They are Ashoka’s story.
No longer the grating teenager we tolerated early in the series, Ashoka is now a young woman. She’s seen the galaxy. Explored metaphysical realms. She even kind of died once.
She’s witnessed atrocities. Led soldiers in battle. Watched them fall in battle because of her decisions. She’s been hurt by the people closest to her. She even quit the Jedi Order after being wrongly accused of a crime.
Petite and bright-eyed, Ashoka still sort of looks like a kid. But her looks belie her growth as a character. She’s wiser now. More vulnerable. And more powerful. The events of the final four episodes of The Clone Wars test her humanity and her skills as a force-user.
It’s the final days of eponymous, galaxy-spanning conflict that old Ben Kenobi mentioned in passing in Star Wars and which is the major subject of the prequel trilogy. Anakin, Obi-Wan and Ashoka and a force of clones have cornered insurgents loyal to Maul—yes, he survived getting bisected in The Phantom Menace—on Mandalore, the home planet of the Mandalorians, one of whom has his own live-action show.
Before the Republic forces can launch their attack, they receive an urgent call from Coruscant, the capital planet. The separatist army has attacked Coruscant and captured Chancellor Sheev Palpatine.
If that plot thread feels familiar, it’s because it’s also the opening act of Revenge of the Sith. The Clone Wars finale is set at the same time as the last movie in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. The TV show in its final episodes both contextualizes and comments on Revenge of the Sith in ways that make that movie much better in retrospect.
Anakin and Obi-Wan race off to rescue Palpatine, leaving Ashoka and her clone troopers to liberate Mandalore and confront Maul all on her own.
The set-up by writer and showrunner Dave Filoni affords Filoni and fellow directors Saul Ruiz and Nathaniel Villanueva plenty of opportunities for memorable sequences.
Insurgents ambush Ashoka’s attack force as it flies toward the planet surface, leading to a balletic and bloody mid-air skirmish. Ashoka and her surviving clones chase Maul through a labyrinthine sewer system in a B-plot that owes as much to Alien as it does the wider Star Wars universe. Having forced Maul to the surface, Ashoka duels him in a ruined throne room and in the rafters of a towering citadel while insurgent and Republic troops slaughter each other down below.
The action beats are thrilling, but it’s the voice performance, music and sound design that truly elevate the material. The Clone Wars in many of its episodes pitches itself to kids. It’s loud, fast-paced and even goofy at times.
Not so in its four-episode finale. Ashley Eckstein, voicing Ashoka, slows and flattens her performance, giving the dialogue a foreboding edge. Kevin Kiner’s score calms down, deepens, hints at depths of suffering that we don’t actually see on-screen.
“Ashley Eckstein, voicing Ashoka, slows and flattens her performance, giving the dialogue a foreboding edge. Kevin Kiner’s score calms down, deepens, hints at depths of suffering that we don’t actually see on-screen.”
The action, for all its intensity, is strangely conceptual. We don’t see Maul slice through the clone troopers in the sewers. We hear it, and it’s both beautiful and terrible thanks to David Acord’s sound team.
But the battles aren’t the point. Like The Empire Strikes Back, The Clone Wars finale has an inverted structure. The big action set-pieces happen early on. As the plot advances and the stakes rise, the story actually shrinks in scale. Ashoka defeats Maul, in a way, and finds herself with her remaining clones on a ship heading to Coruscant.
But if you know Star Wars lore, you know something galaxy-shattering is about to happen: Palpatine’s order to the brain-washed clone troopers to murder the Jedi and eliminate the last obstacle to his despotic rule.
It’s no secret that Ashoka survives. After all, Disney recently cast Rosario Dawson to play the character in the second season of The Mandalorian, which is set years after The Clone Wars.
What’s compelling is how Ashoka survives.
Alone and surrounded, the former Jedi can’t fight her way out. But there’s another way. She can call on the relationships she cultivated over all those years of struggle. She can show love, mercy, kindness. And she can ask for those things in return.
In its final moments, The Clone Wars evokes more emotion than most of the franchise’s live-action films manage with A-list actors and directors and a hundred times the budget.
Star Wars as a franchise can be frustrating. But there’s still magic in it. Even if that magic takes the form of a cartoon.