How Star Wars: The Clone Wars' First Episode Showed the Darker Side of the Jedi

The episode opens on the moon of Rugosa orbiting the planet Toydaria, which is remote but strategically significant. Both Republic and Separatist forces wish to build a military base on the planet’s surface. Yoda arrives to make the Republic’s case, but his ship is ambushed by the Separatists, forcing him to take an escape pod to the moon’s surface with three clone troopers. Meanwhile, Asajj Ventress, the perpetually-scowling apprentice of Count Dooku, tells the planet’s leader, King Katuunko, that he is foolish to throw in his lot with the Jedi. After all, the Separatists’ droid armies outnumber Republic forces one hundred to one. When Katuunko responds that he has heard a single Jedi is worth a hundred droids, Ventress proposes a contest: her droid battalion against Yoda and his troopers. The winner of the fight wins the planet. 

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There’s never any real dramatic tension. Looking down at a full battalion of battle droids, Yoda quips, “Outnumbered, are they.” By the end of the episode, the battle droids are scrap metal and Yoda has won the allegiance of King Katuunko, who declares that a single Jedi is actually worth a thousand droids. From the opening exposition, delivered in a form reminiscent of war-time propaganda reels, to Yoda’s defeat of Ventress, tugging her dual sabers from her hands like a chew toy from a disobedient puppy, the whole episode comes off as an advertisement for the Republic.

But what exactly is being advertised? “Ambush” presents us with an idealized view of the series’ titular conflict, pitting a noble Jedi Master against an army of comedic droids. It gives us the fairy tale of a war without moral quandaries―a fairy tale that the rest of the series will slowly puncture as it winds inevitably towards Order 66 and the fall of Anakin Skywalker.  

Yoda’s reluctant co-stars, initially baffled by their overly zen boss, are three clone troopers―Jek, Thire, and Rys. Midway through the episode, the group huddles for rest in a cave, and Yoda requests them to remove their helmets. Staring into their identical faces, Yoda professes that each life-form is unique in the Force. He proceeds to give each clone a personalized Jedi pep-talk. 

The interlude foreshadows the central place that clone troopers occupy in The Clone Wars. The series refuses to allow them to be the faceless shock troops they so easily could have been. In the episode “Rookies,” the show gives us an entirely clone-driven drama, with Generals Kenobi and Skywalker relegated to pacing around a conference room and occasionally checking their comms. The series recognizes it has few tools to give the clones unique identities―their identical faces and voices, in a show with a limited animation budget, naturally predispose the viewer’s eye to blur. The five minutes “Ambush” dedicates to affirming the clones’ personhood with the weight of Yoda’s endorsement plant the flag for the rest of the series. 

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