In honor of the upcoming Star Wars Rebels show, it’s only right I pay tribute to a television series that brought greatness back to the franchise: Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Who knew that a little experiment in 2008 would raise the game in animation and children programming, which during the height of the Clone Wars was as sophisticated as a regular night of adult programming. Thus, I am here to say goodbye to one enormous contribution to Star Wars while saying hello to a new one. Below you’ll find my complete ranking of the ten greatest Clone Wars episodes in existence. After reading this I hope you binge-watch the entire series, or at the very least seek out these episodes I list below. Enjoy!
WARNING: MASSIVE “CLONE WARS” SPOILERS BELOW. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.
10. “Lair of Grievous” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Following the critically reviled feature film that kicked off the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, fans became worried that this massive experiment of telling stories about the most iconic war in the saga’s history might end up becoming the laughing stock of the entire franchise. Negative feelings were reinforced after the first few episodes started trickling out, which featured unfocused storylines and an obnoxious sense of self-worth, almost as if the show expected viewers to tune in just because of the Star Wars name attached to the title. As the ratings began to drop, the creative time realized it was time to cease with the random “mission of the week” episodes and place the focus back on characters and the stakes raised by the all-encompassing war at hand. “Rookies,” the fifth episode, was a notable improvement since it spent time individualizing the Clone Troopers and letting us get to know them past their armor and serial number. The plot was still a little hokey and light, but it marked a turning point for the series in terms of raising the bar to a level of noteworthiness. Finally, fans were graced with the first truly astonishing episode of the show, “Lair of Grievous,” a spine-tingling thirty minutes of television involving a minor character from Attack of the Clones and General Grievous, whose cheesy wheezing in Revenge of the Sith made us laugh in embarrassment more than cower in fear. This green-skinned minor character (yet popular with fans familiar with the Expanded Universe), Kit Fisto, brings along his impetuous padawan to a seemingly innocuous Confederacy safe house…only to realize it is in fact the residence of Grievous himself, littered with Indiana Jones-esque booby traps, hidden passageways and danger galore. That the writers were able to kill off a relatively major character by the end of this episode demonstrated both how dark the show was willing to go and how morally corruptible the Jedi could be as leaders of an army. “Lair of Grievous” is by all accounts the episode that avalanched the show to prominence.
9. “Conspiracy” (Season 6, Episode 2)
Allow me a word of advice for George Lucas if he ever writes another Star Wars film: have your daughter ghostwrite the screenplay. Seriously, Katie Lucas’s knack for meticulously layered, suspenseful plotting combined with a ridiculous ability to create characters who feel like we’ve known for years — not a single episode or two — deserves to be loudly and lengthily applauded. The emergence of Order 66 was a bit jolting and more than a tad convenient when it was revealed in Revenge of the Sith, but Katie Lucas deftly shows us its origins by letting a Clone trooper, of all people, lead the conspiracy investigation alongside a lovable, by-the-book medical droid named AZ-3. In this episode we uncover how deeply involved the Kaminoans (the scientific minded race who engineer the clones) are with Darth Sidious and Count Dooku. We also bear witness to the naivety of the Jedi Order in of the form of Shaak Ti, a smart and deductive woman who is blinded by her code of honor that adheres to the chain of command. Seeing AZ-3 and the clone trooper (known as Fives) attempt to study and save a fellow trooper who is showing premature signs of Order 66 (the clone-wide order to turn on the Jedi that is activated in Revenge of the Sith) and get thwarted at every turn by Shaak Ti and the Kaminoan chief medical examiner is beyond heartbreaking. This episode will churn your stomach into knots and have you even more anguished by the realization that this threat could have been stopped if someone had listened to a mere clone trooper and his trusty droid companion.
8. “Carnage of Krell” (Season 4, Episode 10)
Remember earlier when I talked about how the Clone Wars were shifting the moral compass of the Jedi Order? Well prepare to be assaulted by that harsh reality in the most violent and emotionally ravishing of ways. “Carnage of Krell” is the closing act of a compelling four-episode arc that features the rising severity of besalisk General Pong Krell, who cruelly forces his clone troopers into entanglements where there is no hope of survival. Captain Rex, who serves as commander of the ground units, begins to question Krell’s motives and notices his disregard for life is more than just a character flaw – it’s a devious strategy. After Rex refuses to execute an officer for disobeying orders that led to a key victory on the dark planet of Umbara, Krell turns on his men and reveals his true dark side intentions. Anyone who watched the prior episodes probably wasn’t surprised by Krell’s betrayal, but what really shocks the core is the decision Rex and his company make regarding what to do with Krell. Does he deserve a fair trial or should he be put out to pasture before he can slaughter any more innocent Clone lives? The decision, though not an easy one, proved to be a wonderful source of debate and discussion amongst the fandom.
7. “The Box” (Season 4, Episode 17)
This episode is far and away my favorite Star Wars adventure featuring Obi-Wan Kenobi, a character whose popularity I can’t quite understand for the life of me. In this instance, however, I fully understand why smarts, technique and a bit of luck make Obi-Wan someone to root for, dead or alive. In “The Box,” Obi-Wan infiltrates a group of notorious bounty hunters in order to relay intel back to the Republic regarding the rumored future kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine. What I love about this episode is how well Obi-Wan does undercover: he perfectly works his newly sculpted face and tough-as-nails attitude to believable heights. The rest of the bounty hunters – not to mention Count Dooku who organizes the meeting and subsequent trials that follow – have no clue that one of the most powerful Jedi Masters is among their presence. Even better is the design of the episode, which is structured like a video game where each obstacle the bounty hunters must face positions itself like an intense stage of Valve’s Portal. This exhilarating, one of a kind episode offers an inspired take on the video game medium that features none of its thematic flaws and all of its structural brainpower.
6. “Bounty” (Season 4, Episode 20)
Before this episode, we saw glimpses of Asajj Ventress’s compassion but never did we think she could go from uncompromisingly ruthless to an antihero led by conscience in the course of thirty minutes. Low and behold, this former dark apprentice suddenly unleashed all the feels after ferociously slicing and dicing her way to a bounty locked inside a box on board a speeding, underground train. I’m a sucker for extended action sequences on trains, and “Bounty” might just take the cake when it comes to such work. Featuring some of the best lightsaber action I’ve ever seen in Star Wars, I can guarantee you that the fighting choreography is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon bad-ass. Oh, and did I also mention it features a young Boba Fett leading his bounty hunter team, in brief alliance with Asajj, on this profitable venture? Just when it looks like Fett might not grow up to be the galaxy’s deadliest, cold-hearted bounty hunter, he ends up showing us a sinister side that seems almost too unreal for a boy barely in his teens. On the flip side, wondrously, is Asajj Ventress, who does a 180º and shows that she’s a person with standards, and – shockingly — a beating heart. My word, where has this Ventress been all these seasons? Without deflating her menacing spirit, Katie Lucas at last revealed the three-dimensional side of Ventress we all knew existed but was afraid might never rise to the surface. Star Wars loves to keep its villains as evil as possible, but with Ventress they took an experimental path of ambiguity and it has more than paid off.
5. “Defenders of Peace” (Season 1, Episode 14)
This particular story arc gets to the crux of what it truly means to be a Jedi. What does it mean to call oneself a “defender of peace”? Does it imply you do what is necessary to ensure the safety of others, even if it means death and destruction by your own hands? Or perhaps does it mean to lay down arms and vow to solve problems with carefully thought-out words instead of the kneejerk fist response? During an accidental crash on the planet of Maridun, Jedi Master Aayla Secura, Anakin Skywalker and his padawan Ahsoka Tano encounter a unique race known as the Lurmen. The shaman leader of this alien race urges the Jedi to leave since the Lurmen are pacifists and staunch proponents of nonviolent resistance. Their leader, Tee Watt Kaa, clearly draws inspiration from Gandhi and his viewpoints on how to solve a problem like occupation. When the Separatists finally encroach on the Lurmens’ settlement, both the spiritual leader and the Jedi come to a respectful understanding that preserving peace often means doing things you aren’t naturally comfortable doing…for better or worse.
4. “Clone Cadets” (Season 3, Episode 1)
If you’ve ever desired a clone army origin story, then “Clone Cadets” is the closest thing that can cool this burning sensation. Emotionally fulfilling and groundbreaking in how it outlines the stages of a clone’s progress from the barracks to the battlefield, there’s not a single wasted moment in this entire episode. The troopers of focus in the underdog training group known as “Domino Squad” have separate yet unique personalities that you can easily differentiate despite the uniformity in face. We feel for these troopers, for the preparation of becoming a soldier in general — our appreciation of the Grand Army of the Republic ends up becoming greater than it was before watching. This episode is crucial in reminding viewers how innocent the clones were before Order 66, their goals in life to selflessly grow to become the most elite soldiers for the sake of the galaxy. To be so honorable and have such unwavering commitment, only to flame out by the trigger of a voice command, is beyond gutting. In many ways, the Clones were exterminated before the Jedi, their souls lost to a hegemonic uprising before fully coming to terms with their own humanity.
3. “The Lawless” (Season 5, Episode 16)
My goodness, where to begin with this episode?! This is a jam-packed roller coaster of a show, populated with twists, shocking deaths and arguably the most fulfilling fight scene Star Wars fans never expected but are so glad exists. I’ve always been a bit annoyed with how politic-heavy the Mandalore subplots became over the course of the series, but finally in this episode it becomes evident what happens when the government is out of whack and a true sociopath takes control. While resurrecting Darth Maul could be considered one of the worst decisions Lucas and company ever made (I’m still on the fence about this), you cannot deny it was at least partially worth it seeing Maul at last confront Darth Sidious and allow those two characters to have it out the only way Sith know how: a full-on force power showdown of epic proportions. Before this iconic duel, however, viewers witnessed Maul strip away the only fiber of true love Obi-Wan still clung to. That’s right, mister righteous himself had a former fling with one Satine Kryze, Duchess of planet Mandalore no less. During the Clone Wars, their love is briefly rekindled, but is sadly desecrated before it can fully bloom thanks to Maul and his true-to-form malicious ways. You’ll never feel sadder for Obi-Wan Kenobi than you do in this episode, and it’s a true testament to his resolve and years of training that he is able to hold in so much anger and pain. This is one of those legendary episodes that pays its dues to the fandom while also strengthening the overall quality of the saga. You can put this episode right alongside Breaking Bad’s “Ozymandias” in terms of brand impact that will leave a permanent mark.
2. “Overlords” (Season 3, Episode 15)
Rather than shying away from the complexity behind Anakin’s “Chosen One” prophecy like Lucas did in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, writer Christian Taylor holds Lucas and the saga accountable for finishing what it started. More than any other Star Wars tale I’ve seen or read, “Overlords” is the closest the brand has come to emulating a Star Trek episode – and that’s not entirely a bad thing! While tracking the whereabouts of a distress signal, Anakin and Ahsoka Tano come across an ancient monolith in space that teleports them to a planet named Mortis, a planet whose seasons and layout shift continuously. This planet is also fueled by the Force itself, its power kept in check by three superhuman beings known as The Father, The Daughter and The Son. Anakin soon comes to learn that he must be the peacemaker between the warring Daughter of Light and Son of Dark, for their father is near his life’s end after maintaining balance for more than a millennium. The specifics behind Anakin’s prophetic duties are finally revealed after being kept under wraps for so long, which in turn offers both relief and a surreal sense of awe. With the discovery of Mortis and the power that it wields over the galaxy, Star Wars itself suddenly feels a whole lot more expansive than it once did. There are some fans who weren’t happy with how the “Mortis Trilogy” ended or even that it was included in the first place, but at least with “Overlords” both the Force and Anakin Skywalker are brought back into the limelight of utmost significance. Star Wars can often be all fun and games, but we often forget there is a fate-driven chain that begins with the immaculate conception of Anakin Skywalker and ends with Luke Skywalker…or perhaps not. Either way, “Overlords” takes us back to the galactic roots of conflict in such a creative, spellbinding way, executed in bizarre Twilight Zone meets Star Trek fashion. You simply can’t help but revel in the zany ingenuity of it all.
1. “The Wrong Jedi” (Season 5, Episode 20)
Technically, Season Five is the end of the Clone Wars show since the sixth season was considered “lost” and only came back to life thanks to a partnership deal struck by Disney and Netflix. So with that said, I have no qualms in declaring “The Wrong Jedi” the single greatest series finale in television history. Yep, I said it. What first seemed like a typical red herring case that needed to happen in order to separate Anakin and Ahsoka once and for all (they obviously weren’t seen side by side in Revenge of the Sith) soon turns into a brutal indictment against the revered Jedi Order. For a show to criticize its heroes in such an intelligible, honest way is almost a rarity these days. The Jedi are presented as well-intentioned defenders of peace, when in actuality their poor decisions and trust in the wrong individuals caused their downfall and the deaths of countless lives. I cannot tell you how proud I was of Ahsoka rejecting the Jedi Order’s offer to rejoin them after being wrongfully accused of acts of terrorism and sedition. However, the scene would not have worked as well as it did without Anakin being the one to offer and receive rejection. Ahsoka is one of the most perceptive, most promising students among the Jedi Order, and for her to walk away thanks to the cruelty of those who pretended to be her family gives us a better understanding of why Anakin ultimately chooses to embrace the Dark Side. Ashley Eckstein as Ahsoka Tano displays such bravery and clarity with her performance, while Matt Lanter as Anakin Skywalker makes us forget the horrific casting for this character in the forms of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen. You can detect the underlying menace in his tone, but Lanter always makes sure the audience is on his side, even when the Jedi scold him for his morally questionable actions. The strong relationship of master-padawan might have been broken with this stunning series ender, but what this episode gave us made up for it: the ability to point to a piece of Star Wars writing and say, “Here – this is how you are supposed to do it.” J.J. Abrams and any writer/director duo that follows scribe Charles Murray, who worked alongside director Dave Feloni for this episode, have their bar firmly set. Can they top it? Only the future knows for sure.
This episode is just too powerful not to share, so here is the big moment that truly defines why Star Wars matters to its fans and pop culture: