A central theme throughout Star Wars is the difficult relationship between identity and choice. Of all the Star Wars content that has been produced in the past decades, and that has tried to deal with this complex, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and The Bad Batch have done an excellent job. I will take a closer look in this post.
To choose identity
The Sequel Trilogy took a shot at the identity theme right with The Force Awakens. But where Episode VII played with the notion that Rey’s identity was unknown yet crucial for the choices she would need to make, The Last Jedi sought to make the opposite point, namely that Rey’s identity itself was either irrelevant or at best a matter of choice. Only, of course as we all know, for Episode XI The Rise of Skywalker to walk all of that back again, while leaving any question concerning the relationship between choice and identity utterly unanswered. Finn’s story arc also started off on a similar vein: can a Stormtrooper choose to abandon his identity as a Stormtrooper? That arc too was left utterly wasted an unmoored in the subsequent incoherent story-telling. But the makers of these episodes weren’t mistaken in bringing up this theme and trying their best at it. Neither were they following some recent fashion. The matter is actually deeply embedded in the Star Wars story-telling universe.
Already in the original Star Wars of 1977 is the issue of Luke’s identity a theme. Not yet with regards to a question as to who his father is, but definitely in terms of whether he can actually choose between the life as a farm boy or a rebel pilot, between a reluctant facilitator of Empire or a Jedi opponent of it. Only in Empire Strikes Back does it become also a matter of personal identity and ancestry. Luke’s choice is however not whether he is Anakin’s son or not, but what conclusions he decides to draw from that fact for the choices he makes with his life. Of course we know where it ends. Instead of Darth Vader’s planned outcome of Luke having to choose between a destiny at his or the Emperor’s side, the story spins around and Vader faces the choice between a destiny with Luke or at the Emperor’s side.
Anakin was born a slave, freed as a child only to be incorporated into the Jedi Order and taken from his mother, then forced to choose between the Jedi Code and his love for Padme. His attempt not to make that choice ultimately led him down the path of destruction succumbing to the power he craved to set himself free of such constraints. If there is any redemption in Anakin’s arc it is because at the end he can finally choose, choosing to let go of the power which failed to liberate him … is what frees him to choose to save his son’s life. Anakin’s redemption is not the arc of a good person turning evil, and then good again. Anakin’s arc is that of a good, but powerless and enslaved person, becoming an evil, powerful but still enslaved person, and then becoming morally ambiguous, powerless but free to choose his own destiny. Anakin’s redemption is finding his freedom and returning to a form, with all moral ambiguity, he could have been in if only this point had been approached decades earlier.
Identity leaving no choice
A more nuanced exploration of the relationship between identity and choice however occurs in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series. It picks up on a strand of story-telling already present in Episode IV: the issue of the identity and freedom of choice of Imperial Stormtroopers. It is touched upon briefly in A New Hope as we overhear a casual conversation between two Stormtroopers about different models of speeders. It is clearly the kind of shallow yet intimate conversation between two individuals who know each other by name and share an interest or fondness of speeders. It is a remarkably personal exchange between nameless and faceless and very impersonal characters. It is a brief spotlight on the dehumanizing effect of Empire on human beings serving under it.
The Prequel Trilogy introduces two major new elements that allows this exploration of identity and choice to fully take-off. These two elements are the Battle Droids introduced in Episode I, The Phantom Menace, and the Clone Troopers introduced in Attack of the Clones. Both are designed for war, and put into the world with that single purpose. While the Clone Troopers, that many viewers initially confuse with Stormtroopers, are introduced as uniform and with little individual character, the Battle Droids are given character traits from the very first moment. The films focus on Anakin’s story but the animation series Star Wars: The Clone Wars spends a great deal of time on both the Battle Droids and the Clone Troopers.
Both the droids and the clones seem equipped with an identity which by definition leaves them no choice. We see how both clones troopers and battle droids are mass-produced. The battle droids are qualified as lacking any creativity, whilst the far more creative clones are qualified as having been genetically modified to be more docile. They have engineered identities which destine them for engineered destinies in an engineered war. It is truly a grim way of depicting characters without any real choice or action potential other than to serve their pre-set purpose.
The first element that strikes the viewer of Star Wars: The Clone Wars as a hallmark of the Clones’ awakening identities are the fact they start to refer to each other by names. This is all the more striking because the Storm Troopers of the Original Trilogy and Sequel Trilogy are referred to, also by each other, by numbers. Where the Storm Troopers are drafted but otherwise ordinary youngsters go through a process of dehumanization turning them into numbers, the Clone Troopers go through a process of humanization turning them into people with their own names, traits and … identities. The Sequel trilogy has Finn being named by another character. Star Wars: The Clone Wars has Clone Trooper naming themselves. Within a few episodes this identity expands beyond names and starts to include body art, hair and facial hair.
It is often overlooked that a different but analogous development is occurring amongst the Battle Droids. This is probably because there it is hidden in plain sight in the guise of humour. When in Season 1 a battle droid complains about his imminent disassembling by a Jedi lightsabre by expressing sorrow that this happens so shortly after his promotion, it’s good for laughs. But it also gives this silly droid a character, an internal life, goals and ambitions. It is humour but not just for humour’s sake. The point that is being made here is that the matter of identity is not an issue of “human vs machine”. The Battle Droids this every time when they comment on the events transpiring in front of them. Often these comments are good fun and deployed as such, but that fun only thinly veils the fact that it gives these droids character.
The droids never use names, they stick to numbers. Illustrating that the mere institution of naming isn’t what provides identity. A name is at best an expression of identity, but the act of naming by itself doesn’t create one. First-Order Storm Trooper Finn is named but struggles to develop an identity in the Sequel Trilogy. Clone Trooper Fives names himself and sculpts his identity over many seasons by the long series of choices and decisions he makes.
Identity from choice
Where the Sequel Trilogy revolves around choosing your identity because that identity will shape your future choices, Star Wars: The Clone Wars revolve around how your choices shaped or inform your identity. Probably the starkest illustration of that is found in two arcs in particular, Season 4’s “Umbara Arc” and Season 6’s “Order 66 Arc”. The Umbara Arc digs deep into questions of the morality of war, the responsibility for one’s own actions and choices, and the legitimacy or perhaps even mandate for insubordination when war crimes are ordered. The Order 66 Arc delves into the abyss of how to view the remaining conditioning present in a free soul. The presence of that “bio chip” in the brains of the Clone Troopers, that makes it near impossible for them to resist that Order 66, deeply questions their identities. Order 66 doesn’t happen in that arc, of course, so the question is left unresolved for the time being. But we learn the Clones “experience” the Order 66 as a recurring nightmare, a “mission”, about which they don’t talk. But when Clone Trooper Tup mentions it in his dying moments, all Clones present indicate with gestures and pose that they share those nightmares.
This look of recognition amongst the Clones is a clear statement that this nightmarish mission they all experience in their dreams is a core ingredient, even if an unwanted one, of their identities.
It is this clear conflict between on the one hand the identities of the different Clones and their ability to make their own choices, and on the other hand the ghastly “programmed” choice of Order 66 that seems to erase their individuality once more, that makes Order 66 when it finally happens in the films and animation series this bitter and grim edge. It is one of those things you know is going to happen and yet every time you hope that it somehow won’t.
Identity and deviation
In The Bad Batch, of which we just finished Season 1, we see how this exploration continues. Season 1 opened with an Order 66 story as seen from the perspective of a team of “deviant” Clones originally introduced as “misfits”, erroneous produce or just as a “bad batch”. It is testimony of how important the Order 66 narrative has become in the development of Star Wars story-telling since the Prequel Trilogy. An evolution that even fans who did not particularly liked the Prequels have been part of, but one which the Sequel Trilogy authors seem to have completely overlooked. I think that was in part the reason why they discussion of identity in the Sequel Trilogy felt so stale and hollow. The moral stakes surrounding identity, individuality and choice are so very much higher in the Star Wars universe now in 2021, then they were in 1980 when it really mattered whether Vader was Luke’s father. Redoing that discussion isn’t going anywhere but backwards.
The Bad Batch respond differently to Order 66 than we had seen Clone Troopers do so far. As a result this adds new dimensions to the palette of behavioural responses and choices of Clones that we have seen. It further adds complexity to the story of this event, but also to the way Star Wars talks about identity. Where previously Order 66 was an indelible part of the identity of Clones that was questioning their very nature, now it becomes a spawning point for new identities around how they choose to respond to this event. This first season really has taken the time to work through this and to make clear that, as with other choices that interact with identity, there are no easy and black-or-white answers. The two part season finale to the Bad Batch’s first season reveals this more in pictures than in words. With the transition from Republic to Empire an era is ending not just for the political structure of the Galaxy, not just for the Clones and Battle Droids who are brought together on the same side in one of this season’s episodes, but also for that question about how what you choose affects who you are, and how who you are affects what you choose. A new era no doubt brings new stories to shed new light on such and other matters.