How do you top last week’s episode which for many was the greatest episode of The Clone Wars ever?
Well, apparently for Dave Filoni and the crew you just simply make another episode…
Ahsoka leads Republic clones to confront Maul’s forces on Mandalore, while Maul senses the impending chaos and makes a calculated play to ensure his own survival in “The Phantom Apprentice”
Obviously, there is more that goes into it and what they’ve done is nothing short of remarkable, managing to improve on what is thought to be a perfect episode with last week’s “Old Friends Not Forgotten” The story, the animation, the lighting, the photography, the choreography, the acting, all improved while at the same time effectively raising the stakes, forever changing Star Wars as we know it.
Yes, that’s what they’ve done here, change Star Wars. This one chapter adds context and layers to countless other Star Wars titles including Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars Rebels, Solo: A Star Wars Story, several books/comics, and The Clone Wars itself. But they didn’t sacrifice flash and bang for story or substance, no; they managed to find the perfect balance between exposition, spectacle, magnitude, and top-notch entertainment, more than any other effort to date. And they sustained it for the entire 25 minutes.
Here’s how they did it.
For starters, we are officially into “Revenge of the Sith” territory so there are occurrences here that will change how you watch and perceive that film. Dooku is now dead, Obi-Wan is about to leave for Utapau, and Anakin has been tasked with spying on the Chancellor. And at several points, Maul indicates Darth Sidious is about to reveal himself to the galaxy and put into action his final act. In fact, Maul will tell just about anyone who’ll listen about the impending doom, and that’s why this episode isn’t deceptive, they WANT us to know that there were people who knew what was coming, but couldn’t do anything to stop it.
That right there is a new concept as the key players in all of this, the Jedi, did find out that Palpatine had played them for fools, but it was too late by then. Sure, there were clues, and as Obi states had some basic understanding of this Sith Lord, but truthfully, they never saw it coming. So, for big-time players such as Maul and Ahsoka to be aware ahead of time, ahead of the Jedi, is a somewhat new and exciting concept.
So, everything that happens in this episode happens with the notion that Maul and Ahsoka knew what was about to happen but couldn’t warn anyone. It also makes clear that at least one more conversation between Ahsoka and Anakin was supposed to take place, potentially keeping him from jumping off the ledge. Would it have mattered? Ahsoka is a big reminder for Anakin that the Jedi Council is far from perfect, even Obi-Wan says as much in this episode.
But keeping certain influences away from Anakin was essential to Palpatine’s devices, and surely, he must have known Ahsoka’s close relationship with him, so it would’ve been beneficial to have them reconnect, open that old wound. You begin to wonder if the “Siege of Mandalore” was all part of the plan. You even begin to wonder if Ahsoka leaving the Jedi Order was part of the plan also. This stuff gets in your head and you begin to question EVERYTHING.
Also, we know that with Sidious spreading out the field, keeping key players away from the capital, making them easy targets for Order 66, we could assume Mandalore is part and parcel. Probably depends on if you believe Ahsoka Tano is on his radar or not, and if he knew the 501st was split in two by Anakin. With his track record, it’s safe to assume Sidious is aware of the events on Mandalore, but whether he sees Ahsoka as anything other than a trigger for Anakin, we don’t know. We know one thing; he doesn’t fear Maul.
As we move through the episode, you’ll soon realize its scene after scene of exposition dumps, cloaked in fantastic action sequences, forlorn hints of things to come, and thoughtful character examinations. And rather than be surreptitious about it, Filoni and director Nathaniel Villanueva use incredible visuals and an airtight script to keep you in the loop, bringing you along for the ride.
Listen, they know that we know what’s coming, and they know that we know the series is over, so Filoni’s usual bag-o-tricks style of story manipulation and trickery seems to have been replaced by honest and simple storytelling. And who is our narrator? Why Maul of course, who when not being menacing, is an information delivery system.
We start at the exact moment we left, with Ahsoka coming face-to-face with Maul in the lower tunnels of Sundari. They discuss mutual friendships and Maul let’s slip that something big is coming from a Sith Lord named Darth Sidious. After parlaying for a few, Maul leaves when some Clone reinforcements show up, saying to her, “not yet”. Ahsoka goes in pursuit, but they lose him in the tunnels.
Ah the tunnels, another wonderful aspect of these episodes. This “what lurks beneath” setting is perfect for Maul and his scheming, working in the shadows, manipulating the events up above, occasionally sneaking up to snatch an unsuspecting victim…very H.G. Wells.
Next up, the leaders have a little meeting with Ahsoka, Rex, and Bo-Katan discussing things via holo with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ahsoka tells him about what Maul said in the tunnels, about this “Sidious” character, and Kenobi decides to share with them what little he knows. He tells them about the fist time he heard that name, from Count Dooku in “Attack of the Clones”, but any information Tyrannus had, died with him. This is where we learn that we are past the events that kicked off “Revenge of the Sith”
He tells them that the council believes Sidious is the Sith Lord who is behind everything, including the Clone Wars. They decide, capturing Maul is more important than ever and decide to speak to Prime Minister Almec, to try and get some intel.
Before they leave, Obi-Wan and Ahsoka have a one-on-one, he tells her about Anakin’s new assignment, spying on the Chancellor and that he could use a non-Council friend right now. He asks Ahsoka to speak to him, a conversation which of course never takes place.
“Who is this…Ahsoka Tano?”
Before any of that happens, they get word of an ambush where after investigating; they find out that Maul took ARC Trooper Jesse…alive! After some incredible musical cues and even more incredible camera work, we dive down into the tunnels to find Maul and his “morlocks” interrogating Jesse. Maul is using his Force powers to extract information from his mind, and not in a gentle way. Sensing what the other side is up to, he orders Saxon to eliminate Almec before he becomes a liability.
Up above, they pay Almec a visit in his cell, a nice twist since he put Satine in the same prison not that long ago. They ask him what Maul’s escape plan is to which Almec says he has no intention of leaving, that he’s been consumed with a vision he had, and in that vision a name came to him. Just then, Gar Saxon from up above, shoots the Prime Minister and takes off. Before he dies, with his last breath, he tells Ahsoka the name that Maul heard…Skywalker. Bo-Katan goes after Saxon in an astonishing chase sequence that takes them all over the place, but ultimately, he gets away.
Back down below, sensing defeat, Maul is meeting with the syndicate leaders, Ziton Moj (Black Sun), Marg Krim (Pyke’s), and a young Dryden Vos (Crimson Dawn), telling them to go into hiding. So, in the last arc, Maul mentioned Crimson Dawn to Krim so now we know just how early Vos was involved with the group, and as you’ll see at the end of this episode, that’s likely where Maul was headed.
Anyways, knowing what awaits the galaxy, namely Darth Sidious and the Imperial rule, Maul gives Rook Kast, Gar Saxon, and the Marauders a rousing speech, promising them an honorable death. The writing is on the wall and Maul knows it.
Up next we get one of those foreshadowing moments that I mentioned earlier. Ahsoka, Bo-Katan, Rex and some others are watching the activities down on the streets from a balcony. The citizens of Mandalore are being “escorted” to safehouses and more accessible parts of the city by a Clone security detail, basically, crowd control. Cue the ominous Imperial music and a sign of things to come.
This “occupation” was of course hinted at a long time ago by Obi-Wan when Bo-Katan first asked for help from the Republic, in “The Lawless” episode. He said to her, “That would likely lead to a Republic invasion of Mandalore” knowing that by breaking the neutrality agreement and having the Republic intervene, they would assume control of the planet.
Bo-Katan is concerned about the occupation, saying they won’t stand for it after this is over. Ahsoka tells her the Republic forces will leave once they have captured Maul, and Rex chimes in, “my men don’t want to be acting as a police force”, which is of course exactly what happens.
As the three of them are walking and talking, they come to find Maul in the throne room, sitting on the throne. His laid back demeanor is of course a front for his enemies, he’s a coiled spring underneath, and it’s disheartening to see him once again in the chair occupied by the great Duchess Satine. It just rubs me the wrong way, and apparently Bo-Katan as well!
She reacts instantly, charging at him with guns blazing, but he deflects the blaster bolts easily and subdues her with a Force choke. He releases Jesse to them out of the kindness of his heart, with Ahsoka ordering Rex to take him to safety as the war rages on outside. Bo-Katan hesitates, but goes to join the fight, to help the Clones and the Resistance fight Maul’s Marauders.
Maul has learned by probing Jesse’s mind all about Ahsoka’s past dealings with the Jedi Council and attempts to use that knowledge to convince her to join him. He acknowledges that they’ve both been simply “tools for greater powers” and that things are about to drastically change. And that in the end, the only justice, the only thing left, will be Sidious. He offers her his hand, suggesting that if they join forces, they can defeat him, “Every choice you have made, has led you to this moment.”
She agrees to help him if he answers one question, what’s the deal with his Anakin Skywalker obsession…
Maul: “He is the key to everything”
Ahsoka: “To bring balance to the force?”
Maul: “To destroy”
He tells her Anakin is the new apprentice to Darth Sidious and that his plan was not to kill Kenobi, it was to kill Skywalker, whom he foresaw in a vision, his former master’s prized pupil.
Ahsoka tells him she knows the real Anakin, and that his vision is flawed. They draw lightsabers and begin what I believe to be the greatest lightsaber fight in the history of Star Wars. The greatest? Yes, the greatest. Animation has a clear advantage when it comes to staging these types of fight sequences, allowing the characters to perform certain feats live-action just cannot. But it takes more than that, it still requires the three “C’s”, choreography, creativity, and context.
This fight has those in spades. And their movement is aided by a state-of-the-art motion capture technology where stunt performers Ray Park (Maul) and Lauren Mary Kim (Ahsoka) act out much of the choreography, and then are animated over in post. Combine that with this season’s amped up animation, and you’ve easily got the most fluid and dynamic lightsaber battle ever.
Both of them have some epic lightsaber battles on their resume, but this one takes the cake, using never before seen fighting styles, tricks, and environments. This is especially true for Ahsoka, who has NEVER looked better or more formidable.
And the context, well, if you haven’t figured that out yet then I don’t know what to tell you. There is so much on the line here, with both figures being thrust into something even larger than what’s going on with Mandalore. Both now have direct knowledge, or a strong idea of what’s to come, and even though the specifics haven’t revealed themselves yet, I can’t help but wonder that if only there had been more time, things might have turned out different?
Meanwhile, outside, Bo-Katan and rest arrive to turn the tide against Saxon and the Marauders. Pinned down, he calls to Maul for help, but Maul, who has temporarily evaded Ahsoka, is leaving them behind, saying, “Die well, Mandalorian”.
So, without his help, Saxon and the rest have no choice but to surrender and are taken as prisoners.
“Together we could have destroyed Sidious.”
Maul has called for his ship and is attempting to leave Mandalore behind, but Ahsoka won’t let him, and they continue their fight. It’s a series of some back-and-forth’s but Maul gets the upper hand, leaving Ahsoka without her lightsabers. Even still, she manages to outmaneuver him, and he falls. She Force catches him, and he begs her to let him go, to let him fall to his death.
Rex, who was watching below, flies up with some gunships and they stun and capture him as he’s shrieking…
“YOU’RE ALL GOING TO BURN! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”
As Mandalore burns below, the camera pans out and Ahsoka is left to ponder what the hell just happened.
If you follow me on Twitter, then you would have seen me in real time have a minor break down watching this episode. I not so subtly declared this to be the best piece of Star Wars animation or otherwise, ever. I’ve now watched “The Phantom Apprentice” many times and I stand by my statement.
Listen, obviously it’s art, and like all art it’s subjective so you have to rely on a series of criteria that ultimately make up in your mind, if something is good or not, if something is great or not. And while you can never relive your first Star Wars experience; that moment of great discovery, absolute wonder, and pure joy, this is the next best thing.
Now, if you don’t like The Clone Wars, if you don’t like Ahsoka, if you just prefer live action, then yeah, you’re not going to like this. But if you DO like The Clone Wars and you DO like Ahsoka, and you love animated Star Wars, then I don’t see how this experience doesn’t affect you in some way. It’s this show, and this franchise, at its best.
This friends, is peak Star Wars.
“The Phantom Apprentice” leaves us on the cusp of one of the biggest events in Star Wars history, maybe the biggest depending on your point of view. 19 BBY will go down as perhaps the most important year on the canon timeline besides 0 BBY, and a big reason for that is Order 66, which is coming. It’s the final blow in a series of blows that Sidious would land on his way to ruling the Galaxy, a despotism, which we now know, would essentially last on and off for 54 years.
An interesting observation for me so far (there’s still episodes left), is the show has somewhat steered away from E.K. Johnston’s novel “Ahsoka” where Maul and Ahsoka meet in the prologue. But while the dialogue is different, and the way she ensnares Maul is different, the bones of it are there. They meet in a duel on Mandalore, during the Siege of Mandalore, the details I suppose don’t matter that much? It doesn’t contradict as much as it alters, which in either case, is a rarity in these canon days. One day we’ll get the story but for now, it is what it is.
Backtracking, the episode itself does something very clever, using Maul to not only admonish the Jedi Council for being arrogant and blind to all around them, but also being entirely self-deprecating, realizing he played the fool in his former Master’s game. Even comparing his own self to and equating his experience with Count Dooku’s, calling into question whether anything in his life was genuine or not.
So, in a sense, Maul is us, he’s our window into this entire ordeal, and while it may not be a through the looking glass scenario or furtive in any way, it’s awfully gripping and compelling all the same. In many ways, damaged or not, Maul is a sympathetic character in my view, and perhaps in another scenario, could have gone the way of an Asajj Ventress type?
And having him as our “Anakin Skywalker is going to turn against you!” town crier makes so much sense from a narrative and audience participation standpoint. As the viewer, we are privy to Anakin’s face-turn with every Tusken Raider he murders, but those around him are immune to Palpatine’s puppet mastering. So, to have Maul, their adversary and the person they are least likely to believe, scream it until his face turns not-red, is perfect.
After all, who would have more of a reason to want Sidious and his prized pony dead than the person who’s felt the most betrayed? Who is most likely to make up such an impossible scenario so as the Jedi would turn on their own kind, admitting their greatest failure to date? Maul.
Anyways, top marks all the way around the table on this one, including the score by Kevin Kiner and his team which is just bone chilling at times. And speaking of bone chilling, Sam Witwer puts in an all-time performance here and makes a strong case that voice-actors should just be considered simply “actors”, dropping the “voice” part.
Likewise, for Ashley Eckstein, who often gets overlooked for her role as Ahsoka, part of which I assume is the fact that she’s just done it for so long. But she plays the part very well here and understands that a single strand of DNA separates these two warriors, and again, if things had been different, perhaps Ahsoka would be standing in Maul’s place?
So, where do we go from here?
Because they wanted to end the series on “Star Wars Day” (May 4) they are releasing the last two episodes, “Shattered” and “Victory and Death” in close proximity to each other, Friday, May 1st and Monday, May 4th.
But up first is “Shattered” …
After capturing Maul on Mandalore, Ahsoka’s journey to the Jedi Council is disrupted when Order 66 is declared, turning her world upside down.
So, we’ll see how Maul gets away and returns to his Crimson Dawn friends most likely and we’ll get to the beginning stages of Order 66. How much will they show from that event? Revenge of the Sith depicted it well enough, so perhaps Ahsoka (and Rex) having to fight off some Clones will be the extent of it?
For Ahsoka, I’m envisioning a moment similar to Star Wars when Obi-Wan Kenobi collapsed after the destruction of Alderaan…
“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
She’s tapped into the Force pretty well at this point and I’m sure she’ll sense the disturbance this event will create. Will she also sense, on a more personal level, Anakin’s final fall towards the Dark Side of the Force?
In Star Wars Rebels she doesn’t know Darth Vader is Anakin until she does, we know she thinks he died during the purge, and so we’ll see how she reacts once things get going.
This is also where we should see how and/or when Rex removed his inhibitor chip, enabling him to keep his own mind once the order is given. It’s one of those unanswered questions I’ve been hoping to see since the season was announced and it looks like we’re getting it. A situation where Rex MUST shoot, or at least stun, fellow Clones will be one of the hardest things ever to watch.
As for Mandalore, Bo-Katan’s sense that the Republic is there to stay becomes a reality, and it’s even worse than she would have expected, as the new Empire is in charge. This would be the case for many years after the Clone Wars, at least until we meet up with her again in Star Wars Rebels.
And I suppose this is when we’ll see the “Night of a Thousand Tears” which Moff Gideon referenced in the Season One finale of “The Mandalorian”
Anyways, two episodes left, and I’ve been told from someone in the know that it only gets crazier from here. I don’t see how that’s possible and I must assume that means pain is on the way.
Till next time…MTFBWY.
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3/9 - Oscar Isaac
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3/16 - Alan Tudyk