I almost didn’t watch the fourth season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
The third season was, for me, a big disappointment — an attempt to try to reclaim the “good old days” of Star Wars by doing a lot of prequels and sequels to preexisting episodes, and by trying to bring back Darth Maul through a suspiciously similar substitute, the goofily named Savage Opress. The problems of Season 3 were the problems of the Star Wars saga as a whole — let’s do what we’ve always done, again, and let’s make prequels out of the episodes people liked. Did you love “Hostage Crisis,” the awesome Season 1 finale that introduced Cad Bane? Here’s a prequel episode to it. Did you like the Ryloth trilogy in Season 1? Again, another prequel.
I’d pretty much stopped caring about the show when the fourth season rolled around, but it was idle curiosity a few weeks ago that brought me to the new season’s episode list. Imagine my surprise when the season consistently featured multi-episode, original storylines that by and large weren’t connected to previous episodes. So it was off to iTunes to see what I could see.
There’s a moment in Season 4 when I realized that this might actually be the best, most ambitious season the show’s ever done. It’s in the episode “Carnage of Krell,” the last part of a four-parter that features none of our movie main characters. Instead, Anakin Skywalker’s clone troopers (who we’ve seen a fair amount of before) are transferred to another Jedi’s command to lay siege to the shadow world of Umbara. Anakin Skywalker gets maybe 5 minutes of screentime in the entire four-parter, and Obi-Wan cameos for maybe 2 minutes, but this series entirely showcases Anakin’s clones, who suspect their brutal new Jedi commander, Krell, is deliberately leading them on a suicide mission — needlessly wasting clone troopers on futile objectives because he hates clones. In the end, the clones confront Krell about his loyalties after finally knocking him out and imprisoning him, and it’s the tensest moment the show has ever produced. Not one of the characters is plot-essential; this storyline could end with Krell dead, or the clones all dead and Krell lives, or everybody dies. It was when I realized the show had grown up, that it was willing to tackle this level of moral ambiguity (can a Jedi be a bad guy? is killing an unarmed prisoner ever right?) and not shy away from it.
Heck, this is the same season that has Anakin, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan captured by slavers in a sting gone horribly wrong, with Obi-Wan growing visibly more defeated as he’s told (and it’s demonstrated) that every time he resists his new masters, other slaves will die. This is a season that has Obi-Wan undercover as a bounty hunter, trying to convince Cad Bane of his loyalties while also trying to get to the bottom of a plot against Chancellor Palpatine, and the season that pits General Grievous and his droids against wave after wave of Nightsisters on the planet Dathomir in a battle that can only be described as a slaughter, and a season that featured Mandalorians gunning down unarmed villagers. The show is willing to explore its dark side, and that gives me hope that some of my optimism towards this series in its first and second seasons is validated. The show’s not good because it’s dark; the darkness, instead, allows it to explore deeper issues and tell more complex stories.
The animation has become even more gorgeous, if that’s possible. The first storyline, a three-parter set on the oceanic world of Mon Calamari, is full of beautiful visuals and sequences, such as a giant underwater battle between the Mon Calamari and the Separatists that is the animation highlight of the entire series. The battles are huge — some scenes are practically dominated by swarms and swarms of combatants — and the landscapes are beautiful, from the underwater depths of Mon Calamari to the dusty streets of Kadavo to the exotic beauty of Aleen.
Not everything about the new season has been perfect, however. The droid humor episodes, following C-3PO and R2-D2, are a bit hit-or-miss, as they tend to be, although they’re probably better here than they’ve been in previous seasons. The show overplays the Anakin-versus-Count-Dooku card a few too many times this season as well — they face off anticlimactically in the otherwise excellent “Shadow Warrior” (which pits Gungans against General Grievous and is one of the season’s surprises) as well as “Crisis on Naboo,” changing the focus in a four-parter from Obi-Wan to his apprentice to somewhat diminishing returns. With Asajj Ventress somewhat sidelined in the story and Anakin and Grievous not to meet until the events of Revenge of the Sith, the show doesn’t have a good number of nemeses for Anakin to fight, and it keeps overdoing the Anakin/Dooku tension every time somebody wants Anakin in a lightsaber duel.
Which brings me to my biggest disappointment with the season: its finale. The show has hyped the return of Darth Maul for a long, long time, so expectations were high, but ultimately I was let down. Maul’s brother, Savage Opress, finds him broken and half-mad on a junkyard planet and goes about constructing robot legs so they can have their revenge. How did Maul get there? We don’t really know, other than him mumbling that his “hate kept me alive.” (If they had found him in a junkyard on Naboo, I would’ve found it much more believable, but how did he end up on a completely different planet?) What does Maul do when Opress finds him? His best Gollum impression, apparently, as he’s crazy and paranoid and barely remembers his old life. Once he’s back to his old self and given new legs, however, it’s almost worse: He talks. And talks. And talks. And talks. Darth Maul was never one for plots and exposition — he worked best as a force of nature, an unbeatable warrior who killed a Jedi Master, a badass who doesn’t need to express any other emotion than “kill that Jedi dead.” Speaking as infrequently as he did in Episode I worked because he didn’t need to yak yak yak to convince us he was a powerful warrior; he conveyed it in his stance, in his eyes, in his ruthless efficiency, but that’s thrown out the window here. He lures Obi-Wan into a trap, he and Savage beat the snot out of him, and then rather than kill him, which would be the logical thing (and, I would argue, the more in-character thing), they toy with him and talk about how Maul killed Obi-Wan’s master and how does that make him feel and so on. I know that Obi-Wan survives no matter what, but still, I was practically yelling at my screen “Just KILL HIM already!” This was a weak, weak way of bringing Maul back: no one wanted him back from the dead just to hear him monologue.
Season 4 is the best, most ambitious season Star Wars: The Clone Wars has ever done, and it’s actually restored my faith in the show, which was no mean feat. At this point, who knows how much longer the show will go on for, but I’m definitely aboard now.