Two Sides of the Force

Star Wars: The Acolyte: Series Premiere

What is the story Lucasfilm (and, through them, Disney) is trying to tell with Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same.? We’ve been told, but those in charge of the franchise, that there are grand plans for certain portions of the series. Everything that Dave Filoni has been working on from The Mandalorian through Ahsoka, and some upcoming films are all supposed to tie together. We’re told that there’s some grand ambition for the High Republic era that was started a couple of years ago (in books and comics and, now, on TV). We’re told that this franchise is going somewhere but… I have to say, it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere at all.

The Acolyte is the first live-action media set in the High Republic, a time when the Jedi were in control of the galaxy and the Sith didn’t even exist. It’s supposed to be a new era, a new time that can be explored, where new stories that we haven’t seen over and over again can be told. I get the desire for this as it’s something many Star Wars fans have been begging for. There’s this whole galaxy of potential and the series has pulled from the same 50 years of storytelling or its entire existence. Something new would be great.

So why does this show feel like just another series set in the same old universe we already know? For a time when we should be able to get new stories free of the old conventions, these first two episodes set up all the same old tropes we’ve seen before. The Jedi are a governmental body that can’t seem to see the threats brewing right in their midst. The Sith don’t exist, but we still have a dark master and their dark apprentice. It’s good and evil, right and wrong, Jedi and Sith, all set on a bunch of planets that look like all the other planets we’ve already seen. For a new era of Star Wars, it certainly feels like the old era all over again.

We open at a cantina where Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) is confronted by a mysterious, dark Force wielder (played by Amandla Stenberg). The two battle and it seems like Indara will win the fight, but then when Mae distracts the Jedi Master (by throwing a knife at an innocent, forcing Indara to defend), she’s able to kill the superior warrior. This is a massive crime as the Jedi have been overseeing an era of peace and prosperity for the Galactic Republic. Someone going around, killing the Jedi, could cause others to think about just how fallible the Jedi Order could be.

Jedi Knight Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett), and his apprentice Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen), are tasked with retrieving the likely perpetrator, Osha (also Amandla Stenberg), a former Jedi Knight who left the order. Osha has been working as an engineer on a Trade Federation ship and, during the time of the murder, she was on ship. The Jedi, though, have a witness who swears Osha was the killed, so they take her under arrest for the Jedi Order to deal with. However, her former master, Sol (Lee Jung-jae), immediately suspects something more might be afoot, and this is only confirmed when evidence that Osha’s twin, Mae, may not have died before as everyone assumed and that she may, in fact, be this assassin.

The Acolyte is the latest Disney+Disney's answer in the streaming service game, Disney+ features the studio's (nearly) full back catalog, plus new movies and shows from the likes of the MCU and Star Wars. Star Wars series and, like so many of the previous shows we’ve seen, it struggles to illustrate just why this story was worth telling. I get that Disney has this property, and its streaming service, and they want to get as much content out for fans of their franchise as they can. Except, an implicit goal of that should be to make good shows and movies and not just generic, filler “content”. For all the hype for this show, and talk about how it would be in a new era and tell a new story for the franchise, the premiere of The Acolyte never solidifies that case for the viewers.

The first and most obvious issue is that the show pulls a nasty bait-and-switch in the opening scene of the series. Indira is essentially Trinity from The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today., just as a Jedi, and she was used heavily in the promotional materials for the series. The show, however, kills her off in a single scene. Make no mistake, it’s a great scene in large part because Carrie Anne Moss is a well trained wirework fighter and she brings all her presence and training to her fight scene. It’s fantastic to watch. It’s so good that, when she dies, the show struggled to find anything like it again. It would have been much better to not have Moss as the first Jedi we see so that her character could be built up properly, and our expectations of her place in the series could be met.

Once we get into the meat of the story, though, it becomes painfully clear there isn’t much meat here. The show is built on the “mystery” of who the killer is and what she wants, but then it almost immediately explains it all so that there is no real mystery at all. It’s obvious that Mae is Osha’s sister, a detail dropped early in the first episode, and that she’s working for some dark Sith-like figure. Balance in the Force being what it is, with Mae having a dark master, Osha is sucked back into the politics of the Jedi and, pretty quickly, her case about what’s going on (that Mae is alive and that Osha isn’t a murderer) is believed. There were any number of ways this story could have been handled, but this wasn’t the right way.

Instead of having Osha immediately get caught by the Jedi wouldn’t it have been better for her to have visions of her sister committing murders. Osha could see them through her sister’s eyes, even thinking for a time that she, Osha, is the one committing the murders. She’d wake up, confused, feeling blood on her hands (even when there were none there) and she doubts her sanity. She goes on the run to find answers before the Jedi catch up with her and then, at every turn, she’s forced to hide, or fight, to stay free all while trying to build a case to prove her innocence. And you don’t even do the twin reveal until much later in the series. That would be an intriguing mystery, one that suits the actual intent of the story.

Of course, to do that you would actually have to show the inciting incident at the start of the series. We’re told that Osha and Mae were caught in a fire that burned down their family’s home (a fire that killed the rest of the family) and the Jedi thought they were only able to rescue Osha, that Mae died in the blaze. This is all fed to us as information but we never see it. Because we don’t see it we don’t really understand how devastating it was to Osha. Because we don’t see it, we don’t understand why Mae is trying to kill the Jedi.

As is revealed by the end of the second episode, she blames the Jedi (specifically the Knights and Masters she’s killing) because she believed Osha was dead, that the Jedi let her die in the blaze. While this is obviously easy to disprove since Osha is clearly alive (something the show never addresses), the bigger issue is that we never see the incident from Mae perspective (not in these two episodes) so we don’t understand what caused her to blame the Jedi. “They let her die!” is not good enough if, for example, the Jedi arrived at a point where the blaze was raging and clearly no one could survive.

Except both girls did survive so how, exactly, did Mae end up thinking the Jedi let Osha die. We need to know this and the show doesn’t illustrate it. This is a situation where telling instead of showing really does a disservice to the story.

Of course the show has a number of these logical issues. For instance, since Osha was on a ship, working as an engineer and repair tech, shouldn’t there be logs of her presence on that ship? Shouldn’t there be records that she didn’t leave during the time of the murder. More to the point, does that ship even have hyperspace-capable shuttles that she could have stolen to perform the deed? Mae used specific daggers that she couldn’t have just anywhere. Why don’t the Jedi search the ship for actual, physical evidence. None of this is done, they just assume that Osha is the murderer despite what has to be a mountain of evidence that just isn’t there.

Also, couldn’t the Jedi simply read her mind to test and see if she was the killer? They can use their Force powers on anyone else to make them tell the truth, but they don’t even try on Osha. Maybe they think she still has control of the Force so she could block them, but she’s sealed herself off from the Force (something quickly illustrated later in the episode). They could have tested her in some way. There has to be tests Jedi can perform, or they should be able to sense the Force in others. They don’t do anything, they just assume. It’s annoying.

That, more than anything, is what is holding back this show. Everyone just makes assumptions and continues to do so, over and over again, when this case clearly needs some nuance. They assumed Mae was dead. They assumed Osha was a killer. They assumed she could somehow be in multiple places, commit multiple crimes, and still be a Force user. If this is supposed to be a show illustrating the idiocy of the Jedi well, it’s working. But considering they’re set as the heroes of this story, well, that doesn’t work at all.

The show is handsome, like any Star Wars show, and the performances are good enough. What the show lacks, though, is depth of story to make it an actual winning tale worth watching. Star Wars is capable of telling good, investing stories. Just look at the first season of The Mandalorian or, even more to the point, go watch Andor. Those shows knew how to get you invested in a story that mattered. The Acolyte, in its premiere, never makes that case. Considering the state of most Star Wars shows, I’m not sure this series will ever be able to justify its own existence. It’s a serious waste of potential.