Tomorrow, Lucasfilm will release final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Netflix, but the season won't include an arc centered on one of the show's main characters, Anakin Skywalker's Padawan Ahsoka Tano. That's a shame, not just because Ahsoka's growth has been one of the most compelling aspects of the series, but also because her character development has wildly improved the onscreen arm of the Star Wars franchise.
This post contains spoilers through the fifth season of Clone Wars.
When watching Clone Wars over these last several years, I frequently felt that the show was working to undo the damage done by the prequel films. Anakin goes from a whiny wunderkind to a capable military leader who frequently needs to sidestep the strictures of the Jedi Order to accomplish his worthy goals. A sense of mysticism is returned to the Force (although granted, that whole Force planet of Mortis arc was pretty bonkers). Depth is added to the character of the young Obi Wan Kenobi, and he is cast not just as a noble brother figure but also a knight in the classic mold—complete with a courtly romance. Count Dooku becomes a more tragic figure, an aspiring reformer who thought he could control the terms of his Faustian bargain. The decision to resurrect Darth Maul was a risky move, but it gave the series a chance to explore a powerful villain who was tossed away in the first episode of the prequels. It gave individuality to the clones, and showed that for all their conditioning, they could desire something other than war.
Most importantly, though, Clone Wars takes the morality of Star Wars beyond Light and Dark, examining the complexities of war and the ways that even noble institutions can fail. And Ahsoka's arc has been a key part of that, one that adds weight to the fall of the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith and suggests that their fall was not inevitable.
Ahsoka is the Ultimate Star Wars Fan
When Ahsoka was first introduced, a lot of critics had two things to say about her: first, that she was obnoxious, and second, that she was going to die. Ahsoka doesn't appear in Revenge of Sith; she's not one of the Jedi we see executed under Order 66. If she's so important to Anakin, then where is she? The general suspicion was that she would die before the events of Episode III.
And Ahsoka's death would make a kind of narrative sense. Here we have this character who is like a younger sister to Anakin, whose welfare he's been entrusted with. If she died because he failed her, because he somehow wasn't powerful enough, then his insane fear that Padmé will die in Revenge of the Sith becomes more understandable.
Ahsoka seemed a character doomed for the refrigerator, one who existed to create an emotional attachment and whose death would explain the actions of another, ostensibly more important, character. Ahsoka might very well die before Revenge of the Sith, although her decision to leave the Jedi Order at the end of Season Five might offer her a reprieve. She might survive only to be killed later by Darth Vader. She might live a long life, using her Jedi training to help people outside of the rules and regulations of the Order. But however she dies, she will die not just as a vehicle for Anakin's character development, but as a fully realized character who helped highlight the Jedi's flaws.
Some older fans raised on the original Star Wars trilogy were suspicious of Ahsoka's introduction. We grew up being told that Anakin Skywalker was one of the great Jedi, the man who would become the fearsome Darth Vader. Who was this pipsqueak of Padawan to buddy up to the future Sith Lord, to tease him and question him and inform his personality? There were criticisms of her annoying little sister qualities, of a brashness that matched Anakin's own but lacked his pathos. But it's important to remember that Ahsoka was not created for adults; she was created for children, serving as a much-needed point-of-view character. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, the young person plucked from obscurity to become a powerful Jedi. The prequel trilogy was missing that, missing a character who could serve as our emotional through-line. (That person probably should have been Obi Wan, but that's a different discussion.) Through Ahsoka, children could imagine that they were having adventures with Anakin Skywalker, buddying up to him, and that they were learning how to become not just a Jedi, but also a better person.
That's something that the producers of Clone Wars have always been conscious of. The show has been a huge hit; I know that when the Halloween store arrives in my city each year, the Clone Wars costumes are some of the first to go, snapped up by children who want to pretend that they're Ahsoka or Captain Rex. But Clone Wars isn't just an adventure story. It's a war story, and war is a complicated thing. It's not enough to be fighting with the people on the Light Side of the Force, especially when we viewers know that the entire thing is being orchestrated by Chancellor Palpatine. Each episode opens with a line of text, something I like to call the "Fortune Cookie," that asserts some moral or emotional "truth" about the world. Ahsoka, more than Anakin, is our moral tour guide through the Clone Wars, and she learns things about war from Anakin, from the clones, from various Jedi with varied views on the world, from the people she encounters on different worlds. As she endures sometimes painful lessons on responsibility, patience, when to fight and when to lay down arms, she becomes gradually fuller, smarter, and more confident.
The audience is learning right along with her. The Clone Wars feature film was released in 2008, and many of the shows viewers have been growing up right alongside Ahsoka. At some point, it has to become clear that for all their talk of being peacekeepers and fighting the Dark Side, the Jedi are really terrible at being the good guys. They use slaves as their infantry. They're so caught up in their role as knights of the Republic that they can't see that they're fighting a bogus war. And they put far too much trust in the will of the Force and too little in reason and the value of their young people. You can't spend all of those years telling kids that war is complicated without exposing the Jedi's flaws as well.
In the first season of Clone Wars, Ahsoka is relatively child-like. She's strong and opinionated, but she sometimes shrinks from Anakin's shouting and she relies on his wisdom in war. By Season Five, she's far more independent, training a team of freedom fighters, struggling with her own romantic attractions, and defending a group of younglings in the face of crisis. She is far more often the teacher than the student in these later episodes, and although she looks to Obi Wan and Anakin for guidance, she is far closer to being on equal footing with the Masters. By the time Ahsoka is accused of murder, she is skilled enough and self-aware enough to defy the Jedi Council, to recognize that their failure to trust her is a betrayal. If they can't trust her, she realizes, how can she trust them to uncover the truth? And she's right; the Council decides to expel her from the Order so that she can be tried by a military tribunal. When she hears Barriss Offee's defiant condemnation of the Jedi, Ahsoka is shocked, but she also understands Barriss' frustration. If she wants to be the hero she wants to be, she may have to do it outside the Jedi Order.
Ahsoka starts out very much as the young Star Wars fan, eager for adventure, believing that heroism means fighting for the Republic. By the end of Season Five, however, she is the older fan, the one who recognizes there is more to the world than "Jedi good, Sith bad." This represents a more mature vision of the Star Wars universe onscreen, one that respects its fans and doesn't ask us to take the nobility of the Jedi for granted. The show reinforces the Light Side and the Dark Side when it comes to the Force, but the rest of the world lives in varied shades of gray.
An interesting barometer for Ahsoka's development is Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku's one-time apprentice. In the early episodes of Clone Wars, Ahsoka wouldn't dream of facing Asajj alone and, in fact, believes that no single Jedi could overpower the young Sith. It's also impossible to imagine that Ahsoka exchanging a friendly word with Asajj. When they encounter one another at the end of Season Five, Ahsoka is Asajj's martial equal and they discover, to their mutual surprise, that they have quite a bit in common. They have both been thrown out into the cold by their respective orders, and they will have to figure out their place in the world as Force-sensitive rogues. And after they work together, Ahsoka recognizes that Asajj may actually be a valuable ally. A universe where Ahsoka and Asajj could plausibly team up is far more interesting than one in which they must be lifelong enemies.
The Real Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker
Clone Wars does use Ahsoka to explore the darkness lurking inside of Anakin Skywalker. For example, when the medical freighter Ahsoka is aboard goes missing, Anakin tortures the Separatist Poggle the Lesser in attempt to learn what happened to her. But the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker isn't just that he fell to the Dark Side; it's that he had no chance of reforming the Jedi Order.
As I mentioned earlier, Clone Wars does some serious rehab on Anakin's character, making his ultimate fall a great deal sadder. It isn't that the Jedi Council failed to rein in a powerful Force user—they failed a man who loved his wife and also served the Republic with honor and heart. Anakin and Ahsoka aren't the only Jedi to show a bit of spunk; Aayla Secura revels in a similar appearance of recklessness and even Obi Wan has been known to bend a rule or two. But Ahsoka represents a powerful legacy for Anakin. Under his tutelage, she learns how to be a leader, when to break regulations, to respect but not blindly follow those with more experience. She grows up into a resilient and compassionate person, one who is never broken even when the Jedi forsake her. She was already starting to pass on those same values to the Jedi younglings.
Compare Ahsoka's path to that of Barriss Offee. Barriss trains under Luminara Unduli, who is a good person but who also rigidly follows the code of the Jedi. We don't know what caused Barriss' disillusionment with the Jedi, but given Ahsoka and Anakin's experiences, it's not difficult to imagine that Barriss also felt betrayed by the noble promise of the Jedi. Whatever happened broke her spirit to the point that she felt bombing the Jedi temple was an appropriate response.
When the Jedi Council offers to allow Ahsoka back into the Jedi Order, there is no mea culpa, no recognition that the Jedi failed Barriss where Anakin succeeded with Ahsoka. She is not told that she is a valued and valuable member of the Order or that they need her to inspire the next generation of Jedi. They simply told her that her trial must have been orchestrated by the Force for her own interior growth. It's a powerful signal of the Order's stagnation and refusal to self-reflect. Anakin and Ahsoka are by no means perfect, but they could have infused the Jedi Order with a new spark of life and perhaps rewritten some of the rules that allowed the Order to be so blindsided by Palpatine. The Jedi needed more people like Ahsoka and Anakin, people who are thoughtful and aware and always trying to do the right thing. Instead they cast Ahsoka aside and treat Anakin as mere tool of war rather than as a complete person.
And perhaps with Ahsoka by his side, Anakin could have found the strength to reform the Jedi. When she tells him that she is going to leave the Jedi Order, she surprises him by telling him that she knows that he's thought about leaving the Order as well. Ahsoka gets him in a way that no other Jedi—not even Obi Wan—does, and she sees not just the good in him, but also his struggles. The Jedi didn't pay attention to Barriss' frustrations and largely ignore Anakin's divided heart until it is much, much too late.
Count Dooku and Anakin aren't Palpatine's only accomplices in the death of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. The Jedi Order is complicit as well, by valuing protocol and tradition over truth and justice, and by ignoring what the experiences of its individual members say about the institution as a whole. Through Ahsoka, Clone Wars acknowledges the failure of the Jedi Order in a way that the prequel movies fail to highlight. Hopefully, as Disney and Lucasfilm continue to explore the Star Wars universe onscreen, they'll take forward the narrative groundwork that Clone Wars has laid and continue to show us the moral complexities that exist between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force.