Ahsoka: Season 1 REVIEW – Rebels Without a Cause

Not quite able to stand on its own two feet.


Cultured Vultures spoilers

Ahsoka, Lucasfilm’s latest small screen Star Wars outing, comes at an interesting point in the franchise’s evolution. Whereas before, the allure of Star Wars was that casual moviegoers – heck, casual moviegoers’ parents – could rock up at the cinema and have a good time without doing any homework, that’s increasingly not the case with the saga’s Disney+ entries.

Ahsoka is emblematic of this shift, as it requires a post-grad equivalent knowledge of our favorite galaxy far, far away’s continuity (particularly the Star Wars Rebels animated series) to fully enjoy. And because of this, Ahsoka’s eight-episode run, while undeniably watchable, is ultimately the most frustrating example yet of the Star Wars franchise’s ongoing rejection of the accessible storytelling that made it so special in the first place.

That’s not to say that Ahsoka is a disaster by any means. On the contrary, showrunner Dave Filoni gets full marks for bringing a sense of purpose and clear emotional stakes to Ahsoka’s narrative (at least, at first). Our protagonist, Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), needs to prevent the return of the evil Empire’s last great hope, Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen), and she’ll have to reconnect with her estranged former Jedi pupil Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) to do it. It’s a simple yet effective set-up.

Filoni – a key creative force on several Star Wars TV shows, including Rebels – also deserves kudos for once again demonstrating a strong grasp of what makes the franchise tick. The showrunner, who penned all eight of Ahsoka’s episodes, channels a distinctly old school Star Wars vibe throughout the show’s run. What’s more, he also taps into franchise creator George Lucas’s own influences, peppering Ahsoka with callbacks to the likes of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, deftly avoiding the trap of making a Star Wars project inspired solely by Star Wars.

…ultimately the most frustrating example yet of the Star Wars franchise’s ongoing rejection of the accessible storytelling that made it so special in the first place

Another feather in Filoni’s signature cowboy hat is the way he expands on existing Star Wars lore in Ahsoka. While hardcore fans will already be familiar with many of the characters and concepts that make their live-action debut in Ahsoka, this will be the first time your average punter has encountered Thrawn or the mystical World Between Worlds.

Toss in impressively choreographed and performed lightsaber fights – the duel between Ahsoka and Baylan Skoll (Ray Stevenson) in Episode 4 is especially nail-biting – and Ashoka’s pros column continues to fill-up. And that’s before we get into Eric Steelberg and Quyen Tran’s lush cinematography (which only rarely betrays the show’s intensive use of StageCraft tech), ILM’s first-rate VFX (my advanced screening of Episodes 1 and 2 was in IMAX and the CGI held up remarkably well in the oversized format), and Kevin Kiner’s terrific score.

Indeed, on paper, we’re looking at a show that’s miles ahead of the likes of The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and not too far behind The Mandalorian Seasons 1 and 2 and Andor Season 1. However, “on paper” and “in reality” are rarely the same thing, and Ahsoka ultimately pales in comparison to both those shows, particularly Andor.

Of course, Ahsoka’s not trying to be Andor – nor should it. Star Wars is a big tent, and there’s plenty of room within said tent for both gritty anti-fascism parables and sweeping escapist adventures. Tone isn’t the problem here, narrative focus is. That initial sense of purpose gradually evaporates with each successive episode of Ahsoka, as the show morphs from a largely standalone Mandalorian spinoff into Rebels Season 5 – devoting more and more screen time to plot and character beats from that show that often feel tangential to Ahsoka’s core premise.

Worse still, Filoni and fellow directors Steph Green, Peter Ramsey, Jennifer Getzinger, Geeta Vasant Patel, and Rick Famuyiwa often seem to take it for granted that Ahsoka’s viewers are as clued up on the narrative and emotional significance of the show’s Rebels callbacks, and so blitz right through them. The upshot? Anyone not au fait with Rebels (or its predecessor The Clone Wars) will quickly find themselves lost amid impressionistic flashbacks and space whales, with the diehards left to insist that all this Star Wars sound and fury really does signify something.

Not that Filoni and co. don’t throw casual viewers the odd continuity life preserver. A decent amount of Clone Wars and Rebels-related backstory is covered during exchanges between characters – although this too causes problems. Notably, it results in stilted and occasionally over-expository dialogue, which would be easier to swallow in a cartoon aimed at kids but feels overly clunky in a show like Ahsoka that’s ostensibly shooting for a more mature audience.

This presumably made it harder for Ahsoka’s directing roster to coax strong turns out of the show’s talented cast, explaining why their performances are so uneven. Of the core ensemble, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ray Stevenson, and Lars Mikkelsen are the standouts. There’s a welcome swagger to Winstead’s live-action take on Rebels’ Hera Syndulla that lends Ahsoka some much-needed sparkle, whereas Stevenson’s understated line readings as the disarmingly philosophical, hulking Baylan bring depth to what could easily have been a two-dimensional role. Mikkelsen is just as effective as Thrawn (whom he previously voiced in Rebels), perfectly capturing the blend of intelligence and charisma that makes the Empire’s only competent line manager such a credible threat.

Oddly, our leading lady fares less well by comparison. Ordinarily a compelling on-screen presence, Dawson is disappointingly flat for most of Ahsoka’s runtime, which is surprising given her earlier effectiveness as Ahsoka in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. It’s not a bad performance per se, but it pushes the “soulful warrior” archetype into one note territory. Bordizzo is equally underwhelming as Sabine, although in fairness to the Aussie star, most actors would struggle to do something worthwhile with a part that makes Luke Skywalker’s whiny farm boy characterization in OG Star Wars installment A New Hope seem like the epitome of cool.

Dawson and Bordizzo’s performances aren’t the real problem with Ahsoka, though, any more than its scripts are. No, the big issue with the show is more fundamental than that. Namely, why does Ahsoka exist? Outside of Filoni’s admittedly infectious affection for these characters – and Lucasfilm’s desire to cash in on the Rebels fanbase – why did this story need to be told?

Do we learn anything new about Ahsoka during her eight-episode journey? Certainly, there’s stuff in the show about our hero’s unresolved guilt over the transformation of her mentor, Anakin Skywalker, into iconic villain Darth Vader, and she’s even reframed as a teacher for the first in a new breed of Jedi – all of which is worthwhile enough dramatic fodder. But it’s so rooted in Rebels continuity that it never fully comes to life as a story in its own right, rendering it too undercooked to feel essential, much less allow us to connect with it.

The same applies to Ahsoka’s thematic heft – or rather, its lack thereof. There’s some potentially rewarding subtext to the show’s story, but we move through proceedings so briskly – and with only the bare minimum of context – that most of this meat is left on the bone. Whatever Ahsoka has to say about masters and their apprentices, it’s nothing Star Wars hasn’t said before. True, the show comes close to breaking new ground by juxtaposing Ahsoka and Baylan’s different responses to the horrors of the Clone Wars, yet even this is too thinly sketched out to really hit home.

…why did this story need to be told?

And without any juicy character arcs or themes to sink our teeth into, what are we left with? Honestly, not much more than a canon clean-up exercise, as Filoni cobbles together pre- and post-Disney era continuity into something more appealing in a manner akin to Thrawn’s kintsugi-armored Stormtroopers, just as he did with Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars. It’s not all bad – there’s at least some fun in seeing the seeds of the Sequel Trilogy’s First Order sown here. But as a creative impulse, it’s depressingly backwards facing, oriented towards fixing existing Star Wars tales rather than forging ahead with a new one.

It’s also a sign of the same intentional MCU-ification of a galaxy far, far away that plagued The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian Season 3, and which emphasizes the meta-narrative of a franchise above the needs of the story at hand. Some people will welcome this, and there is a certain charm to the rich, cross-property tapestry the MCU approach weaves. This kind of extended yarn-pinning doesn’t even go against the grain that much, given the franchise has a proud tradition of cliffhanger endings dating back to 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. But it also means that Ahsoka caters more to the devout convert than the casual viewer – sacrificing what made Star Wars special to begin with.

Screeners provided for Episodes 1 and 2.

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Ahsoka’s expansive storytelling and cinematic production values will appeal to casual and diehard Star Wars fans alike, but only the latter camp is likely to appreciate its lore-laden story.