Star Wars: The Clone Wars entered its endgame with an episode that felt like a celebration of everything it had learned since its awkward theatrical debut all those years ago. This week, it finds itself fascinated with cinema once more, and how our knowledge of what’s to come in its immediate future haunts heroes and villains alike.
Picking up right where “Old Friends, Not Forgotten” left off—a clearer indicator even among all the other clear indicators here that this arc was intended to, and perhaps one day might be, best experienced as one extended feature—“The Phantom Apprentice” immediately gets to the thing we have been dying to see ever since the earliest glimpses of this final season were revealed: Ahsoka Tano locking lightsabers with Darth Maul, the fate of Mandalore itself at stake.
And while that fight—well, actually, several fights, including sequences that are not just the best lightsaber action in Clone Wars, but perhaps already fit to enter the hall of fame as the best lightsaber action in Star Wars, full stop—is a dazzling highlight of the episode, it is the emotional context that drives their repeated dueling. As Ahsoka goads and goads her opponent to try and figure out just what he wanted a whole planet for in the first place, the former apprentice to Darth Sidious makes it all very clear.
Everything Darth Maul has planned to this point has been driven by fear. His return, his bloody path carved with Savage Opress, his crime syndicate now ready to flee into the shadows as circumstances on Mandalore develop (including a neat silent cameo from Solo’s Dryden Vos), his attempt to lure his mortal frenemy Obi-Wan Kenobi to the besieged home of his fallen former love. Darth Maul is afraid. He wants Ahsoka to be afraid, too. But fear isn’t really surprising—after all, it leads to anger, to hate, to suffering, the primal step on the path to the Dark Side Maul is still deeply enmeshed within. It’s what, exactly, Maul is afraid of.
Moreover, he’s scared of Revenge of the Sith. Maul has seen through the force that his former master has dangerous designs on the chosen one that are about to slot perfectly into place, plans that will bring about the eradication of everything as he and Ahsoka know it. In ways that are good for him, yes—the destruction of the Jedi, the fall of the Republic, they’re just side effects to Maul. But he also knows Sidious’ victory means that his chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the master who abandoned him to die on Naboo all those years ago will be lost forever—because he, like the now-dead Dooku, will have been replaced forever by a much more powerful apprentice. His fear is driven out of the dark times that are to come, but they’re also driven by a fear of losing the one place there was any sort of acceptance for him as anything but an outcast.
Turning Maul into this sort of quasi-audience surrogate—not knowledgeable through access to the text, but vaguely aware through the fog of foresight—makes for an incredibly compelling turn for the character. He, like us, gets to act out this sense of worry we have for Ahsoka (an almost twisted one, in his case) as the episode progresses and makes clear just where we are, not only in the battle for Mandalore but the current moment in time in the Star Wars saga. As Bo-Katan and Ahsoka get the lay of the land, a timely holocall from Obi-Wan hits Ahsoka like a gut-punch after Maul’s initial reveal that he has seen dire portents for Anakin: Her former master is now on a secret mission to spy on the chancellor, has just killed Count Dooku to end the Battle of Coruscant, and Obi-Wan is on his way to Utapau, having bid farewell to his apprentice one last time before Everything Goes Very Wrong.
So Maul’s continued appeals—his continued pleading—to Ahsoka to help him change Anakin’s destiny, as they lock weapons once again and the war around them turns in favor of the Republic, become almost like our own. Isn’t there some way Ahsoka and he could stop what we know, what Maul only sort of knows, is about to happen? Couldn’t she save Anakin from a terrible choice, if only she were there to understand what he’s going through, a point she makes clear to Obi-Wan when she learns of Anakin’s task to spy on Palpatine?
And yet, we have the foresight that even Maul lacks. We know that he escapes, despite his capture at the end of their electrifying second duel here. We know the events of Revenge of the Sith are bound in fate to happen, drawing relentlessly closer and closer. And we know Ahsoka will survive well beyond it, into Rebels, into the time of the original movies, and even beyond that. Despite everything, we fear for her anyway, not for whether or not she will survive, but for how the events to come are about to impact on her character emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.
“The Phantom Apprentice” is fascinated by its relationship with the Star Wars movies. Not just in how it weaves Ahsoka’s tale through the opening act of Revenge of the Sith, but what it means specifically for this character—who has been part of this universe and our hearts for over a decade at this point—to not be keenly aware of the tragedy that is about to unfold around her as both we and Maul are.
And it is a tragedy, even if Ahsoka’s relationship with the Jedi Order is practically in tatters at this point, only caring about her direct relationships to Anakin and Obi-Wan. It will beset her even as she distances herself from that relationship, not just because of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s involvement, but because the ticking timebomb of Order 66 is represented by every Clone Trooper fighting alongside her, the troopers who care so dearly for her as she does in turn. If “The Phantom Apprentice” is driven by that phantom menace, it’s not just the fear of what is known to come, but a fear in ourselves for what Ahsoka is about to go through.
But for now, the clock continues to tick. Maul’s chance at averting Palpatine’s design has faded away before his eyes, but his fear of what is to come has now enthralled Ahsoka too. For now, her battle on Mandalore is seemingly over with Maul’s capture. But as we already know, that’s far from true—it’s only just about to begin.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.