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Star Wars: The Clone Wars composes its own duel of the fates

Illustration for article titled iStar Wars: The Clone Wars/i composes its own duel of the fates
Image: Disney (Disney Plus Press Site)
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If there’s one core flaw to The Clone Wars, it’s the fact that this entire show has been limited and hamstrung to the events of the Star Wars films (and, to a certain extent, the events that occurred in canon shows and comics). A big part of that means that the show has to write around all of the major events that occurred in those other sources, but the other significant issue is that characters tend to talk and/or reference certain events from those Star Wars media as huge, incredible events, even thought at this point they’re so well-known and understood by the audience at large. This is a roundabout way of saying that I was never huge on Maul as a villain, whether he could talk or not. His grandiose, Shakespearean speeches about his dreams and visions of events to come (Order 66, the fall of the Republic, Darth Sidious, the Jedi/Sith being useless–both as a force and as pawns in the inevitability of what’s to come) feel meaningless, since we already know all about this stuff. (Sam Witwer gives it his all in those speeches, but it still feels like melodramatic recapping). But when things gets personal, that’s when the episode finally comes alive, growing from vague pronouncements to one of the best confrontations in the franchise’s history.

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Before that specific, personal goal is reached, though, “The Phantom Apprentice” is forced to trek through what we already know will happen, propped up with an ominous air of dread. I commend the direction and music of the episode—with its tense, pulsating soundtrack (props to composer Kevin Kiner) and the framing/tracking of the camera that makes many shots look like something from a horror film (props to director Nathaniel Villanueva), that first half of the episode manages to squeeze out a fair amount of tension. But there’s no escape from the prequel nature of the events to come. Obi-Wan telling Ahsoka and the team on Mandalore what little he knows of this “Darth Sidious,” and what he tells Ahsoka of Anakin killing Dooku and spying on the Chancellor, all has the atmosphere of drama, but not the substance of it, because we know the outcome (and I don’t know if this show can do anything about that). They are narrative beats that last a little longer than they should. But again, the direction and music is stellar; if you didn’t know what was happening, and there’s a chance many younger viewers haven’t gotten around to Star Wars content, it’s truly effective. The vague pronouncements and concepts of characters trying to figure out what’s going on in the universe at large is overwhelming, during which a force as brutal as Maul wipes through clones like they’re nothing. That tracking shot over the downed bodies of clone soldier before traveling further downward into the tunnel, surging with that brooding score, is fantastic.

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This is also the point that the episode moves away from dramatic exposition and gap-filling to the more specifics of what Maul is doing and planning on Mandalore, and how Ahsoka fits in all of this (which does, to be fair, provide that exposition and gap-filling with important and necessary context). It feels a little retcon-y, but Maul’s actions in escalating hostilities among the Mandalorians was ultimately meant to lead the Republic and Obi-Wan/Anakin to him, so he could effectively kill Anakin and disrupt’s Sidious’s grand plan. (Was all the chaos he sowed in building the Shadow Collective part of that plan? This episode doesn’t say.) He sends Gar Saxon to assassinate Prime Minister Almec while he Force-mind tortures Jesse for information as to who this Ahsoka is, and why she of all people arrived instead. The assassination scene is kind of clunky—Almec holds out for like a second, and it sure as heck seemed like Ahsoka was okay with Bo-Katan resorting to physical violence to get answers from him—but the fight that ensued afterwards is tense and brutal. Saxon and Bo-Katan duel it out between elevators, and it’s such a visual delight–but that’s nothing compared to what comes next.

Illustration for article titled iStar Wars: The Clone Wars/i composes its own duel of the fates
Image: Disney (Disney Plus Press Site)
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“Skywalker” is the name Almec tells Ahsoka, and it’s the name that haunts and consumes Maul, and it’s inevitable the two would battle over it. What was unexpected is the immense intensity of this battle, this climactic feud of lost, abandoned souls. As the battle between clones and Mandalorians rage outside the throne room, among blaster fire, clashes, and explosions, simmering tensions build between these former Apprentices. One explosion, in particular, rips through the throne room’s window, an incredible shot of shattered glass, ash, and sparks washing over these two figures in a moment of grand temptation. Ahsoka comes dangerously close to accepting Maul’s offer to join him to stop Sidious—she can’t take what she knows to the Jedi, and she really has no where else to go—but her intrinsic loyalty and friendship to Anakin pulls her back (more in the Stray Observations). And so the two fight—and it is one of the most intense, wild, epic lightsaber battles I’ve seen in this entire franchise. All against the backdrop of the war, Maul and Ahsoka battle their way up into the railings of some kind of building, I think, and Ahsoka some way, some how, bests Maul–without her lightsabers. He’s then captured, still ranting about a burning future before he’s stunned.

Ahsoka is victorious—but now what? Everything she’s heard and discovered is now rattling around in her head, and with two more episodes to go this final season, there’s no telling what will happen next. She refused to be “The Phantom Apprentice” to Maul, but there’s still questions about this mysterious Sidious and this horrific future Maul seems to know so much about. (No doubt Ahsoka senses enough Force to grasp that there’s some truth to his visions.) Of course, we know what happens, and Star Wars can’t overcome that, but what this means for Ahsoka is much more intriguing. This may be the strongest Star Wars: The Clone Wars has been in its entire run; let’s hope it sticks the landing.

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Stray observations

  • There has been a... lot of talk about how, in the wake of The Last Jedi, one direction that the franchise should have gone is to have Kylo Ren reject all that was The Sith and the Dark Side, and started a whole other new approach–and perhaps he should have taken Rey along with him. That is exactly what we have here: both Ahsoka and Maul have been betrayed by their masters and left their respective “orders.” And not only does Maul tempt Ahsoka with this “third” option–killing Sidious, similar to killing Snoke, she accepts it! Up until she fails to believe Maul’s claim about Sidious grooming Anakin all this time. The irony of ironies.
  • There’s a brief scene where the people of Mandalore complain about the Republic and the clones as an occupying force, herding civilians to safety. It’s a little clunky, but like most of the allegories in Star Wars, the clunkiness doesn’t mean it’s not a noble topic. It foreshadows the Republic-to-Empire transformation, its power and control over other lands, which also sounds quite similar to the more unsavory aspects of US foreign policy. It’s also way too short of a scene/moment to land in any meaningful way.
  • “Justice is merely the construct of the current power base...” Maul may be deluded and out of his mind, but this is an extremely salient point.
  • The absolute breadth of this battle is ironic, since, if you aren’t aware, Maul’s final, fatal battle occurred in less than two seconds. He was taken out by Obi-Wan in one move, alone and pathetic, with no bombast. As I mentioned in that review, Maul has had no significance in the Star Wars universe as a whole, but his one-on-one with Ahsoka (and Ezra) as a chaotically evil temptress is significant enough.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club, with a clear preference for all things cartoons; check out his main blog at http://www.totalmediabridge.com.

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