The Tragedy of Savage Opress: A Star Wars Examination of Toxic Masculinity:
Several weeks ago, Star Wars The Clone Wars came to the end of its long-awaited final
season, and like many other fans of the show logging onto Disney Plus to check it out, I’ve
spent the last couple of months catching up on old episodes in order to better appreciate this finale. Suffice to say, there’s been many highlights along the way, and one of them has
undoubtedly been the reintroduction of Darth Maul. Much has been written elsewhere about
how Dave Filoni and the rest of The Clone Wars team transformed Maul from a
cool-looking, yet vacuous character (basically the prequel equivalent of Boba Fett) into one
of the best and most complex villains in all of Star Wars, infusing him with genuine pathos
and expanding his character in ways that added new dimensions to the galaxy in the form of
the mystical Nightsisters and the planet Dathomir. But it was while recapping through the
initial three episode arc that planted the seeds for Maul’s reintroduction in Season Three
(that would be Nightsisters, Monster and Witches of the Mist) that I picked up on several
aspects that I hadn’t before, particularly with regards to a certain relative of Maul’s and how
his story speaks to the self-destructive nature of the Dark Side of the Force and it’s many
disciples. I’m talking of course about Savage Opress, brother to Maul and one time
apprentice to Asajj Ventress and Count Dooku.
To recap, Savage is introduced as part of a Nightbrother clan on Dathomir who are subservient to the Nightsisters, witches who use the Force to perform feats of magic. Savage is selected along with several of his kin by Asajj Ventress as part of a scheme to exact revenge on her former master Count Dooku, after he attempted to kill her at the Battle of Sullust, at the behest of his own master, Darth Sideous. After enduring several trials based on physical ability, wherein the Nightbrothers were picked off one by one, Savage offered himself in place of his brother Feral and had his appearance and aggression drastically enhanced in a Nightsister ritual, before murdering Feral with his bare hands as a final test of his loyalty. He was then presented to Dooku under the guise of a new apprentice, his true purpose being to aid Ventress in killing him, a plan which ultimately failed when their combined rejection and taunting of Savage caused him to turn against them both and flee, eventually seeking out Maul and joining with him in a quest for power and vengeance.
Reflecting on this, it becomes apparent to me that this storyline is functioning partly as a critique of toxic masculinity and how such a mindset comes about. The Nightsisters and Dooku’s expectations of Savage’s physical might, as well as their relentless cruelty, abuse and “conditioning” (read: magic), gradually transform him from an otherwise temperate and kind-hearted individual into a monstrous brute who’s only talent is violence. This is best exemplified when Savage is dispatched to bring the King of Toydaria to Dooku alive and winds up killing him instead. Dooku’s scenes with Savage in Witches of the Mist serve as a dark mirror of Yoda’s training of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Whereas Yoda strove to teach Luke patience and tranquility, Dooku only wants to instill hatred and anger in Savage, rewarding his shortcomings with a burst of Force Lightning to the face and denying him forgiveness or basic empathy, coldly stating 'that is not the way of the Dark Side'.
This is obviously par for the course with Dark Side Force users. Many of them suffer greatly because of their emphasis on channeling their fear, anger and hatred, but there’s a definite focus on masculinity with Savage, particularly in the episode Monster. There, during Ventress’ “games” as she calls them, she scorns the Nightbrothers’ perceived infirmity, calling them 'weak' and dubbing Savage’s protectiveness of Feral 'pathetic'. She prizes only physical strength and brutality from her male champion, believing those traits are all she needs to overcome Dooku, much like how physical strength and assertiveness in the real world are consistently attributed as positive qualities in successful men. Even Maul himself, who has endured plenty of psychological abuse through his apprenticeship under Sidious, treats Savage as a tool of brute force as he builds his criminal empire. Although Savage believes that they should treat each other as equals - ‘Let us share our strength’ - Maul refuses to do so, insisting that their relationship be based on dominance and never truly seeing Savage as a brother until it’s too late.
It’s with the failure of Ventress’ plan and Savage’s eventual death that writers Katie Lucas and Chris Collins arrive at their ultimate point; that a mindset built on harmful and outdated ideals of masculinity amounts to very little in the end. Despite their many demonstrations of superiority over him, Ventress and Dooku fail to exact any lasting control over Savage, with his strength proving fruitless against their use of the Force. (The rate at which Dooku keeps neutralising Savage with Force Lightning during their duel is almost comical.) This is continued in Season Five, where Savage and Maul consistently lose in their duels together against a single opponent, first with Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revival, and then again with Sidious in The Lawless. In both cases, Savage is the one who comes off notably worse, with Obi-Wan costing him an arm and Sidious his life. In fact Sidious revels in his strength in the Force, cackling with glee as he almost toys with Savage, evading his attacks with ease and finally killing him with what seems like no effort at all.
The theme of Toxic Masculinity is one that is carried through other stories in The Clone Wars, be it the Father’s attempts to control his Force-wielding children through dominance with the Force in The Mortis Trilogy, Chairman Cho’s ego and pride in Trespass, or the Trandoshan’s uber-macho displays during their barbaric trophy hunting in Padawan Lost & Wookie Hunt; as well as the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy with Ben Solo’s gradual journey of overcoming his entitlement and selfishness and Poe Dameron maturing from a reckless hothead to a more thoughtful and strategic leader in The Last Jedi. But, I’d argue this theme is at its most tragic in The Clone Wars with Savage. There are a substantial amount of villains in Star Wars who often make choices that eventually lead to their downfall. (For instance Boba Fett should really have paid more attention to Han Solo in Return of the Jedi) Savage however is different in that he had his choices made for him by a society and powerful individuals, who indoctrinated him into a state of mind that he never asked for, leaving him a shell of what he once was and constantly believing that he was never quite enough. Indeed, his last words to Maul, as the Nightsister magic seeps away from him like a toxic fume, revealing his true self, are indicative of his regrettable fate: 'I am an unworthy apprentice. I’m not like you, I never was…'