Star Wars: The Clone Wars has been some of the best the medium of television has ever produced, and here are the numbers to prove it. At a time when shallowness and conformity are defining our culture, whether politics or entertainment, the sheer success and popularity of the final season of Clone Wars serves as inspiration in these dark times that beautifully executed characters and story, patiently and painstakingly crafted over time, can deliver satisfying and transcendent emotional payoffs in ways corporate committee-, forced agenda-driven messes that try to be all things to all people never can.
By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) July 18, 2020 (UPDATE: JULY 20)
Author’s note: A version of this article was published by Dork Side of the Force on July 9, but the editor made a number of substantive changes, altering or subduing my opinion, focus, and meaning significantly in ways that went beyond the scope of a typical editorial role, so I have decided to publish the full version here. I am grateful for being published by Dork Side of the Force but felt readers were safe in reading, and deserved to hear, my full views on these subjects as the focus in my full version below includes much more on the quality of Dave Filoni’s work and the direction Disney should take from the success of Clone Wars in approaching Star Wars in the present and future. Also, SPOILER ALERT for all kinds of Star Wars content, from the films to the multiple TV series, including Clone Wars.
SILVER SPRING—The Force is strong with Star Wars: The Clone Wars, its fans, and the show’s showrunners and cast. From the announcement of its revival through the aftermath of the final episode of the final season, from Dave Filoni (showrunner and Jedi apprentice to George Lucas himself) and Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoska Tano), to Dee Bradley Baker (Captain Rex and all the clones) and Sam Witwer (Darth Maul), to Matt Lanter (Anakin Skywalker) and James Arnold Taylor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the rest of the cast and crew, they understood and openly expressed for some time that by far the main reason Clone Wars was getting a proper sendoff and a final storyline as its creators had intended from the beginning was its passionate, insistent fans, who never let Disney off the hook for prematurely ending a series that was hitting its stride and producing absolute gold in the second half of its run, fans who kept demanding Disney revive the myopically-cancelled series.
The joyous but frustrating burden of Clone Wars fans
For years for the legions of Clone Wars fans, there has been and still is something of a burden we carry: we know how good the show is, but we also know that the initial theatrical release was hardly given rave reviews (and, admittedly, it is, by far, some of the weakest Clone Wars content, though still worth watching). Furthermore, the seasons were all on Cartoon Network except for the sixth half-season, which ended up on Netflix along with the other seasons for a time after the Disney takeover. Thus, by not being on a major network, so many people who would have seen it did not end up seeing it. Additionally, Disney has hardly put much effort into promoting Star Wars content produced before its takeover, favoring its own Star Wars films and animated series. So for me and other fans, we felt a responsibility to push Clone Wars on people and push and proselytize it hard. It’s not that hard to sell people on other great shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Dexter, The Wire. People on the fence can be easily convinced by close friends on shows like that. Trying to get them to watch a cartoon series with relatively weak opening is a whole other matter.
Then there is the issue of competition with The Mandalorian. It’s not a hard sell to get people to watch a live-action show starring a fan-favorite from Game of Thrones and Narcos, the other dude from the classic Predator, and co-helmed by a man who was both the director of Iron Man and an executive producer of The Avengers series. Trying to convince people that a Star Wars cartoon is one of the best dramatic series in years, and that its is one of the series with one of the most complicated intersections of plotlines that took years to build, in a similar way to Game of Thrones but with a final payoff that succeeds in all the ways the final season of Game of Thrones fell short and then some, is a far harder sell. An even harder sell, as I have attempted to make before, is that Clone Wars has some of the most complex themes on politics, war, and terrorism of any show in recent memory other than Homeland, and, as I have written before, the show faithfully reflects the deepest themes of films of the Lucas-helmed Star Wars movies. Yeah, to many, you generally will come off as crazy making these claims, as I am sure I have to many people.
Yet all this is true for Clone Wars, and its best storylines are among some of the best screen experiences I’ve ever experienced, whether film or TV. I am not saying that there aren’t other stellar moments throughout the series, but, as I wrote for Dork Side, the very final four episodes of the final season are as good as anything I’ve ever seen in Star Wars, including the Original Trilogy, because of the loving care and respect that beloved characters are given in building up incredibly emotional climaxes that pay off beautifully. Frankly, after five Disney Star Wars movies, none of those attempts came anywhere near such intricately woven and long-developed emotional payoffs as (spoilers) Luke’s redemption of Vader and Vader’s subsequent death in Return of the Jedi or Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side and Padmé’s dying of a broken heart at the end of Revenge of the Sith, but Clone Wars has at least two clear stories (and arguably several others that rise to that level) at the ends of seasons five and seven. The moment in season five (spoiler), when Ahsoka leaves the Jedi order, breaking Anakin’s heart and his faith in the Jedi Order, came out all the way back in March 2013. The half-season six in 2014 had some great stories but not at the level of that season five finale, so it’s been more than seven years since anything like that level of emotion has happened in Star Wars movies or shows, despite Disney’s “efforts.” Let’s discuss those efforts, then…
Disney falling short
Solo is easily the best of the crop of Disney films overall, but especially in terms of character development and emotion. Rogue One is a competently executed action film and has one of the best battle scenes in all of Star Wars, but there’s no serious attempt at character development or building emotion, and performances and “characters” are dull and barely developed, with only a robot even being somewhat interesting or funny and no one else even coming close to the robot. Despite fine actors being attached to the actual Sequel Trilogy and even solid acting performances, the writing and storytelling were so insanely terrible that no acting could save the convoluted mess. The Force Awakens negated the sacrifice of Vader and his redemption by Luke by basically putting the galaxy in the same peril Vader’s sacrifice and Luke’s redemption of Vader was supposed to save it from, as if just a few decades later, the Chosen One(s) might as well have never even existed. The middle chapter—Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi—was a betrayal of Luke Skywalker and the very heart of Star Wars itself, and the final movie in the trilogy—The Rise of Skywalker—shoved so much unnecessary, poorly-conceived and barely-explained random junk and characters into the nonsensical plot that any major power behind the climaxes was severely diluted or fell flat (not to say that there weren’t some nice moments, but the totality was a train wreck of storytelling that would make even Transformers sequels look coherent in comparison; it was almost as if J.J. Abrams was parodying the worst flaws of his style of filmmaking). And Star Wars: Rebels had nowhere near the character development or emotional buildup not because the show was shorter but because the majority of the show was predictable and redundant and there was not as much effort to develop the characters. There were some excellent moments and payoffs (spoilers: basically everything with Vader, Ahoska, and, to a lesser degree, Thrawn), but the best moments of the show—(spoilers) Ahsoka’s confronting Vader (the one honorable mention in that high-emotion category over this seven-year period, but which felt so brief and did not have a resolution the same way the highest emotional Star Wars acts have), her reuniting with Rex, and the final Obi-Wan/Maul duel in an episode that otherwise felt wasteful—earned their payoffs nearly entirely from content outside of Rebels, essentially piggybacking on the efforts and gravitas of Clone Wars (honorable mention, also, to Kanan as a solid new character with a real arc). And as for Resistance, well, like you most likely, I haven’t seen it (and very few people seem to have). So even with so much content over the past seven years from Disney, those of us seeking character-driven, emotional buildup on par with the Lucas films and Clone Wars‘s season five ending have been left bitterly disappointed, with only the rarest of moments even being anywhere near that ballpark.
A new hope against the odds: Clone Wars provably nailed it
Thus, with the announcement of The Mandalorian and especially with the surprise that Clone Wars was being resurrected, reason for cautious hope broke through like a ray of sunshine coming through dark storm clouds. I love The Mandalorian, as I have noted before, for its excellent storytelling and am glad for it. But as cute as “Baby Yoda” is, the show is not as deep or emotional as the great moments I have mentioned from the Lucas-era movies; it is not on that epic level, nor is it trying to be, nor does it need to be, and that’s fine. Not only was it refreshing that it was not trying to be all things to all people, but the idea of telling scaled-down Star Wars stories in live-action format is welcome. But with the final arc of final-season of Clone Wars, we see that Disney is capable of producing 10/10-level amazingly deep, resonant, built-up, theatrical-quality, and epic Star Wars content with transcendent payoffs—pretty much every moment of the final four episodes, a level of quality I have not experienced in entertainment since the best of Game of Thrones—that can earn rave reviews from critics and fans alike and actually unite, not divide, the fanbase.
Even so, it was clear that Disney put way more effort into marketing The Mandalorian, even creating a separate behind-the-scenes show about the making of the show (over a good stretch over several months, a large portion of my YouTube viewings involved an ad for the show). In contrast, I saw almost no marketing for Clone Wars. And what’s so satisfying for we Clone Wars fans is that Clone Wars partly outperformed Mandalorian almost entirely on the backs of the show’s fans and the word-of-mouth buzz they have been so passionately trying to create for years. Maybe a pandemic helped, but the numbers for Clone Wars speak for themselves, all without the huge marketing/media boost that Mandalorian got before its release.
And perhaps now, besides giving Disney a full-proof roadmap, the world is finally awakening to the amazingness that is Clone Wars, and the stunning number prove this.
For one thing, Clone Wars has four of the top thirty TV episodes of all time and three of the top ten on IMDB by user ratings with at least 1,000 viewer ratings or more: #25, #6, #5, #4, as well as for shows with 5,000 or more user votes: #23, #6, #5, and #4, both having these be the four final episodes I have referenced before in ascending order (fans, you can add your votes at those previous links!). Yeah, this has Clone Wars in line with shows like Breaking Bad, Chernobyl, Game of Thrones, and Mr. Robot (admittedly lists that are biased against older shows like The Sopranos and Rome, but still an impressive achievement for Clone Wars on a list with still solid and renown shows).
“Ratings” for streaming content is an iffy concept, but Parrot Analytics has a useful substitute measure that was recently profiled in The New York Times involving individual consumption (i.e., downloading and streaming), social media posting and engagement “for” the content, and searching or consuming material about the content (e.g., videos or articles), putting these together into a metric the analysis firm terms “demand expression.” It is a weighted measuring system, so downloading a pirated copy is weighted much more than a like or a retweet of content, and a personally-written post fits in between. Backing up my claim about the passion of fans for Clone Wars being instrumental in the success of Clone Wars, Parrot’s Wade Dayson-Penney provided the following chart showing demand expressions for Clone Wars and The Mandalorian:
The two lines are not concurrent time-wise, as it tracks demand for each series before, during, and after the series aired, and the two did not air at the same time (Mandalorian ran about seven-and-a-half-weeks from November to December, Clone Wars from February to May over about eleven-and-a-half weeks. Clone Wars had far-higher pre-release demand expressions by fans than The Mandalorian, and also had the highest single-week stretch of peak of demand expressions of all streaming content in 2020 thus far, including Mandalorian.
For the entire first half of 2020, Clone Wars was the third-highest in digital original streaming content (behind only Stranger Things and Mandalorian, way ahead of series like Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, The Witcher, and Tiger King, and CBS’s Star Trek: Picard) and the tenth-highest overall streaming series in terms of demand expressions, with over fifty-six times the demand expressions of the average streaming content in the U.S. for that for that entire six-month stretch, as Payson-Denny explained in an e-mail to me. It held the top spot in demand expressions for digital streaming originals throughout the coronavirus lockdown period, too.
Even more impressive, while Mandalorian had overall longer heights of demand expression, as noted, at its weekly peak, Clone Wars surpassed not just Mandalorian, but all series streaming content, both digital originals and all streaming TV series, so far in 2020; that’s right, no other series reached the peak level of viewing in one week as Clone Wars, which peaked for a whole week at close to 130 times the average amount of demand expressions in the U.S. for streaming content. Even if you go back an entire year, to the beginning of July, 2019, only Stranger Things, the latest season of which premiered that month, had a higher week peak-level than Clone Wars. Throughout that entire year period, Clone Wars, with not even being on air for nearly eight months of out that twelve-month period, was the fourth-most in-demand digital original streaming series and earned the twenty-fourth highest in-demand expressions of any show, with over thirty-six times the U.S. demand for an average series.
In fact, a whole month before the season seven premiere, after just the season seven trailer’s January 22 release, the show saw a huge increase in demand, landing it the number-nine overall streaming spot, and the following week, while dropping slightly, it held the fourth digital original spot. The first week of February, it fell to tenth digital original, then ninth the week after, and, finally, during the season seven premiere as the end of the third week of February, it climbed to sixth, not far behind The Witcher and Picard. The new season’s first full week of availability saw it rise to the fifth overall and second digital original spot, only behind Stranger Things. The show began March tenth overall and third with digital originals, staying in the same spot overall and rising to second, again, with digital originals the following week. It lost its top-ten overall spot but stayed second among streaming originals in the third week of March, falling to third digital original the following week. It stayed even spot-wise among originals the following week, fell to fifth original the first full week of April, then rose to fourth mid-April, with the first installment of the truly spectacular final arc premiering at the end of the week.
And wow, did the fans spread their approval for that episode, as word of mouth and fans telling everyone they knew “YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!” brought the series the next week to the number-one overall digital original slot and the fourth overall slot the week the second episode of the arc premiered. And the following week, when the penultimate Clone Wars episode premiered, the show stayed in the first digital original spot (though with far higher numbers) and rose to the first overall streaming spot. The ensuing week, when the series finale premiered earlier than usual on Star Wars Day, May the Fourth (get it?), it maintained both top spots with dramatically higher demand that dwarfed everything else, including nearly one-and-a-half times the demand of the second overall spot (Spongebob) and far more than doubling the number-two and number-three originals, Mandalorian and Stranger Things, respectively, achieving the peak demand of anything thus far this year.
Even after the final episode was released, throughout the entire following week, it stayed in the number one original slot for the fourth consecutive week and only fell to number two in the overall streaming competition. The next week, it was still seventh overall and barely got edged out by Stranger Things in digital originals, coming in just behind at number two. The final full week of May, the show was still second in digital originals, and the next week, Parrot’s Payson-Denney confirmed to me in an e-amil that, a full month after the premiere of the final episode, Clone Wars was still held the third spot among original streaming content. It was fourth in originals the following week, was still fifth in mid-June, maintained that spot the next week, was still seventh in digital originals the week ending July fourth—two months after the final episode premiered—and last week, it was back at fifth for digital originals, with nearly forty-times more U.S. demand expressions than the average show. UPDATE: July 20: July 12-18, the show skyrocketed back to ninth overall and second in digital originals, with nearly fifty times the U.S. demand expressions of an average show, after the announcement of the Clone Wars spinoff series Bad Batch.
Good content wins and the future and the Force is Filoni
Not bad for a show that had close to no marketing (I seriously don’t recall seeing any ads anywhere specifically for Clone Wars but do remember seeing tons of video ads and others for The Mandalorian, even after the final season Clone Wars premiered, if I’m not mistaken about that last part). Considering Stranger Things and The Mandalorian both have far more intense marketing campaigns, one can only imagine how much serious paid marketing could have boosted the popularity and viewership of Clone Wars. And we have to keep in mind that this was mainly because of just four episodes—the final four—out of the twelve-episodes of the season. The first four were fun, for sure, with even a few deeper moments, but felt a bit drawn out, while the middle four were definitely drawn out and formed the weakest arc by far of the final season (it was, admittedly, build-up for the final four-episode arc, and I still enjoyed them all at any rate).
After twelve years, Clone Wars seems to have finally earned some of the critical respect and mass appeal that its fans have known for so long it has deserved but which had, until this final season, eluded it.
And not just Clone Wars, but showrunner Dave Filoni, who, alongside Jon Favreau, is the main force behind The Madnalorian. NOTE TO DISNEY: PUT DAVE FILONI IN CHARGE OF LUCASFILM PROJECTS GOING FORWARD! LET HIM HELM MORE SERIES AND FINALLY MOVIES, both animated AND live action. Filoni also directed more than half the episodes of the first season of the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender (including some of the highest-rated of the whole series, the pair of episodes that closes out the first season), a show that ended twelve years ago but is even now one of Netflix’s surprising top hits for the past few months since Netflix acquired rights to the show, which is shattering most records of longevity and views on the platform for this year, becoming one of the most-watched items on Netflix since Netflix started releasing viewership rankings. And, similarly to Clone Wars with Disney, this show received no marketing from Netflix (it was not Netflix-original content) and beat out other competition that benefited from heavy marketing. Filoni is simply gold and resistance is silly, Disney!!
I get the sense that Disney was irrationally reluctant due to some sort internal division or even infighting, because if the top executives had any brains, they would have insisted on producing the eight unfinished episodes that became the highly-rated novel Dark Disciple by Christie Golden to make the final season twenty-episodes instead of twelve. Those additional eight episodes, unlike the first eight episodes, would have been near and perhaps even at the quality of that astounding final arc, and I would know: I read the Dark Disciple novel, which debuted on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and it was excellent, a challenging story unlike anything else in Clone Wars or the movies (except perhaps the Rey-Kylo relationship being a pale reflection, with Dark Disciple in many ways showing what could have been made of that relationship). I have no doubt that Disney could have seen demand similar to what happened with its final episodes throughout the eight-episodes of the Dark Disciple arc, with unique story that would have generated a lot of buzz and another stellar, strong, independent, and complex female character in Assajj Ventress, a story which would have also featured, Count Dooku, Quinlan Vos, Boba Fett, and Obi Wan Kenobi, just to name some of the main players; it would have been dark (but probably not too dark for Disney) and filled with edge-of-your-seat emotion and tension throughout and could easily have opened up the season, generating far more interest compared with the other weaker arcs that ran before the finale and giving Disney two additional full months of top-level consumption Twenty episodes with eight weaker episodes in the middle and twelve top-notch episodes to begin and end them would have been even more fitting, but it’s hard to criticize the final season too much given its solid buildup and transcendent ending. Disney can and easily should still make these eight episodes for Disney+ or into a feature-length movie, slated for theatrical release (same with the final four episodes of the series). If this seems an unrealistic ask, consider that work on the Dark Disciple episodes, like the season seven-opening Bad Batch arc, had already begun years ago (you can watch some of that Dark Disciple work here).
It is a tragedy that Disney did not put more muscle behind Clone Wars. It’s almost as if Disney was spiteful of its non-creation inspiring so much more passion and acclaim that its theatrical releases, which divided fans fan deeply as opposed to unifying nearly all Star Wars fans, like Clone Wars did.
If nothing else, let these numbers show the Disney corporate executives that Filoni and Clone Wars represent a future than can be profitable, artistic, epic, and well-executed in non-polarizing ways, as opposed to whatever adjectives we may use (some certainly unprintable here) to describe what the Sequel Trilogy was and was not. Dave Filoni’s and George Lucas’s Clone Wars stands as a testament to the value of careful planning and storytelling and allowing creative control in ways that stay true to the real spirit of epic Star Wars even while breaking new ground, giving us content that can stand the test of time and match some of the best content of any type out there. Clone Wars is not just Star Wars at its best, but entertainment at its best, and, in an era of depressing disaster that makes you lose faith in the choices and taste of people, the show also finally now has the numbers to prove its success and popularity and that good content can and will be rewarded.
See Brian’s related Star Wars articles for Dork Side of the Force here, including The final arc of The Clone Wars is Star Wars at its best and Mandalorians and cultural trauma in The Mandalorian.
© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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