Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our ongoing column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we rank the 10 best episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Everyone has their favorite Star Wars. Most people probably pick the original trilogy. Makes sense. It’s the oldest, and while it built off classic pop culture, the first film looked unlike any other cinematic endeavor. When the Star Destroyer crested that first frame, minds melted — and pockets flooded with cash. Franchises were nothing new, but Star Wars was a new kind of franchise.
When the prequels arrived in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, the entire universe seemed to crave more Star Wars. What they got was not what they expected. Queue chuntering and hand-wringing, but for the kids who got their first taste of the Skywalker saga, The Phantom Menace absolutely delivered. Older minds were melted in a new way (with unbridled, selfish rage!), but younger minds were also melted, and love swam in.
I used to be in the set who rioted online against the prequels — if you can call what we had in ’99 “online.” I’ve mellowed. And recent rioting against The Last Jedi mirrored too closely to how I behaved in ’99, and I don’t like that at all. So, a movie doesn’t live up to your idealized version? Big deal, move on. Your old films are still there. I’m sick of booing on the prequels. Aren’t you?
Besides, the prequels, it turns out, were an incredible gift. They made Star Wars: The Clone Wars possible. The animated series dives into every idea imagined between The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, no matter how large or small, and expands them into radical epic narratives with incredible emotional depth. The films were adventure and a puddle of politics. The cartoons stretch those pools into oceans, and our beloved heroes and villains are allowed to swim into realms not possible during feature runtimes.
Selecting the ten best episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars is no easy task. Yes, I say this during all my Saturday Morning Cartoon rankings, but this time, I really, really mean it. I agonized over the process, rewatching episodes all week long, and these are the ten I fell upon. Many of them you’ll find on other lists, and a few will leave you scratching your heads. For me, this series is about exposing the failure of the Jedi, the heart of the clones, and the tragic horror of Maul. The films hang over these shows, and supervising director Dave Filoni uses their terrible inevitability to great narrative effect. This cartoon is all pain and I love it.
Like most television properties, Star Wars: The Clone Wars took a little while to find its footing. “Rookies” represents the moment when I took serious notice. The Galaxy Far, Far Away does not need to be Skywalker obsessed. You know it, I know it, even George Lucas knows it, despite what folks might think. The clones, as experienced in the prequels, are mostly faceless or character-less. “Rookies” is the first time Star Wars audiences were allowed to consider the bizarre lifestyle they must lead. They share faces, but not brains. They’re bred for war, it’s their purpose, but independent thought tends to muck things up. This Season 1 episode sets the tone for where the series will eventually lead, establishing a confrontation between the soldiers, their generals, and their makers.
9. “The Lost One”
“The Lost One” is the single best episode from Star Wars: The Clone Wars‘ “The Lost Missions” era, a.k.a. the truncated sixth and supposedly final season. In it, Yoda, Anakin, and Obi-Wan investigate the whereabouts of the missing Master Sifo-Dyas. You may recall from Attack of the Clones that Sifo-Dyas was the Jedi who ordered the clone army’s construction. It was a toss-away mystery in the film, but as The Clone Wars proved over and over again, a throwaway cinematic line can equal tremendous dramatic potential. It may be too little too late, but by this episode’s end, Yoda starts to fathom just how absurd their Separatist war is: a Dark Side fabrication designed to destroy the Republic from within.
8. “The Bad Batch”
The seventh and final season returns and radically updates The Clone Wars concept. Here we meet a squad of genetic defects. They’re clones like the rest but slightly altered. There’s the smart one, the strong one, the mean one, etc. In a universe where duplicated soldiers struggle for identity, this Bad Batch has an edge, and that alienates them from their comrades. With their great fight coming to an end, they’ll have a jump on the rest of the clones, and it’s exhilarating to see where they will go with their new spinoff series launching this May the fourth.
7. “Bounty Hunters”
Star Wars loves Akira Kurosawa. No duh, ya says. The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai are all over the Galaxy Far, Far Away. When filmmakers are adopted into the Lucasfilm fold, it seems the first instinct for many of them is to jump into the samurai classics and ape a trope or two. For The Clone Wars, the most blatant Kurosawa theft occurs in “Bounty Hunters,” and it is a damn delight. It’s a straight Seven Samurai lift. While searching for a missing orbital medical station, Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka Tano discover a spice farm under bounty hunter threat. The villagers are being robbed blind, and our Jedi won’t have any of it. The episode contains some devilish action between the warring factions, including a nasty confrontation with Embo and his large-rimmed hat. At every opportunity, Embo is framed as if he were Toshiro Mifune or his Magnificent Seven counterpart Steve McQueen. He’s a bad dude, but he sure looks cool doin’ bad.
Order 66 looms over everything in Star Wars: The Clones Wars. The series spent six seasons giving character and voice to the clones, but we know that come Revenge of the Sith, Emperor Palpatine will utter the final order, turning them against their Jedi friends. Every soldier has an inhibitor chip lurking in their brain, waiting for the signal to grant them their itchy trigger finger. For Fives, a beloved clone we’ve been hanging with ever since “Rookies,” the chip goes off a little early, making him appear utterly insane and kill-crazy. His unit must turn against him, and the end is catastrophic. Even more so because we know the clones he left behind will eventually suffer a similar fate. Once again, a silly, convenient plot point from the prequels is made crushingly intriguing.