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The revived Star Wars: The Clone Wars is still a story about the human side of war

Season 7 begins by remembering the fallen

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Star Wars plots can largely be broken into three categories: There’s the high-fantasy aspect of the Jedi and the Sith, and their battle for control over the cosmic balance of power that dominates the Skywalker Saga; there’s the gritty world of bounty hunters, scavengers, and scoundrels, which spans everything from Han Solo’s arc to The Mandalorian; and then there are the actual star wars. While dramatic battles, daring rescues, and secret missions are found throughout the films, and they’re the primary focus of Rogue One, the war for the galaxy never feels as real as it does in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which returns for its seventh and final season on Disney Plus on Feb. 21.

Running for six seasons between 2008 and 2014, The Clone Wars was a wildly ambitious, strange show that presented plots out of order, offering more a collection of interconnected stories than a linear series. While it did incorporate the other dominant Star Wars themes in episodes about Sith schemes and bold heists, the series was at its best as a saga of war. Episodes drew visual cues from classic war stories like Band of Brothers and The Longest Day, and followed their narrative leads by putting the focus on rank-and-file soldiers rather than the great Jedi generals.

That focus remains strong in “The Bad Batch” and “The Distant Echo,” the first two episodes of season 7. Executive producer and supervising director Dave Filoni apparently saw no need to court a new audience, or to fuss over how much fans might remember six years after the show was canceled — the show makes no effort to catch viewers up on the action. Instead, the writers launch right into a tale about Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker), a clone trooper serving under Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter), dealing with survivor’s guilt. When the enemy droids prove too adept at predicting the clones’ tactics, Rex comes to believe that his friend Echo, who was presumed dead in season 3 after falling during a different daring rescue mission, is actually a prisoner of war.

the bad batch assembles in a tableux during the premiere of clone wars season 7 Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Telling individual soldiers apart is a particular challenge in The Clone Wars, since they’re all physically identical clones of bounty hunter Jango Fett. They were made to be mass-produced cannon fodder, the equivalent of the robot armies they’re fighting. And yet throughout the previous seasons, their desire for individuality and the feeling of brotherhood with their compatriots came to define them.

The clone characters are physically distinguished by subtle flourishes, like hairstyles, tattoos, or embellishments on their armor. It’s also a testament to Baker’s voice-acting mastery that they can all sound the same, yet feel distinct, even when they’re conversing with each other. When Rex looks at a picture and lists the names of his fallen allies, each represents a distinct, powerful arc for the show, stretching back over several seasons.

One of the troopers Rex mourns is Fives, a primary character who died at the end of season 6, after uncovering a conspiracy to strip all the clones of their agency and force them to kill Jedi. (The storyline foreshadowed Order 66, which was executed in Revenge of the Sith.) That conspiracy is the most dramatic way the clones’ individuality has been denied in the series, but it’s not the only one. Rex and Fives were previously forced to serve under a Jedi who viewed clones with contempt, and they eventually committed mutiny to save their fellows. Rex also previously met a clone deserter who left the war to start a family, and Rex decided against turning him in because he was convinced that clones should have a choice in how to live their lives.

That individuality is questioned again in “The Bad Batch” with the introduction of some much more distinctive clones, who have useful mutations like enhanced senses and strength. Like a space marine A-Team, the reckless-but-effective unit dismissively refers to typical clones as “regs,” and doesn’t understand why they would risk a mission to rescue one, since they’re so replaceable.

rex and a clone look at a hologram battle plan in clone wars season 7 Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Anakin is also somewhat dubious of the rescue mission, believing Rex is letting unresolved emotions about leaving a friend behind get in the way of assessing the likelihood that Echo actually survived. As Anakin’s secret wife, Padmé Amidala (Catherine Taber), points out, Rex likely learned that behavior from Anakin, who is constantly being berated by other Jedi for letting his emotions get the better of him.

The clones are the best-developed characters in Clone Wars, but previous seasons also worked to redeem Anakin from his clumsy portrayal in the prequel films. While he doesn’t get much screen time in the first two episodes of season 7, there are hints of the growing darkness within him, caused by his frustrations with Jedi dogma and the war he’s fought while coming of age. When Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) makes clear that he knows Anakin’s been secretly communicating with Padmé, his former padawan’s reaction isn’t embarrassment or relief, but a subtle flash of anger. Just as Rex and his fellow troopers fight to be individuals within the army of clones, Anakin bristles under the weight of duty that keeps him from being with the woman he loves.

Along with maintaining the series’ narrative strengths, the new Clone Wars episodes continue to deliver the show’s signature mix of thrilling action and goofy humor. While tactical use of grenades and quick evacuation of an aircraft that’s been shot down could be found in any war movie, the fights lean heavily on the visual power of Star Wars’ alien worlds. Brightly colored, glasslike trees shatter on impact, and dragon-like creatures carry off Anakin right after he and the troopers land.

The series humor might be a little sillier than what’s found in the dramas The Clone Wars draws on — for instance, when a Battle Droid (Matthew Wood) asks when an attack is coming, and immediately gets its head blasted off. But that’s part of the formula that makes the series distinctive. It’s the brief breath of air that keeps the audience invested in the fates of the soldiers on screen, building up their characters by showing who they are when they aren’t fighting for their lives. The downtime and the personal touches let them show that they’re human, individuals and important in their own right, even if they do all look the same.

Episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars will be released weekly on Fridays on Disney Plus, starting Feb. 21.