Star Wars: The Clone Wars debuted in 2008 with an uneven and little seen movie. Set firmly between Episode 2 and 3, the ensuing series promised to show us Anakin and Obi-Wan’s adventures in the Clone Wars leading up to Anakin’s turn to the dark side.
Perhaps the greatest creative risk The Clone Wars took was the introduction of Anakin’s padawan. Over the course of five seasons, Asohka Tano’s gradual maturation from impatient sidekick to wisened warrior became the shows crowning achievement and most important legacy.
Peculiarly, episodes of The Clone Wars were loosely organized into largely standalone arcs. Often arranged in groups of two to four, episodes generally continue the story of either certain characters or battles interrupted by an occasional one-off episode not belonging to any wider arc. These plot lines are sometimes presented out of chronological order, creating an interesting puzzle for the viewer to sift through (I still can’t place the Senate episodes with Onocanda’s murder).
Out of these somewhat self-contained story arcs emerge some of the better Star Wars tales in the entire franchise. A potent mixture of inventive characters, detailed worlds, and an ever deepening mythology all work together to flesh out a vivid picture of the last years of the Jedi Order. For those disappointed by the prequel trilogy, this show breathes new life into the series and offers a surprisingly authentic Star Wars experience.
Here are my picks for the top 15 story arcs of The Clone Wars. Spoilers for the first five seasons abound!
15) The Malevolence Trilogy
1.02 – Rising Malevolence
1.03 – Shadow of Malevolence
1.04 – Destroy Malevolence
Ah, the arc that proved that The Clone Wars had a right to exist. I would rank this arc higher but it feels like the best place to start in discussing this show’s unique approach to storytelling. Although Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka (and perhaps Captain Rex) are the apparent main characters of this series, the show doesn’t mind ignoring them for large stretches or pushing them to the background of individual episodes. As war rages across the galaxy, The Clone Wars makes an effort to zoom in and highlight different little pockets of action and continually introduce new and unexpected characters.
The Malevolence Trilogy reveals the Separatist’s incredibly massive and destructive new battleship. Although not quite on par with the Death Star, the Malevolence is so huge it takes a whole episode just to finish blowing it up. Beginning with Plo Koon and his stranded clone soldiers, the storyline moves on to display Anakin’s tactical ingenuity and his un-Jedi-like attachment to Padmé.
If you were unsure of this show before, the Malevolence trilogy proved that this show could handle a multi-part storyline, balancing multiple main characters and villains, all while giving a strong emotional punchline to each episode. This arc holds up among the one of the best even after five full seasons of fine storytelling.
14) Obi-Wan Undercover
4.15 – Deception
4.16 – Friends and Enemies
4.17 – The Box
4.18 – Crisis on Naboo
Obi-Wan fakes his own death and disguises himself as the notorious bounty hunter Rako Hardeen. Initially I wasn’t excited about this premise and only upon repeat viewings was I able to appreciate the creativity the Clone Wars team put into this arc. The first episode shows us Anakin and Ahsoka’s reaction to their beloved master’s death. Anakin’s grief immediately dissolves into anger and his inability to control himself almost compromises Obi-Wan’s cover. It’s an apt reminder of his imminent descent toward the Dark Side. In one of my favorite moments, Ahsoka guards Anakin’s unconscious body with twin lightsabers drawn. The bounty hunters wisely back down. Here Ahsoka proves she is clearly powerful in her own right.
Another gem in this arc is the return of everybody’s favorite wide-brimmed bounty hunter, Cad Bane. He puts ROTJ Boba Fett to shame. The stand out episode of this arc has to be The Box, a devious test designed for the sole purpose of outing Jedi spies. Count Dooku’s brilliant introduction of each bounty hunter is superb. Unfortunately Moralo Eval, architect and mastermind of the whole assassination plot, is more grating than scary.
The final episode has a great twist that sheds an important light on Darth Sidious’ wooing of Anakin to the Dark Side. By subtly arranging for Anakin to face off against Count Dooku, Sidious is both testing his current apprentice Dooku and holding tryouts in case a new one should prove worthy. While Anakin fails to finish off the current Sith Lord, how fascinating to see his future master at work pulling the strings.
13) Domino Squad
3.01 – Clone Cadets
1.05 – Rookies
3.02 – ARC Troopers
For a show about warring clones, there are relatively few clone-centric episodes. The Domino Squad trilogy gives us a break from the heavily Jedi dominated episodes and shows us the life of the everyday clone soldier. In any other cartoon these clones would be undifferentiated masses but in this arc we really see the the distinct personalities of Fives, Hevy, Echo, Droidbait, and Cutup. In retrospect, it makes their deaths in Rookies all the more tragic knowing their history together.
Rookies is often mentioned as the definitive clone episode, but personally I fancy ARC Troopers in which the clones battle for the closest thing they have to a home. Although the Jedi and Sith steal some of the clones’ thunder, it’s satisfying to see Echo and Fives promoted to the prestigious rank of ARC trooper. The fact that this later leads to them join the rescue attempt of master Even Piell from the Citadel is a nice touch.
However the breakout character of this arc is the crippled clone with a heart of gold, 99. Acting as an unofficial mentor to the squad, his death is one of the saddest on the entire show. There’s probably no other clone who so perfectly epitomizes the selfless valor of the clone army.
12) The Younglings
5.6 – The Gathering
5.7 – A Test of Strength
5.8 – Bound for Rescue
5.9 – A Necessary Bond
In contrast to some of the darker arcs of season 5, the Younglings arc took a playful turn. Exploring the adventures of a group of Jedi initiates hoping to become padawans, one of the highlights of this arc is its explanation of how Jedi are able to create their lightsabers. However what really makes this arc work is the characters.
Each youngling has their own strengths and weaknesses and thankfully none of them are annoying. Gungi the kid Wookie, in particular, is just delightful. Throughout these episodes Ahsoka takes on a mentoring role, expanding her character even further and demonstrating just how much she has matured over these short few years. David Tennant’s excellent turn as the sagely droid Huyang is another standout role. As always, the endearing Hondo proves to be a worthy adversary as well as a useful ally. A surprise cameo from Slave I is also well received.
It may not be the most probing story in the show’s history, but Younglings is a nice side adventure that takes us to some unexpected places and features the same quality of characters that makes the rest of the Star Wars universe so entertaining. While there’s plenty of fun to be had, it’s also a sobering reality that these younglings face uncertain days ahead as the Sith draw closer to victory.
11) Young Boba Fett
2.20 “Death Trap”
2.21 “R2 Come Home”
2.22 “Lethal Trackdown”
Boba Fett is a character who has never really got his due. Unceremonious killed off in the Original Trilogy and reduced to whiny brat in the Prequels, he finally gets a chance to shine in this fun little arc. Hunting down Mace Windu, Boba really shines as an aspiring bounty hunter with a lot to learn placed under the harsh tutelage of Aurra Sing.
However lest we forget, Boba and his bounty hunter allies are really just the background threat. The true focus of this arc are the Republic personnel hunting them down after the initial bombing. In the second episode, R2D2 craftily outmaneuvers the bounty hunters coming to the aide of the wounded Anakin and Mace Windu. The third episode delves deeper into the relationship between Ahsoka and her paternal guide, Plo Koon.
Without revealing too much about how Boba Fett became the feared bounty hunter, this arc manages to both develop him as an unexpected foe as well as build in some nice character moments among the main cast. It sure doesn’t hurt that animation is starting to hit its stride as evidenced by the massive explosions and ship wreckage.
10) The Nightsisters Trilogy
3.12 – Nightsisters
3.13 – Monster
3.14 – Witches of the Mist
The Nightsisters trilogy is the storyline that divides the entire show into two halves: before and after. Before Nightsisters, the show played it relatively safe with self-contained arcs and standard good vs. evil story plots. Afterwards, everything changes. The events on Dathomir really mess with the status quo, setting things into motion that will pay off much later in the series.
Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the transformation of Ventress from a one-note villain to a nuanced anti-hero with an unlucky backstory. Count Dooku’s betrayal of his apprentice triggers a wave of tremors that will affect millions across the galaxy, beginning with two unsuspecting brothers: Savage and Feral Oppress.
This trilogy isn’t afraid to introduce unfamiliar elements to Star Wars, including the strange witchcraft of Mother Talzin. It’s all very weird but it leads to greater things like the Nightsisters’ covert assault on Dooku and a fascinating look at how the Sith train their apprentices. This was the arc that really proved that the Clone Wars was willing to take big risks, and as evidenced by the latter two seasons, I think we can agree it was the right decision.
9) Holocron Heist
2.01 – Holocron Heist
2.02 – Cargo of Doom
2.03 – Children of the Force
We all expect the powerful Sith to thwart Jedi, but what we don’t expect is for mere mortals to pose a threat. The Holocron arc demonstrated who exactly might beat a Jedi: bounty hunter Cad Bane. We see over these episodes his ruthless infiltration of the temple, his vicious manipulation of Anakin, and his subsequent kidnapping of force sensitive children. It’s a brutal reminder that the Jedi aren’t the only skilled warriors in the galaxy.
Of course, behind it all is the puppet master Darth Sidious, again advancing his plot to exterminate the Jedi, this time by targeting their future younglings. It’s a chilling reminder that this “kid show” is absolutely willing to grapple with mature themes when needed. Knowing the future of the Jedi Order, by the end you almost wish that nobody ends up with the Holocron.
This arc keeps up a brisk pace and features a diverse slice of planets as well as battle environments ranging from zero gravity to a collapsing station on Mustafar. It’s pure fun watching the Jedi traverse the galaxy in pursuit of an enemy equal to them in every way. You can definitely feel the Clone Wars team going all out to create a genuine Star Wars experience here.
8) Slaves of Kadavo
4.11 – Kidnapped
4.12 – Slaves of the Republic
4.13 – Escape from Kadavo-
Adapted from the comic book, the Kadavo slave arc is a brutal look at the evil Anakin suffered in childhood. The Zygerrians are a fresh new enemy and provide an interesting counterpoint to all those episodes that argue that the Separatists aren’t so bad after all. The first episode is a tense race against the clock despite the fact that town is empty. It’s worth it to see the solid droid battles and Obi-Wan stalling for time.
Of course the real meat of the arc happens when the team arrive on Kadavo. The unsettling Zygerrian Queen, ridiculous cover identities, a failed escape attempt, and the brutal execution of Togrutan slaves give us plenty to chew on in this arc. Keeping noble Jedi prisoner by coercing them into protecting the innocent is something bad guys should do more often.
It’s not often that this show traps its four main characters in hostile enemy territory with no way out. The results speak for themselves. Did I mention the Zygerrians have electric whips?
7) Battle for Ryloth
3.03 – Supply Lines
1.19 – Storm Over Ryloth
1.20 – Innocents of Ryloth
1.21 – Liberty on Ryloth
The Ryloth arc answers the question of what occupation is like for the various planets caught up in the Clone Wars. This arc begins with a prequel episode Supply Lines that shows the Republic losing its grip on the planet while the remaining three episodes deal with their attempt to take it back.
Each episode in this arc has a different main character: Jar Jar Binks, Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, and Mace Windu. It’s highly creative way to showcase the different aspects of battle including from political negotiations off-planet, a blockade in orbit, an underground militia, and heavily fortified occupied cities.
Of course along the way many clones, droids, Jedi and even innocents meet their fate. Ahsoka loses her entire squadron in a fatal miscalculation. Master Ima-Gun-Di makes his last stand to save the Twi’lek rebels. An entire Twi’lek village is carpet bombed in front of our eyes. The cost of war is stunningly real.
6) Stranded on Maridun
1.13 – Jedi Crash
1.14 – Defenders of the Peace
Who said arcs have to be three or four episodes long? The Maridun episodes are one of my favorite arcs in the whole series and for good reason. The first episode opens with an immense space battle that results in Anakin being totally incapacitated. It is followed immediately by a gritty crash landing. As Aayla Secura and Ahsoka search for help, the Twi’lek master teaches the worried padawan about letting go of attachments.
Featuring some excellent adventure music, the grassy plains and giant trees of Maridun create a wonderful world shielded from the violence of the Clone Wars. Things heat up in the second episode with the arrival of the villainous General Lok Durd (played by the estimable George Takei) who plans to sacrifice the entire Lurmen village as his test subjects.
If not very likeable, the Lurmen are at least different enough from the other species to stand out a bit. Curling up into balls to roll and lassoing their enemies, the Lurmen are quite unique. It may be a simple set up, but this arc epitomizes the best of what Star Wars has to offer: action, stakes, and inspiring lessons about the Force.
5) Bounty Hunter Ventress
4.19 – Massacre
4.20 – Bounty
These two loosely connected episodes are bound together by the ever evolving character of Ventress. Seeing what happens to her after the events of the Nightsister trilogy is a real treat and not something that most shows would even offer us. Leaving the Jedi far behind, the first episode pits evil against evil. A savage assault by General Grievious turns into a frenetic battle between droids and zombies. It’s a bloody end for the Nightsister clan.
The second episode brings us to the aftermath as Ventress attempts to rebuild her life after losing her biological family. Her particular set of skills leads her to partner with a ragtag group of bounty hunters including Boba Fett clad in some unfamiliar armor. This results in an insane mission involving protecting a subterranean train under attack from ninjas.
It’s wild fun and totally tangential to the rest of the show but placing Ventress at the center of a few episodes really makes for an interesting ride. The Ventress story is the gift that keeps on giving as her character continues to pull her weight in future episodes. Dooku should have cut her out sooner.
4) Trandoshan Hunters
3.21 – Padawan Lost
3.22 – Wookiee Hunt
This short two-part arc is where I first was taken aback by sheer beauty of the Clone Wars’ animation team. The jungle planet where the padawans are held hostage is absolutely amazing in detail and lighting. Separating Ahsoka from her master and putting her in the crosshairs of the animalistic Trandoshans makes for great drama. When Kalifa dies in Ahsoka’s arms, the despair and hopelessness of the situation is suffocating.
The second episode surprises with the always illustrious Chewbacca to aide Ahsoka in her escape. As she unites the leaderless padawans, it really shows how Anakin’s padawan is leaps and bounds above the average Jedi apprentice and what a huge loss the Jedi Order suffers at her ultimate departure. Thoroughly vile, the Trandoshans are quite sinister as villains. When the Wookies descend on them, they receive no mercy. It’s a powerful arc and one that I will rewatch many times before the end.
3) Second Battle of Geonosis
2.05 – Landing at Point Rain
2.06 – Weapons Factory
2.07 – Legacy of Terror
2.08 – Brain Invaders
Harkening back to Episode II and the dusty planet where the Clone Wars all began, the Geonosis arc is terrific stuff. For the first time the Republic is fighting not only droids but a sentient alien species. The winged enemies are especially vicious with their energy weapons and the way they carry off poor clone soldiers to their death. The opening episode Landing at Point Rain is surely the best battle episode in the entire 100+ episode run. The showrunners wanted to recreate a Star Wars version of D-Day and they succeeded in an incrediblely relentless powerhouse of an episode.
The latter episodes, while not as ambitious, don’t fail to disappoint introducing Barriss Offee as the diligent and dutiful counterpoint to Ahsoka’s reckless confidence. Once Geonosis is taken, the Republic must deal with the disturbing rise of the Geonosian queen whose corrupting influence follows Ahsoka and Barriss into space.
This is a varied arc with stirring action and significant character growth moments for Ahsoka in particular. Whenever I introduce people to this show, this four part Geonosis arc is always where I begin.
2) Darth Maul Returns
4.21 – Monster
4.22 – Revenge
5.1 – Revival
5.14 – Eminence
5.15 – Shades of Reason
5.16 – The Lawless
Whether or not it’s fair to lump these six episodes together into one arc, I’m doing it anyway. The unexpected return of Darth Maul puts every major character of this show into overdrive. Maul’s second coming has huge ramifications for Obi-Wan, Ventress, Savage Oppress, Dutchess Satine, Pre Viszla, Hondo, Darth Sidious, and the entire criminal underworld. With top notch animation, voice acting, and storytelling, this is the arc that people will point to as the high point of the entire series.
The reinvented Maul is no ordinary foe. As a former Sith, he is trained not just in combat but political scheming and empire building. Through a patient but deliberate acquisition of power and resources, Maul uses the distraction of the Clone Wars to extend his absolute will across the underworld. We really get a sense that this is his gamble to become the most powerful being in the entire galaxy.
Smartly tying Darth Maul into the Death Watch storyline, this arc really ends with an explosive conclusion that we never would have suspected at back in the first Mandalore arc. The fact that so many characters either meet their fate or have their world rocked on account of Maul show just how significant his ugly resurgence truly is.
1) Darkness on Umbara
4.07 – Darkness On Umbara
4.08 – The General
4.09 – Plan of Dissent
4.10 – Carnage of Krell
At last we arrive at the crowning achievement in an already impressive list of story lines. The Umbara arc features none of the Jedi we know and love and instead focuses solely on a contingent of beleaguered clones on a strange planet veiled in darkness. The battles in these episodes rival any other in the show’s history and the fact that the clones fight devoid of any Jedi support only raises the stakes.
General Krell provides a new kind of antagonist for this series: a Jedi general who sees clones as disposable ammunition. Antithetical to the nurturing mentoring of Yoda or Plo Koon, this Jedi values victory above lives lost. Trapped between the impossible choice of going to a likely death or disobeying orders, the clones’ bravery and resolve holds true despite the darkness swirling around them.
You can’t help but sympathize with the tragedy of the clones’ situation, fighting a technologically superior enemy on the battlefield while simultaneously dealing with an unfair and punishing commander back at home. It’s the worst of both worlds and the resolution magnifies the absolute horror of this cruel war that is secretly being waged by the despotic Sith. These clones are unlucky pawns but over the course of these four episodes they become the heroes they were born to be.
Although Star Wars: The Clone Wars is coming to end next month with the final 13 episodes of Season Six, you can bet that there are plenty more Star Wars tales to be told in the upcoming Star Wars Rebels.