Television

The Star Wars Prequels Were a Joke. Then Came The Clone Wars.

The series finale brings an undignified era to a dignified close.

In a 3D-animated style, Darth Maul, with a red and black face and horns, crosses lightsabers with Ahsoka Tano, seen from the back.
Disney+

Midi-chlorians. Clunky dialogue. Intergalactic trade disputes. That electrifying John Williams theme with all the chanting—but also Jar Jar Binks. The legacy of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is littered with missteps and missed opportunities. Instead of the good man seduced by the dark side we were promised, the movies gave us a precocious messiah with a bowl cut who grows into a deeply troubled teen and then barely gets in a few heroics before being encased in the famous black armor. Despite remarkable achievements in special effects, costuming, and cinematography, the prequel era is best remembered for a cartoon rabbit and a cringeworthy speech about sand.

This week, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated series that was canceled and then revived by Disney after an improbable, yearslong fan campaign to bring it back, offered a different set of words and images to remember that era by. Though it was launched in 2008 with a goofy movie of its own—the worst-reviewed theatrical release of the entire franchise, in fact—The Clone Wars got past its growing pains to become a vital bridge between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, paving over the movies’ plot holes, fleshing out characters who had been squandered, and taking the time to explore the nooks and crannies of George Lucas’ richly imagined galaxy. Anakin, now voiced by Matt Lanter, received some much-needed development, his willingness to turn on his order and commit atrocities made more tragic and more believable by showing the deep-rooted corruption in the Republic and the Jedi during the war. After Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, Star Wars: The Clone Wars received only a truncated sixth season, but the launch of Disney+ created an opportunity for supervising director Dave Filoni and his team to bring the show back to finally tip the dominoes they’ve spent years setting up.

Filoni wears many hats at Lucasfilm—including the literal cowboy hats he is rarely seen without. He has shepherded a number of TV projects at the company, including Star Wars Rebels, Forces of Destiny, Star Wars Resistance, and The Mandalorian, which also marked Filoni’s live-action directorial debut. But his greatest contribution to the franchise has been his work on The Clone Wars. After directing several episodes of the acclaimed Avatar: The Last Airbender, the lifelong Star Wars fan was lured away from Nickelodeon by George Lucas and has since become a kind of Moses figure, making sense of the sometimes inscrutable tablets the franchise’s creator would hand down from the mount. (Filoni says that when he questioned Lucas’ idea to bring back Darth Maul, a character last seen being cut in half and plummeting down a bottomless pit, Lucas told him, “You’ll figure it out.” He did.) After Lucas stepped away, Filoni remained, using his other Disney-sanctioned series to sneak in some closure for the characters whose stories were cut short by the premature end of The Clone Wars. But with the 12-episode season that concluded on Monday, he finally got the chance to do it right.

It’s difficult to talk about The Clone Wars finale without also addressing the bantha in the room: The Rise of Skywalker, which similarly made its streaming debut on Monday. For May the Fourth, these showstoppers sat side by side on the Disney+ homepage, each wrapping up a different era of the Skywalker saga. But where The Rise of Skywalker used hasty revisionism to get out of the corner The Last Jedi backed it into—by bringing back a dead villain without bothering to explain how, by blaming a major backstory revelation on a technicality, by giving a beloved new character a perfunctory write-offThe Clone Wars has shown enormous respect for its often disrespected predecessors, working with and around the prequel movies as much as possible instead of just hitting Ctrl+Z every time things got inconvenient. That’s not to say it never messed with the canon: The series began by introducing a potential plot hole so big you could drive a Star Destroyer through it: that Anakin Skywalker had an apprentice, Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein), who was never so much as mentioned in Revenge of the Sith. A bratty whippersnapper who eventually matures into a powerful warrior, she’s the perfect foil to Anakin, sharing his impulsivity and confidence, but with these traits tempered by a deep compassion for others. Her fate became one of the central mysteries of the series during its original run.

Ahsoka is the star of The Clone Wars’ final season, though that fate is no longer in question: She reappears in the future in Rebels and was even more recently included among the “voices of Jedi past” who speak to Rey in The Rise of Skywalker—a curious inclusion for a character who, like her master, eventually becomes disillusioned by the Jedi. Ahsoka chose to walk away at the end of The Clone Wars’ fifth season but returns in the seventh to help capture Maul (Sam Witwer). Their showdown this season was a triumph for Filoni: Ahsoka, a character he helped design from scratch, and Maul, whom he raised from the dead. In less capable hands, their battle in the show’s four-part finale, formatted as a kind of a minimovie, might have felt like a kid playing with his action figures. Instead, it’s a testament to how much the series has grown, with stunning lighting and animation and a choreographed fight scene that features real actors—including the original Maul, Ray Park—using motion-capture technology.

Those four episodes don’t just lead into Revenge of the Sith. The two stories actually overlap, with snippets of dialogue repeated and Clone Wars characters walking into scenes right when the movie cut away. Because we already know what’s coming—Anakin’s turn to the dark side, the clones executing their generals in Order 66—there’s a dread that hangs over every scene. Eckstein and Witwer are acting their hearts out, as is Dee Bradley Baker, who voiced all of the clones over the series’ run and somehow managed to give them all individual identities. In fact, they’re the only three actors in the very last episode, other than Filoni himself in a small part as a droid. But the most gutting parts of “Victory and Death” are the parts with no dialogue at all. The last four minutes or so are accompanied only by Kevin Kiner’s mournful, Blade Runner–aping score, and for fans who have been following this story for more than a decade, they are nothing short of astonishing.

It’s the ending that The Clone Wars always deserved, and a dignified close to an era of Star Wars that wasn’t always so dignified. The Clone Wars blazed a trail for what came after it: the gritty violence of Rogue One, the populism of The Last Jedi, the sensibilities and lore of The Mandalorian. But the show’s most impressive accomplishment is its redemption of a part of the Star Wars canon that is often reduced to a joke so that for a certain subset of fans, prequel-era Star Wars is some of the best the franchise has to offer—not a Gungan whose tongue is caught on a power converter, but a clone cradling his brother in arms as he breathes his last, Maul wielding the Darksaber, Ahsoka Tano standing in a graveyard of her own making. That’s how you end an era.