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The Acolyte Hovers On the Brink of the Star Wars Nostalgia Trap

Leslye Headland has the chance to break from the middling live-action shows, but will she take it?
  • Amandla Stenberg in The Acolyte (Photo: Disney+/Lucasfilm)
    Amandla Stenberg in The Acolyte (Photo: Disney+/Lucasfilm)

    Star Wars has always drawn very clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys, but The Acolyte dares to ask who actually gets to define the difference between the Light Side and the Dark. It’s a question that fits well with the series’s anti-colonial and imperialist themes, but that bit of introspection is largely buried in the first four episodes of the Disney+ series under a parade of more familiar Star Wars touchstones.

    Setting The Acolyte 100 years before the Skywalker saga means there are no major characters and lore to tie into, something that should give creator and showrunner Lesyle Headland free reign to chart her own path. Instead, the first half of the series just tells another tale of twins born to a powerful force user who find themselves at the center of a conflict between Jedi and Sith. 

    Osha and Mae Aniseya (Amandla Stenberg, in a dual role) were raised to be heirs to a coven of witches hiding from the Jedi Order outside of Republic space, a tradition whose emphasis on the threads that bind destiny and the power of working together to produce stronger effects is more reminiscent of The Wheel of Time’s Aes Sedai than Star Wars’ Witches of Dathomir. A flashback that takes up all of Episode 3 demonstrates the problem there has always been with people who style themselves as knights declaring different faith traditions as evil — especially when it involves taking children away to educate them and ensure that they never see their families again.

    A disagreement between the twins about their futures led to a horrific tragedy, with Osha becoming a padawan dropout and Mae a Sith acolyte vowing vengeance against the four Jedi she views as responsible. The series starts with a bang, with the masked and cowled Mae strutting into a bar to challenge the Jedi master Indara, played by The Matrix star Carrie-Anne Moss dodging throwing knives instead of bullets. Unfortunately Moss is otherwise criminally underutilized as the attack stirs the Jedi to take action lest it make them look weak.

    Because the fact that Osha had an evil twin was kept secret for some reason, there’s the obligatory mistaken identity plot as she’s confronted by her former master Sol (Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae) and her childhood friend and newly minted Jedi Knight Yord (Charlie Barnett, who previously worked with Headland on Russian Doll). The characters lean heavily on archetypes, with Yord being a rigid, by-the-book type while Sol takes on the role of father figure who wishes he could have done more to protect Osha. Sol’s almost assuredly going to also fall into the role of doomed mentor too, given he promises to explain everything to her in episode four and there’s half a season of mystery left. Sol’s new padawan Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen of His Dark Materials) is mostly defined as being highly competent and exasperated by Yord, but it would be interesting to see more of how she feels to see Osha receive so much attention from her mentor.

    What’s most compelling about Mae is how often she fails and the roundabout ways she achieves her goals by attacking the Jedi with their own feelings of guilt and desire to protect others. Her ambush of a meditating Jedi is particularly surprising, and her battle against Sol demonstrates his mastery of the Force is great enough he doesn’t even have to use his lightsaber to have her on the back foot. Manny Jacinto plays a foil to Mae’s stoic determination by bringing a bit of his breakout role Jason Mendoza (in The Good Place) to his portrayal of her lackadaisical ally Qimir, but his probing questions and slipperiness indicate there’s more to the character than it seems.

    By contrast, Osha is a fairly bland protagonist, a quippy grease monkey doing jobs that are meant to be too dangerous for humans before she’s dragged into the greater plot. There’s something deeply cheesy in having her hear screams in a fire she’s putting out, a clumsy way of hinting at a traumatic past that will then just be explained a scene later. Even with a full episode dedicated to her childhood it’s still unclear why she wanted to become a Jedi — it seems to be some mix of youthful rebelliousness and maybe magical destiny.

    The Acolyte is buoyed by not having to tie into the several other series, a weight that has become especially ponderous in The Mandalorian and Ahsoka. But it still takes pains to ensure things feel familiar, from Osha’s cute droid/multi-tool to the use of lines like “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” One thing that is charmingly novel is the increased use of obscure aliens, like a prisoner who breaks out with the help of a tentacle that springs out of his head. The makeup is overall excellent, allowing characters like Jecki Lon and the twins’ other mother Koril (Margarita Levieva) to show a full range of emotion rather than the muted performances delivered by the alien characters in Ahsoka.

    Andor has stood out from the crowd of middling live-action Star Wars shows by using the setting to actually say something about broken systems, survivor’s guilt, and the suppression of Indigenous people rather than simply doling out fresh bits of lore and cameos. The Acolyte has the potential to do the same in its examination of what the Jedi Order really stands for and how people confront their failings as individuals and an organization. The question is whether the show will let that light shine in its back half or fall to the temptation to just deliver nostalgic action.

    New episodes of The Acolyte drop Tuesdays on Disney+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Samantha Nelson is a freelance critic and pop culture writer whose work has appeared in publications including IGN, Polygon, The A.V. Club, The Verge and GamesRadar+. She lives in Amsterdam and loves cooking, traveling, playing games and reading comic books.

    TOPICS: Star Wars: The Acolyte