Very few things are as universally loathed and shunned by their own fanbase as the Star Wars prequel trilogy. While there were points where you could almost tell what George Lucas was trying to do with Darth Vader’s origin story, it was mostly just a mess.
No one expected anything good when The Clone Wars came creeping in three years later, as the dust from the prequels’ fallout was still settling. Yet even though the animated show started out just as you would expect, it somehow managed to turn that around and achieve what the prequels never could.
The Clone Wars is a bit of an anomaly — it’s one of the few bits of Star Wars media that was not de-canonised prior to the release of The Force Awakens. It, along with the films, Star Wars Rebels and a handful of novelisations, currently makes up the entire official Star Wars Canon.
While this means that some incredibly odd things like the Iego angels, Jar Jar Binks playing politics with General Grievous and Anakin fighting literal embodiments of the light side and the dark side to bring balance to the Force are now canon, it also adds depth to both Anakin’s character and the storyline of the prequels in general.
This is partly thanks to Matt Lanter’s voice acting (I swear they even made Anakin look more like him than Hayden Christensen) and overall better writing, but in large part The Clone Wars distinguishes itself by giving Anakin a padawan — Ahsoka Tano.
The relationship between padawan and master is a theme through many of the Star Wars films — Qui Gon and Obi Wan, Obi Wan and Anakin, Obi Wan and Luke, Yoda and Luke, even multiple Siths and their apprentices mirror this theme. In hindsight, it just makes sense to give Anakin a padawan of his own, though when Clone Wars was made the character of Ahsoka must have presented a considerable risk.
She’s a headstrong female Force user, years before Rey’s mysterious parents ever dumped her on Jakku, and one of the first non-human aliens to be a main character in Star Wars since Jar Jar incited the hatred of millions. She was introduced as a character with room to grow, with her personality in the first season being almost as obnoxious as padawan Anakin was in Attack of the Clones. Yet despite all this, her viewpoint makes Anakin a sympathetic character where two movies of teenaged brooding and a clandestine marriage to Padmé never could.
Ahsoka’s not the only interesting character created for The Clone Wars — the series was full of nuanced female characters with leading roles on both sides of the conflict, years before anyone started kicking up a fuss about the female leads in The Force Awakens and Rogue Once. There’s Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress and her planet of ‘witches’, a multitude of female Jedi and padawans, Obi Wan’s former lover Satine (yes, they went there), the Duchess of Mandalore and her sister Bo-Katan, eventual leader of a militaristic group of Mandalorians.
Even the male characters added something new — bounty hunter Cad Bane became a fan favourite, and even the clones eventually became distinct, compelling characters — which changed the impact of the previously baffling Order 66 scene entirely.
But I digress — the prequels were always about Anakin, and it is here where The Clone Wars distinguishes itself the most.
The Clone Wars spans the long period of time that was skipped between Episodes II and III — in the films, Anakin goes from pesky padawan to being put on the Jedi council, from bantering with Obi Wan to distrusting the entire Jedi order. The series fills out this time a little jerkily at first — the first episode is a highly forgettable one that focuses on highly forgettable clones, and many of the episodes in the first season are pure filler. There’s a somewhat tiring cycle of space battles where General Grievous loses ships/battles/limbs but never actually dies (because we have to save that for Revenge of the Sith), along with two whole episodes devoted to Jar Jar, and a few abortive attempts to humanise the clones.
The series starts to come into its own when it focuses on the relationship between Anakin and his padawan. After the first season, it’s far more of a focus than Anakin’s marriage to Padmé (but we already get enough of that in the films). Ahsoka is similar to Anakin in a lot of ways — unconventional and not as likely to blindly follow the rules and traditions of the Jedi order. Anakin risks himself to save her a number of times, and they form a bond that is pointedly unconventional among Jedi and their padawans.
It’s here that the Clone Wars starts to creep in on the themes of the prequel trilogy. We all know these movies were meant to show Anakin’s gradual disillusionment with the Jedi Order, but in reality it’s more like six hours of Anakin throwing tantrums and being a creepy sex-pest.
The animated series, on the other hand, shows a Jedi Order with questionable morals — clones, and even other Jedi being sacrificed when there are other options, Jedi determined to continue the Clone Wars even when given a chance for peace, corruption within their ranks and betrayal coming from even the highest members of the council. I won’t spoil anything, as I think all Star Wars fans need to watch at least some of Clone Wars, but when the series gets going, it doesn’t stop.
Suddenly, Anakin’s defection seems justifiable, rather than an entirely overblown fit of teen angst and the culmination of a penchant for wearing black leather.
Because I’m a masochist, I went back and watched Episode III to cap off the timeline of six seasons worth of Clone Wars.
It’s odd. We already know it’s bad, but this time it was like watching a really long, overblown fanfilm, where Hayden Christensen was a cosplayer trying his best to imitate the Clone Wars version of Anakin — you know, the real version.
This story was originally published on Kotaku Australia.