This discussion and review contains very light spoilers for the first 14 episodes of Season 2 of the Star Wars: The Bad Batchstreaming on Disney+.
It always seemed like an odd choice to spin Star Wars: The Bad Batch from the last season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
One of the central appeals of The Clone Wars was the show’s anthology character. Sure, The Clone Wars had credited main characters like Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter), Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), but the series was structured in such a way that it could follow any number of threads within the larger framework of the eponymous conflict. The stories didn’t even follow each other chronologically, instead they jumped across the timeline.
To be fair, the results were of varying quality. It is quite common for viewers to jump in The Clone Wars to receive lists of recommended episodes and arcs, often inviting them to watch particular stories out of broadcast order. Nevertheless, the template was commendably flexible. The Clone Wars was a framework that could stretch to include a deep dive into the Force in the “Mortis” arc, a meditation on the horrors of war in the “Umbara” arc, and something as goofy as the “Droids” arc.
By design, The Bad Batch removes this anthology structure. As the title suggests, the show is built around an established ensemble, with the episodes providing a linear progression of the squad’s adventures through the cosmos. This serves to immediately and effectively separate The Bad Batch from The Clone Wars, ensuring that the animated spinoff operates according to a different set of rules than the parent program. There is a tighter focus and a much narrower narrative range.
Season 2 of The Bad Batch picks up in the wake of the first season finale, in the wake of Vice Admiral Rampart’s (Noshir Dalal) genocidal bombing of Kamino. The eponymous team is on the run from the authorities and trying to survive in a hostile universe. While there are recurring plot threads and a growing mass of continuity, The Bad Batch is structured like a largely episodic TV show, with each installment offering a distinct adventure for the group.
In his own strange way, The Bad Batch feels like a throwback to the classic TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s – weekly genre shows that Kung Fu, The Incredible Hulkor The A team. Although the content and even the genre of individual episodes may change, most stories follow a familiar template. The mercenary team is assigned a mission by either Cid (Rhea Perlman) or Phee (Wanda Sykes), which throws them into a familiar genre pastiche.
It is a structure similar to The Mandalorian. There are points where these echoes are very pronounced. For example, the season’s ninth episode, “The Crossing,” finds the heroes tasked with transporting a volatile mineral across a dangerous planetary surface, much like in “The Believer.” To be fair The Bad Batchthe series is careful to avoid direct imitation, and “The Crossing” is less overt in its homages to The wages of fear and Wizard than “the believer”. Still, it feels familiar.
To some extent, this seems like the point. The Bad Batch is clearly built around the interests of the creative team, which obviously includes the aforementioned “walking hero” shows. The Bad Batch is packed to the brim with loving riffs on pulpy genres. The fourth episode, “Faster,” finds the team entering the world of pod racing. The fifth episode, “Entombed,” has the squad on a treasure hunt. It’s all pretty standard and unremarkable stuff, none of it particularly compelling.
That said, even when it feels derivative, The Bad Batch is a technical marvel. Computer generated animation has evolved significantly since the first seasons of The Clone Warsand The Bad Batch looks lovely. In particular, the animation team skillfully renders environmental elements, such as lighting, fire and smoke. Even when the storytelling feels a little tired and choppy, the performance is visually striking. It’s fantastic work from directors like Saul Ruiz and Nathaniel Villanueva.
The animation often lifts tired and formal layouts. The season’s eleventh episode, “Metamorphosis,” is a loving riff on classic monster movies, a spiritual and literal sequel to the controversial “Zillo Beast” arc from The Clone Wars. However, Ruiz’s direction makes excellent use of lighting and elemental effects to create a compelling atmosphere. The season’s seventh episode, “The Clone Conspiracy,” is one of the best-written of the set, but it’s elevated by Villanueva’s film noir-inflected direction and Kevin Kiner’s suitably moody score.
The show’s other notable creative achievement lies in its central cast. The main part of the ensemble is voiced by a single performer, with Dee Bradley Baker providing the voices of all the adult members of the heroic military unit. The show’s only other credited lead is Michelle Ang as Omega, the young female clone of the group. There are extended sequences of The Bad Batch which consists of Baker talking to himself, plays variations on the same character.
It’s been said before, but bears repeating: Baker’s work is incredible. Baker is able to give each of the title characters, and a number of other clones such as Rex and Cody, distinct personalities and mannerisms. After several years The Clone Wars, it is easy to take Baker’s range for granted. In some ways, The Bad Batch works best as a piece of experimental voice acting theater, as a showcase for the flexibility and versatility of the credited lead cast.
This strength is perhaps also a limitation. It’s a crooked joke baked into the premise The Bad Batch. The team consists entirely of the kind of archetypes needed for a series like this. Hunter is the team’s no-nonsense leader. Wrecker is the cute but fuzzy team muscle. Tech is the scientist. There is perhaps a redundancy between Tech and Echo, the team’s cyborg, and the second season acknowledges it. Omega is the obligatory cute kid team mascot.
The Bad Batch is built around a somewhat cynical take on this classic team template, the understanding that none of these archetypes are particularly distinct. After all, Bad Batch is just five different variations of the same basic template. They are literally clones of each other, with each given a single defining attribute to distinguish them from the rest of the set. It’s a clever spin on the classic team adventure template, but it’s also very limiting.
The Bad Batch is the weakest part of The Bad Batch. None of the show’s five central characters have any real depth or complexity to them, and the structure of the show means that the audience has to spend a lot of time with them. They might work better as one recurring element in a larger rotating anthology series that The Clone Wars, but the show feels a little too cliche and a little too archetypal for its own good. The characters and their adventures seem a bit too assembly-line.
The Bad Batch seems to understand this. Of the 14 episodes shown to critics, the top three break away from the team-on-a-mission structure to explore the rise of the Empire. Two of them, “The Solitary Clone” and “The Outpost”, focus on former team member Crosshair (also Baker), who split from the group and reaffirmed his loyalty to the Empire. The third, “The Clone Conspiracy,” sets up a mystery the team investigates in the following episode, “Truth and Consequences.”
These episodes serve to pull back from the familiar clichés of the “wandering hero” narrative to explore an interesting space in Star Wars timeline, which the clone army from Attack of the Clones giving way to the Imperial stormtroopers of the original Star Wars trilogy. It is a moment of great political instability, as the universe transitions from one form of government to another. It’s a compelling thematic and narrative hook, built around an interesting lacuna in it Star Wars continuity.
Narratively, it’s interesting to wonder how the Empire transitioned from an army of clones to an army of conscripts, as well as what happened to those soldiers who served with such loyalty. Thematically, it builds on George Lucas’ reworking of the Clone Wars as a metaphor for American intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan. With recent US withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, what happens to the veterans of these conflicts? Is America fulfilling its obligations to those who served?
These are fierce and ambitious themes for an animated series set in Star Wars the universe, but The Bad Batch tackles them in serious and convincing ways. Repeatedly throughout the season, clone troopers wonder what will happen to them after the end of the war against the Separatists. Ironically, these debates are most pointed and compelling in the episodes that don’t feature the Bad Batch themselves, instead focusing on characters who can actually change and grow.
The Bad Batch often feels like two very different shows caught in a tug of war. The first is an episodic adventure about a band of broadly drawn ragtag criminals who wander through a series of uninspired but loving homages to classic thick adventure tales. The second is a more thoughtful meditation on the way society casually discards the soldiers who have given so much to the cause when it becomes politically expedient.
One of these shows is frustratingly generic; the other is really convincing. Season 2 of The Bad Batch finds himself caught in the crossfire.