The Star Wars universe is no stranger to dark subject matter in both its live-action and animated narratives. Throughout the movies and shows (and I assume the canonical comics and books that I still have not read), the series takes us to some really gruesome places.
One recurring character in both The Clone Wars and Rebels is Rex. A war veteran, Rex is a capable and valuable member of the Rebellion and probably the most well-developed clone in the Star Wars universe. One of the problems with having a story filled with so many characters, though, is that the narrative doesn’t always have time to fully delve into their issues. At the very least, though, Star Wars tries, and while the story occasionally rushes through certain character arcs, its results are not horrible. This is most definitely the case with a recent Rebels episode “The Last Battle”, where we finally get to see more from Rex and his PTSD from fighting in the Clone Wars.
“The Last Battle” opens with Rex taking Kanan, Ezra, and Zeb on a salvage mission to an old Clone Wars battlefield. Rex is noticeably on edge once there, as the place holds a lot of bad reminders for him. Ezra finds the remains of an old battle droid and makes a comment that it doesn’t look all that dangerous. The comment sets Rex off, and he snaps at Ezra, reminding him that those battle droids killed a lot of people and that a good number of those people were his friends.
As the episode progresses, however, we learn that an old Separatist tactical droid managed to avoid the galaxy-wide shutdown and has been commanding a small army of battle droids for the past decade and a half, convinced that the war between the Separatists and the Republic is still going. He manages to capture our characters and incapacitate them inside a ray shield. While Ezra, Zeb, and Kanan are surprised to see old Clone War droids up and running, Rex’s reaction is much stronger. Both Kanan and Rex participated in the Clone Wars, but whereas Kanan was a Padawan learner with a Jedi Master watching out for him, Rex is a clone. He was specifically brought to life for the sole purpose of fighting—as a clone, he grew up much faster than other people, and what youth he did have was spent in rigorous training. The clones were seen as a means to an end for the Republic. They were an attack force that was so expendable that their creators didn’t even bother naming them. Instead, the clones were stuck inventing names for themselves and trying to find any semblance of individuality that they could.
Over the course of The Clone Wars, we see that a few of the clones broke ranks and tried to live their own lives—one even falls in love with a woman and helps raise her children—but each time this happens, they’re always dragged back into the war and put down for their supposed selfishness. The entire backstory for the clones is really messed up—like all people, they didn’t ask to exist, but unlike everyone else in the galaxy, they were forced to partake in a war that wasn’t their own. And since they were created specifically for war, very few people in the galaxy cared when they died or were suffering from trauma.
Many of Rex’s clone brothers died around him, and we never really see the clones receive any kind of care for all their troubles outside being reevaluated for their usefulness. Star Wars uses Rex’s reaction to the battle droids to remind us that he’s a fully individual person and that what he suffered through during the war matters. After Rex snaps at Ezra, Kanan reminds the audience that “battles leave scars, some you can’t see”. Then, when they’re captured, Rex flashes back to the war and for a minute believes that he’s still fighting for the Republic—at one point, he even calls out for his fellow clone trooper, Cody.
Rex’s character arc, like that of many other characters, didn’t start during Rebels and needs to be looked at with The Clone Wars in mind. We learn a lot about Rex and what drives him over both shows, and we get to see his pain and how he handles loss. Rex is a person who keeps things locked up inside—the one person on Rebels he was truly open with is Ahsoka, and as far as he knows, she’s dead too. I wouldn’t say that “The Last Battle” is a complete arc that resolves Rex’s trauma—he still has PTSD when the episode ends, and he’s still in a war—but it is enough to further flesh out his character development. In the future, I would like to see more from Rex and his struggles. After all, it’s not often we get to see mental illness presented in children’s media, let alone presented well.
One of the things that I love about The Clone Wars and Rebels is that both animated series are not afraid to expose younger audiences to these issues. Nearly all the characters in Rebels suffer from something—both Kanan and Zeb suffer from survivor’s guilt, Sabine has abandonment issues, and Ezra also struggles with self-doubt over being left behind by his parents and unable to save his friends from being hurt. Star Wars is filled with awful things—slavery, murder, suicide, and genocide—and very few characters survive unscathed. Luke gets his hand chopped off, Anakin is gaslit and then burned alive, Han and Obi-Wan are tortured, and both Rey and potentially Kylo Ren are victims of mind rape. Almost every single character we are introduced to goes through some kind of trauma.
Unfortunately, the movies don’t always take the time to properly walk their characters through these issues. A New Hope allows Luke to mourn Obi-Wan Kenobi, an old guy he barely knows, but forgets that Leia just watched her entire planet blow up. You would think that what happened didn’t affect Leia at all, considering that she never brings it up again after the fact. When characters experience these kinds of things, it’s their struggles with their trauma that makes them believable, and when a story decides to destroy someone’s home, that person’s characterization suffers if it’s never addressed. Rebels is far from perfect, but like The Clone Wars, it takes some much needed time to talk about these issues. Rex’s trauma isn’t presented as an overreaction, and when he has trouble figuring out where he is and dealing with his emotions, it’s through Kanan’s willingness to help that Rex can ground himself back in reality. Episodes like “The Last Battle”, which aren’t afraid to show something as serious as Rex’s flashbacks and PTSD, allow Rebels to normalize mental illness as something anyone can have and let its audience know that there’s nothing wrong with being ill.