So much is packed into the average 22-episode run of Star Wars: The Clone Wars that it can sometimes be hard to put it all into context. This time, though nobody will be asking ‘Is this the one where Simon Pegg plays Dengar and fights underground Ninja-riding millipedes?’ (yes, incidentally) No, because this is the one where Darth Maul (voiced by Sam Witwer) returns from the grave with robot spider legs and suffers an intense bout of verbal diarrhoea, saying more in six seconds than he did in the entirety of The Phantom Menace.
It takes us a while to get there though, despite the closing episode of Season 3 showing us his malevolent red/yellow eyes looming in a crystal ball and WWE-proportioned brother Savage Opress marching off to find him, we spend Season 4 dancing between the usual mixture of light hearted droid or Jar-Jar based romps and epic micro-arcs – in this case the splendid four-part invasion of the nocturnal Umbara, in which the Lucasfilm animators basically show off how bloody good they are at lighting effects as clone troopers fight their way through glowing, fluorescent trees at the whim of the seemingly mad four-armed Jedi General Pong Krell.
Similarly, the gorgeous ‘Massacre’ shows Dark Side-animated zombie Nightsisters, oozing green fog as they tear through the Tim Burton-esque forests of Dathomir to rend battle droids limb from limb. It’s a visual feast as well as a narrative one as Asajj Ventress is left alone and disillusioned, abandoned by her most recent mentor, Mother Talzin, and hunted by her previous one, Count Dooku.
Another highlight is the three-part battle with the Zygerrian slavers as Obi-Wan, Anakin, Ahsoka and Rex attempt to rescue some kidnapped colonists. It opens up the prequel universe a little more, showing a credible new culture aligned with the Separatists that offers far more menace than any number of slapstick battle droids. The four-episode arc that kicks off with ‘Deception’, in which Obi-Wan fakes his death to go undercover with bounty hunter Cad Bane and escaped convict Moralo Eval is a pretty stock adventure, but the reactions of Anakin, believing his master dead, are compelling viewing, rich as they are with foreshadowing as he snarls and force chokes his way through interrogations.
When Darth Maul finally reappears, though, it all seems a little malnourished story-wise as he rattles around a junkyard with a talking snake for company, his delusional ranting at odds with the cool and controlled savage of The Phantom Menace. Robot spider legs (and trauma, obviously) can change a man, though this isn’t entirely the Darth Maul we know, and the discomfort at having such a sacred cow of Star Wars toyed around with is gradually eased as we’re fast-tracked to an Obi-Wan versus Maul grudge match.
As mouthwatering a visual feast as Season 4 is, there’s a sense that we’re being increasingly denied the payoff from the fan-servicing plot arcs set up in the previous season, as the Mandalorians are completely absent, the return of Darth Maul occupies two episodes and the ongoing feud between Ventress and Dooku is limited to one.
Season 5, then, has a lot of work to do.