Sci-fi series ‘The Acolyte’ learnt from the master

Amandla Stenberg as Osha in ‘The Acolyte’. Picture: Supplied

Amandla Stenberg as Osha in ‘The Acolyte’. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 10, 2024


By Lili Loofbourow

A prequel to a prequel is a tough sell. Especially for a property like “Star Wars”, where the lore can be as constricting as the fans are passionate.

But “The Acolyte”, Leslye Headland’s pleasantly grimy “Star Wars” series for Disney+, proves that a shift to the distant past has its perks.

The series takes place a century or so before “Episode I – The Phantom Menace”. That’s such a long time ago (and so extremely far away) that the project ekes out some narrative independence simply by virtue of its remoteness.

Freed from a duty to set up or proximally explain the events of “Episode I”, “The Acolyte” aims to tell a perfectly decent, largely stand-alone story, even if the details feel – in sweeping historical terms pertaining to “the Empire”. anyway – inconsequential.

Structurally, “The Acolyte” is a murder mystery: someone is assassinating Jedi masters.

That should not, of course, be happening. No one should be able to best a Jedi, particularly one as skilled as the assassin’s first victim (who will remain nameless here to minimise spoilers).

Moreover, because the series is set during the era of the High Republic, a Golden Age before the fall of the Jedi during which they protect the democratic union known as the Galactic Republic, the assassinations might undercut the public’s faith in that protection.

Some higher-up masters, including Vernestra Rwoh (Rebecca Henderson), therefore regard the existence of this “unauthorised Force user” as more than embarrassing; it’s potentially ruinous that someone reached that level of proficiency without the Order’s knowledge.

The Jedi accordingly engage in what amounts to a cover-up while hunting the assassin and trying to determine who trained her.

Amandla Stenberg attends the special launch event of the new Star Wars series "The Acolyte" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 23, 2024. REUTERS/Mike Blake

That’s the political backdrop, and it’s peppered with hints that the Jedi may have strayed from some of their core tenets.

As one character from a community the Jedi descended upon like colonisers put it: “This isn’t about good or bad. This is about power, and who is allowed to use it.”

But based on the four episodes critics received, “The Acolyte” is less interested in dark systemic critiques (your “Rogue One,” your “Andor”) than in the type of Jungian struggle of the soul I associate more with the original trilogy.

Though it’s a little difficult to pronounce on the story, tension is emerging between agency and fate, vocation and family, teacher and pupil, love and hate.

And witches and Jedi.

The show’s reluctant protagonist is Osha (Amandla Stenberg), the daughter of coven leaders Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Mother Koril (Margarita Levieva).

As a former witch-in-training and former Jedi-in-training who never completed either “degree”, so to speak, Osha feels like an old-school Star Wars hero.

Her faith in whatever messianic potential she once had has dwindled; when the show begins, she’s humbled but comparatively happy, having quit Force college and learnt a trade – she’s a mechanic.

Because the Jedi assassin matches her description exactly, Osha is swiftly arrested by and reunited with some of her former Jedi crew, including her sometime master Sol (Lee Jung-jae of “Squid Game”); his current Padawan, Jecki (Dafne Keen); and Osha’s former peer and Jedi classmate Yord (Charlie Barnett).

Lee Jung-jae of “Squid Game” in a scene from “The Acolyte”. Picture: Supplied

Stenberg works hard to render Osha physically and temperamentally distinct from the skilled assassin she resembles (whom Stenberg also plays).

Whereas the latter is direct and confrontational, Osha starts off clumsy, well-meaning and semi-competent.

Lee, who doubles as the show’s lead sleuth, excels as Osha’s ex-mentor, even if the fascinating but complex dynamic between the hangdog master and his avoidant pupil gets less screen time than one might wish.

Manny Jacinto amuses as a slimy trader, and Carrie-Anne Moss electrifies as Indara.

“The Acolyte” is a lot of fun to watch. The show refreshes the franchise by remixing some of the films’ more potent archetypes (and familial dynamics) while remaining accessible to neophytes.

The production values have been rightly praised, and fans of Ewok hygge will find the show’s aesthetics gratifyingly earthy and anti-minimalist. (No sterile hallways here, or orderly geometric displays featuring deadly machinery.)

The action sequences are awfully compelling even for Philistines like myself, who tend to endure choreographed on-screen fights more than enjoy them.

The show’s pacing is shockingly brisk, at least at first. A confrontation many a series would have reserved for the finale happens in the second episode.

By the fourth episode, however, that momentum has gone slack, mostly from a doomed effort to preserve some genre-mandated suspense.

I won’t go into details for fear of spoiling, but at its core, “The Acolyte” is a very particular kind of murder mystery: It’s not a whodunit. Nor is it “howcatchem,” in the style of “Columbo”, where the viewer sees the murder and watches the detective arrive at the conclusion.

It’s more of a whydunit. That’s not always a mystery’s most interesting question, and the show’s unwillingness to answer it, four episodes in, keeps the story’s more interesting themes from coming clearly into view.

For instance: This is a world stuffed with teachers and pupils (as the title suggests), but those hoping to see those various Force “schools” in action, or the conflicts their different mentorship styles generate, will probably be disappointed.

As an allegory for historical trauma (and imperialism), it seems likely to fall short.

Some flaws are minor: The flashbacks are weak, and the dialogue is frequently cheesy or artlessly direct, but that all feels true to the franchise, which has never been particularly subtle.

Others might matter slightly more, depending on where the series ends up. “The Acolyte” is clearly invested in complicating the Jedi mythos and injecting a little relativism into a moral system that orbits binaries such as light and dark sides. But the mechanics are clunky.

Osha, for instance, ostensibly gave up on becoming a Jedi because her grief over losing her family in a fire prevented her from releasing her attachments and committing to her training. The provocative and wildly interesting idea – that the Jedi, at this point in history, see trauma as disqualifying because it makes you unfit to wield the Force (which suggests they recruit trainees only from the comparatively safe and privileged) – is endorsed by at least one Jedi master, Indara.

Unfortunately, it appears to be refuted by another. “We’re not defined by what we lose. We’re defined by what we survive,” Jecki says.

There is not, at least in the episodes I’ve seen, any acknowledgement of the contradiction.

All that may come. In the meantime, “The Acolyte” delivers plenty of grim fun – and some witches, and more than one delightful, thoroughly soapy trope, having carved out a space and time where a murder mystery can movingly riff on some classic “Star Wars” hero’s quest silliness.

∎ “The Acolyte” is streaming on Disney+.