This is the first in what (I hope) will be a semi-ongoing look into the cast of this era, specifically using the massive amount of material provided by The Clone Wars TV show to do an autopsy of sorts into the portrayal and development of characters through the show’s length. Why am I just using the TV show and not all of the rest of the Clone Wars EU? Because TCW, like it or not, is the only official canon portrayal of characters and events that existed in the era now barring the films framing it. Even the Genndy Clone Wars series, which debuted some of the war’s major players, was heavily stylized and exaggerated compared to both TCW and the movies even before its continuity was called into question. This article assumes that the events of the cartoon happened, but not necessarily precisely as portrayed. TCW strikes a balance between the ideas and plots George Lucas had in mind for the era and elements of the EU that came before it, making it the most accurate history of the era in its current state.
With all of that said, let’s talk about General Grievous.
As the hype for Revenge of the Sith grew, Grievous was advertised and hyped along with it. It was Grievous’ skeleton-like visage that greeted fans upon the reveal of the title of the movie he would appear in. In his initial (both in and out of universe) debut in the Genndy series, he was a stoic, dreaded presence not unlike those in a slasher movie, single-handedly killing or seriously wounding several Jedi and only driven off by a barrage of laser and missile fire from an ARC trooper squad. His fighting style in that appearance was graceful, flowing, more like a dancer than a brute, including balancing on one foot so he could hold a third lightsaber between his mechanical toes, and he spoke only long enough to assure the Jedi that he would give them the honor of a warrior’s death. The hope for the character was high.
But, like Darth Maul before him, the hype was not held up by the reality. Grievous’ main portrayal in RotS is almost comical in contrast to the effectiveness he has in the Genndy cartoon. Instead of stoic, he’s hammy; instead of striking fear, he becomes the target of petty insults; instead of graceful, he’s brutish and droid-like. Though the animation used to bring him to life is impressive, he isn’t threatening in the least. He cackles in a vague Eastern European accent and twirls his fingers like a villain from a movie made over a century ago as he runs away from the fight he apparently started.
What happened? Exaggeration and varying degrees of official canon aside, this hardly seems the same character except in visual design and role within the universe. A good deal of this can be boiled down to simple lack of realization for the character. In RotS, Grievous is more plot device than character; he serves as a replacement antagonist after Count Dooku is killed in the first act, and as a Golden Snitch of sorts for Obi-Wan and the Jedi to chase to the Outer Rim to keep them occupied and out of the way of Palpatine’s machinations back on Coruscant. Genndy’s portrayal is an introduction to him in order to establish a reputation for a character who otherwise appears out of nowhere. A similar thing was done for Boba Fett in the animated portion of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
The key to his characterization, then, is in the other Lucas-touched production of the era. TCW’s Grievous seeks to strike a medium between the two portrayals, making him both fearsome and a bit hammy. It doesn’t always work, but the effort is there, a subtle development from the glory-seeking stoic killer to a more animated, frustrated leader willing (or forced as we’ll see) to step back and let his soldiers do the hard work for him. Perhaps it’s giving Lucas and co. too much credit to get into what can be very subjective levels of subtlety, but what is the life of a Star Wars fan if not scrabbling for depth in the thinly-portrayed?
A prototype cyborg afflicted with bronchitis and possessing the highest Jedi kill-count of any non-Force sensitive in the saga, Grievous’ backstory is vague (not taking into account EU sources, which unfortunately cannot be counted on to be accurate anymore), but the fact that he was once a great warrior is brought up quite often. His body was almost entirely replaced by cyborg parts at some point in his past, and it’s hinted, though not outright stated, that he submitted himself to the treatments willingly in order to improve his own abilities in combat. This was likely as a result of seeing how much more powerful the Jedi were than he was, a rivalry that would turn into hatred, which in turn would fuel an ambition to kill as many Jedi as possible with their own weapons. He made himself into a killing machine for the sole purpose of destroying the only beings in the galaxy he saw as stronger than himself. In search of the skill needed for his task, he would go to Count Dooku to learn some of the Jedi arts, and would then be drawn into the growing conflict of the Clone Wars, where he would have all of the Jedi targets he could dream of.
The main lesson he learned from Dooku as shown in the Genndy series, of leaving his pursuit of trophies and honorable battle behind in favor of unorthodox and underhanded tactics, never really sets in, as the two methods alternate in their dominance of his tactics through his entire career. Grievous’ tactics and plans early on in TCW are solid enough, the spy droid concept being particularly effective, but going up against Anakin’s unorthodox approach shows how little he’s paid attention to Dooku’s urging by this point. He’s still a feared and respected presence on the warfront, especially in direct combat (which he shows by humbling Ashoka Tano in their first confrontation), but the mystique surrounding him is fast fading away. In both the Malevolence case and the case of the spy droid, his obsession with single combat against Jedi directly (the former his first confrontation with Obi-Wan, who would become his greatest rival) leads to the loss of the battle for the CIS, though he himself escapes.
A keystone for Grievous’ portrayal in TCW is the episode “Lair of Grievous” about halfway through the first season. Grievous’ frustrations with his rank boils over in this episode as he, on the retreat yet again, complains to Dooku that the latter expects victory over the Jedi forces, yet all he gives Grievous to command are run-of-the-mill battle droids, an exaggeration at best. Count Dooku is having none of it and, fed up with his subordinate’s failures, challenges him to kill the two Jedi and squad of clones who, thanks to Dooku, stumble into Grievous’ personal headquarters and set up an impromptu ambush. After a direct confrontation cripples Grievous and forces him to retreat for repairs, he employs a number of traps and ambushes within his lair to turn the tables on the Jedi and their clone soldiers, whittling the clones away before separating the two Jedi and killing the younger one, not with one of his myriad of lightsaber trophies, but with a blaster. Only Kit Fisto escapes the General alive.
After this, Grievous becomes a much more devious, brutal commander, willing to do whatever it takes to bring Jedi down instead of relying on his own abilities. After demolishing Eeth Koth’s task force, he subdues the Jedi Master and contacts the Jedi Council directly to declare his intent to destroy them all, only for Koth to use it as a chance to send a signal that would lead Obi-Wan, Anakin and Adi Gallia to his location. Grievous, showing previously-unseen foresight, planned for just such a move, as well as predicting the Jedi’s tag-team tactics in their attempt to rescue Koth, setting a trap within a trap. But his ambush goes awry as, while he himself confronts Obi-Wan, the other Jedi rise to the challenge his droid forces present and Grievous is forced to retreat again. He disappears for a time before emerging with a new plan to attack Kamino, using falling debris from his purposely-enemy-battered fleet to disguise aquatic landing ships, again showing his growing knack for using past failures to his advantage. The attack did heavily damage at least one cloning facility, but that was not enough, as the genetic material used to create the clones, the main objective of the attack, is lost by Asajj Ventress.
It’s after this final failure, it seems, that Dooku tightened Grievous’ leash. Every appearance from then on has him receiving battle orders directly from Dooku and effectively running his errands, becoming little more than a proxy for the Sith Lord. This does not keep him from being effective, but it does keep him from being creative. Grievous has a role in sending suicide droid troops to bomb the Senate, under Dooku’s orders, and is the unfortunate point-man for a Dooku-masterminded plan to turn the Gungans against the Naboo (a plan that wound up getting Grievous captured by the Gungans through no fault of his own). The Count later tasks him with the destruction of the Nightsister clan who betrayed him, a task Grievous tackles with gusto, including a fight against his former ally Ventress that ends in a draw. When Dooku senses the growing power of a resurrected Darth Maul, he reports it to Grievous and orders him to beware, but any confrontation between the two was preempted by the series’ cancellation. His final appearance in the series, and thus last before the events of the Genndy series leading into RotS, is ambushing Obi-Wan in the latter’s attempt to aid a batch of young Jedi lost in space before once again playing Dooku’s errand boy and paying Hondo Ohnaka back for his humiliation of Dooku in an earlier episode. The battle leaves Hondo’s pirate forces devastated and Florrum under Grievous’ control, but the Jedi and Hondo himself both escape.
By the time we reach RotS and the events leading up to the attack on Coruscant, we see that Grievous’ previous persona as a trophy-seeking warrior has been almost completely muted as he dances to Dooku’s fife, and the creativity he displayed previously is squashed under the pressing need for the Sith to bring the war to a head and thus take a more direct hand in tying up loose ends. Grievous takes Dooku and Sidious’ orders directly for the attempted abduction of the Chancellor, and after Dooku’s death on the Invisible Hand, is left without guidance in charge of both the military and political side of the CIS, the sort of position he previously stated he had no interest in; his only interest in the war was to bring about a galaxy without Jedi, where warriors like him could thrive. He turns to the only other commander he has left for instructions on how to proceed. Thus he plays errand boy for a Sith one last time as he lured Obi-Wan to Utapau for one last confrontation, one last battle for a once-proud warrior, whose ignominious end at the end of a blaster had no bearing on the conflict he worked so hard to predicate.