Star Wars The Clone Wars The Phantom Apprentice Review

The former Skywalker apprentice and the former acolyte of the Sith are finally face-to-face in Star Wars: The Clone Wars as part two of the Siege of Mandalore finale arc rages on. Directed by Nathaniel Villanueva, “The Phantom Apprentice” proceeds as a tragedy where the offstage—offscreen—action of Revenge of the Sith permeates the tensions, namely the prospective truths that will break the heart of Master Anakin Skywalker’s former apprentice, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein). During their attempts to purge a ravaged Mandalore of former-Darth Maul’s (Sam Witwer) influence, Ahsoka and Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) learn that Maul may have a specifically nefarious motive to uncover.  

Again, it’s astonishing that these emotional payoffs resulted from wild creative decisions. The goofy story choice to revive the Zabrak Sith who debuted in Episode I: The Phantom Menace was a stretch even for the standards of Star Wars in animated form, but Maul’s Clone Wars presence has paid dividends in pulpy poignancy through his villainous pettiness, tragic dimensions, and Witwer’s menacing voice work. Maul’s presence brewed a delicious villain arc as he discovers that he’ll always be tangled in the tethers of his former Sithhood while trying to cut ties. 

Ahsoka’s holo conversation with Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor), who is on the edge of his mission to defeat General Grievous before the Jedi Purge, denotes the timeline of Revenge of the Sith and pours insight and heartbreak into the margins of the story. Kenobi’s solemn “the [Jedi] council isn’t always right” indicates a heart-to-heart that Ahsoka and Kenobi never had since the latter took part in convicting her of a crime she didn’t commit. The soft caution in Arnold’s inflection says miles about an unspoken remorse he wishes he had more time to unpack. 

The epic scope is thanks to the micro-specifics in the reactions when it dawns on main and supporting cast alike that they are chess-pieces of cruel fate shaped by the machinations of politics, villains with personal designs, and the faulty structure of existing orders. 

The blemishes of the Republic are laid out, illustrating the political conditions that would disassemble the universe as the characters know it. The occupation also yields clear consequences for the Mandalorian civilians, as part one spelled out, the longer the Republic stays, the more they will oppress the planet they seek to liberate. Bo-Katan and Ahsoka have to observe the unsettling image of clone soldiers (Dee Bradley Baker) evacuating Mandalorians from their homes and their backlash against the Republic occupation—calling forward the Empire’s grip on Mandalorian territory if you watched Rebels and The Mandalorian. The all-around gray morality of war is also present when Maul holds the clone Jesse’s captive and muses about the expendability of the clones—“bred for combat, part of the plan”—and Maul’s Force-interrogation subtly reminds the viewers that the clones don’t know something terrible has been planted in their brains for a nefarious purpose.

More existential beats are observed when a Mando subordinate (Vanessa Marshall) asks Maul “what does it mean?” before the latter appeases his extremist Mandalorian followers with a “die like warriors” promise, followed by another Mando subordinate’s (Ray Stevenson) audible aghastness when their Zabrak lord ditches his crew with a “Die well, and loyal.”

All this leads to the hyped light-saber battle between former-Darth Maul and the ex-padawan, with the motion-captured Ray Park reprising his physicality as Darth Maul against Fast and Furious 7 stunt woman Lauren Mary Kim as the motion-captured performer for Ahsoka. The enthralling lightsaber fight, which escalates into a duel onto a balancing-beam set-piece, isn’t the point as much as the psychological provocation. Both former Force-students have departed—or booted out—from their Force-wielding institutions: Maul has forgone Sith mantle and Ahsoka has left her Jedi temple. What cuts deeper than their blades is the personal turmoil: For Maul, he is trying to control fate by clinging to power. For Ahsoka, she glimpses the fall of everything she held dear to. The moment Ahsoka utters “I will help you” to Maul, it isn’t just a practicality to procure info, part of her wants to reach a tragic creature like Maul, and she senses he has a point when he defines justice as a mere construct of a falling order. Ahsoka proceeds with professional calmness, absorbing the disquiet while never letting it rule her. Her collectiveness contrasts with Maul, who when captured, thrashes about the bounds and raves like a madman in his death throes. 

Most dishearteningly, she hears straight from Maul’s lips that Skywalker will be apprenticed to Darth Sidious and lead the galaxy to its doom. How can the smiling teacher who left her with old wisdoms and two lightsabers become a monster? For the Clone Wars viewer, most of what we have seen of Skywalker in the final revival season was a kind fellow, with egotistical edges, but nonetheless a compassionate figure.

The ravages of fate are told through a wondrous wide-shot: the diametrically opposed Force-warriors, a disciple of the light versus a disciple of the dark, staring at each other from across the throne room as war and fire rattle outside. They do not flinch as the force of the war shatters the sanctuary like the revelation storming inside Ahsoka. Another piece of shattering imagery resurfaces at the end: Ahsoka placidly staring up at a cracked ceiling into the cosmos, pondering the galactic events beyond her sight and control. Even with an ending pre-ordained by Revenge of the Sith, “The Phantom Apprentice” never loses sight of its curiosity for how the players will stand—or fall—against fate.

Tidbits

  • I spy…a cameo of Dryden Vos from Solo.
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