TCW 7.5: “Gone with a Trace”

At some point, my episode descriptions for this season of The Clone Wars can all boil down to some variant of, “I loved it!” Same is true for this episode, which picks up with Ahsoka after she left the Jedi Order. The Order doesn’t exactly have a severance package, and she’s down-on-her-luck with some small reserve of credits and a broken-down speeder bike the only things left to her name.

Ahsoka sees more than ever what the state of affairs looks like for those left behind by the Jedi when they went off to fight their war. And she also finds that there are kind, good people still trying to do the right thing even at the bottom of the heap.

My favorite moment in the episode was another single line, when Ahsoka admits that she learned how to fight from her “big brother.” It’s a nice enough cover, if a bit flimsy, but her delivery sells me that that’s exactly how she viewed Anakin. Heartbreaking, especially knowing not only what came before but what will ultimately become of their relationship.

Final thought: the sibling relationship of older, unreliable scoundrel Rafa and younger, goodhearted Trace reminds me rather strongly of Mission and her big brother Griff from Knights of the Old Republic. And I get the feeling that Rafa is bound to let Trace down in a big (or even bigger) way, too.

TCW 7.4: “Unfinished Business”

This was another episode in which I lost it over a single, character-defining line:

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Over the course of The Clone Wars, we saw Anakin come to embrace his role as war hero. Violence became the easy answer. An early example of that can be found in “Voyage of Temptation” (season 2, episode 13): Obi-Wan and Satine hesitate to stop a traitor, saboteur, and terrorist sympathizer as he taunts their noble ideals. The villain even mockingly asks, “Who will strike first and brand themselves a cold-blooded killer?” At that point, Anakin handily shows up to stab him in the back. Under the disapproving gaze of Obi-Wan, Anakin retorts, “What? He was going to blow up the ship.” Then, in the season three Citadel arc (episodes 18-20), Anakin is introduced to Tarkin, who challenges him with the idea that the “Jedi Code prevents them from going far enough to achieve victory, to do whatever it takes to win,” which Anakin finds he agrees with based on his own wartime experiences (season 3, episode 19, “Counterattack”).

Following Ahsoka’s departure from the Jedi Order, Anakin is left reeling, doubting more than ever his relationship with the Order and the inherent rightness of its ways. In “Unfinished Business,” Anakin is close to unhinged, willing to do anything at all to achieve victory. Even though his actions are intended to save lives, it’s clear enough that the Dark Side already has a strong hold on him. And yet he gets results, and he remains a hero to the Jedi and the Republic, rewarded for the lengths he’ll go to. At this point, Anakin sees the virtues of the Jedi as weaknesses, hindrances. It’s not a far moral step from what he does to Trench to his disarming and beheading of Dooku. Another reminder that The Clone Wars did (and still does) an excellent job of deepening the characters and better illustrating their moral journeys from Attack of the Clones to Revenge of the Sith!

 

TCW 7.3: “On the Wings of Keeradaks”

Okay, this is a super-short post. The episode was entertaining to watch, I’m glad to have Echo back, and I like the Bad Batch, but we’ve sort of seen this plot many times before on this show. Daring mission goes sideways, and the Jedi/clones have to convince neutral locals to fight back–conveniently just in time for the Separatists to track them down and rain fire on everyone. Don’t get me wrong: this was another enjoyable episode. I just don’t find that I have anything to say about it. Rex and especially Echo have been through a lot. I don’t know how much time the show will have to address Echo’s trauma and apparent difficulty with readjusting, but I’m confident we’ll get to see something approaching a conclusion to Rex’s arc from inexhaustible loyalist to rule-bending, free-thinking, war-weary veteran.

TCW 7.2: “A Distant Echo”

I have a very narrow reaction to this latest episode. There is plenty to say if I wanted: it’s a beautiful, emotionally powerful episode with a fun adventure/thriller plot that ends in a heartbreaking revelation. It’s good Star Wars and good storytelling. And it looks and sounds great throughout. But the only thing I really want to say is, bless The Clone Wars for coming back, if only for this moment:

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It was always easy enough to read in Attack of the Clones that Obi-Wan knew about how Anakin felt for Padmé. And of course Obi-Wan deduces that Anakin is the father of the unborn child(ren) Padmé is carrying in Revenge of the Sith. But I love how The Clone Wars has teased out how much Obi-Wan knew, how much he understands Anakin’s affection for Padmé and how that could pull on his loyalty to the Jedi Code. Obi-Wan had experienced that competition himself with Satine Kryze. Obi-Wan and Anakin often have veiled conversations about Anakin’s feelings, even though Anakin insists on hiding the truth, even though Obi-Wan refuses to admit how much he knows, or suspects. This little moment in “A Distant Echo,” so close to the events of Revenge of the Sith, is such a delightful exchange. Obi-Wan comes as close as he probably ever was able to in laying out all he knew. And even in this moment, he doesn’t condemn Anakin or force the conversation. And Anakin’s look back to Obi-Wan…

Look, a lot of people don’t like Revenge of the Sith. And like all Star Wars, it’s not perfect. But the fraying of relationships between Anakin on one side and Obi-Wan and Padmé on the other has always twisted at my heartstrings. And moments like this just add further emotional nuance and dramatic irony. The Clone Wars gave so much depth to the prequel trilogy and to the Star Wars galaxy as a whole. I’m glad to see that it came back firing on all cylinders, ready to continue revising and refreshing our understanding of that galaxy and the characters who populate it.

Some Sunday Star Wars thoughts

I’m obviously very delighted by the return of The Clone Wars. It’s wild to reflect on how my relationship with the show has evolved–and how I’ve evolved as a person. I think I’ve already beat that drum on this site before, though. It’ll be interesting to see how much the show’s conclusion crosses over with Revenge of the Sith. And the whole season is a fascinating artifact, partially prepared while Lucas was still involved in the series. To what extent? How much does the final season reflect his vision for The Clone Wars, or for Star Wars overall? If we talk about Lucas’s vision for Star Wars, is that the saga films plus TCW, or all that minus the last season? (What about the Ewok movies, which he prepared stories for and in which he served as executive producer?)

And what of Dave Filoni? He’s often been presented as sort of the storytelling heir to George Lucas, but he’s of course coming to Star Wars with his own perspective and impulses. I find myself viewing Rebels as closer to what George Lucas would have done with Star Wars if he stuck around–but is that right? (I could see something like Underworld having gone the animation route eventually.) How does Lucas privately view the state of Star Wars today? Does he feel his vision is most fully realized through some particular media or through a specific story or through an individual storyteller? Or is he still mostly just bitter about the loss of creative control in the sale?

I think it’s safe to say that the films don’t track with how he would have wanted the story to go, for better or worse. I find myself increasingly viewing every non-Lucas-involved project as another Expanded Universe franchise deviation, a way to keep money flowing into the machine. At one point, that was guided by a flawed auteur with a unique vision, who still seemed to enjoy making his own Star Wars projects in his own sandbox. In Kathleen Kennedy, there is some sense of continuation, but I get the impression that she’s better at getting movies made than being a storyteller. And I think she’s done an overall good job of shepherding the franchise post-Lucas! But while Lucas did not write his movies all by himself, and while he didn’t even direct all of them, he still was the man behind the story throughout his films. The books and comics and games could do their own thing because they weren’t his story; there was room for others to dabble in his universe, but he still held the keys to the most visible presentations of that galaxy far, far away.

I think that there’s something lost in the removal of the single, personal vision. Still, creators like Dave Filoni and Rian Johnson (and the creative team behind The Mandalorian, including Filoni but also Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyima, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi, and of course showrunner Jon Favreau) certainly show the benefit of other perspectives bringing their own personal ethos to the franchise. No version of Star Wars is perfect. Every creator brings their own flaws, and the fundamental nature of the franchise is to filter through so much pop culture history that it’s hard to keep problematic elements entirely out of the distillation process. But these creators feel like they’re bringing something new and fresh to the franchise. For that matter, I think there’s a lot of good content in Star Wars literature, and there are probably more consistent successes by a more diverse range of artists now than in the old Expanded Universe–especially when keeping in mind that this is only about eight years from the reboot and corporate transition (wow, it’s almost been a decade already?). In contrast, J.J. Abrams’s films, though fun to watch, bring nothing of substance–they feel more like the production-by-committee, formulaic Marvel movies that have grown so stale for me.

What’s my point? I don’t know for sure (and writing without a point is probably always bad writing). This is something I return to every now and then, and I think that I’m just barely scratching at much deeper conversations about the nature of art, including pop art, and consumerism and popular culture and late-stage capitalism and nostalgia that have been explored in much greater length by many other writers over time. I guess I find myself returning to my hesitancy about the great beast of manufactured pop content that Star Wars represents. It’s funny that my concerns dissipated somewhat after the purchase by Disney. I guess I was just hopeful for the reset. Here we are, though. I’m not bitter. And I’m certainly not over Star Wars, Disney or otherwise. This isn’t a manifesto. Just half-formed reflection born out of equal parts eagerness and uneasiness.

Thankfully, the release of expectation, the recognition that this Disney era of Star Wars isn’t exactly “official,” no matter who “owns” Star Wars, allows me to enjoy the stories I want and to disregard the rest. It’s been a few years in the making, but I’ve cooled in my urge to simply consume every new “canon” Star Wars story coming out. (A seemingly impossible goal at this point, given how many stories have piled up and in light of my persistent refusal to read solely new Star Wars content.) I doubt that this will be the last time that I touch on the subject, but I don’t know if I’ll ever find a satisfactory conclusion to it.

TCW 7.1: “Bad Batch”

Maybe it’s that I just finished my rewatch of the first six seasons of The Clone Wars earlier this week, but watching “Bad Batch,” it felt like the show never left. For newcomers, this is a perfectly serviceable action episode in a beautiful sci-fi setting, leavened by many comedic moments. For fans of the show, it’s a great time to reunite with Commander Cody, Captain Rex, Jesse, and Kix toward the end of the Clone Wars, as they attempt to salvage a losing front of the war, even while Rex begins to suspect that Echo, who appeared to die in a blast during the breakout of Even Piell from the Citadel back in the third season, is still alive. And while the Bad Batch, clone super-commandos with mutations that give them unique gifts in combat, is new, their designation as Clone Force 99 is a nice throwback to the deformed clone trooper 99, who sacrificed his life supporting the active troops in the defense of Kamino. The clones we know acknowledge the appropriateness of the name, but for any new viewers, there’s nothing to make this seem like a lot of additional explanation is required.

I never watched the animatics, other than a brief clip or two here and there, for the “Bad Batch” arc, but I had read enough about them to understand Echo’s role in it. This didn’t ruin the excitement and hope cultivated by this episode. And without having actually seen an early, incomplete version of the episode, it all felt new to me. I don’t know how closely the finished version adhered to the earlier version, and it doesn’t really matter to me. All I can say is, damn, this episode looked good. It’s incredible how far this show has come–and I guess six years of time since the last season gives plenty of opportunity to bring the computer animation technology even further forward. The emotional range and nuance depicted in the clones, the variability of character models and appearances and animations, and the breathtaking environmental and lighting effects (resulting in some stunning battle sequences) make the rest of this season very promising. And it’s not just art and animation. The sound design is incredible–I specifically remarked on this to my wife as we watched. The sound of the blaster shots and their impact into droids was so sharp and clear.

I really had no problems with the episode. The Clone Wars is back, and it’s picking right up from its late-series peak!

My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!