With an apparently endless stream of Star Wars media issuing forth from Disney and Lucasfilm, it may sound melodramatic to speak about eras ending. Last December, The Rise of Skywalker brought the 40-years-in-the-making saga of the Skywalker family to a close, only for a new episode of The Mandalorian to hit Disney+ less than a week later. A sense of finality, of closure, is hard to come by these days. All the same, when Star Wars: The Clone Wars ended its 12-year run about a month ago, it closed the book on a chapter of Star Wars history in a very real way. As Robert Brown recently noted, The Clone Wars marked George Lucas’ final major foray into his galaxy far, far away, and although The Rise of Skywalker cemented my appreciation of the sequel trilogy with its essential faithfulness to Lucas’ moral and spiritual vision, The Clone Wars feels like the more fitting conclusion to the project he began in 1977. Overseen by Dave Filoni, the apprentice to Lucas’ master, the series is a sprawling and admirably unwieldy affair that feels consistently true to the spirit of the films without being beholden to them; I have previously assessed it as “the single best addition to Lucas’ films we have ever gotten, and are ever likely to get.” The finale picks up several of the most compelling threads in the tapestry – Maul’s frantic scramble to seize power in the galactic underworld, Ahsoka’s conflicted relationship with the failing Jedi Order, and the Clone Troopers’ existential reckoning with their lives as expendable, mass-produced soldiers – and weaves them together into something robust, thrilling, and tragic.
Filoni has clearly taken many of Lucas’ teachings to heart, and as a result, he has a better handle on what makes Star Wars Star Wars than almost anyone. Among many other things, he shares Lucas’ penchant for telling stories that (like poetry) rhyme with themselves and with each other. Clone Wars is riddled with varyingly subtle allusions to Lucas’ films, and the final episodes are densely fraught with references not only to the movies but also to the series’ earlier passages. To take one particularly clever instance as an example, in the show’s final episode – the fourth in its last multi-episode arc – Maul tampers with a Republic ship’s hyperdrive, causing it to crash into a moon. In the series’ fourth episode – the last in its first multi-episode arc – Anakin tampers with a Separatist ship’s hyperdrive, causing it to crash into a moon. Beyond their formal aptness, the show uses such parallels to highlight important repetitions or contrasts, in this case drawing a disconcerting line from Anakin, a heroic Jedi, to Maul, an evil Sith. Though the two characters initially seem far removed from one another, by the end of the Clone Wars, Anakin slides neatly into Maul’s place as Palpatine’s apprentice.
Though this is a cartoon made for Disney’s home streaming service, the finale feels remarkably cinematic, as if it really ought to be seen on the big screen. From its vibrant animation to its accomplished visual storytelling to its mature, measured pacing, everything about this final set of episodes represents a step up for a series that had already set an impressively high bar for itself. Moreover, when you put them together, these concluding episodes are shaped like a Star Wars film – which is to say, they have a chiastic (or circular) structure. Consider:
A – The Clone Troopers honor Ahsoka by painting their helmets to look like her. Anakin gives Ahsoka her blue lightsabers aboard the Republic Star Destroyer.
B – Ahsoka and Rex plummet towards the surface of Mandalore while a Republic ship goes down in flames.
C – Ahsoka holds a dying Clone Trooper’s hand before she is cornered by Mandalorians under Maul’s command. Rex saves her.
D – Ahsoka speaks with Obi-Wan via hologram. Maul compels Jesse to betray Ahsoka. Ahsoka captures Maul after refusing his offer to join forces.
D’ – Ahsoka speaks with Yoda via hologram. Palpatine compels Rex to betray Ahsoka. Ahsoka frees Maul before refusing his offer to join forces.
C’ – Ahsoka places her hands on an incapacitated Rex’s head before she is cornered by Clone Troopers under Palpatine’s command. Rex saves her.
B’ – Ahsoka and Rex plummet towards the surface of a moon while a Republic ship goes down in flames.
A’ – Ahsoka honors the Clone Troopers by turning their helmets into a memorial. Anakin, now Vader, finds one of Ahsoka’s blue lightsabers near the wreckage of the Republic Star Destroyer.
These parallels undergird the final episodes with a pleasingly symmetrical structure and draw out their emotional weight. The two “A” points alone make a striking set of contrasting bookends, underlining the immensely tragic reversals that drive the drama. Affectionate reunions give way to separation and grief, and talismans of friendship become icons of all that has been lost.
Before the first “A” point, there is a discrete prologue, which may seem disconnected from the main story, but prefigures its climax in key ways. Anakin walks out in front of an enemy army, pretending to surrender: a diversion so that R2-D2 can tell the 501st Legion of Clone Troopers, who are hiding underneath the bridge, to emerge and attack the droid forces. In the end, Ahsoka (who has clearly learned from her master) walks out in front of a hostile force and pretends to surrender, but this time the enemy army is the very same 501st Legion of Clone Troopers who fought alongside Anakin, and her droid ally (who looks like R2-D2) drops them down to the lower level instead of telling them to come up. (The Clones later blast the droids helping Ahsoka, just as they blasted the enemy droids earlier.) Anakin’s actions in the prologue also foreshadow Maul’s in the climax: both charge unarmed onto a bridge, dodging laser fire, and violently send an enemy’s head flying through the air. At the beginning of the story, we find the light side and the dark side uneasily balanced in one character: Anakin. By the end, they diverge, with Ahsoka embodying the light and Maul embodying the dark. (Also notice that in the prologue, Obi-Wan saves Commander Cody, while in the climax, Ahsoka saves Captain Rex.)
The lighthearted, adventurous opening sequence represents all the thrilling fun one expects from Star Wars, acting as a brief, disarming respite before a steady descent into tragedy. It recaptures the delight of the show’s first six seasons before bringing the story to a bittersweet conclusion. In the same way, the early passages of Revenge of the Sith recapitulate the arc of the original films before bringing the Star Wars saga to what was, at the time, a bittersweet ending. In many ways, it feels poetic that The Clone Wars’ swan song should be linked to Lucas’ cinematic swan song. These episodes overlap chronologically with Episode III, in the sense that they depict the same period of time in the galaxy far, far away and show many of the same events from different perspectives, yet one may not notice just how thoroughly the two works are overlaid on each other. I would venture to say that eight or nine out of every ten scenes in the Clone Wars finale has its basis in a corresponding scene in Revenge of the Sith, and this is one of the aspects I find most compelling about it. The show’s relationship with the film accomplishes two things: it both deepens the tragedy of Revenge of the Sith and acts as a salve to it.
As we’ve noted, the exciting prologue serves as a sort of “business as usual” primer, setting the stage before seismic shifts that reshuffle the actors and props. Both sequences lean heavily on the playful, antagonistic banter between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and both feature R2-D2’s periscope peeking out from under something. Yet despite their rip-roaring tone, both prologues end with ominous foreshadowing, as Anakin slices off the head of the enemy leader (the tactical droid in Clone Wars, Count Dooku in Revenge of the Sith). By the story’s end, Anakin will sever the head of the entire galaxy, so to speak, leaving it to be governed by its belly.
The prologue of Episode III also foreshadows the final episode of Clone Wars. R2-D2 is operating the elevators from the hangar of the Separatist ship, just as the droids helping Ahsoka will operate the lifts in the hangar of the Republic ship. (“We need to be going up, not down!”) In Revenge of the Sith, General Grievous jettisons all the escape pods, trapping the heroes on the crashing ship after he makes his own exit. In Clone Wars, the Clone Troopers destroy the escape pods to prevent Ahsoka and Rex from leaving their own doomed Star Destroyer while Maul, like Grievous, abandons ship.
At the beginning of both stories, Anakin reunites with a woman he is close to (Padmé in Revenge of the Sith, Ahsoka in Clone Wars), but by the end, they will be split apart again. Moreover, Anakin’s farewell to Ahsoka (“Good luck”) is a counterpoint to his farewell to Obi-Wan (“May the Force be with you”). In both cases, the relationship shifts from that between a master and an apprentice to equal footing between friends – and in both cases, friendship is not to be, for the next time master and apprentice meet, they will be enemies.
In Clone Wars, Anakin splits the 501st Legion in half, sending some to reinforce Ahsoka while he takes the others to Coruscant to rescue the Chancellor – an operation during which Grievous’ flagship splits in half. If it sounds like I’m reaching, consider that we soon find half of the 501st Legion, like half of Grievous’ flagship, plummeting towards a city on the surface of a planet, and that composer Kevin Kiner quotes John Williams’ march for the opening battle of Revenge of the Sith during the race to the surface of Mandalore.
The battle on Mandalore in Clone Wars runs parallel to the battles on Utapau and Kashyyyk in Revenge of the Sith. Ahsoka, like Obi-Wan and Yoda, is drawn into a military campaign, leaving Anakin without support while Palpatine lures him to the dark side. Like Yoda teaming up with the Wookiees on Kashyyyk, Ahsoka teams up with the Mandalorians to help liberate their planet from a hostile force (only, it is implied, for the planet to fall under the Empire’s control shortly thereafter).
Mandalore and Utapau are both arid planets where much of the action takes place in large pits and sinkholes, and both have a prime minister reduced to a puppet, a legitimate face to mask the true villain who wields power from the shadows. The similarities between the two sequences are strikingly specific. Obi-Wan is sent to capture Grievous, while Ahsoka is sent to capture Maul. Grievous and Maul tell the leaders of their respective factions to go into hiding before engaging in a lightsaber duel with the heroes while a large-scale battle is proceeding in the background. After losing the duel, the villains try to escape in a ship, and the heroes thwart them, but lose their lightsabers in the process, dropping them from a great height and subsequently getting them back from an ally (Commander Cody and Bo-Katan, respectively).
Both battles play out against the backdrop of the same political machinations. There are briefings where someone impatiently argues with Obi-Wan (always the voice of reason) that there is too much deliberation and not enough action. Anakin and Ahsoka both butt heads with Obi-Wan over the former’s assignment to spy on Palpatine as well. Mace Windu pettily refuses to acknowledge Anakin as a Jedi Master and then pettily refuses to acknowledge Ahsoka as a Jedi. The Council, spurred on by Windu, deliberates on whether to take control of the Senate and remove Palpatine from office. On the other side, Palpatine discusses Dooku’s demise with his lieutenant, Grievous, and Maul discusses Dooku’s demise with his lieutenant, Gar Saxon. Both Palpatine and Maul know that the death of Count Dooku means the end of the Clone Wars, creating a vacuum that will soon be filled by Anakin.
Like his old master moving chess pieces around the board to seduce Anakin, Maul orchestrates the war on Mandalore as a ruse to get Ahsoka alone and persuade her to join him. The dialogue between Maul and Ahsoka in the Mandalorian throne room recalls several key Star Wars scenes: it is the latest in many variations on the “temptation before the throne” scenario that originated in Return of the Jedi. Like Palpatine in that film, and later in Rise of Skywalker, Maul offers Ahsoka the power she needs to avert a feared outcome. Maul is not the master manipulator Palpatine is, though; his outstretched hand and desperate, slightly timorous appeal to a shared sense of disenfranchisement – “We were both tools of greater powers” – more readily recall Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi. The fiery embers falling throughout the dialogue visually highlight this parallel (and link both scenes to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s confrontation at the end of Revenge of the Sith).
The lighting in the throne room scene, with a lone shaft of light falling across Maul’s eyes while the rest of his face is shadowed, draws a less obvious but no less important connection to another scene: Anakin and Yoda’s conversation in Revenge of the Sith. Despite his attempts to follow in Palpatine’s footsteps, Maul is really more like Anakin: he is haunted by visions (hence the light across the eyes) of a future that is drawing inexorably closer, and he is willing to kill to keep it from coming to pass. While Yoda tries to persuade Anakin to let go of his attachment to Padmé, Maul tries to persuade Ahsoka to let go of her attachment to Anakin, and in an ironic reversal, both fail. Yoda pushes Anakin towards the dark side; Maul pushes Ahsoka towards the light. Despite her disillusionment with the Jedi, Ahsoka – like Luke – is saved by her love for Anakin.
Surprisingly enough, this is not the only parallel The Clone Wars draws between Maul and Yoda. From this point forward, Maul’s actions increasingly mirror Yoda’s in Revenge of the Sith. After Order 66 is declared, Yoda simultaneously slices off the heads of two Clone Troopers – a feat Maul duplicates during his rampage through the halls of the Star Destroyer. Yoda’s spectacularly brutal dispatching of half of the 501st Legion in front of the Jedi Temple runs parallel to Maul’s similarly spectacular, similarly brutal massacre of the other half of the 501st Legion onboard the Star Destroyer. Before entering Palpatine’s office, Yoda uses the Force to make short work of the two guards. Maul takes care of the two Clone Troopers guarding the hyperdrive room with similar efficiency, and both characters subsequently use the Force to dramatically wreak havoc in a huge, cavernous space: the Senate chamber and the hyperdrive room, respectively.
Both Yoda and Maul urge others to detachment, and both practice what they preach, going into self-imposed exile by the story’s end. (The next time we see Maul, in Star Wars Rebels, he will again be playing the Yoda role, opposite Ezra Bridger’s Luke, in a dark variation on the Dagobah routine.)
The major turn in the story comes after the conclusion of the battles on Utapau and Mandalore, with Anakin’s fall to the dark side. Both Padmé and Ahsoka sense Anakin’s inner turmoil from afar while standing at a window facing towards his location (Ahsoka’s ship is traveling towards Coruscant), and both sequences are accompanied by an eerie soundscape, atypical for Star Wars, that evokes Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. When Anakin chooses to betray the Jedi, giving in to Palpatine’s voice in his head, he sheds a single tear, and later drops his lightsaber after using it to maim Mace Windu. After receiving Order 66 from Palpatine, Rex drops his helmet and sheds a single tear as he struggles against his programming, trying not to give in and betray Ahsoka.
In both stories, the sudden upending of political order leads to division between brothers in arms. Captain Rex tearfully refers to the Clones as his “brothers,” recalling Obi-Wan’s anguish: “You were my brother, Anakin!” Arguments about true loyalty to the Republic give way to mutual accusations of treason, and then to violence. Yet here, The Clone Wars begins to offer a series of pointed contrasts to Revenge of the Sith. When Palpatine reveals his true colors, Anakin brandishes a blue lightsaber at him, but does not kill him, instead intending to turn him over to the Jedi Council. Of course, Anakin ultimately turns on the Jedi Council, instead joining forces with Palpatine. In a similar scene, Ahsoka brandishes a blue lightsaber at Maul (a prisoner en route to the Jedi Council), but does not kill him. Ahsoka lets Maul go free, but unlike Anakin, she knows better than to ally with him.
After this, Ahsoka looks through security recordings to uncover the truth behind Rex’s betrayal, just like Obi-Wan searching out the truth behind Anakin’s betrayal. Whereas Obi-Wan concludes that he must kill Anakin (with a push from Yoda, again mirroring Maul’s sentiments unawares), Ahsoka concludes that she must save Rex. The Jedi ethos of detachment allows Obi-Wan to set aside his feelings and resign himself to killing his brother, but Ahsoka’s love for Rex motivates her to go to great lengths to rescue him from his enslavement to the Dark Side. (Another contrast highlights the difference in Obi-Wan and Ahsoka’s relationships with their comrades: while Rex’s love for Ahsoka enables him to resist his programming, at least for a brief moment, when Commander Cody receives Order 66, he has Obi-Wan shot down without a moment’s hesitation.)
While Obi-Wan’s actions spur Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader, Ahsoka’s actions lead to a very different result for Rex. After their duel, Obi-Wan maims Anakin and leaves him to die; after Rex tries to kill her, Ahsoka manages to incapacitate him and bring him to the medical bay. The droids operate on Rex to remove his inhibitor chip, a marked contrast to the droids operating on Anakin to turn him into Darth Vader. Rex’s helmet is removed, while Anakin is sealed inside his mask. Anakin is decisively placed under Palpatine’s control, while Rex is liberated from it. When Rex wakes up, he apologizes to Ahsoka: “I nearly killed you.” When Anakin wakes up, Palpatine tells him he killed Padmé, to his dismay: “I couldn’t have. She was alive. I felt it!”
Like Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars ends with an extended, wordless epilogue. The funeral for the 501st Legion mirrors Padmé’s funeral. One is a formal ceremony, while the other is a makeshift memorial, but in both cases, the camera focuses on an item fraught with tragic significance. In the Clone Troopers’ case, it is their helmets, which were painted to display their loyalty to Ahsoka, and which they wore while trying to kill her. For Padmé, it is the pendant that Anakin gave her as a child, and in the saga’s most devastating transition, Lucas moves from an icon of Anakin’s childhood innocence to Anakin as Darth Vader. For his last appearance in Revenge of the Sith, Darth Vader is on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, looking at the half-constructed Death Star, the ultimate symbol of the rising Empire. For his last appearance in Clone Wars, Darth Vader is standing before the wreckage of a Star Destroyer, a symbol of the fallen Republic, where he finds Ahsoka’s lightsaber – a gift, like Padmé’s pendant, and another reminder of all he has lost.
Yet Lucas and Filoni sow seeds of hope amidst the despair by appealing to our knowledge that this is an ending, but not the ultimate ending. The Star Wars universe, like our own, is shot through with real, enduring, sometimes staggering tragedy, but it is not ultimately tragic. The burial of the Clone Troopers recalls Padmé’s funeral, but it also recalls both Vader’s cremation at the end of Return of the Jedi and the burial of the Skywalker sabers at the end of The Rise of Skywalker. Like Luke, Ahsoka transcends the teachings of the Jedi Order and holds true to the spirit of the Jedi by refusing to use lethal force against those she loves, even when they are trying to kill her. Like Luke and Rey, she ultimately lays down her lightsaber. Ahsoka looks up to the sky, away from the Clones’ graves, just as the camera at the end of Return of the Jedi pans up, away from Vader’s pyre, to the stars. (As Ahsoka turns her eyes heavenward, we fade to the same Imperial shuttle that Luke will later use to bear Vader’s body away from the Death Star.)
Like any good Star Wars story, The Clone Wars is a coming-of-age story, and when Ahsoka lays down her lightsaber before the graves of the soldiers who fought alongside her throughout her whole adolescence, she is laying aside the innocence of childhood and entering the cold, lonely, forbidding world of adulthood. All Star Wars stories conclude with the sacrifice and mourning that must attend the transition from one stage of life to the next, both for individuals and for the galaxy at large. The end of The Clone Wars is the end of Ahsoka’s childhood, and it is also the end of the Republic. As in Revenge of the Sith, the political is overlaid with the personal. What The Clone Wars contributes to the tragedy of that film, the greatest of all Star Wars films, is a lament for all those whose stories diverge from the great story, all those cast aside and forgotten: Ahsoka, the Clone Troopers, even Maul. The series’ final image is a memorial to what once was, an elegy for things that were once intertwined and are no longer. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Anakin, his body converted into embers flying up to the heavens, returns to smile upon his son. Here, he turns and strides away from the memory of his surrogate daughter, not as a ghost but as a dead man walking, his soul left behind somewhere along the way.