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Season One [Episodes 1-4] 

Aired On: Disney+

Release Date: 06/04/24
Action. Adventure. Drama.

"Star Wars series that takes viewers into a galaxy of shadowy secrets and emerging dark-side powers in the final days of the High Republic era."


The Acolyte, the latest Star Wars series for Disney+, is set roughly 100 years before the events of the prequel trilogy. A brief opening text – not a crawl – lets the audience know it’s a time of peace, when "The Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic have prospered for centuries without war."


However, the Star Wars galaxy is vast and there are many dark corners filled with even darker secrets.


In the opening scene we meet Mae (Amandla Stenberg, The Hate U Give), a force sensitive assassin who seeks a Jedi master named Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix series). In fact, Mae is hunting four Jedi masters who were involved in events that happened on Mae’s homeworld 16 years ago. Another of those four, Jedi Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae, Squid Game), also has ties to a former Jedi apprentice who is tangled up in the mystery. 


... and it's hard to say much more about the plot than that, without veering into spoilers. With each episode (this reviewer has seen the first four), more layers are peeled, more threads unraveled, and more secrets are told. 


Showrunner Leslye Headland (Russian Doll) has made one of the best television versions of a Star Wars story, in that it works so well in an episodic format because of the mystery that continues to deepen and unravel. Some of those elements are fairly obvious, but that's often true of even the best Agatha Christie stories. There's an art to the sleight of hand, where the audience is shown surface-level reveals while still being kept in the dark by the deeper secrets.


Headland’s writer’s room has also penned some of the best Star Wars dialogue this side of Andor. Actually, in several ways, the show most resembles what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi. The pacing, the balance of humor and action, and the notes of intrigue are all highly evocative of Episode VIII


Visually, The Acolyte looks a lot like every other Star Wars series. Interestingly, Headland has said the show did not use “The Volume,” that high-tech soundstage invented for and popularized by The Mandalorian. However, the show retains so much of that sheen. It's glossy and often gorgeous to look at, but it also tends to look just a little hollow and artificial. 


Still, it is Star Wars, so there is a new, cute droid named Pip that should lead to some excellent merch, and there are hundreds of strange, weird, and fun alien species spilling all over the show, although mostly in background and minor roles. All of that adds to the worldbuilding and general vibe that helps define the franchise. There’s an especially inventive use of several new species during an escape scene from a prison ship in the first episode.  


Headland also said she wanted to incorporate elements of martial arts into Star Wars, which makes sense. Star Wars has always leaned heavily on its eastern influences, most notably the storytelling and imagery of Akira Kurosawa. So, those kung fu elements pair well with the franchise, especially during a time when so many Jedi still roam the galaxy. The grace and fluidity of the action makes sense when considering the characters flying across the screen are using an invisible force to do so.


Another thing the show does well is deepen the mythology of the force, that "energy field created by all living things" that "binds the galaxy together," according to Obi-Wan Kenobi. In most of Star Wars storytelling, the force is a thing that's being wielded by either the Jedi (light) or Sith (dark). TV series, especially Dave Filoni's animated shows like The Clone Wars and Rebels, have tried to expand that language. The Acolyte adds yet a few more notes of understanding.


Moreover, the show’s characterization of the Jedi during this particular stage helps to deepen the Star Wars prequel films, setting up both their omnipresence and ties to the politics of The Republic – and their hubris and what they're not able to see. It’s also refreshing to see Star Wars storytelling set in an era outside of the Skywalker saga, with no big cameos and no returning characters popping up … so far. 


Through the first four episodes, Stenberg and Jung-jae get the most to do, and both are excellent additions to the Star Wars canon. Jung-jae, as Sol, is not so much of a conflicted Jedi as he is an empathetic one, somewhat along the lines of Qui-Gon Jinn. His view of the force is occasionally at odds with the larger Jedi Council, but he is a deeply compassionate character played with great depth and authenticity.


Stenberg is harder to describe without spoilers, but she showcases tremendous range and has a particular knack for the stunts and movements required by a force user. 


Also notable is Manny Jacinto (The Good Place) as Qimir, an associate of Mae who – perhaps – has more to do with the deeper mystery than is revealed in the first four episodes. Jacinto plays the character with an intriguing amount of aloofness that may be a model for someone who was very essential to the Star Wars films.


And that’s what makes The Acolyte so much fun, and such a thrilling watch – there are so many layers and levels. Like Russian Doll, it’s gripping, twisty storytelling that evolves with each episode, practically demanding the audience watch more, if only to find out what happens next. Maybe most importantly, this franchise is finally finding ways to tread new ground. 


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