Animated Star Wars shows like The Bad Batch, which returned to Disney Plus for season 2 on Wednesday, are a tricky balancing act: they mix high-stakes stories that dive into unexplored parts of the lore and lighter adventures designed to develop characters.
It's about satisfying grownup fans and entertaining young audiences. These series have followed this structure since The Clone Wars kicked off in 2008, with seasons that favor more intense plot arcs proving the most successful.
After a gripping opening, the first season of The Bad Batch meandered through too many forgettable side quests before reaching an excellent finale. Thankfully, season 2 doesn't follow the same pattern -- most of the 14 episodes (of the 16 in the season) Lucasfilm sent out to reviewers ahead of release were captivating.
Season 2 reunites us with the genetically enhanced titular clone squad introduced in The Clone Wars' final season, along with mysterious young female clone Omega. On the run from the Galactic Empire after going rogue, they operate as mercenaries in the period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.
However, one of their number -- the icy sniper Crosshair -- remained loyal to the newly risen Empire and his relentless hunt for his former allies was the most compelling aspect of season 1. That's also true of season 2, which focuses on his growing uncertainty about the soulless totalitarian regime, and this electric tension makes every moment of the three Crosshair-centric episodes hit the mark.
The rest of the season follows his old Bad Batch buddies as they go on various mercenary jobs, which start out light and forgettable. A pod racing-centric leans a little hard into silliness, but it's saved by colorful visuals and a memorable performance from guest star Ben Schwartz.
However, these side quest episodes also serve a purpose that becomes increasingly clear as season 2 goes on: developing the impressionable Omega's character as she encounters new mentors and peers. Actor Michelle Ang infuses the kid clone with an adorable sense of wonder as she explores the galaxy with her clone dads.
We also get some excellent callbacks to The Clone Wars, with the clever writing ensuring those who haven't watched that show (or have forgotten some details from its 133 episodes) won't feel lost. The return of one 13-year-old plotline is particularly rewarding, since it connects cleverly to the Empire's dastardly cloning experiments.
As always, the clone troopers -- both those who've abandoned the Empire and the ones who stuck around -- are this season's heart and soul. These guys are all voiced by the incredible Dee Bradley Baker, who manages to make each one feel distinct and individual even as he plays multiple roles in the same scene.
Baker's performance is vital in getting us to care about the clones' fates, since season 2 sees the Empire trying to cast its army of Jango Fett duplicates aside in favor of conscripted soldiers -- including one absolutely huge moment in the Star Wars timeline. You've also probably never thought about the millions of aging clones deserving pensions before, but it's extremely cool that this show is sophisticated enough to address this topic.
Season 2's art direction is a delight throughout, with our heroes and villains visiting a wide variety of locations. An episode where the Bad Batch visits a remote island isn't most narratively gripping, but it's so beautiful to look at that you'll get over the lighter plot. Watching the clones in action is magnificent too -- try not to smile when Crosshair fires down a tank barrel -- with plenty of dynamic camerawork and atmospheric lighting.
Longtime Star Wars animation composer Kevin Kiner's soundtrack adds layers of drama and aural color. He cleverly riffs on John Williams' iconic themes while adding plenty of his own work and flourishes. The sound design is pitch perfect as well, with a moment where Bad Batch leader Hunter's voice changes as he puts on his helmet mid-sentence highlighting the team's attention to detail.
The Bad Batch season 2 improves on the first in every way, striking the right balance between intense moments and sillier antics. There are still a few forgettable episodes, but the character development, subtle performances and stunning presentation make it one of the best seasons of Star Wars animation.