TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Ahsoka

Josh Reviews Ahsoka

The latest live-action Star Wars TV show on Disney+, Ahsoka, is set in the same timeline as The Mandalorian.  We’re years after the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, and also still years before the events of The Force Awakens and the sequel trilogy.  Ahsoka picks up story threads from The Mandalorian and the wonderful animated shows The Clone Wars and Rebels, but the series can, I think, be enjoyed even if you’re coming in completely new.  As the show opens, things seem well across the New Republic, but rumors persist that the evil mastermind Grand Admiral Thrawn has found a way to return and plans to reunite the Imperial remnants.  Former Jedi Ahsoka Tano is on Thrawn’s trail.  Ahsoka becomes aware of a plan by Thrawn’s minions — including the Nightsister witch Morgan Elsbeth (who was introduced in the second season Mandalorian episode “The Jedi”) and another former Jedi, Baylan Skoll, and his apprentice Shin Hati — to rescue Thrawn from his banishment to another galaxy (which happened in the Rebels series finale).  Ahsoka reunites with her former Padawan, the Mandalorian Sabine Wren, and the two race to prevent the rise of this new evil.  Along the way, they’ll learn more about each of their connection to the Force, and to one another… and Ahsoka will face a long-in-coming reckoning with her former master: Anakin Skywalker.

I love that this show exists!  I have complaints, but overall I relished in this series.  I never ever dreamed that we’d get to see Ahsoka in live-action, let alone that someday she’d be the lead of her own live-action TV show.  When Ahsoka popped up on The Mandalorian it was an extraordinary delight, and when she appeared again on The Book of Boba Fett I hoped that more would be coming.  Ahsoka is a fascinating character.  When she was first introduced (in the very bad animated Clone Wars movie), I thought she was awful and that the character was a terrible idea.  Anakin Skywalker had a Padawan, in the time between Episode II and Episode III, who we’d never heard of before?  Come on.  And this pipsqueak kid, when introduced in that Clone Wars movie, was grating and annoying.  Ugh.  Anakin doesn’t need a kid sidekick, I thought!!  One of the great miracles of The Clone Wars series was how Dave Filoni and his team slowly, carefully, developed Ahsoka into a fascinating and fully-realized character.  By the time she appeared in Rebels, she was one of my favorite characters in all of Star Wars.  By the time they went back and finally finished and released the series finale of The Clone Wars (the series had originally been cancelled when Disney bought Lucasfilm), she WAS my favorite character in all of Star Wars.  What a fun secret Ahsoka and so many of the other characters on Rebels were — amazing characters who were critical to the broader Star Wars story, but who were at that point completely unknown to the general audience who’d only seen the live-action shows.

Those barriers began to break down when Dave Filoni (who oversaw The Clone Wars and Rebels) started making The Mandalorian along with Jon Favreau.  When Bo Katan and Ahsoka appeared on The Mandalorian, and I was overjoyed.  But even so, I never dreamed we’d actually get an Ahsoka TV show!  These eight episodes were a delight.  I loved every single one of them.

At the same time as I thoroughly enjoyed all eight of these episodes, this weirdly is a show that cumulatively felt to me like less than the show of its parts.  I was shocked by the degree to which so few of the storylines and character arcs developed over these eight episodes were actually resolved by the end of the finale.  If this was a normal television series in which I could reasonably assume that we’d get a second season next year, I could live with that.  (Though I’ve long argued that I feel that streaming shows should not end on cliffhangers these days.  It was one thing when I was a kid, and a show would end a season in May or June on a cliffhanger.  We’d only have to wait until September or October to get the resolution.  But these days we can easily have to wait a full year, and very often a lot more, between seasons of popular streaming shows.  So I think it’s much more enjoyable if each season tries to offer some sense of resolution to the show’s main storylines that season.)  But with Ahsoka, I have no idea where or even if these stories and characters will be picked back up again.  Will there be a second season of this show?  Will the crossover movie overseen by Dave Filoni happen?  Even if we get a second season, there’s no way we’re getting that for at least two years, right?  And so I was left at the end of the Ahsoka finale with a strange feeling of anticlimax.  That was a bummer to me.  I’m surprised at this approach to the storytelling.

At the same, time, while I object to this approach to the pacing and structure of the narrative, every single episode gave me tremendous joy.  One thing I particularly loved: I was shocked and delighted by the degree to which Ahsoka felt like Rebels season five.  The show, to my enormous pleasure, dug deeply into Rebels lore and brought back many great Rebels characters and locations.  Ezra!  Sabine!  Hera and Chopper!  Jacen!  Lothcats!  Ashoka’s owl!  That they brought back Clancy Brown to play Ryder Azati (now the mayor of Lothal) in the first episode made me insanely happy.  (Mr. Brown voiced the character on the animated Rebels.)  Seeing Ezra’s spire (where Sabine is living at the start of the show), and that iconic Lothal highway (to nowhere?) in live-action brought me so much joy.  And the show, of course, picks right up from the final seconds of the Rebels finale, in which Ahsoka and Sabine team-up to find Ezra Bridger.  (Seeing those iconic shots recreated for live-action were amazing.)

Do you have to have watched the animated shows to enjoy Ahsoka?  I don’t think so.  I think Mr. Filoni and his team did a great job at crafting a show that tells you everything you need to know if you’re coming in as a newbie.  Star Wars has always thrown the audience right into the middle of a story in-progress.  I think you can enjoy Ahsoka without having to do any homework.  There’s no question, though, that the show would be far more deeply satisfying to fans of the animated shows, particularly Rebels.  (I also fear the show’s ambiguous ending — which didn’t entirely work for me, as I’ll detail below — might be completely mystifying to a newbie…)

OK, shall we dig in?  Beware SPOILERS below!!

There’s so much I loved about this series.  First off, it looks great.  Once again I am blown away by the cinematic quality of this Star Wars TV show.  What a world we live in, where a TV spin-off of a film series looks so spectacular.  There is an enormous wealth of characters and locations in this show, and they all look fantastic.  Each new planet and location feels expansive and convincingly real.  I didn’t feel any claustrophobia from the reality of the sets or their “volume” stage.  I completely accepted each location.  I particularly loved the look of Thrawn’s damaged star destroyer (with the same awesome painting on its belly that we saw on Rebels) and his battered stormtroopers, wrapped in Nightsister red, and also his awesome golden-masked right-hand stormtrooper Enoch.  Very cool.

The series gave us a number of spectacular action sequences.  We got to see Ahsoka using her lightsaber while riding on the outside of a space-ship!  We got a number of tremendous lightsaber duels, specifically Ahsoka’s confrontations with Baylan Skoll and then with Morgan in the finale.

Kevin Kiner’s music was spectacular.  I was delighted that Mr. Kiner, who scored the animated shows, was brought back for this live-action show.  He made tremendous use of the classic John Williams themes (hearing the classic Force theme when Sabine finally accesses the Force in the finale was spine-tingling), the beautiful Ahsoka theme, and lots of new music.  The score was terrific.

Rosario Dawson is wonderful as Ahsoka and a terrific lead for this show.  It’s no easy task to bring a much-loved animated character to life, but Ms. Dawson IS Ahsoka to me now.  She’s incredibly convincing physically — both when standing still in Ahsoka’s classic arms-folded pose, or when kicking ass wielding her dual white lightsaber blades.  And she’s able to convey Ashoka’s nobility and dignity.  This is an incredible Star Wars hero.

Speaking of incredible: Natasha Liu Bordizzo as Sabine Wren.  First off, wow, what great casting — Ms. Bordizzo feels like she stepped right out of the animated Rebels.  She looks, sounds, and feels just like Sabine.  It’s amazing.  I love that they kept all of Sabine’s rough edges — she’s still a little lost and a little impulsive, while also being brave and heroic.  Of all the storytelling choices made in the show, the idea that Sabine was training as a Jedi was a huge surprise to me.  Yes, Sabine had trained to use the Darksaber under Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus on Rebels, but she’d never before shown any Force abilities.  The idea that she was on a path to being a Jedi felt very out of left field to me.  I did like the idea that we were seeing someone trying to learn to feel and use the Force without any innate abilities to do so — the droid Huyang calls Sabine the worst apprentice he’s seen in thousands of years.  I also appreciated this show’s picking up on the idea from The Last Jedi that anyone can use the Force — you don’t have to be a Skywalker or someone special.  But then they show Sabine doing an advanced-level force push in the finale… while that was a triumphant and satisfying moment narratively, it still felt out of left field to me for the character.  However, I so enjoyed Sabine’s journey on this show that I can roll with it.  The idea of a young Mandalorian Jedi is very cool, and I am excited to see where Sabine’s story goes next.

The late Ray Stevenson was a revelation as former Jedi, now mercenary, Baylan Skoll.  First off, what a fascinating character.  I loved that Baylan was not a hero, but he wasn’t a Sith either.  He kills innocents (that intro in which he and Shin massacre the crew of a New Republic prison ship), but he also has a code of his own that he follows.  I was immediately intrigued by this character.  Mr. Stevenson’s gravitas and charisma blows through the screen.  Baylan doesn’t actually get to do that much over the course of this season… but Mr. Stevenson’s performance rockets this character to the top of my list of Star Wars characters I love.  It is an enormous tragedy that Mr. Stevenson passed away and that we’ll never get to see him continue in this roll.  What a loss.  (As hard as I’m sure it would be to recast this role, I do hope that’s what the Disney/Lucasfilm team decide to do.  I desperately want to see more of this character.)

I was not expecting to see Hera and Chopper on this show, but I’m so, so happy that they were included!  Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a nice job bringing Hera Syndulla to life.  The make-up and costume are perfect — she looks perfect as Hera.  She does sound and act a lot different than the animated Hera, so that took some getting used to.  But Ms. Winstead is a terrific actor and I quickly grew to love her work in this role.  And Chopper…  Chopper was just perfect!!!  I loved the Hera/Chopper action scene in episode two.  I just wish they were both far more involved in this show!!!  I was really shocked that they didn’t accompany Ahsoka and Sabine to the galaxy far, far away at the end of episode five.  What narrative reason did they have to stay, as opposed to helping rescue Ezra and stop Thrawn??  That was weird to me.

Speaking of Ezra and Thrawn… let’s talk about them!  Eman Esfandi was terrific as Ezra Bridger.  I wasn’t sure, as the series started, whether we’d actually get to see Ezra (other than as that hologram Sabine was watching — a nice expansion upon the hologram we saw Ezra had left for Sabine at the end of Rebels), and if so, how much.  I was very happy with how that played out; we got just the right amount of Ezra in the season’s back half to make me happy.  Mr. Esfandi was perfect as this older version of Ezra.  He’s more mature and seasoned, but he still has Ezra’s playfulness.  (I loved his “whoa whoa whoa!!” moment when the attacking bandits were about to shoot him!)  I loved seeing him take on Shin Hati without even picking up a lightsaber.

Then there was Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Thrawn was a bit more of a mixed bag for me in this season.  First off, I was thrilled that they brought Thrawn into live-action.  I’ve been intrigued by Thrawn ever since reading Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir to the Empire back in 1993.  I was delighted when they brought Thrawn into the modern Star Wars continuity in the later seasons of Rebels, and it was so, so exciting to see him brought into live-action here.  I love that they brought back Mr. Mikkelsen, who’d voiced Thrawn so wonderfully on Rebels.  Thrawn looked great visually on this show (except for his little paunch belly).  I just wish Thrawn had actually DONE something on the show.  This is one of the more menacing Star Wars villains ever.  I wanted to actually see him being bad-ass and super-brilliant here.  Instead, he mostly just quietly watches holographic displays.  That’s in-character for Thrawn, but not a good way to establish him as a menacing new villain.

Speaking of bringing back voice-actors, I was so surprised and delighted that they brought back David Tennant as the ancient droid Huyang, who we met in the animated Clone Wars show as the teacher of Jedi Padawans in constructing their own lightsabers.  I loved Huyang on this show!  It was great to see this funny, sassy droid who was also incredibly smart and competent… and also emotionally intelligent.  I loved Huyang.

I can’t believe how deep I am into this review, and I haven’t yet discussed Hayden Christensen’s return as Anakin Skywalker.  He was great on this show!!!  I wish we’d seen a lot more of him!!!  I never blamed Mr. Christensen for the failure of the character of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels; I think the character was poorly written and I think Mr. Christensen was poorly directed.  Dave Filoni’s The Clone Wars series did tremendous work to repair the character of Anakin.  It’s a pleasure to see Mr. Christensen get offered this chance at a kind of redemption by stepping back into this role, albeit the better written, overseen by Dave Filoni, Clone Wars era version of the character.  (I even loved seeing Mr. Christensen in Anakin’s Clone Wars era costume!)  Between his appearances here and in the Obi-Wan Kenobi show, I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed seeing Mr. Christensen back as this character.  Anakin pops up a few times in this series, most notably in episode five, which was a thrilling return to the “World Within Worlds”, one of the most intriguing contributions of Rebels to the mythology of the Force.  I was overjoyed to see this concept depicted in live-action, and it was a brilliant idea to use this as a vehicle to allow Ahsoka and Anakin to reunite.

On the one hand, I thought episode five was genius; possibly the best single episode of any Star Wars live-action TV show to this point.  I was delighted by the exploration of Ashoka’s past.  It was incredible to see live-action depictions of three key Clone Wars episodes that showed her at different stages of her development.  (As was always the case for this show, I thought they brilliantly walked the line in that, I think, showing young Ahsoka in those three time-periods would make sense for new viewers.  At the same time, for a hard core fan like me, who knew exactly which three episodes we were dropping back into, it was pure joy.)  I loved hearing Temuera Morrison voice Clone Captain Rex (another beloved character from the animated shows).  The Ahsoka-Anakin lightsaber duels were thrilling.  Seeing Anakin morphing back and forth into Vader was incredible and emotional.  I loved it.

At the same time, I wanted more.  I wanted the episode to explore more deeply both Anakin and Ashoka’s complicated feelings.  One of my very favorite scenes in Rebels was Ashoka’s vision of Anakin, in which he asks her why she abandoned him.  It’s clear she has deep guilt that her master, who she loved, became a monster and she wasn’t there to help him.  I was surprised that we didn’t see those feelings come out more during their reunion!  At the same time, I’ve long been fascinated to consider what a redeemed, Force-ghost Anakin has to think about what happened to him and what he did as Vader.  Does he feel guilt, regret, remorse?  I was surprised to see Anakin here in his familiar arrogant mode, declaring “I’m here to complete your training.”  On the one hand, that’s classic Anakin, thinking he knows best.  But I expected a more humble, reflective Anakin.  I wish we’d gotten to explore Anakin’s head-space more deeply.  And there’s so much I wanted them to talk about!!!  Ahsoka has been hanging out with his son, Luke (as per her appearance in The Book of Boba Fett) — how is it that didn’t come up???

Even as we look at the second-tier characters on this show, there were so many great ones!  I thought Ivanna Sakhno was solid as sullen, punk-ish apprentice Shin Hati.  I wish we’d explored her character more deeply on the show.

I loved the look of the silent, menacing Inquisitor Marrok.  It was cool to see a new Inquisitor, and I loved the revelation, when he was killed, that he was a Zombie all along!  Very creepy.

I was not expecting to see Hera’s son Jacen, introduced in the final moments of Rebels, but I’m glad he was included.  I loved that he could hear Anakin and Ashoka’s lightsaber fight in the World Within Worlds.  It was weird to me that he totally dropped out of the narrative in the last few episodes, though.

I was delighted to see Genevieve O’Reilly pop up a few times as Mon Mothma, crossing over from the Andor show!  That was great!  I also liked seeing Nelson Lee as Senator Hamato Xiono, the father of Kai Zion from Star Wars: Resistance.  That was a fun little crossover!  It was interesting how this show has continued what we’ve seen in The Mandalorian and Andor — an exploration of how the New Republic sucks.  That’s a disappointment to those of us who dreamed that, after Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia and others created a peaceful and well-run New Republic to replace the Empire.  But this all seems to be in service of explaining the choices made by J.J. Abrams when making The Force Awakens.  I don’t like those choices in The Force Awakens (that the New Republic is weak and has no military, that Leia has to be on the run and underground again running a resistance, etc.), but it’s cool to see these Star Wars shows laying the groundwork for all that.

It was great to see C-3PO, though that was a somewhat awkward workaround for not getting to see Leia.  If Leia isn’t in charge of the New Republic, I’d certainly still expect her to be heavily involved, and there’s no real in-universe reason for her not to be at Hera’s hearing.  If Disney is going to continue to tell stories set in this time-period, I hope they’ll get over their fear of re-casting (an incorrect overreaction, in my opinion, to the box-office failure of Solo) and re-cast the roles of Luke and Leia so that they can be involved in these stories.

I loved seeing the Nightsisters in live action.  There were rumors online, after she appeared on The Mandalorian, that Morgan was a Nightsister.  I was glad to see that confirmed, and then to get to see the three “mothers” who looked wonderfully like the classic Nightsisters from the Clone Wars.  They even had their green magic — and we got to see the “sword of Talzin” at the end!!  (Mother Talzin used that flaming blade to duel with Mace Windu back on the Clone Wars show.)

I loved seeing the Pergil space-whales in live action.  I loved how Huyang started his historical story by saying “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” and I love that our characters actually get to travel to a galaxy far, far away by the end!!  That was so fun!

I loved all the creatures on this show, all brought to life via what looks to me like a wonderful blend of old-fashioned puppetry and modern CGI.  I adored seeing a Loth-Cat in live-action, brought to beautiful life in the early episodes.  I loved Sabine’s wolf-dog.  And I loved those turtle-like aliens, the Noti, who Ezra has been hanging out with on Peridea!!

Ok… so now, what didn’t work in this show, in my opinion?

I think the show has several main failings.

The first is that, for a show called Ahsoka, I was surprised that Ahsoka herself didn’t get more focus.  She often felt like a supporting character in her own show.  (I’d argue Sabine was more the main character than Ahsoka was.)  Ahsoka has an arc in this show, as she journeys from Ahsoka the Grey to Ahsoka the White… but it was far more thinly sketched than I’d hoped.  It’s a reasonable development to suggest, as happens in her episode five confrontation with Anakin, that she’s been carrying trauma from being raised as a kid to fight as a soldier in war after war.  That’s interesting.  But I wanted to explore that more deeply.  I’d have liked to have seen that more woven into what we saw in the first four episodes before this revelation in episode five.  I wanted the show to allow us to get more inside Ashoka’s head, to explore what she’s feeling at this point in her life.  Does she miss having a family of friends and comrades after so many years as a wandering ronin?  Is she angry at Anakin, her old master, for turning into a genocidal monster?  I could go on…

Second, as I noted at the start of this (increasingly long) review: I was shocked how few storylines resolved by the end of this season.  I’m OK with some aspects of a cliffhanger ending; such as Ahsoka and Sabine’s being stranded in Peridea.  But I was very disappointed that we didn’t get answers to important questions like: what was Baylan Skoll seeking?  What were in those important boxes of cargo that took forever to get loaded onto Thrawn’s star destroyer?

The finale made a number of narrative missteps in my mind.  I was shocked that, after seven episodes spent developing new characters Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati, they were almost completely absent from the finale!!  (That was a double disappointment because, with the tragic passing of Ray Stevenson, that was our last opportunity to see more of him in this role.)  I don’t like the mystery box approach to introducing this intriguing character of Baylan and then not telling us his motivation.  I can make a guess: he seems to be someone who lives in the grey between Jedi and Sith, and he speaks of wanting to break the cycle between them, so when we see him standing on a statue of the Mortis god “the father”, who represents a balance between dark and light sides of the Force, it seems like Baylan felt that he’d find an answer to this somehow on this planet.  But why did he think that?  What does he hope to actually achieve?  Understanding his motivation with regards to this is critical to understanding his character; I’m shocked we didn’t get a scene where he actually explained this to his apprentice Shin.  Speaking of Shin, I wanted to know a lot more about how he was living before the possibility of traveling to Peridea entered his life.  What philosophies was he teaching his apprentice Shin?

Instead of giving us some resolution to Ahsoka and Sabine’s conflict with Baylan and Shin… OR allowing the big bad villain Thrawn to actually do something villainous, they instead focused the finale on a final confrontation with Morgan.  That fight seen was cool, but Morgan was the villain I cared the least about on this show.  I wanted time spent with Thrawn or Baylan in the finale, not Morgan.  I was also shocked that Thrawn’s awesome looking right-hand stormtrooper, the golden-masked Enoch, didn’t get to do ANYTHING.  What a waste.

(I have other nits to pick with the finale.  Why were our heroes so casual in the first half, just meandering along with the Noti, instead of rushing to try to get to Thrawn?  Why did Thrawn have the hyperspace ring go down to the planet, instead of flying his star destroyer up out of the planet’s atmosphere to it???  Staying on the planet and docked at the tower only gives Ahsoka/Ezra/Sabine time to get there to try to stop him!!!  It’s insane — we know at the start of the episode that all the cargo has been loaded — so there is no reason in the universe that Thrawn doesn’t immediately fly away in his Star Destroyer and leave our heroes far behind…)

Lastly, I was surprised that the show didn’t reach the emotional heights that I’d hoped for.  I’ve already described some of my disappointment with Anakin and Ashoka’s reunion in episode five.  Those sequences were cool, but they didn’t mind the deep wells of emotion between these two characters that I was hoping to see.  Same goes for the reunion between Sabine and Ezra.  Sabine is basically willing to let the galaxy burn to find Ezra… and then, when they are finally reunited, after years apart, they’re both basically just like “hey” to one another.  I was surprised by how underwhelming that scene was.

OK, this has become a ridiculously long review!  There’s so much to digest and discuss in this series.  It’s one of the many things I love about it!!!  Each episode was jam-packed with cool moments, cool locations, cool aliens, cool characters.

I hope that we won’t have to wait too many years to return to these characters and these stories.  I hope that, down the road, when this story is completed, I’ll feel more retroactively satisfied with this season.  For now, I’m still so grateful that this miracle of a show exists.  I hope people have been watching it.  I can’t wait to watch it again.

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