Last Wednesday was the season finale of the animated series, The Bad Batch. I recently spent a bit of time catching up on the latter: I'd enjoyed the first season, and while I caught this season's opener when it debuted in January, it was one of those things that sort of fell by the wayside. But in the process of catching up, I've rediscovered that the show's held on to one of the best themes to come out of its predecessor, The Clone Wars: its focus on the plight of the Republic's clone troopers.
[some mild spoilers for the two seasons ahead]
The Bad Batch, if you haven't seen it, serves as a bit of a direct sequel to The Clone Wars animated series, which kicked off in 2008 and ran for five seasons through 2013, before it was abruptly canceled. It stuttered back to life a couple of times: Netflix and German TV aired a sixth season (dubbed "The Lost Missions") and then for one finale season on Disney+ in 2020. The series was set in the aftermath of Attack of the Clones, and mainly followed the adventures of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin's young apprentice Ahsoka Tano, and a number of other characters as they fought against the Separatists.
The show started off pretty goofy: The first couple of episodes were repackaged into a theatrical film (which...bombed – it's the lowest-grossing Star Wars film of all time), but as the seasons continued, it grew into itself, ultimately serving as a story that rehabilitated the beleaguered Prequel Trilogy by using the time to expand and grow its characters in the way that the films hadn't really accomplished. And, it garnered a loyal fan base of younger viewers for which it was their first introduction to the franchise.
But where it really shined was the way that it brought a new level of humanity to the clone troopers, the anonymous, white-armored forerunners to the iconic Imperial Stormtrooper.
In Attack of the Clones, the clones are just that: identical soldiers sent into the meat grinder of the galactic war. In the days of the Expanded Universe, a handful of authors, like John Ostrander / Jan Duursema, and Karen Traviss spun out some excellent stories about those anonymous soldiers, while the first animated Clone Wars series from Genndy Tartakovsky did the same. Over the course of the series, this new (canon) Clone Wars series devoted a considerable amount of time to the plight of those soldiers through the eyes of Clone Captain Rex and Commander Cody, who saw the war not as this noble fight against evil and galactic chaos, but as their sole reason for existing, even if the cost was their lives.
As the series came to a close in 2020, its creators continued that trend, focusing on the costs of war as the battered clones worked not only to come to terms with the body count, but their loyalties as they were ordered to massacre the Jedi knights and masters they'd served with at the end of the war.
Out of that final season came The Bad Batch: they were introduced as a sort of back-door pilot in a handful of episodes: a group of genetic misfits who, while cloned, weren't identical and whose differences helped them in battle. From that first appearance, Lucasfilm spring boarded those characters into their own show, which debuted back in May 2021.
The Bad Batch followed much of the same mold as its predecessor: it has a similar art style, and the same sort of planet/mission/adventure-of-the-week format that allowed its writers to play around with the titular group as they went on the run from the newly-formed Empire for disobeying orders. At the end of the first season, the group witnessed the destruction of their home, Kamino, as the Empire sought to get rid of the planet's cloning capabilities.
This season, the team has still been on the run, picking up missions and getting into trouble. Over the course of this season, it's honed in on a particular theme: how did the Empire go from a military made up of cloned soldiers to one made up of conscripts, and more importantly, what was the cost?
The clones have been pushed aside as tools to discard from a new corps of arrogant, clonephobic officers who are eager to take over the galaxy. One of the episodes from later in the season was "The Outpost", in which the titular team isn't actually involved, but one of their members who opted to continue serving the military, Crosshair. Originally the squad's sniper, he's been dispatched to a remote planet where the clone contingent has been holding out waiting for reinforcements, only to see their numbers dwindle as they come under continual assault from raiders. Crosshair's indifferent to the clones on the ground: his mantra has been "good soldiers follow orders", even if those orders don't make sense or lead to their deaths.
But after they're shot up and barely escape with their lives, Crosshair and his companion, a commander named Mayday, limb back to base, only for their Imperial overseer to dress them down for losing the cargo they'd set out to retrieve. When Mayday dies of his wounds and exposure, Crosshair guns down the Imp, and is taken into custody.
This episode feels like it's emblematic of a handful of themes that The Clone Wars tackled over the course of its run: what does it mean to serve, if that was the only reason for your existence in the first place? When they were first introduced in Attack of the Clones, Kaminoan cloner Lama Su tells Obi-Wan that "they are totally obedient, taking any order without question. We modified their genetic structure to make them less independent than the original host," and it's clear from the onset that nobody in the room sees them as people, just as biological equipment.
But as The Clone Wars plays out, it's clear that that isn't entirely the case. While the clones are eventually compelled to slaughter their Jedi officers, it's clear that a number of them aren't happy about it, and once the Empire is established, they're beginning to realize that this new order neither cares about their longevity and wellbeing, nor trusts them, opting to swap them out for new bodies along with new armor.
The Bad Batch has done an excellent job playing out that tragedy: it's holding up the cost that it's extracting by showing us the clones that are getting crushed under the might of the Empire, all the while showcasing yet another way side of the Empire's cruelty: it's inability to see the clones for the reason they were grown in the first place, that they're people.
Given how this season of The Bad Batch ended up, I'd imagine we'll get an announcement for what comes next for the characters (Star Wars Celebration is in just under two weeks, with a panel slated for Monday, April 10), and I'll be interested to see where Lucasfilm takes the story from here.