Season One of “The Clone Wars” had two main ambitions that loomed large in their simplicity: to make viewers realize that the actual Clone Wars would be much more interesting than their immediate cinematic lead-up and aftermath and to focus its attention not just on the main characters of the Star Wars prequels, but on all kinds of different players. In so doing, it accomplished the feat of being more exciting than any entry in the prequel trilogy and creating a multifaceted view of how people from all walks of life could be affected by this war – and indeed, by any massive war. It took the prequels' failed political messages and intermittently good action sequences and converted them into something smart, relevant and fun.
Initial goals now met, Season Two is an exercise in showing just how versatile this show can be.
It's hard to say that Season Two is better than Season One, but that's only because Season One did such a great job reversing expectations from the flawed “Clone Wars” film and establishing the ground rules for the show's anthology, “dusty corners of the Star Wars universe” format. Season Two doesn't have those difficult thresholds to cross, so it's more free to stretch its muscles.
But stretch its muscles it does. Season Two continues the show's survey of the many crannies of the galaxy, this time showcasing the ability of the writers, directors and animators to adapt Star Wars to a variety of genres.
The Second Battle of Geonosis episodes (five through eight in the season order) are particularly impressive in their continually evolving genre inspirations. The opening episode, “Landing at Point Rain,” portrays a brutal, wide-scale assault on a droid factory that is pure war story. Visually and thematically, it beats “Attack of the Clones'” recounting of the first Geonosian conflict by infusing the show's trademark unsettling cartoon violence and playing the battle straight (not a head-transplanted C-3PO in sight!). The second episode continues the straight war take but puts an espionage spin on the proceedings, as the master/apprentice tag teams of Anakin/Ahsoka and Luminara/Barriss Offee infiltrate the factory and set a trap to destroy the Separatists' “indestructible” supertanks.
In “Legacy of Terror,” however, things get weird. Luminara is captured, and all trails point to the legendary Geonosian hive queen, a super-intelligent being that can hold nearby kin of species in her sway. Obi-Wan and his men must navigate a hive filled with reanimated Geonosian corpses, and the show suddenly becomes a zombie story, complete with multiple troopers dragged to their deaths by the creeping horde. In the follow-up, “Brain Invaders,” the zombie theme gains an extra element of body horror as the hive queen's mind-controlling brain worms take over a Republic cruiser and force Ahsoka to kill her friends in self-defense. The climax, featuring a mentally compromised Barriss begging Ahsoka to take her life, is dark, gross, and emotional, instilling a sympathy with and admiration for a protagonist I once found insufferable.
The Second Battle of Geonosis is far from the only example of genre-bending. “Bounty Hunters” is a tribute to the classic “Seven Samurai,” and “The Zillo Beast” and its follow-up “The Zillo Beast Strikes Back” are pure Godzilla homage, featuring a reptilian monster seeking revenge from the depths of Malastare after its peaceful existence is disturbed by a nuclear metaphor.
“The Zillo Beast Strikes Back” is also an example of Season Two's other storytelling ambition: a renewed focus on character. In the episode, the show expands its anthology lens to focus on Chancellor Palpatine, and viewers get their first peek of his evil intentions for the Republic. Attempting to harness the power of the subterranean Zillo Beast, Palpatine covertly orders that the monster be poisoned and then cloned. His underhanded attempts to duplicate the beast's armor for military use end up wreaking havoc on Coruscant, but we get a rare glimpse at the man who would be emperor's private life. He doesn't care about collateral damage.
The show also makes you care about new additions to the Star Wars universe, including ruthless bounty hunter Cad Bane and pacifist Mandalorian leader (and former Obi-Wan love interest) Satine Kryze, but its best moment of characterization comes in “Voyage of Temptation,” when Satine and Obi-Wan face down an assassin. Though the duo has the would-be killer at a disadvantage, he gloats that neither of them will be able to stop him, as an act of violence by Satine would betray her pacifism and a similar action by Obi-Wan would diminish his standing in Satine's eyes. Before anyone can act, however, the assassin is fatally stabbed through the back by Anakin, who reacts callously and pragmatically to his kill as the score transitions to a languid strain from “The Imperial March.” It's an eerie, earned portent of Anakin's eventual turn to the dark side, executed in a more deft and believable fashion than Hayden Christensen's snotty Tusken Raider massacre in Episode II.
Ultimately, that's what “Clone Wars” is: a recontextualization of the Star Wars prequels, focusing on new perspectives and providing additional nuance. With Season Two tying more directly into some of the story elements of the films and growing more confident in alternative storytelling methods, I'm excited to see where the show goes from here.
Final note: Story is the strength of “Clone Wars” Season Two, but I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss how the animation also improves. While some of the characters' “acting” animations are still a little wooden, the action sequences flow much more smoothly and untether themselves from the restraints of live action, resulting in thrilling scenes like “Cargo of Doom's” zero-gravity skirmish. The animators also make more use of lighting contrasts and color palette in Season Two, crafting evocative scenes of Jedi warriors soldiering through darkness with only their lightsabers to guide them.