Ricky Church reviews the tenth episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, ‘The Phantom Apprentice’…
Any fear that the Siege of Mandalore would not live up to its potential should be put aside as ‘The Phantom Apprentice’ is arguably the finest half hour of Star Wars: The Clone Wars the series has put out. Everything involved in this – the emotion, the music, the action and most especially the animation – was firing on all cylinders to create a very compelling and tense story that opens up some new perspectives on Revenge of the Sith and the journeys of Ahsoka Tano and Darth Maul.
As if ‘Old Friends Not Forgotten‘ was not enough to let fans know this arc would be unlike any previous in the series, ‘The Phantom Apprentice’ picks up directly from the last episode’s conclusion. No normal fanfare or the newsreel style recap, it just went straight to Ahsoka meeting Maul for the first time. It serves to emphasize Dave Filoni’s desire in making these final episodes as cinematic as possible, a fact that only becomes more apparent as the big action sequences begin. Everything about the Siege of Mandalore screams ambition and for a story that has been teased in various formats for so many years, it is very satisfying to see Filoni and the Clone Wars team meet, and in some instances, exceed those ambitions.
Much has been made of the fact the Siege takes place during Revenge of the Sith, leading to a growing feeling of tension as the story progresses ever closer to some of the film’s most consequential events. Though we already know the outcome of the film, Filoni still creates a big sense of dread for the characters involved. Maul, for instance, tries an unorthodox method (for him at least) to twist events his way while Ahsoka grapples with some of the bigger implications to the end of the Clone Wars and what the Jedi Council is asking of Anakin. The character moments are where ‘The Phantom Apprentice’ is strongest as it examines not only where everyone currently stands, but where they’ve come from. Whether it’s looking back on Ahsoka’s expulsion from the Order, the creation of the clones or Maul’s realization of the part he had to play in Palpatine’s plans, the episode connects a lot of the Prequel’s mythology together into some new context. In fact, Maul gets some of his best characterization here as he strives to make a new and bold future for himself in the radical change to come.
Of course, though, a large chunk of this episode takes place around the battles that have been teased for a while now. It would have been easy for Filoni and the team to focus purely on the fighting, but they make the smarter choice by placing as much, if not more, emphasis on the emotions between the characters. Kudos to Filoni, who wrote this episode himself, on creating some interesting parallels between Ahsoka and Maul: two apprentices who were both, in one way or another, forced out of their roles and left to watch on the sidelines as destiny continued on without them. It adds quite a bit more emotion to Ahsoka and Maul’s duel than simply another Jedi vs. Sith fight, especially as Maul seemed oddly sincere to Ahsoka.
Now The Clone Wars has had some pretty great lightsaber fights in the past, but what puts Ahsoka vs. Maul at the very top of that list is the addition of Darth Maul’s original actor, Ray Park. While Sam Witwer voices Maul once again in these final episodes, Park, as revealed at last year’s Star Wars Celebration, returned to motion-capture Maul, providing all his movements for this battle. The difference in quality is stunning as Maul’s movements are so life-like and detailed. Not to say his previous fights in Clone Wars or Rebels weren’t well done either of course, but there is something so familiar to Park’s movements that just screams Darth Maul, adding to the tension for Ahsoka. Their battle was very cinematic in scope, filled with lots of exciting swordplay between them as Maul spun around or Ahsoka would lose a lightsaber here or there. Ahsoka herself was motioned captured by Lauren Mary Kim, a stuntwoman who also provided the stunts for The Mandalorian’s Armorer character. The quality in the animation of Park and Kim’s movements and choreography was nothing short of stellar, delivering some of the best lightsaber action in the entire Saga.
Though the highlight was Ahsoka vs. Maul, the fighting between the Mandalorians and Clone Troopers shouldn’t be forgotten either. We got some pretty good moments here, like Bo-Katan battling Gar Saxon in an elevator shaft complete with running elevators and the use of their jetpacks or Maul’s loyalists full-out assaulting Rex and his forces. Again, the battles between these two groups were much more cinematic than Clone Wars usually is and the intercutting between their fight and the lightsaber duel just added to the overall excitement of the Siege’s escalation. It would have been a little nice to see just a bit more Mandalorian and Clone action though, but it still delivered plenty of great combat.
Other elements that worked in ‘The Phantom Apprentice’s favour was Kevin Kiner’s terrific score. He again took the music up a notch throughout the whole episode, using cues from some of the franchise’s most recognizable songs to add to the tragic sense of foreboding. The hints of ‘Duel of the Fates’ at various parts of Ahsoka and Maul’s duel was great, but he still didn’t lean entirely on nostalgic tunes to carry the episode, creating some of his very own sounds to the music that still felt very much like Star Wars‘ style.
‘The Phantom Apprentice’ delivered one of the best Clone Wars episodes in the series. From the exploration of the characters, the themes and parallels of Ahsoka and Maul’s journeys to the stellar action and animation, Filoni and his team brought their A-game to this story. The duel is among the best in the franchise already in no small part to Ray Park’s motion-capped choreography and the blending of emotion and tension in the sequence. The final two episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars have a lot to live up to, but even if they don’t ‘The Phantom Apprentice’ was a more than satisfying episode to a highly anticipated moment.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk