Before starting Star Wars: The Completionist Saga, I had never watched a minute of “The Clone Wars” TV show. Now, having burned through it all in a couple of months, I think I could easily provide a first-time viewer with an abridged version that he or she would love.
That's the thing about “The Clone Wars.” With the exception of Season Two, which is of solid construction through and through, “The Clone Wars” as a whole, like many other pretty good TV shows, finds ways to stray from its generally solid footing just a little too often. When it's on, it's a legitimately great light sci-fi show that makes you feel for its characters while setting up interesting philosophical questions and well-choreographed action scenes. When it's not on, well, you get that arc from Season Three where Sy Snootles and Ziro the Hutt are … lovers? What are they, exactly?
So it is with Season Five, as well.
Though Season Six does some good Episode III table setting with the remaining episodes that were in the can at the time of “The Clone Wars'” cancellation, Season Five is the last “real” season of the show. Many of the seasons' storylines deliver effective, brutal payoffs to seasons worth of build-up, and the show's technical capabilities have also grown to the point where the visualization of these moments is at its peak. Between Darth Maul's ascendancy and eventual downfall to the season's final arc – a devastating frame-up job on Ahsoka – audiences were treated to a tale that suggested that even if the Jedi were to win the war, something in their core was fundamentally rotten. That those stories were buoyed by some dazzling fight design and action setpieces only made them more compelling.
But then there's those droids on a mission episodes.
Comprising perhaps my least favorite arc of the entire show, episodes 10 through 13 have, in theory, many things I enjoy about “The Clone Wars.” For one, the episodes are populated almost entirely by new characters, save for some expository Jedi scenes and R2-D2 in a key supporting role. Second, they're ostensibly focused on an act of military espionage: R2, a few other droids and a pint-sized commander must capture a Separatist decoder key in a high-stakes undercover operation. Finally, there's even some philosophical flavor, as the show continues to toy with the idea of wars dehumanizing the lower ranks of the military (Colonel Gascon treats his droid recruits as disposable, even lobotomizing one of them so he has a makeshift miniature transport to drive).
So what's the problem? It's twofold: first, the episodes try to dip their toes into comedy, always a weak point for “The Clone Wars,” and second, they fall victim to the show's markedly inconsistent track record of original character creation. For every Cad Bane or Ahsoka, there's a Ziro the Hutt, and Gascon and his pit droid sidekick WAC fall squarely onto the latter side of the equation. The duo is annoying and hacky, two foils given nothing genuinely funny or compelling to say or do. The third episode, “Missing in Action,” adds a brief respite from the monotony by introducing an amnesiac clone (if there's one thing I've learned from this series, it's that I love the clones), but the leads and comedic moments are so limp that getting through the arc is a slog.
But in the abridged version of “The Clone Wars,” you don't need to worry about those episodes; most of Season Five is compelling stuff. After a weak return in Season Four, Darth Maul gets his shot at a more ambitious character arc in Season Five, racking up the show's highest body count of recurring characters in the process. Maul's four episodes, in which he stages a coup on Mandalore and attempts to set up a criminal empire, are a sweeping display of both his cunning and hubris, and they're peppered with some of the best action in the series's run.
Those lightsaber battles have sure improved, haven't they? While most of “The Clone Wars” best saber moments have reveled in their use of color and shadow, Maul's clash with Pre Vizsla and his team-up with Savage Oppress to fight Sidious are both clearly elucidated and brutal. Vizla's blunt demise happens in broad daylight, with more fists on flesh than acrobatics, the whirring darksaber the only concession to spectacle. In the Sith brothers' final showdown with Sidious, “The Clone Wars” finally reclaims some of the kineticism that was its Tartakovsky forbear's greatest strength, but not in a way that sacrifices the mythological drama of the characters. The immutability of Palpatine's agenda has scarcely been more clear as when he explains to Maul that he has been discarded as an apprentice. Becoming an outlet for abuse and a pawn in Sidious's future schemes are his only remaining uses.
As impressive as Maul's episodes are, Season Five is mostly about Ahsoka, a character I once found annoying and now have an abiding respect for (knowing that she's in “Rebels,” I can't wait to watch). In her first two arcs, which see her essentially training an anti-Separatist terrorist cell and mentoring a group of younglings, she takes increased responsibility within the Jedi Order while becoming increasingly aware of its limitations – specifically, its fealty to a Senate that is more concerned with politics than progress. In the season's final arc, when she is accused of murdering a key witness in an investigation of the bombing of the Jedi Temple (and plays out the “I didn't kill my wife!” scene from “The Fugitive”), she faces a council more concerned with appearances and policy than doing what's right – as well as a couple more great duels, with Asajj Ventress and an impersonator in the series' final farewell to Count Dooku's erstwhile apprentice.
With Anakin a side character in the arc as the only person on Ahsoka's side, the show skillfully portrays the seeds of doubt sown in his own mind regarding the Order. In many ways, his distress at the Jedis' betrayal of Ahsoka is a far more believable reason for his distrust of the council than anything brought up in Episode III. And, in the end, Ahsoka completes her character progression from throughout the show's run not only by becoming a Jedi, but by realizing she's outgrown them.
While Anakin will continue to writhe and rage against a machine that operates under rules he cannot understand, Ahsoka realizes that a better way may be simply to abandon the machine altogether and seek another way to do good. Like “The Clone Wars” itself, the Jedi Order is a well-intentioned but imperfect beast, and by leaving it behind, Ahsoka seeks to rise above it even as she offers the show one of its most transcendent moments.