WARNING: This post contains spoilers to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Arrival.
If there was ever a quote that mournfully illustrates the devastating power behind The Clone Wars finale, it is this: “In war, there are no winners, only widows”.
For fans of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the phrase will undoubtedly sound familiar, even if it does lose a bit of its mystique. To prevent humanity from the brink of war, it’s the last-ditch attempt used by Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to appeal to the personal nature of General Shang (Tzi Ma) and the memory of his beloved wife, and she does so by speaking in Mandarin. As much as we admire Arrival for its visual brilliance, its subverted response to alien invasion movies and its narrative structure that upends the traditional mechanisms of storytelling, what has always been the driving heart of its intimate depiction is the tragedy of it all.
In deciphering their coded, circular symbols, Louise unlocks the Heptapod’s power of time. Her haunting visions which we assumed were tragic glimpses of the past, are in fact visions of the future, influencing humanity’s current course of events and eventually, using that information to save the world. The struggles that Arrival articulates is the dichotomy between the Heptapod’s intentions becoming more transparent and humanity’s descent into miscommunicating chaos, driven by fear of the unknown and trigger-happy leaders. But for a film so heavily invested in the concept of language and how we use it to articulate, analyse or clarify, the resounding question it leaves behind (besides patience) is how do we reconcile with its aftermath? What is the true cost of conflict?
And that’s where Louise’s prophetic gift becomes more prominent. As if the universe was compensating for an imbalance, her gift changes the perspective from something grandeur and out of this world to something incredibly personal. In the future, humanity will reap the benefits of her work on alien linguistics and unite nations, but it is also a future beset by tremendous grief and loss. Her future daughter will die from an incurable disease. Her future husband will leave her because of that knowledge. The tragedy to which I was referring to is despite knowing the truth that laid ahead for her, where she could potentially alter course and choose a different path, she ends up following it. She chose love and happiness (however brief) even though she will pay a heavy price for it. As poetic as it may sound, she had to lose something of herself to make the world a better place. “In war, there are no winners, only widows” – a quote that has heartfelt applications for the General but equally relatable to Louise.
I find it incredibly symbolic and bittersweet to be reminded of those words, especially in light of The Clone Wars finale. The haunting final shots sombrely silent in comparison to the battle-style armadas the series relied on, are beautifully laced with contrast – the cause and effect or by the finale’s title Victory and Death. Ahsoka (Ashley Eckstein) and Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) having crash landed on a moon, bury the fallen – The Clone Trooper regiment of the 501st Division who had turned against them in the aftermath of Order 66. Anakin (fully transformed into Darth Vader) appears sometime in the future, having located the wreckage of the crashed Star Destroyer. At the discovery of the snow-covered gravesite, he picks up Ahsoka’s discarded lightsabre, assuming she had either died alongside her troops or for a fleeting sense of hope, felt her connection.
It’s somewhat of a shock to see how far this series evolved since its feature film debut in 2008. A piece of animation which I easily dismissed as “alight” back in the day, could go on and achieve this much depth and reflection in understanding loss and conflict (after several weeks of binge watching on Disney+ as a first time viewer). It overcame its shaky beginnings, turning itself from a ‘battle of the week’ adventure into a multi-arc storyline that wrestled and debated allegiances and politics.
The series was always going to end one way – the Better Call Saul effect where the outcome was already set in stone and happy endings a mere distant memory. But, it’s not often where a show gets the opportunity to reconcile with its aftermath. Just like Arrival’s sense of poetic tragedy, The Clone Wars comes full circle to echo that same theme. Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one bound by the prophecy to bring balance to the force, may have enacted peace and ended the war, but at what cost?
I think The Clone Wars achieves something that the Star Wars franchise has been desperately seeking but has been otherwise afraid to explore deeply in its visual medium, either in fear of alienating the vocal minority who nit-pick (to death) every new iteration or retreated to safe spaces where nostalgia, formula and repetition are rigidly designed to keep the fanbase blissfully happy.
We’ve always looked at wars in the Star Wars Universe as this euphoric battle between good and evil, where we dream of following in the footsteps of our valiant idols of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and fist-pump the air in triumphant celebration whenever the Death Star is destroyed. We’ve all done this – search your feelings, you know it to be true. In a desensitising fashion, it’s what makes Star Wars, Star Wars – a restoration of hope and saving the galaxy from the darkness. But judging by The Clone Wars finale, it puts consequence and the notion of redemption in the spotlight.
I found myself reading recently a BBC Culture article titled ‘Why The Empire Strikes Back is Overrated’. As my favourite film in the franchise, already it riled up the senses at the problematic ‘clickbait’ and ‘hot take’ culture we find ourselves in, where articles only have a sole purpose at creating discourse amongst the fandom. It’s as to how author Henry Jenkins describes it in his book Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture where fan investment is based on protecting the legacy of a property. But in this scenario, give Richard Barber’s article a chance view, as he makes valid arguments as to why the franchise is stuck in its current predicament. And to be fair, I have no arguments with that line of thinking. Star Wars at that moment went from the grandness of war to family entitlement, birthright and soap opera dynasties. And the prequel trilogy and The Rise of Skywalker has refused to break out of that formula.
Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with franchises reframing its perspective as a personal one. It’s our way of attaching ourselves to characters, finding a semblance to contextualise their motivations and our own. Some of the best war films such as Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan are based on those principles. Even the Ewoks and their guerrilla tactics from Return of the Jedi are inspired by The Vietnam War. If there is an argument against Barber’s strongly-worded view, then The Empire Strikes Back is not the problem he has an issue with. It’s Return of the Jedi.
For a film saga that is often labelled as ‘a kids film about space wizards’ where the real-world mechanics are often neglected, Star Wars grasp of redemption is flawed at best.
In an alternative universe, Darth Vader would have been brought up for war crimes, faced some galactic war tribunal and locked up in prison. If there was going to be any kind of justice or penance, it would have been to fix the galaxy he broke after years of tyranny, torment, murder and a continuous lust for power. Yet, Vader is never redeemed nor is it ever earned; Return of the Jedi wrestles with Vader’s confliction as an emotive choice – to save his son from the dark side where he was unable to save himself. Killing the Emperor is a symbolic act of that change of heart, but his death shortly afterwards only takes away that transition. It’s an all too familiar trope used in storytelling that works for the sake of giving a story a dramatic conclusion (and therefore, absolving characters of any responsibility for their irredeemable mentality), but not for the sake that justifies the character they became in the process.
Fast forward to the sequel trilogy and The Rise of Skywalker, and it becomes a systemic yet predictable problem extending to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a character who tortured, murdered, emotionally abused, and committed more atrocities than his Sith grandfather. And yet in transferring his lifeforce to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and sharing a contrived lover’s kiss before dying, robs any opportunity to reconcile with any the choices he made, bringing its conclusion to an unsatisfactory end.
And in mentioning Return of the Jedi, even Rogue One (arguably one of the better Star Wars films in recent years) suffers that same frailty. The rebel forces led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) sacrifice their lives to ensure the rebellion had the Death Star plans. But instead of dwelling on their bravery, allowing leaders such as Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) to mourn the emotional cost, the film pans and ushers in its re-tread of A New Hope, where a de-aged Princess holds the key to hope, and Darth Vader unlocks ‘badass mode’ which strips him of any previous emotional conflict for a few moments of vicious computer game combos.
Again, to calm the fears and potential faux online outrage, I’m not saying those examples are wrong. Star Wars is incredibly subjective especially as I’ve enjoyed Vader’s return as a brutal tyrant in Rogue One, instantly erasing any memories of “Nooooooo!” from Revenge of the Sith or my evaluations changing my love of Return of the Jedi. But what it obviously shows that whenever there’s an opportunity to explore those conventions, nine times out of ten, where ‘in the moment’ spectacles often supersede accountability, it chooses the easy way out.
It’s very indicative of how society looks at war in general, often treated as a rallying form of jingoism. Leaders (and their lack of experience) talk of loyalty, pride, and patriotism as we fight for that ‘Dunkirk spirit’ but treat wars as a power game manoeuvres where death eliminates names for statistics. Tales of heroism become legendary and fan-worshipped which do not even begin to paint the reality of what soldiers went through or the sacrifices made to achieve that status or whether it was worth it at all.
It’s why I still believe Star Wars’ future belongs on the small screen where on TV it is afforded the luxury of patience, character-building and pocketed snapshots of how the war stretches beyond the galaxy. That’s not to say that its film sagas don’t ask those questions. Fans may still find The Last Jedi contentious, and yet the Canto Bight scene is an illustration of a view outside of the tunnel vision of war, dominated by wealth, politics, arms dealers, and war-profiting. Because how often do you get to think about those underlying issues, where the Empire can continually manufacture planet-destroying weapons or fighter planes used on both sides. It’s just that in Star Wars films, there’s never enough time to explore that in depth when it’s always re-focusing on its big picture.
Which brings us back to The Clone Wars. The final four episodes – The Siege of Mandalore arc is the series at its cinematic best, a culmination of twelve years and seven hard-fought seasons, giving the much-maligned prequel trilogy expanded credibility. Composer Kevin Kiner’s riff of John Williams’ iconic score and the show’s familiar war-intro reporting, are replaced with a tribute to Lucasfilm’s original credits and the solemn absence of the main theme. After leaving the Jedi Order back in Season 5, we see Ahsoka return to the fold, possessing vital information on the location of Darth Maul (Sam Witwer). She is reunited with her former Jedi master Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter). Unable to join Ahsoka and Bo-Katan’s (Katee Sackhoff) mission, he splits the 501st Clone Division to assist them and gives Ahsoka her lightsabres, thus planting the seeds towards a ticking time bomb of a conclusion.
The arc’s pivotal moment is the confrontation between Ahsoka and Darth Maul where the fate of the galaxy rests on a scintillating knife-edge. Maul, relishing the impending chaos that is about to happen, offers Ahsoka an opportunity to stop Darth Sidious from fulfilling his plan. At first the offer is accepted; both Maul and Ahsoka have no true allegiances besides their own. They are outsiders still clinging onto to some chink of the war that matches their ideals. But as soon as Anakin’s character comes into question, one believing in his prophetic vision of the future and the other believing her former master would never turn to the dark side and put the Republic in jeopardy, all hell breaks loose, and lightsabres are drawn. Like a mirror image from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke faces Vader for the first time, the choice to fight has become personal.
Would you blame them for standing by their principles when the war has catered for years of double-crossing and mistrust? The Clone Wars has gone to significant levels to highlight how Ahsoka, Maul and Asajj Ventress (Nika Futterman) are merely pawns of war. Their involvement only highlights the hypocrisy of their respective councils and the fallacy of their systems where they were either cast aside or voluntarily left. Are Jedis peacekeepers or soldiers for the Republic? Are their morals no better than the Sith who are notoriously selfish? For a universe built on factions, they’ve become Ronin’s – warriors without masters, now forced to come to terms with their displacement and forge new identities for themselves, be it a bounty hunter (Ventress), an underground crime lord (Maul) or just a citizen (despite everything) who genuinely wants to do good in the world (Ahsoka). That nature pays off for Ahsoka; instead of killing Maul (which he begged for and would have reignited the ‘death as a trope’ debate), she chooses to capture him.
In the end, personal stakes are what drives the finale, which only becomes murkier and more ominous. Bo-Katan’s recapturing of Mandalore is a hearts and minds battle, wondering what kind of leader she will be to her people after years of violent changes of government and the destructive ashes of conflict (which may go waste because of the Clone Troopers that were left behind). The looming of “execute Order 66” brings Rex’s story to an emotive conclusion, where he witnesses first-hand what the clones’ real purpose and confirmed the conspiracy that clone trooper Fives uncovered. Not to bring about peace, but as slaves to usher in a new Galactic Empire. That knowledge, his hesitancy to stop himself from ‘following orders’, not only saved Ahsoka’s life but his own.
We’ve mocked Stormtroopers for their shooting abilities, but by changing their perspective, the series reflects what they are – human beings, born and bred with no control over their endgame. And for a few, tearful moments, it was Rex against his entire division – a fight amongst themselves. It’s a stark contrast to the sequel trilogy and Finn’s (John Boyega) characterisation. In The Force Awakens, he went from a Stormtrooper who’s conflicted emotions about The First Order led to his desertion. Fast forward to The Rise of Skywalker, and despite knowing troopers were kidnapped as children, ripped apart from their families, their identities erased and groomed for war, he goes to war with a fellow clone defector in Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and murders soldiers without empathy, hesitation or conscience. However brief, there’s something cathartic in watching Rex standing against his regiment because even if it was just a diversion and delaying the inevitable, it’s the heartbreaking realisation they too were betrayed.
The Clone Wars gave us an ending we knew was coming, didn’t want to happen, but it was an ending we needed to see. Because how else do we begin to surmise the events or even learn from its mistakes if not for the people who followed it through to its bitter end. And when decisions go beyond control or reach, it is usually the people who are affected, the people we care and eventually suffer the most. For Ahsoka, Rex and Maul it reinforces their last stance. Maul, irredeemable by nature, he has foreseen the endgame – there is no stopping the inevitable, just opportunity. Rex is bounded by whatever remaining honour he has left. Ahsoka, even when the Clones turned against her, chose to put love and empathy above everything else.
Which brings us back to the haunting final shots of the series where Ahsoka pays her respects to her fallen friends and troopers under her command. And it is in this solemn moment where it dawns on you – The Clone Wars is not about Anakin’s downfall to the dark side, a subject already covered in the prequel trilogy. This was not a story based on birth right and dynasties, which only adds to the convolution of the saga. This, from its very inception, was Ahsoka’s journey. We saw through her eyes the hopeful optimism she started the war with, her struggles to retain it despite wrestling with her conscious and yet left spiritually heartbroken by the complexities of war and the loss of innocence. Anakin’s cameo as Vader in the future only reinforces the emotional extent of the betrayal. Redemption is a distant memory because he cannot go back to the life before. Because peace did not bring the typical jubilation we’re used to. Peace cost him kinship with soldiers he fought alongside with. Peace cost him his padawan, his wife, his master and best friend. Peace cost him his identity. “In war, there are no winners, only widows.”
The Clone Wars will be best remembered for is its ability to not paint its battles under the simple pretence of good versus evil. War is hell, and this war was based on broken dreams, broken hopes, broken promises, and broken friendships. This was a series that chose to find the humanity layered between the inevitable, and by personalising its experiences, it gave faceless clone troopers, names, ranks, personalities, and brotherhood. It gave agency to characters such as Padmé Amidala (Catherine Taber), removing the veil of ‘love interest’ that the prequel trilogy denotes her to, into an ideal politician who resolutely believed in hope over fear, tamed hot-headed minds eager to profit their own causes instead of the Republic, and pursued new alliances (even if it was with the enemy) to find the best resolution to the conflict. It made characters such as Ahsoka Tano the face of the war, where her growing disillusionment rips into the heart of leadership and duty, and the faith we place in establishments. And in the end, what was the true extent of war? What did the sacrifice, the battles, and the mass casualties, both emotionally and physically leave us with? Nothing but grief, sorrow, and the lonely bitterness of failure, which is the most profound and devastating thing I’ve ever witnessed in the Star Wars Universe.
Whether we want to recognise it or not, Star Wars is ultimately a tragic tale. The original trilogy was a tale of a world besieged by authoritarianism and fascism. The prequel trilogy was the fall of democracy by the people assigned to protect it. The sequel trilogy, however fractured and flawed, was history repeating, thematically re-surfacing old ideologies that looked fondly at the past as if it was ‘the good old days’. And The Clone Wars manages to put that painful hardship, its wounds and afflictions and the stubbornness of leadership in perspective. Because as much as we yearn for better worlds and jubilant outcomes, Star Wars quietly admits that something has to give or is lost in the process, and that cost (when given the opportunity) is profoundly and tragically human – making The Clone Wars the best Star Wars content out there in that galaxy far, far away.