I was surprised at how much I liked Disney’s live action Star Wars series Andor, so I watched the Mouse’s next Star Wars series, Ahsoka. It was a trudge across vast, dreary plains of pulp, nostalgia, and estrogen-sodden wokeness — punctuated with peaks of genuine magic and drama.
The character of Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano, an orange-skinned alien, was created by George Lucas and Dave Filoni and first introduced in the 2008 animated film The Clone Wars, which focused on her relationship with Anakin Skywalker. She and Anakin were also central to the subsequent animated series, also called The Clone Wars, which ran from 2008 to 2014 with a return in 2020.
Although adults could enjoy The Clone Wars, the main appeal was obviously to boys. So naturally, Lucas wanted to inject a Girl Power character. When Ahsoka was first introduced, she was a bratty and annoying teen. But as the series unfolded, the character grew more interesting, or at least more bearable. Even the fans who never liked Ahsoka were willing to put up with her because of Filoni’s increasingly imaginative world creation and storytelling. Filoni’s treatment of war became less cartoonish and more emotionally powerful. I was also particularly fascinated by the Night Sisters of Dathomir, the remnant of an initiatic order of women to rival the Jedi and the Sith. Finally, Filoni also did much to flesh out such sketchy/silly Lucas characters as Darth Maul and Count Dooku.
A grownup Ahsoka returned as a running guest star in Filoni’s next animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, which ran from 2014 to 2018.
Ahsoka became a real girl for the first time in the second season of The Mandalorian. She is played by Rosario Dawson, a statuesque Puerto Rican actress in orangeface who brings off the character with physical poise and personal warmth. In The Mandalorian, Ahsoka pairs off against Morgan Elsbeth, a Night Sister of Dathomir, a former Imperial military contractor, and an associate of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Elsbeth is played by actress and stuntwoman Diana Lee Inosanto, who is part-Filipino, the daughter of legendary Filipino stuntman Dan Inosanto. Like a lot of The Mandalorian, I found the episode’s direction flat and the pacing tiresome, but I thought the characters and actresses had promise. As it turns out, I was viewing the seed from which the entire Ashoka series sprang.
Basically, Ahsoka is a live-action continuation of Star Wars: Rebels in which we meet most of its cast in the flesh, including Hera Syndulla (played by Mary Elizabeth Winsted in greenface), Sabine Wren (played by a half-Chinese actress, Natashia Liu Bordizzo), Ezra Bridger (played by a half-Persian actor, Eman Esfandi), and Grand Admiral Thrawn (played by Mads Mikkelsen’s older brother Lars in blueface). Yes, the casting is diverse to the max.
But before you draw the conclusion that white people can no longer appear in Star Wars unless painted dayglo, I should mention that there are also two brand new whiter-than-white, blue-eyed characters. But these are bad guys: Jedi renegade Baylan Skoll (magnificently played by Irish actor Ray Stevenson, who sadly died before the show premiered) and his apprentice Shin Hati (played by Ukrainian actress Ivanna Sakhno). They are, however, interesting villains. Genevieve O’Reilly also appears as Mon Mothma. The big surprise is that Hayden Christensen returns as Anakin Skywalker.
There are eight episodes of Ahsoka. I almost gave up after the third. The plot was too pulpy: one contrived chase and fight after another. It was also too feminist: too much estrogen, too many feels, too many women acting like women acting like men. I found Sabine Wren especially repulsive and contemptible.
But I gave it a chance, and soon I was hooked, because although the heroines are annoying, the villains are fascinating: Elsbeth, Skoll, Hati, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and even three Night Sisters known as the Great Mothers, who are basically Norns or Fates.
None of them are cackling pulp baddies. All of them are characters with some depth, and all of them are seeking something of great importance, not just opportunities to be mean. None, for instance, are as petty as Sabine, who breaks an oath and threatens the peace of the galaxy on the off chance of reuniting with an old friend.
One reason that the bad guys seem so much more interesting is that the new Republic is very much a liberal democracy. You see it everywhere. The Empire’s Star Destroyers were sleek as sharks and shaped like spearheads. But that’s too aggressive for the Republic, so they are dismantling them to build bulbous ships that look about as threatening as manatees. I imagine they are crewed largely by sociologists and grief counselors. The Empire’s uniforms were sharp and masculine. The Republic dresses their flabby military bureaucrats in shapeless pajamas and leisure suits. Their councils of state and military tribunals have the gravitas of a girls’ slumber party.
This being a liberal democracy, oaths of obedience and chains of command mean nothing, and all thoughts of the greater good take a back seat to personal attachments and feelings. Risking one’s life for liberal democracy may have been grand and heroic during the rebellion, but when liberal democracy triumphs, all greatness of soul is extinguished. Not even the rebels of Star Wars: Rebels have a place in this world, much less the Jedi.
The basic story arc is that Morgan Elsbeth and other Imperial loyalists are trying to locate and bring back Grand Admiral Thrawn, who disappeared near the end of the Empire when his Star Destroyer was dragged into hyperspace by a whale-like creature that can travel between galaxies. The loyalists want Thrawn to lead their resurgence.
Elsbeth dreams that Thrawn is alive on Peridea, the homeworld of the Night Sisters in a distant galaxy. But these are no mere dreams. She believes they have been sent by her fellow Night Sisters, the Great Mothers. Based on this faith, she constructs a ship, finds a map, and embarks on a journey to a place known only in fairy tales that begin “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
The arrival on Peridea in episode six is truly magical, as are the introductions of the Great Mothers and Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Peridean sets and costumes are striking, although a bit derivative in places of The Lord of the Rings, which is perhaps appropriate, given that we are moving out of science fiction altogether and into fantasy territory — the territory from which the Jedi originally spring. The atmospheric music by Kevin Kiner is absolutely brilliant. I will spare you any more about the story, because I don’t want to spoil it.
Ashoka has all the standard Star Wars tropes: space battles, Jedi, light-saber duels, cutesy droids, and Ewok-like primitives. But aside from an annoying cameo by C-3PO, it doesn’t lean too heavily on nostalgia for the original films.
Yes, the casting is woke. But the scripts really aren’t. At worst they are juvenile. At best they are intensely interesting. They left me wondering: What is Thrawn’s ultimate agenda? What are the Great Mothers after? What are they fleeing? And why did Baylan Skoll hitch a one-way ride to a distant galaxy in order to find the “beginning” and thus halt the wheel of time? The kindest thing I can say about Ahsoka is that the final episode left me wanting to know what comes next.
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