‘The Acolyte’ Season One Review

The Jedi Have A Killer In Their Midst In Leslye Headland's Compelling, Slow Burn Series

Leslye Headlan’ds new series Star Wars: The Acolyte is breaking new ground for a galaxy far far away and for fans. Set during the High Republic era, it’s the first TV or film project to escape the grip of the Skywalker Saga. In fact, the show takes place long before Luke was a twinkle in his father’s podracer: one hundred years earlier. It’s a time of great peace and partnership between the Jedi Order and the Galactic Council. But of course, we know the Dark Side can only stay dormant so long.

The first four episodes of The Acolyte are a mixed bag, but there are a lot more positives than negatives. Headland has thrust us into a Jedi mystery with dashes of wuxia martial arts, vast political conspiracy, and hints at the Jedi’s future downfall due to their own hubris and disconnect from the galaxy. It’s like everything that caused Luke Skywalker to eventually withdraw from the Jedi many decades later, and it’s fascinating to see those seeds planted and begin to grow.

As for the story itself, it begins with an awesome kung-fu fight set in a cantina between Mae (Amandla Stenberg), a masked assassin with Force powers, and Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss). Headland had said she wanted to get Moss some Matrix-style action and she definitely does that. The combat is straight out of the Wachowski sci-fi classic, bringing a new style of fighting to our understanding of the Force.  One of the great things Dave Filoni and others at Lucasfilm have done is increase the scope of the Force to go beyond singular lightsaber duels, incorporating other fighting styles, disciplines, cultures, and religions.

Mae is on a mission. She’s hunting four Jedi who were there on her homeworld sixteen years earlier when a tragic event occurred that destroyed her life. It’s clear that Mae will stop at nothing, but also that she’s being pushed into this by an unknown Master, who has trained her in the Dark ways of the Force.

Also involved is Jedi Master Sol (Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae), who is put in charge of tracking Mae down. With the help of another with ties to that event, and to Mae in particular, he sets out on an investigation to solve Mae’s crimes, which gives the series the pacing of a crime procedural. After such a blistering start, it does slow down dramatically for a long stretch. This is a puzzle to be solved, and The Acolyte moves as such. Not all of the developments in this stretch are that compelling or meaningful to the core mystery, either.

This might be a controversial point, but I think The Acolyte fits in neatly with Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi in that it’s willing to show the cracks in the Jedi armor of heroism. We see the Jedi as flawed individuals, well-meaning and good at heart, who are prone to human weakness. They get entangled too deeply in the political weeds, they seek to cover their own butts when something goes wrong rather than take responsibility, and they have little concept of what regular non-Force users deal with on a regular basis. And all of that comes back to bite them, and opens the door for the Dark Side to ascend.

Visually, Headland’s series looks like a lot of other Star Wars shows, but with a distinct Japanese influence. One thing about Star Wars that I’ve always found weird is how little things actually change no matter what the time period. When The Acolyte eventually ventures to Coruscant, the vast city-planet, it looks the same as ever. Weirdly, and this is another Star Wars bugaboo for me, technology seems to be equal to or better in the past than it is in the future. The quirky new droid Pip, a diminutive sidekick clearly designed to be a merch cash cow, would fit right in alongside R2-D2, C3PO, and Chopper.

Given the time period, there are no special cameos or guest appearances…yet.  But the characters we have are intriguing enough. Jung-jae’s Sol is a quiet, intutive Jedi Master, in the vein of elder Obi-Wan Kenobi or Qui-Gon Jinn. Of course, he has opinions that make him something of a rebel within the Jedi Council, and put him in conflict with Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett), a serious, straight-laced Jedi Knight also on the mission to track Mae. There’s also Logan breakout Dafne Keen as Sol’s earnest young padewan, Jecki Lon. At this stage, her role is pretty small but I sense big things are coming for her. That’s usually how Star Wars works. The padewan ascends as their Master…well, falls. Whether that happens or not we’ll just have to wait and see.

I also really liked Jodie Turner-Smith in a role that is best left unspoiled, and The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto as Qimir, an awkward smuggler with a mysterious agenda that could upend everyone’s plans. And then there’s Joonas Suotamo, who impresses once again as Kelnacca, a Wookie Jedi connected to Mae’s quest for vengeance.

But this series really belongs to Stenberg. While to say too much would be to give away huge spoilers, her role is the biggest by far and she has the most emotion to carry on her shoulders. Stenberg has always been one of our best young dramatic actors, and I honestly never saw her as fitting into the Star Wars universe. And yet she’s perfect, projecting the complexities within someone who has faced devastating loss on multiple fronts, and is being forced to relive that trauma. She’s also really good at the physical aspect, and I like that her movements don’t mimick exactly those of other Force users. There’s a very good reason for that which I won’t give away here, but it’s a noticeable detail.

The Acolyte is off to a very strong start. Never before have we been taken this deep into Jedi culture and seeing who they are when the public eyes aren’t upon them. While a bit of a slog at times, Headland keeps adding new wrinkles to the story that grab you so that you can’t wait to see what happens next. The mystery that we think needs to be solved is just the opening salvo. What The Acolyte does best is give us the very real feeling that when all of the answers come to light, the way we look at the Jedi will never be the same.

Star Wars: The Acolyte
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
the-acolyte-season-one-reviewLeslye Headlan'ds new series Star Wars: The Acolyte is breaking new ground for a galaxy far far away and for fans. Set during the High Republic era, it's the first TV or film project to escape the grip of the Skywalker Saga. In fact, the...