Review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, season 7
Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Dave Filoni, supervising director. Season 7, Disney/LucasFilm, 2020.
Star Wars is a series that leans on binary moral conflicts to instigate its plot and action: light and dark, rebel and empire, Resistance and First Order, Jedi and Sith. While this simplification of morality might support narrative movement and audience retention in a blockbuster movie, it limits the depth one can take in an elongated form like a television series. In The Clone Wars (2008–2020; hereafter, Clone Wars), the binary of light and dark sides of the Force and their respective Force-users are still present, but because of the longer medium, space and time is given to investigate and complicate this binary presentation of good and bad. However, even as Clone Wars expands this binary representation of the Force, its efforts to engage in other conversations outside the insular, pseudo-religious philosophy of the Force are frustrated as it fails to delve as deeply into or inquire as fervently after other ethical dilemmas, especially those around cloning and warfare, that it brings into question.
Occurring chronologically between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2002, 2005; hereafter, Attack and Revenge), Clone Wars depicts the galaxy-wide civil war between the Galactic Republic, who believes the known galaxy should be joined under an enormous senate, and the Separatists, who believe the Senate has become too bloated to take care of the needs of smaller star systems. The animated anthology series contains various arcs that follow numerous characters as they fight for or against the Republic. Season seven is separated into three distinct arcs. In the first arc (Eps. 1–4), clone troopers go on a mission to rescue a captured ally. The second arc (Eps. 5–8) continues Ahsoka’s storyline after she left the Jedi Order in season five: she navigates the galactic underground and learns that a former enemy, the former Sith apprentice Darth Maul, has resurfaced. The final arc (Eps. 9–12) parallels events in Revenge as it details the siege of Mandalore, Ahsoka’s attempt to thwart Maul, and Ahsoka’s escape from Order 66—the Jedi genocide.
The complication of the binary system of Jedi and Sith in season seven provides a jumping-off point to critique contemporary American suspicions toward institutions and institutional support, particularly through the character development and interactions of Ahsoka and Maul, outcasts of the Jedi and Sith. Struggling with the Jedi Order’s betrayal of her, Ahsoka seeks to find her own way in the galaxy. When she discovers Maul as a threat, she returns to her master, Anakin, and asks to be sent to Mandalore to deal with him once and for all. The final lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul exhibits the nuanced treatment Clone Wars provides of the light-dark duality. Because of their status as outcasts, both Maul and Ahsoka have developed non-normative, individualistic approaches to the Force that reflect but do not exactly represent the orthodoxy of the respective institutional ethics and morals in which they were raised. Ahsoka’s approach centers on an ethic that cares for and looks for the good in individual people rather than defending institutions like the Jedi Council or the Republic. This individualistic care ethic is seen after Maul reveals to Ahsoka that he has seen in a vision Anakin choosing the dark side over the light side of the force and she tells Maul, “I know Anakin. Your vision is flawed” (Ep. 10). Ahsoka’s reasoning is not that Anakin is good because he is a Jedi; she intertwines her belief in his goodness with her relationship and attachment to him, thus rejecting the Jedi Order’s ethic of non-attachment.
On the other side of the duel, Maul seeks to work within the shadows and subvert institutional power to his own self-interest. This institutional subversive ethic of the Force is seen when Maul states, “There is no justice, no law, no order, except for the one that will replace it” (Ep. 10). Instead of the Sith ethic of “unlimited power” through sole control of institutions, as seen through Palpatine’s Republic coup and creation of the Galactic Empire, Maul invests himself in the shadows, creating a network of secrets and promises that give him power yet protects him from losing his power when the inevitable institutional change occurs. This ethic requires Maul to trust, in a small way, other people, rather than invest all power within himself, as Palpatine does. Even as the battle places these two non-institutionalized ethics in stark contrast to each other, it has no clear victor in the end: Ahsoka captures Maul, but she later must use the captured Maul to save herself by releasing him from prison to cause a distraction so she can escape the Jedi purge. The uncertain victor in this battle of non-normative ethics, then, leads to a reassessment of the philosophies of the Force: instead of the Force couched in a light and dark binary institutionally presented as Jedi and Sith, the Force can now be utilized as a tool and technology to inform and complicate a variety of ethical and moral approaches to life.
This struggle for dominance reflects current American conversations around institutional trust, support, and reform. Ahsoka’s ethic of care, for example, demonstrates how individuals might reject traditional authority in favor of local networks of support and solidarity, and so can be usefully read in the context of the 2020 creation of Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” which replaced government oversight with a utopian experiment of anti-policing and communal care. Similarly, Maul’s subversion of institutional norms for personal gain recalls the ruthless use and misuse of current economic systems by wealthy individuals and institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic even as the rest of the community hemorrhages due to societal disparity and inequality. Placed in conversation with contemporary-era America, Ahsoka’s and Maul’s complications of the two-party Force-user system within Star Wars dramatize the varied moral and ethical positions individuals take under crippled and failing institutions that are meant to provide for and protect life, liberty, and happiness. In complicating the two-party Force system, season seven becomes a commentary on individual reaction to shifts and differentials of power, the various ways ideologies and their idealogues vie for political control, and how individuals gain and lose their own power within hegemonic systems of control.
Even as this battle between two outcasts of institutional power shows the interrogative depth the series can provide, the show limits itself in certain conversations and constrains the thematic development it could have in interrogating ethical concerns. For example, the series shows the lived experience of the clones, soldiers bred specifically for combat. Instead of delving into the bioethics of cloning and the moral questions surrounding living, humanoid beings formed with the sole purpose of combat and extermination, the plotlines for the clones emphasize quotidian stories of individuality, identity, and teamwork. Season seven, with its introduction of mutant clones and a storyline of rescuing a prisoner of war, provides ample opportunity to interrogate the ethics of war and justice; however, the show limits itself by not diving full-heartedly into the ethical and moral quandaries that surround cloning and the political and societal repercussions of the creation of living—and dying—weapons of war. This lackluster investigation compared to the depth given to the entanglement of Ahsoka’s and Maul’s varied approaches to the Force, then, shows an emphasis in this season—and perhaps in future endeavors in the Star Wars franchise—on individual rather than institutional solutions to moral and ethical questions.
Although this final season of Clone Wars does not problematize all of the ethical and moral quandaries within its own story world as much as a scholarly viewer might desire, it does give a strong foundation for future investigations within the universe for these dire and important questions. It shows that there is potential, even in a franchise known for its binaries, to create nuance and space for varied experiences, perspectives, and approaches. Season seven, then, becomes a catalyst to understanding the ways new Star Wars projects—like the live-action series The Mandalorian (2019–present), The Book of Boba Fett (forthcoming, 2021), and Ahsoka (forthcoming, 2022), and the animated continuation of this series, The Bad Batch (2021–present)—might complicate, interrogate, and answer moral, ethical, and philosophical questions and problems, as those who worked on Clone Wars continue to creatively guide the galaxy far, far away.
Adam McLain is a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow (2021–2022), researching twentieth-century dystopian literature and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK. He has a master of theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and a bachelor of arts from Brigham Young University.