Disney+’s The Acolyte Breathes New Life Into the Star Wars Galaxy

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Disney+’s The Acolyte Breathes New Life Into the Star Wars Galaxy

As someone who first watched A New Hope in theaters 47 years ago and has been a Star Wars obsessive ever since, what I’m about to write is something I hate to admit: the franchise is in a bit of a rut. 

The last Star Wars film was released five years ago and a plethora of TV series set in the universe (Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, The Book of Boba Fett) tell new tales but rely on familiar faces we’ve known for decades. Aside from The Mandalorian, which debuted back in 2019, the head honchos at Lucasfilm seemed out of fresh ideas—until now. 

Enter showrunner Leslye Headland, best known as the co-creator of the Netflix series Russian Doll. Headland breathes new life into the Star Wars universe with The Acolyte, set 100 years before the rise of The Empire. By offering something die-hard fans will appreciate (more Jedis than you can shake a stick at) and something newcomers will enjoy (a good mystery/thriller), Headland manages to bring balance to Star Wars for the first time in a long time. Surprisingly, the success of The Acolyte is due to a well-known trope within this galaxy: duality.  

The concept of duality has been around since the franchise began. The light and dark sides of The Force is the most frequent example, but it’s also seen in some of the franchise’s most iconic confrontations: Obi-Wan/Darth Maul, Rey Skywalker/Kylo Ren, and Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker are, at first glance, classic battles of good versus evil. However, most dualities in this universe are usually a struggle for a balance with oneself. 

Who am I? What am I supposed to be? What’s my path? Oh crap, I’ve really made some mistakes I regret, like lightsabering my dad through the chest! These are issues Luke, Anakin, Rey, Kylo, Obi-Wan, and pretty much every other major character has experienced, and also makes Star Wars relatable to viewers. (Except for the lightsabering your dad part.) Duality and balance is also exactly what actress Amandla Stenberg contends with, playing two pivotal roles. 

At one time inseparable, her two characters are now on opposing sides. I won’t spoil the plot by telling you how or why this happened, just know that having two people who care for each other at odds is always compelling, especially in Star Wars. Stenberg absolutely shines, completely believable as a vengeful character and as her counterpoint, someone a bit meandering yet trusting. It truly feels like each person is played by a different actor. In April, Headland called the series Frozen meets Kill Bill,” which gives a strong hint to the relationship between the two. 

Stenberg is surrounded by a talented cast, which includes a ton of Jedis. Lee Jung-jae is essentially the co-lead as Sol, a Master who has a softness rarely seen in a Jedi. He has excellent chemistry with Stenberg, which gives their relationship a sincere father/daughter dynamic. He will remind many of Qui-Gon Jinn. 

Charlie Barnett is compelling as by-the-book Jedi Master Yord and Dafne Keen is fascinating as Jecki, a padawan that exudes calm and is wise beyond her years. My favorite new Jedi is Carrie-Anne Moss as Indara. She’s not on screen often enough, but when she is, Moss is a boss. Part of Moss and Stenberg’s fight was revealed in early trailers, but the full version is epic.  

There’s a veritable potpourri of Force users in this series. Aside from the prequels, Star Wars acolytes like myself have rarely been treated to so many onscreen Jedis, and we’ve never seen The Order in its prime. Headland, a self-professed Star Wars nut with a Princess Leia tattoo on her right hand, clearly let her geek flag fly when developing this series. But she also does an incredible job of creating something new with The Acolyte

This sprawling franchise hasn’t had a true mystery/thriller before. Oh sure, we’ve wondered about Snoke’s origins, Luke’s whereabouts, and if Jar Jar was really a Sith, but Star Wars fans have never experienced a significant secret the audience was blind to since the Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker reveal. The Acolyte provides just that. Seeing the Jedi at the height of their powers is impressive. But seeing them, at their apex, utterly confused and at times powerless is even better. Jedi are being hunted but they have no idea who’s behind it or what the motivation is. Neither does the audience. The mystery of this series is what will keep you riveted to your screen. 

I had access to the first four episodes of The Acolyte and each one was unique and  slowly added layers. I came to have a basic understanding of the duality of Stenberg’s characters, why they feel the way they do and the motivations for their actions. But The Acolyte also hints at mysteries yet to be revealed. There’s more to its story than simple vengeance. 

Late in an episode, Master Sol comes to a stop. He senses something while staring into the distance, and Stenberg asks what’s wrong. Sol dismisses the question, sees the doubt on her face, and then says, “You’re going to face your past. Both of us will. Once we get safely to the ship. I’ll explain everything.”

What Sol says comes out of left field because everything we’ve seen so far shows he’s a standup guy, but this hint at a dark past leaves Stenberg’s character and the audience befuddled. It’s this kind of mystery, along with a healthy dose of Jedi, that makes The Acolyte so compelling and unique, offering a new type of Star Wars duality. 

The Acolyte premieres Tuesday, June 4th on Disney+. 

Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s making lightsaber noises while swinging around a laser sword he built at Galaxy’s Edge, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.

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