Saturday, March 8, 2014

CLONE WARS REVIEW: Order 66 arc (Season 6, Episodes 1-4)

In honor of the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Netflix, I've decided to review Season 6, the previously unreleased "Lost Missions." Overall, this is some of the best we've ever seen in the series. Even when I had complaints about plot elements, the characterization is rich and animation gorgeous. These reviews are meant more to think critically about the plot and character elements in the episodes, so there are spoilers - I strongly recommend readers watch each episode before continuingWith that said, on to the Order 66 arc...

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The Order 66 arc (Season 6, Episodes 1-4) builds upon what made the Clone Troopers such fascinating characters in the series, but unfortunately it also undermines that in an important way. As suggested by the title, this arc is intended to serve as an explanation for Order 66, for why the Clone Troopers suddenly turned on their Jedi compatriots after receiving an order from Emperor Palpatine. In short, the clones were programmed with a sort of tumor. As an explanation, I find it extremely unsatisfying. However, the second half of the arc focuses on Clone Trooper Fives and his reaction to the discovery. It's a great character moment and raises some great questions about the nature of individuality amongst the clones.


The story begins in the midst of a major battle between the Clone Troopers and the Separatists. In the heat of battle, Clone Trooper Tup suddenly starts acting possessed and shoots a Jedi in the back. Tup and Clone Trooper Fives are taken back to the Kaminoans, who originally created and bred the Clone Army, for further investigation. The arc then follows Fives as he investigates the cause of Tup's breakdown and learns that all Clone Troopers have been infected with a tumor that is designed to inhibit their aggression. Sidious and Dooku meanwhile are trying desperately to suppress knowledge of this hidden programming. Jedi Master Shaak Ti takes Fives back to Coruscant for further examination, but he escapes and seeks to tell Captain Rex and Anakin of the conspiracy. Before he gets that chance, clones loyal to Chancellor Palpatine find and shoot him.

Just following orders

In Revenge of the Sith, the Clone Troopers suddenly turn on the Jedi after receiving a short message from Emperor Palpatine. When the movie came out, many viewers were shocked and confused by this turn of events, viewing the clones' betrayal as too abrupt, out of character, and/or insufficiently explained. At its worst, some critics thought it was a sloppy plot contrivance, necessary to push the story along but without any organic roots in the story.

Being somewhat familiar with history and human psychology, I did not feel the need for any further explanation for Order 66. I found that the scene played well and was absolutely chilling. As I've argued before on this site, history is filled with examples of mass violence that seem to occur suddenly at the slightest provocation. Political leaders can prey upon ethnic and communal hatreds to incite neighbors to slaughter each other with shocking rapidity. One need only look at the genocides in Indonesia and Rwanda to see ordinary citizens supporting and participating in the mass murder of others. In times of war, "just following orders" is sadly still an all too common excuse for soldiers to perpetuate crimes against humanity.

We also have plenty of scientific evidence that people can be very susceptible to orders. In the famous Miligram experiment regular people were asked by a "teacher" to electrocute a "learner" if he did not correctly respond to questions. The participant could not see the "learner" - who in fact was just acting out the role - but could hear his screams. There was nothing forcing the participants to press the button to electrocute the "learners." Despite this, around 66% of participants actually administered the maximum 450-volt shock, which would be enough to kill a person. To repeat: two-thirds of people who participated in the experiment chose to follow "orders" to kill somebody simply for not answering a question correctly!

As Lord Acton famously said, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." putting individuals in positions of power over others risks abuse of that power. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, participants were asked to role play as prisoners and jailers. Within a few days, the "jailers" began abusing the "prisoners" and the experiment had to be terminated. The participants were not instructed to abuse each other, but such actions flowed naturally simply because somebody conducting an experiment told one group of people that they had power over another.


Initially, I was skeptical when The Clone Wars started to individualize the clones. Eventually, I decided it did so subtly enough to raise some interesting questions. Episodes like "The Hidden Enemy" (Season 1, Episode 16) showed a Clone Trooper sergeant who betrayed the Republic because the Separatists promised him money and freedom. The clone raised some very relevant questions as to whether or not clones could ever aspire to anything other than servant - or slave - status in the Republic. "The Deserter" (Season 2, Episode 10) took this idea further when a clone decides to defect and live a "normal" life with a wife and family. Should this clone be punished for abandoning his duty or lauded for his commitment to peace? In the "Umbara arc" (Season 4, Episodes 7-10), Captain Rex and other Clone Troopers disobey orders when they suspect that their Jedi general Pong Krell has gone mad. Are these Clone Troopers good soldiers for doing what's right or potentially traitors themselves?

And this is why the explanation for Order 66 in The Clone Wars rings hollow for me. Rather than being a commentary on the human condition and the willingness of soldiers to follow orders, Order 66 is a program. It's a tumor that denies any possibility of choice and turns the Clone Troopers into mindless zombies. The episodes make this abundantly clear in the way it depicts Tup. When Order 66 is activated, he behaves like somebody infected with rabies. His eyes widen and he starts growling "Jedi." He does not remember his actions and therefore can take no responsibility for them.

"Kill Jedi!"
None of the character development we had seen in the earlier episodes apparently mattered at all. The show seems to be saying that these aren't people after all but rather glorified cyborgs, more like Terminators or Cylons. This also robs the final execution of Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith of much of its emotional weight because the scenes are no longer acts of betrayal. If the Clone Troopers do not have free will, they cannot take moral responsibility for their actions. Essentially, Order 66 was the moral equivalent of Palpatine detonating a bunch of mines near those Jedi, a triumph of technology rather than manipulation of psychology.

This is all the more disappointing because I think The Clone Wars already contained the seeds of a far more interesting explanation for Order 66. When General Pong Krell betrayed his Clone Troopers in the "Umbara arc", that understandably made them more suspicious of the Jedi. Why not take that further and show even more dissension between the clones and Jedi? Because the clones are, well, clones, they have an identical genetic template so in theory if Palpatine can convince one turn against the Jedi you can convince them all. The Order 66 arc also contained an interesting possibility. When Fives learns about the inhibitor tumor, the Kaminoans tell him that the Jedi ordered it there. That makes Fives somewhat more suspicious of the Jedi and, if revealed to other clones, could have been used to further convince the clones that the Jedi posed a threat both to the Republic and their themselves. Imagine if the clones obeyed Order 66 because thy believed that the Jedi were a threat to their individuality - how fascinating would that have been! This would have preserved the clones' moral agency, but at the same time create an interesting conflict between the clones' individuality and their conditioning.

Beyond the context of The Clone Wars, moral choice is a crucial element of the Star Wars universe. In fact, in some ways moral agency is the defining element of Star Wars saga. The movies are centered around several key moments in which characters must make moral choices that have consequences for not only the Galaxy but also for their souls. Return of the Jedi is one of the few films in which the resolution depends upon the moral choice of the villain, Darth Vader (Serenity is arguably another). In the Prequel Trilogy, the nominal hero, Anakin Skywalker, makes several choices in which he puts himself and his pain before the welfare of others. Lucas played upon these choices brilliantly by creating parallel situations, especially between Luke and Anakin Skywalker. What makes these choices so compelling - beyond the fact that they are choices - is they they don't always lend themselves to easy answers. If you thought you had the opportunity to save your loved one from certain doom, how far would you go? How far wouldn't you go? Even as some of the character make flawed choices, we as viewers can identify with them because their choices are very human, very much in the tradition of the Greek and Shakespeare tragedies.

Again, the explanation for Order 66 directly undermines this theme. In the context of the Star Wars saga's exploration of moral choice, by depriving the Clone Troopers of that ability the show also deprives them of any remaining ability to contribute to the exploration of that theme. Being programmed is of course is tragic for the clones, especially those who had developed individual personalities throughout the show, because it implies that all of their efforts are futile. Dramatically, it deprives Order 66 of the internal and emotional conflict, which are at the heart of great storytelling. Unfortunately, for me, it also makes the clones much less interesting and undermines my ability to invest in the clone characters.


Despite my disappointment in the explanation for Order 66, there are some great parts to this arc, particularly during the last two episodes. The CGI animation is excellent and Coruscant has never looked better. There are some exciting chase scenes. However, what really saves the arc is Clone Trooper Fives' attempts to uncover the Order 66 conspiracy. If the explanation for Order 66 deprives the clones of their moral agency, Fives shows how compelling and tragic the struggle for individual identity can be - and why the Order 66 explanation is so frustrating.

Soon after arriving at Kamino, Fives escapes and teams up with a droid, AZI-3, to look into the reason for Tup's possession. This sets up a nice contrast between a clone and a droid. Ironically, these two entities - one biological, one mechanical - that are both nominally programmed to follow orders both end up disobeying orders. While The Clone Wars has in the past been guilty of going too far in anthropomorphizing droids, I think here it's subtle enough to provide a meaningful point of contrast for the clones. The droid introduces himself by his unit number, but Fives insists on using his name. AZI-3 even argues that clones are similar to droids in that they have unit numbers, but Fives rejects this out of hand. He identifies himself the way that he chooses to, not by how he was programmed to.

There are several points at which Fives makes idiomatic remarks or references that AZI-3 simply does not understand. When Fives leaves for Coruscant, he says, "See you on the other side." AZI-3 naively asks, "Other side of what." Droids, and computers more generally, have difficult associating specific language with broader concepts or references. Fives obviously meant figuratively, the "other side" of all of their troubles, but even this was beyond the droid's comprehension. In fact, the prevailing test of Artificial Intelligence, the Turing Test, proposes that a computer will only qualify as truly intelligent if a human could have a conversation with it and not realize that it is in fact a computer. Conversations are unique in that they are not predetermined communications and can meander such that the participants must be able to make connections to disparate references and concepts. The fact that Fives can communicate in conversations but AZI-3 has trouble highlights how clones are different from droids.
I'm not crazy!

In the final episode, Fives is taken to Coruscant but then escapes when Chancellor Palpatine attempts to quiet him. What I found fascinating is that he immediately goes to a Clone Trooper bar. The fact that there is such a thing as a Clone Trooper bar suggests the need for clones to interact with others and take comfort in group camaraderie. Indeed, when Fives arrives, there is an impressive degree of group solidarity as other clone officers stick up for Fives in a dispute with a cab driver. Not only can the clones strive for individualism, but they also identify with others in their group as members of a group separate from other humans. To what extent is group solidarity a marker of humanity and individualism? Does the nearly automatic group response on the part of the clones undermine their individualism or strengthen their identity as members of humanity?

Finally, Fives' arc works on a dramatic level. It's easy to sympathize with his quest to be free of the tumor programing. Moreover, he seems genuinely concerned about the effect of this programming on his fellow clones. Again, that interaction between individualism and group identity. Dee Bradley Baker's voice acting for Fives works because he adds a touch of paranoia and desperation to the character, showing the emotional toll that these events are taking. Fives is not calm, he's not collected, but he also continues the struggle for the truth and freedom right up until the end. And that makes his character journey from the first season episode "Rookies" (Season 1, Episode 5) one of the most compelling of the series.


The official explanation for Order 66 is extremely unsatisfying and risks undermining much of what makes the Clone Troopers - and Star Wars as a whole - so fascinating. Moreover, the actual depiction on screen of Order 66 bordered on farcical and lacked subtlety. That said, the Order 66 arc made me think - and rethink - about the nature of individuality and moral agency. Indeed, this review is much longer than I'd expected it to be. That's no small compliment for a cartoon show. I'm also grateful that Fives received a fitting conclusion to his character arc.

Rating: 3/5 Clone Trooper helmets


  1. Sir, your commentary made my day. I am an isolated fan of the deeper implications and political/historical parallels found in the 'better-moments' of the StarWars franchise. The Clone Wars, while aimed at children, has decisively impressed me as a work of speculative fiction that comments on the human condition, current politics, and open choices for humanity when faced with the near and far term changes that our technology is inevitably bringing to us. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts-

  2. I thought the explanation was very good actually and made a lot of sense. I didn't ever buy the reason why 'Following orders', it wasn't Sci-Fi enough for me. The biological chip/tumor works well as Sidious would not leave anything to chance.

    1. I guess I've never thought of Star Wars as science fiction so much as sci-fi/fantasy. Also, I think the idea that Sidious has so much power and control for me stretches credibility. I prefer villains who are smart but flawed.

  3. Regarding Tup's depiction as a mindless zombie: I think that was the result of his bio-chip malfunctioning, and it doesn't happen if the Order is given properly.
    I also don't get why would the chip "undermine what makes the Clones fascinating". I think it's the exact opposite, it opens the door to discuss how the individual Clones felt after coming out of the induced state (and Filoni already stated that Rebels will takle that!)! Also the "moral" dilemma you talk about is basically "Should I kill someone I know to be a good person, just because a shady guy in a cloak told me to, and might as well be an enemy tactic?". Sorry, that's staright out bull****.
    Also there's just no way every clone would've gone through with the Order, if it wasn't enforced. Okay, Palpatine being behind everything might be a bit too much is fair (although in the context of TCW, it's not entirely true, since there're a bunch of storylines that happened completely without him doing anything), but THIS is where it's absolutely necessary. There's just no way Palpatine would leave something this important to "choises of the individual". Your counter-example is flawed in that the people in those tests did not know the person they were "electrocuting". If they knew that it was someone they knew, 90% of them wouldn't have done it!

    1. > Also the "moral" dilemma you talk about is basically "Should I kill someone I know to be a good person, just because a shady guy in a cloak told me to, and might as well be an enemy tactic?". Sorry, that's staright out bull****.

      On the contrary it's very important. There have been and continue to be situations in our world (our gracious host has mentioned the Nazis, Rwanda, and GESTAPU in Indonesia) where people turned on their fellow countrymen precisely because some "guy in a cloak" (or maybe some guy behind a microphone on a talk-radio program) told them they should.

      The best sci-fi uses an exotic setting to explore issues that might otherwise be too close to home. The Clone Wars directors could have explored how propaganda and psychology can influence good people to *choose* to commit awful acts. They could have invited viewers to consider how leaders or other parties in our worlds might be trying to manipulate them, and to consider the choices they themselves are faced with (especially relevant in this time).

      Unfortunately the directors chickened out. I can see why media companies, themselves working for advertising companies which employ marketing AKA propaganda might "encourage" them not to explore this line of reasoning too far.

  4. I have to disagree with the chips taking away from the dilemma. While yes it would free up the clones' choice in the matter it raises another good point. The republic is employing slaves who can simply be forced into thinking what ever the state tells them. A hidden message of how technology can rule over us if we are not careful. This makes the clone troopers the other victims of Order 66. This side of things especially becomes apparent when you hear what happened to the clone army after the clone wars. Palpatine would never risk his plan to eliminate the Jedi because a fleshbot slave befriending them. The chip ensures a safety net that will ensure his enemies downfall. As I said before just because the show humanized them doesn't mean that the galaxy or especially Palpatine for that matter think very highly of them. So he doesn't care what they make think, feel, or how they exist. All Sataeerrrr I mean Palpatine wants is power. Also on another note, I think that the Coursaunt Guard were in on the conspiracy. Notice how when Palpatine spills the beans that there were Red troopers present in the room or that Fox didn't bother with stunning fives. Oh and during the Season 5 finale Fox and his crew were very menacing and were willing to kill Ahsoka before Anakin told them to set weapons for stun. I think they chose to rebel against the Jedi so if any clone is guilty it's definitely them.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. That's an interesting point and I don't entirely disagree that the idea of controlling soldiers through technology raises another interesting philosophical dilemma. I guess I'd have been a bit more satisfied with that if it had been a theme carried through the films and other Star Wars media. As it is, that arc of TCW was the first time we get any hint that the clones were not acting from free will. And we never see the repercussions of that fact. At least according to the new Star Wars canon, we don't really know in detail what happened to the Clone Army after ROTS. After the clones executed Order 66, did some of them feel regret? If Palpatine had this technology, why didn't he use it more widely? Maybe these issues will be explored in books or comics in the future, but for me this arc still doesn't quite fit.