If all of Star Wars is like a big family gathering, then the prequels are exactly like Darth Vader: a black sheep no one wants to talk about because of that one time he showed up drunk and almost ruined Christmas. And just like Darth Vader, the prequels were eventually redeemed. But this didn’t happen thanks to Luke Skywalker vis-a-vis the classic films, but instead, the souls of the prequels were saved by that cartoon Jedi apprentice, Ahsoka Tano. In fact, Star Wars Rebels and The Clone Wars saved the prequels from the dark side.
If you’re unaware of what The Clone Wars and Rebels are at all, there are tons of entries on Wikipedia and Wookiepedia and right here on Den of Geek to help you out. Briefly, I’ll just say this: The Clone Wars was a show about what happens in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. You might say to yourself: it’s probably just a bunch of battles with clones and Jedi, and you would be right—partially. But you’ve also got Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice who does not die, and does not turn to Dark Side, but instead quits the Jedi Order in season five mostly because the pay is lousy and the people she works with suck. (Actually, she’s framed for an act of terrorism she didn’t commit, but same difference.)
Perhaps one day I’ll write an entire essay about how great Ahsoka is, not just in the reality of The Clone Wars and Rebels, but as a pop culture figure in general. If you watched The Force Awakens with a smile on your face because Rey was such a great, refreshing female hero, then you’re gonna love Ahsoka. And the best part of all, she’s probably the only Star Wars character (other than arguably Anakin) we get to see grow-up almost completely. We saw her as a very young teenager in The Clone Wars, and now she’s a full-on adult in Rebels.
You probably already know this, but there are like 500% more hours of The Clone Wars and Rebels than the entirety of the seven existing Star Wars movies. This doesn’t mean the characters in The Clone Wars and Rebels are better than the characters in the Star Wars films per se, but simply that there was more time taken to figure these folks out. Which includes Ahsoka, but notably, Anakin Skywalker, too.
Last week, the second half of season two of Rebels debuted, and the trailer for the bottom episodes shows off quite a bit of cool Star Wars-y stuff, including A-Wing fighters, Princess Leia, Yoda, and lots of chatter about the Dark Side. The big news on most blogs was the image of young Ezra Bridger fooling around with a Kylo Ren-style crossguard saber. To that, I say, whoopdey-do. Because the more interesting elements in the trailer have to do with the connections between Rebels and The Clone Wars, specifically Anakin and Ahsoka. In one quick scene from the trailer, we see Darth Vader speaking in Anakin’s voice to his former apprentice. In the Rebels TV movie—”The Siege of Lothal”—Vader senses her presence and says menacingly, “the apprentice lives!” Their impending duel has been a major subject of discussion for fans of the show ever since.
It’s important to note here that while The Clone Wars was airing (2008-2013), fans were constantly worrying about looming continuity errors the show was potentially causing in regards to Revenge of the Sith. (A look at this thread on IGN back in 2011 will give you an idea of what I mean.) Now, nitpicking of how many times Anakin dueled with Count Dooku aside, what is undeniably true is that Matt Lanter’s portrayal of Anakin in The Clone Wars is pretty different from the way Hayden Christensen plays him in Revenge of the Sith. Hayden didn’t do anything wrong, but Matt’s version is more of the heroic, warm person we wanted to believe Anakin was when we first heard Obi-Wan talk about him in A New Hope. Add to that the fact that this Anakin gets an apprentice—Ahsoka—with whom he has an affectionate, real friendship. All of this really rounds out his character in ways the prequels never even come close to demonstrating. In short: Anakin in The Clone Wars is made more likable and more real by Matt Lanter’s performance and the existence of his buddy Ahsoka.
With Vader creeping up around the edges of the events in Rebels and Ahsoka asserting herself as a mentor-character for the main characters, the notion of a confrontation between the two is dramatically fascinating, because, well, it feels more dramatic than the duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. If you’ve watched The Clone Wars and allowed yourself to be pulled in by Ashley Eckstein and Matt Lanter’s chemistry, then you know how crazy dark it is to have Vader fight Ahsoka. Rebels producer Dave Filoni has mentioned that Vader “doesn’t want to be reminded” of Ahsoka, making the psychological weirdness of Anakin/Vader 10-times scarier than we thought it was in the regular movies. To put it another way: The Clone Wars and Rebels turned Anakin Skywalker into a real person, then gave him another real person to both care about and, later, disappoint. Obi-Wan may have yelled that he loved Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, but we never really bought it, because we didn’t get to see it. With Ahsoka, we felt that love.
So, how does all of this redeem the prequels? Maybe The Clone Wars and Rebels are just independently awesome, and the prequels are still crap? Well, no. The Clone Wars and Rebels are super-reliant upon the structure and context created by the prequels. The Force Awakens makes few direct mentions to prequels, mostly because it doesn’t need to from a storytelling point of view; it’s a sequel to Return of the Jedi, after all. But, The Clone Wars was both a sequel to Attack of the Clones and a prequel to Revenge of the Sith, meaning the influence of both those films and The Phantom Menace is keenly felt. Rebels, meanwhile, is both a sequel to Revenge of the Sith, and more obviously, The Clone Wars. And this isn’t just about emotional character development/plot context stuff either.
The actual visual aesthetics of the prequels (like the cityscape of Coruscant) are utilized throughout The Clone Wars, much of which echoes into Rebels. This is because the art direction and production design on the prequels are totally amazing. Last year, at New York Comic Con, while chatting with my friend Lauren Panepinto—the creative director at Orbit Books—she reminded me of how many great artists worked on the Star Wars prequels. If you don’t believe the prequels are beautiful to look at, the appropriation of that imagery in The Clone Wars and Rebels will make you feel differently.
Still, what The Clone Wars ended up doing so well, is what Rebels does well too: make you believe in the reality of characters who could very easily have been boring one-dimensional stereotypes if left in their prequel-movie guises. In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine seemingly flips a switch and all the nice clones suddenly want to kill their Jedi friends. This zombie-mode is unrealistic and almost idiotic in the film. And yet, The Clone Wars took it seriously, and now, in season two of Rebels, we’ve caught up with aging clones who removed their brain-control chips out of a refusal to betray their Jedi commanders. What was written in the prequels as a lame mind-control plot device, is turned into several episodes (in both shows) about characters trying to find their place in the world and what it means to actually be an “individual,” which is really tricky when you’re already a clone. The clones may have attacked in Episode II, but we actually got to know them in these two cartoon shows.
The good clones still love Ahsoka, too. And from the looks of the latest trailer, it seems like her showdown with Vader is going to be a big deal. The Anakin of the films was committing crimes against the audience just by complaining too much. But, the Anakin of The Clone Wars was a bighearted hero who loved his friend and student. Seeing these two fight while Anakin is in full-on Vader-murder mode is beyond tragic. It’s straight-up sad!
We’ve had a lot of big deaths in Star Wars lately, but if Ahsoka gets taken down by Vader on this season of Rebels, it will be perhaps the most complex and horrifying thing we’ve seen Vader do since that one time when he was still a little kid and yelled “yippee!”
Star Wars Rebels airs on Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Disney XD.
Ryan Britt is the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths ( Plume/Penguin Random House). His work has appeared in The New York Times, VICE, The Morning News, Electric Literature, Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and extensively, for Tor.com. He lives in New York City.